Orion (mythology)

Orion, one of the heroes of Greek mythology, has become an archetype of the hunter in Western culture.


Ancestry, origins, birth and symbolism

The mythographers site the birthplace of Orion in Boeotia, the fertile heart of civilized Hellas, whose folk the Boeotian poet Hesiod described as farmers in the winter and sailors in the summer season. (Did the Boeotians sail but not swim, that they disputed whether Orion waded the Aegean from island to island or merely strode through the waves?) Though some say Orion sprang directly from Gaia, the Earth Mother, others make his father Gaia's grandson Atlas, who equally has his great feet planted in the sea.

Others select Poseidon for his father and the beautiful and awful Gorgon Euryale for his mother, the "wide-ranging" one, she of the "wide salt sea" (eureia halys(Kerenyi 1976, p.42)), herself a grand-daughter of Gaia.

Orion's birth in Boeotia took place at Hyrai, an ancient place mentioned in Homer's catalogue of the ships that set forth to fetch Helen home from Troy. Ovid in his Fabulae invents a tale of a king "Hyreus", father of Orion, but no "Hyraeius" dwelt at Hyrai. Like some other archaic names of Greek cities, such as Athens (Athenai) or Mycenae, Hyrai has a plural form, a name that once had evoked the place of "the sisters of the beehive". According to Hesychios, the Cretan word hyron meant 'swarm of bees' or 'beehive' (Kerenyi 1976 pp42-3). Orion's birthplace links him to Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress" older than Demeter, herself sometimes called "the pure Mother Bee". Winged, armed with toxin, creators of the fermentable honey (see mead), seemingly parthenogenetic in their immortal hive, bees functioned as emblems of other embodiments of the Great Mother: Cybele, Rhea the Earth Mother, and the archaic Artemis as honored at Ephesus. Pindar remembered that the Pythian pre-Olympic priestess of Delphi remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo's gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee-maidens.

Many cultures regard bees as particularly rich in symbolism. The peoples of the ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world saw bees as a bridge between the natural world and the underworld. Bees appeared carved on tombs. The Mycenean tholos tombs even took the form of beehives.

Deeds and symbolism

Orion's first episode, represented as a "marriage," associates him with Side, quite literally the "pomegranate", in a consecration to that aspect of "The Goddess", meaning the original worship-figure of the pre-Indo-European peoples of the Aegean and the Fertile Crescent whose religious icons occur from the Persian Gulf to England, and who later evolved into Hera. The union appears purely mystical, a civilizing rite for Orion the representative of Nature: we hear of no offspring; we know of no named place where Orion presided as Side's consort. The Boeotians simply used the word side as the name for the pomegranate. Other Greek dialects call the pomegranate rhoa; its possible connection with the name of the Earth Goddess Rhea, inexplicable in Greek, proved suggestive for the mythographer C. Kerenyi, who suggested that the consonance might ultimately derive from a deeper, pre-Indo-European language layer.

The wild pomegranate did not grow natively in the Aegean area in Neolithic times. It originated in the Iranian east and came to the Aegean world along the same cultural pathways that brought The Goddess whom the Anatolians worshipped as Cybele and the Mesopotamias as Ishtar. Note the similarity of this story to the myth of Persephone, which also centres on the pomegranate. Note too the connection with the underworld myth, where the connection with the mother aspect of feminine divinity occurs in greatest detail in the Egyptian story of Isis. The pattern of this myth involves the Goddess figure going into the underworld.

Several "pomegranate" places called Side existed in the Greek world, though not in Boeotia. One stood in the Peloponnese, north of Cape Malea. Another Side, daughter of Taurus, gave her name to a place in Pamphylia, a country only marginally Greek during classical times and now part of modern Turkey. Still another Side committed suicide at her mother's tomb, to escape advances made by her father. She became transmuted to a pomegranate tree and he to a kite, emblem of a robber in the Greek mind. Because of the legendary connection, kites allegedly never land in pomegranate trees.

In the sixth century B.C.E. Polykleitos took ivory and gold to sculpt the seated Argive Hera in her temple. She held a scepter in one hand and offered a pomegranate, like a royal orb, in the other. "About the pomegranate I must say nothing," whispered the traveller Pausanias in the second century A.D., "for its story is something of a mystery." Indeed, in the Orion story we hear that the Hera cast pomegranate-Side into dim Erebus -- "for daring to rival Hera's beauty", which forms the probable point of connection with the older Osiris/Isis story. Since the ancient Egyptians identified the Orion constellation in the sky as Sah the "soul of Osiris", the identification of this section of the myth seems relatively complete. Hera wears, not a wreath nor a tiara nor a diadem, but clearly the calyx of the pomegranate that has become her serrated crown. The pomegranate has outlived the Mother Goddess, to turn up in the hand of the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary.

What was the Titan Orion, then, before the pomegranate transmutedhim? Orion, literally "mountain-man," embodies some primeval aspects of untouched nature. Orion finds a parallel in the valiant Enkidu, the opposite/brother and rival-made-friend and helper of Gilgamesh. Orion and Enkidu each began as a shamanic Master of the Animals, surviving from the Neolithic hunt as the Ice Age waned. The Mother Goddess created Enkidu, just as Gaia gave rise to Orion.

Legend explains how the constellation Scorpius rises just after Orion begins to set -- the scorpion still chases him, and they never appear in the sky at the same time. Orion's dogs became Sirius, the dog-star. The constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor follow Orion across the sky.

Some commentators suggest that Orion had two daughters, Menippe and Metioche.

Modern Interpretations of Orion's Mythology

In the wake of scholarship by Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell some interpretations of Greek mythology have placed increasing emphasis on the symbolic and cultural origins of myths. According to this analysis, Orion ("mountain man" if we assume the name as truly Greek) exists on three mythic planes. On the Neolithic level he functions as a shaman, the "master of the animals," an Aegean counterpart to Enkidu, the wild companion of Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh. On the Minoan level, he becomes dedicated to the Great Goddess of Crete. On the Classical level, he has grown to pose a threat to the reformed and Olympian Artemis and must be destroyed.

According to this school of thought, myths often undergo renamings and changes, so that "fragmentary" myths represent original myths which had different characters which became subsumed into one story. Orion's episodic presence in mythology lends itself to the interpretation that he was not originally a character from the Indo-European invaders, but instead a variation of an earth god which mythographers worked into the mythological corpus.




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