Humans have always felt connected to the night sky. Throughout time, we have looked to the stars and found meaning. We have grouped stars into constellations and attached stories to them. These constellations were passed down, generation to generation, creating and influencing culture. However, different cultures haven’t always seen the same things, even in the same stars. Humans have been looking at the stars of the constellation Orion for thousands of years, yet their meaning is different in different cultures.
Orion, one of the easiest constellations to see in the winter sky, is visible from November until April. In December, Orion rises in the east by 8 PM. Look for the line of three bright stars that form Orion’s “belt.” To the south, you will see a brighter blue-white star marking Orion’s “foot,” and to the north a bright reddish star at Orion’s “shoulder.” Orion’s location above Earth’s equator makes it visible from both the northern and southern hemispheres, allowing cultures all over the globe to interpret these stars.
Perhaps the best-known legend is that of the Greek tradition. The Greeks see Orion as the hunter. The mighty hunter carries a weapon and a shield; the alignment of three bright stars form Orion’s belt. Due to Greek influence on western culture, much of the United States and Europe also see Orion, “the hunter,” in these stars.
The Maori people of New Zealand view Orion’s stars as the Canoe of Tamarereti, a mythical ancestor. Tamarereti fishes from his canoe all night and draws closer to land (the horizon) as day breaks. Legend has it that Tamarereti caught a forbidden fish and, while eating it, choked and died. The Maori use this constellation as a reminder of the need to respect fishing rules created by the gods.
The Bororo people of Brazil revere a large crocodile-like creature, a caiman, which they see in the stars of Orion and surrounding constellations. The caiman is one of the most feared animals in the tropical forests of central Brazil. It holds a prominent spot in the night sky, as it does on earth.
Orion has been interpreted by people across time and place. These are only a few of the many stories associated with the stars of Orion. Though we may have different stories, our ability to look to the stars and find meaning in them is a unifying thread of humanity. Take some time tonight to reinvent how you see the stars. What do you see in Orion?