|Hercules was a great hero in Greek mythology.
The son of Zeus and the mortal queen Alcmene he was mortal but imbued with
the strength of a god. He was a descendant of the hero Perseus and
had a twin brother. His great strength was first displayed while
he was still a babe in the cot - Hera sent two snakes to kill him but he
merely grabbed one in each hand and crushed them until they died.
This was not the last time Hera tried to do him harm. He was
said to have been tutored as a boy by Chiron the
Centaur, and one stage of his life he joined the Jason
and the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece.
He is most well known for his twelve impossible
tasks that he completed as a punishment for killing his first wife.
He had done so in a rage that Hera had placed upon him and to absolve himself
of the sin of murder he consulted the Oracle at Delphi. There he
was told to go to the cowardly king Eurystheus, who assigned the Twelve
Labours to Hercules. Eurystheus thought of the most difficult tasks
imaginable, but Hercules found a way to complete them all. (the number
twelve is thought to reflect the signs of the zodiac, in which case each
task can be looked at as representing a particular sign, although not in
The first task was was kill the Nemean
Lion, who's skin was invulnerable to weapons. Hercules caught
the lion and strangled it to death. He then took it's claws and used
them to skin the Lion - he then wore the tanned hide as a protective cloak
for his other tasks.
The second task was to kill the nine-headed
serpent Hydra that resided in the Marshes of Lerna. One of it's heads
was immortal but the other eight would grow two heads when one was chopped
off. Hercules battled the Hydra for thirty days without success.
Hera sent a crab to harry him, which he stepped on and crushed. Hera
put in amongst the stars as Cancer the Crab.
Eventually he managed to defeat the Hydra by burning the stumps after he
had sliced the heads off. Some versions say he was helped in this
task by his nephew Iolaus, who either drove his chariot or held the burning
torch that seared the severed necks. When Hercules was done
he dipped his arrows in the monsters blood.
The third task was to capture the Ceryneian
Hind, which was sacred to Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, and had antlers
of gold and hoofs of brass. After a year of chasing the Hind Hercules
managed to capture it, only to be stopped by Artemis on his way home.
After he explained the task, she let him pass; he showed the Hind to Eurystheus,
then let it go again.
The fourth task was to capture the Boar
of Erymanthus, which he did so by chasing it into a snow bank and exhausting
it as it tried to push through the snow, whereby he was able to catch it.
It is said that in celebration of completing this task the centaurs held
a huge feast, as Chiron had offered advice in how to defeat the boar.
The party got rowdy and the centaurs broached a cask of strong wine that
they kept only for themselves and shared this with Hercules. Hercules
either got drunk on this wine, or some of the centaurs disagreed with giving
the wine to Hercules, and a fight broke out in which Hercules began firing
his arrows around. One of them hit Chiron and as the centaur was
immortal he would be in constant agony from the poison if left on Earth,
so the gods took him and placed him amongst the stars also.
The fifth task was to clean the Augean
stables in a day. King Augeas owned thousands of cattle and many
herds of goats and his stables had become full of dung over the years.
He did so by digging a trench and diverting the river Alpheus so that it
flowed through the stables and washed them clean. When it was done,
he returned the river to it's natural bed.
The sixth task was to kill the Stymphalian
birds, which ate the flesh of men and had metal feathers that they could
shoot like arrows. It is said that Athena gave him a large brass
rattle (or maybe cymbals) made by Hephaestus (Vulcan) the noise of which
drove the birds into the air where Hercules could shoot them with his poisoned
arrows. He shot many that day; one story says some were driven away
to the Black Sea where they were later encountered by Jason.
The seventh task was to bring back the
Cretan Bull. The bull was to have been sacrificed by King Minos to
Poseidon, but he had not done so and Poseidon subsequently let the bull
ravage the island of Crete. Hercules captured and bound it and slung
it over his back to carry it back to Eurystheus. It was let go after
it was presented to Eurystheus and ravaged the countryside until it was
later killed by Theseus.
The eight task was to bring back the man-eating
mares of Diomedes, who was a son of Ares, God of War. They were wild
beasts and the only way Hercules could get near them was to battle and
kill Diomedes and throw his body to the mares, who promptly ate it.
After this they became docile enough ot Hercules to control them and take
them back to Eurystheus.
The ninth task was to bring back the belt
of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons. Many battle were fought along
the way but eventually he won the girdle without fighting Hippolyte herself
- she gave it freely - and he returned with it to complete the task.
The tenth task was to fetch back the cattle
of Geryon. By this time king Eurystheus had thought Hercules would
have been killed many times over so he thought this task would be his end,
so he tried to think of something even harder than before; he was to bring
back the red cattle of Geryon. Geryon was a giant of a man, with
three heads and torsos joined at the waist. He had a giant dog named
Orthrus, who helped him guard the cattle and his lands lay far to the west
To get there Hercules had to cross the Straight at Gibraltar; where he
erected two columns to aid him as he stepped from side to side which became
known as the Pillars of Hercules. He was able to fight and kill Geryon
and Orthrus and then he drove the cattle back to Greece through Spain and
The eleventh task was to fetch the Golden
Apples of the Hesperides. The Golden Apples were wedding gift to
Hera and they grew in a orchard that as said to lie in a land even further
west than that of Atlas (who holds the sky up on his shoulders).
The orchard was tended by three daughters of Atlas, known as the Hesperides,
and it was guarded by a fierce dragon. When Hercules set off towards
the west once more he did not know how to find this orchard, but the nymphs
of the River Po (Eridanus) told him to find the sea god Nereus, who could
show him the way. Nereus would not give in easily though and changed
into water, then fire in a bid to escape Hercules grasp, but the hero held
on tight. Eventually Nereus relented and told Hercules how to find
the Hesperides. Along the way Hercules encountered Prometheus, the
Titan who had given fire to the mortals and had been chained to mountain
as punishment. Hercules slew the eagles who picked at the Titan's
liver and freed him of his chains. In thanks, Prometheus told Hercules
the best way to get the Golden Apples was to ask Atlas to fetch them for
him. When Hercules finally reached Atlas, Atlas agreed to help, if
only Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone. So Hercules
braced the sky on his shoulder and Atlas fetched the Apples from his daughters
but when he returned he decided he'd had enough of hold up the sky and
that he'd let Hercules do the job for a bit longer. Hercules thought
quickly - he would hold up the sky but first he would like to place a pad
on his shoulder to help take the weight. To do so Atlas would have
to take the sky again for a moment - then Hercules quickly grabbed the
Golden Apples and scurried away, leaving Atlas to shoulder the burden once
The twelfth task was to bring the three
headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates of the Underworld. Hercules
won permission from Hades and wrestled the huge dog into submission with
his great strength and took him to show Eurystheus. After this last
task Eurystheus could no longer deny Hercules his freedom and let him go,
absolving Hercules of his blood-guilt.
Hercules married again, to a lady named
Deianeira, but he had a roving eye and still chased after other women.
Hercules had many more adventures after he complete the Twelve Labours
and when his end finally came, it was no less dramatic than the rest of
his life. This story begins with Nessus the centaur, who would ferry
people across the swift river Evenus for a fee. On a journey into
exile after committing yet another murder in a rage, Hercules let Nessus
carry his wife while he swam, but when the hero reached the other side
her turned and saw Nessus trying to have his way with Deianeira.
Angry, Hercules shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As the centaur
lay dying on the bank he whispered to Deianeira to keep a vial of his blood
as love potion if she ever doubted Hercules' devotion to her. In
time, Deianeira heard that Hercules was often seen with another woman and
decided to test his devotion to her. She soaked a tunic in the blood
of Nessus, hoping to make Hercules turn back to her - the poisonous blood
of the Hydra that had killed Nessus and mixed with the centaur's blood
now burned Hercules skin; he, too, would now suffer the fate of Chiron
if nothing was done. Remembering a prophecy that he could not die
by mortal means, he sent a messenger to the Oracle of Delphi to seek the
advice of Apollo. Hercules was instructed to build a great funeral
pyre and leave his fates in the hands of the gods. He did so and
while the fire consumed his flesh his spirit was taken by the gods to Mount
Olympus and his figure placed among the stars.
In the sky Hercules lies between Ophiuchus
and Draco. He is kneeling, with one foot resting on Draco's head,
hence alpha (a)
Herculis is also known as Ras Algethi which is "The Head of the
Kneeling one." One arm is outstretched , holding the skin of the
Nemean Lion as a shield while he wields his favoured club over his head.
His body is marked by an asterism known as the Keystone, for it's near
symmetrical shape that resembles the keystone of a stone arch.
An excerpt from Johan van
Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
Hercules is depicted as
kneeling on the
conquered head of Draco
the Dragon in the sky.
This article is ©2002
Stargazers Astronomy Shop