One evening in the dead of winter, I went on a walk. I was on a break from graduate school visiting my parents who live away from the glare of city lights. As I was making my way that night, I looked up into the sky to locate my old friendsthose constellations of stars I had been taught to recognize as a young boy. Most of them were there that evening, quietly making their way across the heavens: the always-faithful Big Dipper, Cassiopeia in her regal splendor, and Cepheus her jealous husband. And then, suddenly, my survey of the skies was arrested by the sight of Orion the Hunter.
To someone living near lights of a large city, Orion the Hunter presents himself as seven dimly flickering starstwo for his shoulders, two for his knees and three for his belt. But in reality, Orion is much larger than that. To the ancients who first found and named him, he was more than twenty fierce points of light punctuating the dark fabric of night. Orion, when all his stars are visible, carries a tremendous shield held at arm’s length with one hand, while his other grips a mighty spiked club. But these less-peaceful appendages of Orion, represented by dimmer and finer stars, are obscured from human eyes near any large citywhere the incandescent haze of parking lots, strip malls, and freeways amputate Orion’s weapons of war (or at least one’s sight of them). It was this diminished Orion I was used to seeing.
However, on this night, as I walked through the snow and cold, I was able to once again behold the mighty Orion as I had remembered him as a child. Once again Orion was a Hunter, the same mythic figure that set my imagination ablaze when my family would travel out to the country to gaze at the heavens, hoping for the occasional shooting star and watching the drama of the skies unfold. I had since that time forgotten about Orion’s full majesty, but as it turned out, that’s not the only thing I had failed to remember.
“Why,” one might ask, “does Orion have a shield outstretched?” “Why does he raise his spiked club preparing to strike?” The answer is Taurus the bull. In ancient mythology, Taurus sired the Minotaur, a man with a bull’s head who breathed fire and who often symbolized the evil passions that lurk within all of us. Taurus, the vilified progenitor of the Minotaur, remains ever poised ready to strike against Orion in the eternal war of the heavens. Orion is a Hunter because there are things that ought to be hunted.
Sadly, this cosmic battle between Orion and Taurus is obscured from the eyes of modern man. We see only diminished Orion without club and shield. We see Orion the Hunter with nothing about him that a true hunter should have. But neither, however, do we see Taurusthe true threat. Modern man, basking in the artificial light of his own works, mars the lessons of the natural heavens that speak of the eternal fight for man’s soul. And there are fewer and fewer sanctuaries that grant an unobstructed view of Heroic Orion holding the Enemy Taurus at bay.
As I stared up at Orion the Hunter, viewed once again in all his glory that darkest of nights, I considered what a child reared today would think of him. Would the child ask, “Why did those ignorant ancients call random clumps of stars such names as ‘mighty hunter’?” Or again: “Surely, if the ancients had been wiser they would have realized that this ‘hunter’ is only a few dim stars randomly jumbled together. Who could see order and design in seven ill-fitting stars? No one, of courseOrion looks nothing like a Hunter, he’s just a rectangle with a line in the middle.” Or finally, perhaps today’s child would ask why a “hunter” would have nothing to hunt? Shouldn’t Orion, if he is a hunter, have some quarry?
More worrisome is the plight of the child who lives in the very heart of the modern city, for he sees no stars at all. He has not even met Orion the Rectangle, and of course, neither has he met Taurus the mythic bull.
But whether the child is ignorant of Orion, or just maintains false notions about him, the reality is that the heavens have not changed in the last hundred yearsit is man himself that has changed. Man who looks down ignores the story that is writ-large on the heights. After all, the ancients had only to look upwards to see both the enemy himself, preying upon man ceaselessly, and Orion the Hunter, with his shield of mercy outstretched, and his club of justice at-the-ready.
The questions I asked myself that dark winter’s night we might all ask ourselves: Are we children living in the center of modern man’s town? Or are we in the suburbs of the modern project? Do we take walks often enough to find the sanctuaries that still offer unobstructed views of the sky? And finally, and most importantly, when Taurus summons his strength for the final attack, will we know how to hide behind Orion’s shield? And will we know how to avoid Orion’s arms when he crushes the Beast’s head?
Thomas Peters writes from Washington, D.C.
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