What Giants Require

Halley’s Comet is probably the most well-known of the periodic visitors that sweep through our planetary system, and it’s also the parent of two meteor showers each year: the Eta Aquariids in early May; and the Orionids, which are active now, and come to their peak this weekend, in the predawn hours from Saturday to Sunday, October 21-22, 2023.

The radiant or center point from which these meteors fall through the sky is near the shoulder region of the constellation Orion, which is marked by the star Betelgeuse. Though this star was made famous in the 1980s by the movie starring Michael Keaton, the shoulder of the giant had been remarkable since at least classical times, when the Greeks shared myths of the Titan Atlas, who bore the pillars of the heavens on his shoulders. In ancient Egypt, Orion seems to have been connected with their god of the dead, Osiris, whose consort and queen Isis was associated with the bright star Sirius.

To the northern Native Americans, Orion is winter maker, and in the Old Testament book of Job, after God asks Job whether he has entered into the secret mystery of the snow, he asks whether Job has the capacity to loose the bands of Orion.

The Ojibwe constellation Wintermaker is mostly coincident with the constellation Orion, and includes Procyon in Canis Minor and Aldebaran in Taurus. Image by Annette Lee Native Skywatchers

All this to say that this month’s meteor shower, the Orionids, have a certain stellar pedigree, what with their illustrious originating comet and the associations with the radiant constellation. It’s worth noting also that in fairy tales, giants like Orion usually represent a seemingly insurmountable challenge, the unavoidable test that must be faced and which requires tenacity, courage, and unsentimental virtue.

~Mary Stewart Adams

This episode aired on Interlochen Public Radio Monday, October 16, 2023 and can be heard on podcasts everywhere, under the title The Storyteller’s Night Sky. Thanks for tuning in!