Orion as seen from the Lut Desert in Iran in November 2017. (Parisa Bajelan)
Orion as seen from the Lut Desert in Iran around 2 a.m. on November 18, 2017. (Parisa Bajelan)

Seven stars, countless stories around the world

Visible from both hemispheres, the constellation commonly known in astronomy circles as Orion holds myriad meanings around the world

Situated astride the celestial equator and visible from both hemispheres, Orion contains seven bright, prominent stars: Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Saiph, Rigel, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. It also contains one of the two nebulae visible to the unaided eye.

Peoples in the north and south often view the grouping as a single human figure, but in equatorial regions where the three-star “belt” of Orion rises and sets perpendicular to the horizon, peoples have viewed it as a plough, adze, fire drill or spring trap or snare for catching game.

Some cultures view the constellation as a male hunter, mythological hero or “all-father;” the Ojibwe see Orion as Biboonkeonini, the Wintermaker, with his arms embracing the sky. In India, Orion is the cosmic dancer Nataraja. But sometimes, the stars are just part of a human figure; the Dakota see the asterism as Nape, a hand in the sky.

Orion as seen from the Lut Desert in Iran in November 2017. (Parisa Bajelan)
Orion as seen from the Lut Desert in Iran around 2 a.m. on November 18, 2017. (Parisa Bajelan)

Some cultures view the asterism not as a single figure, but as parts of a story. In China and Korea, Orion is an expeditionary force.

In Australia, some peoples see Orion as a hunter pursuing sisters (the Pleiades), while other Australian peoples see the belt as uninitiated boys who would pursue the sisters, but an old wise man or elder sister (the Hyades) is guarding them. Rigel is the boy’s campfire, and the Orion Nebula their fire poker.

Orion can be many things within one culture. For example, in Japan, Orion becomes various deities, and the belt becomes a drum, a ruler, a plough with the Orion Nebula being the handle, a three-pole stand, a three pronged spear, weaving prongs, rice or millet stars and even a child holding up their parents or two parents and a child standing together.

This World Asterisms Project, which includes more than 8,600 asterisms from 400 cultures, is a living project celebrating sky cultures. Published by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, it continues to grow as the process of naming stars continues and as ethnoastronomers and researchers investigate old records, interview elders and recover previously lost sky culture information.

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