On May 8, 2018 at 8:39 pm edt, the gas giant Jupiter will come to its annual opposition with the Sun, meaning it will appear on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. After sunset in the west, Jupiter will rise in the east and will be our constant nighttime companion, traveling westward across the sky. The planets come to their oppositions when they appear to move retrograde, or counter to their regular, direct motion, which is west to east. This summer, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars will all be moving retrograde, and will have their oppositions with the Sun only 79 days apart from one another ~ this doesn’t happen all the time!
Here’s some of the story we can imagine in this current configuration: Each year in May the constellation of the Kneeler rises up in the east. Known more commonly as “Hercules”, this constellation is bordered by the starry crown (Corona Borealis) to the west, the lyre (Lyra) to the east, the healer (Ophiucus) to the south, and the dragon (Draco) to the north.
To find Hercules can sometimes be challenging, because the constellation is not made up of really bright stars, and he’s upside down! But here’s one way to get to the mighty hero: Find the Big Dipper overhead and follow the arc of its handle to the bright star Arcturus. From Arcturus, draw a straight line northeast to the bright star Vega. Nearly halfway between Arcturus and Vega, you will bisect the hips of the mighty Hercules, where he appears upside down with his left leg bent to the west.
In Ancient Mythology Hercules is the son of Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks). Zeus disguised himself and seduced Alcmene, extending their night of lovemaking three times. Many will say this was to fulfill a divine lust, but the ancients sought to express a greater understanding through their mythologies, and in this case, it was the belief that to be fructified by the divine meant Alcmene would give birth to a “universal” human being, a hero, which is to say a human being fully realized and awake to his three-fold nature of Body, Soul, and Spirit. Zeus exclaimed about the birth of his son, to the chagrin of Hercules’ older half brother Eurystheus, who consequently assigned Hercules the ten labors. Hercules handily accomplished them, but because he had friends in high places and received help with the first two, Eurystheus assigned two more ~ and here’s where the mighty mystery begins.
In the 11th Labor, Hercules had to get the golden apples from the tree that was guarded by the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas. On his way to their secret garden, he passed through Libya, where he encountered the giant Antaeus. Antaeus was a son of Neptune and Gaea who forced all passerby to wrestle; his secret power lay in his literal connection to the Earth, his mother. He was undefeated so long as he remained in direct contact with the Earth. To master him, Hercules lifted him up off the ground and held him aloft until he perished!
Now let’s consider Hercules the constellation, and the image here from the Renaissance artist
Antonio del Pollaiuolo. There he appears, upside down in the night, left leg bent westward. It’s curious that the hero should appear upside down, but what appears to be represented here is not Hercules alone, but Hercules AND Antaeus. The “upside-downness” of Hercules means he is rooted in the sky, not on the Earth, like his foe. The leg bent to the west in the constellation is then beautifully depicted by Pollaiuolo as belonging to Anteaus, and if you turn the sculpture upside down, you find hidden in it the exact rendering of how the constellation appears in the sky, with the head of Hercules upside down, and the leg of the flailing Anteaus bent out and westward.
The deeper meaning tucked into this myth points to the idea that so long as the human being assumes that his origin is of earth alone, he will be overcome; but if the human being recognizes his descent from the divine starry world, he will rise victorious. If we imagine the constellation Hercules standing up, he meets the healer (Ophiucus). If he fails, he falls into the dragon’s lair (Draco). The promise of the starry crown (Corona Borealis) is his, if he can master his divine talents (Lyra) in the physical world.
This is but one way to “read the stars.” Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney penned this magnificent piece about the same in his poem “Anteaus” from 1966:
When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
To rub myself with sand
That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.
Down here in my cave
Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
Like a small hillock.
Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
Into that realm of fame
Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
My elevation, my fall.
Here’s my audio presentation of the above, which you can also hear Monday Mornings on Interlochen Public Radio during “Morning Edition”