Orion is rising west by southwest in the mornings now. It’s the second constellation I learned to identify after the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. It took some time before I could find the Big Dipper, before I even understood what constellations were. I was five when I overheard an older kid, some sunny summer day, say that he was going to look for the Big Dipper that night. I didn’t even know what a dipper was so I asked my mother and she took me out that night and pointed up at the stars. “There’s the spoon,” she said, “and there’s the handle.” I’m sure she explained that a constellation is a picture made up by connecting the stars like dots but I missed that part and thought, what is she talking about? All I see are stars. And I was terrible at connect-the-dots puzzles anyway. I’d get bored somewhere around three and skip ahead to nine so no matter what the picture was supposed to be it always looked like an amoeba, but that’s another story.
I finally learned how to find constellations from a planetarium show where pictures of stars were projected on the convex screen and bright lines drawn between them, and I thought it was pretty imaginative that someone had put together a trapezoid and a line and seen it as a great bear. Even more interesting was knowing that the constellations are three-dimensional constructions seen in only two, flattened out by space and distance so that from another world their shapes would be very different.
For a long time every time I looked at Orion I wondered why ancient astronomers—the constellation was named by the Greeks—had called it that. Why Orion? Almost from the time I could read I was fascinated by Greek and Roman mythology—any mythology, really, but Greek and Roman was the most available—and Orion always seemed like a pretty obscure figure. He doesn’t play a major role in any big myths; in fact Orion seems to have long since been constellated by the time Jason goes looking for the golden fleece, not to mention the fall of Troy and Odysseus’s epic voyage. Why does Orion get such a prominent place in the sky, rising in the mornings at the start of winter in the northern hemisphere, gradually moving to the evenings as Earth approaches perihelion? Who was Orion, anyway, besides a hunter?
And that’s when I understood. Orion’s rise doesn’t mark the beginning of winter. Orion’s rise marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the hunt, an ancient tradition that’s still with us. Winter is when ancient hunters’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of meat, and now, some will argue, they go out to thin the herd, to spare the deer and elk from winter’s privations. The same ancient astronomers who named Orion believed Sirius was his dog, his faithful companion, or, maybe, the wolf who culls the sick and the weak and strengthens the herd.
All this came to me while I looked at Orion, and then a meteor streaked through the constellation, its brief glow like human existence against the backdrop of time.