Why didn't Hercules from myth "get" a better constellation?

Last night I took this picture of Orion from my back deck:


As I was looking it over, it occurred to me that Orion is almost a minor character in classical mythology, especially compared to Hercules. Yet Orion “got” the brightest constellation in the sky, while the constellation Hercules is faint and feeble. Not that the ancients would have been aware, but you can hardly even see Hercules if you live in or near a city, while if you enjoy better viewing conditions it gets lost in the surrounding stars. It doesn’t stand out at all.

By contrast, not only does Orion stand out, but it could easily be thought to represent Hercules. The sword could be a club and the shield could be the Lion of Nemea, though I realize Hercules was thought to have strangled the lion rather than clubbing it to death.

Is there an astronomical reason? When the constellations were first identified with mythological beings, did Orion not rise high enough in the Greek sky? I know that if you go back far enough in time the position of the celestial equator changes due to the precession of the equinoxes, and I believe the Greeks did know the constellations relating to Argo and the Centaur, which incidentally is also much brighter than Hercules, though I have never been far enough south to see it, myself.

I think the real question is why Orion’s stories were not of higher prominence. No one came up with epic tales of Orion in the classical antiquity period. There were a few mentions here and there, but it seems as though he was almost old hat - a cult that had been around forever that people still followed, but wasn’t as popular as the new cults that people were coming up with. So we hear of some vague stories where no one really agrees on the details and no one wrote an authoritative version, so he just languished in semi-obscurity, hurt by coming on to the scene too early for people to care about him once the culture really started getting going.

Perhaps because Hercules is fighting Draco while Orion is hunting a bull? Seeing as Aratus is the oldest book still exists and it was a copy the reason is most likely lost to time.

The Greeks were not the originators of most of the classical constellations. What we call Orion was an ancient Mesopotamian asterism called MULSIPA.ZI.AN.NA “True Shepherd of Anu [heaven or the sky]”, identified with the divine messenger of the gods. It makes sense that the Greeks adopted this big and dramatic-looking constellation to represent a mighty warrior/huntsman. But why that mighty hero happened to be Orion rather than Hercules I don’t know.

Warning PDF, but this paper that just came out claims that several cave paintings of animals from 30,000-9,000 BP were animal symbols represent star constellations.


If this theory is correct, and the known connection to Orion as a hunter it simply could have been a renamed role from an earlier culture too.

Hercules and Ophiuchus, on the other hand, seem to have been first identified in their current configurations in classical times. Maybe it was simply that by the time classical mythology morphed to the point of deciding Hercules rated his own constellation, all the good asterisms were taken.

Great link. I had no notion of any of this.

Sent from my SM-G950U using Tapatalk

ETA: For anyone getting the “Adult Content” warning, I just changed the status to safe. My Flickr account sets my images to ‘moderate’ by default, and for some reason this causes their system to block it as adult content to those who aren’t logged into Flickr.

Well, I am an adult, I suppose…

ETA: The authors used Stellarium to simulate the sky as it appeared when Göbleki Tepe was first in use about 10000 BCE. I wasn’t aware that the app is able to take into account the precession of the equinoxes, but this phenomenon is undoubtedly central to my question.

When I tried to the same I noticed a couple interesting results.

At the latitude of Athens, twelve thousand years ago, Orion was never fully above the horizon, so in Europe of the late stone age nobody would have thought to assign a centrally important character of their mythology to that asterism.

Orion from southern Europe, 10000 BCE

By contrast, Centaurus was much farther north in the sky, and would have been easily visible to people in the area.

Rigil Kent/Alpha Cen from the same time and place

So if the “classical” constellations were in any way inherited from late paleolithic cultures, this gives us a clue as to why Centaurus was evidently known to the Greeks, even if it was no longer visible in classical times.

Come to think of it, one of Orion’s myths has Artemis shooting him in the head, while he was swimming and only his head was visible. I can’t help but wonder if this is in some way connected to the fact that in the late paleolithic age only his head and shoulders, as it were, ever appeared above the southern horizon.

Sounds doubtful to me: You’d need a people who sees the full constellation (so they can associate that part with his head and shoulders, rather than calling it the whole constellation), but who has cultural memory of a time when only those parts were visible. I’m having a hard time seeing something like that being preserved for long enough.

Slight tangent, but I’m fascinated by the theory that Mithraism was largely astronomically based, specifically inspired by the Hipparchus’s discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. No existing god had the characteristic that he could move the whole universe like that, so a new one was created. This would explain a lot of the iconography associated with Mithraic temples: there was always a bull being killed by Mithras, and usually a dog, a snake, a scorpion, a raven and a lion, all of which are constellations. Mithras himself may have been identified with Perseus, which is next to Taurus in the sky, or with Orion. The bull slaying itself, the primary symbol in all temples, may have been symbolic of the movement of the heavens (Taurus yielding to Perseus).

Wasn’t Mithras associated with the Sun? That would lean towards him being identified with none of the constellations, or with all of them equally, or with a different one of them each month.

Mithras was “associated” with the sun, often in the form of Sol Invictus, but was not identified with it. Many Mithraic temples have the Sun as a separate figure accompanying Mithras in the tauroctony, or show them together at a banquet.

I see your point; for them to have seen the constellation in its entirety our hypothetical observers would have had to be there some thousands of years even earlier than 10000 BCE. OTOH I’m not sure the people we would one day know as the Greeks were anywhere near Greece at the time, nor that it was possible to say they even existed at all at a time when when even PIE was thousands of years in the future.
Sent from my SM-G950U using Tapatalk

ETA: FWIW, I notice now that Stellarium actually takes proper stellar motion into account as well. Nearby stars like Sirius and Rigil Kent can be seen to change their positions a great deal as you go back in time.

I have no great knowledge, but I do note that on the Wikipedia it notes that Orion had one famous incident of almost being killed by a scorpion. So it could be that once they determined that the “hunter/fighter” constellation and the scorpion constellation would never both be visible at the same time, that it made a certain sort of sense to make the hunter constellation into Orion. It has a nice story to it.

But did the story come first, or the constellations? That myth always read to me like “Hey, you ever notice that these two constellations are never up at the same time? I wonder why that is?”.

I would think that the constellations came first, and the stories-- including whatever religious aspects there were–arose later as a kind of origin myth to explain why they were in the sky.

Sent from my SM-G950U using Tapatalk

Hard to say without a timeline. I suspect that this is a question where there is insufficient written material that can be dated appropriately for us to decide something.

If we flip it, then that would mean that Orion the character was based on the hunter constellation, and the story reflects the story in the sky. The constellation wasn’t named after a hero, a hero was born from the constellation. Ergo, Hercules isn’t involved because no constellation is named after a mythical character.