Saturday, 28 July 2012

Star Gayzing - Hercules

So, after many promises, here’s my post on Hercules (Herakles, in Greek) and his place in the night sky. And it all ties in nicely with the Olympics as well. This will have to be but the briefest of life stories as there are so many myths and stories about him. This can only serve as an overview.

Hercules’ constellation appears in the northern hemisphere. Originally the Greeks called his constellation the Kneeling Man, representing an un-named man resting from his labours. Even today the main star is called Rasalgethi, meaning “the Kneeler’s Head”. And, yes, the “Kneeler’s Head” is at the bottom of the star map! That’s because the constellation pictures the man upside down compared to those around it. When depicted as Hercules he is kneeling on the head of Draco the dragon, the constellation above him. Hercules was originally associated with Gemini, and it’s no wonder the Kneeling Man was later associated with him resting from his 12 Labours.

Hercules’ links to the night sky actually began before he could walk or talk. He was the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. Zeus’s wife Hera was tricked into breast-feeing the baby, unaware that he was half-god. She soon found that Hercules was biting onto her too hard and she pulled him away. Milk from her breast sprayed across the sky to create the Milky Way. Having tasted Hera’s milk Hercules was now immortal as well as superhuman.

I told you last time that Hera became jealous of Hercules and how she tried to make life hell for him. She made him kill his family, and the 12 Labours were his punishment.

So how many of these Labours can be linked to the constellations? Here’s a checklist. Not all of them have star links. Some I’ve already dealt with and I’ve linked back to them. Others will be dealt with at a later date.

1.          Kill the Nemean Lion – LEO      
2.          Kill the Lernean Hydra – CANCER and HYDRA
3.          Capture the golden hind of Ceryneia
4.          Kill the Erymanthian Boar
5.          Clean the stables of King Augeias
6.          Kill the man-eating Stymphalian Birds – sometimes linked to ARGO, AQUILA and CYGNUS
7.          Capture the Cretan Bull – TAURUS
8.          Catch the man-eating horses of King Diomedes
9.          Steal the girdle of Queen Hippolyte
10.      Round up the cattle of the Titan Geryon
11.      Fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides – HERCULES, DRACO and THE SKY (via Atlas)
12.      Bring Cerberus up from Hades – HERCULES and CERBERUS (obsolete constellation)

In earlier times Hercules was depicted holding a branch from the tree of the golden apples of the Hesperides. Later it became the tail of Cerberus, a constellation now split between several others, including Hercules.

As I said in my Cancer post, Eurystheus though Hercules had help from his young lover Ioalus in two labours. But he wasn’t his only young boyfriend. The Greek writer Plutarch said Hercules had too many to count. In fact, myths about Hercules’ male lovers outnumber those of his female ones. I don’t need to remind you that the Ancient Greeks had different attitudes to same-sex activity – it was expected of all men. Another well-known boyfriend was Hylas. They both joined the crew of Jason and the Argonauts (ARIES and the obsolete constellation ARGO), but that’s a story of another post.

Finally, the link to the Olympics. One of the myths about the origin of the games (one that contradicts the origin depicted at Olympia) tells how Hercules set up the games as victory celebrations after sacking the city of King Augeias, who cheated him out of a reward for completing his 5th Labour.

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