The idea that the 12 labours of Hercules relate to the zodiac constellations is an old one. But even after all that ink wasted on the subject, it is almost impossible to find single work explaining how they truly connect. Moreover, some of the most popular online resources, such as Wikipedia, do not even mention these connections at all.
In this article, we will try to fix that. And since the order of the labours has been a matter of dispute since antiquity, we will ignore it (for now) and start with the simplest ones first.
Hercules and the Nemean lion
This was the first and probably the most important task, as it defines Hercules as a hero. It is the skin of this lion that makes it easy to identify Hercules in ancient art. It took him precisely 30 days to finish the task – in other words, the same time that the Sun spends in the Leo constellation. This is also the most commonly quoted connection between the myth and the constellations.
Hercules and the Cretan bull
The episode with the Cretan bull is another obvious connection to the zodiac. The image of Orion and Taurus on the night sky is one of the most favourite subjects of the Indo-European star-lore in general. There are many other articles here that deal with this subject, so we will move on, to make space for more interesting conclusions.
Hercules and the Lernean Hydra
This is the last of the well-established connections, on which most of the authors will agree. The Cancer constellation is relatively small and insignificant in the night sky. Therefore, in the myths of the old, the Hydra constellation often took its place.
The constellation of Hydra hides an image of a seven-headed snake. And the second labour of Hercules was to slay a seven-headed Hydra. In some versions of the myth, a giant crab comes to aid the Hydra – a clear allusion to the Cancer constellation.
But importantly, all of the myths agree on the main story-line, which in short goes as follows:
Hercules realised that Hydra is a formidable opponent. As he cut one head off, two more would grow in its place. And to make things worse, one of these heads was immortal. Luckily, his nephew Iolaus was there to help him. He used a torch to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation, so that the new heads can’t grow.
I believe that the “torch” represents the Sun on its way through the constellation. The “immortal” head relates to the only head that we actually see on the Hydra constellation.
Hercules and the Stymphalian birds
We are now leaving the charted territory, as most of the other works do not venture further than these three constellations. But since these three connections were quite firm, and there are twelve constellations/labours, it is worth pursuing this idea further.
I will continue by naming the most obvious connections first, and I believe that the episode with the Stymphalian birds is one of them.
In short, Heracles managed to scare these terrifying birds with a rattle and then shoot them down with his arrows. In ancient art, this is probably the only time Hercules has a bow – an obvious allusion to the Sagittarius. Moreover, two “bird” constellations lie right next to the Sagittarius – Aquila, the eagle, and Cygnus, the swan.
Hercules and Cerberus
Cerberus was a terrifying, three-headed dog, a guardian of the entrance to the underworld. This was an easy one for me, as I already have a few articles relating him to the Scorpius constellation.
In short, the constellation of the Scorpius marks the beginning of the “darker” part of the year, when the days are getting shorter. The Sun gets bitten by this scorpion, and start descending to the land of the dead. However, in the nations that had no scorpions, the three-headed dog (or a wolf) took its place.
The “three heads” idea came from the most prominent stars of the Scorpius constellation. Perhaps, we should see them together with the Lupus (the wolf) constellation below. Moreover, some of the ancient artworks, like the one below, even depict the Milky Way, positioned right behind the Scorpius constellation.
Heracles and the Augean stables
In this labour, Heracles had the task of cleaning the stables of King Augeas. Heracles succeeded by re-routing two rivers to wash out the filth.
This is a rare event where we see Hercules in a situation where he doesn’t need to fight, even though he still needs to use his strength. And this is the main clue that we need to understand the myth.
Namely, the constellation of Aquarius is one of the few constellations that does not represent a human-animal hybrid or a monster of any sort. Moreover, I believe that the name of King Augeas is a corruption of the word “aqua” – water. This is a very interesting fact that we will discuss a bit later.
In the image below, we see two different ancient mosaics. In both of them, Hercules assumes the same pose, perhaps reminiscent of the general outline of the Aquarius constellation. The right side of the Pisces could represent the rock and the bucket, while the Taurus further to the left, represents the “divine cattle”.
Hercules and Hippolyta
Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons. She was a fierce, horse-riding warrior. And Hercules had to take her belt.
At first, she was so impressed with Hercules that she was willing to give this precious belt without resistance. But the goddess Hera did not like this. She disguised herself as one of the Amazonians and spread the rumours that Hercules’s true mission is to abduct Hippolyta. A battle ensued, in which Hippolyta lost her life.
Now, the constellations of Andromeda (the woman) and Pegasus (the flying horse) depict the Amazonian queen perfectly. Moreover, Andromeda is another character of Greek mythology who was abducted and later saved by Perseus. I have other articles here that prove that even the abduction of Sita in Ramayana, and the Helen of Troy in the Iliad, relate to the same clusters of stars.
Therefore, I believe that this relief of Hercules fighting Hippolyta depicts the same constellations. And this image altogether takes the place of an Aries, another small and insignificant constellation on the night sky.
Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar
In this labour, Hercules had the task of catching the gigantic boar. Following the advice of a Centaur, he caught it by luring it into thick snow. He then carried it back to Eurystheus, who was so frightened that he ducked down in his half-buried storage jar, begging Hercules to get rid of the beast.
The “thick snow” probably relates to the Milky Way. However, the rest of the story sounds quite confusing when compared to the neighbouring constellations. This was one of the episodes that gave the most headaches to the researchers on this subject. And I believe that the answer is surprisingly simple.
In this case, the constellation of Hercules will be our starting point. Next, we have to imagine that the constellation of Bootes represents the boar (Bootes is usually seen as a man). Next, we have Virgo, whose certain parts resemble the stretched-out arms and torso, coming out of the Crater constellation – the jar.
If I am correct, it would mean that this episode relates to the Virgo constellation. And that this particular star image that you see has been forgotten for a very, very long time.
Hercules and the Mares of Diomedes
In the previous labour, we saw a brief mention of Hercules’s meeting with the Centaurs, although this event did not count as one of the twelve labours. In terms of the zodiac, this previous event happened in Virgo. And indeed, not far from Virgo, in the region of Libra, we have the constellation Centaurus.
Centaurs were half-men, half-horse being of Greek mythology. And for this reason, I believe that the Libra and Centaurus relate to the episode in which Heracles subdues the Mares of Diomedes. Perhaps, there were two versions of this labour in antiquity, and the other one was related to the Centaurus. Both, the story of the Mares of Diomedes, and Hercules’s meeting with Centaurs share some common places (the slaughter being the main light motive). The motif of wine too, fits perfectly with the Libra constellation, as it used to mark the wine-making season. For this reason, it was sacred to Dionysus, whose Roman name was Liber.
The images below depict both versions of the myth.
Hercules and the cattle of Geryon
Geryon was a scary, multi-headed giant. He also had multiple legs and arms. But he was not a match for Hercules, who managed to defeat him using the poisonous arrows, dipped in the blood of the Hydra. Upon defeating him, Hercules successfully obtained the cattle that the giant was safekeeping.
The connection between this story and the stars is quite apparent. Hercules shooting arrows is an allusion to the Orion, the hunter. The Taurus constellation once again represents the cattle. And the multi-headed giant is none other than the Gemini.
The ancient artworks show different representations of this imagery. Sometimes, the Geryon looks like a simple man, wrestling with Hercules. (a good match for the Gemini constellation alone). At other times, we see him with a bow or a club. This is where Orion takes the role of Hercules.
Hercules and the Hesperides
In this part of the story, Hercules was after the golden apples of the tree of the Hesperides. The tree was protected by the dragon.
In terms of constellations, there are only two zodiac signs left. But it is the shape of the Pisces that resembles the depictions of ancient art. Moreover, the constellation Cetus underneath the Pisces represented a dragon in ancient times.
Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind
I wouldn’t have guessed this one in a million years, hadn’t it been the last labour on the list. But once I solved all of the others, it came down to the simple process of elimination.
The last of the twelve constellations is Capricornus, the goat, and the last of the labours is the Ceryneian hind. Hercules had recognized this swift animal by the glint on his antlers. And once I opened the sky map, it wasn’t too hard to understand why.
Now, the Wikipedia article on the Ceryneian hind has a very interesting remark. A doe with antlers never existed in Greece. The only similar animal that could do this is the reindeer. Therefore, some authors like Robert Graves believe that the root of this myth lies in Hyperborea.
The 12 labors of Hercules – in their right order
Now that we have established the connections between the labors and the constellations, we can finally sort them out.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it seems that their order was lost already in antiquity. However, the first labour is, without a doubt, the Slaying of the Nemean Lion. Not only that all the sources agree on this, but it is also the most logical one. The lion-slaying was a part of the initiation rites of many primitive societies. These rites of passage marked the transition to manhood, and similar rites still exist today amongst some primitive societies, the Massai of Africa for example. Moreover, the skin of a lion became one of the main identifiers of Hercules in art.
In the astronomical sense, too, it makes sense to start from Leo. In astrology, this constellation relates to the Sun. And the whole story depicts the Sun’s travel along the ecliptic.
In that case, starting from Leo, our order of the labours would go as follows:
|Leo – Nemean Lion
|Virgo – Erymanthian boar
|Libra – Mares of Diomedes (Centaurs)
|Scorpio – Cerberus
|Sagittarius – Stymphalian birds
|Capricorn – Ceryneian Hind
|Aquarius – Augean stables
|Pisces – Hesperides
|Mares of Diomedes
|Aries – Hippolyta
|Taurus – Cretan bull
|Cattle of Geryon
|Gemini – Cattle of Geryon
|Cancer – Lernean Hydra
I have to mention that even though I believe that my order is correct, some of the aspects of the myth would still not match perfectly. For example, Hercules slays Geryon with the help of the poison of Hydra’s blood, but in my order, Hydra comes after Geryon. However, these two last constellations are right next to each other. This fact might have been the source of inspiration for an addition of a later date.
In the following image, we see a beautiful Roman mosaic from the 3rd century AD. It proves that the order of the twelve labours had caused confusion even in those days, as they do not seem to match even the most commonly accepted traditional view. For example, the Leo constellation lies between easily identifiable Hydra and Sagittarius.
Where there 10 or 12 labors, and why does it matter?
After Heracles completed the first ten labours, Eurystheus gave him two more, claiming that slaying the Hydra did not count because Iolaus helped Heracles. Neither did cleaning the Augean Stables count (either because he was paid for the job or because the rivers did the work). The apples of the Hesperides and the Cerberus were the two new tasks.
This information becomes interesting through a prism of astronomy, where the labours of Hercules equal months of the year. Namely, the earliest calendars had ten months. The two winter months were added later, to align the lunar and solar years. The best example is the Roman calendar, credited to the founders of Rome, Romulus, and/or Numa Pompilus. (8th century BC) This calendar is the reason why even today, the last month of the year is December, the tenth month.
If it wasn’t obvious by now, this is a clear confirmation that the myth of the twelve labours is of an astronomical nature. And yet, most often we see it described as a fairy tale of primitive folk.
Hercules and the Olympic games
After Heracles completed his twelve labours, he built the Olympic Stadium to honour Zeus. He then walked in a straight line for 200 steps and called this distance a “stadion” (Greek: στάδιον, Latin: stadium, “stage”), which later became a unit of length. The most widely accepted inception date for the Ancient Olympics is 776 BC.
The Olympic games were held every four years. It is not a coincidence the leap year comes after the same amount of time, although the modern Olympic games do not follow this tradition.
Nonetheless, the Olympic games marked the astronomical adjustments of the calendar. This “heavenly” world was Olymp, home to the twelve gods, each being another representation of the zodiac, just as the labors of Hercules.
Therefore, Hercules did not get the credit just for being the strongest hero of the Greek mythos, but rather because of the deeper, astronomical connection. In my research on Ramayana (link is below), I discovered that the story follows the zodiac circle at least three times – meaning that the events will not repeat until the leap year. This would be a practical method of measuring time. A colossal event every four years would mark the “restarting” of the story.
I believe that the myth of Heracles followed the same principle – the events of his childhood, and anything before the twelve labours should also relate to constellations. Unfortunately, many of these episodes are now lost.
Hercules, the imported hero?
So far, we were dealing solely with the facts. As a final thought, I would like to add a few more exciting pointers for future research.
First of all, the name “Hercules” is probably pre-Greek. The most common Greek etymology states that it means: Hēra-klês, or “Glory/Pride of Hēra”. But even scholars admit that this etymology does not make much sense, as it is precisely Hera who tries to kill him on his journeys. It is more likely that this name can relate to the Thracian Heros or even Egyptian Horus, both being solar deities with a similar purpose.
The same is valid for some of the other characters of the story, such as his “sidekick”, a nephew Iolaus, sometimes translated as a compound of “spear” and “people”, as if that etymology makes any sense.
According to Wikipedia:
His figure, which initially drew on Near Eastern motifs such as the lion-fight, was widely known… According to Walter Burkert, the core of the story of Heracles originated in Neolithic hunter culture and traditions of shamanistic crossings into the netherworld…
Heraclidae and the Dorian invasion
Indeed, there are many elements of the story that sound truly archaic and pre-Greek. Perhaps even imported from the outside. Take for example the story of the Ceryneian hind. We saw that a doe bearing antlers can only be possible in the case of raindeers.
And if I am right about the etymology of king Augeas, and his relation to the Aquarius constellation, his name must also be an import. The Greek word for water was not “aqua” but ὕδωρ (hudōr). Interestingly, the term “aqua” is rather Latin, and the founders of Rome were of Sabinian origins. Both, the foundations of Rome and the establishment of the Olympic games point to the 8th century BC.
As interesting as this topic is, it would take a separate article to explore it in detail. However, it illustrates nicely how an understanding of ancient myths can provide a deeper insight into history. Indeed, the Ancient Greece of this period was a huge melting pot of tribes and cultures. The myth of Hercules clearly belonged to one of those tribes. At the same time, it was standing shoulder to shoulder with the myth of the Thracian Dionysus, or that of Jason and the golden fleece, the twelve Olympians, and even the Iliad.
All of these myths relate to the same principle. They tell the same story, with different symbols and characters. And Ancient Greece, not unlike modern India, embraced all of them and made them Greek.
How old is really the myth of Hercules?
I left the most controversial conclusion for the end. One thing that doesn’t make sense in this myth is the importance of the Leo constellation. Virtually all ancient people started their year in the springtime. The constellation that was behind the Sun during the spring equinox would, therefore, be the starting point of the year.
These constellations change every 2160 years due to the astronomical phenomena of precession. And it seems pretty obvious that the ancients were aware of these changes and adjusting their myths accordingly.
For example, Christianity is the last religious system that followed this rule, using the fish to symbolise Jesus. Christianity marked the moment when the Sun entered the zodiac of Pisces on the spring equinox.
Before that, for the last two millennia BC, the Sun rose in Aries. Indeed, from this period, there are numerous myths: Moses and his horns of a ram, Jason and the golden fleece, Dyonisus and a ram, Hermes and a lamb, etc…
And before that, there was an age of Taurus. From the 5th and 4th millennia BC, bull worship was widespread among neolithic societies. A fact remembered even in the old testament, and the story of Baal and the golden calf…
And before that, there was an age of Gemini, and perhaps we can attribute the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and even Romulus and Rem to this age… What is sure, is that most of the two-headed figurines come from the 6th millennia BC. A full article on this is below.
However, the age of Leo relates to the 10th millennia BC. Was there a developed religious society back then, and with the sound knowledge of astronomy on top of that? Most certainly, yes – the amazing Gobekli tepe is clear evidence. Moreover, some authors like Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval proposed that even the Egyptian Sphinx was once a lion, facing the spring equinox in Leo of 10,500BC.
Could it be that the myth of Hercules is the living relic of these ancient times? This would indeed explain why the order of the twelve labours was already forgotten in antiquity. But is this theory too far-fetched?
In the Wikipedia article on the Nemean lion, we read the following story:
A boy asked Heracles to slay the lion and come back alive within 30 days. Otherwise, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus. In another version of the myth, a shepherd had the same demand, but this time he would sacrifice his ram.
During the Age of Aries, a ram was the most common sacrificial animal. There is plenty of evidence for that. But in the first version of the story, the town wants to sacrifice a lion. Could it be that the second version is of a later date, modified by someone who understood the language of the myth, and the need to adjust it according to the current situation?
Hercules and the polar star
And last but not least, the polar star was not always Polaris. From 18,400 to 7,400 BC the polar star was in the region of Hercules (Iota and Tau Herculis) This simply means that for almost 10,000 years our ancestors watched the skies rotate around the Hercules constellation.
The effects of this phenomenon on mythology should not be neglected. I believe that the myth of the Hesperides initially related to the Draco constellation and the polar star, but as the north moved to Polaris and there was a need for two new constellations, the myth was adjusted. The same goes for the story of Atlas, which originally probably represented Bootes.
I have explained both of these examples in the article “Myths of the ice-age” linked below.
In any case, the “neolithic/shamanic” notion that scholars have already noticed probably goes even further back in time. And the myth miraculously endured for so long, partially because of its practicality, and partially because of a wonderful, appealing narrative of a young hero, the one who survives the greatest of the obstacles, even when facing gods themselves.