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Greatest Hero in the Sky That Few Can Find Contains Treasures of Light and Time

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

No question about it. The most famous hero of them all is Heracles, better known by his Roman name, Hercules. His story has come down to us from antiquity, and it continues to be embellished. Motion pictures have been made about him, a few good ones and many of the quality expected for low-budget films. Heracles is the prototype of all the other super-heros.

Famous, no doubt, yet few people can find him in the firmament. He was placed there, it is said, long ago as reward for good work in ridding the world of monsters and good deeds to all he encountered. The story is actually a sequel, coming from an earlier story told by Sumerians and Babylonians of one named Gilgamesh, a conquering solar hero who overcame great odds that describe the annual movements of the Sun through the zodiac producing the seasons. Over time the story changed into the more familiar one from late classic Greece. In outline, it goes like this.

Heracles was born of immortal Zeus following one of his many affairs with a mortal woman, this one by name of Alcmene. Having a celestial father Heracles had the possibility of immortality, but only if he was suckled by the Queen of Olympus, so Zeus had him secretly placed at Hera's breast as she slept. His vigorous sucking awoke the jealous wife of Zeus who pulled him from her nipple with such force that her milk sprayed across heaven giving birth to the Milky Way.

The life of Heracles was plagued with barriers put in his path by Hera, but the boy grew strong and true. In manhood he became slave to a king with freedom only after he accomplished twelve impossible tasks. Impossible, that is, for anyone else. Heracles took each in stride and in the process saved the land and its people. Several constellations resulted from his labors: Leo, the Lion is said to be the Nemean Lion that fell down from the Moon, with hide so tough that nothing could pierce it-Heracles strangled the beast and Zeus placed it among the stars; Hydra, a nine headed snake that would grow additional heads every time one was severed-Heracles burned the neck of each so that it could not grow back; a crab was sent by Hera to bite the hero as he worked-with little notice Heracles crushed it beneath his feet, then it became the constellation Cancer. Eventually, after conquering all his foes, Heracles was poisoned in a way that would result in eternal suffering, so the hero gave up immortality and died to be placed in the heavens by his father.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the fact that the stars of this great and remembered strong man are so inconspicuous, dim and difficult to identify. On August evenings you have the greatest chance of learning them, for as it gets dark they are nearly directly overhead. The easiest way to enjoy them is to find a nice piece of grass, or sand, and lie flat on your back looking directly at the zenith. A group of four dim stars form an uneven four-sided figure known as the "keystone" of Hercules, the torso of the giant. He appears to hang upside down with head coming out of the keystone to the south, while his feet run away to the north with one foot on the head of Draco, the Dragon. The Milky Way is off to the east reminding us of an early moment in the life of the hero.

The constellation Hercules is an astronomical treasure houses. Its most famous object is the great globular cluster known as M13 (13th in a list of important objects known as the Messier Catalog). This is one of a few hundred very old and dense clusters that represent early times in the history of the Milky Way galaxy. They contain hundreds of thousands of stars and move about the center of the Galaxy in great circular orbits. Hercules contains not just one such cluster, but two of them. The second, M92, is not as bright as M13, but it is still one of the best globulars in the sky. The view outward from deep inside either one of these cosmic giants would be far different than what we know on Earth: the sky would be ablaze with brilliant stars, so thick, so bright that there would be no night at all. Without darkness it would be difficult, if not impossible, to know much about the cosmos. The cluster itself would likely be, for those inside it, the entire knowable universe.

Hercules also holds a huge group of galaxies, perhaps more than a thousand of them, each one containing billions of stars. Since some members of the group are as far as 8 billion light years from us, we see them as they were that long ago, when the light now reaching us left them. With large telescopes we learn from these remote objects what the universe was like when it was young.

A warm August evening is a perfect time to just lie on your back and look up at Hercules where our naked eyes see a scattering of dim stars. A few thousand years ago that portion of heaven reminded people of heroic deeds preformed by strength of muscle and mind. Now it also represent for us the immensity of the grand cosmos we continue to learn about as we use great telescopes to gather light from distant galaxies and remote times, learning how the universe took form billions of years ago.

Copyright 1999-2003 The Clark Foundation.
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