Gazing into the dark, starry heavens of a cool springtime evening is a delightful and tranquil experience. One of the most dramatic events we may witness is watching a meteor blaze across our sky.
One would never guess that this seemingly peaceful stellar canopy is home to one of the most bitter rivalries of ancient lore. The celestial combatants are two of the largest and most familiar constellations in all the heavens: Orion, the hunter, and Scorpius, the scorpion.
Orion appears as a prominent hourglass of stars with three equally bright stars crossing its midsection. Ancient skywatchers imagined this stellar grouping as a great hunter, with two stars marking his shoulders, two marking his knees and three more stars forming his belt. Fainter stars represent his outstretched shield and club, while a sword hangs from his belt in the form of a hazy patch of light, known to astronomers as the Great Orion Nebula. His head is marked by a rather faint star named Meissa.
The great hunter now descends toward the western horizon after dark, but stargazers will notice that his nemesis, Scorpius, is nowhere to be found. To see it at this time of year, you must rise before the sun and gaze southward. There, not far above the horizon, you’ll easily spot the scorpion’s body and long, curving tail, stinger and claws. The bright reddish-orange star Antares forms the heart of the great arachnid. Amazingly, Scorpius is one of the few star groupings that really does look like its namesake.
Scorpius has a long and fascinating history. It’s one of the oldest constellations in the heavens, and historians believe it was first pictured by Euphratean astronomers seven millennia ago as one of the six original zodiacal signs.
While ancient cultures of Persia, Turkey and India and possibly even the Maya of Mexico saw this star grouping as a scorpion, others did not.
In ancient China, for example, the same stellar figure was considered a major portion of the Azure Dragon, or the Dragon of the East. And in the South Pacific, Maori legend describes it as the magic fishhook that Maui used to raise the islands of New Zealand from the ocean.
But no matter when you look, you’ll never find Orion and Scorpius in the sky together. As Orion sets, Scorpius rises. And as Scorpius sets, Orion rises. Doesn’t seem like much trouble could possibly arise from these two cosmic rivals. And that’s exactly the point.
In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, Scorpius represents the scorpion whose sting caused the death of the great hunter. As the story goes, when the gods immortalized these two mythological figures in the heavens, they separated their constellations as widely as possible to prevent them from stirring up trouble in the heavens as they purportedly had on Earth.
Today, we in the Northern Hemisphere associate the constellation Orion with the winter sky and Scorpius with the summer. Because of the wisdom of the ancient stargazers, the peace and quiet of our nighttime sky will never be broken.
— Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.