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Orion: Your Personal Guide to the Stars

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Begirt with many a blazing star,
Stood the great giant Algebar,

Sound like a basketball star? No. These two lines are part of a poem by Longfellow, referring to stars in the sky. The poem continues:

Orion, hunter of the beast!
His sword hung gleaming by his side,
And on his arm, the lion's hide
Scattered across the midnight air
The golden radiance of its hair.

Longfellow opens with the Arabic name for Orion, then continues to paint word images from the Greeks.

Orion is a fine example to help us realize that the stars we see in our sky have been given many names, by different groups of people. The names most have learned to use are those that have trickled down through the treasures kept in books over the ages, but most of the star names and ideas associated with them have never been recorded. They have disappeared with the people who kept them. Those we do have exist because they were treasured enough that they were written about in books.

The classical constellations recall stories from the Greeks, but even these would have been lost were it not for the Arabians who preserved Greek writings. In the process, the names of many of the stars that landed on charts of the sky to become commonly accepted are Arabic names. The old Greeks talked about a great hunter who, upon death, was placed in the sky for all to admire and recall the heroic things Orion had done on earth, but the common names for Orion's stars are all Arabic: Betelgeuse, meaning "Armpit of the Central One," the red star at the shoulder; Bellatrix, meaning "Female Warrior," the other shoulder; Rigel, referring to the leg or foot; and Saiph, meaning "Sword of the Giant," even though it marks the other foot of Orion. The three belt stars also bear Arabic names.

There are many different ways to look at these same stars. Navajo people see them as "First Slim One," keeper of the months. This gleaming figure in the sky is symbolic of agriculture, and until recently, there were no pictures made of what it should look like. Only now are the Navajo concepts relating to such things being written about, and a few Navajo artists are producing pictures of what is described to them by their Elders who know the stars. I am pretty sure that different artists, talking to different Elders, would come up with quite different pictures. All of them would be of a human, an Indian to be sure, probably having a feather on the head.

To the Egyptians, Orion was symbolic of Osiris, and the bright star Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, that follows Orion up in the sky represented Isis. One can easily be reminded of the legend of this Egyptian couple by watching these sparkling stars march across our sky. If only we could know the many accounts that were once prompted by the parade of these stars in our winter sky!

The poet Robert Frost wrote about Orion in his astronomical poem, The Star-Splitter:

You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight.

Without a doubt Orion is the favorite star-picture for most people: four bright stars outlining his body; three dimmer ones, close together in a line, "the String of Pearls," Orion's belt. Just below the belt, dim stars with a pearly glow in the center mark Orion's sword. It is more difficult to find his tiny head, and to his right is a sloppy circlet of dim stars forming a lion-skin draped over his outstretched arm, or a shield held out to ward off the great bull Taurus right next to him.

When you go out to study Orion, take along a pair of binoculars. Look to the east about 9:00 pm, when Orion will be nicely up. First, with eye alone, find each of the stars that outline the giant in the sky: shoulders, legs, belt and sword. Then, while looking at the center of the sword, bring the glasses in front of your eyes for a truly great reward: you will see the Great Nebula, a glowing cloud where stars are being born. Orion will rise earlier and earlier to remain with us throughout winter nights.

Once you have Orion, you can work your way around the near-by stars, the brightest in the sky. Sirius, greatest luminary of them all, can be found by following Orion's belt to the left. The eye of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaron, another Arabic name, can be found by following the belt stars to the right. The Pleiades are nearby. Look at them and the whole surrounding region with your binoculars to get an idea of just how rich the sky is with star-gems.

With a simple chart of stars in hand, let Orion be your ancient, yet personal guide for a first class tour around the sky. With his help, you might be surprised how easy it becomes to make friends with star patterns and the stories that they tell. Starlight is a wondrous thing, for all we know about the stellar universe comes through messages in the energy flowing into our instruments, or our eyes. So, when you look upon a star, each spark of light falling into the lens of your eye is yours alone, a treasure that has been traveling for years, finally to touch your mind with the essence of that particular star.

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