Poussin’s painting “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” (1658):
The painting draws on the deeply confused1. classical Greek and Roman stories of Orion, with a tilt toward the later Roman versions which emphasise the huntress Diana. Broadly these stories can be boiled down thus:
Before he was a constellation in the night sky, Orion was deemed by stories to be a giant youth and an impulsive hunter. He was an earthly being, but also a primal son of the dynamic Sea and the fertile Earth.
He was blinded due to his youthful lust, but he believed that his sight would be restored if ever he reached the seat of the rising Sun. In this he embodied the typical adolescent conflict between base impulses and lofty aspiration, something typical of humanity as a whole during prehistory.
Seen on Orion’s shoulders is the blacksmith’s assistant Cedalion. In some of the stories the blind Orion was wading the ocean and he was drawn toward the sound of the ‘source-of-all-fire’ smithy, where he picked up the fire-god’s assistant Cedalion. As shown by his orange robes in the painting, Cedalion is a primal ‘fire-associated’ being. He stands on the shoulders of the giant, and with his far-sight he tries to guide Orion to find the ever-elusive seat of the rising sun. In his guiding role Cedalion symbolises ‘the flame of knowledge’, guiding impulsive and blind humanity through its historical adolescence.2.
In this painting the rising place of the sun is hidden by storm clouds which emanate from the (implied-mystical) woodland of the goddess Diana. The edge of her deep woodland realm is seen in the bottom-right of the picture. Poussin’s picture shows the moment the goddess Diana spies and falls in love with the blind Orion.3. The figure can be identified as Diana because she wears the bow-like crescent moon on her brow and she is equipped with the bow and quiver of a woodland huntress. The green tint on her skin might be meant to indicate that her realm is that of the woodland seen in the right-hand corner, or it could be that the paint has colour-shifted.
The educated viewer of the painting would remember the next part of the general story. Infatuated, Diana will take Orion into the sky to hunt in her perpetual pre-sunrise dawn woodland. From which place he will never reach or see the earthly sunrise. Presumably his hunting skill is so superlative that he can hunt even while blinded, and possibly Diana values him partly because he loves her for herself and not for her visual beauty (which he cannot see). He of course stays too long in the pre-dawn sky. His hubris in chasing the title of ‘the greatest hunter’ leads him to try to hunt everything. Including, fatefully, even an attempt to hunt the sacred doves of the Pelaides. He has clearly outstayed his welcome. This dove-hunting, and Diana’s apparent elevation of an earth-dweller to the heavenly realm angers the gods. The gods cause Orion to be killed, with either Diana’s own arrow or a scorpion-sting.
But Orion had proven himself to be ‘the greatest hunter’, so the gods then place Orion in the night sky as the famous constellation of stars, where he is forever a hunter facing the constellation of the Bull with the Pelaides flying above its back, while Orion is also being circled by the She-bear (The Great Bear). But Orion is fixed in place among the nightly wheel of the constellations, and by sunrise he has vanished from the sky. Thus he can never again enter the pre-dawn sky to be with Diana/Aurora.
1. The first chapter of Joseph Eddy Fontenrose’s book Orion: The Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress (University of California Press, 1981) makes a valiant attempt at a concise summary and comparison of the tangled mess of stories.
2. This is an inversion of today’s understanding of the common phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, which arises from a literary culture of transmission. Here the giant is impulsive/blind, and it is the inventive ‘bright spark’ who stands atop him who has the intelligence and far-sight.
3. In the painting Diana ‘stands in’ for the rising-dawn pre-sunrise goddess Aurora, who was the protagonist in older versions of the story — in which it was Aurora who took Orion into the pre-dawn sky, and only later does Orion somehow meet Diana while hunting there.