Astronomy: Hercules and Leo the lion


My daughter, Dr. Krishni Burns, is an extraordinary scholar, whose field is classical reception. She studies the ancient myths and then looks at the way they have been adapted over the years to suit the needs of specific audiences and cultures.

You will please excuse the mention of my daughter. There is no greater honor for an academic than to be able to say, “I have a child much smarter than I am.”

My own interest in everything starry coincides to a great degree. One thing I’ve noticed about our modern adaptations of the myths is how selective we can be about the details to suit our particular prejudices.

No mythological figure appears more frequently these days than Hercules. He has been seen as the cute, gee-gosh-golly hero of the Disney movie. More recently, he has morphed into the over-muscled, studly superhero we seem to love so well.

To the ancients, he possessed both qualities in abundance, but neither depiction quite captures him. Hercules has always struck me as a deeply troubled soul, both a reluctant hero and somewhat arrogant and needlessly violent at the same time.

The myth of Leo, the lion, and Hercules is a case in point.

Leo is one of those few constellations that actually look a little like the characters they represent. You can find it right now by looking high in the southern sky just after dark. Hercules is rising in the east at about the same time.

Leo’s story begins and ends with the story of Hercules.

Hercules was the offspring of Zeus, king of the gods, and a mortal woman. He was thus half god and the strongest man on the planet, the Mad Max of his time.

Hera, queen of the gods and Zeus’ wife, hated Hercules even before he was born, as she did all the considerable number of children born of Zeus’ mortal dalliances.

In one of her many acts of pique against Hercules, she sent him a fit of madness, under the influence of which he killed his own children.

When Hercules came to his senses, he was overcome with remorse. To cleanse himself of his guilt, he placed himself under the service of his cousin Eurystheus for 12 years, during which time he was expected to perform his famous 12 labors.

The first of these tasks was to kill the ferocious lion who lived in Nemea, a valley in Argolis in ancient Greece.

The Nemean Lion was one mean cat, and I ain’t lion. He was the offspring of Typhon, a 100-headed monster, and Echidna, who was half woman and half snake.

Hera sort of adopted the lion. She had a thing for monsters and took several as household pets. She nursed the lion in its infancy, which must have been painful because lions are born with all their teeth.

The lion eventually turned up in Nemea, which was no bargain for the locals. Many of them ended their lives as brunch for the hungry feline.

Anyway, along came Hercules with blood in his eye. Finding the lion’s den was easy. Presumably, he just followed the trail of body parts. He shot the lion with an arrow, but to no avail. Hercules’ aim was infallible, but the arrows bounced off the lion’s leathery hide.

So Hercules blocked off one of the two entrances to the lion’s cave and strode into the other entrance. He pounced on the lion and after much thrashing around, strangled the beast.

Hercules hefted the lion’s body onto his shoulders, in effect disguising himself as the ferocious feline, and returned to his taskmaster. Eurystheus hid in terror when he saw Hercules coming. He thought the lion was coming to get him!

Thereafter, he required Hercules to display his trophies and receive further instruction from outside the city gates.

Eurystheus’ fear gave Hercules the notion that he would wear the animal’s skin as a nasty-smelling cloak. Whenever he wanted to produce in his enemies the same kind of fear that Eurystheus had felt, he pulled the lion’s head over his own.

Of course, Hera was devastated by the death of her pet. She eventually immortalized the lion by placing it in the sky as a constellation, where we can see him still.

The fate of Hercules is far too complex and painfully tragic to discuss here. Suffice it to say that he is still in a sense chasing Leo as he rises in the east. But that part of the story will have to wait for another day.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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