Saturday, May 14, 2011

The importance of Orion

Orion is one of the most distinctive and important constellations in the sky. Even if you cannot recognize any other constellations, you are probably familiar with Orion, with his spectacular belt of three stars and his dominant position in the sky during the winter months.

His famous belt is located very close to the line of the celestial equator, which means that from the mental model discussed in the post on the "Undying Stars" (or "Imperishable Stars"), we are looking "outward" towards Orion rather than "upward" from earth when we look at Orion, which means that his constellation is not among the undying stars but is obscured by the sun during part of the year. If you think about the earth's orbit around the sun, and imagine it takes place in a large dining room, the stars in the center of the ceiling would be visible all year around from an observer in the northern hemisphere, but the stars on the walls would only be visible on certain parts of the earth's circuit. The stars on the wall across from the sun would be obscured by the sun until the earth made its way around to the other side of the room, at which time those stars would be visible to observers on the side of the earth that was turned away from the sun (which happens every night as the earth spins).

As the earth makes its way around the sky, Orion rises and sets four minutes earlier each day, until he is rising during the day. Currently, from a latitude of 35o north, he is rising around 9:00 am, reaching his highest point around 3:30 in the afternoon, and setting at around ten minutes before 10:00 in the evening. As the earth continues around the sun and these rising points get earlier and earlier, he will rise and set during the day, until his rising becomes early enough to be seen low in the sky prior to the sunrise: an important date of return and a phenomenon known as heliacal rising (a term derived from the name of the ancient sun god Helios).

The rising and setting times of every star should be the same on any given day of the year: if the earth is back at precisely the same point on its journey, the background of stars on the "walls" and "ceiling" of our imaginary room should look precisely the way they did the last time the earth was at that exact spot. In general, they do -- except for the fact that there is a very slow shifting going on due to the phenomenon of precession. This wobble in earth's axis moves the sky by a mere 1o every 71.6 years (we can round it to 72 years for convenience) -- barely enough to be noticed in one human lifetime (especially since most people aren't observing the stars very precisely under the ages of eight or nine years old).

The motion of precession delays the time of the heliacal rising by about four minutes every 72 years, barely enough to make much difference in one lifetime, but enough that over 2,160 years the date of the heliacal rising will be an entire month later. Another way to think of this phenomenon is that the preceding constellation will be rising on the expected day, while the expected constellation is "delayed." This shift to the preceding constellation is the reason this phenomenon is called precession. The entire process is explained with numerous diagrams of the celestial spheres and earth's annual path in the Mathisen Corollary.

It is quite obvious that very ancient man understood this phenomenon long before conventional history teaches. In Hamlet's Mill, the authors make a compelling argument that the legend of the murder of Osiris by his brother Set is directly related to the failure of Orion to rise on the expected day due to the ages-long delaying action of precession. In Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt, author Jane B. Sellers elaborates on their argument with great clarity and additional insight.

The authors of Hamlet's Mill trace out the echoes of this same legend throughout many cultures over many centuries. Part of the reason for their title is that the Hamlet legend clearly parallels the legend of Osiris: a wicked uncle has killed his brother (Osiris in the Egyptian myth and Hamlet's father in the story of Hamlet), and he must be avenged by the son (Hamlet, and in the Egyptian legend the god Horus son of Osiris).

One of the many fascinating aspects of this particular connection is the name of Hamlet's father. In Shakespeare he is mainly known as Old King Hamlet, but in some of the earlier manifestations that probably served directly or indirectly as the general source for Shakespeare's version, he is known as Horvandillus, Horwendil, Orendel, Erentel, Erendel, Oervandill, and Aurvadil. You can read an English translation of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (probably composed in the early 13th century AD) online: the story of Horwendil and his son Amlethus, as well as the murder of Horwendil by his brother, can be found in Book Three of Saxo's text.

The author's of Hamlet's Mill cite Frederick York Powell's (1850 - 1904) introduction to Oliver Elton's translation of Saxo, in which Powell states: "The story of Orwandel (the analogue of Orion the Hunter) must be gathered chiefly from the prose Edda." In other words, Powell noted the linguistic similarity of the name Orwandel (or Orendel) with Orion. This connection supports the theory that the death of Osiris (which parallels that of Hamlet's father) is related to the failure of the constellation to appear on time after many centuries.

Another fascinating aspect of the name of Orion and Orendel is the connection to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was an accomplished Old English scholar. As early as 1913, he wrote that he was struck by the great beauty of the Old English lines in Cynewulf's Christ which begin:

éala éarendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels thou,
sent unto men upon this middle-earth!
[Hamlet's Mill 355 -- part of an extensive discussion of Orendel in Appendix 2]
Tolkien incorporated the beautiful name Earendil in his Lord of the Rings, as an elven king who carries the morning star on his brow and is the father of Elrond. The light of Earendil's star is in the Phial of Galadriel given to Frodo. In Shelob's lair at the end of the book The Two Towers, Frodo spontaneously shouts an elven phrase containing Earendil's name when he draws out the elven-glass of Galadriel.

Most fans of the Lord of the Rings may not be aware of the connection between Earendil and Orion. Now you know.