Not only has the story of Hercules painted imaginations worldwide for centuries, but Hercules has also found his place among the starry night. Hercules constellation history is important in order to understand the hero’s place in our sky. Despite Hercules’ great fame and the fact that his constellation is one of the largest in the night sky, his starry figure is made up of fairly dim stars. But don’t worry—this luminous warrior isn’t too hard to find if you know where to look.
Warrior Among Stars
Pick one of the moonless nights in July and bring out lawn chairs or picnic blankets to spread on the ground. Around 11:00 PM, lie down with your feet facing north and look straight up. Overhead, on the north-south line astronomers call the meridian, you'll see the four not-too-bright stars that form Hercules' chest. Two fingers held together at arm’s length will cover his chest, also known as the Keystone. As you trace the remaining stars that form the hero's arms and legs, remember that Hercules matches your position—head to the south.
If you live in the country or own binoculars or a telescope, return to the Keystone to enjoy one of the highlights of the summer sky: the famous Hercules Star Cluster, M-13. This ball of hundreds of thousands of stars lies on the western edge of the Keystone. Though M-13 lies 25,000 light years away, its many stars combine to make the cluster visible to the naked eye in dark skies. It will appear as a fuzzy disk a bit smaller than the full Moon. Binoculars improve the view, of course, while a telescopic look can be dazzling!
Birth of a Hero in the Sky
Hercules was known by many names to many ancient cultures, from the Babylonians to the Celts. You could fill a book with the different tales about this great hero, but let's stick to his best known feats—the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
Hercules was the son of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Though befriended by most gods and destined for greatness, he had a powerful enemy—Hera, the queen of the gods. One day she put a spell of madness on him, causing him to go berserk and kill his own children. To atone for the crimes he committed while insane, he had to serve his cousin, King Eurystheus, for 12 years. He would be granted immortality upon the completion of his sentence.
Eurystheus was afraid and jealous of the powerful Hercules, so he gave Hercules the most dangerous and difficult tasks he could think of. The first labor was to slay a lion that was terrorizing the valley of Nemea. This lion's skin could not be pierced, and Hercules found his weapons useless. Hercules did the only thing he could—he strangled the lion with his bare hands. Hercules used the lion's claws to skin the animal, and wore the pelt as a protective coat.
Hercules' next labor required that he kill the Hydra, a many-headed serpent. Each time he cut off a head, two sprang out in its place. Hercules’ solution was to burn each neck with a torch immediately after cutting off a head. This prevented new ones from growing; the strategy enabled Hercules to defeat the horrid beast.
For his third labor, Hercules was told to capture the Ceryneian Hind, a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis. Hercules did not want to hurt the beast, since he was determined not to offend the goddess. He chased the hind for an entire year, and eventually wore the animal out. Hercules then simply picked up the animal and brought it to Eurystheus.
Amazed at Hercules' success, Eurystheus next ordered him to capture alive the Erymanthian Boar, a huge, fierce beast. Hercules used a clever strategy: he chased the boar to a mountain, forcing it higher and higher until it was in deep snow. The animal tired itself trying to run through the drifts, and Hercules jumped on its back to exhaust it entirely. When the animal collapsed, our hero tied it securely and returned to Eurystheus with the beast on his back.
Eurystheus realized that no creature was a match for Hercules' strength, so he tried a different approach. He ordered Hercules to clean the stables of the neighboring king, Augeias. The huge Augeian stables contained hundreds of oxen, and it hadn’t been cleaned for years. But shrewd Hercules was equal to the task; he knocked a hole in a stable wall and dug a channel to the nearby river. The resulting flood cleaned the stables in less than a day; Eurystheus had expected it to take forever!
Eurystheus was troubled and frightened. No beast could foil Hercules, and huge jobs like cleaning the Augean stables couldn't keep him occupied for long. Maybe, the king thought, huge numbers of beasts could defeat the hero. He remembered the countless evil birds that killed humans and animals near the Stymphalian marsh. These creatures showered their victims with arrow-like metal feathers or stabbed them with their metal beaks. He sent Hercules to rid the area of the birds.
Hercules first tried his poisoned arrows, but there were too many birds. As he tried to think of a solution, the goddess Athena came to help him. She gave him magic cymbals, which the hero clanged noisily together. The racket drove the birds into the air, mad with fright. They flew off to an island in the Black Sea and were never seen in the area again.
Eurystheus tried a new strategy: sending Hercules far away for his tasks. For his seventh labor, Hercules had to capture the fire-breathing bull which was the terror of the island Crete. (This bull was the father of the legendary Minotaur of Crete). The king of Crete offered to help Hercules, but the hero preferred to work alone. He quickly captured the bull and brought it to Eurystheus.
The eighth labor was to capture four man-eating horses that lived in a kingdom far from Greece. Hercules overpowered the horses' grooms and took the horses to his ship. He was chased by the king, but Hercules defeated and fed him to the horses. This royal meal kept the horses calm until Hercules delivered them to Eurystheus.
Hercules' ninth task was to fetch the golden belt of the queen of the Amazons, a race of warrior women who lived on the shores of the Black Sea. The queen recognized Hercules as a great warrior, and visited his ship to offer the belt as a gift. Hera, however, tricked the other Amazons into thinking that Hercules had kidnapped the queen, and he escaped only after a great battle.
Eurystheus next sent Hercules to Africa to get the cattle of Geryon. Geryon was said to be the strongest man alive, having six arms and legs, three heads, and three bodies. On his way, Hercules created the Rock of Gibraltar, which is one of the Pillars of Hercules that separate Africa and Europe. As he approached the herd, he was attacked by the two-headed guard dog Orthrus and the herdsman Eurytion, a son of the god of war Ares. He quickly defeated these two. He also defeated Geryon, who came when Hera told him his cattle were being rustled. Hercules' return trip was full of adventure. He was honored by many people, including the Romans, battled giants who tried to take the cattle, and even got lost along the way.
The eleventh labor was to fetch the fruit of Hera's golden apple tree. At the gate of the garden, Hercules met Atlas. For crimes against the gods, Atlas was made to hold the heavens on his shoulders. Hercules offered to support the load for a while if Atlas would sneak into the garden and steal some apples for him. Atlas quickly agreed, but when he returned, Atlas said he would take the apples to Eurystheus himself. Hercules realized he’d been tricked, and pretended to go along with the plan. “But first,” said the hero, “hold the heavens a minute so I can put a pad on my shoulders.” The dim-witted Atlas agreed, and Hercules placed the load on Atlas' shoulders and strolled away laughing.
Can a Mortal Ever Attain Immortality?
Hercules' twelfth and last labor was his most difficult: to enter the underworld and capture Cerberus, the guard-dog. Hades, king of the underworld, said Hercules could take the dog if he didn’t use his club or arrows. When Hercules clutched the dog by the throat, Cerberus struck with his barbed tail. But the skin of the Nemean lion protected Hercules from harm, and the dog finally gave up. Hercules returned to Eurystheus with the hideous creature, which frightened the king out of his wits. He begged Hercules to take the hound back—and the hero gladly did so.
With this labor, Hercules completed his service to Eurystheus. He had many more adventures, which added to his fame. When he died he became a god and married Hebe, the goddess of youth. The sky contains many starry reminders of Hercules' adventures, such as the constellations Leo, Cancer, and Hydra. Perseus, seen in the winter, was said to be his great-grandfather. Some legends say he fought with Scorpio and Draco. You may want to go to the library and ask for a book on the legends of Hercules. His many adventures make good reading when clouds hide his heroic figure in the sky.