Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Twelve Labors of Hercules

Among the most memorable of all the Greek myths are the twelve labors of Heracles (better known by his Roman / Latin name, Hercules). As a child, I had a reading book for elementary school with very graphic illustrations of Hercules and his labors, battling the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, and visiting the mighty titan Atlas who was holding the arch of the heavens on his shoulders, part of Hercules' quest to retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides. It was by far my favorite of all the reading books we were assigned.

I have previously alleged (following the arguments of Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in Hamlet's Mill) that the conventional view about the connection between ancient myths and the constellations and planets is exactly backwards (see for example "God and the gods" or "Mars, Venus and the Pleiades").

The conventional view is that early cultures created elaborate myths in order to explain the natural phenomena that they were too scientifically ignorant to explain otherwise, and that looking up at the night sky they named the constellations and planets that they saw there after the characters in their mythology. However, de Santillana and von Dechend present extensive evidence demonstrating that the myths and legends of the ancients were created to encode a very sophisticated -- even "scientific" -- understanding of the celestial phenomona and the astronomical bodies behind the events in the sky.

While not discussed in detail in Hamlet's Mill, it is quite likely that the wonderful tales of the twelve labors of Hercules further support this thesis. In fact, many observers have put forward the possibility that the twelve labors correspond in some way to the twelve constellations of the zodiac, a very reasonable connection to explore whenever the number twelve features prominently in myth.

This website discusses the twelve labors and argues that they are an illustration of "the passage of the sun (personified as Herakles) through the year and the zodiac." Some of the connections appear to be a bit strained, but in general there is enough evidence to indicate that the myth may indeed describe the sun's annual passage through the zodiac.

The concept of the "sun passing through the zodiac" can be a little confusing, if it conjures up an image of the sun criss-crossing the sky from one constellation to another. After all, when the sun is up, no constellations are visible at all. A better way of phrasing this concept might be to say "the zodiac passes through the sun's rising point."

We have already discussed the reason that the constellations are not in their same locations even if viewed at the exact same hour of the night from one night to the next (see this previous post). The same holds true for the constellations seen in the pre-dawn sky above the horizon where the sun will rise (see this previous post about the concept of "heliacal rising" and this previous post about Orion and Sirius in the pre-dawn east for further explanation). Throughout the course of a year, different constellations will be located in the pre-dawn sky above the sun before it rises.

The constellations of the zodiac are those constellations along the band of the celestial sphere that lies along the ecliptic -- the plane of the solar system -- along which the sun travels in its path across the sky, and which the planets travel through as well. Thus, throughout the course of the year, as the sphere of the sky turns by about one degree per day, all the constellations of the zodiac will at some point be located in that region of the sky where the sun rises when it pops above the eastern horizon. This is what is meant when someone says "the sun's annual passage through the zodiac" -- they really mean the zodiac's annual rotation through the point above the horizon where the sun will appear.

The fact that many of the adversaries Hercules encounters during the twelve labors have clear celestial counterparts makes this theory very plausible. Some of them are quite obvious and have a direct correspondence with a member of the zodiac -- the Minoan Bull, for instance, could easily represent the zodiac constellation Taurus, and the Nemean Lion would obviously correspond to Leo.

Others, however, are more difficult to connect directly with a zodiac constellation, and appear to represent constellations associated with or nearby to zodiac constellations. The article linked above, for instance, argues that the exciting battle between Hercules and the nine-headed Hydra probably indicates the sun's rising in the constellation of Cancer, since the constellation of Hydra has its head near Cancer.

Another interesting alleged connection is found in the eleventh labor to retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides, a word which derives from the word for "the west" and refers to nymphs who were the daughters of the titan Atlas. Some commentators allege that Atlas in the myth refers to the massive constellation of Bo├Âtes, located near the pole and that his location in the sky is appropriate for holding up the vault of heaven. Hercules had to take his place in order to persuade him to fetch the Apples, which are guarded by a fearsome dragon -- and we note that the constellation Draco is near to his constellation as well, winding between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper in the vicinity of Polaris.

The English-born theosophist Alice A. Bailey (1880 - 1949) wrote an extensive discourse entitled "The Labours of Hercules" on the connection between the labors of Hercules and the constellations, focusing on the astrological and esoteric aspects of each episode and seeing the Hercules series as representative of every human soul on the path to enlightenment.

Bailey clearly bought into some of the odious racist ideology prevalent in both England and America around the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries (which we discussed in a previous post here), saying at one point in her discussion of the labors of Hercules that "Gemini is predominantly the sign of the intellect and it has a peculiarly vital effect in our Aryan race" (page 37 out of 125 in the online document linked above). However, she does give some cogent arguments in support of a reading of the twelve labors as following the sun's yearly progression "from Aries to Pisces via Taurus" (page 8).

If this is indeed the case, then it is quite likely that the myth of Hercules and his twelve labors was made as a means for imparting knowledge about the sun's annual path through the celestial sphere (or, as we pointed out, the zodiac's annual rotation through the sun's rising point). In other words, it is not likely that the myth came first and constellations were then named after actors in the myth. The myth is a carrier of astronomical (and perhaps esoteric) knowledge.

This is an important point to understand, and it must be reiterated that this is completely contrary to the conventional academic view. That is because the conventional view (which follows modern versions of the same flawed Darwinian theories that led directly to the kind of racist anthropological assumptions on display in many texts from the late 1800s and early 1900s) sees early civilizations, including the early Greeks, as struggling towards a grasp of scientific concepts including astronomy that they did not understand until the first or second centuries BC. However, as we have seen many times before, and as this examination of the Hercules myth illustrates, it is far more likely that the ancient civilizations thousands of years BC had an extremely sophisticated understanding of science, including math and astronomy, and that they knew far more than we currently give them credit for.