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Star Lore of the Constellations: Orion the Hunter, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Orion: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
11 Gem 55 Tabit Jupiter Saturn 3.3 Northern star in left hand 15S 7N
16 Gem 50 Rigel Jupiter Saturn 1 Left knee 31S 8S
20 Gem 57 Bellatrix Mars Mercury 1 Left shoulder 17S 6N
22 Gem 24 Mintaka Jupiter Saturn 2 Orion's belt (on the west) 23S 00N
22 Gem 59 Ensis Mars Moon 4 Nebula on sword sheath 29S 06S
23 Gem 00 Hatsya Jupiter Saturn 3 Sword tip 29S 06S
23 Gem 15 Alnilam Jupiter Saturn 2 Centre of belt 25S 01S
23 Gem 41 Alnitak Jupiter Saturn 2 Orion's belt (on the east) 25S 02S
26 Gem 24 Saiph Jupiter Saturn 2 Right knee 33S 10S
28 Gem 45 Betelgeuze Mars Mercury 1v Right shoulder 16S 7N

Orion lies in the opposite part of the sky to Ophiuchus but, like him, is centered on the equator and visible in all parts of the world. The hunter's head protrudes between Taurus the Bull and Gemini the Twins, whilst his feet rest at the end of the River Eridanus, above Lupus the Hare.

There are many variations in the myth of Orion but the most consistent classical myth claims that he was born at the request of Hyrieus, who asked for a son in return for his hospitality to the gods. Jupiter, Neptune and Mercury obliged by passing urine on a bull's hide which was then buried for nine months. (The original name for the child was Urion which afterwards became Orion.) The child grew up to be a giant warrior; mighty and brave but also handsome. He fell in love with Bacchus's daughter but was blinded by her father whilst in a drunken stupor and only regained his sight after traveling to the furthest east and exposing his eyes to the light of the rising Sun.

Orion later became the lover of Artemis, goddess of hunting, but offended her with his boast that he could hunt and destroy any creature on the Earth. Artemis conspired with a scorpion to prove the boast false - hence, unafraid of any mighty beast Orion was defeated and killed by a lowly scorpion with its deadly sting. Afterwards Artemis, beset by grief, begged Jupiter to place her belated lover in the sky opposite to Scorpio - so that he might escape in the west whenever his murderer rose in the east. [1]

Orion was mentioned in the works of Homer, who referred to its rising in May and setting in November.[2] Both were notorious amongst classical authors for their association with wind, rain and stormy turbulent weather. Such meteorological conditions reflect the overall characteristics of the constellation for it is known to cause many upsets and disturbances, though with the kind of qualities in its natives which enables them to persist against all odds. Said Manilius: - Orion will fashion... hearts which press on with unflagging energy in spite of every trial. [3]

Manilius appears to have made an error in recording the position of Orion, claiming that it rose with the 10th degree of Aries. Yet his description of the constellation is accurate:

Near neighbour to the Twins, Orion may be seen stretching his arms over a vast expanse of sky and rising to the stars with no less huge a stride. A single light marks each of his shining shoulders, and three aslant trace the downward line of his sword; but three mark Orion's head, which is imbedded in high heaven with his countenance remote. It is Orion who leads the constellations as they speed over the full circuit of heaven. At his heels follows the Dog, outstretched in full career. [4]

The brightest star is Betelgeuze, the name a degenerated form of the Arabic title Ibt al Jauzah, 'the Armpit of the Central One', from its position near the right shoulder. This is a 1st magnitude, variable, reddish star which is reputed to convey martial honours, fortune and wealth. The 17th century astrologer William Lilly commented that when it is located with the Sun, Moon or Jupiter in the 10th house it promises "ample fortune and great honour"; and when the midheaven is directed to the position of Betelgeuze the native will be:

Wholly inclined and taken up in Martiall affaires, with so great art, judgement and dexterity of Conception, that he will find out many admirable Stratagems; by means whereof, he doth rise to an high esteem amongst souldiers and witty men, and therein shall have chiefest praise: it inclines the Native to frame rare Engines for War; as also, for any other matter.[5]

Ptolemy recorded the influence of the bright stars in Orion as like Jupiter and Saturn, with the exception of the stars in the shoulder (Betelgeuze, Bellatrix), which he noted to be of the nature of Mars and Mercury. This is in keeping with Betelgeuze's ruddy colour which has been proposed as the foundation of its stormy and generally unpredictable reputation, and portrays a planetary nature as relevant to the carnage of war as the military honours, strategic planning, engineering and sharp wit referred to above.[6]

The other most notable star in Orion is Rigel, whose name derives from the Arabic phrase, Rijl Jauzah al Yusra, 'the Left Leg of the Tyrant', later shortened to Rijl, 'the foot'. This is a bluish, 1st magnitude star and although listed as less brilliant than Betelgeuze, it often shines brighter due to the former's variability. Ptolemy listed it like Jupiter and Saturn. It is famed for giving honour accompanied by responsibility - as illustrated by Lilly's description of the midheaven directed Rigel:

By the command of some grave Prince, the Native is instituted the Leader or Conductor of an Army, or of Souldiers, his Manners become sharp, angry or testy, fearlesse, imperious, magnanimous, it may afford him (if not capable of Warfare) preferment from the Church, very gainfull, which notwithstanding will much crush and weary his Body with the infinite toyle and labour thereof so that it denotes his Honour or Command to be burthensome, and not worth acceptance. [7]

Vivian Robson mirrors Lilly in claiming that it gives "Great military or ecclesiastical preferment, anger, vexation, magnanimity, much gain acquired by mental anxiety, lasting honours" when culminating, but is otherwise a star whose general influence denotes "benevolence, honour, riches, happiness, glory, renown and inventive or mechanical ability". [8]

Bellatrix, 'The Female Warrior', is a 2nd magnitude, pale yellow star on the left shoulder. Ptolemy recorded its nature as like Mars and Mercury and, again, its influence is to promote civil or military honours. It has a particularly beneficial influence for women, though it is said to make them loquacious - or as the 16th century astronomer Thomas Hood wrote: women born under this constellation shall have mighty tongues. [9] If badly placed there is a danger of sudden dishonour and ruin, particularly when the Moon is directed to the star, which Lilly noted as a portent of waste of substance and fortune. Robson adds to this, quarrels, hatred, fraud and perjury. [10]

Saiph is the bright star marking the right knee of Orion. The name derives from Saif al Jabbar, 'the Sword of the Giant', because of its proximity to the sword that hangs from Orions's waist. This star, and Hatsya (from Na'ir al Saif, "the Bright One in the Sword") located at the tip of the sword, both bring an emphasis to the fearless but intemperate qualities of the constellation.

Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak are the three 2nd magnitude stars situated on the 'belt' or 'girdle' of Orion. Mintaka, from Al Mintakah, 'The Belt', is the most western and therefore the first to rise. It is associated with good Fortune and a keen intellect. According to Lilly, this pale violet star sharpens the understanding, memory, and makes men industrious. [11]

Alnilam, the centre star of the three, is a bright white star connected with gluttony, gains from inheritance and fleeting public honours. Its name comes from Al Nathan, 'The String of Pearls' from the bullions set in Orion's Belt. Lilly notes that when the ascendant is directed to this star:

It produceth utility from the Dead, or a considerable portion from the means of an Inheritence; gaine by joviall persons; it imports the Native to be grave and severe, yet entangled in the snares of Love, with alteration of the temperature of Body by his excesse in Gluttony. [12]

Other stars of note include Tabit, the northern star at the top of the shield that Orion holds before him. Its name derives from Al Thabit, 'Endurer', possibly alluding to the defensive nature of the shield; and Ensis, the nebula that marks the sword-sheath. Although unremarked upon by Ptolemy in his Tetrabiblos, like most nebulas it is generally accorded an influence like Mars and the Moon. According to Robson it causes "blindness, defective sight, sickness, accidents, and a violent death". [13]

With its brilliant stars and distinctive bow-tie shape, Orion is the most easily recognized constellation. It can be seen from all parts of the world, but being close to the equator is only visible in northern latitudes in winter and early spring.

Seven bright stars form the main outline with three in a line for the belt - Mintake, Alnilam and Alnitak - surrounded by four more bright stars: reddish Betelgeuze and Bellatrix forming the shoulders, and Rigel and Saiph - forming the legs.

Being so easy to locate, Orion is a good starting point for identifying other notable stars and constellations. If an imaginary line is extended through the belt to the south east it meets with Sirius from Canis Major. In the opposite direction it meets Aldebaran, the bright red 'southern eye' of Taurus. A line extended eastwards across the shoulders will locate Procyon from Canis Minor (it completes an equilateral triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuze). A line extended from Rigel through Betelgeuze will meet with Castor and Pollux from Gemini, to the north east. North of Orion lies a pentagon of stars which mark the constellation Auriga, the brightest of which is Capella.

7 main stars of Orion

The Sun crosses Rigel around 7th June, Bellatrix around 11th June, Alnilam around 14th June and Betelgeuze around 19th June each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] When the Scorpion comes, Orion flies to utmost end of Earth - Aratus.

A variant of the Orion myth claims that he pursued the seven Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, until they were all transfixed In the sky.
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  2 ] Iliad, 18.486 & Odyssey, 11.572 ff.
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  3 ] Manilius, Astronomica, (c.10 AD), Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 5.174-197 (pp.315-317). Back to text

  4 ] Ibid., 1.389-393 (p.35).
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 5 ] Lilly, Christian Astrology, 1647; p.621 & p.677.
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  6 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st cent. AD), trans. Robbins, published by Harvard Heinemann, Loeb classical library, London. I.9 (Loeb p.57).
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  7 ] Lilly, Christian Astrology, p.678.
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  8 ] Robson, The Fixed Stars and Constellations, 1923, republished by Ascella, pp.197-198.
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  9 ] R. H. Allen, Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning; 1899, Dover Publications, p.314.
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  10 ] Robson, p.145.
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  11 ] Lilly, p.537.
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  12 ] Ibid., p.666
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  13 ] Robson, p.165
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© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 18; March 1999. Published online May 2005.

Stars & Constellations