Hercules, the greatest of all the legendary heroes, was called Heracles by the ancient Greeks.
He is commemorated by the fifth largest constellation, located almost straight overhead around 11 p.m. right now. His stars are relatively dim. You have to get far away from city lights to appreciate his grandeur completely.
If you want to learn about Hercules, I suppose you could watch that old Disney movie. Unfortunately, the “Disneyfied” version bears little resemblance to the mythic figure. For example, the ancient Romans borrowed Hercules from the ancient Greeks. The Greeks called him Heracles. The Disney movie used his Roman name, but all the names of the gods are Greek. Thus, Hercules is his Roman appellation, but Zeus, the king of the gods, is his Greek name. If the Disneyites wanted to be consistent, Zeus should have been called Jupiter, or Hercules should have been called Heracles.
But that’s just a quibble compared to the way Disney tells the story of the Greek hero’s mythological life. Just to set the record straight, let’s look at the “real” Heracles as he is represented in the nighttime sky.
Warning: The Disney folks probably changed the story so significantly because they didn’t want their film to be rated R. Hide your children.
Alcides, as he was called at birth, was the illegitimate offspring of Zeus, king of the gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Zeus’s wife, Hera, didn’t cotton to her husband’s philandering, which caused no end of trouble for Heracles throughout his exceedingly difficult life.
To start with, he had to drink the mother’s milk of a goddess to achieve the immortality of a god. Hera, as you might imagine, was unwilling to provide such a service to Zeus’s lust child. Zeus thus laid the baby Alcides beside her as she slept. The infant did what came naturally, suckling the milk of immortality. Hera awoke in pain because Heracles was immensely strong, even as a child. She pushed the babe away. Her milk streamed across the sky and left a silvery band of light we call the Milky Way.
Hera wasn’t one to cry over spilt milk. Vengeance was her specialty. She couldn’t kill the baby, of course. The immortality that she had unwillingly given him made that impossible. Instead, she made his earthly life a living hell.
Hera’s torturous behavior started early. He was still a babe in his cradle when Hera sent two serpents to swallow the innocent child. Such was the hero’s great strength, even as an infant, that he reached up and strangled the snakes with his chubby, little hands.
Heracles grew to an even stronger and more powerful manhood. Hera’s constant harassment produced in him a prodigious temper, and many men died because of real or imagined insults. However, he was unstintingly loyal to his friends and to the downtrodden, saving many of them from death and humiliation.
His growing fame infuriated Hera, so she cast upon him an evil spell of insanity. Under its influence, he slaughtered his wife and children.
When he came to his senses, our horrified hero knew he had to atone for his sins. The Oracle at Delphi told him he must perform twelve “labors” for the weak and dissipated King Eurystheus of Tiryns. The Oracle also renamed him, rather ironically, Heracles, “beloved of Hera.”
The labors were arduous and dangerous, but Heracles performed them bravely. Several of the labors involved the killing of some of Hera’s nasty pets, all of which are represented in the sky as constellations. Notable is the constellation Leo, the Lion, which is now setting in the west. The lion was systematically eating the residents of the village of Nemea, and Heracles came to their rescue.
Upon his return from the labors, he also exacted vengeance on all those who had wronged him. Most of the time his revenge involved death and destruction. However, sometimes it demonstrated a wicked sense of humor.
For example, as he returned from his first labor, killing the Nemean lion, he donned the lion skin as a cloak with the lion’s head placed above his own. From a distance, King Eurystheus was convinced that Heracles had been defeated and that the lion had come to exact a measure of revenge on Eurystheus for sending Heracles to kill it. Ever the coward, Eurystheus hid in a large wine jar. Eurystheus spent a lot of time in that wine jar over the course of the twelve labors, much to the delight of Heracles.
Heracles eventually remarried, this time to the lovely Deianeira, who was soon ravaged by the Centaur Nessus. Heracles killed the Centaur. As Nessus lay dying, he whispered to Deianeira that she should collect his spilled blood and smear it on Heracles’ clothing as a love potion.
Soon thereafter, Deianeira suspected Heracles of infidelity. To win him back, she spread the Centaur’s blood on her husband’s tunic, and Nessus immediately had his revenge. The blood acted like acid, eating away the flesh of the hero.
The unendurable pain caused Heracles to build himself a funeral pyre. He threw himself upon the fire, and the flames burned away what was mortal in him. His immortal spirit ascended to the heavens, where we see him today — among the stars, as is his birthright.
The constellation is usually depicted as Engonasin, the “Kneeling Man” because of Heracles’ fealty to his father Zeus. As he was returning from one of his labors, he was violently confronted by two giants, who together were stronger than he was. He was in dire peril, so he kneeled in prayer to his father, who granted him the strength to triumph. As Zeus turned him into stars and placed him in the sky, the god chose to honor that moment of submission and loyalty by placing him on one knee.
All this mythologizing may not seem all that important to us in the modern world, but the stories helped me to solidify my lifelong love of stargazing. Most people look up at the sky and see a bunch of stars. To me, the stars and the constellations have meaning that has shaped my behavior toward others. I look up at the stars of the “Kneeling Man” and know this:
It’s easy to see why Disney changed the story. The mythic Heracles was much too human. He committed great crimes and he suffered great pain, and yet he was heroic.
His heroism does not derive from his superhuman labors or his great physical strength. As the flames leapt up to give him peace, he was alone, having betrayed and been betrayed by everyone he ever loved. Some hero.
His truest heroism lies in his continuous efforts to redeem himself. In the end, he endured everything the world and the gods threw at him. And in the end, he triumphed. He lives now among the stars because inside himself he had the glorious breath of immortality. As do we all, brother and sister stargazers, but often we must struggle heroically to find it.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.