"GO TO"....ORION - - The Marvelous Stars of the Winter's Hunter
....the most unforgettable constellation of the cosmos....

by P. Clay Sherrod, ASO

Making a Mark in the Sky - Legends for Mankind

As the 32nd, 33rd, and 34th Constellation Guides, "GO TO ORION" of the series "GO TO GUIDES for all GO TO Telescope Users, the magnificent splendor of Orion justifies that it be presented in THREE PARTS:

PART I - ORION: "Making a Mark in the Sky - Legends for Mankind"
PART II - ORION: "Observing and Understanding Messier 42 - the Orion Nebula"
PART III - "Revealing the Treasures Within"

Anyone who has ever studied this wonderful constellation realizes that there is simply too much that must be discussed for one presentation. Thus, PART I will feature an overview of the constellation, its stars, mythology, nomenclature and many, many fascinating facts that will make your time with "the Hunter" not only more enjoyable, but more meaningful and educational as well.

PART II will be comprised of a very in-depth version of our typical "GO TO" TOUR Constellation Guides, but with added focus on the true splendor of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42).

PART III discusses the remaining (but certainly not less interesting nor exciting objects, including the "Horsehead Nebula" (IC 434), many other reflection nebulae, clusters and several of the hundreds of spectacular double and multiple stars held within the Hunter's haven.

So......join in with me as we explore a world of mythology, cosmology, astronomy and anthropology. Join me as we stalk the mighty Hunter!
Few people who have ever shared a part of their lives with the richness of the deep and dark skies of winter will ever forget the splendor and grace of magnificent ORION. The "association" of stars - stars with common distances and common proper motions and thus seemingly "associated" - is brilliant against the cold winter skies, and perhaps equal to any in our celestial sphere outline very accurately the mythological figure they were intended to represent. From its shear size, we can appreciate the strength of the great Hunter; from the brightness of its stars we can witness the energy of fortitude to stalker the celestial fauna; the dark skies behind him provide the mystery of so great a myth that only the name "Orion" evokes when mentioned.

Indeed, unknown to many skywatchers is that this magnificent constellation is actually the "brightest constellation" of the entire sky, having NINE stars of 3rd magnitude or brighter, TWENTY-FOUR nebulae of 10th magnitude or greater, over 180 double and multiple stars visible in amateur telescope, SIX wonderful galactic star clusters, and FIVE stars of the first magnitude, two of which - Rigel and Betelgeuse - are "0" magnitude and among the top bright stars. Betelgeuse (the "Alpha star" of Orion) at magnitude 0.7 is the 11th brightest and much brighter (magnitude 0.2) Rigel is the 7th brightest of the sky.

Many of the stars in Orion are very young, energetic stars of O and B spectral type, members of very close groups located in the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy, unlike the "galactic star clusters" which are more commonly associated with the actual central "disk" of the galaxy and the globular clusters which seem to hover over the hub or central nucleus of the Milky Way (as they do commonly with all spiral galaxy. These "association stars", the best example of which are the stars of Orion's "sword" (see figure below) are tens of parsecs apart, yet all formed commonly; over time, the very rotation of the galaxy has resulted in spatial separation of the stars....but so little that it is possible for us to realize that the stars have all moved away from one-another, measurable even within the last century.

The famous Orion nebula contains hundreds of tiny point-like stars (see Part II) that are all part of such an association, with new stars being formed from accretion of the dust and gases of the nebula itself; the brighter stars that we see presently, such as the TRAPEZIUM (theta Orionis - see the Hubble Space Telescope photo below) are the result of formation form this "stellar nursery."

sherrod trapezium

These stars are so young and so common throughout the areas of Perseus and Orion, that this outward motion suggests that the expansion began ONLY 1.5 million years ago! There are about 85 such associations within our Milky Way galaxy now cataloged with anywhere from 10 to 100 bright, blue stars contained within them. Contrast this with the galactic clusters which contain between 50 and 1,000 RED or BLUE stars in each cluster.....or the globular clusters which possess an incredible 10,000 to 1,000,000 very RED stars in each spherical cluster!

For naked eye observers, Orion is embedded deep within the winter skies with brighter star all around, in addition to the brilliant blue-white stars (and one very red one!) that it contains within its expansive borders. To the WEST of Orion are the constellations TAURUS, the Bull (with whom Orion is in many legends engaged in a fierce battle) and ERIDANUS the Celestial River that gave rise to the magnificent constellation of Cygnus, the Swan (summer skies). The bright red star "Aldebaran" of Taurus signals west of Orion, while due EAST of the constellation we find the equally bright, but distinctly more yellow star "Procyon" in the constellation CANIS MINOR, or the Lesser Dog. Likewise, directly SOUTHEAST of our hunter is the brilliant star "Sirius" in CANIS MAJOR, while NORTHEAST of his brightest star (Betelgeuse) is the constellation of GEMINI, the Twins, with its two bright and equal stars "Castor" and "Pollux."

sherrod orionstars

In this wide field photograph you can clearly see the beauty of the constellation of Orion, and the outline of "the Great Hunter" as well as much of the nebulosity associated with the very young stars of this constellation

Orion (pronounced "o-RYE-un") from mid-northern latitudes rises at 9:00 p.m. on about November 1, transits south of directly overhead about 3 a.m. the following morning and sets after daybreak. It is highest in the sky at midnight (midnight culmination) on about December 10th each year.

Within this constellation are 24 diffuse or reflection nebulae, most of which are so large and so dim that only photographs will reveal them; on the other hand there are some that are visible to the naked eye! Messier 42, the famous Orion Nebula is one such brighter member. On the other hand, there are "finicky" nebulae which elude observation except by the keen-eyed and only under extremely good conditions. An example of such is the equally-famous "Horsehead Nebula", IC 434, which can actually be glimpsed with richest field telescopes under very, very dark conditions, but is all but invisible unless your observing site is perfectly dark and deep clear.

Also in Orion are a bit more than 180 double and multiple stars that offer fascinating viewing for a range of telescope apertures from 2" to 12" in diameter. Part III of this "GO TO" TOUR Constellation Guide for Orion provides just a few of the wonderful multiple stars that are visible here.....I urge you to consult "BURNHAM'S CELESTIAL HANDBOOK", Volume II - Orion, for a complete listing of these stars, including a brief abbreviated description of magnitudes, separations and position angles, coordinates and a brief description of each of these stars. In addition, I highly recommend loading the "Orion Doubles" tour by Jose Chinchilla of Madrid, Spain, tour onto your GO TO scope for some splendid wintertime viewing. This added dimension of your GO TO telescope to allow you to search out the 32 most colorful and interesting doubles/multiple stars in Orion is well worth uploading into your Tour library! To download this fine tour which is listed on the Mighty ETX site, go to:

Continuing on deep sky objects in the boundaries of Orion, we find that there are two planetary nebulae suitable for larger amateur telescopes (8" and larger) and at least six galactic clusters that can be logged with all telescopes from the the smal the largest telescopes. For a complete listing and free downloadable star charts for the hundreds of variable stars in the constellation (and scores of them actually inside the Orion Nebula!), consult the listing of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) at  which can access all charts and very informative observing information for this and all of the other 87 constellations.

My Orion Sky Chart shown below demonstrates the overall constellation and the main objects of interest for this "GO TO" TOUR; there are hundreds of other objects that simply cannot be listed. To best use this and all Arkansas Sky Observatory charts, merely double click on the image below to view. If you wish to SAVE this chart and print it out for use at the telescope do the following:

1) click on the chart with your right mouse key;
2) select "save picture as....";
3) save the chart in whatever folder you choose and name the file "Orion" or similar;
4) open the file and you will find the chart is much too large for printing, so merely RESIZE this chart to fit the page format;
5) save again in the smaller resized version;
6) print the chart
7) laminate or put into a sheet protector for years of use at the telescope!

sherrod orionmap sm
Click for full-size version

Let's talk about some of the brighter stars of this magnificent outline before discussing their pertinence to the mythology and history of Orion the Hunter.

Once you rather "get the hang" of the major configurations of these stars, you begin to clearly see the outline of a great hunter, club in one hand, the hide of a lion in the other, in rapid confrontation with the charging Bull, Taurus, to his west.

First, we look at the "bright four cornerstone stars" that comprise his two feet and two shoulders. In the diagram below (in my way of seeing the will see a historical difference to that when we discuss the mythology of the constellation!), the Hunter is chest forward and FACING WEST, eyes directed toward Taurus. The brightest and reddest star of the constellation, BETELGEUSE (pronounced: "BAY-tel-gertz," and NOT "beetle-juice"!) comprises Orion's RIGHT SHOULDER; his left shoulder is the bright star BELLATRIX (pronounced: "BALE-a-tricks", to the west of Betelgeuse. Much farther south we locate Orion's two feet....SAIPH (pronounced: "SAFE") is his right foot while the brilliant white star RIGEL (pronounced: "RYE-gel") marks his left foot.

sherrod orionoutline

But we are not done with just such a basic outline as with many other constellations! Let us continue this wonderful "dot-to-dot" from star to star. Orion's HEAD can be marked by the triplet of stars midway and slight north of a line extended between Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, this noted by the not-so-bright star HEKA (pronounced: "HECK-a"). All three stars of this small triangle should be visible to the naked eye on a reasonably dark night. Now let's talk about his ARMS and his instruments of the hunt.

His LEFT ARM is outstretched to protect himself from the charging bull. There are NO distinct stars that describe this arm, but he is holding the skin of a slain Lion in his left hand - pushed forward to ward off the attack of the great horns of the bull. This shield is marked by eight (8) stars: The northern two stars are "omicron 1" and "omicron 2"; the line of stars distinctly sweeps from north to south in succession with a series of "Pi stars" - numbers Pi-1 through Pi-6 as noted in the drawing above!

Orion's arm is extended way above his head, club in hand, ready to strike the fatal blow to the bull. Rising straight UP from Betelgeuse, we can follow this club (and arm) through the stars (south to north): mu, xi, upsilon, and chi1/chi2 which make the enlarge end of the club.

Orion's waist is distinctly marked from east to west by the "belt stars of Orion," ALNITAK (pronounced: "ALL-knee-tak"), ALNILAM (pronounced: "ALL-knee-lamb") and MINTAKA (pronounced: "men-TA-kuh"). A deadly dagger hangs from the front (west) of his belt, marked by the bright star "eta Ori" (which oddly was NOT named by the ancient Persian/Arabic namers of the stars).

From his waist hangs a mighty sword marked by the stars (north to south): sigma, theta-1 and theta-2 (also the Orion Nebula!) and finally HATYSA (pronounced: "hot-EE-suh").

I urge you to take the time to explore this wonderful field of stars and familiarize yourself with the magnificent arrangement as it applies to the mythology that we are about to explore. The darker the skies, the more incredible the journey through Orion. If you can plan some evening WITHOUT the telescope you will be equally rewarded from the views of magnificent fields of bright stars and expansive nebulae that eludes telescopic sighting but will reveal their secrets to the low power and wide fields of ordinary binoculars.

For a wonderful evening of object-by-object touring of Orion through binoculars and the naked eye, consult the guide you will find at:

The legends surrounding the giant Orion are many and varying....however, the one aspect of the story that time nor culture can change is that ORION has always been associated with a great "Hunter." This is one of the many intriguing aspects of the constellations, the stars and their lore. Throughout the ages, with humanity separated by great oceans, ice caps, mountains and fierce natural predators, mankind has somehow always managed to "spread the word" when it comes to associating certain star patterns in our night skies with lessons of humanity. Orion is no exception.

There can be some interesting comparisons of Orion with the other "hero" of the sky: Hercules. The great Hercules, given tests to prove and feats of strength and fortitude to accomplish, is a very well respected figure in both legend and sky, though not quite as prominently displayed by its starry selection. On the other hand, you will see that Orion is a rather self-serving, skirt-chasing ego-maniac (sorry Orion fans.....) whose biggest claim to fame - and his ultimate death - was ridding the world of all animals except mankind!

Truly, this star pattern as we have just seen can be unmistakably associated with hardly other mental images than that previously described. Indeed, once you have "seen Orion" in this fashion, you likely will never imagine any other form.....the hand raised with club to strike the bull....the arm outstretched in protection from the charge of the wild animal.....his mighty sword dangling from the waistband of a loincloth....

Even the great Greek historian and writer Homer wrote that Orion was "....the tallest and most BEAUTIFUL of all men..."

Although we typically rely on the beauty and ancient mythological stories of the earliest Arabian astronomers for our wonderful star names, even they have been in disagreement as to the proper name of this great human figure....but DO agree that the stars ARE representative of a large man of some kind. The most common association from antiquity is that of ancient Syria, "Ga-bara," and from the Jewish "Gibbor," both of which easily name this figure as simply "the Giant." This was later adopted by the Arabian skywatchers as "al-Jabbara" (also meaning "giant man") and even later evolving into "al-ba-adur", or "the strong Giant."

From ancient Babylon to more recently during the Punic Wars, the rising of the constellation of Orion signified a period of great storms, wind and widespread destruction.

The Egyptians considered the star pattern - "Sahu" - as perhaps the most significant of all in the sky. Sahu was the keeper of dead souls, the gatekeeper of life after death. Of course the significance of the afterlife was of great importance to those who could afford the luxury....the priests, princesses, pharaohs and queens, as attested through their nearly-obsessed compulsion at tomb building, the burial of their riches and the embalming and subsequent mummification of the high caste of society upon death. This complex world of life-after-death to the Egyptians was given the name "OSIRIS" and this moniker has become a mainstay throughout ancient Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics. Regarding this important constellation, one of the earliest recorded documents - the "Book of the Dead" - reveals the Egyptian belief of some 3,200 years ago that persons properly prepared and of the proper social standing will ascend into the soul and spirit of Orion.

Indeed, Orion does not stand alone to signify his stately standing of the sky: he is accompanied by his two hunting hounds Canis Major and Canis Minor (the large and small dogs, respectively), and immediately beneath his feat crouches the tiny bunny rabbit, LEPUS (isn't that a great name for a rabbit?!), obviously in fear of Orion's bragging of ridding the Earth of all its creatures but man.

But just WHO was this guy named "Orion" and how did HE get to be such a bigshot?

To the Celts, Orion was a "King in Arms," a "celestial warrior" to the earliest Greek legends, and even the "Star King" to the very mysterious and elusively private Saxons of old. Perhaps it is only the Babylonians who did NOT see a great figure of a robust and daring "man" in this pattern as they noted this star group as "Heaven's Light" or the "Lighted doorway to Heaven."

Curiously and morbidly, the legends of Orion all seem more focused on how he DIED than how he lived. Interesting, isn't it....the Egyptians considered this great starry sky figure as the very reincarnated SOUL of the god of Osiris, ruler of the afterlife, and most of the stories told of Orion have forever never regarded his expertise of the hunt or the bravery in stalking his prey, nor the magnificence of his life, as was done with his "big-man-on-campus" competitor Hercules. Orion is only remembered by the way he might have died.

sherrod oldorion
Note in this curious 1603 drawing of Orion by celestial cartographer J. Bayer that the figure is drawn exactly OPPOSITE that which is commonly associated with this family star pattern!
For the Hunter-legend we can go back as far as 3,000 years ago into the land and fables of the ancient Hittites. Orion to them, like it appears to be in so many cultures, was a very charming and captivating hunter, admired and cherished by all who knew him. To these Hittites, this great figure was known as "Aqhat," young and dashing....quite the ladies' man (another association that seemed to be fairly global). In their legends, there was a goddess who resided over "battles of men," her name being Anat. But in addition to being infatuated with Orion himself, she was also in great envy of his mighty BOW, which she repeated begged Orion to lend her. As he continued to refuse to relinquish his weapon to her, she ultimately sent a hit man to steal it from him. But rather than retrieving the bow, the thief was forced to kill Orion and accidentally lost the bow into the waters of the sea during the process. In this tale, rather that the RIGHT arm holding a shielding hide from a lion, the Hunter is holding his mighty bow through the same stars....this, too, can be clearly imagined when looking at this constellation.

Still thought of as a "hunter" by the Greeks, the stories - like so many of them did - varied as to the mythological background of Orion....but yet all still dwelled on his DEATH rather than his LIFE. In the earliest "hunter-gatherer" times of ancient Greece perhaps, one story emerged in that Orion was considered "the mountain dweller," a fabulous (and of course "charming") hunter who was SO good at his trade that he vowed - bragged actually - that he would hunt the entire world until he had completely abolished all of the wild animals that walked upon it. This was a bad idea.

Orion was such an adorable young and handsome man that all who saw him - including the goddess who watched over the planet Earth - fell in love with him and his charm. Even though she was madly in love with the hunter, the words of extinction eventually found their way to her ears and she dispatched a great defender of the Earth - a giant SCORPION (the constellation Scorpius) to kill Orion with its deadly sting. Thus, for his dastardly scheme to rid the Earth of its wildlife, Orion was put to death and imprisoned in the sky, perpetually chased by the great Scorpion which is always located opposite from the hunter as the sky seemingly rotates above the Earth.....with all its animals well intact.

Then there is the story, also of a charming and "girl-magnet" great hunter, that was from a slightly different Greek influence, one more typical of mythological influences. It seems that Orion, quite the ladies' man, was attracted to none other that the god Apollo's sister, Artemis, who also was a very excellent and renowned marksman. Very protective of his sibling, Apollo requested the keeper of the Earth to dispatch the mighty Scorpion to eliminate Orion and thus his amorous ways toward Artemis.

Now, in this version and many others, it is not really clear if the Scorpion actually kills Orion, or just engages him in a mighty battle. A possible outcome that is similarly recorded is that Orion did, indeed, do battle with the huge Scorpion, but realized too quickly that this was one "wild animal" that he could not injure nor defeat because of its hard-jointed armor. As the Scorpion increasingly managed to get the upper hand in the duel, Orion was forced to jump into the sea and swim far, far away from the dangerous Scorpion. But Apollo was not done with him.... seems that Artemis - hearing the commotion from the struggle - came to her brother's side to see what was happening and was told that there was a horrible enemy swimming far into the ocean....a "black dot" that only she could with her marksmanship could hit and kill so far away. Apollo essentially challenged his sister to demonstrate that she was as good a shot as the world thought....and she struck Orion in the head with her very first attempt, killing him dead. Finished. Vamoose. Kaput... goner. To prove she had hit her mark, Artemis swam far into the ocean to retrieve her kill and realized that she had killed the man who loved her.

Her cries to Zeus and the other gods watching over the mortal Earth fell on deaf ears from the pleadings of Apollo and they refused to restore Orion's life. With what little "god-like" power that Artemis possessed, she settled to ultimately raise the spirit of Orion into the firmament and there it circles until today, still constantly pursued by the Scorpion.

Thus, the mighty Hunter was not killed by the Scorpion that was sent to do the job....he was killed by the woman he loved....running away from the Scorpion.

sherrod orion1460

Just for the fun of that we have seen the many faces of Orion.....I have included the actual artwork from a 1460 medieval European woodcut that was intended to be a serious representation of this "heroic hunter and lover." Perhaps after reading the brief mythological references to our great hunter this drawing will add a little levity to an otherwise serious plight of our beloved hunter. In spite of his untimely and very mis-directed death and suspected philandering among the beautiful princesses of the gods, nothing can take away from his splendor in the sky. Personally, I will always remember and think of Orion as a magnificent "larger-than-life" heroic and brave hunter who perpetually battles the great bull with his eye of fire.
NEXT.....PART II: "Observing and Understanding Messier 42 - The Orion Nebula"

We will peer deep into the constellation and study perhaps the most famous of all deep sky objects and certainly one of the most observed: The Great Orion Nebula. This wonderful stellar nursery, where stars are "born" and pass through their infancy is a veritable education in the early lives of young stars. No matter if you observe this fantastic object with the naked eye, binoculars or with a great telescope, the result is always the same: beauty and amazement at a celestial gift that draws us into the sky like no other.

.....until then....Good Observing and may the stars serve as your sentries as you explore the frontiers of space!

Go To Top