Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Zodiac Myths – Part I

Hello all! This is going to be a two part post! Do not want to bombard you with a lot of reading in one go and then have you skim through the wonderful stories.

Where did the Zodiac come from? Why are the astrological signs what they are? These all questions can be answered by following the roots of the Zodiac signs to Greek Mythology.

The word zodiac actually comes from a Greek word that means "The circle of animals" - "animals" referring to all living creatures and indeed, with the exception of Libra, each one of the myths is associated with living beings, either animals or humans. Beginning with Aries (The Ram) in Spring and following the year around through Summer, Fall and Winter to Pisces (The Fishes), the stories of the Greek zodiac's twelve signs elucidate how each group of stars found its way into the heavens.

Let’s begin with the journey, shall we!

Aries (March 21 - April 20)

The origin of Aries stems from the tale of the Golden Ram. In a scheme to trap the centaur Ixion, Hera created a woman that was nearly identical to her. She shaped her out of a cloud and named her Nephele. After that Hera forced King Athamus to marry this woman. The relationship was doomed and Athamus became bored with Nephele fairly quickly and left her. Athamus almost immediately after this married Ino. This of course angered Nephele, so she asked Hera for retribution. Hera had no problem in helping out Nephele as she was already angry with Athamus and Ino since they had been taking care of Dionysus for Zeus. Hera proceeded to poison their minds and drive them crazy. Athamus attempted to sacrifice his son by Nephele, Phrixius. This plot was overthrown when Heracles sent a Golden Ram to save the kid. When the ram brought Phrixius to his destination, he sacrificed the Golden Ram to Zeus and in turn, Zeus placed the mighty ram among the stars for his heroic deed. It is also from this ram that the Golden Fleece from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts came from.

Taurus (April 21 - May 21)

The next sign of the Greek zodiac is the constellation of Taurus (Bull), which is associated with the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. According to the myth, Theseus volunteered to be one of the youths from Athens who would be offered as food to the horrible monster Minotaur (half man, half bull) who stayed in Crete, in the labyrinth. But, when Theseus was there along with the help of Ariadne, the legendary hero managed to kill the beast and thus relieve his city Athens from the terrible punishment imposed by the Cretan king Minos.

Gemini (May 22 - June 21)

The constellation of Gemini is the next sign of the Greek zodiac. It is linked with the story of the twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux in Latin). Actually, they were not twins in the ordinary sense, since they had different fathers.

Their story begins when Zeus, king of the gods, had an affair with Leda, the lovely queen of Sparta. In order to fool her, he transformed himself into a beautiful swan. In the course of time, Leda bore two eggs: One of them contained a baby girl named Helen (the same one who later was the cause of the Trojan War) and a boy called Pollux. These two were the divine children of Zeus. The other egg contained another girl and a boy. Clytemnestra was the girl (she later became the wife of Agamemnon, the military leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War) and Castor the boy. These were the mortal children of king Tyndareus, the legitimate husband of Leda.

Despite the fact that one brother was divine and the other mortal, the twins Castor and Pollux grew to be inseparable. They did everything together and they loved each other dearly. Because they were so close, they were called by one name; the Dioscuri. As they were growing, they both loved all kinds of sport. Pollux was particularly good at boxing, while Castor was renowned for his skill and daring on horseback. When Jason was recruiting the Argonauts to join him in his quest of the Golden Fleece, the Dioscuri enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

During the voyage, they became famous for their ability to calm the rough seas, which once or twice had threatened to capsize the Argo. Poseidon, the god of the seas, had made the twin brothers joint saviours of shipwrecked sailors and granted them the power to send favourable winds whenever they wished.
Even to this day, the sight of the stars of the Dioscuri in the sky is regarded by sailors as an omen of good luck.

Alas, following a bitter fight that the twins had with other warriors, Castor was killed and was summoned to the Underworld. Pollux was heartbroken and prayed to almighty Zeus to take his life as well, for he would not bear to live without his brother. When Zeus invited Pollux to join him and the rest of the Olympians on Olympus, Pollux declined saying that he would not like to live forever, while his beloved brother was dead.

Zeus was so touched by Pollux’s love and affection for his brother that he arranged for them to be together again. They could divide their time between the heavens and the Underworld, spending one day high up in Olympus and the next day beneath the earth, in the realm of Hades.

In additional recognition of their brotherly love, he set their images among the stars as the constellation of Gemini, so that they would never be separated again. They stand out as two equally bright stars in a constellation of weaker stars. 

Cancer (June 22 - July 23)

The constellation of the Greek zodiac known as Cancer (Crab) is linked to the second labour of the mighty hero Heracles, when he was assigned by Eurystheus to kill Lerna Hydra, a horrible water snake with a hundred heads.

As the tale goes, in the midst of Heracles' struggle, Hera, who was the hero's worst enemy, ordered a giant crab to go and help the Hydra by digging its claws into Heracles' foot. Howling with pain, the hero stamped on the crab furiously, crushing it to death.

Hera, being grateful for its support and in recognition of its attempt to help her, honoured the Crab by placing its image among the stars, as the constellation of Cancer. 

Leo (July 24 - August 23)

Leo, the fifth constellation of the Greek zodiac, is linked with Heracles' very first labour, the capture of the Nemean Lion.

According to the myth, Heracles finally managed to kill the beast by strangling it to death. Then, he skinned the lion and took its pelt to wear it. He was then quite protected from his enemies, as the skin could not be penetrated from any known weapon of the time whether made of iron, bronze or stone.

After its death, the famous lion was put in the sky by Zeus to become the constellation of Leo.

Virgo (August 24 - September 23)

The constellation of Virgo is associated with the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. For the ancient Greeks, the story of Demeter and Persephone helped to explain why the seasons change.

PS: Thanks for reading! Part II of this post is up next!