Ancient Greek
Star Lore

Part 5


Ian Ridpath tells us two stories about the Hydra:

"Hydra was the creature that Heracles fought and killed as the second of his famous labors. The Hydra was a multi-headed creature, the offspring of the monster Typhon and the half-woman, half-serpent called Echidna. Hydra was thus the sister of the dragon that guarded the golden apples, commemorated in the constellation Draco.

Hydra reputedly had nine heads, the middle one of which was immortal. In the sky, though, it is shown with one head only – perhaps this is the immortal one. ...

Heracles rode up to the Hydra’s lair in his chariot and fired flaming arrows into the swamp to force the creature into the open, where he grappled with it. The Hydra wrapped itself around one of his legs; Heracles smashed at its heads with his club but no sooner had one head been destroyed than two grew in its place. To add to Heracles’s worries, a huge crab scuttled out of the swamp and attacked his other foot, but Heracles stamped on the crab and crushed it. The crab is commemorated in the constellation Cancer.

Heracles called for help to his charioteer Iolaus who burned the stump of each head as soon as it was struck off to prevent others growing in its place. Finally Heracles cut off the immortal head of the Hydra and buried it under a heavy rock by the roadside. He slit open the body of the Hydra and dipped his arrows in its poisonous gall."

Source:Ian Ridpath

Herakles, Iolaos, and the Hydra on an Etruscan vase
Ca. 525 BC; Source: Wikipedia

Herakles and the Hydra on a Roman mosaic
Ca. 250 AD; Source: Wikipedia

Continuing Ian Ridpath quote:

"A second legend associates the water-snake with the constellations of the Crow (Corvus) and the Cup (Crater) that lie on its back. In this story, the crow was sent by Apollo to fetch water in the bowl, but loitered to eat figs from a tree. When the crow eventually returned to Apollo it blamed the water-snake for blocking the spring. But Apollo knew that the crow was lying, and punished the bird by placing him in the sky, where the water-snake eternally prevents him from drinking out of the bowl."

Source:Ian Ridpath
Hydra, Corvus and Crater in Urania's_Mirror (1824)
Source: Wikipedia


Greek mythology adopted the visualization of the constellation as a lion and identified Leo as the Nemean Lion which was killed by Heracles during the first of his twelve labors.

Wikipedia tells the story:

The Nemean Lion would take women as hostages to its lair in a cave, luring warriors from nearby towns to save the damsel in distress, to their misfortune. The Lion was impervious to any weaponry; thus, the warriors' clubs, swords, and spears were rendered useless against it.

Realizing that he must defeat the Lion with his bare hands, Heracles slipped into the Lion's cave and engaged it at close quarters. When the Lion pounced, Heracles caught it in midair, one hand grasping the Lion's forelegs and the other its hind legs, and bent it backwards, breaking its back and freeing the trapped maidens.

Zeus commemorated this labor by placing the Lion in the sky.

Sources:Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Heracles and the Nemean Lion
Mosaic in Paphos, Cypriot stamp

Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion
Pieter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639,
Source: Harvard Art Museums


At the end of the Babylonian era, the stars of Libra became the claws of neigboring Scorpius. One reason for the transition can be the similarity of the Babylonian with the word zubānā, which in Arabic and other Semitic languages means "scorpion's claws."

Ian Ridpath tells us that " ancient Greek times, the area of sky we know as Libra was occupied by the claws of the scorpion, Scorpius. The Greeks called this area Χηλαί (Chelae), literally meaning ‘claws’,

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Scorpius and Libra
Source: Gavin White


Ian Ridpath tells us that the first lyre ever made, was "... invented by Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia (one of the Pleiades). Hermes fashioned the lyre from the shell of a tortoise that he found browsing outside his cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Hermes cleaned out the shell, pierced its rim and tied across it seven strings of cow gut, the same as the number of the Pleiades.

The lyre got Hermes out of trouble after a youthful exploit in which he stole some of Apollo’s cattle. Apollo angrily came to demand their return, but when he heard the beautiful music of the lyre he let Hermes keep the cattle and took the lyre in exchange. Eratosthenes says that Apollo later gave the lyre to Orpheus to accompany his songs."

Source:Ian Ridpath

Lyra with Lacerta, Cygnus and Vulpecula
Sidney Hall, Urania's Mirror, 1824
Source: Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells us, that "...Orpheus's music was said to be so great that even inanimate objects such as trees, streams, and rocks could be charmed. Joining Jason and the Argonauts, his music was able to quell the voices of the dangerous Sirens, who sang tempting songs to the Argonauts.

At one point, Orpheus married Eurydice, a nymph. While fleeing from an attack by Aristaeus, she stepped on a snake that bit her, killing her. To reclaim her, Orpheus entered the Underworld, where the music from his lyre charmed Hades.

Hades relented and let Orpheus bring Eurydice back, on the condition that he never once look back until outside. Unfortunately, near the very end, Orpheus faltered and looked back, causing Eurydice to be left in the Underworld forever."

Orpheus surrounded by animals
Ancient Roman floor mosaic
Source: Wikipedia

Milky Way

Γαλαξίας (Galaxias), the Greek name for the Milky Way is derived from γάλα (gala), the Greek word for milk. In Greek mythology, there are two legends about how the Milky Way was created. Both stories are centered around Heracles, a mortal son of Zeus, and Hera, Zeus' wife.

In the first story, as told by Wikipedia, Heracles was born of the mortal woman Alcmene. In order to endow his mortal son with godlike qualities, Zeus let him suckle on his divine wife Hera's milk when she was asleep. When Hera woke up, she pushed Heracles away and the spurting milk became the Milky Way.

The Origin of the Milky Way; Tintoretto
ca. 1575–1580; Source: Wikipedia
In a different version, also told by Wikipedia, Heracles was abandoned in the woods by his mortal parents, Amphitryon and Alcmene. His father Zeus sent Athena, goddess of wisdom, to retrieve him. Athena decided to take him to Hera who agreed to suckle Heracles. As Heracles drinks the milk, he bites down, and Hera pushes him away in pain. The milk that squirts out forms the Milky Way.

The first scholars to speculate that the Milky Way consisted of stars too far away to be individually distinguished were Greek philosophers Anaxagoras (ca.  500–428 BC) and Democritus (460–370 BC).

The Great Rift is a group of dark dust clouds, significantly obscuring parts of the Milky Way for observers on Earth.

In Greek mythology, the Great Rift is sometimes seen as the path of devastation left by Phaeton, who tried to guide the chariot of of his father, the Sun god Helios across the sky. Phaeton lost control over the chariot, wreaking havoc before being struck down by a Zeus' lightning bolt. The northern Coalsack Nebula, which marks one end of the Great Rift is seen as the end of Phaeton's trail of devastation.
The fall of Phaeton; Wikipedia
In another Greek myth, the trail carved by Phaeton is seen as the constellation Eridanus.

Sources: Wikipedia,

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