Orion the Hunter and Heavenly Shepherd
This is an excerpt from the article The Heavenly Shepherd: Approaches to a Resurrection Story, in the 2016 edition of Cosmos & Logos.
The Greek Orion was known as the great hunter, and in the most popular Greek telling of this myth Orion boasted that he could slay any animal on earth. Ge (the earth-mother) was offended at Orion’s brash boast and sent up a giant scorpion that stung his foot. Orion died from the wound and was immortalized in the stars as a constellation. The scorpion is the constellation Scorpius, and the two constellations oppose each other in the sky so that as Orion sets below the horizon in the west Scorpius rises in the east. While adapted by the Greeks, this story did not originate in Greece. In China, Orion was a great warrior who was in constant conflict with his younger brother represented by the stars of Scorpius. In Egypt, Plutarch informs that when Osiris was buried in his coffer at sea the sun was passing through the Scorpion (On Isis and Osiris 13). The death of Osiris appears to be an allusion to the setting of Orion as the sun rises in Scorpius.
The myths of Orion are astronomical. The Greek Orion is constantly associated with Helios, Delos (the land of Sun), Eos (the Dawn), and Scorpius. Yet these astronomical associations are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In another Greek telling of the myth Orion served as the huntsman of King Oinopion of Chios. Orion raped the king’s daughter and as punishment the king blinded and exiled him. Orion traveled across the sea to the house of Hephaestus who gave him an assistant named Cedalion. This assistant climbed upon the back of Orion and served as his eyes as the pair traveled east towards the house of the sun. It was with the dawn that Orion regained his sight. Critically, Cedalion was one of the two Cabeiri (ancient underworld gods) who administered the secret rites of the Samothracian mysteries (Kabeiroi, theoi.com). These mystery rites promised initiates some form of blessed afterlife.
Orion is blinded and must find his way to the House of the Sun to
regain his sight. Orion has a guide named Cedalion who aids him.
While not all ancient writers agree, one tradition definitely associated the Cabeiri with the Greek Dioskouroi, the guides of the dead represented in the two principal stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Diodorus Siculus relates in his Library of History that when the Argonauts were sailing to the underworld their ship was caught in a great storm. Orpheus was the only person aboard who had been initiated into the mysteries of the Cabeiri, and so he prayed to these gods to abate the storm. At that moment the stars of Gemini appeared overhead and the storm dissipated saving the ship. For this reason, the Caberi (and the Dioskouroi) were known as the gods of sailors and seamen who had power over the stormy sea (4.48.6). This pre-Christian account shows an anointed figure named Orpheus calming the seas from a boat. As is pointed out below, this anointed figure not only had power over the seas but was a savior figure of rebirth and was also analogized with the constellation Orion.
Oral and semi-literate people use the stars as a memory theater to encode their beliefs. In the days that these tales were written Orion rose in the east with the sun at summer solstice. Orion is not a zodiacal constellation. Gemini is, and the two stars Castor and Pollux were right above the horizon before sunrise and “received” the sun at summer solstice (see Figure 5). In ancient traditions around the Mediterranean, the place in the sky where the sun breached on the days of solstice represented a gate of the dead (Lundwall 310-12). Castor and Pollux become a stellar marker that on the one hand announces the summer sailing season, and on the other hand represents an esoteric theology. These stars become the celestial gate that leads to the netherworld. This motif is worth exploring.
Castor and Pollux are the Greek Dioskouroi, savior figures associated with calming
seas and guiding the dead. They were the two stars that received the sun at summer solstice.
The Dioskouroi are the twins Castor and Pollux. One is mortal and the other immortal. They are the offspring of Zeus and are often associated with mystery initiation. Castor, the mortal, is slain while in a tree perhaps signifying the passage of the soul within the axis-mundi. Pollux weeps at his brothers’ death and promises to share his immortality with him. Thenceforth, Castor and Pollux alternate days in the underworld. These stars sit right above the Milky Way and Orion.
Walter Burkert, in his book Greek Religion, identifies these twins as preeminent saviors (213). In Sparta, the Dioskouroi were an integral part of initiations where an encounter with death was involved (213). Their special symbol was the dokana, “two upright supports connected by two crossbeams” (213). This symbol can be seen in the icon for the constellation Gemini. This symbol probably has reference to “a gate in a rite de passage” (213). Modern classicists look to prehistoric tribal initiations as the source for this rite de passage, but the truth is the ultimate initiation is through the celestial gate. The Dioskouroi were the guides that led to one of these gates. It is no coincidence that Gemini is placed in the sky where the ecliptic meets the Milky Way.
The Greek Dokana The symbol of Castor and Pollux
representing a gate. This gate is the gate of heaven.
The ecliptic is the path of the planets, and anciently the Milky Way was the blessed path of souls. If one’s soul were to rise in the afterlife to the Milky Way it had to pass through a gate. Scorpio and Gemini/Taurus are the two gates in the sky that link the ecliptic with the Milky Way. They thus become associated with the Twin Mountains in Babylonian astrology and the two dominant motifs in the Orion myth.
The dokana of the Dioskouroi may in fact be the very image of the celestial gate. While the symbol is generally shown complete, at times each twin carried one half of this sign when they were separated (O’Neill 245). This is an exact parallel to the Roman tablet called tessera hospitalits. The tablet was parted in two and rejoined when their possessors were reunited. It is a type of symbolon employed by the Greeks where one can verify the veracity of another by matching the token that has been parted. Indeed, John O’Neill suggests that the Greek dokana may relate etymologically to the word token (245). More interestingly, O’Neil points out that in the Chinese stellar charts, at the location of Taurus and Orion in the Greek scheme, resides two constellations called T’ien-tsieh meaning Heaven-tally. The two star groupings are mirror images of each other and in the shape, ironically, of the divided Greek dokana. Their name is related to the Chinese character tsieh meaning a stamp:
“This character and its signification must come from the ancient practice of stamping a knot of bamboo, and then splitting bamboo and stamp down the middle, in order to give one half to an envoy or traveler, as a token, which verified itself on subsequent comparison with the other half, which had been retained. Thus were passports given at the Chinese frontier barriers.” (247)
It is well known that the Dioskouroi were not only initiates at Eleusis but astral guides: “[they] were seen as guiding lights for those hoping to break out of the mortal sphere into the realm of the gods” ( Burkert 213). This is why one was mortal (Castor) and one was immortal (Pollux). They reveal the twin aspects of every human soul doomed to mortal flesh but destined for a new astral garment of immortality. It is the same theme that keeps popping up with other mystery heroes who generally have one mortal and one immortal parent. This aspect must also explain the dokana which is a symbol of the twin natures of humankind. Indeed, when mystery initiates approached the gate of initiation they had to give a proper exchange of information, provide the proper spells, words, dances, and tokens with the gate keeper and guardian. This ritual action was nothing more than uniting two halves of the dokana in an analogical process of reuniting the mortal twin with his immortal half.
Orion and Cedalion become a personified dokana, where Cedalion leads the mortal Orion to the immortal realm of the sun. Indeed, the Dioskouroi were linked with Orion at the celestial gate where the ecliptic meets the Milky Way and where souls had access to the heavens. This explains the presence of Scorpio in the Orion myth, for Scorpio was also a gate of the dead (Gottschalk 99, Beke 17-27). The dead descended into the dark regions of the underworld from the Scorpion gate, just as we see Gilgamesh entering the netherworld guarded by scorpion men (EG 9.32-43). Orion loses his mortal life at Scorpio but regains his immortal heritage on the other side of the Milky Way where his constellation dwells at the cosmic sea from which the dead could arise anew.
Meanwhile, the savior figure Orpheus appears to have represented Orion himself. The Orphic rites promised the initiated a blessed existence in the afterlife. Dionysus was the god of the Orphic rites, and Orpheus-Dionysus are homologous underworld gods who guide the dead in the netherworld. In a vase painting held at Basel, Orpheus is shown playing his lyre and holding a scroll signifying the rites of the mysteries within a tomb of an old man. “What must be called the Orphic hope for the afterlife could hardly be expressed more clearly” writes Walter Burkert, “it is the song of Orpheus, contained in a book, which guarantees quiet happiness for the dead” (Burkert 85-86). Meanwhile, Dionysus repeatedly appears in the Orphic gold plates found buried with the initiated dead. Here, Dionysus presides over the journey of the dead (Cole 200) and is both gatekeeper and judge of the deceased (Cole 211).
More important, in Robert Eisler’s Orpheus the Fisher, Eisler shows that the mythic figure of Orpheus originated as a hunting and fishing figure. Eisler notes that the sacred fish housed in the sanctuaries of Apollo in Lycia were called orphoi, meaning fish, and that the name Orpheus means fisher (14-15). Dionysus himself was called Halieus, the Fisher, and Zagreus, a name not only signifying a Great Fisher but also a Great Hunter (15). Orpheus caught game in his fishing nets. Additionally, Orpheus is often portrayed surrounded by animals who he not only catches with his nets but entices with his music. In this context, as Eisler notes, Orpheus is Eunomos or Euphorbos, the “herdsman” or “good shepherd” (18). Eisler cannot help but to explain, “Orion corresponds mythically to Nimrod, the ‘mighty hunter before the Lord’ of the Bible. Around this constellation we find—and this can hardly be a casual coincidence—all the requisites of Orphic mythology” (25).
Orpheus was a god who promised a blessed afterlife if one had been initiated and knew
the way through the next world. Orpheus was both the Fisher and Good Shepherd.