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May 2004: Orion, the Mighty Hunter, Bids Farewell

At dusk during May, Orion, the Mighty Hunter, wades at the western shore of sky -- as if ready to board his ship to the great beyond. With the eyes alone, you may notice his distinctive belt of three stars rather close to the horizon. Otherwise, binoculars might help you see it. As dusk turns into darkness, Orion drifts westward and sinks downward, his early evening disappearance a harbinger of his final curtain call.

Your ability to see Orion at this time of the year depends upon your position on the globe. At far northern latitudes -- like Alaska -- where the daylight hours are long, Orion is pretty much lost to the glare of the Sun. At mid northern latitudes, you may see him at dusk -- given an unobstructed western horizon. Farther south, as you get nearer to the equator, Orion's stars stay up longer after sunset. South of the equator, the shorter daylight hours keep Orion in the evening sky till after dark.

No matter where you live on this great globe of Earth, Orion day by day sinks toward the setting Sun -- his fading stars a prelude to the June solstice. For most of the world, Orion's stars totally disappear from the sky in June* -- a reminder of the boastful giant's unfortunate demise. The June solstice finds Scorpius the Scorpion glowering in the southeast sky as darkness falls, chasing Orion from the starry sky. According to star lore, it was the Scorpion's sting that killed Orion, the gods allowing the Scorpion to remove the Mighty Giant from his exalted place in the firmament as a punishment for his boastful ways.

Orion's trip through the underworld is a story of tragedy -- and redemption. Catherine Tennant in her delightful book The Box of Stars suggests that Orion's annual setting in the west represents Orion going blind. In his misadventure on the Island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, Orion abused or insulted his lover -- Merope -- the cherished daughter of Oenopian, the King of Chios. Oenopion pleaded for vengeance from the god Dionysus; and the god of wine and revelry granted the King's wishes. He put Orion into a deep drunken stupor; and when the giant awoke, he found himself blind.

Fortunately, an oracle instructed Orion to travel east, to the land of the rising Sun, to regain his eyesight. After an absence of a month or so, look for Orion's stars to reappear in the eastern dawn in late July or August. His annual dawn rising represents the recovery of his sight, restored to him by Aurora, the goddess of the dawn.

*At far southern latitudes in the southern hemisphere -- like southern New Zealand -- an acute observer in middle June can catch Orion in the western sky for a short while after sunset, and in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

Copyright 2004 by Bruce McClure

Orion photo courtesy of Skyscapes

For people in the Northern Hemisphere, May presents a grand time for seeking two southern treasures: the Southern Cross and the Omega Centauri globular star cluster