Why is Hercules upside down? This week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

Apr 30, 2018

Antonio Pollaiuolo's sculpture of Hercules and Antaeus reveals the dual nature of the constellation, complete with flailing leg

The mighty constellation Hercules is rising up in the night sky this week, in the east after 10 pm, and bearing mystery in his wake.

 

Before the Ancient Greeks saw the hero Hercules in this region of sky, the constellation was known as the Kneeler, because the figure appears upside down on bended knee.

 

It’s curious that the ancients would see their great hero in such a figure. After all, Hercules was a son of Zeus who handily accomplished the 12 labors ~ so why is he upside down and kneeling? There’s something more than meets the eye in this constellation.

 

And here’s a clue: On the way to one of his labors, Hercules passed through Libya, where he encountered the giant Anteaus, who forced all passersby to wrestle; his secret power lay in his connection to the Earth, his mother. This meant Anteaus was undefeated as long as he remained in direct contact with the Earth. To master him, Hercules had to lift him up off the ground and hold him aloft, and struggling, until he perished.

 

This myth reveals the ancient belief that human beings, in their higher or Hercules-like nature, have their origin in the divine starry world, not with the Earth, like the brute Anteaus. It's up to us which part of our nature will overcome the other, higher or lower. And this duality is hidden in the constellation of the kneeler, if we look closely.

 

The constellation is always depicted as an upside down figure with his left leg bent westward into the night. The upside-downness is the hero part, which is upside down because he’s rooted in the stars. The leg bent westward is actually the flailing limb of Anteaus, the giant, kicking into the night as he is held aloft by Hercules. Here the ancient lesson was that human beings must wrestle and overcome their lower nature in order to realize their divine or higher nature, or as the poet Seamus Heaney described it, before we can pass into that realm of fame among sky-born and royal.