Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Now it is an excellent thing, methinks, as all men of understanding must agree, to receive in exchange for mortal labours an immortal fame. In the case of Heracles, for instance, it is generally agreed that during the whole time which he spent among men he submitted to great and continuous labours and perils willingly, in order the he might confer benefits upon the race of men and thereby gain immortality.
Diodorus of Sicily, BOOK I. 2. 3-6
The Greek hero Heracles is well known for his twelve labours. An impetuous, uncommonly strong young man has to atone for killing his family in a moment of rage. Filled with regret, he agrees to carry out ten near impossible tasks chosen by his cousin the king, which eventually become twelve. The king sees this as an opportunity to remove his cousin, as a threat to his crown, by constantly sending him into the path of danger, hoping each time that he won't return. With amazing ingenuity and fighting skills, Heracles of course, is always successful.
From the start, Heracles was an amazing child. He's the one who caught the two snakes in his crib, which Hera put there to try to kill him. The strength, but also the the crazy family relations, come from the fact that he's Zeus's son. Of course, Hera is furious about this latest fling with a mortal on her husband's part, hence the attempted murder on the love child. Makes perfect sense. But in a bizarre twist, Hera also ends up being a sort of foster mother to this same child, for a while. Heracles's mother is worried about all this bad feeling from Hera so she takes her child and, far from protecting him from the gods' wrath, abandons him on a hillside to die of exposure.
He's found: the goddess Athena rescues him, takes him back to Mount Olympus, where Hera, not knowing the child's identity, looks after him. It is Heracles she is breastfeeding, when she is bitten by the baby and, in pain, yanks him away, causing a flow of milk to shoot across the room. This is how the Milky Way came into being, according to the Ancient Greeks.
Heracles's adventures have many celestial components. After his having been partly responsible for the Milky Way itself, Heracles also for a time takes over from Atlas and holds up the sky for a bit. Mostly he captures or slays animals and monsters, all of which may have a constellation counterpart.
Here's one retelling of his story, courtesy of Euripides:
I wish to praise Herakles, to sing a song that crowns all his labours.
Chorus It is a glory for the dead to praise their noble deeds!
Chorus His first noble deed was to rid the grove of Zeus of the fierce lion!360
Chorus And threw the beast’s fiery skin, ferocious, gaping jaws over his auburn head.
Chorus Then he laid low the mountain race of wild Centaurs with his murderous arrows.
Chorus The river Peneus, Peneus of the lovely eddies, can vouch for this and so can all the distant barren lands and all the farms of Mount Pelion and all deep glens of Homole next to it.370
Chorus That’s where the Centaurs used to live.
Chorus They used to arm themselves with the trunks of pine trees and rule over the whole of Thessaly with their horsemanship!
Chorus Then he killed that dappled hind with the golden horns that pillaged the farms and brought joy to Artemis, the huntress, goddess of Oenoe.
Chorus And then he climbed upon his four-horse chariot and with the bit Diomedes’ horses.380
Chorus These were the gruesome horses that with unbridled appetite plunged their maws into the gory troughs and fed voraciously on human flesh. Savage beasts dining savagely.
Chorus Then he crossed the silver waters of the Hebrus river and performed his labour for the king of Mycenae.
Chorus Then it was the turn of Cycnos, who lived on the shore next to Mount Pelion, near the waters of Anaurus and who, wanting to build a temple made of human skulls, he used to kill all the travelers that went by.390
Chorus Herakles killed this wild dweller of Amphanae, with his unerring arrows and immediately his father, Ares had turned him into a swan.
Chorus Then to the garden of the sweet-voiced divine women of the Hesperides he went and from the leafy branches of the apple trees that grew there, he plucked the golden fruit, killing the murderous dragon-guard with its coils twisted all around it and whose back was the colour of flames.
Chorus Then, passing through the straits of Gadir, he entered the watery caves of the far flung ocean and made it calm for the mortal sailors.400
Chorus Then he went to Atlas’ house and lend his mighty hand to him, stretching it up to hold the heavens high, the star-filled home of all the gods.
Chorus Then he gathered friends from all over Greece and fought the mounted army of the Amazons who lived round the lake Maeotis, a lake fed by many rivers, beyond theEuxeine Sea.410
Chorus They took from their barbarian queen, Hippolyta, the golden girdle –a deadly labour!- and this glorious spoil of war they brought back to Greece, where it is safe in Mycenae.
Chorus Then, with fire he killed the murderous hound of Lerna, the Hydra, with its myriad heads and smeared its poison on his arrows and it was with these arrows that he had killed Geryon, a monster with three bodies and the shepherd on the island of Erytheia.420
Chorus Then he brought to a happy conclusion many other travels before he sailed to Hades, the tear soaked land, for the last of his labours and the last of his life, and from there the poor man has not returned yet.
Chorus His house is now bereft of friends and the oar of Charon the underworld’s ferryman waits to take his children on a journey away from life, a journey of no return, a journey against the laws’ of god and of man’s justice.430 (1)
Most of these twelve labours is associated with a particular constellation. How might the ninth task, in which Heracles must somehow obtain the queen of the Amazons's belt, be interpreted astronomically?
Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, that band of fearsome women who decided enough was enough with domestic chores and being bossed around, or worse, by their husbands, and who set up a new commune where only women were allowed.
This is James Frazer's translation of Apollodorus's version of Heracles's meeting with the Amazons
[2.5.9] The ninth labour he enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte.121 She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail and put in to the island of Paros, which was inhabited by the sons of Minos,122 to wit, Eurymedon, Chryses, Nephalion, and Philolaus. But it chanced that two of those in the ship landed and were killed by the sons of Minos. Indignant at this, Hercules killed the sons of Minos on the spot and besieged the rest closely, till they sent envoys to request that in the room of the murdered men he would take two, whom he pleased. So he raised the siege, and taking on board the sons of Androgeus, son of Minos, to wit, Alcaeus and Sthenelus, he came to Mysia, to the court of Lycus, son of Dascylus, and was entertained by him; and in a battle between him and the king of the Bebryces Hercules sided with Lycus and slew many, amongst others King Mygdon, brother of Amycus. And he took much land from the Bebryces and gave it to Lycus, who called it all Heraclea.
Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy.
An intriguing section in Jean-Sylvain Bailly's History of Ancient Astronomy suggests that Hercules was once in fact a real man, and that he was the inventor of the idea of dividing up the ecliptic, the part of the sky that the sun travels through, into twelve zones.
As the hero who travels around Greece defeating monsters and capturing large wild animals to complete his assigned tasks, Hercules can be associated with the sun itself, which travels through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. He is accompanied by five dactyles which, Bailly suggests, symbolise the five planets (of the original seven which included sun and moon). These Daktyloi (Dactyls) were five daimones who founded the Olympic Games in the age of Cronus, depicted as armoured youths. Heracles went on to have fifty sons, which Bailly interprets as the original fifty weeks of the lunar year (so 350 days, plus 4 or 5 extra. (29.53059 days in one mean lunation, multiplied by 12 = 354.36708) There are fifty Danaids, which Hercules can keep happy as he passes through on a regular basis.
Bailly suggests that Hercules's meeting with the Amazons, in the ninth task, is an allegory of spring. Indeed, he says that Amazon means a reunion in a zone. I don't know if that's correct, but it's an interesting idea. The queen of the Amazons, is Hippolyta, and her sister, Melanippe, is in some accounts taken as a hostage in return for the belt. Melanippe, as Bailly points out, has long black hair, and though this is hardly unusual in Greece or Turkey, he suggests she symbolises the night. Significantly, her name may actually mean queen of the black hair. If that's so, at the equinox in March, her reign is curtailed: when Hercules is in the constellation that corresponds to sunrise in spring, he manages to win the queen of the Amazon's magical belt. Even in the versions of the story where Hippolyta gladly hands over the girdle to Heracles without a fight, she does end up dying. Hercules's victory becomes the victory of the sun over the night at the spring equinox. It happens on the banks of the river Thermidon, (modern day river Terme in Turkey) meaning heat, a welcome commodity which of course spring brings. The Amazon's capital is Themiscyra, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, near the mouth of the Terme, according to Herodotus and Strabo. Bailly calls it Themisire, and suggests it means equal day and night. (Aeschylus however places the original home of the Amazons in the country about Lake Maeotis, which is the Sea of Azov).
Is Hippolyta's girdle the zodiac itself? Bailly writes:
Until the month of March, the nights have fought with the sun, that is to say Hercules, over the celestial belt or the zodiac"Its's the nights who rule together over the same zone. Until then, being longer than the days, they have the empire of the sky: finally Hercules becomes the master and snatches from them the their belt. (6)
The symbolic aspect of the story is perhaps not the most surprising part of Bailly's analysis:
One cannot refuse to accept some of these explanations of the fabulous life of Hercules; but we don't think the ancients would take their taste for figures to the point of using an imaginary man to represent the story of the sun's course and the effects of its influence on nature. We think we recognise here the inventor of the solar year, of the twelve signs of the zodiac, probably named Hercules.
What better recognition for his work and his inventions. To his name, the various influences of the sun that he had made known, the circumstances that accompany its course, the animals placed in the zodiac are added to his praise. It is not difficult to imagine how all these things, expressed metaphorically, gave rise to the fables. The figures were taken for facts; & the Astronomer, who became in the East the symbol of the sun, the movement of which he described, underwent a new metamorphosis in Greece, which applied to its former heroes all the oriental fables, especially in Hercules the Argonaut (1 ). So he was no longer an astronomer, nor a symbol, but a destructive hero of the monsters that threatened his homeland. (5)
So did Hercules really exist? It seems obvious that he didn't, at first, but Bailly puts forward an interesting proposition. He reckons that the story of Hercules makes sense if Hercules himself is the one who invented the concept of twelves zones of the zodiac, fifty weeks, etc. The best scientist of the sun then becomes the symbol of the sun. Hercules's reputation and story go far beyond Greece, and in fact Diodorus of Sicily tells us that Osiris made Heracles the general of all his lands. (2) While suggesting that there may be some historical truth in the person of Heracles, not so much as a fighter but as an astronomer, Bailly also underlines the symbolic nature of Hercules's adventures, especially where numbers are concerned. Bailly also suggests that the seven children Saturn has with Rhea are the seven days of the week, and the seven children he has with Astarte are the seven nights.
St Patrick is associated with the Spring equinox, in particular the day on which day and night are equal, March 17th. He is the one who was victorious over the snakes in Ireland. St Patrick can be compared quite convincingly to the constellation Ophiuchus, which stands tall above Scorpio, the dragon or snakes. A couple of thousand years ago, spring would have corresponded to the sun rising in Antares, the heart of Scorpio. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Hercules, too, who is of course is associated with his very own constellation, Hercules.
Mithras Sol Invictus is a deity associated with the sun, or at least, with a victory over the sun. In most depictions, Mithras is shown stabbing a bull in the side, and this is probably the constellation Taurus. A couple of thousand years ago, the sun would have risen in Taurus at the time of the autumn) equinox.
The personification of th sun (Helios) represents the conquered sun. The figure of Mithras, who initiates the age-changing cycle or precession, represents the Unconquered Sun. Thus, Mithras is properly addressed as Sol Invicto Deo: the Unconquered Sun God. He is associated with the inexorable power of precession (because he is seen to be slaying the Bull of Taurus: ending the Age of Taurus) - and thus commands the power which conquers the sun and forces it into a new zodiac sign every successsive age. (5)
Hippolyta is probably associated with the constellation Andromeda, especially as it is situated next to a horse, Pegasus, and her name itself contains the Greek word for horse.
It's perhaps possible to consider that this part of Heracles's story could also be represented by Ophiuchus and Scorpio. At any rate, the constellation Scorpio has been associated with strong female figures in myth. As Santillana and von Deschend write:
Two instances of relevant American Indian notions are worth mentioning without discussion. The important thing is that the tradition is there, more or less intact. Among the Sumo in Honduras and Nicaragua their "Mother Scorpion. . . is regarded as dwelling at the end of the Milky Way, where she receives the souls of the dead, and from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which children take suck, come the souls of the newborn." [n6 H. B. Alexander, Latin American Mythology (1916), p. 185.]. Whereas the Pawnee and Cherokee say [n7 S. Hagar, "Cherokee Star-Lore," in Festscbrift Boas (1906), p. 363; H. B. Alexander, North American Mythology, p. 117.]: "the souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way, where it bifurcates, and he directs the warriors upon the dim and difficult arm, women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier path. The souls then journey southwards. At the end of the celestial pathway they are received by the Spirit Star, and there they make their home." One can quietly add "for a while," or change it to "there they make their camping place." Hagar takes the "Spirit Star" to be Antares (alpha Scorpii).
Whether or not it is precisely alpha, because the star marks the southern "end" of the Galaxy, the southern crossroads with the ecliptic, it is at any rate a star of Sagittarius. or Scorpius [8 This is no slip of the tongue; the zodiacal Sagittarius of Mesopotanian boundary stones had, indeed, the tail of a Scorpion: but we just must not be drowned in the abyss of details of comparative constellation lore, and least of all in those connected with Sagittarius, two-faced as he is, half royal, half dog.]. That fits "Mother Scorpion" of Nicaragua and the "Old goddess with the scorpion tail" of the Maya as it also fits the Scorpion-goddess Selket-Serqet of ancient Egypt and the Ishara tam.tim of the Babylonians. Ishara of the sea, goddess of the constellation Scorpius, was also called "Lady of the Rivers". (3)
Perhaps Heracles and Hippolyta are simply Perseus and Andromeda. Pisces is below these two constellations, and so this would fit with the fish at their feet in the statue at the top of this post.
It seems the design of the zodiacs as we know them places the equinoxes in certain key parts of the zodiac, and some of the myths that have come down to us from Greece suggest that these parts of the sky were associated with stories of a sun hero being victorious over the animal or hero associated with that part of the sky. Perhaps Hippolyta does represent winter or night-time, and when Heracles defeats her, this is the start of spring.
Diodorus of Sicily, BOOK I. 16. 2-17. 3
Santillana, G. and von Deschend, Hamlet's Mill, p. 224-5
Bailly, Jean-Sylvain, 1781, Histoire de l'astronomie ancienne, depuis son origine jusq'a l'établissement de l'école d'Alexandrie, p 91
Mathisen, David Warner, 2020, Myth and Trauma, Higher Self, Ancient Wisdom and Their Enemies, Beowulf Books, California, p.380
Bailly, p. 92