04 Apr Myths Behind The 12 Signs Of The Zodiac
Myths were very important in ancient cultures. They gave meaning to their lives and traditions, and they provided valuable lessons, morals and role-models to guide their behavior.
Did you know that each of the 12 signs of the Zodiac has a myth – or series of myths – that accompanied it? These 12 celestial symbols can be traced back to ancient Greece, who in turn inherited them from even older Sumerian myths. When these ancient people looked up at the night sky, they would see it full of stories…
Let’s see what those stories were.
The symbol of the constellation Aries is, of course, a ram. But the story isn’t about just any ram: it’s about a winged ram, with golden fleece. The golden ram was sent by the goddess Nephele to save her two children, Phrixus and Helle, from their jealous stepmother Ino – who plotted to kill them.
The ram carried the children away over the sea, but the daughter Helle fell off along the way. The straight of Hellespont (a.k.a. The Dardanelles) was named after her.
The symbol for the sign of Taurus is a bull. According to legend, Zeus (the king of the gods) fell in love with Europa, a princess of Phoenicia (for whom the continent of Europe is named). He appeared to her in the form of a magnificent white bull. She was so entranced with the beauty of the beast that she climbed onto his back. Then Zeus carried her away to the island of Crete, revealed his true form, and made love to her. She became the first queen of Crete, and mother of King Minos.
Gemini, the twins, are based on the legendary brothers Castor and Pollux. Although they were both sons of Leda, they weren’t really twins, as they had different fathers (Pollux was the son of Zeus, actually). But as time went on, the brothers became inseparable.
When Castor was killed in battle, Pollux was so grief-stricken that he took his own life, in order to join his brother in death. Zeus was touched, and placed the brothers in the heavens to honor their eternal bond.
The crab symbol of the constellation Cancer can be traced back to two different Greek myths.
The first comes from the 12 trials of Hercules. In an effort to stop the hero from slaying the many-headed Hydra, the goddess Hera sent down a crab to distract him by pinching his toes. Hercules simply stomped the poor creatures to bits.
To honor his effort and sacrifice, the slain crab was given a place in the heavens.
The sign of Leo is based on Hercules’ first trial. He had to defeat the Lion of Nemea, which could not be killed by any weapon. So the hero had to wrestle with the giant beast, and strangle him to death with his own hands.
In honor of this epic battle, Zeus placed the lion among the stars.
Virgo, the virgin, is associated with more than one Greek goddess.
Persephone is one, the virgin daughter of Zeus who was married off to Hades, lord of the Underworld, in order to appease him. Her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, became furious and threatened to destroy every crop on the Earth. A deal was struck, which allowed Persephone to return to the surface world every Spring, to help sow the seeds of new life.
Virgo is also associated with Astraea, goddess of Justice, who was the last of all the gods and goddesses to live among humans. After the opening of Pandora’s box, she left Earth to live among the stars, and the constellation Virgo is said to represent her departure, and the “end of innocence.”
The symbol for Libra is, of course, a set of scales. These scales represent the female Titan, Themis. She was the mother of Astraea, and the personification of cosmic law and order, often depicted as blind-folded, carrying a sword, and holding aloft a set of scales.
Scorpio, the scorpion, has it’s origin in the myth of the mighty hunter, Orion.
According to legend, Orion came down from the heavens with the goddess Artemis, and threatened to hunt down and kill every beast on the Earth. Gaea, the Earth Mother, objected; she sent a great scorpion which stung and killed the hunter. Zeus placed honored them both by placing them among the stars.
The sign of Sagittarius is represented by a centaur with a bow and arrow. This represents Chiron, the centaur who mentored many of the great heroes of Greek myth.
According to legend, Chiron was accidentally poisoned by one of Hercules’ arrows. Since he was immortal, and couldn’t die, he had to spend eternity in excruciating pain. In order to bring him relief, Hercules struck a deal with Zeus: Chiron gave his life in exchange for the release of Prometheus, who had been chained to a rock for eternity (as a penalty for giving the knowledge of fire to humankind).
His sacrifice won him a place in the heavens.
Capricorn, the goat, symbolizes Amalthea, the foster-mother of Zeus. She is depicted either as a nymph who tended herds of goats, or sometimes as a goat herself.
The Titan Cronus, father of Zeus (as well as Hades and Poseidon) was famous for eating his own children. But Zeus’ mother Rhea tricked him by feeding him a swaddled stone instead, and giving the infant Zeus to Amalthea, to raise him on the island of Crete. In return for raising and suckling him, Zeus honored Amalthea by placing her in the heavens.
Another version is that the sign of Capricorn represents the Nature god Pan, who assumed the form of a “goat-fish” to escape from the ferocious monster Typhon.
Aquarius, the water-bearer, is a symbol of Zeus himself (the god of storms).
In the story of the Deucalion deluge, Zeus becomes angry with mankind and pours out all the waters in heaven, flooding all the Earth. But Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha – like the Biblical Noah, or the Sumerian hero Utnapishtim – were chosen to survive and repopulate the world.
The two fishes of the sign of Pisces tell the tale of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and her son Eros, the god of love.
When the gigantic monster Typhon attacked Olympus, Aphrodite took her son to the river to hide among the reeds. When a wind came and rustled the reeds, she became afraid. She leaped into the water, and she and her son assumed the form of two fishes, and swam away to safety. Now the two fish are enshrined forever, in the heavens.