A Stellar Character
“The ghostly figure of a toiling hero
rolls through heaven close by, on what labor bent
no one can say, but men call him simply
The Man on His Knees: an image of weariness
sunk on his knees, his arms uplifted
from both of his shoulders,
and he holds his hands out
a fathom apart. His right foot is centered
over the head of the sinuous Dragon
Here too is the Crown which Dionysus dedicated
to Ariadne’s memory, a glorious sign
turning under the back of the toil-worn Phantom.“
This is our first official introduction to the constellation Heracles, the Kneeler, commonly depicted today as a man on one knee. When Aratus penned his Phaenomena circa 270 BC, the constellation did not have a name, but ‘men call him simply the man on his knees’. We must take him at his word, for here was an individual who was able to relate the names and risings of all the other constellations, save this one.
But if we turn now to the 4th century AD and the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus , we gain some additional insights. While the degrees of his rising sign have changed from then until now, the nature of the energy at work has remained the same. We are being given some insight as to what it’s like to have the stars of the constellation strong, especially when they are rising or setting.
From Book VIII, Chapter XVII we catch a glimpse of what it was like to be the club-wielding champion of days gone by.
“Ingeniculus (the Kneeler, i.e. Hercules, his Roman name) rises in the last degrees of Pisces. It is called in Greek Engonais. Those who are born with this star rising will be wise, clever, trained in various tricks, liars who deceive people with different kinds of plots; they are always aggressive and display unbridled hostility. With aspects of Mars or the Moon they will be rope-dancers or tightrope walkers. Those who are born when this star is setting will be in danger from various plots. If Mars be in aspect they will be burned alive.”
Themes such as these are drawn from ancient tales of the myth itself, for Heracles was, in fact, burned alive in two different way. First, he put on a tunic which had been smeared with the Hydra’s venom. His wife had been told that it was a love potion. This venom, like a strong acid, began to eat away at his skin. Heracles tore off the tunic, but his skin came away with it. In order to put an end to his eternal suffering, Heracles climbed to the top of Mount Oeta where he built a pyre, but none of the mourners could bring themselves to light it. Finally Poeas, passing by while tending his flocks, consented to light the pyre. In return, Heracles gave him his bow and arrows. According to the myth, the flames rose to burn away what was mortal in our hero, finally setting his soul free. As the flames were dying out, a cloud enveloped the pyre and lightning stuck. When the cloud passed, the mourners found no remains of the dead hero.
After his twelve labors and a life-time of toil, Heracles at last achieved the immortality that destiny had decreed would be his. He ascended to Olympus, made amends with Hera, and married Hebe, the goddess of Youth.