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XI. Religion

Myth and Introduction

The eleventh labor ordered by King Eurystheus was for Hercules to return to the archipelago of the three Hesperides, which were connected to the goddess Hera. In the preceding labor, Hercules had captured the red cattle from the tripartite Geryon who lived on Erytheia, one of the three mystical islands.
           
After ten labors, the demi-god had struggled with an impulsive personality and learned that he should temper his bravery with caution. So just to be sure he was on the right track, he reached into the waters of Oceana outside the Pillars of Hercules and pulled out Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. Nereus, son of Gaia (the Earth) and the Pontus (the Sea), was a shape-shifting sea god of prophecy known by the various names of the beings he could turn into.
           
The islands of the Hesperides, like Nereus, went by many names because the islands represented so many different abstract concepts. This is similar to how other religious myths throughout history have evolved and borrowed from each other. The Hellenistic religions blended the Anatolian, Egyptian and Persian myths. The Romans renamed the Greek gods. The Jews, Christians, and Muslims remade Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman figures into their own gods, saints, saviors, prophets, jihadists, or Kool-Aid dispensing nut jobs. All the other world’s religions also went through their own process of synchretization. Because of all this shape shifting, mixing and matching, it is sometimes difficult to follow the genealogy or evolution so each set of believers invariably thinks their religion is different and more important that the ones that came before. The island where Geryon had lived was named Aegle, Erytheia, Eytheis, and Arethusa, while Hesperia was also known as Herspera, Hespere, Hespereia, Hersperusa and Hesperethoosa. (Don’t worry, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa) The three islands were also sometimes known individually as Asterope, Lipara, and Chrysothemis; or collectively as the “Sunset Goddesses” or the “Daughters of Evening” (Erythrai).
           
There are three maidens in the garden of the Hesperides who are identified with the islands in the same way that Hades (aka Pluto) and the Norse god Hel are identified with the places where they dwell. In some sense the garden exists on all three islands simultaneously, which is to say that it has three essential qualities that transcend the physical plane. This might one of the myths that laid the groundwork for the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the tripartite doctrine that gives three components to man in form of body, soul and spirit.
           
The paradisiacal garden in the mythical Hesperides corresponded to the Christian and Muslim idea of Heaven, just as the various forms of the Greek Underworld were mentioned in the ancient translations of the Bible and later delineated into four underworlds by Thomas Aquinas.
           
It was always springtime in the Garden of the Hesperides, which had a sacred tree with golden apples that were given to Hera by Gaia on the occasion of her engagement to Zeus. Three beautiful maidens watched over the golden apples that grew in a tree nourished by a sacred spring. Hera did not trust them with the apples so she summoned Hydra’s sibling, an extra-dimensional serpent named Ladon, to make sure the apples were not eaten. The three maidens and Ladon never slept, so together they fulfilled a role similar to Cerebus, the clairvoyant, triple-headed hound that guarded the entrance to Hades.
           
Aristophanes in The Frogs gave Ladon a hundred heads, each of which spoke in a different voice. UNICE (the forthcoming Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities) will be our modern Ladon because she will be able to communicate simultaneously with everyone on Earth in their own language. UNICE will also be evocative of Nereus, because of her shape-shifting ability and the fact she will be known by many names (like the “Semantic Web,” “Global Brain,” “The Grid,” “The Mind of the Internet,” and perhaps even “God.”). Ask UNICE at www.askUNICE, to find out more.
           
As we have seen with the staff of Aesclepius, the caduceus, and the staff of Moses, the snake and celestial tree mythology are nearly ubiquitous among cultures where the constellation Draco could be seen coiling around the pole star. The earliest known representation of this symbol is over 5,100 years old and depicts Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra god, coiled around a papyrus stem. The double helix of snakes around the pole of the caduceus goes back to the 4,000-year-old Sumerian fertility god, Ningizzida.
           
Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible (1000 BC-500 BCE), had a serpent coiled around the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden who offered Eve its wisdom-imparting fruit. Adam took a bite after Eve, thus causing them both to suddenly notice they had no clothes on. God was displeased because he had already warned them knowledge was the only thing they could not have. He then barred them forever from the garden and the “Tree of Life,” which could have given them immortal life if only they had agreed to do what He said without question.
           
Later, in Nepal and India, we find Gautama Buddha, whose story may have been inspired by an actual person who lived around 400 BCE. Buddhist mythology has it that an enormous king cobra, named Mucalinda, slithered up from the earth and coiled around Buddha seven times. Mucalinda then unfurled his hood like an umbrella to protect Buddha from the rain while the Enlightened One was meditating under the Bodhi Tree.
           
Still later, we have Níðhöggr, the chthonic serpent of Norse mythology. Níðhöggr, perhaps out of frustration at having been given an unpronounceable name, chews like a mad dog at one of the three roots of the Yggdrasil, the world tree. This sacred tree, usually an ash, extends into the heavens. It is also nourished by a spring from which three maidens emerge. This is similar to and probably derived from the Hesperides story.
           
Under the tight grip of Hercules, Nereus revealed that the Greek Garden of Eden was not physically located on any one of the islands. Instead the hero would have to use his demi-god status to enter a metaphorical dimension that exists nowhere in space or time. The source of all these myths is the unseen celestial axis that connects the Earth to the pole star, which itself changes over the millennia as the Earth wobbles on its axis.
           
Atlas, the primordial Titan who holds up the heavens, was the father of the three maidens. The famous 2nd century Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of Atlas, known as the Farnese Atlas, shows Atlas holding up a celestial sphere. The sphere is often mistaken to be the Earth but it is really the celestial globe of the sky as imagined to be seen from outside the vault of the stars in space. (Visualize Atlas holding up a planetarium, which can be seen from the outside as well as the inside.) In modern times, the atlas also refers to a map or collection of maps, which is another reason why Atlas is often depicted as holding up the Earth.
           
The current Pole Star, 430 light years away, is the closest Cepheid star to Earth and lights up the tip of the tail of Ursa minor. Cepheids are young, unstable stars that pulsate like the beacon in a lighthouse.  In ancient Greece this Cepheid was the lighthouse that marked the center of the Heavens, but it is now about 2.5 times brighter than it was when observed by Ptolemy. In addition to being brighter, it is now even closer to the celestial pole. This is because of the Earth’s 25,920-year wobble, or precession of the equinoxes, a phenomenon noted by Hipparchus in 129 BCE. Polaris, as the nearest and brightest Cepheid, has helped impart to us knowledge the Greeks could only have dreamed of. Ironically, the star that was to the Greeks synonymous with secret knowledge was recently used as a triangulation beacon to help estimate the age of the known universe, which seems to have had its genesis in the Big Bang singularity around 13.7 billion years ago.
           
Hercules was able to find his way within the hidden realms and finds the Garden of the Hesperides on the mountain upon which Atlas held up the sky. Atlas had his daughters dancing around him like he was a maypole as he tended to his dreary chore next to the world tree. Hercules whispered to Atlas that he would give him a break from holding up the sky if Atlas would get the golden apples for him. Atlas readily agreed, thinking this was his opportunity to unload the sky on Hercules forever. Atlas plucked the apples and told Hercules that he would like to go for a stroll on Earth and personally deliver them to King Eurytheus, who can then pass them on to Hera. Hercules, immediately seeing what was up said, “That’s fine with me, Atlas, old chap. I like the weather here in paradise and I also enjoy having your lovely daughters dance around me. However, there is one little thing. The position of the heavens on my back is hurting my shoulder. Do you think you can take it back for a second so I can readjust my cloak?”           
           
Atlas, who did not get out much, put down the golden apples and picked up the sky again. Hercules gave a wink and smirk worthy of George W. Bush and puffed up his chest. Not known for his eloquence Herc said, “fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again. Heck, you know what I mean.”
           
Atlas said, “Yes, unfortunately I do,” as Hercules swooped up the golden apples and strolled out of paradise.

 

To find out the who, what, where and when of religion, as well as what we know and where we are going click here. To read the introduction and myth of Labor XII: The Future, click here.

 

 

 

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