During the Spanish conquest of the New World, priests accompanying the soldiers were initially confused by abundant Mayan/Aztec/Incan cross symbols

Orion the Hunter

Orion the Hunter (continued)

Orion’s beams, Orion’s beams: 

His star-gemmed belt and shining blade 

His isles of light, his silver streams,

And glowing gulfs of mystic shade.


During the Spanish conquest of the New World, priests accompanying the soldiers were initially confused by abundant Mayan/Aztec/Incan cross symbols. This cross-within-a-circle design was first assumed to be a native rendition of the Christian cross. It was in fact a devotional motif, but one embedded in native cosmology. Their cross symbol is located within Orion’s circle of surrounding constellations, now prominent in our night sky.

One of my fondest desires-as yet unfulfilled-is a trip south to observe unfamiliar constellations and stellar configurations. I long to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (two irregular dwarf galaxies of our Local Group) and especially, on the appropriate night of the year, to gaze upon the cosmic re-enactment of Mayan creation. First, to contemplate the rising of their World Tree, connecting heaven to earth; then to witness its transformation to a Stellar Canoe, in which two paddler gods convey the Maize God to Three Hearth Stones, their place of creation. These three stones are the stars Alnitak, Saiph, and Rigel of Orion. The Great Nebula (Orion’s sword) is seen as smoke from the hearth fire.

The Milky Way’s movement in the Central American night sky of Aug. 13 embodies both the World Tree and the Stellar Canoe. When this luminous plane of our galaxy is aligned north-south, it is seen as the World Tree. When it stretches east-west, it becomes the corn god’s Canoe. In north-south position, the Milky Way forms a cross with the ecliptic. Mayans called this the K’an cross. It stretches to the four cardinal directions, north, south, east and west. The ecliptic and the ‘World Tree’ meet precisely at their Three Hearth Stones constellation. The “Popul Vuh,” the Mayan book of wisdom, calls this spot the center of the universe. A cross within a circle is a very abundant design in Mayan art and is eminently comparable in both shape and directional meaning to our continent’s Native American ‘medicine wheel’ figuration.

In South America, Inca territory once extended along the Andes Mountain Range from Chile to Ecuador. Inca saw the Milky Way as both emission and aerial twin of the Vilcanota River. During solstices, the Milky Way forms a cross in the sky with the ecliptic. Tips of the cross contact the four points where the sun rises and sets during equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length). This cosmic cross also divides the sky into four directional quarters. Through our Orion constellation and it’s circle resides firmly ‘in the ballpark’ of this circle/cross, I could not find a precise enough map of Inca constellations to pinpoint its exact relation. A shrine in ancient Cuzco, center of the Inca kingdom, once contained a marble cross. This object, a venerated relic, was used to re-affirm the divine right of their royalty. As such, it was considered so sacred that only nobility could view it. Another medicine-wheel ideation with perhaps the vast horizon as circumference. In a fascinating aside-Inca cosmology also include a few animal constellations composed of dark areas within the Milky Way’s span.

An unspecified Amazon tribe sees Orion’s shoulder star, Bellatrix, as a young boy. The other shoulder star, Betelgeuse, is An Old Man. Paddling a canoe, these two individuals are pursuing the Peixie Boi, a dark spot in the sky near Orion. A Peixie Boi is the small, fresh water, Amazonian Manatee.

Bringing it all back home, the Northern Cree and Ojibway people, who originally lived around Lake Superior in the USA and Canada, say the tree stars of Orion’s belt represent Oda Ka Daun Anakwak, The Stern Paddler of a stupendous stellar canoe (the star Polaris, is The Bow Paddler). Legends surrounding their destination and intent seem to be lost. Could they too be pursuing the astral ‘Peixie Bo?’

Lakota tribes have a nearly-lost, fragmentary cosmology containing two versions of the Orion circle. In one version, the animals it encompasses are tantalizing similar to the Maya/Inca menagerie of nearby constellations.

Well, enough about celestial crosses, circles, canoes and medicine wheels.

Next column: Auriga-goatherder transformed into a charioteer.

Submitted by Virginia Dumas