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 sequential order). 

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 France.   

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 more.  

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

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