You see him every winter evening on a clear night. And when it is cloudy, he sees you. He is the oldest myth of the humankind, and the first to be placed in the heavens to honor their power. And he kinda, sorta, looks like a person. Not like one of those later Greek and Roman constellations. They require hallucination in order to make out the recognizable deities in their night sky.
Fortunately, the mind will connect the major stars in any region of the sky into a simple, recognizable pattern. An asterism. You know, the Big and Little Dippers, the Summer Triangle, the Teapot. Geometry is genetic. At least I think so.
The constellation of which I speak is Orion to you. We got that name from the Greeks. But the legend of Gilgamesh is much older. A product of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. Maybe that is why they built their ziggurats. Giant- stepped pyramids, to reach up to their man god.
And what of the even older Ubaid Peoples? Did they arise in Eastern Arabia, along the Persian Gulf from whence the Sumerians sprung. From where the cuneiform of writing first developed? The stories of Gilgamesh, a King of Sumerian Uruk, were the lesson plan of the ancient scribes learning to write cuneiform. Is that why we have so many partial copies of his poem?
Gilgamesh adventured to the Gardens of Bahrain⎯much of the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf was at one time called Bahrain. He was seeking eternal life from Utnapishtim, who had survived the Great Deluge there. The corollaries to biblical references are of interest here. The Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. And at one time, the Persian Gulf was dry, the ancient seas lower, with a long river running the length of a deep valley to reach the ocean at Hormuz. Was it still so back in the ancient memory of the Ubaid people?Constellations
Back to the night sky. The winter constellations are powerfully visible and easy to find. And they are the object of this essay. They are marked by the bright stars Sirius, Procyon, Castor, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Rigel. Greek and Arab names. Get a simple star chart online and look for them. There is much pleasure in obtaining their friendship. And once found, they will never leave you.
The Winter Oval
These stars outline a famous asterism, the Winter Oval. In the center is that human warrior, Orion. Think Gilgamesh, with his three-starred belt and sword flashing within a bright nebula of diamonds. To the lower left, find the brightest star in the sky (Sirius) of Canis Major (the Greater Dog). Then counterclockwise, Procyon of Canis Minor (the Lessor Dog); Castor and Pollux in Gemini (the Twins); Capella in Auriga (the Charioteer); Aldebaran in the horns of Taurus (the Bull); and Rigel, the left knee of Orion. Throw in the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters⎯how many can you see?) just outside the Bull, and you have quite a show!
Here is one of my poems to help you to remember your identification of these fine figures:
Sirius hunters, Twins awry,
Ride the Doe Chariot racing high.
Eye of Bull, braying light,
Belie the ladle Sisters hide.
Lo the belted sword aglow,
Kingly knee and ruddy know.
The Hare it hides beneath his sight,
and gently runs this oval knight!
The hare? Lepus. He is there, too, but hiding at the hunter’s feet! What a delight to see!
But before we leave, let us talk about what the ancient Mayans saw. They had writing, too. And so we know their stories.
Where the Greeks saw the constellation Gemini and its twins, Castor and Pollux; the Mayans saw copulating peccaries⎯wild Central American pigs. And the Mayans saw not a man in Orion. They saw, instead, “First Fire”⎯the Orion Nebula in Orion’s sword. And that fire sat inside a triangle of three stars⎯the Mayan Hearthstones. One star on his belt (Alnitak), and two at his knees (Saiph and Rigel). Go to Central America now. They still make fires with three hearthstones there.
And the Mayans had another beautiful origin story relating to Orion’s Belt. They saw it as a crack in a turtle shell, up from which sprung “First Father” in our current creation cycle. And then grew up the “Maize Tree.” From its corncobs sprang the first humans.
We are an imaginative species. That’s how we got here. But some things seem to be universal. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Mayans saw a Scorpion in the summer sky. Just as you and I do now. I wonder if, in the far distant past, one of us was stung!
The Roots of Cuneiform (photo by Cheryl Van Stockum)