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From the Milky Way
When the baby Heracles sucked too hard, Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus, threw the baby from her breast with a spurt of milk. That spray formed the Milky Way, says ancient myth.

Heracles is an ancient culture hero. His iconographic attributes are the lion skin and the club. Popular stories were told of his life, the most famous are the Twelve Labours of Heracles. But not all writers in antiquity gave his feats in the same order, and, besides, there were more than twelve tales about him.

One feat, or labour, was to capture a huge hind that was so fast it could outrun an arrow. Heracles chased the deer on foot for a year and remarkably captured her by her antlers at last, even though she-deer do not have antlers.

Female reindeer have antlers, though, so the northern Hyperborea, might well have been the archaic origin of the myth, Robert Graves thought. And with ancient Greeks, Hyperborea was an unspecified region in the northern lands beyond the north wind. That land, called Hyperborea or Hyperboria – "beyond the Boreas" – was perfect, with the sun shining twenty-four hours a day, and thus suggest it was placed within the Arctic Circle. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Ceryneian Hind", "Hyperborea"]

Now the Greek historian Herodotus writes that Heracles was an Egyptian god first (more below). The greeks called him Heracles (Herakles), and in Greek mythology, Heracles or Herakles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene and the greatest of the Greek heroes. The child was originally given the name Alcides by his parents; it was only later that he became known as Heracles. The Romans called him Hercules and had many distinctively Roman myths and practices associated with him under that name. His Etruscan equivalent was Hercle, a son of Tinia and Uni.

Heracles, an Egyptian god, according to Herodotus

The Greek historian Herodotus tells:

"Such Egyptians as possess a temple of the Theban Jove, or live in the Thebaic canton, offer no sheep in sacrifice, but only goats; for the Egyptians don't all worship the same gods, excepting Isis and Osiris, the latter of whom they say is the Grecian Bacchus. ... The Thebans, and such as imitate them in their practice, give the following account of the origin of the custom:

"'Hercules,' they say, 'wished of all things to see Jove, but Jove didn't choose to be seen of him. At length, when Hercules persisted, Jove hit on a device - to flay a ram, and, cutting off his head, hold the head before him, and cover himself with the fleece. In this guise he showed himself to Hercules.'

Old symbol "Therefore the Egyptians give their statues of Jupiter the face of a ram: and from them the practice has passed to the Ammonians, who are a joint colony of Egyptians and Ethiopians, speaking a language between the two; hence also, in my opinion, the latter people took their name of Ammonians, since the Egyptian name for Jupiter is Amun. Such, then, is the reason why the Thebans don't sacrifice rams, but consider them sacred animals. On one day in the year, however, at the festival of Jupiter, they slay a single ram, and stripping off the fleece, cover with it the statue of that god, as he once covered himself, and then bring up to the statue of Jove an image of Hercules. When this has been done, the whole assembly beat their breasts in mourning for the ram, and afterwards bury him in a holy sepulchre.

"The account I received of this Hercules makes him one of the twelve gods. Of the other Hercules, with whom the Greeks are familiar, I could hear nothing in any part of Egypt. That the Greeks, however (those I mean who gave the son of Amphitryon that name), took the name from the Egyptians, and not the Egyptians from the Greeks, is I think clearly proved, among other arguments, by the fact that both the parents of Hercules, Amphitryon as well as Alcmena, were of Egyptian origin . . . The Egyptian Hercules is one of their ancient gods. Seventeen thousand years before the reign of Amasis, the twelve gods were, they affirm, produced from the eight: and of these twelve, Hercules is one.

"In the wish to get the best information that I could on these matters, I made a voyage to Tyre in Phoenicia, hearing there was a temple of Hercules at that place, very highly venerated . . . In a conversation that I held with the priests, I inquired how long their temple had been built ... They said that the temple was built at the same time that the city was founded, and that the foundation of the city took place two thousand three hundred years ago. In Tyre I remarked another temple where the same god was worshipped as the Thasian Hercules. So I went on to Thasos, where I found a temple of Hercules which had been built by the Phoenicians who colonised that island when they sailed in search of Europa . . . These researches show plainly that there's an ancient god Hercules ... Hercules worshipped is known by the name of Olympian, and has sacrifice offered to him as an immortal". [. . .]

"With the Egyptians, . . . Pan is exceedingly ancient, and belongs to those whom they call "the eight gods," who existed before the rest. Hercules is one of the gods of the second order, who are known as "the twelve"; and Bacchus belongs to the gods of the third order, whom the twelve produced." [All from The History of Herodotus by Herodotus, book 2]

Adding to this

Herodotus connected Heracles both to Phoenician god Melqart and to the Egyptian god of wind and air, Shu. In Egyptian mythology, Shu (meaning emptiness and he who rises up) married to a sister, is a personification of air. His daughter, Nut, was the sky goddess and his son Geb, the Earth, and whose laughter was earthquakes. Shu held Nut over Geb, separating the two.

As the air, Shu was considered to be cooling, and thus calming, influence, and pacifier. Due to the association with air, calm, and thus Ma'at (truth, justice and order), Shu was sometimes portrayed in art as wearing an ostrich feather (representing truth). Shu was seen with between one and four feathers. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Shu"]

Heracles in Greek myths

Jupiter (the king of gods, also called Zeus) secretly laid his son Heracles beside his wife Hera in order that the child could feed from her godly breasts and thus become immortal. The stout little baby suckled her so strongly that a lot of milk spilt and sprayed over the heavens. To be more exact, Hera didn't know whose child she suckled - she only knew that his mother had abandoned him. But when the baby sucked too hard, Hera threw him from her breast with a spurt of milk. That spray formed the Milky Way. Stray droplets landed on the Earth and became lilies.

Afterwards, Heracles grew towards manhood. He got an education from many famous masters. He became renowned for his athletic body, his strength and willingness to help those less strong and able than himself. Later on, he was taught archery by Teutarus, a cattleman. Among bad things he did, was sucking the breasts too hard, killing his music tutor with an instrument, and murdering his children by his first wife in a fit of madness. His labours were to atone for such things, it is said.

Before he was eighteen, he was visited by two young women who called themselves Vice and Virtue. They came to offer him a way of life. Vice tried to lure him with promises of idle luxury, and Virtue promised that in his serving others, there would come toil, tribulation and suffering, but also true happiness in time. He chose that path.

At the age of eighteen, at the palace of King Thespius, the king wanted to have Hercules father his grand-children. So he put one of his fifty daughters in Hercules' bed each night. And thus Hercules had fifty sons who eventually colonised Sicily.

Heracles became a favorite with nearly all the Greek gods. They equipped him thoroughly. For example, the great smith of Greek gods and goddesses made a golden breastplate for him.

Well armed and protected, Heracles paraded through Greek mythology. With all his variety, Heracles still fuels the imagination of artists, dramatists not excluded.

Not all writers gave the labours in the same order. There are over a dozen more deeds and travels than twelve typically ascribed to Heracles and interpolations that have become attached to them in time. Also, there are often more than just one version of a single tale and myth to take into account somehow.

The death of Heracles is described in Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 9.

Via the Greco-Buddhist culture, Heraclean symbolism was transmitted to the far east. An example remains to this day in the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples.

Heracles, a Bright Constellation in the Sky

There is a constellation (group) of stars in the sky that is named after Heracles. It is one of the brightest constellations in the sky. Heracles (Hercules) is one of the 48 constellations listed by the 1st century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains one of the the 88 modern constellations today. It is the fifth largest of the modern constellations. "Labouring at his wheel" is yet another name of the constellation. The constellation lies between Lyra and Bootes. On the basis of stars there, Heracles is depicted in the sky holding a club, his favourite weapon.

The stellar figure is found to depict (by interpolating lines, somehow), a kneeling man with an apple branch in his right hand, and a club in the other one.

Ancient Greeks referred to the constellation of Hercules as the Stag (hind is another word for doe). In earlier times, an alternative Greek name was Engonasin, "on his knees" or "the kneeler" or "The kneeling man".

A Roman story: Once Heracles were up against two strong giants, Albion and Bergion. Hercules was in a difficult position so he prayed to his father Zeus for help, and got protections. Thus, Heracles won the battle. The kneeling position of Heracles when he prayed to his father Zeus, gave the name Engonasin ("on his knees" or "the Kneeler") to the star constellation known as Heracles' constellation.

Happy ending

Heracles is known for his hard labours, which ended in making him immortal. After being taken up among the gods on Olympus, Heracles married Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth.

Hercules, Herakles, Heracles, Literature  

March, Jenny. 2001.Cassell's Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell and Co.

Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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