Atlas and Heracles
My most-recent three books present evidence that the ancient mythologies of cultures around the globe are all built upon "star myths" which follow a common system of celestial allegory, and that the original intended purpose of all these star myths was to convey a shamanic-holographic vision of our universe and mankind's place within it: a liberating vision which invites us to break through artificial barriers, and to reach into the "seed realm" to bring back information and to effect transformations that cannot be achieved any other way.
Previous posts have provided detailed examinations of specific myths from around the world -- including the stories found within the scriptures which made their way into what are often called the Old and New Testaments -- in order to demonstrate that the evidence supporting the above assertion is so prodigiously vast as to be almost irrefutable.
This previous post provides a lengthy list, with links, to more than twenty such detailed examinations of star myths from around the world, with clear ties between the details from the myth or story and the characteristics of the constellation or constellations that the story is allegorizing into myth.
Several previous posts discuss the reason that the ancient sages who gave these myths to humanity chose to use the motions of the celestial realm in order to convey profound and otherwise difficult-to-grasp truths (see for instance: "Wax on, wax off," "Like a finger, pointing a way to the moon . . ." and "Montessori and 'thinging'").
The ancient myths of the world provide an inexhaustible supply of additional examples of the heavenly and celestial foundation of nearly every ancient scripture and sacred story. One memorable Greek myth worthy of explication to further illustrate the undeniable stellar basis of the ancient sacred corpus comes from the Twelve Labors of Heracles (Roman Hercules): the mission to retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides (the Eleventh Labor of Heracles).
The Greek scholar Apollodorus of Athens (born around 180 BC and lived until some time after 120 BC) gives us a good version to examine, which can be found in its entirety online here, as translated by James George Frazer (1921). Below is an extended quotation of some of the pertinent details of the Eleventh Labor, which actually involved numerous other encounters by Heracles with other beings and demigods along the way (not all of which will be examined, although each could provide rich material for study and celestial unraveling). Since Frazer chooses to use the Roman form of the hero's name, we too will refer to him as Hercules for the rest of this particular discussion:
When the labours had been performed in eight years and a month, Eurystheus ordered Hercules, as an eleventh labour, to fetch golden apples from the Hesperides, for he did not acknowledge the labour of the cattle of Augeas nor that of the hydra. These apples were not, as some have said, in Libya, but on Atlas among the Hyperboreans. They were presented to Zeus after his marriage with Hera, and guarded by an immortal dragon with a hundred heads, offspring of Typhon and Echidna, which spoke with many divers sorts of voices. With it the Hepserides also were on guard, to wit, Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa. [. . .][Various adventures ensue, primarily with Heracles defeating different sons of Poseidon][. . .]
And traversing Asia he put in to Thermydrae, the harbor of the Lindians. And having loosed one of the bullocks from the cart of a cowherd, he sacrificed it and feasted. But the cowherd, unable to protect himself, stood on a certain mountain and cursed. Wherefore to this day, when they sacrifice to Hercules, they do it with curses.
And passing by Arabia he slew Emathion, son of Tithonius, and journeying through Libya to the outer sea he received the goblet from the Sun. And having crossed to the opposite mainland he shot on the Caucasus the eagle, offspring of Echidna and Typhon, that was devouring the liver of Prometheus, and he released Prometheus, after choosing for himself the bond of olive, and to Zeus he presented Chiron, who, though immortal, consented to die in his stead.
Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules. And so Hercules picked up the apples and departed. But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere.
This story is full of fascinating detail, as well as a certain amount of humor. First, it is fascinating to note that the story involves plucking fruit from a tree . . . plucking fruit from a tree . . . now where have we heard something about that before . . . ? (It sounds familiar somehow).
Prometheus warns Hercules that it is somehow dangerous (possibly fatal) for Hercules to pluck the apples himself (this also seems vaguely familiar for some reason . . . plucking fruit might cause one to "surely die" . . . hmmm). There is also a guardian serpent -- in this case, a dragon -- which again seems to be something I remember from another myth about fatal fruit.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this particular myth-sequence is the battle of wits between Hercules and Atlas. Atlas was the Titan condemned for eternity to uphold the entire sphere of the sky upon his shoulders. This was a punishment for having sided against the Olympians in the primordial battle between the Titans and the new gods.
Hercules gets himself into a tight spot when he agrees to hold up the sky while Atlas retrieves the dangerous apples: when Atlas returns, the Titan decides he kind of enjoys his newfound freedom, and announces to Hercules that the hero seems to be doing such a good job that Atlas will be taking a permanent vacation and leaving the task of holding up the sky to Hercules from now on.
Hercules slyly agrees (in the version from Apollodorus cited above), but asks for a moment in order to cut a pad for his shoulders before he gets down to the task of supporting the sphere for the rest of eternity. Atlas agrees, and relieves Hercules for a moment, at which point the hero takes the apples and departs, leaving the hapless Atlas back where he began, supporting the sky.
In some versions (at least in the wonderfully-illustrated version of the Labors of Hercules presented in the Sullivan Programmed Reading workbooks I had the pleasure of reading in elementary school during the 1970s), Hercules actually prepares to shoulder the sky again after cutting the pads for his shoulders, before Athena helpfully reminds the hero not to fall for his own trick, and advises him not to take the burden of the heavens back from Atlas now that he has the Titan back where he belongs.
In footnote number three from Frazer's 1921 translation, we see the kind of analysis found among conventional scholars, who resolutely refuse to interpret the ancient myths of the world as celestial allegory. There, we read some scholarly discussion as to where on earth these gardens of the Hesperides might be located -- along with some consternation that Apollodorus seems to have located them in "the far north" rather than in the "far west" as the name "Hesperides" would seem to imply (the word has connections to the evening star or Venus when appearing in the west, rather than when appearing in the morning in the east).
The details of the story, however, make it clear that we are dealing again with celestial allegory. The Titan who is holding up the vault of the sky in this case is none other than the hulking constellation of Boötes -- a constellation whose form is fairly close to the North Celestial Pole as well as to the Big Dipper which circles it. The fact that the constellation of Hercules is very close to Boötes (and is also located close to the North Celestial Pole around which the entire heavens revolve) and that Hercules in the story temporarily takes over the task of supporting the sky-sphere from Atlas should be enough to identify the two main actors in the myth with these two northern constellations.
Note that the myth as presented by Apollodorus contains several clues which aid in the conclusion that we are dealing with the northern section of sky around which the entire celestial sphere revolves. First, of course, is the very nature of the punishment of Atlas: he is condemned to hold up what Apollodorus refers to as "the sphere" and "the sky." The best explanation for this punishment is that Atlas must be holding up the inside of the celestial sphere -- he is holding up the dome of the sky that we see when we look up into the heavens at night, a dome which revolves around a central point at the north celestial pole. Thus, he must be a constellation fairly close to the north celestial pole, and Böotes certainly qualifies.
Secondly, we note that the apples in this myth are guarded by a dragon -- and there is clearly a dragon which winds its way around the north celestial pole, in the form of the constellation Draco, the Dragon. The diagram below includes the north celestial pole, and the sinuous form of Draco:
I have only added the outline to Hercules in the above image: the outlines of Draco, the Big Dipper, and the Little Dipper are easy enough to see using the outlines included in the Neave Planetarium online app.
There is some reason to believe that the "tree" from which the Titan plucks the apples must be the invisible axis of the sky itself, the central "pole" around which the entire heavens turn. I present arguments in my first book, The Mathisen Corollary, that ancient myth and sacred tradition envisioned this central axis as a tall tree, which in many myths (such as the Gilgamesh epic) is cut down or otherwise unhinged to begin the motion of precession. Other evidence for this identification is presented in Hamlet's Mill.
Based upon this reading of the celestial aspects of the myth, it is possible that the golden apples themselves can be identified with the circlet of stars that make up the Corona Borealis, or Northern Crown. This constellation, allegorized in other myths as a necklace of jewels, can be seen to be located directly between the constellations of Hercules and Boötes in the first diagrams shown above. The stars of the Northern Crown certainly sparkle like golden jewels, and other myths make it clear that these golden apples were coveted by the goddesses, and we can see in the text of the myth as described by Apollodorus that these apples somehow originated from Hera but as a gift that was given away -- just as the stars of the Northern Crown are now located apart from the form of the constellation Virgo, located below Boötes.
Other details in the myth as related by Apollodorus include the fact that the apples are found among the Hyperboreans (a word which means "far north" or "above north"), as well as the fact that in the supplemental adventures of Hercules, he is described as encountering a "cowherd" (the constellation Boötes is known as the Herdsman) who drives a "cart" or wagon (the Big Dipper was often described in myth as a wagon, a cart, or a "wain," as well as being allegorized in other myth as a plow). It was, in fact, almost certainly the billy-goat cart of Thor, who is associated with Jupiter (note that Thor's-day and Jove's-day are the same day: our modern Thursday), and remember that in the myth above as described by Apollodorus we have Hera giving the apples as a gift to Zeus (who is Jove and Jupiter).
When Hercules sacrifices one of the oxen from this cart, the Herdsman can only curse -- and we have seen that in myths around the world, the relationship between Böotes and his cart is somehow associated with off-color speech or antics (see the discussion of the lewd dance of Uzume in the Japanese myth of Amaterasu, or the behavior of Loki when he is trying to coax a smile out of the jotun maiden Skade, both of which are described in this previous post).
The outlines of both the constellation Böotes and the constellation Hercules can be envisioned as large men crouching down to support the burden of the very peak of the vault of heaven (located at the north celestial pole, which is located above both of their backs). The ancient art depicting the mighty Titan Atlas bending down to support the ponderous burden of the entire sphere often depicts him as having one knee out forward, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the shape of Boötes, who also has a prominent crooked knee on his one leg. Below is an image of the famous "Farnese Atlas," with an outline of Boötes for comparison:
Here is a link to the original image on Wikimedia commons. Is it possible that the sculptors of such ancient statuary envisioned the outline that we normally think of as the head of Bootes as the globe in this case (when Bootes is playing the role of the Titan Atlas, that is)? The general shape of the outline seems to suggest that the ancients did understand the correlation of Atlas with Bootes, particularly as the right (rear) leg of the statue would correspond to the "pointed" side on the left of the constellation outline, while the raised left-leg of the statue (on the right side as we look at Atlas) corresponds to the bent leg of the constellation. The illustration below shows how the general shape does seem to correlate to some degree:
Note as an intriguing aside that the Farnese Globe in the second-century AD sculpture shown above is an important clue to the level of ancient astronomical knowledge, as discussed inthis previous post from 2012.
Yet further support for the identification of Atlas with Boötes comes from the fact that he is clearly described as having daughters, the Hesperides, whose names are given by Apollodorus as Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa. While the image below is from a modern-era piece of artwork from the well-known trailblazing (and occasionally scandal-generating) artist John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), it incorporates ancient conventions regarding the depiction of Atlas. His 1925 depiction of the Hesperides as reclining beneath the burdened figure of their father the Titan is significant, in that the constellation Virgo is located in just such a recumbent pose in relationship to Boötes:
Notice that the artist has depicted Atlas with one arm extended, and the hand of that single extended arm in a rather curious (albeit graceful) upturned angle -- exactly as if he were aware of the correspondence between Boötes and Atlas, and imagining the "pipe" of the constellation Boötes as the single extended arm of the crouching Atlas in his painting.
Below is the now-familiar diagram of Boötes in relationship to Virgo which has been featured in several previous posts including this one and this one, reproduced here in order to show that Virgo in the sky reclines beneath the hulking form of Boötes in exactly the same way that John Singer Sargent has depicted his Hesperides as reclining beneath the burdened form of his Atlas:
All of these correspondences, plus the fact that the constellation Hercules itself is located immediately adjacent to Boötes, makes it fairly clear that this is the section of the celestial sphere which is being allegorized in the star myth of Hercules retrieving the golden apples from the Hesperides, with the assistance of the Titan Atlas.
Having established this, what does it all mean? Does identifying the players of the famous Eleventh Labor of Hercules as constellations in our night sky (constellations you can go identify this very night) somehow "rob" the myth of its grandeur, its human drama, and its air of reverence for the things of the gods (including the apples which cannot be picked by human hands and which, we are told at the end of the account, cannot remain in the world of men and women but must be taken back to the world of the gods)?
While some might see it that way, I would argue the opposite: like the other myths we have examined such as the stealing of the mead of poetry from Gunnlod or the stealing of fire from the Old Man in the tipi (and like the myth of Adam and Eve plucking the forbidden fruit from the tree in the Genesis account which shares so many elements with this labor of Hercules), there are aspects of what we could call "the shamanic" in this myth. The myth involves obtaining something from the world of the gods, of "crossing over" into the divine realm and borrowing something that is "not of this earth," something that elevates Hercules at least for a time into the numinous world of the primordial powers and the gods. He takes the place of Atlas, supporting with his own human back the very axis of the heavens (and in doing so uniting the microcosm and the macrocosm, as well as "ascending" for a time to the very realm of the stars).
The fact that Heracles or Hercules has an entire cycle of labors, twelve in number, also should cause us to suspect that he is in fact a figure who embodies the full cycle of the sun's annual course -- a circuit which the ancient myths imbue with spiritual significance relating to our plunge down into this incarnate life (at the fall equinox) and our mission of "raising our awareness of -- and re-integrating with -- the divine, spiritual part" of our being (symbolized by the "great turn" of the year at the low-point of the winter equinox).
Thus the Heracles-cycle in general (with its twelve labors) and this story of retrieving the immortal apples of the Hesperides in particular, speak to us (in their celestial language) of the re-connection with the divine realm -- the infinite realm (which Heracles or Hercules actually accomplishes in an almost "literal" fashion in this story, when he himself takes up the burden of supporting the celestial sphere, thereby "bridging" the gap between finite earth and infinite starry sky).