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Orion › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 13 February 2017
Orion (Unknown Artist)
Orion was the great hunter of Greek mythology who was famed for his good looks and many love affairs. Either his assault of or admiration from Artemis resulted in the gods transforming the giant into a constellation. Referred to by such ancient writers as Hesiod and Homer, the constellation of Orion was used as an important navigation and agricultural aid throughout antiquity.


The myths involving Orion are varied and contradictory. In some versions, he is the son of Poseidon and Euryale, one of the three Gorgon sisters. Other writers have him as the son of Hyrieus, the son of Alcyone (one of the Pleiades) and Poseidon. In this version, Hyrieus, a poor old farmer and beekeeper, provides hospitality to Zeus and Hermes and in return is granted the favour of a son. Orion was thus born when Hyrieus followed the gods' instructions and buried the hide of a sacrificed bull in his wife's grave. For the trick to work, the farmer first had to add water to the hide and, lo and behold, Orion sprang from the earth nine months later. This miraculous birth involving water explains the association with the coming of rains on the rise and fall of the Orion constellation.
Traditionally, then, Orion came from Hyria in Boeotia, and what is not disputed is that he was of fine physique, good looks, and possessed great prowess as a hunter. Orion was one of the great Greek lovers, too, said to have fathered 50 sons from sleeping with 50 nymphs.



Not satisfied with his conquest of the nymphs, Orion then landed on Chios and chased after and assaulted Merope, one of the Pleiades, daughter of Oenopion and so grandaughter of Dionysos. Oenopion had promised his daughter to the great hunter if he could clear the island of its troublesome wild beasts. This Orion did, but Oenopion, loathe to lose his daughter, would not make good on his promise and pretended there were still plenty of wild animals roaming about Chios. Orion then took his prize anyway and assaulted Merope in her chambers. When Oenopion discovered the crime, he asked Dionysos for help, and the god of wine first made the hunter drunk and then had him blinded by satyrs. The unfortunate Merope would later become the wife of Sisyphus, and it is her shame at having been the only one of her sisters who married a mortal that explains why her star shines less brightly in the Pleiades constellation.
Fortunately for Orion, his sight would be restored if he could only get himself to the point where Helios – the Sun – first rises above the Ocean each day, far away to the east. So, taking a rowing boat he made his way across the sea, picking up Hephaistos ' assistant Cedalion as a guide along the way when he stopped on Lemnos. Reaching his destination, Helios duly restored Orion's sight, and Eos, the personification of Dawn and Helios' sister, promptly fell in love with the handsome hunter.Their illicit affair is said to account for the beautiful morning blush of dawn.


Orion's next pursuit proved a rather more ambitious and fateful one for he attacked the goddess Artemis, herself a great huntress. For his audacity, Orion was transformed into the constellation that bears his name and his dog was, likewise, changed into the bright star Sirius. However, an alternative version (and Homer's) of the story has Eos fall in love with the powerful hunter while he was visiting Helios, and Artemis kills him with her arrows in jealousy somewhere near Ortygia ( Syracuse ?).
Orion - the Constellation

Orion - the Constellation

In yet another version, Artemis killed Orion by accident after being tricked by Apollo into thinking the hunter was, in fact, a villain who had attacked one of her priestesses. Orion, whilst swimming to escape a giant scorpion (again sent by Apollo) is killed by Artemis' arrows after the goddess could only see his distant bobbing head and failed to recognise the hunter. This tragedy was after the two great hunters had been sporting around Crete together. Artemis tried to enlist the medically-gifted Asclepius to bring Orion back to life, but he was just then struck down by Zeus' thunderbolt for being rather too handy at bringing the dead back to life and blurring the distinction between mortals and gods. In this version, it was Artemis' regret at the loss of her hunting companion which allowed him to become a constellation and gain immortality amongst the stars.
Another tradition sprang up that Orion was not at all in the stars but, rather less romantically, entombed at Tanagra, north of Athens. The 2nd-century CE Greek travel writer Pausanias claimed to have even visited the site which was also considered the place of the pole where Atlas sat and meditated.


In Homer's Iliad (Bk. 18:487) Orion appears on the great shield of Achilles (as the constellation) made by Hephaistos. He appears again in Homer's Odyssey (Bk. 5:121 & 274, Bk. 11:310 & 572) where, far from the stars, he is down in the depths of Hades, collecting all the animals he had hunted during his lifetime. Seen by Odysseus, Orion is still not satisfied and now chases his prey all over again, armed with a club of indestructible bronze. The hunter's constellation is also mentioned by Calypso as a guide for Odysseus on his voyage home. Hesiod mentions the position of Orion in the night sky in several passages of his Works & Days to guide farmers when to perform certain agricultural tasks. Other constellations are also useful guides, notably the Pleiades and their pursuit by Orion in myth reflects the fact that, as the constellation, they rise and appear just before Orion does.

Leda › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 16 February 2017
Leda & the Swan ()
Leda is a figure from Greek mythology who was famously seduced by Zeus when he took the form of a swan. She was a queen of Sparta and mother of beautiful Helen who sparked the Trojan War, and the Dioscuri twins. Leda and the swanwas a popular subject for both Greek and Roman artists and is frequently seen in ancient sculpture, pottery, and mosaics.


Leda was the daughter of King Thestius of Pleuron in Aetolia. She was the wife of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, and together they had various children including Helen, who would fall in love with Paris and cause the Trojan War, the Dioscuri hero twins of Castor and Pollux (aka Polydeuces), Clytemnestra (future wife of King Agamemnon ), Timandra, and Phylonoe.


Leda was famously seduced by Zeus when the king of the Olympian gods took the form of a swan. The result of this union, which occurred on the banks of the River Eurotas, was an egg from which the beautiful Helen and Polydeuces were born. The second twin son, Pollux, was born to Leda's husband Tyndareus on the very same night the egg hatched. This explains why one of the twins was considered mortal and the other immortal, but some writers, notably Homer and Pindar, have the twins daily share the boon of immortality. As a climax to the story, Leda is granted immortality by Zeus and transformed into the goddess Nemesis. However, in Homer's Odyssey, the hero Odysseus sees Leda on his tour through Hades.



In an alternative version of the myth, it is the goddess Nemesis who is pursued by Zeus (although an early version has the roles reversed). The goddess transforms herself into a fish and swims away in order to escape his attentions, but the amorous Zeus is not deterred and changes into a beaver to better pursue his prey. Nemesis next changes into various other creatures including a hare, a bee, and then a mouse, but Zeus merely becomes a swifter or more predatory creature each time until, finally as a swan, Zeus captures Nemesis while she is a goose. In some versions, an extra twist of deceit is added when Zeus appeals to Leda's pity by pretending he is being pursued by an eagle and then ravishes her.
After the pair has lain together, Nemesis flees to Sparta where she lays a purple-blue egg in the marshes outside the city.Leda finds the egg one day (or a shepherd does and gives it to his queen), and she takes it back to the palace where she hides it in a chest. From the hatched egg Helen is born, as in the other version of the myth, and Leda raises the girl as her own daughter. A third version has Hermes throw the egg between Leda's thighs while she is on a stool, presumably while giving birth to Polydeuces.
Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan


Leda embracing a swan or holding an egg was a scene frequently represented in Greek art. A celebrated marble statue of Leda holding a swan is now on display in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. Dating to the Roman period, it is thought to be a copy of a Greek original sculpted c. 400 BCE and the earliest known representation of the swan myth with Leda. Zeus with Leda and an egg sitting on a throne (but no swan in sight) is seen on Attic red-figure pottery of the mid- to late-5th century BCE.
A c. 425 BCE bas-relief from the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnus depicts an adult Helen being brought from Nemesis to Leda.It is currently on display in the National Museum of Stockholm. Helen emerging from an egg appears on red-figure pottery from Apulia and Campania during the 4th century BCE. Finally, Leda being pursued by a swan is depicted in the central panel ( emblemata ) of a Roman period mosaic from the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipafos on Cyprus and is typical of the more erotic depictions of the swan myth from the Late Classical period onwards.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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