Ancient sources tell several different stories about Orion. There are two major versions of his birth and several versions of his death. The most important recorded episodes are his birth somewhere in Boeotia, his visit to Chios where he met Merope and was blinded by her father, Oenopion, the recovery of his sight at Lemnos, his hunting with Artemis on Crete, his death by the blow of Artemis or of the giant scorpion which became Scorpio, and his elevation to the heavens. Most ancient sources omit some of these episodes and several tell only one. These various incidents may originally have been independent, unrelated stories and it is impossible to tell whether omissions are simple brevity or represent a real disagreement.
In Greek literature he first appears as a great hunter in Homer's epic the Odyssey, where Odysseus sees his shade in the underworld. The bare bones of his story are told by the Hellenistic and Roman collectors of myths, but there is no extant mythological record of his adventures comparable, for example, to that of Jason in Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica or Euripides' Medea; the entry in Ovid's Fasti for May 11 is a poem on the birth of Orion, but that is one version of a single story. The surviving fragments of legend have provided a fertile field for speculation about Greek prehistory and myth.
Orion served several roles in ancient Greek culture. The story of the adventures of Orion, the hunter, is the one on which we have the most evidence (and even on that not very much); he is also the personification of the constellation of the same name; he was venerated as a hero, in the Greek sense, in the region of Boeotia; and there is one etiological passage which says that Orion was responsible for the present shape of the Straits of Sicily.
The margin of the Empress Eudocia's copy of the Iliad has a note summarizing a Hellenistic poet who tells a different story of Orion's birth. Here the gods Zeus, Hermes and Poseidon come to visit Hyrieus of Tanagra, who roasts a whole bull for them. When they offer him a favor, he asks for the birth of sons. The gods take the bull's hide and ejaculate or urinate into it and bury it in the earth, then tell him to dig it up ten months later. When he does, he finds Orion. This explains why Orion is earthborn.
A second full telling (even shorter than the summary of Hesiod) is in a Roman-era collection of myths based largely on the mythologist and poet Pherecydes of Leros. Here Orion is described as earthborn and enormous in stature. This version also mentions Poseidon and Euryale as his parents. It adds a first marriage to Side before his marriage to Merope. All that is known about Side is that Hera threw her into Hades for rivalling her in beauty. It also gives a different version of Orion's death than the Iliad: Eos, the Dawn, fell in love with Orion and took him to Delos where Artemis killed him.
Another narrative on the constellations, three paragraphs long, is from a Latin writer whose brief notes have come down to us under the name of Hyginus. It begins with the oxhide story of Orion's birth, which this source ascribes to Callimachus and Aristomachus, and sets the location at Thebes or Chios. Hyginus has two versions. In one of them he omits Poseidon; a modern critic suggests this is the original version.
The same source tells two stories of the death of Orion. The first says that because of his "living joined in too great a friendship" with Oenopion, he boasted to Artemis and Leto that he could kill anything which came from Earth. Earth objected and created the Scorpion. In the second story, Apollo objected to his sister Artemis's love for Orion, and, seeing Orion swimming with just his head visible, challenged her to shoot at that mark, which she hit, killing him. He connects Orion with several constellations, not just Scorpio. Orion chased Pleione, the mother of the Pleiades, for seven years, until Zeus intervened and raised all of them to the stars. In Works and Days, Orion chases the Pleiades themselves. Canis Minor and Canis Major are his dogs, the one in front is called Procyon. They chase Lepus, the hare, although Hyginus says some critics thought this too base a prey for the noble Orion and have him pursuing Taurus, the bull, instead. A Renaissance mythographer adds other names for Orion's dogs: Leucomelaena, Maera, Dromis, Cisseta, Lampuris, Lycoctonus, Ptoophagus, Arctophonus.
The story of Orion and Oenopion also varies. One source refers to Merope as the wife of Oenopion and not his daughter. Another refers to Merope as the daughter of Minos and not of Oenopion. The longest version (a page in the Loeb) is from a collection of melodramatic plots drawn up by an Alexandrian poet for the Roman Cornelius Gallus to make into Latin verse. It describes Orion as slaying the wild beasts of Chios and looting the other inhabitants to make a bride-price for Oenopion's daughter, who is called Aëro or Leiro. Oenopion does not want to marry her to someone like Orion, and eventually Orion, in frustration, breaks into her bedchamber and rapes her. The text implies that Oenopion blinds him on the spot.
Lucian includes a picture with Orion in a rhetorical description of an ideal building, in which Orion is walking into the rising sun with Lemnos nearby, Cedalion on his shoulder. He recovers his sight there with Hephaestus still watching in the background.
The next picture deals with the ancient story of Orion. He is blind, and on his shoulder carries Cedalion, who directs the sightless eyes towards the East. The rising Sun heals his infirmity; and there stands Hephaestus on Lemnos, watching the cure.
Latin sources add that Oenopion was the son of Dionysus. Dionysus sent satyrs to put Orion into a deep sleep so he could be blinded. One source tells the same story but converts Oenopion into Minos of Crete. It adds that an oracle told Orion that his sight could be restored by walking eastward and that he found his way by hearing the Cyclops' hammer, placing a Cyclops as a guide on his shoulder; it does not mention Cabeiri or Lemnos—this is presumably the story of Cedalion recast. Both Hephaestus and the Cyclopes were said to make thunderbolts; they are combined in other sources. One scholion, on a Latin poem, explains that Hephaestus gave Orion a horse.
Giovanni Boccaccio cites a lost Latin writer for the story that Orion and Candiope were son and daughter of Oenopion, king of Sicily. While the virgin huntsman Orion was sleeping in a cave, Venus seduced him; as he left the cave, he saw his sister shining as she crossed in front of it. He ravished her; when his father heard of this, he banished Orion. Orion consulted an oracle, which told him that if he went east, he would regain the glory of kingship. Orion, Candiope, and their son Hippologus sailed to Thrace, "a province eastward from Sicily". There he conquered the inhabitants, and became known as the son of Neptune. His son begat the Dryas mentioned in Statius.
The Boeotian school of epic poetry was chiefly concerned with the genealogies of the gods and heroes; later writers elaborated this web. Several other myths are attached to Orion in this way: A papyrus fragment of the Boeotian poet Corinna gives Orion fifty sons (a traditional number). This included the oracular hero Acraephen, who, she sings, gave a response to Asopus regarding Asopus' daughters who were abducted by the gods. Corinna sang of Orion conquering and naming all the land of the dawn. Bowra argues that Orion was believed to have delivered oracles as well, probably at a different shrine. Hyginus says that Hylas's mother was Menodice, daughter of Orion. Another mythographer, Liberalis, tells of Menippe and Metioche, daughters of Orion, who sacrificed themselves for their country's good and were transformed into comets.
Orion also has etiological connection to the city of Messina in Sicily. Diodorus of Sicily wrote a history of the world up to his own time (the beginning of the reign of Augustus). He starts with the gods and the heroes. At the end of this part of the work, he tells the story of Orion and two wonder-stories of his mighty earth-works in Sicily. One tells how he aided Zanclus, the founder of Zancle (the former name for Messina), by building the promontory which forms the harbor. The other, which Diodorus ascribes to Hesiod, relates that there was once a broad sea between Sicily and the mainland. Orion built the whole Peloris, the Punta del Faro, and the temple to Poseidon at the tip, after which he settled in Euboea. He was then "numbered among the stars of heaven and thus won for himself immortal remembrance". The Renaissance historian and mathematician Francesco Maurolico, who came from Messina, identified the remains of a temple of Orion near the present Messina Cathedral. Maurolico also designed an ornate fountain, built by the sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli in 1547, in which Orion is a central figure, symbolizing the Emperor Charles V, also a master of the sea and restorer of Messina; Orion is still a popular symbol of the city.
Images of Orion in classical art are difficult to recognize, and clear examples are rare. There are several ancient Greek images of club-carrying hunters that could represent Orion, but such generic examples could equally represent an archetypal "hunter", or indeed Heracles. Some claims have been made that other Greek art represents specific aspects of the Orion myth. A tradition of this type has been discerned in 5th century BC Greek pottery—John Beazley identified a scene of Apollo, Delian palm in hand, revenging Orion for the attempted rape of Artemis, while another scholar has identified a scene of Orion attacking Artemis as she is revenged by a snake (a counterpart to the scorpion) in a funerary group—supposedly symbolizing the hope that even the criminal Orion could be made immortal, as well as an astronomical scene in which Cephalus is thought to stand in for Orion and his constellation, also reflecting this system of iconography. Also, a tomb frieze in Taranto (ca. 300 BC) may show Orion attacking Opis. But the earliest surviving clear depiction of Orion in classical art is Roman, from the depictions of the Underworld scenes of the Odyssey discovered at the Esquiline Hill (50–40 BC). Orion is also seen on a 4th century bas-relief, currently affixed to a wall in the Porto neighborhood of Naples. The constellation Orion rises in November, the end of the sailing season, and was associated with stormy weather, and this characterization extended to the mythical Orion—the bas-relief may be associated with the sailors of the city.
Mythographers have discussed Orion at least since the Renaissance of classical learning. Renaissance interpretations were allegorical. In the 14th century, Boccaccio interpreted the oxhide story as representing human conception; the hide is the womb, Neptune the moisture of semen, Jupiter its heat, and Mercury the female coldness; he also explained Orion's death at the hands of the moon-goddess as the Moon producing winter storms. The 16th-century Italian mythographer Natalis Comes interpreted the whole story of Orion as an allegory of the evolution of a storm cloud: Begotten by air (Zeus), water (Poseidon), and the sun (Apollo), a storm cloud is diffused (Chios, which Comes derives from χέω, "pour out"), rises though the upper air (Aërope, as Comes spells Merope), chills (is blinded), and is turned into rain by the moon (Artemis). He also explains how Orion walked on the sea: "Since the subtler part of the water which is rarefied rests on the surface, it is said that Orion learned from his father how to walk on water. Similarly, Orion's conception made him a symbol of the philosophical child, an allegory of philosophy springing from multiple sources, in the Renaissance as in alchemical works, with some variations. The 16th-century German alchemist Michael Maier lists the fathers as Apollo, Vulcan and Mercury, and the 18th-century French alchemist Antoine-Joseph Pernety gave them as Jupiter, Neptune and Mercury.
There was a movement in the late nineteenth century to interpret all the Boeotian heroes as merely personifications of the constellations. There has come to be wide agreement since that the myth of Orion existed before there was a constellation named for him. Homer, for example, mentions Orion, the Hunter, and Orion, the constellation, but never confuses the two. Once Orion was recognized as a constellation, astronomy in turn affected the myth. The story of Side may well be a piece of astronomical mythology. The Greek word side means pomegranate, which bears fruit while Orion, the constellation, can be seen in the night sky. Rose suggests she is connected with Sidae in Boeotia, and that the pomegranate, as a sign of the Underworld, is connected with her descent there.
The 19th-century German classical scholar Erwin Rohde viewed Orion as an example of the Greeks erasing the line between the gods and mankind. That is, if Orion was in the heavens, other mortals could hope to be also.
The Hungarian mythographer Karl Kerényi, one of the founders of the modern study of Greek mythology, wrote about Orion in Gods of the Greeks (1951). Kerényi portrays Orion as a giant of Titanic vigor and criminality, born outside his mother as were Tityos or Dionysus. Kerényi places great stress on the variant in which Merope is the wife of Oenopion. He sees this as the remnant of a lost form of the myth in which Merope was Orion's mother (converted by later generations to his stepmother and then to the present forms). Orion's blinding is therefore parallel to that of Aegypius and Oedipus.
In Dionysus (1976), Kerényi portrays Orion as a shamanic hunting hero, surviving from Minoan times (hence his association with Crete). Kerényi derives Hyrieus (and Hyria) from the Cretan dialect word hyron, meaning "beehive", which survives only in ancient dictionaries. From this association he turns Orion into a representative of the old mead-drinking cultures, overcome by the wine masters Oenopion and Oeneus. (The Greek for "wine" is oinos.) Fontenrose cites a source stating that Oenopion taught the Chians how to make wine before anybody else knew how.
Joseph Fontenrose wrote Orion : the Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress (1981) to show Orion as the type specimen of a variety of grotesque hero. Fontenrose views him as similar to Cúchulainn, that is, stronger, larger, and more potent than ordinary men and the violent lover of the Divine Huntress. Orion has also been identified with Actaeon, Leucippus (son of Oenomaus), Cephalus, Teiresias, and Zeus as the lover of Callisto. Fontenrose also sees Eastern parallels in the figures of Aqhat, Attis, Dumuzi, Gilgamesh, Dushyanta, and Prajapati (as pursuer of Ushas).
In The Greek Myths (1955), Robert Graves views Oenopion as his perennial Year-King, at the stage where the king pretends to die at the end of his term and appoints a substitute, in this case Orion, who actually dies in his place. His blindness is iconotropy from a picture of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, mixed with a purely Hellenic solar legend: the Sun-hero is captured and blinded by his enemies at dusk, but escapes and regains his sight at dawn, when all beasts flee him. Graves sees the rest of the myth as a syncretism of diverse stories. These include Gilgamesh and the Scorpion-Men, Set becoming a scorpion to kill Horus and the story of Aqhat and Yatpan from Ras Shamra, as well as a conjectural story of how the priestesses of Artemis Opis killed a visitor to their island of Ortygia. He compares Orion's birth from the bull's hide to a West African rainmaking charm and claims that the son of Poseidon should be a rainmaker.
References since antiquity are fairly rare. At the beginning of the 17th century, French sculptor Barthélemy Prieur cast a bronze statue Orion et Cédalion, some time between 1600 and 1611. This featured Orion with Cedalion on his shoulder, in a depiction of the ancient legend of Orion recovering his sight; the sculpture is now displayed at the Louvre. Nicolas Poussin painted Paysage avec Orion aveugle cherchant le soleil (1658) ("Landscape with blind Orion seeking the sun"), after learning of the description by the 2nd-century Greek author Lucian, of a picture of Orion recovering his sight. In the painting, he combined this description with Natalis Comes's 16th century interpretation of the same scene. Poussin need not have consulted Lucian directly; the passage is in the notes of the illustrated French translation of Philostratus' Imagines which Poussin is known to have consulted. The Austrian Daniel Seiter (active in Turin, Italy), painted Diane auprès du cadavre d'Orion (c.1685) ("Diana next to Orion's corpse"), pictured above.
In Endymion (1818), John Keats includes the line "Or blind Orion hungry for the morn", thought to be inspired by Poussin. William Hazlitt may have introduced Keats to the painting—he later wrote the essay "On Landscape of Nicholas Poussin", published in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822). Richard Henry Horne, writing in the generation after Keats and Hazlitt, penned the three volume epic poem Orion in 1843. It went into at least ten editions and was reprinted by the Scholartis Press in 1928. Science fiction author Ben Bova re-invented Orion as a time-traveling servant of various gods in a series of five novels.
Italian composer Francesco Cavalli wrote the opera, "L'Orione", in 1653. The story is set on the Greek island of Delos and focuses on Diana's love for Orion as well as on her rival, Aurora. Diana shoots Orion only after being tricked by Apollo into thinking him a sea monster—she then laments his death and searches for Orion in the underworld until he is elevated to the heavens. Johann Christian Bach ('the English Bach') wrote an opera, "Orion, or Diana Reveng'd", first presented at London's Haymarket Theatre in 1763. Orion, sung by a castrato, is in love with Candiope, the daughter of Oenopion, King of Arcadia but his arrogance has offended Diana. Diana's oracle forbids him to marry Candiope and foretells his glory and death. He bids a touching farewell to Candiope and marches off to his destiny. Diana allows him his victory and then kills him, offstage, with her arrow. In another aria, his mother, Retrea (Queen of Thebes), laments his death but ultimately sees his elevation to the heavens. The 2002 opera Galileo Galilei by American composer Philip Glass includes an opera within an opera piece between Orion and Merope. The sunlight, which heals Orion's blindness, is an allegory of modern science. Philip Glass has also written a shorter work on Orion, as have Tōru Takemitsu, Kaija Saariaho, and John Casken. David Bedford's late-twentieth-century works are about the constellation rather than the mythical figure as he is an amateur astronomer.
The twentieth-century French poet René Char found the blind, lustful huntsman, both pursuer and pursued, a central symbol, as James Lawler has explained at some length in his 1978 work René Char: the Myth and the Poem. French novelist Claude Simon likewise found Orion an apt symbol, in this case of the writer, as he explained in his Orion aveugle of 1970. Marion Perret argues that Orion is a silent link in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), connecting the lustful Actaeon/Sweeney to the blind Teiresias and, through Sirius, to the Dog "that's friend to men".