The Ancient Greeks REALLY had a thing about Heracles/Hercules. Even before I’ve dealt with his own personal constellation he’s cropped up several times already in my Star Gayzing series. It seems that wherever you look in the night sky there’s a reminder of him. The constellations of Cancer and Hydra are just more reminders.
The Babylonians pictured Cancer as a crab or a turtle. It seems perfectly natural for the Greeks to see it as such as well, but how did they explain it?
In the legends of the 12 Labours of Hercules the great hero battles against monsters and confronts difficult challenges. Among the most famous is the slaying of the 7-headed Hydra. As seen in the Disney cartoon as soon as Hercules chops off one head another 2 grow in its place. But unlike the cartoon the mythical hydra is killed by burning the severed neck sumps before the new heads can grow. Eventually all the hydra heads are gone and Hercules slays the monster.
However, in amongst all this action the myths say that Hera, the enemy of Hercules, sent a crab to keep pinching at the hero’s ankle to distract him. Being a hero Hercules just stepped on the crab and carried on slicing. Hera placed the crab and the hydra beside each other in the night sky as constellations.
But Hercules had help with this particular labour. As the crab kept nipping at his ankles Hercules called to his boyfriend Iolaus for help. He was also Hercules’ nephew and the most important of his many male lovers. The two had been travelling companions on many journeys. It was actually Iolaus who came up with the idea of burning the hydra’s neck stumps to stop new heads from growing, and he dashed around with a burning brand at the ready every time Hercules sliced another head off. For some reason, when the American tv company made the series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”, which was quite popular a few years ago, Iolaus was Hercules constant companion – yet for some reason they never mentioned that he was his lover (I wonder why).
Unfortunately, because of Iolaus’s help with this labour, Hercules was given 2 extra ones by King Eurystheus on top of the 10 he had originally given him. I’ll tell you more about Eurystheus and the Labours of Hercules next month when we learn about the first one.