The mythology of zodiac signs (constellations)
A very, very long time ago, the star constellations that lie behind the 30-degree segments of the zodiac were given the names they now have because the star patterns were thought to resemble those figures. The zodiac sign, in turn, took on the names of the constellations in which they were placed. Through the centuries, however, and because of irregularity in the Earth’s revolution on its axis as it revolves around the Sun, the sky that the ancients observed has “shifted”. In fact, the fixed stars (constellations) that the zodiac signs are named after have moved slowly backwards in the sky (a process called “precession of the equinoxes”). The stars have moved so much, in fact, that the zodiac signs are no longer in their original constellations.
Astronomers like to use this fact to point out that astrology is ultimately nonsense. What they don’t understand is the difference between a “sign” and a “constellation”.
The myth of Aries
Aries is represented by the golden Ram, an astrological animal symbol that first appeared in the zodiac charts of the ancient Egyptians. Later, in ancient greek mythology, the golden ram surfaced again, as the illicit offspring of the sea god Poseidon (how had changed himself into a ram) and the beautiful mortal Theophane (who Poseidon had changed into a ewe) . Nephele, the queen of Boetia, found the golden, half-god ram wandering around, and asked her children, Phrixus and Helle, to take him away to Colchis and sacrifice him to Ares, the god of war. They did this, and then removed the ram’s golden fleece, which was hung in the temple of Ares, guarded by a dragon, until it was claimed many years later by Jason and his famous Argonauts. Zeus, in commemoration of the ram’s sacrifice, made him part of the six-starred constellation Aries.
The myth of Taurus
The myth of the Bull – an extraordinary creature famed for his contradictory characteristics of fearsome strength, passionate sexuality, and graceful gentility – appears in both ancient Babylonian and Roman myths. But the greek myth of the Bull is most famous. Zeus, the king of the Greek’s gods and goddesses, fell in love with Europa, the famously beautiful daughter of the king of Phoenicia. To get Europa’s attention, Zeus turned himself into the handsomest of bulls and set about grazing in her father’s herd. When Europa saw this magnificient animal, she was immediately seduced by his charm and majesty and climbed upon his back. Zeus immediately flew them away across the sea to Crete, where he changed back into his godlike form and mated with Europa, who eventually bore him three children. Grateful for the bull’s help in this affair, Zeus immortalized him in the night skies as the 14-starred constellation Taurus.
The myth of Gemini
The Geminian Twins’ origins can be traced as far back as the days of Babylonian astrology, when they were known as the Great Twins and named for the two bright and large stars in the seven-star constellation Gemini. The Twins’ ancient Greek origins have been immortalized in stories and poems. As the myth goes, Zeus the king of gods, disguised himself as a swan and seduced the mortal Leda. From their union, Leda produced two eggs. One egg produced a god and goddess, Pollux and Helene; the other a mortal brother and sister, Castor and Clytemnestra. Castor and Pollux became inseparable friends who grew up together, were famed athletes, and later fought together. When Castor was killed in battle, Pollux was inconsolable. Zeus, moved by his brotherly love, made Castor an immortal, and placed the brothers side by side in the seven-starred constellation Gemini, so they could be together for eternity.
The myth of Cancer
Hercules, immortalized in mythological sagas as the greatest hero of ancient Greek civilization, also figures prominently in the mythical origins of three zodiac signs: Cancer, Leo, and Sagittarius. As the Cancerian story goes, King Eurystheus of Greece assigned Hercules 12 dangerous tasks in atonement for killing his own wife and children. The first task was to slay and skin the much-feared lion of Nemea (see Leo myth). Hercules’s second task was to kill the Hydra, a grotesque monster with body of the dog, nine serpent-entwined heads, and breath so foul that it poisoned anyone who got close enough for a whiff. Hercules had troble slayng the Hydra (every time he cut off a head, two more grew back in its place!). The goddess Hera sent a giant crab to attack him while he was fighting the Hydra. Hercules crushed the crab underfoot and went on to dispatch the Hydra. Grateful for the crab’s help, Hera placed it within the six-starred constellation of Cancer.
The myth of Leo
The Greek hero Hercules figures prominently in the Greek myth about Leo the Lion. As this story goes, King Eurystheus of Greece assigned Hercules 12 dangerous tasks (the famous Herculean Labours) in atonement for killing his wife and children. The first task was to slay and skin the much-feared lion of Nemea. This was no ordinary lion, of course, for he was born of Echidna the snake-woman and Typhon, the grotesquely monstruous Titan who was forever fighting the gods and goddesses. Their son, the Nemean lion, was nearly immortal. When Hercules was unsuccessful in shooting the lion with a bow and arrow, he resorted to a sword and finally to a club, but the lion simply yawned at Hercules’s efforts. Hercules then decided to choke the lion to death – and finally succeded. He removed the lion’s head and skin with the beast’s own claws, which he wore as armour and helmet during the period or the rest of his mammoth tasks. Zeus subsequently immortalized the Nemean lion in the 14-starred constellation Leo.
The myth of Virgo
Predecessors of Virgo the Virgin, one of the few zodiac signs represented by a human rather than by an animal, have appeared in several ancient cultures. In Babylonia, she was Nidaba or Shala, the goddess of the grain, depisted with a whip that trailed out over the tail of Leo in the constellation. In an ancient Egyptian zodiac, Virgo was shown holding the tail of Leo. In greek mythology, Virgo is believed to be one of two figures. The first, Erigone, was the mortal daughter of Icarius, King of Attica, the discoverer of wine, who was murdered by drunken shepherds. Erigone so lamented the death of her father that Zeus placed her within the 13-starred constellation Virgo, along with her faithful dog Maera now referred to as the Dog-star. Other mythologists believe that the original Virgo was Astraea (which means “starry maiden”), the goddess of purity and innocence who was log associated with justice.
The myth of Libra
Libra, the sign of scales, of balance, and of jusctice, is not associated with any mytholocigal figure; in fact, it is the only zodiac sign not represented by an animal or human figure. Instead, Libra is associated with philosophical idea – the weighing of the soul on judgement day – whose origins are traced back to ancient Egypt and the ‘Book of the Dead’. In that book, the merit of a man’s soul is measured by weighing his heart (on one side of a scale) against a feather representing truth (on other side of the scale). The four-starred constellation named Libra closest to Scorpio and is overlapped by the Constellation Virgo.
The myth of Scorpio
The great Greek giant Orion – who has a constellation of his own – was a legendary hunter and the handsomest man on Earth (in mythological times), much pursued by the Greek goddesses. Eos, the dawn-goddess, was especially enamoured of Orion and in the heat of one of their meetings, he boasted to her that he was so magnificient a hunter that he could wipe out all the wild herds on Earth. This so infuriated the god Apollo (who was in charge of guarding the herds) that he sent a giant scorpion to sting orion to death. Apollo’s sister, Artemis the Huntress, who fancied Orion herself, tried to intervene by shooting the scorpion with one of her famous arrows. Unfortunately, she missed and shot Orion instead. As a memorial to the handsome giant, Artemis placed Orion in one constellation and gave the scorpion (in hot pursuit) his own seven-starred constellation, very near the constellation of Libra.
The myth of Sagittarius
Sagittarius the Archer is no ordinary bow-man, but in fact one of the legendary centaurs of greek mythology – those fabulous creatures who were half-man and half-horse. One such centaur, Chiron, a son of the god Saturn (Cronus), was much admired for his kindness and great knowledge (qualities for which the lecherous and pugnacious centaurs were never famous). Chiron became a beloved teacher to some of mythology’s greatest figures, including Hercules, Achilles, and Jason the Argonaut. Accidentally injured by one of Hercules’s poisonous arrows, Chiron suffered all the agonies of a painful death, but, being a god, could not die. And so he gave away his immortality to the long-suffering Prometheus (who had been damned to eternal torture by Zeus), took Prometheus’s place, and finally found peace in death. So that all would remember Chiron’s great sacrifice, Zeus immortalized him in ten-starred constellation Sagittarius, with the same arrow that had poisoned him.
The myth of Capricorn
Capricorn, often symbolized as half-man, half-goat, was known in ancient astrological works as the Goat-Fish. In Babylonia he was known as Ea, the god of knowledge, and was depicted as a man walking in a fish-shaped coat, fish head, and tail. He lived in an ocean in the Mesopotamian valley, from which he would rise up to share with man the gifts of his knowledge. In ancient Greece, Capricorn was the nature-god Pan. During one of the wars between the gods and the Titans, Typhon – the fiercest of the Titans – drove the gods into Egypt. The only way for the gods to escape Typhon’s wrath was to change their shapes. Pan turned his upper body into a goat and his lower body into a fish, then jumped into the River Nile and swam away. Zeus was so impressed with the form that Pan invented that he immortalized it forever in the eight-starred constellation of Capricorn.
The myth of Aquarius
The origins of Aquarius the Water Bearer can be traced to several ancient civilisations. In Babylonia, Aquarius began as a god of knowledge who was depicted with water flowing from his hands. In Egypt he was Hap, the god of the River Nile, who was often pictured carrying Earth’s life-sustaining waters in two large vases. In ancient Greek mythology, Ganymede was a prince of Troy and the most beautiful of all human men. So beautiful was he, that Zeus, the king of the gods himself, fell hopelessly in love with Ganymede and became determined that no other being, god or human, would ever have this mortal. Transforming himself into an eagle, Zeus carried the beautiful boy away to the skies, where he made him the immortal cup-bearer in the 12-starred constellation Aquarius. From there, Ganymede poured wine for gods and caused rain to fall on the Earth.
The myth of Pisces
The Greek goddess of love Aphrodite and her son Eros were walking along the banks of the River Euphrates when they were confronted by an enraged and fearsome monster named Typhon. He was the youngest, largest, and ugliest of the race of Titans who were born to Uranus, the god of the skies, and Gaia, Mother Earth. The terrified goddess and her son called out to Zeus for help, the king of the gods, who turned Aphrodite and Eros into fish. They then leapt into the Euphrates and swam away to safety. In commemoration of the event, Zeus placed two fishes among the 11-starred constellation that came to be known as Pisces.