White Lights on Black Canvas: Tales of the Night Sky

November 30, 2009 Updated: November 30, 2009

'Celestial Map of the Northern Sky' by Albrecht Durer, 1515, as shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (WikiMedia Commons)
'Celestial Map of the Northern Sky' by Albrecht Durer, 1515, as shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (WikiMedia Commons)
I stared up at the starry night. The myriad of delicate white lights against a dim backdrop—their sheer magnitude in number and charming allure immediately arrested my mind.

I lowered my head, shut my eyes, let the darkness imbue, and stared up again. Now, there were more of them. From my modern, untrained eyes, the layout of the cosmos seemed completely random—faint white lights strewn across a black canvas.

The ancients depended on the stars, and in turn, the stars showed them knowledge. To our ancestors, patterns in the night sky were a navigational aid, a map offering clues to seasonal changes, a backdrop on which legends came alive, and a diagram from which celestial phenomenon could foretell the change of terrestrial fortunes.

Many cultures recited tales of stars, constellations, and celestial patterns. Some were folklore spread by word-of-mouth, others endured as traditions and beliefs. Astrology, for example, became a well-crafted science that could predict changes in human affairs.

Most depictions of constellations are of Greek and Roman origin and inherited names and themes from Greek mythology. The Chinese and Japanese held their own systems of celestial mapping. Indigenous peoples of North and South America believed a different set of constellations, and even the Norse—while much of their traditions were lost—looked toward the sky for inspiration.

Orion the Hunter

The Orion constellation is one of the largest and most conspicuous in the sky. Near the celestial equator just above Sirius—the brightest star—Orion consists of two facing trapezoids separated by a line of three stars known as Orion’s Belt.

The constellation Orion, one of the most recognizable in the sky, is named after the legendary Greek huntsman Orion. (Courtesy of United States Naval Observatory Library)
The constellation Orion, one of the most recognizable in the sky, is named after the legendary Greek huntsman Orion. (Courtesy of United States Naval Observatory Library)
The constellation is easiest to see between December and March. Its two brightest stars Rigel (Alpha Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Beta Orionis) light up the winter night.

Orion was the son of Poseidon and a great warrior and hunter in Greek mythology. In The Odyssey, Homer portrays Orion as wielding a bronze club and a slayer of many terrible beasts.

A handsome fellow, Orion was loved by the goddess Artemis (ancient Greek goddess of wild animals and the moon). Her brother, Apollo, became jealous of this and plotted to kill Orion.

One day while Orion swam in a lake, Apollo challenged Artemis to hit the target bobbing in the water with an arrow. Unbeknown to Artemis that the target was Orion’s head, she fired her arrow. The arrow struck Orion’s temple squarely, killing him.

When the waves washed his body ashore, Artemis was heartbroken to see that it was Orion whom she struck. In her grief, she tenderly placed his body in her silver moon chariot and carried him high into the sky.

Artemis chose the darkest region of the winter sky, so Orion’s stars would shine the brightest of all.