Leo constellation tied to story of Hercules


By Tom Burns


Technically, winter is still with us. I hope you will forgive me if my thoughts turn to spring. Our snowdrops have been in full bloom for weeks now. Despite a recent blast of cold weather, our way-too-early crocuses did not croak.

In anticipation of warmer spring weather, Leo, the noble Lion, rises in the early evening.

Look for it low in the southeast around 9:30 p.m. Start by finding the more familiar Big Dipper. Then, locate the two stars that form the front of the Dipper’s bowl. If you extend the line between those two stars to the east, you’ll run right into Leo’s back.

Leo’s most identifiable feature is the Sickle, a backward question mark of stars representing the Lion’s head and front paw. At the bottom of the Sickle is Regulus, the brightest of the constellation’s stars.

East of the Sickle is a right triangle of stars forming Leo’s hindquarters. The bright star farthest east in the triangle is called Denebola, which denotes the “lion’s tail” in the original Arabic.

The Egyptians were probably the first to identify the constellation as a lion. By the time of the classical Greek culture, the designation had stuck.

To the Greeks, Leo was the Nemean Lion, the offspring of Selene, goddess of the moon.

Leo’s story connects intimately with the sad life of Hercules and his wicked stepmother, the goddess Hera.

Hercules was born of an illicit liaison between Zeus, the king of the gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. He was thus the most muscular man on the planet, half god and half man.

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

In one of her many resentful acts, she sent Hercules into a fit of madness. In that sad state, Hercules murdered his children.

When he came to his senses, remorse overcame him. To cleanse his guilt, he placed himself under the service of his cousin Eurystheus for 12 years.

The cruel Eurystheus imposed the famous 12 labors on Hercules. The first of those tasks was to kill the ferocious lion living in Nemea, a valley in the Argolis region of ancient Greece.

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

Hera was fond of human-devouring monsters and took several of the deadliest as household pets. She nursed Leo in its infancy, which must have been painful because lions are born with all their teeth.

Leo eventually turned up in Nemea, where many residents became toothsome snacks for the voraciously hungry beast.

Finding Leo’s den was a piece of cake. Hercules simply followed the trail of body parts.

He shot at the lion with an arrow. His aim was infallible, but his arrows bounced off the lion’s impermeable hide.

The lion’s den had two entrances. Time after time, Hercules chased the lion into his cave, but the lion always escaped out the back door.

So, Hercules blocked off one of the two entries. He strode into the other opening and pounced on the lion. After much thrashing around, Hercules strangled the beast.

Hercules hefted the lion’s body onto his shoulders, effectively 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 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 frighten the bejabbers out of his enemies, he pulled the lion’s head over his own.

Devastated, Hera immortalized the lion by placing it in the sky as the constellation we still see today.

Hercules is up there, too. Wait an hour after you see Leo, and look to the northeast. There you will see the mighty hero following Leo — as they both experience the thrill of the chase.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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