The Birth of the Milky Way in Greek Mythology
Today, we know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just one of the billions of galaxies that exist in the vast universe. Stretching at an estimated 100,000 light-years in diameter, the Milky Way serves as a reminder of the vastness and complexity of the universe. We are not the first civilization to be dazzled by this spiral galaxy our blue planet exists in.
Throughout the Classical Era, astronomers and scientist were perplexed by it and even developed myths surrounding its birth. In Greek mythology, the birth of the Milky Way is a mythological tale that involves the divine figures of Zeus, Hera, and Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology). Here is an overview of the myth:
The Birth of Heracles, the deity of strength
According to the myth, Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. However, Zeus was married to Hera, who was known for her jealousy and anger toward Zeus’ infidelities and the illegitimate offspring of those affairs.
Typical of the King of the Gods, Zeus was struck by the beauty of the mortal Alcmene, the granddaughter of the Mycenean hero Perseus. And as Perseus was born to Zeus and the mortal woman Danaë, Zeus’ affair with Alcmene meant that the king of the gods bedded his own great-granddaughter.
Read More: Most Famous Sons of Zeus in Greek Mythology
In the ancient Greek poet Homer’s Iliad, Zeus ordered Helios, the god of the sun, to make the sun not rise for three days. Zeus then disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, and slept with Alcmene.
The myth goes on to say that Amphitryon returned home from a military campaign that same night. As a result, Alcmene was impregnated by both Zeus and Amphitryon on the same night. The medical term for such fertilization has come to be known as superfecundation, a situation were two or more ova of a woman is fertilized by sperm from separate acts of sexual intercourse.
Hercules’ twin brother
This means that Alcmene gave birth twin babies from two separate biological fathers – Zeus and Amphitryon. The children were Hercules and his mortal twin brother Iphicles. The latter took the mortal traits of his biological father, Amphitryon, while Hercules inherited the godly traits of Zeus.
Hera’s revenge and hatred for Hercules
When Hera, Zeus’ wife and the Queen of the gods, got wind of the birth of Hercules, she was so incensed that she vowed to make the infant’s life a living nightmare. For example, Hera once sent a set of venomous snakes to the crib of Hercules and Iphicles. While the latter panicked and screamed his lungs out, the infant Hercules simply grabbed the two giant snakes in each hand and strangled them to death.
Hercules is abandoned by his mother and then raised by Hera
Troubled by Hera’s incessant quest to destroy the infant Hercules, Alcmene’s decided to abandon Hercules in a wild place. Luckily, Hercules’ life was saved when the goddess Athena found him and took him to Hera to be raised.
Unbeknownst to the Queen of the gods, she raised Hercules for a while. It’s safe to say that had Hera known the true identity of the child she was raising, she would certainly have snuffed the life out of Hercules.
The Milky Way is born
The myth goes on to say that Hera breastfed Hercules as if it were her own child. One time during breastfeeding, Hercules suckled so hard that it made Hera writhe in pain. Unable to bear it any longer, Hera jerked the infant Hercules away from her. In the process, a drop of milk fell from her breast across the heavens. It’s believed that the Milky Way galaxy was formed from the divine milk.
The source of Hercules’ supernatural abilities
According to some account of the myth, Hercules gained additional supernatural abilities from the milk he suckled from Hera.
The myth of the Birth of the Milky Way serves as a symbolic explanation for the appearance of the celestial phenomenon. It portrays the relationship between Hercules, the hero of great strength and valor, and his divine mother Hera, whose actions were often driven by jealousy and vengeance.
How Hera prevented Hercules from becoming High King
In one account of the myth, Hera purposely slowed the birth of Hercules and his twin brother Iphicles. She did this by forcing Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, to use magic to trap Hercules and his brother in their mother’s womb.
Hera then proceeded to make Alcmene’s cousin, Eurystheus, to be born prematurely. She did this so that Eurystheus would be the first grandson of Perseus. Zeus had earlier made a proclamation that the first grandson of Perseus would become High King. As Hera loathed Hercules, she had to come up with those mischievous ways to prevent Hercules from becoming High King.
Did you know…?
At the time that he was born, Hercules was named Alcides. So how did this Greek demigod’s name come to be Hercules? It is said that the name was derived from Hera’s name as an attempt to mollify the goddess. Some accounts interpret Hercules’ name as “pride of Hera” or “glory of Hera”.
The Birth of the Milky Way myth highlights the tension and conflicts within the divine family of Greek mythology and the repercussions of Hera’s wrath. The celestial phenomenon of the Milky Way became a lasting symbol of Hercules’ divine lineage and his encounters with the divine forces of the Greek pantheon.
Interesting Facts about our Milky Way Galaxy
The Milky Way is a vast, luminous band of stars that stretches across the night sky. It is a prominent feature in the celestial sphere and has captivated humans for centuries. Here is some information about the Milky Way:
- Our Milky Way galaxy holds our solar system and between 100 and 350 billion stars. The Greek name of the galaxy is galaktikòs kýklos (γαλακτικὸς κύκλος).
- When viewing it from Earth, the Milky Way galaxy appears as a band. This is because we are viewing the disk-shaped galaxy from within.
- Before 1920, the consensus among the scientific community was that the Milky Way galaxy contained all the stars in the Universe. Now, we know that the Milky Way is just one of a few hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe.
- When you look up at the night sky, most of the stars you see are in one of the Milky Way arms.
- The Milky Way is contained in what scientists like to call the Local Group, a galaxy group that is about 10 million light-years and has a total mass of the order of 2×1012 solar masses (4×1042 kg). Contained in the Local Group is our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, which is the largest in the group. There is also the Triangulum Galaxy, which is the third-largest member of the Local Group.
- According to NASA, the Milky Way Galaxy, a spiral galaxy, formed about 14 billion years ago.
- NASA has estimated that the Milky Way Galaxy contains more than a billion ‘Earths’. Scientists further claim that those planets are roughly the size of our Earth; that is, they are rocky in nature and orbit a star that is almost like our Sun.