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Posted by on Nov 8, 2017 in Tell Me Why |

What Is Orion’s Belt?

What Is Orion’s Belt?

Orion’s Belt is a row of three bright stars across the middle of a constellation or group of stars. It consists of the three bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. One of the three is easily distinguishable by its yellowish-red color, which contrasts strongly with the whiteness of the others.

The whole constellation was named after Orion, the great hunter of ancient Greek mythology. When Orion was killed by the goddess Artemis, he was changed, according to the myth, into a group of stars. These took the form of a warrior wearing a girdle of three stars (Orion’s Belt) and a lion’s skin, and carrying a club, a sword and a shield. Below the belt a hazy line of stars representing the jewels on Orion’s sword can be seen.

Looking for Orion’s Belt in the night sky is the easiest way to locate Orion in the sky. The stars are more or less evenly spaced in a straight line, and so can be visualized as the belt of the hunter’s clothing. They are best visible in the early night sky during the Northern Winter/Southern Summer, in particular the month of January at around 9:00 pm.

looking at orion's belt

In his De Astronomia, Hyginus describes the constellation Orion having three faint stars where the sword is depicted. Aratus goes into significant detail about the Orion constellation as well, proclaiming: “Should anyone fail to catch sight of him (Orion) up in the heavens on a clear night, he should not expect to behold anything more splendid when he gazes up at the sky. Cicero and Germanicus, the translators of Aratus’s Phaenomena, expressed it as ensis, Latin for “sword”.

Arabic astronomers also saw this asterism as a sword (saif), calling it Saif al Jabbār, Sword of the Powerful One or Sword of the Giant. Orion is one of the few constellations to have parallel identities in European and Chinese culture, given the name Shen, the hunter and warrior. Chinese astronomers made the sword a sub-constellation within Shen called Fa.


This asterism is not always associated with swords. In the myths of the Namaqua, Orion’s sword was the arrow of the husband of the Pleaides, daughters of the sky god, who was represented by the star Aldeberan. When he fired his arrow at three zebras (Orion’s belt) and missed, he was too afraid to retrieve the arrow due to its proximity to a fierce lion, represented by Betelgeuse.

Therefore he sits in the cold, suffering from hunger but too ashamed to return home. The Twsana called Orion’s word “dintsa le Dikolobe,” referring to three dogs which chase the three pigs of Orion’s Belt. This serves as an etiological myth for why pigs have their litters in the same season Orion is prominent in the sky.

Content for this question contributed by Cecilia Andrews, resident of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County, California, USA