A regular feature of our Nightly Observing Program (NOP) at the Kitt Peak Visitor Center is the use of planispheres and binoculars to introduce guests to the night sky. When using the planispheres, guest learn to identify bright stars, bright deep-sky objects, and of course constellations. When I help guests identify a constellation, I like to share a bit about tales of the stars from all over the world. Everyone enjoys a good story. One of my favorite summer constellations is Hercules, the strong man from Greek mythology, son of Zeus and Alcmene. Hercules is visible in the northern night sky from April to November but best viewed during the summer months. He is also the source of some very entertaining tales.
A fun fact about Hercules is that any time of the year there is at least one constellation in the sky that has a mythological connection to the big guy. One of those constellations is Draco, the dragon, a northern circumpolar constellation that never sets. Draco may be found just under Hercules as the strong man makes his way across the sky. But Draco is a long serpentine constellation. An easy way to find Draco is to look for Hercules because in some myths, he’s standing on the dragon’s head. Once you have found the box-shaped head under Hercules, it’s easy to trace the rest of the dragon’s body. But let’s get to the story at hand.
The dragon’s name was Ladon, the child of Typhon and Echidna, who was half woman and half serpent. Ladon had a hundred heads by some accounts and was used by Hera, wife of Zeus, to guard a tree of golden apples that she received as a wedding present. Now there’s no way you can leave a gift like that unattended so the tree was planted in a garden watched over by the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, you know, the titan who held the sky and earth on his shoulders. Are you still with me? Awesome, here is where Hercules comes in.
In penance for a crime he committed, Hercules was assigned twelve very difficult labors to perform that would purge him of his guilt. (Side note, full blog on Hercules coming soon. You are going to want popcorn for that one!) But I am getting too far ahead of myself, so let’s get back to those apples. The eleventh labor was to obtain a golden apple from the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, not a simple task given the security measures employed, namely the dragon. Now here is where the order of events gets a little confused; this is after all mythology – hardly an exact science. Now most accounts have Hercules being urged to seek out Atlas and have him get the apple because Atlas could get past the dragon and enter the garden safely. An alternate version has Hercules killing the dragon, a formidable beast, with his poison tipped arrows and obtaining the apple himself. Either way he knocks out that eleventh labor and has just one more to go before redemption. Go Hercules!
The story of Hercules remains one of my favorites, but there is almost no end to the lore associated with the constellations at any time of the year. These stories help bring the night sky alive for our guests in the NOP and offer a little insight into antiquity. If you would like to hear more stories from mythology while becoming familiar with the night sky, join our Nightly Observing Program by making a reservation at https://visitkittpeak.org/night-observing-program/.
— Charles Collins, Kitt Peak Visitor Center Guide