On the Trail: Hunting the Hunter

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

High above the sharp and spired peaks surrounding Mammoth, a great and furious battle rages over our unwitting heads – a battle writ large in the pure white stars spinning through the Winter Solstice sky.

Up there, like down here, winter hit its deepest point this past week when the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, arrived on Dec. 21.

But up there, millions of miles beyond what we can imagine, the change of seasons was marked by two stunning constellations which dominate the winter and spring skies and yet, the stories go, hate each other so much they are almost never seen at the same time from our position here on Earth.

These two constellations are named for two mortal enemies, Orion, the Hunter, and his enemy, Scorpius. It is said that the enmity between the two is so great, they can never appear in the sky together, and since that day so very long ago when they were sent spinning into the sky by the gods, indeed they have not.

That is why, today, according to Reno’s Fleischman Planetarium’s former director Dan Ruby, you can now see almost all of Orion, swinging through the night sky like the proud hunter he is, dominating the sky to the south and west.

That is why the Giant Scorpion, one of the most dominant constellations of the summer, is no longer visible in the night sky during these deepest months of the winter.

But when the Summer Solstice arrives, the two will reverse dominance of the sky and Orion will fall below the horizon of the Northern Hemisphere until the fall, when he will rise again to push his enemy Scorpius out of the sky for the winter.

She, in turn, will pursue him with her poisoned, diamond and adamant pinchers of pure starlight and the battle will be joined for yet another millenia.

But how did such a great and eternal hatred take root?

It all began with a battle – a great, epic battle between Orion the Hunter and the Giant Scorpion, according to Ruby.

Although he notes the story has more than one interpretation, it always goes something like this:

Long, long ago, Orion tried to win the hand of a beautiful maiden by killing one of every animal on Earth. The carnage so upset the earth goddess, Gaia, under whose protection all animals live, that she aimed her best fighter, the Giant Scorpion, at Orion.

The ensuing battle was horrific and bloody and terrible and it went on for a long, long time. In the end, no one won. Both Orion and Scorpius died of their wounds and both were cast into the heavens as stars.

But their enmity was so great, even in death they continued to hate each other and that is why you never see both constellations in full in the sky at any one time.
If Orion is fully visible, as he is only in the winter months, Scorpius is all or partially below the horizon.

In the summer, when Scorpius is fully visible, Orion is all or partially below the horizon, trailed by two other familiar star patterns, his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor (also known as the Big Dipper and Little Dipper).

Orion dominates the sky for the winter then disappears completely in mid-May, giving Scorpius a few weeks of blissful peace in the sky before he begins his ascent up over the horizon. This gives Scorpius some breathing space, as it takes Orion all summer and most of the fall and early winter to climb all the way above the horizon.

Then Orion again has a few weeks of blissful peace until Scorpius pushes her head above the horizon and the two enemies resume chasing one another around the night sky in their eternal quest for vengeance.