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Orion (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Orion, one of the Titans was the archetype of the hunter. Orion ("mountain man" if the name is truly Greek) exists on three mythic planes. On the Neolithic level he is a shaman, the "master of the animals," an Aegean counterpart to Enkidu, the wild companion of Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh. On the Minoan level, he has been dedicated to the Great Goddess of Crete. On the Classical level, he has become a threat to the reformed and Olympian Artemis and must be destroyed. His myth survives in fragmentary episodes and references, and its meanings were obscure to the patriarchal culture of classical Greece and need some explaining.

Orion was born 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. Were the Boeotians such sailors but not swimmers, that they disputed whether Orion waded the Aegean from island to island or merely strode through the waves? Though some say he is sprung directly from Gaia, the Earth Mother, others make his father Gaia's son Atlas, who equally has his great feet planted in the sea.

Others select Poseidon for his father, and for mother the beautiful and awful Gorgon Euryale, the "wide-ranging" one, she of the "wide threshing floor," herself a daughter of Gaia. Such a mother would link Orion to the grain cult, like that other Titan Ephialtes, "son of the threshing floor," who made a name for himself, together with his "stupid" brother Otos, by piling Mount Ossa upon Pelion in a vain and literal-minded attempt to reach Olympian Artemis and Hera as prizes. They too are "sons" of Poseidon, but the Poseidon in question is not Olympian Poseidon, brother of Zeus, the familiar, trident-wielding sea-god accompanied by nereids and tritons blowing conch shells. The threshing-floor links this Poseidon to the older cereal realm of Demeter and Persephone, the grain mother and her dangerous daughter-self. Scratched notations at the Mycenaean palace-city that Homer called "sandy Pylos," using the Minoan syllabary we call Linear B, record sacrificial goods destined for "the Two Queens and Poseidon" and to "the Two Queens and the King." This is the pre-Olympian role of Posei das, "Lord of the Goddess."

But perhaps Orion is older than the grain itself.

His birth in Boeotia was 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 there was no "Hyraeius" at Hyrai. Like some other archaic names of Greek cities, such as Athens or Mycenae, Hyrai is plural, a name that once had evoked the place of "the sisters of the beehive." Orion's birthplace links him to Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress" older than Demeter, who might sometimes be called "the pure Mother Bee." Winged, armed with toxin, creators of the fermentable honey, seemingly parthenogenetic in their immortal hive, bees were emblems of other embodiments of the Great Mother: Cybele, Rhea the Earth Mother, and the archaic Artemis as she was 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.

Bees are universally the most symbolic of insects. In the ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world, bees were seen as a bridge between the natural world and the underworld. Bees were carved on tombs. The Mycenean tholos tombs even took the form of beehives.

Orion's first episode, represented as a "marriage," associates him with Side, quite literally the "pomegranate," in a consecration to that Lady who later evolved into Hera. The union is purely mystical, a civilizing rite for Orion the natural: we hear of no offspring; no place is named where Orion presided as Side's consort. "Side" was simply the Boeotian name for the pomegranate. In other Greek dialects the pomegranate is rhoa; its possible connection with the name of the Earth Goddess Rhea, inexplicable in Greek, was suggestive for the mythographer C. Kerenyi, who cautioned that the consonance might ultimately derive from a deeper, pre-Indo-European language layer.

The wild pomegranate was not native to the Aegean in Neolithic times. It originated in the Iranian east and came to the Aegean world along the same cultural pathways that brought the Lady who was worshiped as Cybele in Anatolia and Ishtar in Mesopotamia.

There were several "pomegranate" places called Side in the Greek world, though not in Boeotia. One was 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 was transmuted to a pomegranate tree, and he to a kite, emblem of a robber in the Greek mind. Because of the legendary connection, it was said that a kite never landed in a pomegranate tree.

In the sixth century B.C.E. Polycleites 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 Lady Hera cast pomegranate-Side into dim Erebus-- "for daring to rival Hera's beauty" was the lame triviality that Apollodorus could allow for an explanation, but isn't there an echo of a dark archaic ritual that required the death of a virgin? Bloody death and fertility are inescapably linked connotations for the many-seeded pomegranate with its dark red juice. Is the chambered pomegranate also a surrogate for the poppy's narcotic capsule? On a Mycenaean seal (illustrated in Joseph Campbell's Occidental Mythology, figure 19) the seated Goddess of the double-headed axe (the labrys) offers three poppy pods in her right hand and supports her breast with her left. She embodies both aspects of the dual goddess, life-giving and death-dealing at once. Is that why Persephone found the pomegranate waiting, when she sojourned in the dark realm?

Hera wears, not a wreath nor a tiara nor a diadem, but clearly it is 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 he was transmuted by the pomegranate? 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. Like Orion, Enkidu was created by the Mother Goddess. Enkidu, before he was entrapped and humanized through the erotic lure of a temple courtesan, offers a glimpse into the nature of primal Orion. "The whole of his body was hairy and his (uncut) locks were like a woman's or the hair of the goddess of grain. Moreover, he knew nothing of settled fields or human beings and was clothed (in skins) like a deity of flocks."  Like the Titan, Enkidu was "tall in stature, towering up to the battlements over the wall," as his urban chroniclers described him. "Surely he was born in the mountains," the shepherds cried out, when they first saw him. But once Enkidu had been civilized, the animals fled from him. Now "he scattered the wolves, he chased away the lions" and the herders could lie down in peace, for Enkidu was now their watchman. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (we have it in a late Babylonian version) remained untranslated into Greek until modern times, and there was no direct knowledge of the Enkidu of the Gilgamesh story in the Achaean world, though pieces of tablet with fragments describing Enkidu's death have turned up at Megiddo in Canaan and at Emar on the upper Euphrates River in Syria. It wasn't a question of the figure of Enkidu influencing the myth of Orion. Both were survivals of a Neolithic Master of the Animals.

Through his pomegranate union, the Neolithic shaman nature of primitive Orion was consecrated to the Goddess. Once he had been brought into the civilized world, Orion was ready for his second episode: now Orion was prepared to stake a claim to Merope of Chios. He plunged into the Aegean and was soon well away from shore, when, looking back, he saw his two great hounds struggling in the waves. Turning back, he took them up, and thus he came ashore on Chios, with his great spear slung across his broad back and under each massive arm a hunting dog, the Great One and the Lesser One.

When he came ashore, Orion found that he was once again in a place called Hyrai, another bee-swarm. The two Hyrai may have functioned as two entrances to the netherworld, which would have enabled Orion to pass between Boeotia and Chios in a chthonic journey. In later Classical times, the "tomb" of Orion that was shown to visitors in Boeotia may have been the cave-entrance.

In the island of Chios, the "Merope" whom Orion sought seems to mean "honey-faced" in Greek, thus "eloquent," but surely at an earlier level her "face" was a bee-mask. Cretan bee-masked priestesses appear on Minoan seals. One of the mythographers recalled the tradition that "Merope" was the "bee-eater" in the old Minoan tongue, before the Hellenes ever came to the Aegean. The proto-Greek invaders did not bring the art of bee-keeping with them. Homer saw bees as wild, never tame, as when the Achaeans issued forth from their ship encampment "like buzzing swarms of bees that come out in relays from a hollow rock" (Iliad, book II). Bee-keeping was a Minoan craft, and the fermented honey-drink was the old Cretan intoxicant, older than wine. Long after Knossos fell, for two thousand years, the classical Greek tongue preserved "honey-intoxicated" as the phrase for "drunken."

But there are too many Meropes in mythic fragments. One Merope married Sisyphus. Another Merope and her sister Cleothera were the orphaned daughters of Trojan Pandarus. Yet another Merope was queen to Creophontes in Messenia, until "serial killer" Polyphontes murdered him and claimed Merope and her matriarchal throne. Still another Merope, also known as Periboea, the wife of Polybus at Corinth, adopted Oedipus.

This name Merope figures in too many isolated tales for "Merope" to be an individual. Instead the "Merope" must denote a position as priestess of the Goddess. But surely Merope the "bee-eater" is unlikely to be always a bee herself. Though there is a small Mediterranean bird called the Bee-Eater, which was known under that name to Roman naturalists Pliny and Aelian, this Bee-Eater is most likely to have been a She-Bear, a representative of Artemis. The goddess was pictured primitively with a she-bear's head herself, and the bear remained sacred to Artemis into classical times. At a festival called the Brauronia, pre-pubescent girls were dressed in honey-colored yellow robes and taught to perform a bear dance. Once they had briefly served Artemis in this way, they would be ready to be married. In later times, a Syriac Book of Medicine recommends that the eye of a bear, placed in a hive, makes the bees prosper. The bear's spirit apparently watches over the hive, and this was precisely the Merope's role among the Hyrai at Chios.

Such Bronze Age Aegean cult centers guided by priestesses dedicated to the Great Goddess were deeply threatening to the Hellene invaders and warranted close patriarchal supervision. Placed in charge of this Merope and her hive on Chios was Oinopion, the "wine-man," a son of Dionysus. Some say he came from Crete, others specify Lemnos or Naxos. Wine mixed with fermented honey, as at Chios, mediated between the sacred intoxicants of the old order and the new patriarchal Olympian one, and honey mixed with wine remained a suitable libation to propitiate both levels of divinity, as Jason and the Argonauts wisely showed when they first set foot ashore in the chthonic and dangerous land of Colchis.

Under the old regime that Orion embodies, Oinopion would have been the annual consort of the Merope, but at the time level of the Orion myths, he had become as a "father" to her instead, a guardian-sponsor. Though the late poets thus called him Merope's father, Oinopion betrayed his most unfatherlike jealousy and determination to preserve his position. When the Titan came ashore, stained with pomegranate blood, ready to offer himself as a candidate for the role of consort, Oinopion set Orion a challenging contest to justify his right. Since he was so famed as a hunter, Orion had to rid the island of all its dangerous wild beasts. There was an ironic shift of roles here, for the animal-master of the Neolithic had originally been the spirit-protector of the animals, similar to the untamed Enkidu, who released them from the hunters' traps and springes. At the Neolithic level, the Master of the Animals was their protector; the hunter had to propitiate him, so that he would release the animals from his care; only then could the hunt be successful. Orion, like primal Enkidu also the "offspring of the mountains," had been at one with the wild creatures until he achieved self-consciousness. Now the "awakened" Animal Master hunted them himself. There was further irony in Oinopion's demand, if the "bee-eater" were herself a bear. And in his heart the usurping Oinopion was unwilling to be bested, to resign, though no longer to be sacrificed in the archaic way, even though Orion might successfully master the ritual contests.

Evening after evening Orion brought in pelts of bear and lion, lynx and wolf, and piled them in the Hyrian palace-hive. But it was never enough. Even though the island was rendered secure from marauding beasts, wily Oinopion always claimed that there were still rumors of a wolf or a bear heard to be roaming the island's farthest mountain districts.

In the evenings Oinopion plied Orion with his wine. Wine, the civilized gift of Dionysus, has a wild other nature, as the toxic barren ivy. Wine worked potently on the Titan's own wild and earthy nature, and one night in darkness, after the household had all gone to their chambers, Orion, inflamed by wine, took the perhaps not-unwilling Merope, there in her palace-hive. Then, overcome, he slept.

While Orion lay in a stupor, Oinopion stole upon him and he put out Orion's eyes. With a shout, Oinopion called up the guards, and just as a hive of bees will cast out a giant hornet intruder, they cast Orion, blinded, down onto the seashore, where ocean and land come together.

For a long time, there the Hunter lay. When a Titan has been outwardly blinded, he may receive in compensation a gift of inner sight. So Orion needed no oracle, as some have claimed, to know that he must seek out the first light of Helios, just when his chariot rises from the easternmost rim of Oceanus, that the place to achieve this was the eastern edge of the possible world, which is also known as the land of Colchis. There the sun's first rays would restore his sight.

Meanwhile, how had Merope fared? In such mythic contests, the "prize" often favors the heroic contender, as Ariadne was to favor Theseus. Now this Merope of Chios was at the same time one of the seven Pleiades, the "sailing sisters." They were named in the old matriarchal way for their mother Pleione. Sometimes Atlas is said to be their father, and then they are called the "Atlantides." If Atlas is indeed the father of Orion too, then his daughters the Pleiades are Orion's half-sisters. No wonder then that Orion longed to cleave to this Merope, if they had indeed sprung from the same stock.

All Aegean sailors knew that the Pleiades mark out the season that is safe for venturing upon the sea. The season opens "when from the Bull, the Sun enters into the Twins at the rising of the Pleiades." Nowadays this falls in late May. The safe sailing is over "when the Sun enters the Scorpion, at the setting of the Pleiades," all according to the Roman Vitruvius, who was quoting the Greek astronomer Democritus. By a witty invention, Pindar made them the "Peleiades"- the flock of doves- but this was just a momentary trope.

But was this Merope at the same time one of the Heliades, the sisters of Phaeton and daughters of Helios, as Hyginus tells? That would have made her a doubly-fit guide to lead the sightless Orion through the seas to the house of the Sun.

Northwards from Chios Orion made his way, whether guided by his inner sight or led by the rising Merope and her sisters, once the late spring weather had safely settled. Within a day or so he came to the volcano isle of Lemnos, where Hephaistos maintains his forge. Orion descended to the underworld smithy in the island's fiery heart. Later the Lemnian cave would become famous for its mysteries, in which each initiate was united with his chthonic brother counterpart. Like them, Orion himself sought no product of Hephaistos' forge, neither armor nor cauldron nor tripod. Instead, from among the many apprentices in the cavernous smithy of Lady Hera's son, Orion took up one, Cedalion, for a guide and set the youth upon his shoulders. So together they sailed north and east, with Merope in her sailing aspect to guide them, through the narrows and the Propontis, into the wide Euxine Sea.

Far to the eastern shore, in Colchis at the uttermost end of the world, Helios, whose bright eye misses nothing on the earth nor in the sea, sleeps by night in the golden house of Aietes, until he is waked by Eos, the Dawn. There, when Dawn came lighting the east with rosy fingers, the first rays of sunlight struck Orion's face and look! his sight was restored. But at the first flush of dawn, Merope faded and failed. Thus of seven Pleiades who still guide Orion across the vault of night, only six are to be seen, if there should be even the least hint of rosy-fingered Dawn. Alexandrian poets liked to imagine that Merope hides her face in shame, for having married the mere mortal Sisyphus, king of Corinth, while all her Pleiad sisters were given to Olympic gods. But that worldly snobbery speaks more of the Hellenistic Age of Monarchies than of the age of myth.

Eos too is of the Titan lineage, and she was immediately smitten by the handsomest Titan of all. That daughter of Hyperion always has weaknesses for demi-gods with some Titan blood in their veins, and Eos longed to cast her bright thighs across his dark ones. There in the house of Helios Orion tarried all summer. Yet at each approach of Dawn, Orion paled and grew faint, his flesh growing transparent under her very touch.

Next, Orion returned to the island of Chios, burning for revenge on Oinopion. But it appears that he arrived in the winter season, when the Chians had pruned their vines to stubs. For we are told that the "wine-man" Oinopion lay secretly in an underground chamber prepared for him by Hephaistos, awaiting his annual renewal we can be sure, and Orion sought him up and down, but in vain.

Then, at the end of winter, Orion passed under the horizon to Crete. Crete was still the homeland of archaic pre-Greek goddess-centered cult.

The oldest of these aspects of the Goddess was as Mother of Mountains, who appears on Minoan seals with the demonic features of a Gorgon, accompanied by the double-axes of power and gripping divine snakes. Her terror-inspiring aspect was softened by calling her Britomartis, the "good virgin." Every element of the Classical myths that told of Britomartis served to reduce her, even literally to entrap her in nets (but only because she "wanted" to be entrapped): patriarchal writers even made her the "daughter" of Zeus, rather than his patroness when he was an infant in her cave, and they made her own tamed, "evolved" and cultured aspect, Artemis, responsible for granting Britomartis goddess status. But the ancient goddess never quite disappeared and remained on the coins of Cretan cities, as herself or as Diktynna, the goddess of Mount Dikte, Zeus' birthplace. As Diktynna, winged and now represented with a human face, she stood on her ancient mountain, and grasped an animal in each hand, in the guise of Potnia, the Mistress of animals. Later Greeks could only conceive of a mistress of animals as a huntress, but on the early seals she suckles griffons. Archaic representations of winged Artemis show that she evolved from Potnia theron, the Mistress of Animals.

There in Crete Orion had an obscure encounter with the death-dealing Scorpion, whose ascendency in the zodiac marks the downturn of the year. The scorpion is a natural symbol of death, of the darkness of night and the underworld generally. So it was perceived in Sumer, in Egypt, in the Book of Kings (12:11) and among Zoroastrians. The scorpion is a creature of the Triple Goddess too, under the death-bringing aspect of her death-and-life renewal cycle. One late mythmaker would have it that Hera (still at some level Mistress of the Animals) was incensed by a report of Apollo that related Orion's boast that he was master of all the wild creatures of the Aegean. Some myths would have Orion die of the scorpion's sting, to be brought back to life by the healer Aesclepias, who would then be struck down by Zeus' thunderbolt in retribution for his audacity.

Perhaps, though, the Scorpion simply refers to Orion's union and renewal with the Goddess. For the restored and completed Orion, earth-man of mountains from the distant Neolithic past, master of the animals, fortified with honey-drink, stained still with the Goddess's pomegranate, bursting with virile seed, now sought out Artemis herself, at Delos. Even though he was reunited in Crete with the Great Goddess, Orion fixed his resolve to conquer Artemis as her consort. And this was to be his undoing. When the Pleiades rose from the Sea of Crete at the end of winter, Orion made his way north to Delos, still accompanied by the faithful Dawn.

But Artemis, now that she has been reborn on Delos as an Olympian goddess, must strenuously reject her own old ways, the blood sacrifices and the sequence of ritually murdered consorts. Now that Olympian Artemis is twinned chastely with Apollo instead, she has no further need of consorts at all. Thus it is that, walking along the coast of Delos, the twin Olympians spy at a great distance the giant head of the swimmer, no more than a black speck in the dazzling sun-path on the sea.

"Look!" cries Apollo. "There is the false Candaeon, who has seduced your chaste priestess in the Hyperborean north." Artemis does not recognize this Boeotian nickname for Orion, and she has drawn her bow and transfixed him with three arrows before she realizes her error. So Orion is safely banished to the skies, where, indeed, perhaps he had always been.

This legend explains why the constellation Scorpio 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.

Orion is sometimes said to have had two daughters, Menippe and Metioche.