A dragon fight in the heart of Orion

By Phil Plait | June 24, 2011 11:49 am

It’s very common to see familiar things in random patterns. We see faces in clouds, Jesus in a tortilla, and smiley faces everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous there’s a term for it: pareidolia.

So when I saw on reddit that people were talking about seeing an epic dragon fight in the Orion Nebula, I smiled. But then I saw the image, and that smile turned to pure amazement. Why? Because here’s the image:

[Click to ensmaugenate.]

Do you see the dragon on the left, wings outstretched, breathing fire, blasting it at the man on the right? He has a face, and I see his shoulder, back, and outstretched arm as well, as if he’s battling the dragon.

Let me be clear: this picture is real! Well, the dragon and face aren’t real — they’re more pareidolia — but the images in the nebula are actually there. You might see them more easily in this contrast-enhanced version, too.

Let me explain…

OK, first: this really is the Orion Nebula. It was taken by Hubble in 2006, and I’ve written about it before (go to that page and scroll down a bit).

In the picture above from reddit, part of the frame was masked to show just the dragon and the man more clearly — I added the labels "masked region" to make it clear which part were darkened. I’ve included the original Hubble picture here; click it to see a hugely embiggened version. In that hi-res shot you can clearly see the dragon and the man. No kidding; they’re there.

When I first saw the masked image I recognized it as Orion right away, but I have to admit I thought someone had distorted the image to make the dragon and face. Part of being a skeptic is doubt, but a bigger part is checking the facts! So when I saw both figures in the original version, my jaw literally dropped — and I do mean literally, at least until I started laughing my head off.

What’s amazing to me — besides just how flipping cool this is — is how the frak did I miss this all these years?! It’s right there, and it’s in an image of one of the most celebrated and famous objects in the entire night sky! I’ve observed this nebula since I was but a wee lad, and have looked at a bazillion images of it.

I guess I never noticed the dragon fight because I’ve never looked at the picture the right way; that is, in the right frame of mind. I remember when people were seeing the face of Jesus in a Hubble pic of the Eagle nebula; I purposely started looking for other things in the picture and saw cats, dogs, a bison, and even Abe Vigoda.

So you need to be primed to see those things. As an astronomer, when I look at Orion I see shock waves from stellar winds and flooding UV radiation, dark dust lanes, turbulence, and dense molecular clouds. But once I look at it as a dork with a juvenile sense of humor, yup, the dragon and man are obvious. And once seen, they cannot be unseen.

So I tip my helm to the good folks at reddit. Well done.

Related posts:

The unfamiliar face of beauty
A new view of an old friend
The Orion VISTA


Comments (88)

  1. Burnination ensuing!

  2. Janet Factor

    Don’t be silly, it’s not a man and a dragon; it is God battling the devil. 😉

  3. Dan I

    In the “embiggened” original picture from Hubble to me the man looks like Darth Vader which makes the picture just that much more AWESOME!

  4. MagicSwordKing

    I see something different…

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…

  5. Yes, you do need to be primed (well, it helps, anyway). So don’t kick yourself for not seeing it during all those hours spend examining that Hubble picture. The one in this case was doctored in a way that enhances one’s ability to perceive those pareidolias.

  6. VinceRN

    Amazing. Makes what want to kick my 8″ Newtonian for what the Orion Nebula looks like through it.

    I just looked at a bunch of other high quality pictures of M42. It’s there, at least in part, in all of them. Even in the small image at SEDS. http://seds.org/messier/m/m042.html

    @ Janet – The face does look a bit like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Alternately it could be Dan Haggerty as Grizzly Adams.

  7. davidlpf

    So which one the man or dragon be the master of Orion.

  8. I see what you saw, Phil, but I also see more. Going to an unmasked image, if you imagine the dragon head you saw as paws or hands, there’s a much larger beast there (a griffin?, a dragon with its head bowed or looking in our direction?). If you look at the man’s shoulder, it looks like the face of a man in pain (cartoonish – two wide eyes and a mouth making an “o”), or maybe it’s a before and after picture. The man gets burned by the dragon and shrieks in pain!

    Gotta love the human mind!

  9. rws3n

    My first thought on seeing the masked picture was this: “You cannot pass! I am a servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Anor…”

    There’s even a crinkly hat above the wizard, going up and to the right.

  10. Anchor

    Turn it 90 degrees counter-clockwise and you’ll see a striking likeness of Vladimir Lenin. (Or Mitch Miller, or Ming the Merciless, or any gaunt balding fellow with a mustache and goatee one prefers: it shares the same bald head with the face Phil points out).

  11. Hans

    A dragon and a human face…

    did noboby see the Chimpanzee-face laugthing to us?


    Darwin seems to be everywhere 😀

  12. Am I the only one who sees a psychotic clown just to the right of the man? I am? I’ll be in my room.

  13. Mike

    @ MagicSwordKing…

    You left off, “Time to die,” but perhaps you thought someone might suggest that to you, like me.

    Nahh… :)

  14. Aly

    Impressing! Astonishing.

  15. Dave

    So, how much did J.K. Rowling presciently prepay for that cross-promotional celestial primordial phenomenon, carefully calculated to be discovered just before the release of the final Harry Potter movie to the theaters? Genius move, genius, I say!

  16. DrBB

    A lot of great artists rely on this principle–managing to create things like the beard on the man in this pic and other “vivid” details by just the least suggestion of the lines involved and relying on the viewer’s eye and brain to supply the rest. Of course in the case of a work of art you have a context and a sense of what’s intended so the process–depending on what the artist wants to achieve of course–is much more immediate. The face in this image particularly works on that very suggestive but convincing level. Cool stuff.

    Adding… btw I looked at the other article, and that’s definitely V I Lenin but no matter how I squint I’m not seeing Abe Vigoda. Maybe I should quit before I do, or I won’t be able to un-see it.

  17. Sam H

    @2 Janet: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels…” (Revelation 12:7)

    Hey, even if a lot of you think the bible is a bunch of BS you can’t deny it’s literary beauty :)

    I can see the man, but I see more of a horse than a dragon…

  18. Good old Orion showing off again. I was watching some older episodes of The Universe the other day that from the History Channel. They were discussing nebulas and they did this really fantastic 3D pan around the inside of Orion. That was amazing. I wish I had a program that generated that in great detail so I could check out some of the more interesting spots.

  19. Chris Winter

    I’m seeing Orion slave girls… Oh wait, that’s all in my head, isn’t it? 😉

    By the way: Thanks, MSK. I always put those attack ships at the Tannhauser Gate.

  20. Jose

    That’s clearly Dr. Zaius fighting the dragon.

  21. What, you guys don’t see the Screaming Monkey SE of the man’s face?

  22. Aaron

    @19. Jose:

    Precisely what I was thinking!

  23. When you people tell me what to see I see it all!

  24. Michael Berry

    Great picture, but I also like your use of the phrase “since I was but a wee lad.”

    Well done, sir.

  25. Jim Spinner

    Winnie the Pooh in the close up of the dragon’s head?

  26. Douglas Troy

    Forget the Dragon and the Man, do you guys see what looks like giant words in those pictures?!? I mean, I can clearly make out “MASKED REGION” and if you squint, you can kinda see what reads like “dragon’s face” …

    I mean … WOW. Those are some freak’y stars.


  27. The bathroom in the house I grew up in was done up in a pattern called “imagin-o-graph,” which consisted of a white background crisscrossed at all different angles by ragged gold lines. There was plenty of opportunity to become acquainted with the “imaginary” patterns therein, but – as in the case of M42 – they were really there. I pointed out some to family members, and they pointed out some to me. Richard Nixon’s head in profile, the back end of a jet fighter, a dog chewing on his carrot. There was even a man on his hands and knees, with his…

    Well, we didn’t discuss that, then, and neither will I, now.

    My point in bringing this up is that I was so accustomed to picking out patterns in “random arrays,” that it never seemed very remarkable to me. So, when the “Mars face” came along, it was like, “P’shaw. Light, shadow, and a propensity for humans to recognize faces.” I never noticed the features in M42 in the last 40-odd years. Or maybe I did, and payed it so little heed, that I have no recollection of it, now.

  28. Sili

    Don’t be silly, it’s not a man and a dragon; it is God battling the devil.

    But the Devil looks to be winning.

  29. kroosing

    And how about the orange dragon behind the man’s face, standing upright facing left?
    Or the huge head upper left spitting the dragon’s head out?

    I love this pareidolia searching. Big photos of nebulae are ideal for playing the game with kids. They won’t ever fall into the religious image trap later!

    Thanks Phil,

  30. Old Geezer

    Dragon or horse and man. Did none of you see the giant Hippo biting the man on the ass?

  31. See, this is the funny thing about pareidolia. I struggle to see the dragon’s head. But I do strikingly see a chimpanzee’s face in the “dragon’s” wings and back.

    It’s mouth forms a strong dark horizontal line on the far left of the image, with its eyes and nose at an appropriate height above the mouth. In case you don’t see it, it’s on the far left of the image, as though it’s facing out of the picture but looking back toward the center.

    Funny how our minds play these tricks on us. Even funnier to imagine what these “images” would look like from different vantage points in the galaxy.

    Clearly tricks of our brains.

  32. That is Wicked! I mean Wicked COOL! That I would have never seen I wouldve just seen it as a region in space. (haha) But I see everything.

  33. VinceRN

    After going back several times today, I’m thinking horse rather than dragon. i see a distinct mane. also the man’s expression is more one of concern than of combat. He is reaching out cautiously to a horse, perhaps one that’s upset for some reason.

    Not sure what to make of the screaming ghostly figure behind his shoulder, nor of the dolphin swimming up his back.

    Love this picture.

  34. MB

    Posts like this are why I love this blog!

    I’m not seeing the evil looking face behind the man that I saw mentioned a few times. Although, I do see a giant grinning face in the man’s torso…

    Awesome stuff!!!

  35. TheVirginian

    OK, it’s very very obvious to all but the most obtuse or unlettered!!!!!
    Gandalf, on the right, is battling Smaug. I don’t see the other Hobbit characters, so this is one on one stuff; ThunderDome on a cosmic scale: one wizard and one dragon go in, only one comes out.
    I mean, it’s obvious. Only a reality-denying pseudo-skeptic will pretend that Gandalf and Smaug are not going at it on a galactic level!!!!!!
    I’m going to bet on Gandalf, but you know that Smaug was pretty subtle; he could glamor Gandalf (as in “True Blood”) and win.
    But … if Bard ever shows up in future photos, we know who is going to win!!!!

  36. Svlad Cjelli

    I saw the giant head looking hither first, then the firebreathing wyvern thing.

  37. Cern

    I dont really see the dragon but the head certainly looks like einstein! Maybe it is a sign…. Lol the universe is full of surprises everything that exists down here exists up there too- anyone who can rap their head around how big it is certainly must have doubt that there is not anything looking up at us

  38. Shame on you, Phil, for not telling us the names of all the pareidolia-named nebulae. You know, horsehead nebula, california nebula, etc. I know there are a lot, but I think there are a lot that aren’t. I don’t actually know, myself. Shame!

  39. Richard

    It’s Odin!

    I see his white-bearded face and white hair, I see the cape over his shoulder falling down his back, and I see his arm (muscular, slight bend at the elbow). I can make out his upper torso too.

    Rather like the Anthony Hopkins Odin.


  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    Classic pareidolia. 😀
    Fantastic in several senses of that word! 😉
    Although isn’t *all* of the constellation of Orion* technically one big case of pareidolia? 😉

    (Or does that term only apply more narrowly to seeing faces – eg. Jesus, Mary, Lenin – in things?)

    Great write up and must admit it’s the first I’ve seen of this too. Reminds me somehow of staring at clouds and campfires letting imagination run wild.


    * Also all of (superhero /demi-god) Hercules, (goddess) Virgo, (super-healer & demi-god) Ophiuchus, (king) Cepheus, (Queen) Cassieopeia & (Princess) Andromeda .. too! :-)

    PS. I believe if you look *very* closely somewhere else in Orion you can just spy an object that’s the spitting image of a horses head! Does that count too? 😉

  41. Gary Ansorge

    16. DrBB

    “A lot of great artists rely on this principle–managing to create things like the beard on the man in this pic and other “vivid” details by just the least suggestion of the lines involved and relying on the viewer’s eye and brain to supply the rest.”

    Or, as at least one sculpture said ” I just chip away all the rock that hides the image in the stone.”

    Pareidolia is how I manage to draw faces but it only works for me on a dirty drum skin. I just accent the faces I see in the smudges with a pencil. On the other hand, I have absolutely no talent for drawing images directly from my imagination. I have a friend who has that ability and some of the dragons she’s drawn are amazing(she loves dragons).

    Gary 7

  42. Keith Bowden

    Pareidolia, schmareidolia – it’s obviously proof of god – it’s Odin and Fafnir!

    (THIS face I can see – moon face, still no. :) )

  43. Mike

    Thank you, Phil. 😀

  44. mike burkhart

    Maybe the man is the ghost of Bruce Lee giving us a new Kung Fu move or showing us the Dragon style (one of the many animal moviements of Kung Fu).

  45. I actually always saw a hand in Orion’s nebula, much more obivously than I can see the dragon fight. There is a kind of half-ellipse shape somewhere below the man’s shoulder, it’s as big as the man’s head. This is the sleave. Just above it is the palm of the hand, and you can see the thumb touching the curled index just above it. Right next to the index are two other clearly visible curled up fingers. The pinky is also there, but much less well-defined. You can even see the outline of the nails on the two middle fingers. You can’t unsee it once you resolved it.

  46. molybdenumfist

    No dragon – I see ET… and the man looks like Gollum

  47. Lee pollack

    Forget the cosmic relevance. The reason we see faces in the branches of trees, the clouds, the topology of mars, and orion’nebula is because our brains right parietal-occipital association cortex contains columns of cells which depolarize in response to visual input containing pixelationthat mimics facial attributes, real or imaginary; I.e. the part of the brain that lets us recognize each other as family, friend, or foe also gives us this aspect of our IMAGE-inations.

  48. Dark Jaguar

    I can’t see the dragon for the life of me. I’d probably need a very overt outline to see it. I can make out the man pretty clearly, but that dragon eludes me. At best, I see what could be a blast of nebula to the man’s face FROM where the dragon is supposed to be, and I do see kind of a horse’s mane, but it’s attached to some messed up blob, not a face, and I cant’ see wing one! Arg, this is like everyone but me being able to look at a “magic picture”. Note: I can see stereograms now, but for me the 3D is always inverted, that is the background stand off the page and the object looks like a dent in it rather than a bump.

  49. aCog

    i StumbledUpon a “report” today that said something about some type of reptilian aliens hailing from the region of orions belt and that the arecibo crop circles are a reply/possible warning from the greys against these reptilian aliens. the greys are clearly manipulating our imaging technology. game over guys get. ready for mortal kombat

  50. Ub

    Check out the ultra deep field. at the top, just left of center, is an upside down purple and orange ghengis khan face.

  51. Buzz Parsec

    It’s James Randi carrying a small, unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back. Don’t cross the streams!

  52. kennypo65

    I have had this picture on my computer for years. I even had it as my desktop background for a while, but I never saw these things until today. I could never get those magic eye pics either.

  53. Aly

    I found something about the fight between “dragons” and humanity. Pls read it without skepticism, or fanaticism, and analize it critically; I would be pleased in reading your opinion: http://www.nibiruancouncil.com/html/reptilianconflictarticle.html

  54. Jangers
  55. Chewbacca

    I once saw a picture of chuck norris on my toast, that didn’t mean anything. Does this?

  56. Dave

    The face looks like “white haired God” – or Zeus if you prefer. Amazing stuff!

  57. Quase

    Dang it, was going to do a “burninating the countryside, burninating the sky” joke, but #1 beat me to the Trogdor reference…

  58. reidh

    I may be repeating any earlier post but, orion was a hunting or fighting great warrior wasn’t he? like nimrod in the bible? anyway he was hunting one day and in the course of the hunt, threatened to kill every beast on Earth. Mother Earth objected and sent a giant scorpion* to kill Orion. The creature succeeded, and after his death, the goddesses asked Zeus to place Orion among the constellations. Zeus consented and, as a memorial to the hero’s death, added the Scorpion to the heavens as well.(* Scorpion is here a type of creature, Greek σκορπίος, not a proper name. The constellation is called Scorpius in astronomy; colloquially, Scorpio, like the related astrological sign — both are Latin forms of the Greek word. Cicero used Nepa, the older Latin word for “scorpion.”)
    But maybe those early people KNEW something about these pareidoliac visions but not being able to see them, made up stories. if they had been able to see them, they would have thought them REAL, and would have idolized them as they did the myths. like tom says ‘once you see them you will always see them later. I find it really remarkable that accidental pictures like the photo of the orion nebula have pareidolia within them that are sometimes more exquisite than any existing artistic equivalent. with more subtle shading and coloring etc. it is truly inspiring. BTW has anybody tried viewing paul cezanne’s art with the same kind of perspective?

  59. reidh

    I am charmed to see that Phil Plait is amused by these paradoliae, actually the entire panoply of hubble and other teloscopic pictures have such phenomenae., i think. Like the mote in god’s eye?

  60. jlarson897

    Dont be ignorant, its not god. There is no god.

  61. The Grinch

    Anyone see the Grinch in the lower left corner as well?

  62. Matt

    I myself noticed this over a year ago and posted it here…


    Wouldn’t be surprised if someone saw the topic and took some credit.

  63. Christopher Booth

    I see an x-ray image of Jesus’ lungs. Note that the left lung is greatly compressed or atrophied. Could that deformation be the result of cardiac hypertrophy–i.e., his heart’s just so big…?

    But, seriously, I love the word “ensmaugenate”. A stroke of genius there.

  64. Aly

    I saw many many comments about the pareidoliac effect where the mind’s eye see what it wants to see, or what was suggested . Well its ok I agree with all those theories and comproved effects. But did u ever try to invert logics once? One of Consciousness’ definitions is the relation between the mind and the world with which it interacts. Humans are selfish and they think the images things suggest are their mind’s creation…but would an intire galaxy be aware of so-called “human” myths?
    Quoting Joseph Campbell,
    “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

  65. Scott

    Am I the only one that can see the skull in the bottom left corner of the picture and the neck and bowed head of a child just about the bottom right corner? I dont have time to read all the comments.

  66. Jack

    @Sam H

    Bible? Literary beauty? Surely you jest.

  67. TiagoTiago

    Only after a while i saw the dragon; what i easily saw from the start was a grinning super saiyan shooting a kamehameha at an incoming attacker.

  68. Geoffrey

    I also see some feminine genetalia on the high-contrast version at the bottom of the man’s back. Perhaps I’m just in need.

  69. Theo Ross

    Clearly in honor of the upcoming Skyrim release.

  70. J-man

    Never seen the faces either – but the reason I googled on this picture is because of the HAND. Have you not seen that? It’s the most obvious part to me. Just below-right of the head and much bigger. Kind of like the man is reaching out for something… You can clearly see the pinky finger nail on this right hand as well.

  71. Weez

    I’m of a slightly different opinion than reidh. Perhaps the ancient greeks COULD see the orion nebula clearly, and that is why they created the story of orion. i’m not sure if the greeks have any legends of ‘visitors from beyond the stars’, but i do know that many other ancient civilizations do. perhaps the greeks were shown this image by an interstellar species?

    scoff if you must people, but do not deny the plausibility of these occurrences. if one man chooses to believe in Big Bang and evolution, and another in God or Allah; shouldn’t another man be free to choose alien visitation?

  72. Paulo

    I think the bearding man is swinging a sword as well; exploding in fire against the dragon’ s head. You can definitely see an arm.

    Although the fore-shortend right hand (by the ‘shoulder’) pointing out of the image is pretty good as well.

  73. Taylor

    It’s like gazing at the side of G-d’s van.

  74. brenna

    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that nebulae show memories from someones life after they’ve died. I was looking at a few others and saw a woman leaned over crying and another woman moving from laying down to sitting. I’ve been doing art work about it ever since.

  75. J

    It also looks like there is a shark breathing fire coming in from the bottom in the full sized picture.

  76. Aaron

    Is it bad that the second I saw the word “Dragon” I thought of Skyrim?…

  77. Tim

    “Advance our standards, set upon our foes Our ancient world of courage fair
    St. George Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons…..”

    Richard III. act v, sc.3.

  78. dovahkiin

    and in their tongue was dovahkiin … DRAGON BORN!!

  79. zec

    i am seeing cat and kitten :S


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