Zodiac Constellation Myths
The zodiac is comprised of 12 constellations: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius & Pisces. Each constellation in the zodiac is associated with a Greek myth. For the purposes of this article, i will define myth as an ancient story.
The zodiac, and other constellations, helped many ancient cultures reckon seasons. Constellations were used to determine hunting and planting seasons, and were also a critical component of ancient navigation.
Without further ado, let’s dive into some myths associated with the zodiac.
Nephele was a phantom of Hera, a cloud-spirit Zeus formed to deceive Prince Ixion, who had decided to seduce Hera. Hera gave Nephele to be King Athamas’ wife, but after some years his attention strayed to Ino. Nephele turned to Hera for help.
Meanwhile, Ino knew that Nephele and Hera were plotting against her and decided to take preemptive revenge. She had women cook the grain they planted so that the land suffered a great famine.
King Athamas sent people to consult the oracle at Delphi. Unfortunately, Ino CoZodiaccorrupted his message-bearers. They told Athamas that he must sacrifice Phrixus, one of his sons from Nephele.
Hercules was passing by, and stopped the sacrifice just in time. Then, Zeus sent a miraculous, flying ram with golden fleece to carry Phrixus and his sister, Helle, away.
The trip was long, and Helle fell off of the ram’s back and into a narrow straight which was named Hellespont, after her. Phrixus landed in a land far to the east. He sacrificed the ram, and placed its golden fleece in a grove sacred to Ares (Mars), God of War.
The gods placed the ram in the heavens as the constellation Aires.
Taurus, the Bull was a symbol of Isis and Osiris. Isis was often depicted as a cow-goddess, and Osiris was often depicted as a bull.
The ancient Greeks said that Taurus commemorated Zeus’ pursuit of Europa. Zeus fell in love with Europa and transformed himself into a great white bull. He appeared to Europa in this form, and was so gentle that Europa felt no fear of the great bull. Europa gathered flowers and made garlands which she hung around the animal’s neck. So docile was this bull, that Europa climbed upon its back.
Suddenly, the bull plunged into the sea and swam away with the frightened girl. They finally reached Crete. There Zeus revealed himself, and took Europa. She bore Zues three sons. Minos, their firstborn, was King of Crete and introduced a bull cult there.
Castor and Pollux (a.k.a. Polydeuces) were twin sons of Leda. The twins had two different fathers. Castor’s father was a mortal king, and Pollux was one of Zeus’ sons.
When Castor died, Polydeuces, although born immortal, prayed to Zeus to die. Polydeuces was uninterested in immortal life amongst the gods of Olympus unless he could share eternity with his brother.
Finally, Zeus decided to allow the twins to share in both death and immortality. He alternated their places in the underworld, and in Olympus. The twin’s brotherly love is marked by the two brightest stars in the constellation of Gemini, the twins.
The heavenly twins, Castor and Polydeuces, are also known as the Dioscuri, which means sons of Zeus. As stars, they are the guardians of sailors.
While Hercules was battling the hydra, Hera sent a gigantic sea crab to attack the labouring man. The crab wounded Hercules and was killed.
The Lion, a.k.a. the Nemean Lion
The Nemean Lion was a beast of monstrous size whose mother was the Moon. He fell to the earth and immediately began gobbling people up and terrorizing the countryside. It had eaten up people and livestock over much of Greece when Hercules was given the task of destroying it.
The ancient Greeks believed in distinct ages. During the Age of Iron, the most recent Age, Astraea (“The Star Maiden”), Goddess of Justice, found she could no longer live on the earth. She shines in the sky as the constellation Virgo.
Astraea (Virgo) carries scales upon which she weighs the right and wrong of any dispute. Her scales are nearby as the constellation Libra. The scales of justice refer to Libra (Scales) and Virgo (Justice).
Apollo went to Gaia and revealed that Orion had promised to kill every animal in the world. Gaia was quick to retaliate, and sent a scorpion to kill the over-bold hunter.
Orion could not kill the scorpion, and dove into the sea to escape it. Apollo tricked Artemis into shooting the hunter as he swam underwater.
The scorpion shines closely to Orion in the night sky.
The Centaur, The Archer
In Greek mythology, centaurs were half-man, half-horse warriors. Cheiron was a wise centaur. He was the tutor of Jason and Hercules, both famous heroes in ancient (and modern) stories.
Hercules accidentally wounded the immortal Cheiron. In great pain, but unable to die, Cheiron pleaded for an end to his suffering. Centuries passed.
Finally, Cheiron traded his immortality to win Prometheus’ freedom. Moved, Zeus gave him a place among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius.
After war with the titans ended, Gaia was still angry with Zeus. She gave birth to two hundred-headed monsters. One hundred-headed giant, Typhon, surprised Dionysus (Bacchus) by a river. Dionysus jumped into the river and transformed int a part-goat, part-fish creature. Capricorn is the constellation that commemorates this event.
Indian, Asian, ancient or modern, Aquarius seems to be the oldest and most universally recognized of all the zodiac constellations. There is frequently an association between Aquarius, rain and flooding. This sign is connected with water in virtually every story I’ve ever read.
As an exception to this rule, Chinese myths refer to the water pouring from the urn of Aquarius as “the Army of Yun-Lin.” The Chinese recognized 45 stars in this constellation, making it the densest constellation in Chinese reckoning.
The Egyptians called this constellation Hapi, God of the Nile. The Nile flooded every spring when Hapi emptied his water urn into the Nile.
The ancient Babylonians saw this constellation as an overflowing urn, and associated this constellation with the deity Ea. This constellation was also associated with heavy rains which fell in the 11th month.
In ancient Greece, Aquarius is sometimes linked to the story of Deucalion and the flood. More commonly, Aquarius is liked to Ganymede, Zeus’ cup-bearer.
Deucalion was the son of the titan Prometheus. He and his wife built a ship to avoid drowning in a great flood.
Ganymede was an exceptionally beautiful young prince. Zeus decided to make Ganymede his cup-bearer, much to Hera’s chagrin. Zeus’ cup-bearer had formerly been Hebe, Hera’s daughter and the goddess of Youth.
Depending on the version you read, Zeus either sends his eagle Aquila, or becomes a giant eagle to carry Ganymede up to Olympus. Afterwards, Ganymede was often seen riding Aquila. He always carried Zeus’ golden cup, and accompanied Zeus on his travels.
Ganymede was very kind. He realized how desperately people on earth needed water, and begged Zeus to allow him to send rains down. Zeus was moved by the boy’s kindness, and consented. Ganymede became celebrated as Aquarius, the god of Rain.
To escape the hundred-headed giants, Aphrodite and Eros (Venus and Cupid) disguised themselves as fish. This is commemorated in the constellation of Pisces.