As we saw last week, there’s more to astrology than newspaper horoscopes and star signs. In this blog series, we’re looking at the Greek origin myths of the signs in the zodiac.
Who or what gave their name or image to each sign? What are the myths behind the famous names? We’ll look at their origin stories from a mythological point of view.
The twelve signs of the zodiac are divided into four clusters of three signs. Each cluster takes its name from one of the four elements. In the last post, we looked at the earth signs. This post will include the three air signs: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius.
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Gemini is the first of the air signs and represents the twins. In Greek, they were known as Kastor and Polydeukes. Their Latin names were Castor and Pollux. It was Eratosthenes that named them as Castor and Pollux. Yet Hyginus proferred the view that they represented Apollo and Hercules. This explains why one twin is shown holding a lyre, and the other bears a club.
Their mother was Leda, Queen of Sparta. Zeus took a fancy to her and visited her as a swan. He seduced Leda, but then she went back to her palace and slept with King Tyndareus, her husband.
She gave birth to four children, and in the most common version of the legend, Pollux and Helen were Zeus’s children, while Castor and Clytemnestra were those of Tyndareus. Clearly, this is biologically unlikely, but that’s Greek mythology for you.
Somehow, Castor and Pollux were even said to look alike, despite their different fathers. They grew up to be close siblings, with Pollox becoming an excellent boxer, and Castor a famous equestrian (Olcott 1936: 203). The twins joined Jason and the Argonauts in their quest to find the Golden Fleece (which we now know came from Aries, the ram!). On the way, Pollux ended up using his boxing prowess to fell Amycus, one of Poseidon’s sons. This allowed the Argonauts to leave Amycus’ territory.
Beloved by Sailors
Later, the twins also ensured the safety of the Argonauts during the voyage. There was a vicious storm, and two flames of St. Elmo’s fire played around the heads of the twins. At this point, the storm subsided and the ship could safely proceed (Olcott 1936: 204). Ever since then, sailors came to regard St. Elmo’s fire at sea as a good omen – two fires meant fair weather, while one meant storms.
Either way, Castor and Pollux became the patron saints of sailors. The sea god Poseidon gave them the power to save shipwrecked sailors—which seems unusual given the fact Pollux had splintered his son’s skull. Poseidon also gave them the white horses that the twins sometimes ride in Greek art (Olcott 1936: 203).
Immortality as Gemini
Unfortunately, their escapades were not to last. Another pair of twins were among the Argonauts, and for various reasons, the two pairs fell to blows. Some stories say it was over women, others say it was over cattle. Castor, as a mortal, died in the fight. Pollux asked his father Zeus if they could share his immortality.
In another version of the story, the twins were so kind and generous in life that Zeus decided to put them in the heavens when they died. Eratosthenes gave no specific legend about their actions in life, but said Zeus put them in the sky as an exemplar of brotherly love (Hard 2015: 99). At first, Pollux was the only one offered this rare honour since he was the son of Zeus. But fair to the last, Pollux said he would only accept if he could share it with Castor.
It wasn’t quite what the Fates had in mind. Zeus got around their decree by saying the twins needed to spend alternate days in the underworld and the heavens. When one was immortal on earth, the other was in the underworld, and then they swapped places the following day (Olcott 1936: 205). Interestingly, you can only see their constellation for six months a year, which might explain this division of time (Atsma).
Also, their death happened before Paris took their sister Helen to Troy, which is why they don’t appear in the Trojan War (Atsma).
Libra is the only sign to refer to an inanimate object. The Babylonians called this constellation “the balance of heaven” in 1000 BC (Ridpath). The Romans revived the idea that Libra refers to balance in the 1st century BC (Ridpath). The Romans even believed the moon was in Libra at Rome’s foundation. Ian Ridpath points out that the association with balance came because the sun lay in Libra at the autumn equinox. However, the equinox had moved into Virgo in 730 BC, so they weren’t talking about the constellations; rather, the astrological signs.
It was once linked with the claws of neighbouring Scorpius. During Julius Caesar’s reign, the idea of Libra as scales became established. He was often depicted holding the scales (Olcott 1936: 249). Eventually, it was associated instead with Virgo. This makes sense, given Virgo’s identification with Astraia, goddess of justice. Ridpath points out that Virgo hardly holds the scales aloft since the constellation lies at her feet.
There aren’t many myths associated with Libra, thanks to its link with Virgo. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting sign though. At one point, it was known in Latin as “Jugum”, which means “yoke”. William Tyler Olcott points out that this referenced a verse by Virgil, in which the poet noted that it was time to “yoke your oxen” at the time “when Astraea’s balance hung on high” (1936: 252). This meant it was an ideal time to sow your winter grain.
Robin Hard also notes that at one time, there was a character who invented weights and measures (2015: 76). Humans found them so useful that the gods put him among the stars. Some suggest the sign should be called Stathmouchos, or Bearer of the Scales, even though no figure actually bears the scales among the constellations.
William Tyler Olcott points out the fascination in this part of the sky for “a great celestial sea” (1936: 31). It contains Pisces, Capricorn, the Southern Fish, Aquarius, and other constellations of waterborne animals, like dolphins and whales. It makes an ideal location for the Water Carrier. Even the Babylonians saw Aquarius as a male figure pouring water (Olcott 1936: 31).
Most legends identify the water carrier of Aquarius as Ganymede, third son of King Tros (founder of Troy). The myths agree he was the most beautiful boy in the world. In one version of the story, Ganymede was looking after his father’s sheep. He’d caught Zeus’s eye, who took the form of an eagle to snatch Ganymede away (Fry 2018: 307). He brought the boy to Olympus and gave King Tros either a pair of horses or a golden vine as compensation.
There is another version in which Eos, goddess of the dawn, stole Ganymede while two rivals fought for his attention. Before she could enjoy her triumph, Zeus then stole Ganymede himself.
Once on Olympus, Zeus gave Ganymede eternal youth and immortality (Fry 2018: 307). Ganymede became a sort of wine-waiter, dishing out nectar from his bowl. Unsurprisingly, this wound up Hera, Zeus’s wife. Zeus and Ganymede remained a couple for a while, and eventually, Zeus put him in the zodiac as Aquarius (Fry 2018: 308).
Due to Zeus’s relationship with Ganymede, the myth became popular for its celebration of homosexuality. Aaron J. Atsma even notes that Ganymede is sometimes shown alongside the god of love, Eros, and the god of marital love, Hymenaeus, as the god of homosexual love.
But that isn’t the only identification with Aquarius.
Other Versions of Aquarius
Ian Ridpath explains the constellation may have originally represented the god of the Nile in ancient Egypt. Aratus referred to some accounts that suggested Aquarius was the ‘Demon of the Nile’, who regulated the water’s flow (Hard 2015: 83)
Elsewhere, Germanicus Caesar thought it might represent Deucalion, son of Prometheus (Ridpath). A great flood swept away much of the world in the Greek myths, yet Deucalion was one of the few to survive (Olcott 1936: 34).
Hyginus thought Aquarius might represent Cecrops. Wine hadn’t been invented yet, so this early Athenian king made water sacrifices to the gods (Hard 2015: 82). It would certainly explain why Aquarius pours forth water, though it seems a little ‘thin’ as myths go.
Which of these air signs are you?
People often associate the air signs of the Zodiac with being good communicators, ‘ideas’ people, and looking at things from an intellectual perspective. None of these attributes come from the signs themselves, but rather the associations of the element of air. The air signs link with the suit of Swords in the tarot.
The air signs also mark a range of types of myth. Gemini represents the fair-minded and loyal twins, the patron saints of sailors. Libra is a sign of supreme balance and justice. Aquarius is the water-carrier, a mortal beloved and honoured by the gods.
Come back next week to learn the origin myths behind the water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces! Sign up for my list at the link below to get a notification when the post goes live.
Atsma, Aaron J. (2000-2017), ‘Dioskouroi’, Theoi Project, https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Dioskouroi.html.
Atsma, Aaron J. (2000-2017), ‘Ganymede’, Theoi Project, https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Ganymedes.html.
Hard, Robin (2015), Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths with Aratus’s Phaenomena, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics
Fry, Stephen (2018), Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, London: Penguin.
Olcott, William Tyler (1936), Star Lore Of All Ages, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
1. Ridpath, Ian (no date), ‘Aquarius: The Water Carrier’, Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales, http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/aquarius.html.
2. Ridpath, Ian (no date), ‘Gemini: The Twins’, Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales, http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/gemini.html.
3. Ridpath, Ian (no date), ‘Libra: The Scales’, Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales, http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/libra.html.
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