The story of Sirius and Orion is one of many in Greek mythology that gives an explanation for the placement and movement of the stars.
It is one of the earliest such tales attested to in the written record from Greece. Both Orion and Sirius were mentioned as stellar formations in Homer’s Odyssey.
There were many legends surrounding the character of Orion. Most agreed that he was a giant and a skilled huntsman.
Several sources claimed that the hunter was a son of Poseidon, which gave him the ability to walk on water. Orion was, however, a flawed figure.
He began his life on the island of Crete, but walked to Chios and entered into the service of its king. When he drunkenly attempted to force himself on the king’s daughter, however, Orion was blinded and banished from the kingdom.
Orion wandered blindly until an oracle told him to go east and seek healing from Helios. Assisted by Hephaestus and his servant Cedalion, Orion made his way to the eastern edge of the world and was healed by the sun’s rays.
Orion later returned to Crete and joined the retinue of Artemis. The goddess of the hunt and the giant huntsman had a natural affinity for one another.
There were several versions given for Orion’s death.
In one, Gaia struck him down after he callously bragged that he could kill every animal on earth. In another, he once again attempted to take advantage of a young woman and was killed by Artemis.
Other stories, however, claimed that the virgin goddess herself fell in love with her hunting companion. In these, Apollo prevented his sister from violating her vows by causing Orion’s death.
In one of the most popular accounts, Apollo challenged Artemis to shoot at a distant spot on the sea. Not realizing that it was Orion striding across the water, Artemis drew her bow and killed him instantly.
Homer did not specify which version of Orion’s story he was most familiar with, but did reference the familiar form of the constellation that bore his image. Odysseus, the Odyssey’s narrator, described the huntsman as a giant figure carrying a heavy bronze club.
Homer also made note of another nearby star that was not mentioned in all of Orion’s legends.
According to the Odyssey, a bright star near the constellation Orion was known as Sirius. It immortalized the hunter’s loyal dog, who followed him on the hunt even after death.
The name Sirius is still given to the same star that Homer made note of in the Odyssey. It is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Great Dog.
Sirius is colloquially known as the Dog Star for its prominence in that constellation. It is so bright that it is often singled out as separate from the rest of Canis Major.
Sirius is not only the brightest star in its constellation, it is the brightest in the whole of the night sky. It is so prominent that its name came from a Greek word for “glowing” or “scorching.”
This made it a particularly important star for navigation and finding one’s bearings. It was included in the Odyssey, a story of sea travel, for this reason.
The Greeks also believed that Sirius, as such a prominent star, could have a strong influence on the world.
Because it was brightest in the summer, they associated it with the erratic behavior sometimes seen in animals, especially dogs, at that time. This belief lives on today in the phrase “the dog days of summer.”
The convention of associating a single star or small cluster with a more prominent constellation was not exclusive to the story of Orion and Sirius. A similar myth, for example, paired the constellation Virgo with another prominent star in Canis Major as the story of a young woman and the loyal dog who followed her into death.
Even when the Alpha Canis Majoris, as the Dog Star is known to scientists, was not linked directly with Orion, however, their images were the same.
The Greeks created their own myths to explain the form of the constellations and how they related to one another, but the images themselves far predated the Greek civilization. They originated in Mesopotamia and were largely unchanged by later cultures.
The stars that make up Orion, for example, were seen as the shape of a man for hundreds of years before Greek astronomers adopted the constellations from the Near East. While some people saw him as a hunter and others as a farmer, the outline of the human figure remained the same.
Similarly, Sirius and the stars of Canis Major were seen as a dog long before Homer recounted the legend of Orion’s hound. This belief, however, was not shared by the Mesopotamians.
In Babylon, Canis Major was not seen as a dog, but as an arrow pointing toward Orion. While it was still closely related to the nearby constellation, it was one of relatively few constellations that had a different form in Near Eastern traditions.
Elsewhere in the world, however, the image of the dog was apparent to people who linked the stars around Sirius.
The Chinese called the star the Celestial Wolf, although the surrounding constellation was more commonly seen as a bird. Several Native American tribes associated it with a hunting dog, a wolf, or a coyote.
The association between Sirius and dogs did not come to Greece from Babylonian and Near Eastern sources. It was, however, common around the world.
The image of the Dog Star ultimately shows that the ability to see images in the stars was universal, and many cultures created the same shapes when they traced the patterns in the sky.
According to Homer, the star Sirius was named after a dog.
The constellation Orion had many legends surrounding it, and Homer connected the brightest star in the sky to this mythology. He claimed that it was the loyal hunting dog, Sirius, that followed the figure of the huntsman even after death.
The Greeks were one of many cultures that believed that Sirius, known formally as Alpha Canis Majoris, was connected to dogs. They saw it as the source of erratic behavior among their dogs when it was brightest, during the “dog days of summer.”
Sirius and Canis Major, however, were among the few stellar forms that Greek astronomy did not directly borrow from the Near East. While the Babylonians linked it to Orion, they saw it as the shape of an arrow pointing at him.
Around the world, however, many people saw a canine in Canis Major and its brightest star. The Chinese called it the Celestial Wolf and many Native American cultures linked it with both wild and domestic canines.
Ultimately, the similarities between Canis Major and constellations in other cultures are not entirely coincidental. They are the result of the universal tendency to find simple, familiar forms in the stars.