Astraea (Justice) leaves the Earth
Painting by Salvator Rosa (1615-1673)
Kunsthistorische Museum, Wien
In Greek mythology, Sagittarius represents a centaur, a half human, half horse creature with the torso of a man and the body and four legs of a horse. The centaur is depicted as aiming an arrow toward the heart of the neighbouring constellation Scorpio, represented by the red supergiant star Antares.
Most interpretations conclude that the mythology of Sagittarius refers to the centaur Chiron. Like the satyrs, centaurs were notorious for being wild and lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, given to violence when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents. Chiron, by contrast, was intelligent, civilized and kind, but he was not related directly to the other centaurs. He was known for his knowledge and skill with medicine. A great healer, astrologer, and respected oracle, Chiron was said to be the first among centaurs and highly revered as a teacher and tutor. Among his pupils were many culture heroes: Asclepius, Aristaeus, Ajax, Aeneas, Actaeon, Caeneus, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Perseus, sometimes Heracles, Oileus, Phoenix, and in one Byzantine tradition, even Dionysus.
Other interpretations suggest that the myth behind Sagittarius actually refers to Crotus, a satyr that lived on Mount Helicon with the Muses. Satyrs have human heads and torsos with goat legs (and sometimes horns). Crotus, much like Chiron, was a skilled musician and hunter. He even invented the bow, according to Greek mythology. Because he was close to the Muses, they were the ones who asked Zeus to place him in the sky.
Typhon, the “father of all monsters” had been sent by Gaia to attack the gods, which led Pan to warn the others before himself changing into a goat-fish and jumping into the Euphrates.
A similar myth, one which the fish “Pisces” carry Aphrodite and her son out of danger, is resounded in Manilius’ five volume poetic work Astronomica: “Venus ow’d her safety to their Shape.”
Another myth is that an egg fell into the Euphrates river. It was then rolled to the shore by fish. Doves sat on the egg until it hatched, out from which came Aphrodite. As a sign of gratitude towards the fish, Aphrodite put the fish into the night sky.
Because of these myths, the Pisces constellation was also known as “Venus et Cupido,” “Venus Syria cum Cupidine,” Venus cum Adone,” “Dione,” and “Veneris Mater”.
1634, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
In Greek mythology, Leo was identified as the Nemean Lion which was killed by Hercules during one of his twelve labours, and next put into the sky.
The first of Heracles’ twelve labors, set by King Eurystheus (his cousin) was to slay the Nemean lion.
According to one version of the myth, the Nemean lion took women as hostages to its lair in a cave near Nemea, luring warriors from nearby towns to save the damsel in distress. After entering the cave, the warrior would see the woman (usually feigning injury) and rush to her side. Once he was close, the woman would turn into a lion and kill the warrior, devouring his remains and giving the bones to Hades.
Heracles wandered the area until he came to the town of Cleonae. There he met a boy who said that if Heracles slew the Nemean lion and returned alive within 30 days, the town would sacrifice a lion to Zeus; but if he did not return within 30 days or he died, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus. Another version claims that he met Molorchos, a shepherd who had lost his son to the lion, saying that if he came back within 30 days, a ram would be sacrificed to Zeus. If he did not return within 30 days, it would be sacrificed to the dead Heracles as a mourning offering.
While searching for the lion, Heracles fetched some arrows to use against it, not knowing that its golden fur was impenetrable; when he found and shot the lion and firing at it with his bow, he discovered the fur’s protective property when the arrow bounced harmlessly off the creature’s thigh. After some time, Heracles made the lion return to his cave. The cave had two entrances, one of which Heracles blocked; he then entered the other. In those dark and close quarters, Heracles stunned the beast with his club and, using his immense strength, strangled it to death. During the fight the lion bit off one of his fingers. Others say that he shot arrows at it, eventually shooting it in the unarmored mouth.
After slaying the lion, he tried to skin it with a knife from his belt, but failed. He then tried sharpening the knife with a stone and even tried with the stone itself. Finally, Athena, noticing the hero’s plight, told Heracles to use one of the lion’s own claws to skin the pelt.
When he returned on the thirtieth day carrying the carcass of the lion on his shoulders, King Eurystheus was amazed and terrified. Eurystheus forbade him ever again to enter the city; in future he was to display the fruits of his labours outside the city gates. Eurystheus warned him that the tasks set for him would become increasingly difficult. He then sent Heracles off to complete his next quest, which was to destroy the Lernaean hydra.
The Nemean lion’s coat was impervious to the elements and all but the most powerful weapons. Others say that Heracles’ armor was, in fact, the hide of the lion of Cithaeron.
The creation of the constellation is explained in Greek mythology by the short-lived association of Karkinos with one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, in which Hercules battled the multi-headed Lernaean Hydra. Hera had sent Karkinos to distract Hercules and put him at a disadvantage during the battle, but Hercules quickly dispatched the creature by kicking it with such force that it was propelled into the sky. Other accounts had Karkinos grabbing onto Hercules’ toe with its claws, but Hercules simply crushed the crab underfoot. Hera, grateful for Karkinos’ heroic effort, gave it a place in the sky.
Castor and Pollux, the Heavenly Twins
by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1783
The Gemini are two twins, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux) in Greek mythology; the Dioscuri. They are sons of Leda, a daughter of Thestius and the wife of Tyncareus, and Zeus, the god of the heavens, and the brothers of Helen of Troy. The best-known story of the twins’ birth is that Zeus disguised himself as a swan and seduced Leda.
Each of the twins had a special talent: Polydeuces was a very good boxer, and Castor was a talented horseman. The Dioscuri were regarded as helpers of mankind and held to be patrons of travellers and of sailors in particular, who invoked them to seek favourable winds. Their role as horsemen and boxers also led to them being regarded as the patrons of athletes and athletic contests. They characteristically intervened at the moment of crisis, aiding those who honoured or trusted them.
They had many adventures together. When their sister was kidnapped (during the Trojan War), they went and rescued her. They also helped Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. However, Castor was later killed when the nephews of Leucippus, Idas, and Lynceus fought them in a battle.
Later, when Zeus offered to give Polydeuces the gift of immortality, Polydeuces remembered his slain brother, Castor. Because of this, Polydeuces asked Zeus if he could share the gift of immortality with his brother. Zeus agreed and they spend every other day either as a god on Olympus or in Hades as a mortal who had passed away.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Europe, 1560-62. Oil on canvas, 178 x 205 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.
In Greek mythology, Taurus is usually associated with Zeus, who adopted the shape of a bull in order to seduce and abduct Europa, the beautiful daughter of the Phoenician King Agenor. Zeus mingled with the king’s herd and, being the most handsome bull there, he got Europa’s attention. When she sat on his back, he rose and headed for the sea. Zeus carried Europa all the way to Crete, where he revealed himself and lavished the princess with presents.
The two had three sons together, including Minos, who grew up to be the famous king of Crete, who built the palace at Knossos where bull games were held and who also sacrificed seven young boys and girls to the Minotaur each year. Zeus later commemorated the bull by placing it among the stars.
An alternative interpretation associates Taurus with the nymph Io, whose line Europa was descended from, who was also seduced by Zeus and then transformed into a heifer when the two were nearly caught by Hera.
Jason and the Golden Fleece. A painting by Flemish painter Erasmus Quellin (1607-1608, Antwerp, after a sketch by Rubens)
Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly but also king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece), took as his first wife the cloud goddess Nephele. They had two children, the boy Phrixus (whose name means “curly”—as in ram’s fleece) and the girl Helle. Later Athamas became enamored of and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. When Nephele left in anger, drought came upon the land.
Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths: in some versions, she persuaded Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus was the only way to end the drought. Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram whose fleece was of gold. The ram had been sired by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form upon Theophane, a nymph and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. According to Hyginus, Poseidon carried Theophane to an island where he made her into an ewe, so that he could have his way with her among the flocks. There Theophane’s other suitors could not distinguish the ram-god and his consort.
Nepheles’ children escaped on the winged ram over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now named after her, the Hellespont. The ram spoke to Phrixus, encouraging him, and took the boy safely to Colchis (modern-day Georgia), on the easternmost shore of the Euxine (Black) Sea.
There Phrixus sacrificed the winged ram to Poseidon, essentially returning him to the god. The ram became the constellation Aries.
Phrixus settled in the house of Aeetes, son of Helios the sun-Titan, where he lived to a ripe old age. He hung the Golden Fleece reserved from the sacrifice of the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. There it was guarded by a dragon. It remained until Jason came and took it.
Selene loved the mortal prince Endymion, Who was given immortality and eternal youth by Zeus on the condition that He be eternally asleep, though some say Selene Herself requested that He be always asleep, so that no other might have Him. She would visit Him faithfully every night.
“From her immortal head a radiance is shown from heaven and embraces earth; and great is the beauty that arises from her shining light.” (Homeric Hymn to Selene 2).
The Greek goddess of the Moon is the virgin Artemis, twin sister to Apollo. Children of Zeus and Leto (one of the six female Titans), Artemis and Apollo were born on the island of Delos while Leto was avoiding Zeus’ wife Hera. Artemis was said to ride her silver chariot across the sky, shooting her arrows of silver moonlight to the Earth below. She was the Lady of Wild Things and the goddess of the hunt. She loved hunting lions, panther, stag and deer, roaming the mountain forests and uncultivated land with her nymphs. Her favorite method of capture was her fleetness of foot and her silver bow and arrows. Together with Hestia and Athene she was one of the only three maiden goddesses immune to Aphrodite’s enchantments. Artemis was also a friend to mortals, dancing through the countryside in silver sandals and giving her divine protection to wild beasts and the very young. The Greeks sometimes called her Cynthia (Greek Kynthia) after her birthplace on Mt. Kynthos on Delos. In the Odyssey (15.403) Odysseus is told a story of a wondrous island, Syria, where neither hunger nor old age exists. When the inhabitants of this island had reached the end of their lives as decreed by the Fates, Artemis and Apollo would fly down and painlessly kill them with their silver bows.
Diana, Latin for “goddess,” was the Roman version of Artemis. Originally a goddess of fertility worshipped by women as the giver of fertility and easy births, she was also the goddess of nature portrayed as a huntress accompanied by a deer. Her name may have been derived from “diviana,” the shining one.
The Romans later associated Diana with Selene, the goddess of the Moon. (From Selene we get the metal Selenium, the electrical conductivity of which varies with the intensity of the light, like the changing phases of the Moon.) Selene was the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, sister of Helios the Sun and Eos the Dawn. Unlike Diana, Selene was not known for her chastity. She bore three daughters to Zeus, and was seduced by Pan for a piece of fleece. According to legend, when Selene saw Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd, she fell deeply in love with him and seduced him (see Poynter’s beautiful painting above). Each night she kissed him to sleep, a lovely metaphor for moonlight falling on the fertile land. Wanting to embrace him forever, she begged Zeus to grant Endymion eternal life. In another version the handsome Endymion wanted to keep his good looks forever, and asked Zeus to let him sleep forever without aging. In either case, Zeus agreed and placed him in eternal sleep. Every night Selene visits Endymion on Mt. Latmus in Asia Minor, where the Greeks believed he was buried. Selene and Endymion had 50 daughters together.
As Phoebus was the Sun, Selene was Phoebe, the Moon. As such she represented the evening and the night, carrying a torch and wearing long robes and a veil on the back of her head. Both Phoebe/Selene and her sister Helios were Titans of the older gods, whereas Artemis was of the next generation.
Selene was also called Luna, depicted with a crescent Moon on her head driving a two-horse chariot. The following passage from a fifth century AD Greek Epic shows her face as the goddess of lunacy: “. . . the frenzied reckless fury of distracting Selene joining in displayed many a phantom shape to maddened Pentheus [who became lunatic or Moon-struck], and made the dread son of Ekhion forget his earlier intent, while she deafened his confused ears with the bray of her divine avenging trumpet, and she terrified the man.” Later poets identified Artemis as Hecate: goddess of the dark of the Moon and black nights when the Moon is hidden. In this form she was associated with acts done in darkness, and was known as the “Goddess of the Crossways,” thought to be places of ghosts and evil magic.
The Moon is “the goddess with three forms”:
Selene in the sky, Artemis on Earth, and Hecate in the lower world, the world above cloaked in darkness. The Moon’s phases reflect these forms. As the new Moon she is the maiden-goddess Artemis, always new and virginal, reborn and ready for the hunt. As the waxing Moon, increasing in fullness, she is the fertile mother-goddess, pregnant with life. And as she wanes to darkness, she is the wise crone or witch Hecate, knowing the magical arts, with the power to heal or transform. The many faces of woman and of the changing Moon are displayed through Artemis, Diana, Cynthia, Selene, Luna, Phoebe and Hecate.
Renaissance panel ceiling by Baldassare Peruzzi entitled “The Rape of Ganymede.” ( c. 1509-14). Villa Farnesina, Rome, Italy.
In the Greek tradition, the aquarius constellation became represented as simply a single vase from which a stream poured down to Piscis Austrinus. The name in the Hindu zodiac is likewise kumbha “water-pitcher”, showing that the zodiac reached India via Greek intermediaries.
In Greek mythology, Aquarius is sometimes associated with Deucalion, the son of Prometheus who built a ship with his wife Pyrrha to survive an imminent flood. They sailed for nine days before washing ashore on Mount Parnassus.
Aquarius is also sometimes identified with beautiful Ganymede, a youth in Greek mythology and the son of Trojan king Tros, who was taken to Mount Olympus by Zeus to act as cup-carrier to the gods. Neighboring Aquila represents the eagle, under Zeus’ command, that snatched the young boy; some versions of the myth indicate that the eagle was in fact Zeus transformed.
An alternative version of the tale recounts Ganymede’s kidnapping by the goddess of the dawn, Eos, motivated by her affection for young men; Zeus then stole him from Eos and employed him as cup-bearer. Yet another figure associated with the water bearer is Cecrops I, a king of Athens who sacrificed water instead of wine to the gods.