The heroic and tragic Hercules story


Tom Burns - Stargazing

Straight overhead in the early evenings of late July is the constellation Hercules. These days, the constellation is best known for a single astronomical object, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. Seen through a large telescope, M13, as it is also called, looks like a pile of diamond dust set on black velvet.

The constellation itself is mostly ignored. These days, the great hero is washed away by the lights from the city. You’ll need at least suburban skies to spot him. We can still see him pretty well at Perkins in Delaware, but with the growth of Columbus and Delaware street lighting, his prognosis is not good.

It has not always been so. Oddly, Hercules is also one of the faintest constellations known to the ancients. Yet the constellation was so important to the ancients that they identified it with their greatest hero, called Heracles by the Greeks, about whom more myths developed than any other figure.

Legends about his exploits go back farther than history records. Even before the ancient Greeks, he was seen as the “kneeling man” in many cultures. As he kneels, he places his left foot on the head of the giant dragon Draco, who stretches below him in the northern sky.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, these stars represented the highest ideals of bravery and headstrong heroism and the lowest depths of insanity and depravity.

Things started out badly for Heracles. He had the misfortune of being born out of the dalliance of Zeus, the king of the gods, and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was extremely jealous of Zeus’ many mortal lovers, but there wasn’t much she could do to get revenge against her more powerful husband.

Instead, she took it out on the mortals. Hera had a grudge against Heracles from his birth, and he had to face her considerable wrath his entire life.

When he was still in his crib, Hera sent a couple of serpents to wring the life out him. Such was his physical strength that, even as a baby, Heracles wrung the life out of the snakes instead.

Heracles grew to a man with the strength of a god, and all the weaknesses that a hard mortal life can engender. In a fit of madness visited upon him by Hera’s evil spell, he murdered his children.

When sanity returned, the remorseful hero went to the Oracle at Delphi to beg for atonement. The Oracle ordered him to serve Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, for one year. It was Eurystheus who ordered the hero to embark on his famous twelve labors.

The night sky is littered with the carcasses of the great beasts that Heracles killed during his adventures. His bloody presence is particularly felt over the springtime sky. Among his famous labors, he killed the Lernean Hydra, visible as a long string of stars low in the southern spring sky. He also killed the Nemean Lion, which is said to be the constellation Leo, which sets in the west by early summer.

Just below Leo in the southern sky is Cancer, the giant crab, slain by Hercules as he battled the Hydra. The Crab and the Hydra were the nasty household pets of Hera. She sent them to bedevil humanity in general and Heracles in specific.

Released from his labors, Hercules tried to make a life for himself. He married the young and beautiful Deianeira, daughter to a king. While traveling together, the couple came upon the centaur Nessus. Inflamed by her beauty, Nessus tried to ravish Deianeira, but Hercules shot him with an arrow dipped in the poisoned blood of the Hydra he had killed earlier in his career.

The dying centaur offered Deianeira some of his poisoned blood, claiming that it would act as a love potion. Later, when Deianeira wrongfully suspected

Heracles of infidelity, she gave Hercules a shirt dipped in the poisoned blood.

It burned his flesh to the bone, and Hercules died a horrible death. In agony, he built a funeral pyre for himself. His mortal part burned up in the flame, and his immortal part rose into the sky where he joined the gods. We see him there as the constellation Hercules to this very day.

Don’t forget about August 21’s partial solar eclipse, during which about 85% of the sun will be covered by the moon at its peak moment in Central Ohio at 2:30 PM.

It is always damaging to your eyes to look directly at the sun. Perkins Observatory recommends using eclipse glasses at all times when viewing a partial eclipse or any time you want to look at the sun.

Eclipse glasses are available at all five central-Ohio locations of Half Price Books. Every purchase includes two informational brochures written by the Perkins staff. The brochures include safety information, alternative methods for observing the sun, and the exact timings for every stage of the eclipse.

In August the Friday night programs will feature M13, the spectacular globular cluster mentioned above. Also, we’ll be observing the planet Saturn — rings, no extra charge. Call 740-363-1257 for details or to reserve tickets.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.