• J. W. Barlament

The Oldest Story Ever Told: Unraveling Orion

The Magdalenian Mystery:

We in today’s techy age tend to forget just how similar our ancestors were to modern men. It’s understandable, of course; the world we live in today is mind-bogglingly different than the world of just a century ago. To contemplate the world before the birth of civilization is beyond just about all of us. And still, so it seems, we can connect the same dots and think up of the same stories our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Seven sisters standing together for eternity. A crown in the north. A cross in the south. And, echoing louder than maybe any other throughout the millennia, a starry giant locked in battle with a cosmic bull.

Such stories all begin much where man’s does; in the cave paintings of the Paleolithic, found in countless sites across the globe. But in southern France, in particular, within the ancient cave system at Lascaux, we find a total treasure trove of them. Painted by the Magdalenian people some 17,000 years ago, the dark halls of these olden caverns contain some 600 paintings. Despite being made in what’s dubbed the “Age of the Reindeer”, though, after the most important food source at the time, just a single depiction of a reindeer has been found there. This, coupled with a wealth of geometric shapes and man-animal hybrids, make it clear that the people at Lascaux were not just relaying mundane hunting tales in their paintings.

Now, let me be exceedingly clear; I’m not interested in wild, Zeitgeist-like mytho-historical speculation. Nonetheless, in scales of time so gigantic, speculation is a very necessary evil. Therefore, we will use what evidence we have and what speculation seems reasonable. And, in this case, the evidence seems clear. At Lascaux, within a section called the Hall of Bulls, we see (surprisingly enough) a side-view depiction of a bull, with dots arranged around its eye. Above and to the right of it sit one series of dots, and below and to the left of it sit some dots and strange shapes.

The kicker here, as identified by Dr. Michael Rappenglück, is that the bull and all of the surrounding shapes and dots line up just about perfectly with the constellations of Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades, with Orion seeming to be holding up something sharp in his hand and Taurus leaning down menacingly with its mighty horns. And so, amongst some of the oldest paintings known to man, we see what seems to be a star map. Now, what meaning this arrangement may have had to the Magdalenians making it is still and likely will remain a mystery. What is clear, though, is that even 17,000 years ago, man was looking to the stars. And, in this particular region, he was seeing a battle between man and bull.

Now, the scene in the Hall of Bulls is not at all an isolated incident; elsewhere in Lascaux we see paintings of 29 dots of various completeness arranged in a straight line, maybe representing the lunar cycle. At La Marche in northern Spain, there’s been found a possible depiction of the Pleiades, and in the nearby Cueva di El Castillo, we similarly see what may be the Northern Crown. Most strikingly, the same Dr. Rappenglück has identified a 30,000+ year-old carved tusk fragment found in Germany as a depiction of Orion, with the 88 notches on the carving’s backside purportedly representing the 88 days Orion’s star Betelgeuse disappeared from the sky at the time.

That — and its use to count the days after Betelgeuse’s disappearance to time pregnancies around the harsh winter — is clearly pure conjecture. The Aurignacian people who made the carving had no swords, though, so it isn’t unthinkable that they saw a different picture where we see Orion’s sword, giving him further fertility associations. In light of this, all the multitudes of fertility associations seen in Orion’s descendant deities just begin to make some sense. Now, these intriguing paleolithic links are but a sliver of Orion’s grandiose mythic history. Before we uncover his full significance in myth, though, we must make a stop in the Middle East.

the scene in question in the Hall of the Bulls, with the constellations’ major stars superimposed

Archetypes In The Ancient Near East:

When dissecting ancient artwork, the devil is in the details. Never is an animal or artifact thrown into a statue or rock-carved inscription just for good time’s sake. Everything — even, or especially, the poses in which the gods appear — is a symbol for something else. And so we see depictions in the Near East of what become not one Orion god, but instead, an archetype of the Orion pose, known better as the “smiting pose”. Popular in ancient Near Eastern myth are two motifs; that of the god or hero fighting lion-like beasts for control of cows or bulls, thought to represent the battle of order and chaos, and that of the storm or agricultural god smiting an enemy, often some sort of serpent. In both motifs, the protagonist can often be seen with his legs somewhat apart, wearing a belt, skirt, and sometimes a sheathed sword, with his back hand raised up carrying a club and his front hand outstretched straight carrying a thunderbolt.

Such a description is quickly going to become familiar here. Simply switch Orion’s shield or lion’s head with a thunderbolt, and we’ve got ourselves a perfect match. The Sumerian rain and fertility god Dumuzid (whose death was mourned in midsummer, only to be reborn with the winter rains), Amorite rain, storm, and agriculture god Hadad, Canaanite storm and war god Ba’al (all three associated with the bull), and Babylonian creator, rain, and fertility god Marduk (called the bull calf of the sun god) are all often depicted in this same pose over millennia of religious evolution. With their strikingly consistent poses, associations with the bull, fighting of the serpent (a motif that’ll soon be seen again), and consistent depictions as war and rain gods, it’s hard to argue a total lack of connection between this tradition and the most brilliant constellation in the night sky.

Seemingly contradicting all of this evidence, though, is the strong and storied association between the constellation Orion and the heroic hunter Gilgamesh. It’s an association well-attested and long-discussed in history, and one that makes the most sense for a modern audience most accustomed to the Greek myths of the giant hunter Orion. In fact, the very name Orion has been theorized by some to derive from the Akkadian Uru-anna, “the light of heaven”, with his heavenly enemy Taurus traditionally being identified with Gud-anna, the Bull of Heaven, who Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu fight and kill in the epic. Another piece of evidence backs us up here. Orion and Scorpius have long been associated, with either setting as the other rises, often leading to the familiar story of Scorpius killing Orion. Scorpius is also often seen as a guardian of the underworld (another point to keep on the back burner), and in the story of Gilgamesh, the hero encounters the scorpion-men who guard the underworld on his quest for immortality — a quest he eventually fails — in a striking similarity. The correlation is clear. But what does this alternate identity of the constellation tell us?

For some, the identification with Gilgamesh is enough to call Orion the archetype of the great hunter. Here we find no end to the questionable associations of Orion with all kinds of mythological hunter figures, wherein Gilgamesh, the Greek Orion, Heracles, Nimrod, and more are all different spins on the same character. It’s a bold claim, but not one totally lacking merit. It has, indeed, been noted by many before that, although Heracles is greatest among the Greek heroes, his correlating constellation is surprisingly obscure. This, coupled with repeated historical attempts to equate Heracles with Gilgamesh, means we must at least investigate the claim. This, though, will only come when we arrive at the myths of ancient, so for now, we can only say from the Gilgamesh-Orion parallels that it’s perfectly possible for the same constellation to adopt different roles in a large geographic area over several millennia of myth. Again, Orion was not one figure. He was an archetype.

This story of Orion’s endless mutability does not end with his translation into gods and mythological heroes, though. As a matter of fact, it continues and finds its most radical incarnation south of Mesopotamia, in the oldest texts of ancient Egypt. The constellation was directly deified into Sah, “the father of the gods”, in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts. This same Sah would later be conflated with the far more famed Osiris — a fact that’ll become relevant again sometime later — but it was the pose in which Sah-Osiris was depicted that grew to great importance in ancient Egypt. It’s a pose their Mesopotamian neighbors would’ve found familiar. The Narmer Palette, a famed depiction of the triumphs of this first king of a united Egypt, shows him smiting an opponent in just the same pose as the Mesopotamian gods, and it’s no surprise why.

The Egyptians saw their pharaohs as more than merely rulers, as most know. They were, instead, personifications of gods, most often Horus, son of Osiris, bringing order and fertility (attested to in their infamous masturbation rituals) to the land. Orion, meanwhile, brings order by smiting various primordial chaos gods (as Marduk smiting Tiamat, or more controversially, Yahweh smiting Leviathan) and brings fertility by signaling the coming of the rainy season and (in some traditions) sacrificing the cosmic bull of life. Thus, we can see Narmer in the smiting pose as a representation (either conscious or unconscious) of the divine Orion archetype manifested on Earth. Whether in the divine gods, cultural heroes, or powerful gods, then, this Orion archetype was everywhere in the Near East. These unique traditions surrounding the stars of Orion would evolve for many centuries more, but to their north, a new tradition was emerging; one that would eventually blend all the aforementioned ideas into one.

a farmer-like Ba’al, warrior-like Hadad, and the Egyptian king Narmer, all assuming the “smiting pose”

Origins In The North:

Contemporary to the unification of ancient Egypt, the blossoming of Sumerian civilization, and the writing down of the earliest myths of Orion-derived deities, a little-known group of people were living in the modern Balkans. Not long beforehand, the Indo-European invasions rocked the area, conquering the previous Neolithic European Farmers. These invaders evolved into what’s now called the Vučedol culture, centered in present-day Croatia — effectively a world away from Egypt and Sumer. There, at about 45° N, the variability of the sun’s position throughout the year makes it less useful for navigation and the tracking of the seasons. Orion’s belt, meanwhile, sunk under the horizon for the summer precisely on the spring equinox, as figured out by Dr. Aleksander Durman. And, as the spring equinox was often the start of the new year, the Vučedol seemed to use Orion’s belt as a marker of the equation.

From this realization, the Vučedol would go on to base an entire yearly calendar on Orion — the first calendar ever found in all of Europe, dating all the way back to 2600 BC. Vučedol pottery found in the 1970s has been decoded as depicting this calendar, with its decorations split into four rows, representing the seasons. The first row, representing spring and depicting both the Sun and Orion’s belt, give us evidence that the Indo-Europeans — whose language family now constitutes the largest on Earth — recognized Orion’s importance early on. This association with seasons would play a major role in the religious development of nearly all the Old World for millennia, beginning in the transforming of Orion into the deified bringer of the yearly rains. The arrival of the Indo-Europeans would complicate matters, too, though, with their lengthy history muddying the role of this ever-present deity.

Wielding the weapon of comparative mythology, scholars have been able to speculatively reconstruct a great deal of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) religion, possibly practiced all the way back around 4500 BC. The PIE gods are plentiful, but two are of particular importance here; Dyeus Pater (Sky-Father), the daytime sky personified and the sire of the rest of the gods, and Perkwunos (either the Striker or the Lord of Oaks), the thunder god, bringer of the rains, great fighter, and more. Now, naturally, a religion practiced 6,500 years ago comes with some uncertainty, and the relationship between these two is uncertain at best. Scholar George Dunkel sees Perkwunos as an aspect of Dyeus, in a system where the chief PIE deity was a three-faced (symbolizing sovereignty, war, and agriculture, respectively) god comprised of Dyeus, Perkwunos, and an uncertain third, whereas Peter Jackson (no, not that one) and most others assign him as Dyeus’ son. Both have their merits — the Vedas describe their spin on the deity as the son of Father Sky and Mother Earth, while the theoretical tri-faced Norse god of Odin-Thor-Tyr (Baltic Dievas-Perkunas-Potrimpo) line up with the sovereignty-war-agriculture function and all have potential Orion associations — but, as painful as it is to admit, the truth has been taken by time.

Regardless of the specifics of the original relationship between the two, one thing is clear; a clearly humanoid constellation is an easier object of worship than the great faceless entirety of the sky. Thus, Perkwunos in descendant cultures often either eclipses or is syncretized with his father. Indra, Thor, Zeus, Jupiter, Perun, and more; all, according to scholar Max Muller, preside over other deities, control the rain and storms, carry a hammer or a club in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other, protect and bring fertility to the Earth, are associated with bulls, and fight a serpent. Call that a lightning round. If there is anything concrete that we can take away from this, then, it is that the newly-named Perkwunos-Pater was no longer confined to just one section of the sky. Taurus was no foe (as detailed below). Instead, it was a friend, with a serpent (detailed in the Greek section) playing the role of foe. For the Slavs, the thunder god Perun resided in the World Tree (perhaps an oak), keeping watch over the world and striking the evil serpent Veles with lightning bolts. Zeus, likewise, fights Typhon, whilst Indra fights Vritra, and Thor, most famously, fights Jörmungandr. This motif is the climactic Chaoskampf, fought between the storm god and the water-blocking chaos serpent. So, despite some convolutedness, the Indo-European tradition here seems at least somewhat clear.

And now, I have to drop a wrench in everything and recomplicate the matter. In the Norse Prose Edda, the giant Ymir, primordial cow Auðumbla, and icy river Elivagar are all that populated the void at the beginning of time. Auðumbla fed Ymir with her milk, and from Ymir’s armpits sprouted the first man and woman, before the gods Odin, Vili, and Vé slew Ymir and fashioned the world from his body. An astrological interpretation really should be clear by now. Elsewhere, the primordial twins — here replaced by a primordial couple — are a PIE motif, appearing as Yama and Yami of the Hindus, Ymon and Ymuin of the Irish, and Romulus and Remus of the Romans, with the word Gemini thought by some to be derived from PIE Yamini. In Hinduism, this Yama is the god of death, guarding the underworld with two dogs (noting the proximity between Gemini and Canis Major and Minor), and guiding souls to the afterlife. Why, though, is all of this being brought up?

Ymir is sometimes conflated with Yama as two developments of the PIE Yemo, or the first king, sacrificed with the primordial bull by his twin, the first priest Manu, to create the world. After this creation, a third man, Trito, slays a serpent to save a herd of cattle and become the first warrior, thus robbing Perkwunos of his traditional roles entirely. This system — with Orion becoming a guide of souls traversing the Milky Way to reach the afterlife after his own death — is perfectly Indo-European, but totally contradictory. And this is the nature of our speculation. By now, it’d be hard to argue that Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and the rest of the nighttime constellations play no role whatsoever in PIE belief. Their specific roles, though, remain mysterious, and can only be precisely defined in descendant cultures.

the Winter Hexagon, in which Orion and his surrounding constellations lie

Multiplicities Of Deities In India:

Our painfully prevalent theme of astrological overlapping and syncretic confusion not only continues, but in fact, is turned up a notch when we take our analysis to India. In the Near East, we saw different Orion deities becoming blended into the same tradition. In India, however, we see different Orion deities existing simultaneously within the same tradition. While Hinduism is mainly derived from PIE mythology, it contains plentiful influences from the Indus Valley Civilization and the Dravidian peoples of South India, and it is here that any conversation on Hinduism must begin. A curious figure — the Pashupati seal — from the Indus Valley depicts a horned, and possibly tri-faced, man surrounded by animals, seated in a particular pose. The identification of this figure, dating from before the Indo-European invasions, has been a mess of a subject for decades. Is it an ancestor of or influence on the Vedic deity Rudra? Indra? Or perhaps even a proto-Shiva, foreshadowing the later god’s development by Dravidians? And the common thread amongst these gods? They are all connected to the winter’s mightiest constellation. The identification of the Pashupati figure itself with Orion may be a stretch — we know nothing, after all, of the real mythology of this figure — but its descendants give us far more than speculation to work with.

Most famous and obvious of the Vedic (or oldest evidential Hindu) Orion deities is Indra, the Hindu spin on the Indo-European Perkwunos. He was said to have been born the son of Dyaus Pitar, the Sky-Father, and Prithvi, the Earth-Mother. His own name, meanwhile, is thought by scholar Michael Janda to mean either “impeller of streams” or “agitator of waters”, as he was said to strike some great river with a lightning bolt to release its waters. Take this together with the Milky Way in Hindi being Akasaganga, “the Ganges River of the sky”, and Orion and Taurus being situated right beside the Milky Way in the night sky, and we can clearly see the rationale behind Indra’s association with rivers and traditional title of “he who milks the cloud-cow”. Furthermore, Indra is associated with the psychoactive drink soma — possibly thought to be the liquid in the Akasaganga — which he uses to energize him in his fight against Vritra, the chaos serpent.

The famed Rigveda gives us manifold clues here, too. In it, Indra and his mother are referred to as calf and cow, respectively; hopefully ringing a bell. He is also, all-importantly, the god of the storm, but not the god of the sky. When he advances to fight his foes, he does not descend from the heavens, but instead, straddles the horizon around his girdle, symbolizing his role as the marriage of Heaven and Earth. Recall here, if you will, the Vučedol calendar, where Orion’s belt lay at the horizon at the start of the new year. And it’s no leap of logic to think that a girdle and a belt could’ve been conflated. Thus, Indra is unique among Perkwunos-derived deities, for in him, seasonal significances seem to have been pristinely preserved throughout the march of time.

And yet, Indra is far from the only Vedic deity with strong associations to the starry giant. Again, we seem to see the pattern of astrological deities having their night-sky correlations forgotten, only to maintain some attributes from them as another deity takes their place on the astrological card table. Prajapati — a three-headed chief deity, himself associated with Indra — is linked directly with Orion by scholar Joseph Fontenrose, by way of him being a giant or divine hunter infatuated by a huntress, also seen in the story of Zeus and Callisto. Rudra, too, is a god of storms, fertility, and the hunt, three-faced and said to be the son of Heaven and Earth. He wears beads that always extend down to his waist, as Shiva would in later centuries, with these beads perhaps taking the place of Orion’s belt, and with Rudra’s “fertility”, as he is a god of wind and storms but not necessarily of rains, with Orion’s sword. Despite this abundance of Orion-like Vedic gods though, they would all eventually lessen in importance. The entirety of the Vedic pantheon had become well-respected relics by the time of Christ — replaced by new gods for a new globe — and so, the importance of the stars dwindled in Hinduism.

Orion’s stay in India didn’t end with the Vedic era, though. Keeping with the PIE theme of the Orion god as some kind of intermediary between man and the heavens, we even see in Jain cosmology a model of the universe strikingly similar in shape to the body of Orion. In this, there is a mid-world, our world, equivalent to Orion’s belt and recalling Indra’s girdle straddling the horizon, as well as an upper world home to the gods, equivalent to Orion’s upper half, and an underworld home to demons, equivalent to Orion’s lower half. Thus, in the Jain system, Orion may have very literally turned into a macrocosm of man and a microcosm of the cosmos. One cannot help but recall Perkwunos’ title, Master of Oaks, and the World Tree prevalent in plentiful Indo-European systems, and ponder what connection may have arisen between these dots.

And, finally, we reach the end of the line in at least one part of the world. Though the Indus Valley civilization is long gone, Indra is worshipped no more, and Hinduism has adopted entirely new cosmological systems several times over, Orion remains. The proto-Shiva of the Pashupati seal, the Orion calendars of the Indo-Europeans, and the legacy of the Vedic storm gods all came together in South India, around the 6th century AD, in the famed form of Nataraja-Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. This god, though the means of his creation are lost to history, is clearly the man we’re looking for. His pose, unchanged for 1,400 years, seems to align with the stars of Orion. Beneath his feet lies a dwarf, aligning with the minor constellation Lepus beneath the feet of Orion. He is celebrated at several points in the year, but chief among these is the festival of Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai, set around the winter solstice, when Nataraja was said to be born in the sky in the region of the brilliant star Ardra. This Ardra is Hindu name for Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion, said to be ruled over by the aforementioned storm god Rudra. It is thus Nataraja we may crown the final evolution of Orion in the east. But, as exhaustive as this has been already, our adventure is not yet done. The syncretism of India pales in comparison to the mind-melting Mediterranean, and it is thus here that we must pursue Orion through to his religious ends.

the Pashupati seal and Nataraja-Shiva, both shown superimposed on Orion

Ancient Greece And Hellenistic Syncretism:

To begin this story, we must end another. In the Near East, we explored the story of Gilgamesh and its connections to the constellation, leaving after having raised the possibility that the idea of Orion as a great hunter continued in Greece — not just in the giant hunter bearing his name, but also in Heracles and his twelve labors. This is not, however, to say that the giant hunter Orion is just the product of some guy’s overactive imagination. Important in his story is his killing by Scorpius, explained alongside Gilgamesh earlier, strengthening the claims of those who claim the constellation to be the inspiration for all the mythological giant hunters of the Old World. This leads us to a controversial turn, though; that the Scorpius of Gilgamesh and Orion is the Cerberus of Heracles. Northern climates, unlike Greece but very much like the Eurasian Steppe once home to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, have no scorpions. They do, however, have dogs, and the constellation Scorpius has three prominent stars on one end theorized by some to have been interpreted as the three-headed Cerberus, who was, similar to the scorpion-men of Gilgamesh, a guardian of the underworld. Scorpius, too, is visible in the fall, when the days get shorter and the Sun hovers closer to the horizon (beneath which, of course, was the underworld).

The parallels don’t end there, though. Orion is traditionally depicted with a club and a lion’s belt, facing off against a bull — matching up with Heracles’ battles with the Nemean Lion and the Cretan Bull much better than any of the hunter Orion’s stories. In this interpretation, the twelve labors could be matched up with the zodiac, albeit an older and more northern one than our Babylonian zodiac. Hercules himself here could be matched with either Orion or his own constellation, or perhaps even both, with man-like figures fighting beasts across the sky seen as the same hero at different times in his trials. Ultimately, it’s another intriguing but unprovable theory that supports a more limited thesis; that the same constellations provided the bases for several different deities and heroes, with new ones arising just as soon as the astrology of the old ones were forgotten.

Now, all of this would, to any sane person, seem a convincing argument to identify some kind of archetypal hunter-hero with our favorite constellation. Sanity is of no concern here, however, and as it turns out, Heracles’ father Zeus has his own associations with Orion. The greatest of the Greek gods can be pretty confidently established as a syncretism of Dyeus Pater and Perkwunos. His name derives from Dyeus, and he both father and king of the gods. As mentioned before, though, he is a storm and thunder god who wields a lightning bolt, holds a bull association, and fights the evil serpent-like beast Typhon.

In one version of Zeus’ infancy, too, the she-goat Amalthea suckles him in a cave as a child while he hides from the wrath of his father Cronus — a potential spin on the primordial cow suckling the primordial giant before the creation of the world. Thus, it would seem that the figures of the primordial giant and the syncretized Perkwunos-Pater coexisted — at least in some capacity — millennia after the original PIE myths came into being. But again, while this may make sense on its own, it’s endlessly confusing in the context of other contemporary myths, and the Greeks seemed to see this back then just as well as we do now. The Classical and Hellenistic eras, as a result, teemed with attempts to consolidate the scattered mess of Mediterranean mythologies into clean, coherent systems.

The mystery cults of later ancient Greece are, shockingly enough, mysterious. From studying the Cult of Dionysus, though — the earliest known among the mystery cults — we can see for sure at least one thing, and that, of course, is that Orion played a part here, too. Initiates in the cult were known to drink some kind of psychoactive substance (recall the soma enjoyed by Indra?), not just to relate to the typical image of the drunken Dionysus, but instead, to reach an ecstatic state in which they could “become” a god far more than just an alcoholic. Prajapati — the aforementioned Vedic tri-faced god, was said to have been the first being, hatched fully formed from a cosmic egg at the beginning of time. All of the same can be said for Protogonos, a key figure in the later Orphic Mysteries, representing eternal time, who is first recorded as the first incarnation of the eternally dying-and-rising Dionysus in the latter god’s cult. Dionysus, with his mysterious psychoactive drink, and Indra, with his soma, were both reincarnations of primordial gods who men seem to have been able to achieve union with. And Dionysus has just as much a case of being labelled as Orion as Indra did before.

After Alexander’s conquests and the resulting spread of Greek influence over all of the modern Middle East, the attempts to redefine and syncretize the gods of old only expanded in its ambition. An intriguing artifact found in a temple to Osiris from late Ptolemaic Egypt — a star map with the constellations depicted as a variety of deities, called the Dendera Zodiac — gives us our clearest example of this. Dionysus rears his head again here. By as early as the 5th century BC, Dionysus had been identified with Osiris, resulting by the Ptolemaic period in the syncretic deity Dionysus-Osiris. And it’s none other than Osiris depicted on the Dendera Zodiac as the constellation Orion opposite Taurus — an association he’d held since the Egyptian Old Kingdom. It’s clear that the syncretism of late ancient Greece often extended its tendrils almost comically far, but they always seemed to end up in the same place, and that place was the giant of the nighttime sky.

the Dendera Zodiac, with Osiris-Orion and Taurus circled in red

All Roads Lead To Rome:

With all of the aforementioned influences from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds melding together just as Rome came to preeminence, it should come as no surprise that it was here that these manifold motifs found their final forms. And indeed, religious syncretism in the Roman Empire, particularly in its later days, was carried out to an almost ridiculous extent. The muddying of the waters was such that even the chief god Jupiter — himself connected with Orion via his equation with Zeus — was syncretized with a different god with strong connections to the constellation. Tarhunz, the chief god of the Luwians of southern Anatolia, was an originally Indo-European god that had long been equated and syncretized with the Mesopotamian Ba’al-Hadad. Upon discovery by the Romans, he was brought back to Rome as Jupiter Dolichenus — a figure with a striking similarity to our favorite constellation.

He comes to us (and invariably, at that) as a bearded god, sporting a sort of skirt, with a sword hanging from his belt. Familiar. In his rear hand, he holds up an axe, and in his outstretched front hand, he holds a thunderbolt. Again, familiar. He stands atop a bull, often with Castor and Pollux standing to the side, reinforcing our image evermore, but even this is not the smoking gun. The original Tarhunz is, according to the Babylonian myth Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld, Tarhunz dies and is “resurrected” annually, living for half a year and laying dead in the underworld for the other half. This resurrection, however, is described as a kind of astralization, in which Tarhunz reappears from the dead in astral form, as “one like the stars”. It just might be the most damning evidence yet, and the resulting turning of Tarhunz into Jupiter Dolichenus is a mind-melt of a syncretism — an astrological Indo-European god being syncretized with Near Eastern gods, only to be re-syncretized with the same Indo-European god that had evolved elsewhere for a couple of thousand years. And it is this kind of convoluted syncretism that led to the final evolution of the Orion myth in the West.

The mystery cults of ancient Greece, as we already saw, had their astrological links to begin with. The Orphic Mysteries, with their primordial creator deity Protogonos, exemplified this in Hellenistic and Roman Greece, appearing to turn the original Cult of Dionysus into a comprehensive syncretic system revealed to its initiates only in pieces as they rose through its ranks over time. As should be expected, though, any system so boldly syncretic was also bound to be unique. In the Orphic view, Hydros, or water, lay at the origin of everything. From this came mud, and from mud came a three-headed being — lion, bull, and man, all at once — called Heracles-Cronus. From this being (the details unfortunately lost to time) sprang an egg, which would eventually break into three new beings; Ouranos, Sky-Father, Gaia, Earth-Mother, and the incorporeal Protogonos-Phanes.

This god, if we really want to have fun with it, can be renamed Dionysus-Protogonos-Phanes; being the primordial time god Protogonos, the ever-generating god of creation Phanes, and the dying-and-rising god Dionysus all in one. The Orion archetype, to the Orphics, was ultimately one of the eternally reincarnating god. He both predated the Olympians as Protogonos-Phanes, born of the same cosmic egg as the original Sky-Father and Earth-Mother, and ended up being son of the later Sky-Father Zeus, as his original form was dismembered by the Titans and reassembled by Zeus to be reborn as Dionysus. It is here that the Orion archetype begins to take on a more abstract and philosophical form, but it is not at all where that story ends.

The most famed of all the mystery cults came at the tail end of the Roman Empire, formed from the blending of Persian, Alexandrian, and Roman tradition. It was the Cult of Mithras, the shadowy sun of Ahura Mazda in Persian paganism, and it was the most blatantly astrological of maybe all of the religions met yet. Corvus the raven, Canis Major the dog, all twelve of the zodiacal constellations, the sun, and the moon all abound in Mithraea, with the enduring question being who Mithras himself may have been. My answer to that shouldn’t be that hard to guess. To investigate it fully, though, and uncover where the image of Orion ended up in the religious history of the Western world, will require its own article. The god of eternal time, seasonal change, and life and death brought forth by the Orphics was continued and expanded on in ways that no one paragraph can ever do justice. But it is here, for certain, after the death of all of the other cults and the fall of the traditional pagan faiths to monotheism, that we will see the last stand of the starry god.

It’s hard to define Orion as any single thing in myth anymore. Is he most succinctly called a simple storm god? A seasonal god? A more general or eternal time god? An intermediary between gods and men? A culture-hero? An archetype or mythological stock character? Of course, in truth, he is all of this and far more. Likely nothing can define him, perhaps the single most storied mythological figure in all of human history, except for his importance. When ancient men, in their quests to understand themselves, searched for meaning in deities, they looked to the stars. And, amongst the stars’ countless constellations, the most ubiquitously significant of all was that of the mighty man beside the bull.

stereotypical depictions of Teshub-Hadad, Tarhunz, and Jupiter Dolichenus

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© 2019 by J. W. Barlament

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