Category Archives: Transformation
Attis & Cybele
This story is one of the major myths involving Cybele and they often include her relationship with Attis, a youthful consort to the goddess. Attis is noted too as being the name of a Phrygian deity. Further, Attis doesn’t become a part of the myth with Cybele until the Roman poet Catullus references him with Cybele as Magna Mater and as the name of the head priest for the Galli. Additionally, pine cones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
Attis – As a Phrygian deity, Attis is the god of vegetation, his death and resurrection is symbolic of the death and rebirth of vegetation and the harvest with each winter and spring. The name Attis in Phyrgia was a common name and one used for priests. In the myths linking Attis with Cybele as her consort; wherever Cybele’s worship spread, Attis’ worship went as well.
Imagery portraying Attis has been found at a number of Greek sites. Whenever Attis is shown with Cybele, he is shown as a younger, lesser deity to her. He is possibly even one of her priestly attendants. During the mid-2nd century B.C.E., various letters from the king of Pergamum to Cybele’s shrine in Pessinos all address the chief priest as “Attis.” So deity or priest tends to be a matter of personal interpretation with the myths of Attis.
Attis was Cybele’s young lover who had devoted himself to the goddess. He had a made a promise that he would always be faithful. As fate would have it, Attis in time fell in love with a nymph by the name of Sagaritis (or Sagaris) and they decided to marry. When Cybele learned of this marriage, she burst in on the marriage ceremony, inflicting Attis with madness and sending the other guests into a panic.
In his maddened state, Attis fled for the mountains. There, he stopped under a pine tree and proceeded to mutilate himself to the point of castrating himself and bleeding to death there beneath the pine tree.
When Cybele found her lover, the young Attis dead, she mourned her actions and deeply regretted them. She pleaded with the god Jupiter to restore Attis to life. Jupiter vowed that that pine tree would remain sacred and like the tree, Attis would live again. The blood that Attis shed is said to have become the first violets.
In the versions of the myths where Maeon is Cybele’s father – Maeon kills Attis, the baby whom he sires after committing incest with his daughter. Cybele manages, in this myth to restore Attis back to life.
Pausanias’ Version – Another story of Attis, this time with Agdistis as another name for Cybele follows much of the same story as previously mentioned. Only now, when the baby, Attis is born, he is left exposed and a ram comes, standing guard over the child. As the baby grew, his beauty became ever more apparent as more than human. Agdistis saw Attis and fell in love with him.
When Attis finally came of age, he was sent to Pessinos, a city in Phrygia to wed the King’s daughter. After the marriage ceremony was completed, Agdistis appeared, causing Attis, driving him mad in her jealously to the point of cutting off his own genitals. The madness was such, it effected other nearby, that even the king cut off his own genitals.
Shocked, Agdistis sought amends for what she had done and begged Zeus to restore Attis to life so that he would be reborn.
Ovid’s Version – In this one, Attis had fallen in love with Cybele who wanted to keep the boy at her shrine as a guardian. She commanded Attis to always be a boy. Attis declared in kind that if he lied, let the lover he cheated be his last.
As happens with these kinds of stories, Attis does cheat with the Nymph Sagaritis (or Sagaris). Her tree is cut down by Cybele, killing her the Nymph. Attis in response goes mad and hallucinates that the roof to his bedroom is collapsing on him. Attis runs towards Mount Dindymus where he calls out for Cybele to save him.
Hacking away at his own body with a sharp stone, Attis continues to cry out to Cybele that she take his blood as punishment and cuts off his genitals as that is what has caused him to cheat on Cybele.
Ultimately, this story of Attis’ self-mutilation and castration is the basis for the Galli, Cybele’s priest to castrate themselves as a show of devotion to the goddess.
Cybele & Dionysus
Similar to the story of Attis & Cybele, is the story of Dionysus & Cybele. The earliest reference to this myth in Greek mythos is around the 1st century B.C.E. in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
Like Attis, Cybele also cures Dionysus of his madness. Considering she’s the one who caused Attis’ madness, I would hope she would cure it too.
Both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cult shared many similarities. As foreign deities worshiped among the Greeks, both gods would arrive in chariots drawn by large exotic cats. Dionysus would come in his chariot pulled by tigers whereas Cybele’s chariot was drawn by lions. Both deities would be accompanied to the fanfare of wild, raucous music and a parade of exotic foreigners and lower class citizens of Greek society.
For the Hellenic Greeks, these two gods held wild temperaments that didn’t sit well with many affluent Greeks and were thus, warily worshiped.
Due to the similarities of both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cults, in Athens, by the end of the 1st century B.C.E., the two cults were often combined.
Cybele & Sabazios
Sabazios is the Phrygian version to the Greek Dionysus. Under Greek influence, the name Sabazios is often used as an epithet for Dionysus and the two’s myths have become very intertwined.
Further Greek influences have Cybele equated with Rhea. By Phrygian traditions, Cybele is the mother of Sabazios. When Cybele is equated with Rhea, she is the nurse-maid and tutor to a young Dionysus after his mother Hera rejects him.
Orgia – It is thought that the Orgia, the Orgiastic cult of Dionysos-Sabazios may have originated with Cybele. When Sabazios had been wandering in his madness, he made his way to Cybele in Phrygia where she purified him and taught him the initiation rite for the Orgia. Sabazios is to have received his thyrsus and panther-drawn chariot while he went throughout all of Thrace to spread the Orgia. The Orgia certainly seems to have become associated with the celebrations of Cybele as the Great Mother or Mountain Mother in the writings of Strabo or as Euripides makes mention of in his play Bacchae.
As Nurse-Maid – In a story very similar to Dionysus’ being rejected by his mother Hera, it is Cybele, identified as Rhea and Grandmother to Dionysus who takes up the infant to care for him much like she did her own son Zeus. The god Hermes, tells Cybele how Dionysus will become a god later when he’s grown to manhood. Cybele’s priests the Korybantes use their loud drumming and chanting to drown out the cries of the infant in order to prevent Hera’s wrath from finding him to finish what she had started with trying to kill Dionysus when she cast him out. The story of Dionysus’ youth with Cybele continues with him grabbing lions for the Mother Goddess to hitch up to her chariots and later acquiring a lion-drawn chariot of his own.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
These two were turned into lions in myth by either Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex with one of their temples. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
Cybele was also especially noted for being a bee goddess.
Mother Of The Mountain – Goddess Of Mountains And Fortresses
As a goddess of mountains, cities and forts, Cybele’s crown was seen to take the form of a city wall, showing her role as a guardian and protector of Anatolian cities.
There is an inscription of “Matar Kubileya” found at a Phrygian rock shrine dating from the 6th century B.C.E. It is often translated to: “Mother of the Mountain.” It is a name that is consistent with Cybele and a number of other tutelary goddess who are all seen as “mother” and connected to a specific Anatolian mountain or other locations. In this sense, Cybele is seen as a goddess born from stone.
Cybele’s connection and association with hawks, lions and the mountainous regions of Anatolia show her role as a mother of the land in its wild, uninhabited state. She holds the power to rule, moderate or soften the unbridled power and ferocity of nature and to reign it in for the use of civilization.
Idaea – Mountain Goddess & Nymph
Cybele is often connected with Mount Ida in Anatolia where there is an ancient site of worship. Idaea is the name of the local mountain goddess or nymph who resided here. Where many goddess get absorbed into each, the name of one deity, Idaea in this case will become an epithet to the more well-known deity.
Goddess Of Nature And Fertility
As an ancient fertility goddess, Cybele’s worship is believed to have covered from Anatolia to Greece during the Archaic period, roughly 800 to 500 B.C.E and then into the Hellenistic era of 300 to 50 B.C.E.
Lions and sometimes leopards were shown to either side of Cybele to depict her strength.
Cybele is typically seen as a guardian and protector over all of a nature and a goddess of unbridled sex.
Along with Artemis, Cybele is seen as the “Great Huntress” and patron goddess and protector of the Amazons.
Magna Mātēr – The Great Mother
The Romans revered and knew Cyble as Magna Mātēr or the Great Mother, Rome’s protector. They also knew her as Magna Mātēr deorum Idaea, the great Idaean mother of the gods. It is a similar title to the Greek title for Cybele of Mētēr Theon Idaia, Mother of the Gods from Mount Ida. In the early 5th century B.C.E., she was known as Kubelē. In Pindar, she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother.” Cybele’s worship among the Greeks saw her easily identified and equated with the Minoan-Greek Goddess Rhea and the grain-goddess Demeter.
As Magna Mātēr, Cybele was symbolized by a throne and lions. She held a frame drum. A bowl used for scrying. A burning torch was also used to symbolize her bull-god husband Attis in his resurrection. For some like Lucretius, Magna Mater represented the world order. Her imagery hold overhead represented the Earth, thought to “hang in the air.” As the mother of all, the lions pulling her chariot represent the offspring’s duty of parental obedience. Magna Mater is seen as un-created and separate from and independent of all of her creations.
Under Imperial Rome, Magna Mater represented Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout its empire. Emperor Augustus, like many of Rome’s leading families, claimed Trojan ancestry and a connection to Magna Mater. His spouse, empress Livia was seen as the earthly equivalent and representation of Magna Mater. Statuary of Magna Mater has Livia’s likeness.
While there are not a lot of documents or myths that survive regarding Cybele, it has been suggested that her Phrygian name of Mātēr indicated a role as a mediator between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, the civilized world and the untamed wilds, the living and the dead. The Imperial Magna Mater protected Rome’s cities and its agriculture. Ovid mentions how barren the earth was before Magna Mater’s arrival. The stories and legend of Magna Mater’s arrival to Rome are used to promote and exemplify its principles and Trojan ancestry.
Megalesia – Festival To Magna Mātēr
Also known as the Megalensia or Megalenses Ludi; under the Roman calendar, Cybele’s Spring festival of Megalesia was celebrated from April 4th to April 10th, a period of six days. This festival celebrated Cybele’s arrival in Rome along with the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. This festival and the whole month of April were celebrated with an air of rejoicing and lavish feasts.
Exactly how the festival was celebrated is uncertain. What is known is that there were many religiously themed plays, games and activities. There are descriptions of mummery, war dancers wielding shields and knives and a lot of drumming and flute playing. As to the games, slaves were not allowed to participate. On the first day of Megalesia, there would be a feast held. These feasts were known for being very lavish and the Roman Senate passed a law limiting the amount that could be spent on these feasts. On April 10th, Cybele’s image would be publicly paraded to the Circus Maximus, chariot races would be held in her honor. A statue dedicated to Magna Mater with her seat on a lion’s back stood at the side of the race track barrier line.
Hilaria – Holy Week
In addition to the Megalesia festival, there is also a week-long festival known as Holy Week that starts from March 15th, also known as the Ides of March. That really gives a new meaning to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he’s told to beware the Ides of March. The entire festival is meant to have an air of celebration for the arrival of Spring and the Vernal Equinox.
The festival itself seems to have been established by Claudius as a means of claiming and honoring Trojan ancestry. As a result, the festival very likely grew and expanded over time as a celebration for the death and resurrection of Attis.
The Reed Entered – Also known as Canna Intrat, from the 15th to the end of the month, there is festival for Cybele and Attis that starts on the 15th or Ides, with Attis’ birth and his being left along the reed bank of the Sangarius river in Phrygia before either shepherds or Cybele find him. People known as Cannophores will carry away the reeds. During this time, there is a nine-day period of abstinence from eating bread, fish, pomegranates, pork, quinces and likely wine. Only milk was allowed to be drunk during this period.
The Tree Enters – Also known as Arbor Intrat, March 22nd marks the date of Attis’ death under a pine tree. It is observed. People known as Dendrophores or “Tree Bearers,” after sacrificing a ram, will cut down a tree and carry it to Magna Mater’s temple for a mourning period of three days.
Tubilustrium – March 23rd, this is an old, archaic holiday for the Roman god Mars. The tree has now been laid to rest in Magna Mater’s temple. Mars’ priest, the Salii will do a traditional beating of their shields accompanied by trumpets and other loud music from the Corybantes. Overall, this is a day of mourning.
The Day of Blood – Also known as Sanguis, Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis March 24th. The rites can only be described as frenzied as mourners and devotees whip or scourge themselves in order to sprinkle the alters and Attis’ effigy with their blood. Some of the rites involve castration and the tree is buried, symbolizing Attis’ placing within his tomb. This day was also to honor Bellona, a war goddess. Her priests were known as the Bellonarii and practiced mutilation along with using hallucinogenic plants.
The Day of Joy – Also known as Hilaria, on the Roman Calendar this marks the Vernal Equinox. It takes place on March 25th and celebrates Attis’ resurrection. It must be noted that is a day of celebration and not the previous mournful tones and rites. I’m also not the only one to have noted a similarity to the Christian association of Jesus’ resurrection.
Day of Rest – Also known as Requietio, March 26th. What can we say? Partying is hard work.
The Washing – Also known as Lavatio, March 27th. This is when Cybele’s sacred stone, the Pessinos’ black meteor is taken from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena along a stream called Almo. This stream is a tributary to the Tiber river. Here, the stone would be bathed by a priest. The return trip back to the temple would be conducted by torchlight. It’s noted by Ovid as being an innovation by Augustus.
Initium Caiani – March 28th. This particular part of the festival is found on the Calendar of Philocalus. It is likely an initiation ceremony that was held at the Vatican sanctuary for the mysteries of Magna Mater and Attis.
Pine cones are symbols of Cybele and the related myth of Attis. They are believed to have been worn by Cybele’s priests and followers as one of her symbols. As a protective symbol, a pine cone would be affixed to the top of a pole and placed out in vineyards to protect the crops. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A type of hand drum or tambourine, the tympanon was used by the Greeks to denote worship in a foreign cult or religion. Of the foreign deities the Greek adopted, only Cybele is ever shown holding the tympanon. On the cuirass of Ceasar Augustus’ Prima Porta statue, Cybele’s tympanon is shown lying at the goddess Tellus’ feet.
The Trojan War
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas.
The Trojan War was a major and significant war among the Greeks. Many deities got themselves involved. Cybele was one of many such gods to do so. When Prince Aeneas was attacked by Turnus, leading the Rutulians, Cybele prevented Turnus from setting fire to the Trojan fleet by turning all of the ships into nymphs.
Virgil’s Aeneid – As Berecyntian Cybele, she is the mother of Jupiter and the protector of prince Aeneas. Cybele gave the Trojans her sacred tree to use for building their ships. Cybele then pleaded with Jupiter to make the resulting ships indestructible. Aeneas and his men are able to flee Troy, heading for Italy, where Rome would be founded. Once the they arrived in Italy, the ships all turned into sea nymphs or Oceanids.
Yes, you read that correctly. During the early Roman Imperial era, the poet Manilius introduces Cybele into classic Greco-Roman zodiac. It upsets the balance as there’s already twelve zodiac houses represented by a corresponding constellation. Each of which is ruled by a different deity, the Twelve Olympians in Greek and the Di Consentes in Rome. Manilius places Cybele as a co-ruler with Jupiter over Leo the Lion, which is noted for being in direct opposition to Juno who rules Aquarius.
Some modern scholars have taken note of how, as Leo rises over the horizon, that Taurus the Bull sets. Symbolically, this is seen as the lion dominating or defeating the bull. The idea then gets put forth that the celebrations of Megalensia includes this symbolism with lions attacking bulls. As a Spring festival, the date for the celebration of Megalensia is around April 12th when farmers would dig in their vineyards to break up the soil and sow their crops. This would also be when farmers would castrate their cattle and other livestock.
It has been suggested by some scholars that Cybele’s name can be traced to that of Kubaba, a deified queen who ruled during the Kish Dynasty of Sumer. Kubaba was worshipped at Carchemish and would later be Hellenized to the name of Kybebe. Kubaba was also known to the Hittites and Hurrians in the region. There isn’t enough etymological evidence to support this. However the names Kubaba and Matar do seem to have become closely associated. Such as the genital mutilations that are found both within Cybele’s and Kybebe’s cults. Much like many other localized mountain goddesses in Anatolia, who are called “mother” and among many who would become identified with Cybele.
Christianity And The Book Of Revelation
Of interest, is that the author of the Book of Revelations, identified by modern scholars as John of Patmos is likely to have been referring to Cybele when he mentions “the mother of harlots who rides the Beast.”
Christianity – Kept to a nutshell, the early Christians, once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, began to view and regard Cybele’s cult as evil, even demonic. Under Emperor Valentinian II in the 4th century C.E., he officially banned the worship of Cybele and the goddess followers and devotees fell under a lot of hate and persecution. Under the rule of Justinian, objects of worship for Cybele and her temples were destroyed and eventually by the 6th century C.E., Cybele’s cult seems to have vanished.
It has been noted by others how the Basilica of the Vatican is apparently the same exact spot for where Cybele’s Temple once stood and that Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same place where Attis was once worshiped. Some will even go so far as to suggest that revering the Virgin Mary is merely another aspect of worshiping Cybele and many other ancient Mother Goddesses.
Montanism – Christianity – Also known as New Prophecy – Now I do find it fascinating that around 100 C.E. a former Galli priest of Cybele by the name of Montanus formed a Christian sect that worked to oppose Pauline Christianity.
In Pauline Christianity, those who followed the teachings of the Apostle Paul, it held a major influence into the formation of Christianity in terms of scriptural interpretations, cannon and dogma.
Montanus’ sect was considered very heretical to the Catholic Church and would eventually see all of its followers excommunicated.
In brief, Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of god and that women could also be bishops and presbyters. Where much of early Christian theology diminished the power and presence of women within religion, Montanus’ sought to keep it.
It’s also interesting to note a rather prominent example of a Pagan religion that Christianity and former followers of other religions attempting to adopt and add in their beliefs. Like Montanus equating Jesus with Attis and the celebrating of Easter with the resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week, the days between Good Friday and Easter is also the same period that Hilaria, observing and celebrating Attis’ resurrection was held.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Just as Cybele is the Great Mother of the Roman Pantheon, Rhea, her Grecian counterpart is the Great Mother of the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Cybele with Rhea.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Like Cybele, Rhea can help in easing the pain of childbirth and soothe the pain and difficulties that come with menstruation.
Also Known As: Deer Lady, Deer-Woman, Deerwoman
The Deer Woman is a familiar figure in many Native American legends and mythology of Oklahoma, Western United States and Pacific Northwest. Notable tribes are the Creek, Lakota, Omaha, Ponca and Potawatomi.
Deer Woman is a shape-shifting spirit who often takes the form of a young woman except that her feet are hooved like those of a deer and her brown deer eyes. Sometimes, Deer Woman is described as having the upper half of a human women and the lower half of a deer. As a shape-shifter, Deer Woman can also appear as an old woman or a deer.
In the legends surrounding Deer Woman, she is often just off the trail or behind a bush, calling men over to her, particularly unfaithful or promiscuous men. It is frequently too late, when men are enchanted and drawn to her, that they notice she isn’t all she seems and find themselves trampled to death beneath her hooves. A more “luckier” man might find himself pining away, longing for a “lost love.” In the more malign interpretations of Deer Woman, she is often presented as a bogeyman, seducing men before she kills them.
More violent versions of Deer Woman’s story say she was a human woman transformed into a deer after being raped or she was brought back to life by the original Deer Woman spirit after being murdered. Further stories say it is the still the original Deer Woman, she has just changed her cause and is even more vengeful.
She is sometimes seen as a form of succubus or vampire, draining her victims of their life force. The Deer Woman legends certainly do seem to hold a certain familiarity to the Irish stories of the Fae, who have sex with a mortal man and who is then never satisfied with a human lover.
In the Lakota versions of Deer Woman, she doesn’t kill men, instead she takes their soul so that he will be lost for the rest of his life. As to the women, Deer Woman spirits them away so that they are never seen again. In these, stories, Deer Woman is described as a black-tailed deer.
Other stories surrounding Deer Woman, describe seeing her as sign of warning or a time of personal transformation. She is very fond of dancing and has been known to join in on communal dances; leaving when the drumming stops. More benign interpretations of Deer Woman’s myth connect her to fertility and love who help women during childbirth.
Banishing Deer Woman
According to Ojibwe traditions, Deer Woman can be banished by the use of tobacco smoke, prayers and chanting.
Deer Woman’s spell or enchantment can also be broken by looking at her feet. Once Deer Woman realizes she has been found out, she runs away.
Similar Folkloric Figures
There are a few other, similar figures found in other cultures from around the world.
Baobhan Sith – Scotland, a female vampire said to have goat legs. She seduces travelers and drinks their blood.
Fiura – Chile, a goblin seductress who drives her victims insande.
Iara – Brazil, a siren-like entity who leads men to their death. Descriptions place her as being a fish woman with a blow hole in her neck.
La Llorna – Hailing from Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Descriptions often cite her as having no feet.
La Patasola – Colombia, a siren-like entity, leading men to their death. Descriptions often cite her as having deformed feet.
Naag Kanyas – India, serpent women. In some areas of Northern India, there are stories of people who are surprised to discover that a woman traveling with them, has cow hooves instead of human feet. A slight version to this is the woman’s feet being on backwards. These were clearly signs that the woman traveling with them isn’t human.
Sirens – Greek & Rome, Aquatic females, infamous for luring men to leap from their ships to a watery death by their hypnotic songs.
Tunda – Colombia, a siren-like entity, leading men to their death. Descriptions often cite her as having deformed feet.
Xana – From Asutrias, Spain, a siren-like entity who leads men to their death.
Etymology – The Eagle
Pronunciation: There are a few different variations – ˈækwɨlə, əˈkwɪlə and ˈækwɨli
Also known as: Αετός Δίας (Aetos Dios), Aquila Jovis, the Bird of Zeus and the King of Birds
The constellation Aquila, the Eagle has been recognized as early as 1,200 B.C.E. The Euphratean uraanographic stone, dating from the Mesopotamian cultures, depicts this constellation. The constellation lies just a few degrees north of the celestial equator. Many ancient cultures such as the Persians, Hebrews, Arabs, Greeks and Romans all saw an eagle represented in this constellation.
The constellation is seen first with a straight line of three stars that symbolize the wings. The tips of the wings are seen to extend out further to the southeast and northwest. The head of the eagle is seen as stretching out towards the southwest. In older depictions of this constellation, the Eagle is sometimes shown carrying the youth Ganymede.
The constellation known as Aquila is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Aquila is also mentioned by Eudoxus in 4th century B.C.E. and by Aratus in 3rd century B.C.E. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 22nd in size.
Constellations bordering with Aquila are: Aquarius, Capricornus, Delphinus, Hercules, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Sagittarius, Scutum, and Serpens Cauda. The best time to spot Aquila is during the month of August in the Northern Hemisphere.
Antinous – Obsolete Constellation
The astronomer Ptolemy catalogued nineteen stars altogether in Aquila and Antinous. The now obsolete Antinous constellation had been named during Emperor Hadrian’s rule in 132 C.E. Sometimes the cataloging of stars is erroneously attributed to Tycho Brahe who cataloged twelve stars in Aquila and seven stars in Antionus. A Hevelius cataloged some twenty-three stars in Aquila and nineteen in Antionus.
Among the Arabs, Aquila has been known as the Flying Eagle, Crow or Raven. The Persians knew Aquila by the names: the Falcon and the Flying Vulture. The Turks referred to this constellation as the Hunting Eagle.
Chinese Astronomy And Mythology
There is a rather famous and well known love story found in Chinese mythology that is related to the constellation of Aquila, or rather several of its stars. It’s a story that is also similar to the love story connected with the Cygnus constellation.
In Chinese astronomy, the modern day constellation of Aquila lies in the area of the heavens known as Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North and the Three Enclosures or Sān Yuán that divides the night sky of the Chinese Heavens.
The star Zeta Aquilae is located in a part of the night sky seen as Tiān Shì Yuán or the Heavenly Market Enclosure. The rest of Aquila’s stars are found in the area of the night sky ruled by Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North.
In modern day, Aquila is known by the name of Tiān Yīng Zuò, which means: “the heaven eagle constellation.”
Hegu – The Battle Drum
The star Altair and the two stars to either side of it, Beta and Gamma Aquilae form the asterism known as Hegu, a battle drum.
Tianfu – Celestial Drumsticks
The Chinese have an asterism comprising of the stars 62 Aquilae, 58 Aquilae and Eta Aquilae that they call the Celestial Drumsticks.
Youqi – Banner Flags
The stars Delta, Iota, Mu and Sigma form a banner flying to the right of Hegu.
The stars from Sagitta in the north represent a banner to the left side of Hegu.
The Three Generals
Altair, Beta and Gamma Aquilae are also known as the Three Generals with Altair representing the commanding officers with this two subordinates.
Tiabian – Trade Officials
The stars Lambda and 12 Aquilae along with the stars in the constellation Scutum represented a team of Trade Official overseeing the organization of the markets. An area of the heavens that includes the Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpens constellations. The officials were located just outside of the market walls.
The star Zeta Aquilae formed part of this wall.
Lizhu – The Empress’s Pearls
An L-shaped pattern formed by the stars 1, 69, 70 and 71 Aquilae represent four pearls worn by the Empress. These same stars are also astrologically connected to the Emperor’s harem.
Qi Xi – The Princess And The Cowherd (Herd-Boy And Weaver-Girl)
This is a rather old story that dates as far back as at least the 6th century B.C.E. where it first appears in a collection of stories called the Book of Songs or Shih Ching. The book was possibly compiled and put together by Confucius. However, this book was later destroy a few centuries later by the emperor, Shih Huang Ti who is remembered more for his burning books instead of the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Chih Nu, identified with the star Vega was the daughter of the Sun-God. Chih Nu was known for being very good and skilled with weaving, especially her creation of tapestries. On one particular day, Chih Nu was looking out the palace window and spotted one of her father’s herdmen, Ch’ien Niu. For these two, it was love at first sight and Chih Nu’s father, the King was very happy when he discovered the news.
All started off well, for it was considered a good match, given how Ch’ien Niu was known for being a hard worker and took care of the royal flock with due diligence.
A wedding was planned in which Chih Nu wove her own wedding dress out of starlight. All started off well and the newly married couple were very happy and deeply devoted to each.
It would seem that this deep devotion was also the source of a problem, for it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Chih Nu’s and Ch’ien Niu’s duties and responsibilities were becoming neglected. Chih Nu’s loom stood forgotten and gathering dust in a corner while the royal cattle that Ch’ien Niu was to tend, began wandering out, straying far across the heavenly plains.
Chih Nu’s father, the Sun-God and King gave the two lovers repeated warnings and still they failed to follow through with their respective obligations and responsibilities. Things got bad enough that the Sun-God finally took measures, the first of which was to banish Ch’ien Niu to the other side of the Heavens to tend the royal cattle there.
Once Ch’ien Niu had crossed the only ford, T’ien-tsin, the Sun-King then ordered that both borders of the ford be closed off so that neither lover could cross. Chih Nu begged her father, but he would not relent on his royal decree.
Eventually, Ch’ien Niu had pleaded her case to the magpies who took pity on her. They decided that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh monty, that they would help the parted lovers. On this day, all the magpies across China would fly up to the Heavens and create a bridge with their wings. This way the two lovers can cross and be together. On this day, Chih Nu cries, at first it is tears of joy that come down as soft, gentle rain. As the day progresses and starts to end, Chih Nu’s tears become a down pour of rain as she knows the two lovers must part ways for another year.
Their task done, the magpies fly away again back to their fields. The next day, when people see the magpies, they take heart knowing that the magpies have done their duty by the way their feathers look trampled. If the magpies’ feathers aren’t trampled, then the people say that bad weather has prevented from flying up to the heavens to form their bridge. Children are also believed to throw stones at any magpies found on the seventh day of the seventh month as these birds are seen as neglecting their duty to go with the others to form the bridge for the two lovers.
Qi Xi Variations
This story is told in China, Korea and Japan, so there are a few different names and variations to the story of Qi Xi. In one version, the star Altair is identified as Niu Lang and his two children are identified as Beta and Gama Aquilae who become separated forever from their wife and mother Zhi Nu, who is identified with the star Vega, in the Cygnus constellation. This separation is represented by the river, the Milky Way.
Another version places the Herd-Boy as an orphan who observes Weaver-Girl among some seven Weavers who descend from the heavens to bathe in a nearby stream. By snatching Weaver-Girl’s robe, Herd-Boy compels her to marry him and ends up sharing her immortality.
Much like the previous version, the two slack off in their duties and it is Weaver-Girl’s grandmother, a Queen of the Heavens who separates the two. The rest of the heaven’s take pity on the young lovers and they are allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month with magpies forming a bridge for them to cross.
In Greek Mythology, there are a few different myths regarding the Aquila constellation. Generally, Aquila is seen as a large golden eagle who serves as Zeus’ messenger and companion animal.
Periphas was a priest of the god Apollo, he lived in Attic at the time and was an autocthon, one of the Earth-Sprung Rock. He was considered so virtuous and beloved by the people that they made him a king and began to honor him like a god.
This angered the god Zeus who was ready to strike down this insolent mortal with one of his thunderbolts. The god Apollo intervened and requested that Zeus instead transform Periphas into an eagle. Zeus went into Periphas’ house and transformed him while Periphas was with his wife. As she didn’t want to be separated from her husband, Zeus also transformed her into a bird, a vulture, represented by the constellation of Lyra, the heavenly vulture.
As Periphas had shown piety and honors to the god Apollo while he had been mortal, Zeus made him the king of birds and tasked him with guarding the sacred scepter and thunderbolts. For Periphas’ wife, Zeus made her a sign and image of good luck regarding all the matters of humankind.
During the ten-year war that Zeus and the other gods held against the Titans, Zeus had an eagle who carried the thunderbolts that he used to hurl at the Titans. In gratitude for the eagle’s service and loyalty, it was given a place up in the heavens as the constellation Aquila.
In other accounts, Zeus adopted the eagle as his bird when it first appeared to him before the Titan War as a sign of good omen while making sacrifices.
The constellation of Aquila is also tied to the story of Ganymede, Zeus’ cup-bearer.
Ganymede was the son of King Tros of Dardania and the basis for the kingdom of Troy in Greek mythology. An exceptionally beautiful youth, Ganymede had caught the attention of Zeus when he was out watching over his father’s flock of sheep. Now, depending on the versions of the story being told, Zeus, either in the guise of an eagle or sending the eagle Aquila, came and carried him off to Mount Olympus. As compensation to King Tros, Zeus gave him some horses.
Once there, Ganymede faced the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus, who was angry and very likely jealous that her husband had taken such a fancy for a young boy. In addition to this, she was also angry that Zeus intended for Ganymede to replace Hebe, Hera’s daughter as the cup-bearer after an incident where Hebe had accidentally spilled some nectar of the gods. And it couldn’t have set well with Hera that Zeus immortalized Ganymede in the constellation of Aquarius in addition to immortality and eternal youth.
Another version of this myth says that it was Eos, the goddess of the Dawn who carries off Ganymede to Mount Olympus and then Zeus took him from her to be the cup-bearer.
Regardless of the versions of the story told, Ganymede does become the cup-bearer to the gods and basically serves them their wine. Further variations of this story tell how Ganymede would ride Zeus’ eagle Aquila, accompanying this god on his travels. Both the Aquila constellation near Aquarius and the constellation of Crater, said to be Ganymede’s cup are near Aquarius to complete this story.
Ganymede also becomes deified as he was given immorality and eternal youth by Zeus and ends up being the one responsible for the annual Nile River flooding and the life-giving waters of rain. Some scholars have pointed out that like the story of Capricorn, the Greeks are borrowing from other older stories and cultures as well as coming up with their own stories to explain the images and what the constellations mean.
In Roman times, the name Ganymede was sometimes used for handsome slaves who served as cupbearers. Furthering this, many have pointed out that the story of Ganymede is a clear indication and precedence for homosexuality in Greek culture. Others, like in Plato’s writings of dialogues between him and Socrates say that it wasn’t homosexuality; instead, they point out the meaning of the name Ganymede for “taking pleasure of the mind.” That Zeus loved Ganymede non-sexually for his mind. Still, other sources point out that this is where the Latin word for catamite originates. Additionally, the Roman poet Ovid says that Zeus who turned into an eagle to go retrieve the youth Ganymede.
Aquila Guarding The Arrow of Eros
Another minor story of Aquila that is more attached to the constellation of Sagitta. In this one, Aquila is seen guarding the arrow of Eros that has hit the god Zeus and caused him to become love-struck.
Zeus And Nemesis
During one of Zeus’ many exploits with chasing after and raping other women, he is to have somehow enlisted the aid of the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
In this story, Aquila represents Aphrodite as she’s disguised herself as an eagle, pretending to chase after Zeus who is in the guise of a Swan. All this so he can get the goddess Nemesis to offer him shelter. It is only afterword, when Nemesis has gone to sleep that she learns the swan she thought she had rescued is really the god Zeus in disguise and he rapes her.
To commemorate this conquest, Zeus places the image of the Eagle (Aquila) and the Swan (Cygnus) up into the heavens. Really?
In Hindu mythology, the constellation of Aquila is seen as being Garuda, a half-eagle, half-human deity. Garuda is sometimes depicted as being the mount for the Hindu god Vishnu and to have been large enough to block out the sun. He is the sworn enemy of the Naga serpent race. He is a symbol of violent force, speed, and martial prowess in battle.
Alternatively, the line of three stars that also includes Altair is seen as being the footprints of the god Vishnu.
The Greek constellation of Aquila is very likely based on the Babylonian constellation of MUL.A.MUSHEN, the Eagle. The Babylonian’s constellation is also located in the same area of the night sky as the Greek’s constellation. The author, Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, says that the Eagle carried the constellation called the Dead Man or LU.USH in its talons. It’s a story that carries a lot of connections for later Greek and Roman stories of Antinous and Ganymede.
There is a Sumerian story of the hero Etana, who descended to the heavens with the help god Shamash’s eagle while looking for a plant of birth to help ease his wife’s labor pains for the birth of their son, Balih. This plant could only be found in the higher reaches of heaven where Anu lived.
While riding on the back of the eagle, Etana noticed how the earth began to look smaller and smaller the higher they flew. This caused him to become nervous or scared and loose his grip on the eagle’s back.
One version of this story has Etana living for 1,560 years and having only two children. Another version of the story has Etana falling to the earth for daring to try and enter the realm of the god Anu. There is some thought too, that the plant in question, may refer to Mountain Arnica, which is poisonous, but when taken in the right doses, can ease labor pains during birth.
This story seems to have been the inspiration behind the Greek story of Ganymede.
There are several different myths and stories regarding Aquila among the Polynesians.
Futuna – Aquila is known as Kau-amonga, which means the “Suspended Burden.” The name is in reference to the Futunan’s name for Orion’s belt and sword, Amonga.
Hawaii – Among the Hawaiins, the star Altair is called Humu, as in the humu humu fish. The whole of the Aquila constellation is called Humu-ma, the “Humu cluster.” The Humu-ma constellation is believed to influence astrologers.
Marquesas Islands – Here, Aquila is known by the name of Pao-toa, meaning the “Fatigued Warrior.”
Māori – The Māori of New Zealand called Altair by the name of Poutu-te-rangi, meaning “Pillar of the Sky.” Due to this star’s position in the heavens, it has been used in different Māori calendars. In one, Poutu-te-rangi is the ruling star for the months of February and March. In another calendar, it is the ruling star for March and April. Poutu-te-rangi is also the star that rules over the annual sweet potato harvests.
Pukapuka – Aquila is known by the name of Tolu, meaning “three” and comprises of the stars Alpha, Beta and Gamma Aquilae. The star Altair is known by the name of Turu and was used for navigation.
Tuamotus – Aquila is known by the name of Tukituki, meaning to “Pound with a hammer.” The star Beta Aquilae is called Nga Tangata, meaning “The Men.”
Many of the Roman myths regarding the Aquila constellation are very similar to the Greek stories from which they took, borrowed or stole. There are a few additional myths and stories that can be found.
To start with, the eagle represented in the constellation is thought to be Aetos Dios, the golden eagle who serves Jupiter.
Interestingly, the constellation Aquila is known as Vultur volans, the flying vulture by the Romans. This name shouldn’t be confused with the name Vultur cadens, the Roman’s name for the constellation Lyra.
Aetos Dios & Prometheus
Keeping in mind that the Romans called Aquila a vulture, it then ties in with the story of Prometheus and his being chained and bound to the top of a mountain where a large vulture would come and eat his liver every day as punishment.
In the Greek and Roman mythology, Prometheus is the titan who took pity on humankind and gave them the gift of fire after all the other gifts had been given out. Enraged by this act, the god Zeus had Prometheus chained and bound to a mountain. Every day Prometheus would be attacked by a giant vulture or eagle who ate his liver every day as it would grow back by the next. Being immortal, Prometheus suffered a lot as his wounds would heal every day. Eventually after many years, the hero Hercules comes along and frees the mighty titan after slaying the vulture. After it’s death, the god Zeus placed the vulture up into the heavens to become the constellation Aquilla.
Aetos Dios & Psyche
A Roman novel dating to the second century C.E., The Golden Ass and written by Apuleius, there is an incidence in which the goddess Venus sends Psyche to go get a pitcher of water from the river Styx.
Given the deadly nature of the river Styx, the bird Aetos Dios, of his own freewill and his past services to Cupid, comes to aid Psyche in getting water so she wouldn’t come to harm. What seems a little odd in the story given here is that Aetos Dios lies to Psyche, claiming that Venus had sent him to come help her and mentions nothing at all about acting on his own violation, either way, Psyche has the water and returns to Venus with it.
The constellation of Aquila, along with 18 other constellations of: Ara, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Aquila, along with the other avian constellations of Cygnus and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
Aquila’s alpha star, Altair forms part of an asterism known as the Summer Triangle. It is the southern point of the Summer Triangle. The other stars, Deneb, found in the constellation of Cygnus, is the triangle’s northeastern point and Vega, found in the constellation of Lyra to the northwest.
Stars of Aquila
Alpha Aquilae – Also known as Altair, is the brightest star within the Aquila constellation and the 12th brightest star overall in the night sky. Altair’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “al-nasr al-tair,” meaning “the flying eagle” or “vulture.” Ptolemy named this star Aetus, the Latin word for “eagle.” Both the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians referred to Altair as “the eagle star.”
Beta Aquilae – Also known as Alshain, it is a yellow star. Alshain’s name comes from the Perso-Arabic word: aš-šāhīn, which means “the falcon.”
Gamma Aquilae – Also known as Tarazed, it is an orange giant. Tarazed’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “shahin-i tarazu,” meaning “the balance” or “the beam of the scale.”
Epsilon Aquilae – This star, along with Zeta Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Epsilon Aquilae from Zeta Aquilae, Epsilon Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Borealis as it is north of Zeta Aquilae.
Zeta Aquilae – This star, along with Epsilon Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Zeta Aquilae from Epsilon Aquilae, Zeta Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Australis as it is south of Epsilon Aquilae.
Eta Aquilae – Also known as Bezek, is a yellow-white supergiant star. Bezek’s name comes from the Hebrew word bazak which means: “lightning.”
Theta Aquilae – Also known as Tseen Foo, is a binary star. Tseen Foo’s name comes from the Mandarin word tianfu, which means: “the heavenly rafter” and “drumsticks.”
Iota Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Lambda Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Lambda Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Iota Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Rho Aquilae – Also known as Tso Ke, is a white dwarf. Tso Re’s name comes from Mandarin and means: “the left flag.” As of 1992, this star is no longer part of the Aquila constellation and has since moved into the Delphinus constellation.
Glowing Eye Nebula
Also known as NGC 6751, this nebula is one of many found within the borders and star field that makes up Aquila.
Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall
Aquila is home to one of the largest single mass concentration of galaxies in the Universe found so far. It is referred to as the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall. It was first discovered in November of 2013 and has a size of about 10 billion light years.
Two major novae have been observed within Aquila. The first one was recorded in 389 B.C.E. and said to have been as bright as Venus. The other novae observed as the Nova Aquilae in 1918 which briefly shone brighter than Altair.
There are a couple of meteor showers associated with this constellation. They are the June Aquilids and the Epsilon Aquilids.
The June Aquilids meteor shower has only been studied by radar and are most active on June 2nd and 3rd.
The Epsilon Aquilids meteor shows is active in mid-March and is best seen using optical aids such as telescopes.
Etymology – Swan
Also known as: The Northern Cross, Ornis (Greek “bird”)
The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is considered one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, particularly during the summer and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
To the Greeks, this constellation was known as Ornis, meaning “bird.” It was later named Cygnus by the Romans who proceeded to adapt several Greek myths to try and explain the name or connection.
While there are many people in Greek mythology who bear the name of Cycnus, the constellation of Cygnus is also associated with several stories. One of the more well known stories is that of the god Zeus and his transformation into a swan to try and seduce Leda or in some variations, Nemesis. Another well known story connected to this constellation is that of the story of Phaethon and his friend Cycnus.
The constellation known as Cygnus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 16th in size. Pseudo-Eratosthenes and Hyginus’ Poetical Astronomy are the earliest sources of Greek astronomy and constellations that make the connection of the story of Zeus and Leda with his transformation into a swan.
Constellations bordering with Cycgnus are: Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta, The best time to spot Cygnus is during the month of September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many of the older, traditional names for the star in Cygnus such as Albireo, Deneb, Rukh and Sadr clearly point towards a Middle Eastern connection. In Arabia, the constellation was known as: Al Ta’ir al Arduf, “the Flying Eagle.” Other names include Al Ta’ir al Arduf, Al Radif and Al Dajajah “the Hen.”
They clearly saw a bird, sometimes said to be an Eagle or Pigeon, but frequently, as the traditional names point to, a Hen.
The Arabs also have an asterism called Al Fawaris or “the Riders” that’s found within Cygnus.
Chinese Astronomy & Mythology
The constellation of Cygnus lays in the area of the night sky symbolized by The Black Tortoise of the North or Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ. Modern Chinese has adopted the name of tiān é zuò, meaning “the swan constellation.”
The Chinese also know the constellation of Cygnus as Que Qiao, the “magpie bridge.” In the story associated with it, there was a pair of lovers, Niu Lang (a Shepherd) and Zhi Nu (a Weaver) who were separated by the Goddess of Heaven because Zhi Nu is a fairy and due to celestial decrees and mandates, wasn’t allowed to be with a mortal.
When the Goddess learned that the two were secretly married, she took Zhi Nu with her up into the heavens and created a river, represented by the Milky Way in the sky to keep the two separated.
Niu Lang was still determined and took his and Zhi Nu’s two children to Heaven so they could all be together. The Goddess however still forbade the two lovers to be together but on seeing their bitter tears, she relented and allowed that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month the two could be reunited. So once a year, all the magpies in the world come together to form a bridge over the river and help the two lovers unite and see each other. The star Deneb in the story either marks the start of the bridge or represents a fairy who chaperones the two lovers when they meet.
The Qixi Festival, also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Double Seventh Festival and even the Magpie Festival commemorates the joyful reunion of these two lovers. It is a variable holiday held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in China. It is celebrated and observed in a couple other countries like Japan as Tanabata in Korea as Chilseok. It is a festival and holiday comparable to the European celebration of Valentine’s Day.
The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu is one of four folk legends regarding love and romance. Young girls pray to Zhi Nu for skillful hands for sewing and young newly weds will worship this celestial couple and bid them farewell before moving on in their own marriage and happiness. Now days though, young people tend to favor the Western celebration of Valentine’s Day more then the Qixi Festival though their story is still told and passed on.
In Tonga, Cygnus is known as Tuula-lupe. The Tuamotus called it Fanui-raro or Fanui-tai. The star Deneb is also given the name of Fanui-tai. The star Gamma Cygni is called Fanui-runga. In New Zealand, it is known as Mara-tea. The star Beta Cygni was likely called Whetu-kaupo. In the Society Islands, it is known as Pirae-tea or Taurua-i-te-haapa-raa-manu.
Zeus And Leda
One of the more well known stories connected to the Cygnus constellation is the story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus And Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are more clear that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
The great musician Orpheus was said to have been turned into swan after being murdered by a group of Ciconian or Thracian Maenads. In this retelling of the story, Orpheus was placed up into the heavens as a swan next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Cycnus And Phyllius
Another myth connected to this constellation is that of Cycnus and Phyllius. This Cycnus committed suicide and was turned into a swan after he was shamed and refused a tame bull that he demanded from Phyllius.
King Of Kolonai
Among many ancient Greek figures to have the name Cygnus or Cycnus, is a son of Poseidon and as well a king who fought in the Trojan war. He was killed by the hero Achilles on the first day and turned into a swan at his death by his father to save him.
The Death Of Phaethon
This story is perhaps the best known and most associated story to the Cygnus constellation.
Phaethon was the son of Clymene, whose husband was the Egyptian King Merops. Eventually, Clymene told Phaethon that Merops wasn’t his father and that it was the Sun-god Helios (or Apollo). Afterwards, Phaethon would boast and brag to his friends how his real father was a powerful god. Phaethon’s friends teased him and said he was lying. Hurt by this, Phaethon went to his mother Clymene, who then told him to go to the Sun-god and ask him yourself of the truth.
Helios was greatly pleased on seeing his son Phaethon and promised him anything that he asked for in order to prove to his friend who his father is. To Helios’ horror or dismay, Phaethon demanded to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that driving the chariot was too dangerous for mortals, even demigods to drive. Unable to deter Phaethon, Helios relented, granting Phaethon his request.
Phaethon soon found himself loosing control of the chariot as the horses realized that someone new and inexperienced was holding the reigns. Like any such spirited animals who push to see how far they can go and do what they please, the horses took their own lead, racing across the sky towards the eastern horizon and heavens.
The horses’ uncontrolled pathway across the heavens left a scorch mark across the sky that became the Milky Way. The Earth became cold as the Sun-chariot was too high. As the horses continued their uncontrolled trek, they raced down close to the Earth, scorching the land across Africa and creating a great desert.
Making it worse, a frightened Phaethon saw the chariot racing towards a giant scorpion, the Scorpius constellation as the horses continued their uncheck race across the heavens. Pulling wildly on the reigns, Phaethon realized his folly and foolishness to not listen to his father.
To keep the Earth and Heavens from seeing more destruction from the out-of-control chariot, Zeus, the King of the Gods hurled one of his thunderbolts, striking Phaethon in the process. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus while the horses returned to their stables and back to Helios.
Phaethon’s friend or lover, Cycnus was so distraught over his death, that he went down to the river where he wept bitterly until the god Apollo took pity and turned Cycnus into a swan and eventually the gods decided to place him up into the heavens as the Cygnus constellation.
Another version to this story is that Phaethon and Cycnus were racing their respective chariots across the sky when they got too close to the Sun. Their chariots burned up and they fell to the Earth with Phaethon falling into the river Eridanus. When Cycnus came to and found where his friend was at, he dove in after to try and retrieve his friend’s body for burial and it’s from that action, that the gods or Apollo (sometimes its listed as Zeus) turn Cycnus into a swan and place him up into the heavens due to the level of grief Cycnus held and the gods sympathy and pity for him.
In other slight versions to this story, Cycnus is not only mentioned as a musician, but a King of the Ligurians. When Phaethon fell into the river Eridanus, Cycnus dove into the water, swimming back and forth searching for his friend’s body so he could bury them. Regardless of which variations of the story are retold and mentioned, Cycnus is still turned into a swan by the god Apollo and placed up into the heavens to form the Cygnus or Swan Constellation.
The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both of whom are named Cycnus. They often get confused together, though they both have in common getting killed by the hero Hercules and being turned into swans at their death.
Sacred Bird Of Apollo
While many deities have animals associated with them, Apollo is best known and associated with the swan. It was believed that large flocks of these birds could be found living on the mythical northern river of Eridanos in Hyperborea. These flocks were said to circle Apollo’s holy shrine, singing hymns. Another belief was that the people of Hyperborea, on reaching old age, that instead of dying, would turn into swans after bathing in the bitumen swamp of the river.
This phrase refers to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement. Most often this is used for a person’s last piece of creative work, or performance, particularly in literature, music, or art.
One origin for this phrase is from the story of Cycnus, the friend or lover of Phaeton. The same Phaethon who begged his father Helios to be able to drive the sun chariot across the sky that ended in disaster and his death. While there are a few different versions of this story, it is generally agreed that Cycnus, being in such grief over the death and loss of his friend was changed into a swan by the god Apollo who took pity on him.
In addition, the Mute Swan was believed to sing a song at its death, a song considered to be the sweetest of all bird songs.
Queen Cassiopeia’s Pet
A rather minor note is that some think that Cygnus represents the swan that Queen Cassiopeia kept.
The constellation of Cygnus, along with 18 other constellations of: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Cygnus, along with the other avian constellations of Aquila and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
The Northern Cross
Among Christians, the constellation of Cygnus is known as the Northern Cross. Many Christians have seen the Cross or Crux that Jesus hung on.
Five stars form this asterism. They are: Deneb (Alpha Cygni), Delta Cygni, Albireo (Beta Cygni), Gienah (Epsilon Cygni) and Sadr (Gamma Cygni) forming the center.
It has been noted by some archaeologists that there are megalithic sites such as those found in Ireland that appear to be aligned with the Cygnus constellation. The Avebury, Wayland Smithy long barrow and Callanish are two such places aligned with either the rising or setting stars within Cygnus.
The swan, like many other birds are seen as symbolic of carrying the souls of the deceased to the after life. Many Palaeolithic sites and cultures have used birds symbolically for death and rebirth. Even the Greeks saw birds as psychopomps or “soul-carriers” and it been a very common belief among several cultures of Europe.
With such a connection to death and rebirth and Cygnus’ shape in the heavens, it would be very easy for early Christians to adapt and adopt this belief to their faith as the Cross.
Stars Of Cygnus
The stars Delta and Epsilon Cygni are used to depicted Cgynus’ wings while the star Deneb depicts the tail and Albireo represents the tip of the swan’s beak.
Alpha Cygni – Also known as Deneb, it is one of the brightest stars seen in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant star and 19th in brightness. The name Deneb comes from the Arabic word dhaneb, meaning “tail.” It is from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means: “the tail of the hen.” Within the constellation of Cygnus, it is one corner of the Summer Triangle with the stars Altair found in the constellation Auila and Vega, found in the constellation Lyra.
Beta Cygni – Also known as Albireo, it is generally considered to be the head of the swan and sometimes called “the beak star.” The name Albireo is likely the result of a mistranslation from Arabic into Latin where ab ireo was thought to be the name of a particular herb. The original translated name in Arabic was from the Greek word for bird which is “ornis.” It is a binary star and the fifth brightest star in Cygnus. It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.
Gamma Cygni – Also known as Sadr which comes from the Arabic word for “the chest.” This star is also sometime known as Pectus Gallinae, which is Latin for “the hen’s chest.” It is the star found in the center of the Northern Cross asterism.
Delta Cygni – Also known as Rukh. The name Rukh is Persian in origin and is related to Urkhga in Akkadian. The star is named after the huge, mythical bird of prey known as a Roc that was capable of carrying off elephants. In the year 11,250 C.E. this star will take the position of the North Star for a period of about 400 years.
Epsilon Cygni – Also known as Gienah, this star shares the same traditional name with Gamma Corvi from the Corvus constellation. The name Gienah comes from the Arabic word janah meaning “the wing.”
Kappa Cygni – This star marks the tip of Cygnus’ left wing. Its most notable for a meteor shower, the Kappa Cygnids that take place in August.
North America Nebula
Or NGC 7000 is one of the most well-known nebulae found within the Cgynus constellation as it is visible within the night sky without the aid of any telescopes as a bright patch of the Milky Way. Due to its characteristic shape, which resembles the North American Continent, it is only visible in long-exposure photographs and for those using telescopes; it can be difficult to spot as the surface area for brightness is low. It was first discovered by William Herschel in 1786.
This is the largest star-forming region that has some of the brightest and most massive stars known such as Cygnus OB2-12 and Cygnus OB2.
Also known as NGC 6946; this galaxy is known for the number of supernovae that have been found there. It is a spiral galaxy that borders the edge of Cygnus with the constellation Cepheus. NGC 6946 was discovered on September 9, 1798 by the German-born British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. So far nine supernovae have been observed within this galaxy.
There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Cygnus. They are the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids, a minor meteor shower that occurs in August.
Alternate spellings – Κύκνος, Kyknos, Cygnus
Etymology – Swan
When researching this name, I’ve found that the name Cycnus can refer to at least four different people from Greek Mythology. Though there are several others who have minor importance when compared to the primary four.
1) The Friend Of Phaethon
The first Cycnus is the son of Shtenelus, the king of Liguria. After the death of his close friend or lover Phaeton, Cycnus went down to the river Eridanos where his friend perished to mourn. Cycnus was in such a deep level of grief over the loss that the gods, in some instances this is specifically the god Apollo who took pity on Cycnus and turned him into a Swan. Even as a swan, Cycnus still remembered Phaethon and would avoid the heat of the sun.
According to Ovid, Cycnus was a distant relative of Phaethon on his mother’s side. According to Virgil, Cycnus grieved the loss of his friend into old age that his graying hair turned into feathers and he was transformed then into a swan at that point.
A couple of different Greeks such as Pausanias and Servius wrote of Cycnus’ musical skill. It is Servius who wrote that after Apollo changed Cycnus into a swan, he was placed up into the heavens as the constellation Cygnus. Servius also mentions that Cycnus had a son by the name of Cupavo. According to Hyginus, Cycnus’ story is the origin of the phrase “swan song” referring to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement.
2) King Of Kolonai
The name of the second Cycnus is the son of Poseidon and Calcyce, the daughter of Hecaton. This Cycnus ruled the city of Kolonai in southern Troad, a region of Anatolia.
Cycnus married Procleia, the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. Sometimes Procleia is listed as the daughter of Clytius who is the son of previously mentioned Laomedon. In either event, Cycnus and Procleia had two children Tenes and Hemithea.
When Procleia died, Cycnus married again, this time to a Philonome, the daughter of Tragasus, also known as Polyboea or Scamandria. Philonome fell in love with her stepson Tene and when he rejected her advances, she tried to tell Cycnus that his son tried to rape her.
Angry or despairing, Cycnus ordered that his two children be put in a chest and thrown out to sea. Cycnus soon learned the truth and instead had Philonome buried alive and he was able to discover his children were still alive on the island of Tenedos. He tried to go there to reconcile with his children, but Tenes hearing none of it, cut the anchor rope to Cycnus’ ship, preventing him from being able to dock.
After all this, Cycnus went on to support the Trojans in the Trojan War against the Greeks. He was killed on the first day of war by the hero Achilles and was also changed into a swan. In the Ovid, he is said to have fought valiantly, killing a thousand foes. With Cycnus’ death, the Greeks headed towards Kolonai, seizing it after Cycnus’ surviving children Cobis, Corianus and Glauce be handed over to them.
It should be noted that this Cycnus’ story doesn’t appear in the Iliad but does appear in the Cypria. He’s mentioned twice by Pindar which some historians use to suggest this story had merit by the 5th century B.C.E. In the mid-first century B.C.E., the historian Diodorus Siculus attributes this story of Cycnus to the people of the island Tenedos, whose name is derived from Cycnus’ son Tenes.
Twelfth century Byzantine poet John Tzetzes makes mention of a Scamandrodice who was Cycnus’ mother. She had abandoned Cycnus by the sea shore and he was rescued by some fishermen who named him Cycnus after seeing a swan fly by over head.
Another account says that Cycnus got his name of Swan due to his feminine features of white skin and fair hair.
3) The Son Of Apollo
The son of Apollo and Hyrie (or Thyrie) the daughter of Amphinomus, this Cycnus lived in the country between Pleuron and Calydon. He was considered a rather good looking and handsome though arrogant and often disrespectful especially those youths who admired his great skill at hunting.
Cycnus’ attitude and arrogance eventually drove everyone away except for Phylius. Even Phylius’ deep devotion and admiration wasn’t enough to get through to Cycnus. Wanting to be rid of Phylius, Cycnus challenged to what he thought would be three impossible tasks.
The first task given to Phylius is that he was to kill a lion threatening their town without the aid or use of any weapons. Phylius’ tactic to win this task was to consume so much food and wine as to vomit it up in the spot where he knew the lion would show up. When it did so, the lion ate up all the refuse, becoming drunk on the wine. Phylius was able to come in and used his own clothing to strangle the beast, killing it.
The second task given to Phylius was to catch two man-eating vultures of immense size who were also threatening their town, again without the use of any weapons. As he contemplated how to peform this task, Phylius saw an eagle drop a dead hare to the ground. Having an idea, Phylius took the hare’s blood and covered himself with it, then lay down in order to pretend to be dead. Eventually the two vultures dropped down to where he lay and Phylius was able to catch both of them by their feet and brought them to where Cycnus awaited his return.
The third and final task was for Phylius to bring a bull to Zeus’ alter with his own bare hands. At a loss on how to perform this last task, Phylius pray to Heracles for aid. Finished with his prayer, Phylius saw two bulls fighting over a cow. He waited until the bulls’ fight was over and one of the bulls fell to the ground. At this, Phylius was able to go over and grab one of the bulls by its legs and drag the bull to Zeus’ alter.
Having performed the tasks set before him, Heracles intervened once more so that Phylius would cease taking orders from Cycnus. Seeing this and feeling disgraced, Cycnus committed suicide by throwing himself into a lake known as Conope. His mother Thyrie also did like and at their deaths, the god Apollo changed both mother and son into swans. The lake became known as Swan Lake and when Phylius eventually died, he was buried near its shores.
The story was recorded by Antoninus Liberalis. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he has Phylius (or Phyllius) perform the three tasks but at the end, refuse to bring the bull to Cycnus. Feeling scorned, Cycnus jumps off a cliff and is changed into a swan instead of falling to his death. His mother Hyrie, unaware of Cycnus’ transformation and believing her son to be dead, dissolves away in a flood of tears forming the lake Hyrie.
It should be noted too that in both Antoninus and Ovid’s tellings of the stories, that Cycnus and Phylius were lovers and that theirs is the story of love spurned.
4) The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both named Cycnus and they often get confused together as to who’s who, their specific stories behind them and how similar those stories are. Pseudo-Apollodorus writes of the two Cycnus’ as distinct, separate persons.
Cycnus is one of three children of Ares to have fought the hero Heracles. Four when you remember that there are two sons of the same name. The other children of Ares to have fought against Heracles are Diomedes from Thrake and the Amazon Hippolyte. The Cycnus from Macedonia is often described as being a brother to Diomedes while the Thessalian Cycnus is the son-in-law of King Ceyx who sponsored the hero Heracles’ northern campaigns.
The first son of Ares has Pelopia for his mother. He had set himself up as a bandit prince near the sacred grove of Apollon at Pagasia Itonos along the Thessalian coast. This Cycnus was also the son-in-law of King Ceyx of Trakhis. Cycnus would rob the offerings being sent to the Delphios up north. When Heracles was passing through this region on his way back from his campaign against the Lapithai to visit King Ceyx, Cycnus challenged the hero to a duel.
Heracles quickly killed his challenger and Ares changed his son into a swan at his death. When Ares then went to avenge his son’s death, Zeus prevented the two from fighting by throwing a thunderbolt between them.
The second son of Ares has Pyrene for his mother. This Cycnus was from either Pagasae, Thessaly or by the river Echedorus in Macedonia. He was a giant who was so murderous and blood thirsty that he was building a temple out of bones and skulls from travelers to dedicate to his father Ares. One of the men said to have been murdered by Cycnus is Lycus of Thrace.
When the hero Heracles encountered this Cycnus, they engaged in battle where Heracles killed him. Enraged at the death of his son, Ares sought revenge for this son but was again stopped by a bolt of lightning thrown by the god Zeus. Like so many of the other Cycnus’ he too was also changed into a swan at his death.
According to the ancient Greek writer, Euripides, Heracles shot Cycnus with arrows and that this event takes place near the river Anaurus.
Shield of Heracles
In this poem, both Heracles and Iolaus encounter Cycnus and Ares on their way to Trachis. The goddess Athena appears telling Heracles that Zeus has given power to him to kill Cycnus and how to do the deed. The hero is not to touch Cycnus’ body, not to claim any armor as trophies and that finally he’s to hit Ares using a spear on an unarmored part of his body should the god attack.
Cycnus and Heracles go on about their duel and the hero kills Cycnus. Enraged, Ares is about to get revenge only to have Athena intervene saying that it is not yet Heracles’ time to die. As he’s been attacked, Heracles does attack Ares and the gods’ sons Phobos and Deimos come rescue him, taking Ares back to Olympus. Cycnus was then buried but his tomb later destroyed in a flood sent by Apollo.
Others Named Cycnus
There are a few others in Greek legend, stories and history who also have the same name of Cycnus. Some of them are:
• One of the suitors of Penelope.
• The son of King Eredion of Achaea. In one version he seduced Leda, causing her to become the mother of the triplets the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) and Helen. In other versions, these children are fathered by Zeus who approached her in the shape of swan.
• A blunder for Guneus in Hyginus’ Fab manuscript, which is a list of the Achaean leaders who were against the city of Troy. This may be a different Cycnus than the King of Kolonai who also participated in the Trojan War.