“Now near the twins behold Orion rise, His arms extended measure half the skies; His stride no less. Onward with steady face, He treads the boundless realms of starry space…”
“Those three stars of the airy Giant’s zone, That glitter burnished by the frosty dark.”
Orion, brightest of the constellations, can be seen from any location on Earth. It is one of the few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be. By a river (Eridanus), the hunter; sword at belt and dogs (Canis Minor and Canis Major) at heel; brandishes a club toward the menacing V of Taurus. His other arm defensively raises a lion’s pelt (or shield-mutable images). Beneath his feet a startled rabbit (Lepus) and a crow (Corvus) bolt away. Nearby, a goat-herder (later transformed by Romans into Auriga the Charioteer); and twins (Gemini) witness the fray. When you look at Orion, try to make out its surrounding wreath of constellations.
Those “three stars” of Tennyson’s couplet: Ainitak; Ainilam and Mintaka, Orion’s “belt”, now rise vertically in the east after nightfall. Early seafarers called this asterism “The Golden Yardarm” and used it as a navigational marker. Scintillating Orion flaunts tow stars of first magnitude (Betelgeuse and Rigel); and four of second magnitude (Bellatrix and the belt stars). Orion’s “sword” includes “The Great Nebula” (Messier Object 42). Modern telescopes reveal the area to be an incubator of radiant young stars, prominent of which are the four of “Trapezium”. For those of you with binoculars, M 42 is a rewarding sight.
The lovely group of constellations around Orion form an immense circle, through which the ecliptic (apparent path of the sun; planets and the Zodiacal constellations); and the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy cross one another. At certain times of the year they form a stupendous X shape (the belt stars also slant across the equator of celestial spheres, but ancient Egypt and the Americas didn’t have the device). Such mind-boggling; stellar coincidence did not go unnoticed or unvenerated by past civilizations. Sacred architecture of ancient Egypt; Mesoamerica and, I believe, many Native American structures on this continent were constructed to physically imitate the profundity of this remarkable intersection.
Giza: Archeoastronomists, archeologists who study how ancient cultures understood the skies, assert that three of the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, mimic the alignment of Orion’s belt stars. Furthermore, these three are positioned along a section of the Nile River in such a way as to reflect the Milky Ways’ position inside Orion’s great circle (in dynastic Egypt, Orion was Osiris, their god of resurrection and the afterlife). Two adjacent pyramids mirror the Hyades Open Cluster, seen as Apis, their bull god (to us, the head of Taurus).
Teotihuacan: Before the Spanish conquest, priest-astronomers of Mesoamerica had accurately observed, then developed an extremely sophisticated; aesthetic cosmology; founded upon conjunctions within the Orion circle and other stellar cycles. The tree largest pyramids at the 1st century A.D. site of Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, are said to represent the belt stars of Orion, and the main street (‘Avenue of the Dead’) passing through the site, the Milky Way’s Orion alignment.
In Aztec culture’s “New Fire Ceremony”, the ascension of the Pleiades (in Taurus) to the zenith of the midnight sky, signaled the beginning of a new, 52-year calendar round.
The Hopi of North America also had (and perhaps still have) a kiva ceremony in which the Pleiades reaching a certain point in the sky, signaled a transition in ritual attentive to this cue.
Cahokia: Many people are not aware that there were once hundreds of pyramids on this continent. When Europeans putatively “discovered” the New World, Seminole tribes of what is now Florida were still constructing packed earth pyramids, atop which high-status individuals resided. A millennium before, in today’s Illinois the Cahokian Metropolitan Complex was established by unknown, prehistoric people of Mississipiean culture. Cahokia’s pyramids, also of packed earth, are now referred as to “mounds” — probably because of time’s deterioration. The base measurement of one, “Monk’s Mound,” surpasses those of any in Egypt. When newly built, the edifices were similar in form to those of Teotihuacan. Cahokia, now a World Heritage Site, was not preserved until 1923, when much of it had been destroyed due to untrammeled population settlement and intense relic hunting using bulldozers. I could not find scientific studies connecting Cahokia’s pyramid alignments solely with the Orion complex (scholarly supposition is all over the place), but many artifacts termed “Sun Stones” have been excavated. These stones consist of a cross within a circle-much like the Orion circle’s Milky Way/ecliptic, configuration. I posit that Native American’s “medicine wheel” imagery reaches back through antiquity to this paragon of stellar convergence — and so attach Cahokia to these meditations.
Next column: More Orion: Its beguiling circle of constellations and convergences.