• J. W. Barlament

Orion, Ophiuchus, the Silver Gate & the Journey of Souls

The astronomical mythos around Orion is known to be many millennia old and impossibly muddied to us in the 21st century. The story starts a surprisingly long time ago. A study on a 35,000 year-old ivory carving — a man with upraised arms on one side and 86 notches in columns on the other — tells a lucid potential background story. The man’s figure is strikingly similar, though notedly not identical, to the constellation’s, even sporting either a natural or manmade vertical groove where Orion’s Sword would be, and possibly holding a torch or another tall object in one hand. But the best evidence comes from the 86 notches on the back of the carving. 86 corresponds to the number of days that Betelgeuse, Orion’s most famous star, would’ve been visible in the sky at the time.

Coincidence, of course, is never outside possibility, and many say that the figure seems to be portraying a salute or worship rather than a precise star chart. But the historical connections only begin there. In France’s Lascaux Cave, a 17,000 year-old depiction of a bull features several dots corresponding to the positions of major stars in Taurus. Behind the bull, a small dot cluster seems to mirror the Pleiades. Facing it, a faded figure with apparent outstretched arms is defined by the three dots of Orion’s Belt.

In ancient Mesopotamia, echoes of Orion sound in the stories of Gilgamesh and the characteristics and iconography of the storm god, his most famous representative tale in Marduk (Orion) and Tiamat (Cetus). In Old Kingdom Egypt, Orion was represented explicitly by the Sah, the Father of the Gods, “swallowed at dawn by the Underworld but had the power to emerge again into the night sky”. By the time of the New Kingdom, Sah was syncretized with the god of the dead and the underworld, Osiris, whose soul was said to rest in Orion’s Belt.

And in Greece, of course, Orion was especially famous, taking up the mantle of the great hunter. Beyond the hunter’s oft-repeated romance story, though, is a much more astronomically complex epilogue. Here, his mythos is entangled with the serpent-bearer constellation Ophiuchus, all the way on the other end of the celestial sphere. With this, again Orion is connected with the souls of the dead. After his own death on a hunting trip at the hands of Scorpius, the healer Aesculapius (identified with Ophiuchus, who learned the art of healing from a snake) brought Orion back to life with his magic serpent’s aid. This angered Hades, who petitioned Zeus to kill them both by thunderbolt. Zeus, for once feeling bad about murder, then awarded Orion, Ophiuchus and all their surrounding animals with constellations memorializing them, keeping Orion and Scorpius at the sky’s opposite ends.

the Adorant from the Geißenklösterle Cave, Württemberg State Museum, Germany (Burkert Gestaltung)

Orion was more to ancient peoples than a handy calendar marker or an avid hunter, and oddly enough, it is this Ophiuchus-centric story that proves it. Ophiuchus rises out of the southeastern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, riding the celestial equator and peaking around late June before dipping back below the horizon for winter. Orion, meanwhile, rises out of the southeastern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, riding the celestial equator and peaking around late December before dipping back below the horizon for the summer. The scorpion that kills Orion, too, and is exactly opposite him on the celestial sphere, is located just below the feet of Ophiuchus, casting the two men as natural allies. We could potentially uncover many more myths connecting the two and expanding on their stories, from the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the Aztecs, and that mythological hype isn’t for nothing. There’s more still tying these two sky giants than just their similar locales.

The actual astronomy may come in handy; see, the rings around the earth made by the Milky Way and the ecliptic (better known as the ring of the zodiac) happen to be more or less perpendicular. Tracked from earth, then, the lines of the ecliptic and Milky Way form a giant cross across the sky, with two intersecting points. These two points are, roughly, the top of Orion’s back arm (being referred to in myths as a hunter’s club, the top of a bow, a torch to hold the sun, or just his hand) and the bottom left corner of Ophiuchus, where he holds the healing snake.

Now, the ecliptic and the Milky Way are very well documented for their utmost importance in countless ancient cultures. Their intersection points, too, echo through history, from the two-ringed sphere stood on by Roman Mithraism’s astrological lion-man to the Tal-qadi sky tablet of Mesolithic Malta (though the tablet seems to place Orion’s point in between the Hyades and Pleiades instead).

To a majority of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern sources, it seems these points mark what are dubbed the “gateways of the soul”. One, at Orion’s hand, marks the “silver gate”, or the Gate of Man. The other, more sparsely attested gate in Ophiuchus marks the “golden gate” or the Gate of the Gods. Both are gates on the road traversed by the souls of the dead, often equated with the Milky Way, and both show us why it’s so crucial that it was Ophiuchus who bested Scorpius and resurrected Orion in the Greek myth.

Whether he’s a god, a hunter or a culture hero, Orion is always depicted as a fighter bearing weapons of war. Ophiuchus, meanwhile, is a healer bearing the magic serpent. Orion’s gate, therefore, is most often the portal for the souls of the departed, and Orion is the usher to the afterlife. This is why we see so much more literature on Orion; in cultures with just one afterlife, there needs be just one usher, and far fainter Ophiuchus gets more easily overlooked.

In some of those cultures, Ophiuchus may have been the usher for those souls fortunate enough to leave the underworld after bodily death and spend eternity amongst the stars. In those cultures more inclined toward reincarnation, Ophiuchus may have received the souls of the dead and kept them in a stellar afterlife, considering how he seems to raise his gate up and Orion drags his down. This, of course, makes Orion the one to guide the death of these astral souls and their rebirth down on earth. Perhaps it was the other way around; Ophiuchus is the resurrector after all. Perhaps the two were originally even avatars of one seasonally resurrecting stellar deity, serving as sole gatekeeper on the road or bridge of souls. The details would obviously have changed between different groups, but the core of the myth remains.

Remember Egypt? Sah, cyclically resurrected, and Osiris, lord of the underworld? Ancient cultures communicated, and to no small extent.

Orion and Ophiuchus, respectively, engraved by Sidney Hall (1824)

Interestingly enough, there is a separate but surely related “Golden Gate of the Ecliptic” recognized as a modern asterism stretching from the Hyades to the Pleiades, through which the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all pass through at some point. The Maltese of around 2500 BC, as mentioned, seem to have traced this same gate, just as some argue the cave-painting Solutrean people of 20000 BC France did.

The Aztecs, meanwhile, appear to have agreed with our later sources; they equated Orion with Mixcoatl; god of hunting, storms, the Milky Way and the heavens in general, father of the southern constellations and of Quetzalcoatl. As described in the Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky:

“As god of the Milky Way, Mixcoatl personified the souls of dead warriors who ascended to the sky and became stars.”

Now, no matter the gates’ exact locales, they were important, and they were remembered. The keys to these gates, owned by our two night sky big men, were appropriately silver and gold, and they show up in iconography everywhere. The lion-man of Roman Mithraism, tatted with the figures of the zodiac, standing on a sphere with two perpendicular rings around it, often bears both keys. The keys might even show up in tarot, on the Hierophant, who sports two keys and is supposed to be ruled by Taurus.

Ultimately, the details of all of this are likely lost to time forever. But, if it proves anything, it’s the same thing most anthropological research does; that our ancestors were smarter than we think.

the Milky Way, ecliptic and relative locations of their intersection points, by Lisa Renee (2014)