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Labors of Hercules

September 6, 2010

The western evening sky offers up a figure that seems just right for Labor Day: Hercules, the strongman. In mythology, he had to labor not once, but 12 times.

Hercules was an illegitimate son of Jupiter, the king of the gods of ancient Rome. Jupiter's wife hated Hercules so much that she drove him mad. As a result, Hercules mistakenly killed his own wife and children. To atone for this deed, he had to perform 12 mighty labors, at least two of which are tied to other constellations.

Hercules's first labor was to slay a lion, which is represented by the spring constellation Leo. Don't look for Leo now, though -- the lion set when the Sun did.

For his second labor, Hercules had to kill a nine-headed monster, Hydra, which is represented by another constellation. In fact, it's the largest constellation of all, winding across much of the sky. Like Leo, Hydra is best seen in the spring.

While Hercules was attacking Hydra, a crab dared to attack him. But the crab was no match for mighty Hercules, who crushed it with his foot. This is the constellation Cancer, which lies next to Leo in the zodiac.

Mighty though Hercules was, his constellation takes a bit of labor to find. It's the fifth largest of all the constellations, but all of its stars look dim, so you'll need a star chart to make it out. But if you have a dark sky, you can see Hercules shining faintly in the west after sunset -- no doubt exhausted from all of his labors.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2010

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