Category Archives: Golden Fleece
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference about Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. A last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There’s typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer or Hesiod mention him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue their true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to god and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Other gifts that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play. Calliope, as Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophesy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations to how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bringing his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, that he looked back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would than later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld and that of Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay or other supernatural being.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as whey would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death for Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophesies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures of Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their decent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Etymology – Sown-Ones or Sown Men. From the Greek word: σπείρω, speírō, meaning: “to sow.”
Also known as: Σπαρτοί (Spartos), Σπαρτος (Spartoi), Spartus, Spartes, Sparti, Serpent’s Race, Ophion’s Race, Gegenees (Earth-Born), Gigantes, Terrigenae (Earth-Born)
In Greek mythology, the Spartoi are the earth-born warriors of the war god, Ares. When the teeth of the slain dragon Dracon were planted in a field sacred to Ares, a warrior springs up from the ground fully grown, armed, and ready for battle from each tooth. As such, the Spartoi are seen as the sons of Ares.
Spartoi Of Thebes
The famous hero Cadmus is perhaps the most well-known for having planted and created such an army in his founding of Thebes.
As the story goes, Cadmus was the son of King Agenor and Queen Telephassa in Tyre. After his sister Europa had been kidnapped by the god Zeus, Agenor sent Cadmus and his other brothers to search for her. Eventually, all the brothers gave up their search and began to find other places to settle since they couldn’t return home to Tyre.
Cadmus had been told by an oracle at Delphi, to found a city where ever a cow would stop and lay down. After a good long while, the cow finally lay down and Cadmus sent his men off to the nearby spring of Ismene to fetch water as part of sacrificing the cow to Athena. As it would be, this particular spring was guarded by a dragon or serpent, Drakon that killed many of Cadmus’ men before he finally slew it with his sword.
Now a couple of different things happened. First, Athena appeared to Cadmus and gave him half of the dragon’s teeth, instructing him to plant them. As Cadmus did so on the Aonian plain, from each tooth sprang up a fully armed warrior. Fearing for his life, Cadmus threw a stone in amongst the warriors and they began to fight each other. Each thinking the stone had been thrown by another warrior. These warriors fought until there were only five of them left standing. Sometimes, depending on who’s telling the story, Athena instructed Cadmus to leave only five living Spartoi. These five remaining warriors’ names were: Chthonius, Echion, Hyperenor, Pelorus, and Udeus. At Cadmus’ instructions, they helped him to found and build the city of Thebes.
Secondly, with the dragon being sacred to Ares, Cadmus was forced to be a servant to the god for an “everlasting year,” such a time period was the equivalent of eight years as repayment for killing it. At the end of that time, Cadmus was married to Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Cadmus and Harmonia had four daughters, Agave, Autonoe, Ino and Semele.
In his writings, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth, only five warriors sprang up from the ground. There was no fighting it out among them. In addition, Hellanicus has Zeus step in to save Cadmus from the Ares’ wrath as the war god wanted to kill the mortal. And the Spartoi, Echion marries Cadmus’ daughter Agave and their son, Pentheus succeeds Cadmus to become king.
Royal Family Of Thebes
The five surviving Spartoi from the dragon’s teeth that Cadmus sowed, go on to become the ancestors and founding families of Thebes. Additionally, whenever the Theban seer summons the ghosts of heroes past, it is the Spartoi who appear.
The descendants of the Spartoi all bear distinctive birth marks that identified them as such. Some thought is that these birth marks looked like serpents or dragons. Another source sites that this birth mark appeared as a spear.
Khthonios – (Χθονιος, Chthonius) “Of the Earth.” He has two known sons, Nykteus and Lykos. His granddaughter Nykteis marries Polydorus from Ekhiôn’s line and uniting these two families to the royal ruling line of Cadmus for Thebes.
Ekhiôn – (Εχιων, Echion – Latin) “Of the Viper,” He marries Agave, Cadmus’ daughter and their son Pentheus goes on to become king after Cadmus. He also believed to have dedicated a temple to Cybele in Boeotia.
Further descendants of Ekhiôn after Pentheus’ reign are: Polydorus who married Nykteis, a daughter of Nykteus, the son of Khthonios. They in turn had Labdakos who died soon after Pentheus’ death but not before leaving behind a year-old son Laios. At this time, Thebes was ruled by a regent, Lykos until Laios came of age.
Hyperênôr – (Ὑπερηνωρ, Hyperenor) “Overbearing”
Pelôros – (Πελωρος, Pelorus, Pelor) “Huge” or “Gigantic”
Oudaios – (Ουδαιος, Udaeus – Latin) “Of the Earth.” From his linage, there is a soothsayer, Teiresias, son of Everes and the nymph Khariklo.
Seven Against Thebes
In Aeschylus’ tragedy from 5th century B.C.E., the whole dilemma comes about because Oedipus marries his mother Jocasta without knowing it. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children of which, the incest and inbreeding caused huge problems for the people of Thebes as they saw their crops begin to fail. In response, Oedipus blinded himself out of shame and cursed his two sons: Eteocles and Polynices to figure out who would succeed as ruler of Thebes through war.
All started out well as at first, Eteocles and Polynices decided they would avoid any bloodshed over their kingdom by alternating who ruled each year. Eventually, Eteocles refused to step down as king and his brother Polynices raised an army to confront his brother, leading to the story of the Seven Against Thebes.
Much of Aeschylus’ tragedy is mainly dialogue that delves into depth many of the characters of his story until it resolves at the end with a messenger coming and saying that the army has left and both Eteocles and Polynices are now dead.
There are a number of scenes in which descendants of the Spartoi are made mention of. One scene has a Tydeus, son of Astakos and ultimately descended from the Spartoi is set to guard a gate. Another scene has a Megareus, also descended from the Spartoi sent out to confront Eteoklos after he taunts Ares, the god of War as being unable to throw him from the battlements.
When the Thebans consulted their prophets, Teiresias told them that they would win the battle if Kreon’s son, Menoikeus and the father of Jocasta, a descendant of the Spartoi, offered up his life to Ares at the spring of Dirke or the Dragon’s hole. Menoikeus did so, pulling out a sword that was already stabbed into him and killing himself. Another variation to this story has Menoikeus throwing himself from a wall to ensure the Thebans victory after hearing Teiresias’ prophesy how if any of the descendants of the Spartoi should die, Thebes would be saved.
The Haunted Fields Of Thebes
Continuing Teiresias’ part in the story of the Seven Against Thebes, the Roman tragedy of Oedipus has the seer performing Necromancy and summoning the ghosts of the Spartoi, the Theban ancestors aid their living kinsmen against their attackers.
In Statius’ poem Thebaid the summoned ghosts of Spartoi are a bit vampiric as they are made mention of draining the blood of the living. That could just be the poetic phrasing on his account for the nature of war. Statius also continues to mention in his poem how the fields surrounding Thebes, particularly the plain sacred to Ares were haunted and the ghosts of Spartoi would appear to frighten off Farmers from tilling the land.
Other Descendants Of The Spartoi
There is a grave marker for the historical Theban Epaminondas with a shield of a dragon or serpent on it. The relief symbol indicates that Epaminondas was descended from the Spartoi.
The Roman mythographer, Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, when writing about Antigona (Antigone) and her son Haemon. When Haemon came of age, he went to Thebes for their annual Games and Kreon, his grandfather recognized him due to his birthmark that all those of Spartoi linage have.
In Plato’s Sophist, he comments that the Spartoi were so earthy and unable to grasp any philosophical concepts. Saying that anything they couldn’t hold in their hands, had no existence.
Spartoi Of Colchis
As to the other half of the dragon’s teeth that Athena hung onto, she gave those to King Aeetes of Colchis near the Black Sea. When Jason and his Argonauts came to Colchis seeking out the Golden Fleece, King Aeetes set Jason what he thought would be an impossible task in order to earn it. He was to sow the dragon’s teeth and slay all the arising Spartoi from them before the end of the day.
Jason was instructed by King Aeetes to sow the teeth of a Drakon in a field sacred to the god Ares. In this case, the task wasn’t as simple as that of plowing the field, Jason was to use a pair of metallic bulls who breathed fire constructed by the god Hephaestus to plow and sow the dragon’s teeth. Making the task more daunting is that the bulls had never been tamed or yoked for doing farm labor before. So much of Jason’s time, with the aid of his fellow Argonauts, was spent in taming these fearsome, wild bulls.
As the field was plowed, Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth and as it happened before with Cadmus, an army of Spartoi rose up from the earth, fully armed and ready for battle. Just as Cadmus had done before with his task, Jason also threw a stone into the middle of the newly sprung up Spartoi. As with the previous group of Spartoi, this new group also fought each other over who threw the stone. In some instances of this story’s retelling, Jason has the help of a witch, Medeia, who uses salves, herbs and charms to protect him from the spears and weapons of the Spartoi. As this new sprung group of Spartoi rose up and fought each other, the hero Jason slew and attacked many of them in order to fulfill his task from King Aeetes and win from him the Golden Fleece.
To Sow Dragon’s Teeth
This phrase has come to be a poetic way saying that someone is fomenting chaos, contention and stirring up strife or war. More specifically, the phrase refers to a fight or problem that is to have already been taken care of and laid to rest yet pops back up anew. The original example being Cadmus’ slaying the dragon and then sowing its teeth to create an army ready to fight. In other words, the problems of the past keep getting brought up and no one is willing to move on.
Poetically, the term Dragon’s Teeth refers to subjects or people of civil strife, for whatever cause and reason cause people to have to rise up and take arms.
Other phrases or words from the story of the Theban Spartoi is the word Cadmeian (or Kadmeian). It is used to mean any victory in war often has more losses instead of gains.
Marvel Comics And Guardians Of The Galaxy
For those who’ve enjoyed the movie and read the comics, the Spartoi are an alien and cousin race to the Shi’ar with whom they have had unsteady alliances with in the past. The Spartoi come from a planet known as Spartax and have built an empire that spans hundreds of worlds. Compared to humans, the Spartoi are very long lived. J’son or Jason of Sparta and a prince is the father of Peter Quill or Star Lord in the comics. The basic concept of the Spartoi in Marvel Comics was very closely tied to Greek mythology.
Etymology – The Ram
Aries is a familiar constellation that is part of the Western or Greek Zodiac and symbolized by a Ram. Like many of the constellations, Aries has ancient origins that date it as far back as the ancient Babylonians. The constellation of Aries is often shown as a crouched, wingless ram with its head facing towards the constellation of Taurus.
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.
Aries is Latin for ram and is 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 and is located in the Northern Hemisphere between the constellations of Pisces and Taurus. It is a mid-sized constellation, about 39th in size among the other recognized constellations. Other constellations close to it are Cetus, Perseus, Pisces, Taurus, and Triangulum.
Reportedly, in May of 1012 C.E. a nova was seen within Aries constellation.
For a time, the Aries constellation wasn’t recognized and had been divided up into other constellations that are now considered obsolete. These included: Musca Borealis, Vespa, and Apis constellations. It wasn’t until 1922 that the International Astronomical Union decided to officially recognize it. And it wasn’t until 1930 when it was fully outlined and defined by the astronomer Eugène Delporte.
Musca Borealis consisted of the stars: 33 Arietis, 35 Arietis, 39 Arietis, and 41 Arietis.
In 1612, the astronomer, Petrus Plancius introduced Apis, a constellation representing a bee. In the year1624, the same stars were used by Jakob Bartsch to create another constellation called Vespa, representing as a wasp. Neither of these constellations became widely accepted. And a Johann Hevelius renamed the constellation to “Musca” in 1690 in his book Firmamentum Sobiescianum.
To differentiate this constellation from Musca, the southern fly, it was later renamed to Musca Borealis but it still didn’t gain acceptance and its stars ultimately went back to being known as Aries.
Among Muslim astronomers like al-Sufi, they saw a ram in the Aries constellation as set forth by Ptolemy. Other astronomers showed the Aries constellation as an unknown four-legged animal with antlers instead of horns. Al-Sufi’s depiction of a ram differed from other Arab astronomers in that his ram is shown running while looking behind itself.
Other early Bedouin astronomers did see a ram, but placed it as being elsewhere in the night sky. This ram constellation had the Pleiades as its tail. Most though generally accepted an Arabic formation of the Aries constellation that had thirteen stars and five “unformed” stars, four of which were to be the ram’s hindquarters and one over the ram’s head.
The brightest star in the Aries constellation is Hamal, from the Arabic phrase: “Al Ras al Hamal,” meaning “the Head of the Sheep.” The star, Beta Arietis is known as Sharatan, that along with Gamma Arietis, in Arabic meaning “two signs” that marked the start of the Vernal Equinox. Gamma Arietis is known as Mesarthim, thought to be the result of a series of mispronunciations over the millennia.
Among the Hebrews, Aries was called: “Teli” and signified either Simeon or Gad. This constellation was typically thought to symbolize the “Lamb of the World”. The nearby Syrians called the constellation “Amru”, and the Turks referred to it as “Kuzi”.
The Jewish month of Nisan that roughly corresponds to March-April was associated with Aries for it is believed that during this time, the Hebrew people had been freed from slavery in ancient Egypt. The same month of Nisanu in Assyria, the constellation Aries represents the Alter and Sacrifice, usually of a ram.
In a similar system to the Chinese, the first lunar mansion in Hindu astronomy was called “Aswini”, after the traditional names for Beta and Gamma Arietis, the Aswins. Because the Hindu new year began with the vernal equinox, the Rig Veda contains over 50 new-year’s related hymns to the twins, making them some of the most prominent characters in the work. Aries itself was known as “Aja” and “Mesha”.
Among the Marshall Islands, several stars in Aries along with stars from other constellations such as Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Triangulum form a porpoise.
The Marquesas islanders called Aries: Na-pai-ka. The Maori constellation of Pipiri may be modern Aries as well.
South American Astronomy
Among the indigenous Peruvian, a constellation with many of the same stars as Aries was recognized. It was called the “Market Moon” as well as the “Kneeling Terrace”, it was a reminder for people of when to hold the annual harvest festival, Ayri Huay.
Although Aries came to represent specifically the ram whose fleece became the Golden Fleece of Ancient Greek mythology, it has represented a ram since late Babylonian times. Before that, the stars of Aries formed a farmhand.
The Babylonian clay tablets known as the MUL.APIN, was a comprehensive list and table of stars marking an agricultural calendar. The constellation we know today as Aries, was known as MULLÚ.ḪUN.GÁ, meaning “The Agrarian Worker” or “The Hired Man.” It was depicted as being the last or final constellation on the ancient Babylonian’s agricultural calendar.
It’s thought by scholars that the MUL.APIN was compiled in either the 12th or 11th century B.C.E. At this point in time, during the Middle Bronze Age, with the procession of stars, the Pleiades marked the Vernal Equinox.
The clearest and earliest reference to depicting Aries as a constellation come from some boundary stones dating between 1350 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. Several of these boundary stones clearly show a ram figure that is distinct from any other characters shown.
The identification of the Agrarian Worker to the Ram as the image for this constellation is thought to have happened in later Babylonian traditions due to the increased association of Dumuzi the Shepard. When the MUL.APIN was created around 1000 B.C.E., the constellation we know as Aries was associated with both Dumuzi’s ram and a hired laborer. Exactly when this change and shift of association for the Aries constellation was to have happened is difficult to determine due to the lack of surviving records for archaeologists to look at it.
Another source lists a Sumerian name LU.HUN.GA, which may be a pun. The name, taken at face value refers to hired workers for bringing in the Spring harvest of barley. However, in the Akkadian language, the word LU can also mena “sheep” and may mean something like “The Sheep of Appeasement.”
In traditional Chinese astronomy, the stars of the Aries constellation are part of several other constellations. The Aries constellation along with Taurus and Gemini are part of The White Tiger of the West, Xī Fāng Bái Hǔ. It is also known as the Lake of Fullness, the Five Reservoirs of Heaven, and the House of the Five Emperors.
The stars known as Alpha, Beta and Gamma Arietis from a constellation called Lou, which has been translated to mean “bond,” “lasso,” and “sickle” and has been associated with the ritual sacrifice of cattle. The name Lou has been used for the 16th lunar mansion and the location closest to the Autumn Equinox. This lunar mansion represented the place where animals would be gathered and held before they were sacrificed. The constellation has been associated too with harvest-times and may also represent a woman carrying a basket of food on her head.
The stars 35, 39 and 41 Arietis form part of a constellation known as Wei, representing a fat abdomen and the name of the 17th lunar mansion which symbolized the granaries. Causing for some confusion, two other lunar mansions are also called Wei. One is located in Scorpius and the other in Aquarious and Pegasus, though their Chinese characters are different. The Wei in Aries represents the granaries for storing cereals and grains.
The stars Delta and Zeta Arietis form part of the constellation Tianyin (“the celestial yin force”) and is thought to represent the Emperor’s hunting partner. North of Tianyin is a solitary star called Tian’e or Tianhe, meaning “celestial river” For modern astronomers, this is the star known as HR 999.
Another constellation known as Zuogeng (Tso-kang) represents a Forestry manager or Ranger. This constellation is composed of the stars Mu, Nu, Omicron, Pi and Sigma Arietis. Zuogeng is also accompanied by Yeo-kang, another constellation representing an official in charge of pasture distributions.
Other names for Aries have shown it as a dog, Heang Low or Kiang Leu. In more modern times with Western influence, the constellation is known as Pih Yang, “the White Sheep.”
Under the influence of many English writers during the 14th through as late as the 17th century, the constellation of Aries was Anglicized to Ariete. There were many efforts to rewrite the stories of the constellations along biblical terms. Aries was to represent the ram caught in a thicket during the story of Abraham and Isaac. Saint Peter, a bishop of the early Christian church saw the constellation known as Triangulum become associated with his Mitre. And Caesius saw in Aries the Lamb sacrificed on Calvary Hill for the redemption of all mankind.
Among the ancient Egyptians, the constellation of Aries was associated with the god Amon-Ra, often depicted or shown as a man with a ram’s head. Amon-Ra represented fertility and creativity for the Egyptians.
With the Aries Constellation being close to the Vernal Equinox, it was called the “Indicator of the Reborn Sun.” During this time of the year when Aries was said to be in the heavens, the priests would dedicated statues of Amon-Ra in temples. This practice would be modified later by Persian astronomers later on. The constellation of Aries also gained the title of “Lord of the Head,” indicating an important symbolic and mythological meaning in Egyptian theology.
Between 1580 B.C.E. to 360 B.C.E., the ancient Greek built and oriented many of their sacred temples in alignment to the star Hamal.
The Golden Fleece
The story of the Golden Fleece is perhaps the most well known and famous story linked to the Aries constellation.
In Greek mythology, King Athamas of Orchomenus (a region of Boetia) had married the cloud nymph Nephele after the incidents and her involvement with Ixion and the resulting birth of the Centaur race. By her, Athamas had twin children; a son, Phrixus and a daughter, Helle.
Due to the previous baggage of Nephele’s from the incident with Ixion and that she wouldn’t stop crying, Athamas eventually got fed up with Nephele and divorced her for another woman, Ino, the daughter of Cadmus and Queen of Thebes. Being a jealous woman and rather ambitious, Ino conspired and plotted to kill Athamas’ children so any children of hers could inherit the throne.
To do this, Ino created a famine throughout Orchomenus wherein she had roasted all of the town’s crop seeds so they couldn’t grow. Scared of the idea of starvation, the local farmers went to the nearest Oracle for help. Ino had already beaten them to it and had bribed the men of the Oracle of Delphi to tell the farmers that in order to avoid the famine, that Athamas’ son Phrixus needed to be sacrificed.
Reluctantly, Athamas agreed to the sacrifice his son Phrixus. But before that could even happen, a golden, flying ram arrived at the top of Mount Laphystium, where the sacrifice was to take place, and rescued both Phrixos and Helle. In one source, this ram was sent by the god Hermes, but it makes far more sense when looking at other sources, that this ram was sent by Nephele, the twin’s own mother Another source says the ram’s name is Chrysomallus and that he was the son of the sea god Neptune and Theophane. That same source also says that Ino’s whole plot to kill Phrixus is because he refused to have sex with her. His step-mother. I don’t blame him, not when she’s to be married to his dad.
From there, the twins flew towards the land of Colchis where King Aeetes, the son of the Sun God Helios ruled. Unfortunately during this flight, Helle fell off of the ram’s back and drowned in the Dardanelles, also known as the Hellespont to honor her.
Once they arrived in Colchis, the golden ram instructed Phrixus to sacrifice it to the gods. In one version of this tale, this god is Zeus and in others it is Poseidon. Phrixus did the sacrifice and removed the ram’s Golden Fleece, presenting it to King Aeetes who then arranged for a marriage with his daughter Chalciope.
King Aeetes hung the Golden Fleece in a sacred Grove of Ares, the God of War, where a dragon that never slept guarded it. In a later myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the title character Jason steals the Golden Fleece in order to claim and restore his own rightful claim to his throne in Iolcos.
For its sacrifice in helping Phrixus, the golden ram was placed up in the heavens to become the constellation of Aries.
In the story where the Greek gods were down by the Nile River and they were attacked by the monster Typhon. When the Gods all changed themselves into various animals to escape, Zeus is said in some accounts to have changed into a ram before turning to do battle with Typhon. And that it is for this battle, the constellation of Aries is commemorated as a constellation in the heavens.
When the god Bacchus (frequently identified by his Greek name Dionysus) and his entourage were wandering through the Liberian desert, they ended up being rescued from death by a ram. This ram showed them the way to a well and as a reward, Bacchus placed the ram up in the heavens to become the Aries constellation and mark the beginning of Spring when the sun passes through it annually.
The First Point of Aries – The Beginning of Spring
With the precession of the Equinoxes and the Earth’s “wobble” as it rotates around the Sun, the exact timing of the Vernal Equinox has been changing over the millennia. The ancient peoples used the constellation of Aries at one time to mark the beginning of Spring. Around 1800 B.C.E., this point of time was indicated by the constellation of Aries and was known as the First Point of Aries.
With the changes of the Equinox over the millennia, the First Point of Aries now occurs in Pisces and will later move into Aquarius around 2600 C.E. Despite these changes, Aries is still associated with the beginning of Spring.
Like many constellations, Aries does have several meteor shows that originate from it. The Daytime Arietid meteor shower is considered one of the strongest meteor showers that happens between May 22nd to June 2nd. It is an annual meteor shower that sees its peak around June 7th with the Marsden comets and up to 54 meteors per hour. The rest of the time, these “earthgrazer” meteors can sometimes be seen just before dawn at a rate of about 1 to 2 per hour. However, it’s usually only using the radio spectrum that these Arietids can be seen and not with the naked eye.
There are several meteor showers such as the Daytime Epsilon Arietids (between and the Northern and Southern Daytime May Arietids. These meteor showers were discovered by the Jodrell Bank Observatory in 1947 when the World War II radar systems were adapted for meteor observations.
These only name a couple of the more notable Arietids as there are several meteor showers that radiate or come from Aries.
In the Greek Zodiac, Aries marks the second spot of the Zodiac Calendar of which there are twelve Zodiac signs in all. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from March 21 to April 19, right about the time that many Pagans celebrate Ostara. Under the old Roman calendar, March 21 marked the beginning of the New Year and the start of Spring. This carries on as in modern astrology, Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac The best time of year to see this constellation is during December around 9 p.m.
In Astrology, Aries is associated with the head and can indicate someone who has a strong temper. Those born under this sign are believed to have strong leadership skills, assertiveness, optimism, to be bold and independent. All said to be the very spirit of Spring. Aries people are believed to very dexterous and like to be the center of attention in many social settings. Though they can be rather stubborn, it’s a stubbornness and head butting that Aries learn to use rather well. In addition, Aries is associated with the planet and Roman God Mars. The element of fire is also associated with this zodiac.