Etymology – The Crab.
Cancer, the Crab is one of twelve familiar signs of the Zodiac in Western Culture. Surprisingly for all of its importance in the Zodiac, the part it plays in Greek mythology is only that of a bit part.
The modern-day symbol for Cancer is a pair of pincers like those on a crab. The constellation shape for cancer itself looks more like an upside-down “Y” which is interpreted to be the back of the crab. Over the millennia, the Cancer constellation has been used to represent a number of different animals, most often those of an aquatic, shore-dwelling animal with an exoskeleton.
Astronomy & Astrology
Much of the foundations of Western knowledge regarding the fields of Astronomy and Astrology owe its roots to Ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Many ancient cultures studied the stars, seeing in them patterns that are called constellations. These ancient astronomers were able to make predictable, annual turnings of the heavens that they could divide and mark for the passing of the Seasons and time. For the ancients, Astrology served as a precursor to Astronomy and they believed that by studying the heavens, they could foretell future events and even a person’s life path.
These ancient cultures would also meet and exchange ideas frequently and in this fashion, when the Greeks encountered the Persians, there was an exchange of knowledge regarding Astronomy that becomes the constellations and zodiacs so many know today. Eventually, there is no clear distinction between what ancient Mesopotamian Astronomers and Greeks Philosophers knew. Or who influenced who regarding the stories and myths behind the constellations. Even in current, modern times, the influence of these ancients is still known.
Cancer is one of the oldest recognized constellations and was one of 48 constellations that were identified by Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived during the second century. In modern times, it is one of 88 known or recognized constellations. It is the 31st largest constellation in the night sky. The Cancer constellation is a rather small constellation and is found between Gemini to the west and Leo to the east. Other constellations bordering with Cancer are Leo Minor, Lynx, Canis Minor and Hydra.
There is a 12th century illustrated astronomical book that depicts the Cancer constellation as a water beetle. In 1489, an Albumasar wrote about Cancer, describing it as a large crayfish. Then in the 17th century, Jakob Bartsch and Stanislaus Lubienitzki describe the constellation as being a lobster.
In Chinese astronomy, the stars that make up Cancer lie within the Vermillion Bird of the South or Nán Fāng Zhū Què.
The four stars (Delta, Gamma, Eta and Theta Cancri ) surrounding the star cluster known as Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster were known as Gui, meaning ghosts, which referred to the spirits of the dead. The 23rd Chinese Lunar Mansion was also called Gui for this asterism. In China, Praesepe was called Jishi, a group of corpses. This star cluster and the four stars surrounding it were seen as a ghost being carried in a sedan chair on a wagon. For this reason, this group of stars was known as Yugui or Ghost Wagon.
North of Gui was another grouping of stars that formed a figure called Guan, a beacon fire on a watchtower. Sources will differ as to which four groups of stars this was to have been and it may have changed from time to time too. Some sources place Gui as being around Chi Cancri while other sources place Gui around Iota Cancre. A final chain of four stars that crosses into Cancer from Canis Minor was known as Shuiwei or the “water level.”
In ancient Egyptian records dating back to around 2,000 B.C.E., the Cancer constellation was seen as Scarabaeus or the Scarab and a sacred emblem for immortality. A scarab was also responsible for pushing the Sun across the heavens.
In Coptic Egypt, Athanasius Kircher reports that Cancer was Κλαρια, the Bestia seu Statio Typhonis or the Power of Darkness. The scholar, Jérôme Lalande identified Cancer with Anubis, one of the Egyptian divinities commonly associated with Sirius.
Greek & Roman Mythology
Cancer the crab was known by several names. In Latin, the name Cancer means crab. Manilus and Ovid both referred to this constellation as Litoreus or “shore-inhabiting.” In Greece, it was Karkinos, meaning crab. In the Alfonsine tables, it was called Carcinus, a Latinized form of the Greek word. Aside from being known as a crab, it was also called Asses and Crib.
The famous hero Hercules had to perform a series of twelve tasks or labors as part of his penance for the death of his sons after he had been driven mad by Hera. For the second of these labors, Hercules traveled to the swamps of Lerna where the Hydra dwelt. With Athena’s aid, Hercules was able to locate the Hydra’s lair. The Hydra was a gigantic water snake with nine heads and immortal. The mighty hero found himself at a standoff with the beast as he soon discovered that for every time a head was chopped off, two more would grow back and its breath could kill on contact.
The crab, Cancer enters the story here as either the Hydra called on it for help or the goddess Hera sent it to hinder the hero Hercules. It’s considered a large crab, large enough that it tries to do a number on Hercules’ foot with its pincers. For all its trouble, Hercules simply kills it by crushing it in return with his foot and then turning his attention back to the Hydra and finally succeeds at killing it. A slight variation to this turn of events places Hercules as having kicked the crab hard enough that it flew up into the heavens to become the familiar constellation of Cancer.
With the Hydra’s death, Hercules proceeds to dip his arrows into the beast’s blood. As the Hydra’s blood is poisonous, the slightest scratch from one of these poisoned-tipped arrows would be instant death to his enemies. Instead later, it results in the accidental poisoning and death of either Chiron or Pholus depending on the version of the story of Hercules’ battle with the centaurs being told.
Late addition or down grade of a legend?
Several scholars have come to believe that its very well possible that the crab part of the myth when Hercules battles the Hydra in the Twelve Labors of Hercules, is a latter addition by early astrologers and astronomers trying to connect and relate all the constellations to Hercules’ legends.
Regardless of what the case is, the crab is awarded a place in the heavens as a constellation by Hera. As the crab failed to kill Hercules, it only has faint stars that make it up; no bright stars are found within it.
Cry Havoc And Let Slip The Donkeys of War!
There are two stars, Delta and Gamma Cancri, respectively known as the Northern and Southern Donkey that are part of an old Greek legend. When the gods went to battle the Titans, Hephaestus, Dionysus and several other gods rode in on donkeys. The Titans, having never heard the sounds of Donkeys braying, thought that they were monsters and so fled the field of battle. To commemorate this event, Dionysus placed the donkeys in the night sky as a star next to the star cluster Praesepe, which represented a manger or crib.
Another version from Greek Legend
In another legend, Hera is to have driven the god Dionysus insane. As a result, he ended up wandering through Egypt and Syria in the throes of madness. In an attempt to recover his sanity, Dionysus visited the Oracle of Zeus in Dodona to find a solution. While on his way there, he came upon a swamp where, he encountered two asses or donkeys which he subsequently caught. Dionysus then proceeded to ride the donkeys through the swamp in order to avoid getting wet. Once through and on the other side, Dionysus found that he was cured of his insanity and rewarded the donkeys by placing them up in the heavens as the Northern and Southern Donkey.
And from Roman Legend
In this one, the god Silenus’ donkey that he rode got into a contest with Priapus over the size of their erect manhoods. When the god won, he killed the beast and Silenus taking pity, placed the donkey up into the stars where it can be found in Cancer.
Hindu Mythology & Astronomy
In Sanskrit, Cancer is known by the name of Karka and Karkata. In Telugu it is called Karkatakam. Other dialects from India such as Kannada call Cancer Karkataka or Kataka. In Tamil its Karkatan and in Sinhalese its Kagthaca. Later Hindus would know Cancer as Kuilura. Etymologists believe that all of these word variations have influenced the Greek name for Cancer.
In Malaysian myths, Cancer was the “First and Only Crab” which existed long ago, the primal or mother crab from which all crabs came. It was a huge crustacean who lived in a deep hole in the sea. This hole was so large that the crab’s coming and goings from it would cause the ocean tides.
In Akkadia, Cancer was known as Alluttu. It marked the location for the Sun of the South during the Summer Solstice. Later on, it became associated with the fourth month of Duzu that roughly corresponds with the modern, western calendar of June-July. Duzu was known too as the Northern Gate of the Sun.
Among the Babylonians, the constellation was known as MUL.AL.LUL, or Bulag a name that can refer to either a crab or a snapping turtle. One source places the meaning of the word Bulag as “the Wicked One.” This is to be an early reference to the stars as having a reputation for being of an unfortunate nature. On boundary stones, the image of a turtle or tortoise is found regularly and thought to be what represents Cancer. A crab symbol has yet so far, not been found on any of the boundary stones.
Gate Of Men
There also seems to be a strong connection linking the ideas of death and passage into the Underworld that may contribute to the Greek myths and legends associated in the story of Hercules and his battle with the Hydra.
In the ancient Chaldean and Platonic philosophies, Cancer was known as the Gate of Men. This was a gateway or portal by which souls descended from the heavens when they were ready to be born. About 2700 years ago, the sun passed through the Cancer constellation during the Summer Solstice. At this point and time, Cancer was the apex of the Zodiac. The symbol of a crab came into use as it was believed that the sun’s seemingly backwards motion through the heavens were much like those of a crab in how they walk; that is sideways and backwards once it reached the Summer Solstice. The symbolism of the crab is also used as it’s a shore creature and represented a bridge between the land and ocean from where all life began. The opposite sign of Cancer is Capricorn, seen as the Gate of the Gods through which the souls of the dead would ascend back up to the heavens.
Stars of Cancer
Alpha Cancri – Also known as Acubens or Al Zubanah, both meaning “the claws.” Another name for this star is Sertan, “the crab.” It is the fourth brightest star of the Cancer constellation.
Beta Cancri – Also known as Al Tarf or Tarf, the name is thought to come from the Arabic “aṭ-ṭarf” which means “the eye,” or “aṭ-ṭarfah” meaning “the glance of Leo.” Beta Cancri is the brightest star found within the Cancer constellation.
Delta Cancri – This star is the second brightest star within the Cancer constellation. An orange giant, it is also known as Asellus Australis or the “southern donkey colt.” Additionally, this star also holds the record for the longest name. Arkushanangarushashutu is from the ancient Babylonian language and means: “the southeast star in the Crab.” This star also marks the location of o Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster.
Gamma Cancri – Also known as Asellus Borealis or “northern donkey colt” is a white A-type star or subgiant.
Both Delta and Gamma Cancri as the Northern and Southern Donkey are associated with a Greek legend in which Dionysus, Hephaestus and several of the gods rode into battle against the Titans riding on donkeys.
Zeta Cancri – Also known as Tegmine, meaning “the shell of the crab” is a star system of at least four stars.
Also known as M44 and better known by its Latin name Praesepe which also means hive or crib, is the brightest star cluster found in Cancer that can be seen by the naked eye at night without the aid of a telescope. The Beehive Cluster is found in the center of the Cancer constellation. It is best seen and observed during the months of February to May on the Northern side of the Equator when Cancer appears at its highest point. There’s well over three hundred stars found in the Beehive Cluster. It thought that over a hundred of these stars are brighter then the Earth’s own Sun.
The ancient astronomer Ptolemy described the Beehive Cluster as “the nebulous mass in the breast of Cancer.” Hipparchus referred to this cluster as a “Little Cloud” and Aratus called it the “Little Mist.” In antiquity, this cluster had often been used to predict the weather. If it wasn’t crystal clear or visible, then inclement weather could be expected. The Beehive Cluster was also one of the first objects that Galileo observed in his telescope in 1609. At that time, he identified 40 stars within the cluster. Nowadays, there are about 1010 likely members with most of them being red dwarfs. Halley’s Comet was discovered in this part of the night sky in 1531.
Both the Greeks and Romans identified the Beehive Cluster as a manager that two donkeys, represented by neighboring stars as Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis eat from. These two stars represent the donkeys that the god Dionysus and his tutor Silenus rode on during the war with the Titans. The ancient Chinese saw in the cluster a ghost or demon riding in a carriage and called it a “cloud of pollen blown from under willow catkins.”
Cancer has only one meteor shower associated with it and it’s known as the Delta Cancrids.
Tropic of Cancer
The tropic of Cancer is the latitude line on the Earth that marks the northernmost point when the Sun appears to be overhead at noon. Particularly during the Summer Solstice on or roughly around June 21.
In ancient times, Cancer marked the location of the Sun’s most northerly position in the heavens and Summer Solstice. With the precession of the equinoxes over the years, the sun is now technically in Taurus come June 21st when its time for the Summer Solstice.
The constellation of Cancer is the fourth sign of twelve signs that form the Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from June 21 to July 21. Due to the changes of the earth’s orbit and tilt, the best time to see this constellation is during March around 9 p.m. The Moon is said to rule this Zodiacal sign and constellation. Its element is Water, an extroverted sign and is one of four cardinal signs.
Those born under the sign of Cancer are thought to have sensitive, shy and caring natures. On the extreme side of things, a Cancer person can be seen as being too emotional, touchy and moody. They can be tough when they need to be. Home is important to a Cancer person. They love all the creature comforts of home and family. A Cancer person may have a strong love for family traditions and certainly family values.
Dark Sign Of The Zodiac
Because it has so few stars and isn’t very bright as a constellation to begin with, Cancer is often seen as the “Dark Sign,” described as being black and without eyes.
House Of The Moon
In Richard Hinckley Allen’s book Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, the constellation of Cancer was considered the House of the Moon as it was believed that the moon was found here at the time of creation.
Posted on July 15, 2013, in Astrology, Chinese, Constellations, Deity, Donkey, Egyptian, Ghost, Greek, Heroes, Hindu, Malaysian, Mesopotamian, Roman, Summer, Twelve Labors, Underworld, Zodiac. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.