The Greek Hunters: Orion and Artemis
How were a blind giant and the goddess of the hunt linked? Keep reading to learn more about the myth of Artemis and Orion!
Even if the story of Orion is not known by everyone today, the constellation named for him is. Orion’s Belt is one of the most recognizable constellations in the Northern Hemisphere.
It was named for a giant in Greek mythology. Orion was an exceptional hunter and, at times, a friend to the gods.
Orion often ran into trouble, however, because of his love affairs. Whether as a threat to an unavailable woman or the forbidden love of a goddess, the giant hunter’s story centered around his disastrous romances.
Also at the heart of Orion’s story was the goddess Artemis. The chaste goddess of the hunt played a major role in the story of the giant.
The inclusion of Artemis in Orion’s story was important beyond her role as the patron goddess of hunters. It also provides historical clues to the myth’s origins and its place in Greek history.
The Legend of Orion and Artemis
Several versions of the story of Orion existed in ancient Greek mythology.
One of the most popular versions said that he was the son of Poseidon, although others claimed that another of the Olympian gods was his father. As the son of Poseidon, he had the ability to walk across water.
Although Orion was a giant, he was handsome. He was also not as cruel as some other giants, and worked closely with both humans and gods.
Orion, according to some of the most popular accounts, served in the court of King Oenopion of Chios. He was a skilled hunter who served the king well.
Orion fell in love with the king’s daughter, Merope. He repeatedly asked Oenopion for permission to marry her, but each time the king put off the request.
The giant huntsman hoped to woo the girl by bringing her spoils from his hunt. He brought her so much meat and furs that the land was soon entirely stripped of its wildlife.
Oenopion still would not take Orion’s proposal seriously, however.
One night after drinking too much wine, Orion forced his way into the princess’s private rooms. The king was furious when he found out and vowed to exact revenge on the giant.
King Oenopion called on Dionysus for assistance. The god of wine used his powers to send Orion into a deep sleep, giving Oenopion an opportunity to blind him.
Blinded and in exile, Orion wandered Greece. Eventually, an oracle told him that he could regain his sight if he traveled to the east and exposed his eyes to the rays of the rising sun.
Orion was blindly working his way east when he heard the sound of a hammer cracking on metal. He followed it to Lemnos, where he found the forge of Hephaestus.
The smith god heard Orion’s story and, as a fellow exile, had sympathy for him. He gave him Cadalion, his servant, to guide him to the rising son.
Cadalion rode on Orion’s shoulders and together they made their way as far east as was possible. Helios healed him and Orion returned to Greece.
He first went to Chios, hoping to seek vengeance against the kind. Oenopion was nowhere to be found, however. He had hidden in a bronze chamber underground to escape the giant.
Orion next went to Crete where, some people said, his mother lived. There he met Artemis and joined her hunting party.
As a skilled hunter, Orion was welcomed into the goddess’s retinue. For a time, he was considered a friend to Artemis and her companions.
There are several versions of what happened to end this time.
According to Hesiod, Orion became arrogant and boisterous. He bragged that his intention was to kill all the animals of the land and he was a skilled enough hunter to do so.
To protect the animals, Gaia sent a giant scorpion to kill the hunter.
In another story Eos, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Orion when she spotted him hunting one day. She carried him away but Artemis, unhappy at this, shot the giant down with one of her arrows.
Another story in which Orion was killed by Artemis said that he violated one of her nymphs, Opis. Artemis killed him for the crime, which was a common theme in her myths.
Finally, one story claimed that it was Artemis herself who was in love with Orion.
The goddess of the hunt had taken a vow of chastity, but seemed to be tempted to break her vow and marry her hunting companion. In this version of the story, Apollo tricked Artemis into killing Orion.
Apollo challenged his sister to an archery contest, betting that she could not hit a point far out at sea. Of course, the goddess of the hunt had perfect aim, but she did not realize that the small spot her brother pointed to was Orion swimming far out from the shore.
The many versions of Orion and Artemis’ stories generally have the same ending, however. Orion and Artemis had been close friends, despite his crimes, so she asked Zeus to immortalize him as a constellation.
Orion the Hunter was visible in the stars. He was portrayed as a large man wearing a lion skin and carrying a sword and a club.
My Modern Interpretation
Orion was a particularly popular character in Boeotia, where many myths originated that involved the constellations. Historians now believe, however, that the character was known before the star cluster that was named for him.
There are many different versions of Artemis and Orion’s story, which is typical for older myths. Many historians have also pointed to Boeotia as a place where some of Greek mythology’s most ancient stories originated.
The story of Artemis and Orion, like those of Heracles and other well-known hunters, is often interpreted by historians as a particularly ancient story. It likely predates the Olympian gods and their myths.
In fact, Orion’s story has a great deal in common with some of the oldest known legends of Greece. These similarities may show a shared origin with some well-known stories.
His imagery, for example, is so similar to that of Heracles that the two are occasionally mistaken for one another in art. Both wore lion skins and carried clubs, and both likely originated from the legends of a prehistoric hunter.
Some historians have also pointed out Orion’s blindness as a possible ancient motif. In the Odyssey, the giant Polyphemus is blinded in a similar way by Odysseus, although for a different reason.
The story of Orion was one that was passed on as folklore rather than a central myth. The gods that are mentioned in it were likely added after the story was already popular.
The exception to this may be Artemis. There is evidence to suggest that Artemis was one of the first Olympians to be worshiped in the region, so it is possible that the goddess of the hunt was an early feature in the legend of Orion.
Because Artemis was included from such an early time, her role and attributes had not yet developed into what would become standard in Greek mythology. The other female characters in different versions of Orion’s story, such as Eos and Opis, may have originally been the hunting goddess.
Despite the many different versions of Orion and Artemis’ legend, therefore, most share common elements of an older story. The skilled hunter had a relationship with a goddess and was killed as a result.
The early origins of the story would also explain why many versions of it seem at odds with other representations of Artemis.
While Artemis was based on a pre-Greek goddess, some elements of her character were added later. Her vow of celibacy was likely one of these later Greek elements, since it is a common theme among respected goddesses.
In later myths, Artemis is entirely devoted to her ideal of chastity. The Orion myth is the only one in which, in some versions, she deviates from this.
Recasting the goddess that Orion was in love with helped later writers avoid the contradiction of having the virgin huntress involved in an affair. The story of Artemis and Orion was reimagined as the goddess’ character developed.
The importance of his constellation was also reimagined.
While it is not known when the constellation was first associated with the giant, it is believed that it was a very early belief. Homer, for example, mentions the constellation Orion independently from the myth.
Many details in the later legends of Orion seem to have been added to explain the constellation. While it was not a major feature in the earliest stories of the giant, later tales placed more emphasis on the stars.
The later version of the story in which Gaia is responsible for the hunter’s death, for instance, is used to explain the constellation Scorpio being near Orion in the sky. It claims that the earth goddess placed the scorpion that killed Orion in the stars to continuously harass him.
In another later story, Orion chased the nymph Pleione until Zeus put her and her daughters in the sky to protect them from the lustful giant. As a constellation, Orion continued to follow the Pleiades as he had in life.
Still another rationalization of the stars claimed that Canis Major and Canis Minor were his hunting dogs. They were made into stars to continue their service to him, chasing either Lepus, the hare, or Taurus, the bull.
These later details were not part of the earliest myths of Artemis and Orion. Instead, they were added to make an ancient piece of folklore more relevant in later Greek mythology.
In Greek mythology, Orion was a giant and a skilled hunter.
He served in the court of a human king until he attempted to assault the king’s daughter. The king blinded him in retribution and exiled him from the kingdom.
Orion wandered until he was advised by Hephaestus to go east and be healed by the sun. With the smith god’s servant Cadalion as his guide, Orion made his way to the land of Helios and his sight was restored.
After this, he joined the retinue of Artemis as one of her most skilled hunting companions. Artemis and Orion were good friends and, in some versions of the story, had romantic feelings for one another.
There are many different versions of Orion’s myth, but all end with him being killed. This was either due to a relationship with Artemis or Eos, the assault of a nymph, or Gaia’s need to protect animal life from his hunting.
Orion was immortalized as a constellation. Many later myths related his story to other constellations and stars including the Pleiades, Canis Minor and Canis Major, and Scorpio.
Most historians believe that Orion’s legend predates the Olympian pantheon. It survived as folklore and the Greek gods were incorporated into the existing story.
Artemis and Orion may have been linked not only as hunters, but because of the age of their stories. As one of the oldest known deities in the region, Artemis was likely included in the story of Orion before notions of her chastity and relationships to the Olympians became important.