“A Herculean task.”
When I was researching the zodiac calendar for The 13th Sign, I confessed to my friend Darcy (who is an English teacher and writer, so she is well-suited for this kind of admission) that I was getting confused about all the Greek and Roman myths surrounding the constellations.
“I keep forgetting they are stories,” I said. “The way people talk about Hercules, for instance. People never discuss what he did as tales. They talk about him and his labors like they really happened. Like he truly cast a lion into the skies.” (Hey, don’t judge. It had been a long research day.)
“That’s why they call it a myth, Kristin,” Darcy patiently explained. “Myths are so ingrained in our culture, they feel like fact.”
It was a lightbulb moment for me. Not just for my story, but for stories. For the power of story: its ability to teach, its ability to endure.
Why was I neck-deep in mythology? Many historians believe our modern-day, 12-sign zodiac calendar is interwoven with the myths of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Honestly, some of the connections are a bit of a stretch. But there is significant evidence to believe that the two feed off one another in some huge, mythological, symbiotic bond.
First, a little background. Legend has it that Hercules ticked off King Eurystheus and was ordered to perform ten challenges, or labors, as atonement. Hercules was a sneak and cheated on two of the labors. King E ordered another two challenges, bringing the total to twelve. Hera, a goddess who wanted Hercules to fail, tossed a bunch of obstacles in his way. Spoiler: Hercules wins.
The order of the labors varies widely from source to source. So does which horoscope sign is associated with which labor. So do the stories of what actually happened in the labors themselves. It’s myth, after all. Stories change a little over, oh, two thousand or so years. But if you look at the Twelve Labors through the lens of the astrological constellations, some interesting things take shape. (With apologies for the brevity.)
Aries is traditionally the first sign of the zodiac, so we’ll start there. Many folks align this horoscope sign with Stealing the Mares of Diomedes. But wait—isn’t Aries the ram? Yes, yes, we’re getting to that.
The ponies Hercules had to catch weren’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill horses. They were man-eating mares. They ate flesh and ran buck-wild. Hercules called in his best bud Abderis to lend a hand, and Abderis was killed when Hercules declared an early victory. Hercules regrouped, went in kicking and swinging, and tamed him some horsie hide. This labor is associated with Aries the Ram because of how stubborn, bold, and naïve Hercules was in thinking he’d won when he had not, losing a dear friend. Hercules is the ram. Hey, I told you some of these were a stretch.
Hercules was soon thereafter sent to Capture the Cretan Bull. Cretan Bull, Taurus the Bull… next!
Hercules next had to Steal the Golden Apples of Hesperides. He was unable to pass by the horrible hundred-headed dragon guarding the apple tree, but knew that Atlas could. Hercules cut a deal: “Hey, Atlas. I’ll take over your job of holding up the heavens for a bit if you go get these apples for me.” It worked.
Most folks who study this kind of thing refer to the twins in Gemini as Castor and Pollux, but they have also been referred to as Hercules and Apollo—man and god.
This sign is traditionally associated with Slaying the Nine-Headed Lernaean Hydra. Hercules battled the beast, and was winning. Seeing that, goddess Hera ushered in a large crab to distract Hercules. He crushed it and slayed the hydra. Hera immortalized both in the skies. Cancer’s symbol is the crab.
The Slaying of the Nemean Lion is traditionally considered the first of the labors Hercules was ordered to perform, and is closely associated with the constellation Leo the lion. This is important. You see, astrologers often believe that Leo is the wannabe leader of the zodiac. The fact that the first labor is tied to Leo is a thumbed nose in the face of Aries.
Virgo is often associated with the Obtaining the Girdle of Hippolyta. Virgo’s symbol is the virgin. I’m gonna let you piece this one together yourselves.
Libra, the scales, is linked to the Capture of the Erymanthian Boar. Prior to capturing beast, Hercules stopped in for a little nip of wine with his old buddy, the centaur Pholus. They had, as you might imagine, a bit more than a nip, and Pholus wound up dead, having stepped on one of Hercules’ poison arrows. The scales of Libra refers to the balance we need to achieve in life to avoid tragedy and achieve success.
Hercules was assigned to Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis, a deer so fast it could outrun arrows. When the sun is in the house of Scorpio, the constellation Stag (now, interestingly, often called Hercules) rises. The scorpion that comprises Scorpio and the Stag/Hercules are near the constellation Ophiuchus, which some call the missing 13th sign of the zodiac.
The Stymphalian birds were some pretty fierce fowl. Man-eating birds with beaks of bronze, sharp metallic feathers that could launch knife-like missiles, highly toxic dung. When Hercules was sent to kill them as one of his Twelve Labors, he was smart enough to do so from a distance. He killed them with his bow and arrows, linking this labor to Sagittarius the Archer.
Capricorn is related to The Capture of Cerberus, the three-headed hound who was the guardian of the gates of Hades. Cerberus had a mane of snakes and a serpent tail, and was one mean pooch. Capricorn’s symbol is a goat, which has been likened to this journey in that goats are stubborn and often must overcome much rocky terrain to reach great heights. I know. I think this one is a stretch, too.
Hercules then had to Clean the Augean Stables in a Single Day. This labor was intended to humiliate Hercules. All the other labors had glorified him, and here he was, assigned to muck the stalls of some divinely healthy beasts. The stables had been ignored for 30 years, and over 1,000 head of cattle lived there. Hercules re-routed the rivers Alpheus and Pineios to clean the filth. Aquarius is the water-bearer. Ta-da!
Pisces is said to be associated with the Capture of the Cattle of Geryon. Geryon was a beast of a man: Three heads! Six hands and feet! A giant! And Geryon owned some rad red cattle. Hercules was assigned to nab them, which he did. But Hera, the goddess who had it in for Hercules, tried to stop the capture. She sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, which caused a year-long delay. She flooded the river, making it so that Hercules and the cattle could not cross. Hercules stacked stones and led the cattle across. Some say the two fish of Pisces, swimming in opposite directions, represent Hercules and Hera.
So there you have it. A murky-at-best relationship between the zodiac and the Twelve Labors, but one that’s been around for a while. In all honesty, most scholars believe the myth of the Twelve Labors was developed as a way to teach scholars about the path that the sun (often thought of as Hercules, too) takes through the celestial sphere. It was a mnemonic device, a way to learn about the heavens. A Roy G. Biv that has outlasted even the direct need to learn about the skies. A myth.
Kristin O’Donnell Tubb is the author of The 13th Sign (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan January 2013) and Selling Hope. She can be found far too often on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and she has a website, too: www.kristintubb.com.