Hercules continues to chase lion across sky


The constellation Leo is slowly fading from the sky because of urban light pollution. While it still shines brightly, we can understand why the ancients honored it with a place in the nighttime sky.

Just after dark, look for Leo low in the east. First, find the Big Dipper. Next, locate the two stars that form the front of the Dipper’s bowl. Extend the line between those two stars to the east, and you’ll run right into Leo’s back.

A collection of five bright stars, The Sickle, forms Leo’s head and front paw. It looks a bit like a backward question mark. The bottom star in The Sickle is Regulus, which forms his front paw.

The ancient Greeks called the star Kardia Leontos, the Romans Cor Leonis, both of which mean the “lion’s heart.” The name Regulus didn’t follow until the 16th century.

According to Richard Allen, the great astronomer Copernicus named it. Regulus means “little king” because, as we still say, the lion is the king of beasts.

East of the sickle, a stellar right triangle forms the lion’s hindquarters. The easternmost star in the triangle is Denebola, the “lion’s tail” in ancient Arabic.

To our modern eyes, the constellation doesn’t look like a lion. At one of our programs at Perkins, an imaginative fifth grader insisted that it looked more like an aardvark. However, the leonine connection stretches back into our earliest cultural history.

The ancient Egyptians were most likely the first to see the constellation as a lion. They depicted it perched on a serpent or snake.

Some ancient Greek and Roman commentators write that it was the offspring of Selene, the goddess of the moon. It’s easy to see why. Selene frequently visits her offspring. Every month, the moon passes near the star Regulus in Leo.

Early Hebrews connected the constellation with the Lion of Judah, representing their ancient faith’s strength and nobility. Medieval Christians pictured it as the lion’s den of the Biblical book of Daniel.

Leo is almost certainly the lion Hercules slew during his famous 12 labors.

The first task was to kill the ferocious lion who lived in Nemea, a valley in Greece’s Argolis.

The Nemean Lion was one mean cat, and I ain’t lyin’. In this version of the myth, he was the evil offspring of a 100-headed monster called Typhon and a half-woman and half-snake called Echidna.

Hera, the queen of the gods, had a thing for hideous monsters and took several as household pets. She nursed the infant Leo, which must have been unpleasant. 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.

Along came Hercules with blood in his eye. Finding the lion’s den was easy. 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.

Our hero chased Leo into its cave, but the lion escaped from a second exit. The process repeated again and again, much to the frustration of Hercules.

Hercules finally blocked off one of the two entrances, strode into the other entrance, and pounced on the lion. After much thrashing around, he strangled the beast.

Hercules skinned the lion and hefted the bloody hide onto his shoulders.

Hercules decided to wear the animal’s skin as a nasty-smelling cloak. Whenever he wanted to petrify his enemies, he pulled the lion’s head over his own.

Hera was devastated by the death of her pet. She placed the lion in the sky as a constellation, which we can still see today.

As the nights of spring pass, Leo arcs across the sky. It reaches its highest point in the southern sky and slowly descends to the west. At the same time, Hercules rises in the northeast. Thus, night after spring night, he chases the lion across the sky.

The lion surely enjoys being pursued, never to be caught. And for our greatest Herculean heroes, the joy of the hunt is in the chase and not the conquest.

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

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