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Volume 14, Issue 29 ~ July 20 - July 26, 2006

Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Milk in the Heavens

Hera’s wrath against Hercules comes full-circle

The moon wanes through Tuesday, when new moon provides exceptionally dark skies, allowing the splendor of the cosmos to shine through our light-scourged heavens.

Sunset falls just before 8:30, and as darkness settles, Hercules appears directly overhead, one of the most distinct constellations and lying at the heart of the Milky Way.

In Greek mythology, the Milky Way forms due to Hera and Hercules, or Heracles, which translates to Glory of Hera. Like many of the Greek heroes, Heracles was the offspring of Zeus and one of his human conquests, the virgin Alcmene, a princess of Thebes to whom Zeus appeared in the form of her husband who was off fighting.

As the day of birth drew near, Zeus boasted to Hera that the day was nye when a son of his divine lineage would be born to royalty and grow to rule the world of men.

Enraged, Hera sought the aid of her daughter, Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, who delayed Alcmene’s labor for seven days. In the meantime, one of Alcmene’s sisters-in-law gave birth, supplanting the unborn Heracles in the royal succession.

Eventually, Alcmene gave birth to twins: Heracles and Iphicles, conceived by her true husband. Ever vengeful, Hera sent two serpents to kill the infants in their crib. Iphicles screamed, but Heracles crushed a snake in each hand.

Fearful for her own life, Alcmene abandoned Heracles in the woods, where Athena discovered the infant. Athena took the foundling to Hera, who unknowingly nursed the baby Heracles, until he bit hard on her nipple. The goddess pushed the baby away, spewing her milk across the heavens and forming the Milky Way.

In reality, the Milky Way is our home galaxy, made up of 200 to 400 billion stars stretching from as far north as Cassiopeia and as far south as Scorpius and Crux.

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