Death, Courage and Sacrifices upon the Stars: Legends Behind the Zodiacs

Star signs are one of those things which we take for granted. Although we ‘consult’ star signs, we do not usually bother with how they come about. Many of the signs got their names from various Greek legends, but some predate even those.

Horoscope, Astrology, Zodiac, Capricorn

Capricorn

The myth of Capricorn is one of those that predates the Greeks. Capricorn, or the seagoat, was a Babylonian deity named Ea. He has the lower half of a fish and the head and torso of a goat. Ea lived in the ocean and came out every day to watch over the land and went back to the sea every night. However, for the ancient Greeks, Capricorn represents Pan, who had the upper half of a man and the legs of a goat. When Pan’s nymph mother saw her strange baby, she shrieked in fear and ran away. The god Hermes, however, loved his son. He took him to Olympus, where the other gods and goddesses also took a liking to Pan. Pan became the god of shepherds and flocks, taking over the responsibility from his father. He lived among the shady trees in the mountain and amused himself by playing his reed pipes (‘Panpipes’), or by chasing nymphs through the woods.

Aquarius

As water is the bringer and sustainer of life, the force that made water rain down from the heavens was among the most revered by ancient civilizations such as Babylonia, Egypt and Greece. There was always a god known as the “Water Bearer”. In the Greek legend, the Water Bearer was Zeus as one of his most important roles was as the god of storms. However, Zeus was not Aquarius. During the Iron Age, humanity had become more savage than animals. Brother fought against brother, sons killed fathers – no one was safe, and everyone was generally quite nasty to each other. No one would listen to the gods and they never would repent for their sins.

Zeus had noticed a pair of poor husband and wife, Deucalion and Pyrrha, during his last visit to Earth. They lived alone in a simple hut, with almost no food, and definitely no material goods. Despite this, they fed Zeus, gave him shelter for the night and spoke to him kindly, even though they had no idea that he was a god. Zeus then went back to the sky with a bit of faith in humanity. But, the savagery of humanity continued and, one day, Zeus has had enough. He sent a great flood upon the Earth, destroying  all the people in the world. However, he still remembered Deucalion and Pyrrha – the two last godly people on Earth. Zeus allowed them to survive the flood. After it ended, he helped them create a new race of stronger and better people. When Deucalion died, Zeus placed him in the sky as the ‘Water Bearer’ because he lived through the great flood and helped to bring life to a new generation.

Pisces

Pisces is associated with Aphrodite and Eros, her son. They were walking along a river one day when a monster named Typhon suddenly rose up out of the water to destroy them. Typhon was as strong as a Titan, and therefore as strong as the gods. He was as tall as the heavens and his eyes shot flames. Instead of fingers, he had 100 dragon heads sprouting from his hands.

None of the Olympians had the power to destroy Typhon alone. All they could do was run from him. Seeing him, Aphrodite and Eros dove into the river and were rescued by two friendly fish who carried them to safety. The two grateful gods then place the two fish in the sky with their tails intertwined, to commemorate the day when love and beauty were saved.

Aries

Athamas, king of Croneus, had a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle, by his first wife, Nephele. Eventually he got bored of his first wife, sent her away and married Ino, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. Although Ino gave him two sons, she soon grew jealous of Nephele’s children and decided to take over the kingdom for her own sons.

Ino ordered the women of the kingdom to roast the seeds of corn before the men planted them in the field, swearing them to secrecy. Of course, the corn didn’t grow, which was a bit of a bummer for the kingdom, as corn was their number one resource of food, and a good corn harvest could feed the whole kingdom for months. The king decided to consult an oracle to see what he could do to appease the gods and bring back the crops. Being king, he didn’t go to the oracle himself and sent messengers instead. Ino paid off the messengers, bribing them into lying about its advice.

The bribed messenger told the king that Phrixus and Helle were the cause of the famine and they would have to be sacrificed to the gods before the kingdom would have corn again. Although the king was in despair, he did not want to disobey the gods and cause his kingdom to starve, so he decided to follow what he thought was the oracle’s advice.

Luckily, Nephele sent a protector into the castle walls to watch over her children. This protector was a ram with fleece made out of gold. The ram had been given to Nephele as a present from Zeus, and was faithful to the former queen and her children. As the day of the sacrifice dawned, the ram approached the children. It spoke to them, telling them that they must flee the kingdom immediately. It told them to climb on its back, which they did. The ram then sprang into the air and flew away, across the ocean. Helle fell off the Ram’s back and died in the sea. The place where she fell is called Hellesponte.

Phrixus survived, and later married into the royal family of Colchis, thus maintaining his noble status. In thanks to Zeus, he sacrificed the golden ram that had carried out the god’s wishes on Earth. Zeus hung the ram’s likeness in the sky to commemorate its bravery.

Taurus

Zeus loved women – both mortal and immortal. Of course, being a god, having affairs would have been a bit tricky. His wife, Hera, was watching him like a hawk. Therefore, Zeus sometimes needed to be somewhat roundabout in his courting because he was pursuing women that he should have stayed away from anyway, like young virgins or other men’s wives. Zeus’ favored method was to change himself into an animal and get close to the woman of his choice. One day, Zeus’ eye fell on the beautiful Europa, as she was out playing with a group of girls by the seashore. He changed himself into a white bull and  wandered up to Europa. Amazed by the beauty and gentleness of the bull, Europa played with her new pet and forgot about her friends. They gradually moved further away, leaving her alone with the bull who was Zeus. He lay down and she eagerly climbed on the bull’s back.

Zeus then plunged into the sea and swam away with Europa clinging to his back. Europa called to her friends for help, but it was too late. Zeus took her to the island of Crete where he changed back to his true form. He took Europa as his lover and she bore him three sons. To celebrate his success, Zeus placed the image of the bull in the sky to represent love, strength and beauty.

Gemini

Castor and Pollux were twins. Their mother, Leda, was one of Zeus’ many lovers, after which she had four children: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen of Sparta, who would later be the woman responsible for the fall of Troy. Castor and Pollux were members of the Argonauts, who set off with Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.

When Castor was killed in a struggle with the Leucippidae, Zeus sadly saw his death from Olympus. As the twins were among his favorite mortals, and he did not want to see them both go to Hades, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at the Leucippidae and killed them. Zeus then placed Pollux in the sky. But Pollux didn’t want to be immortal while his brother was still in Hades. So Zeus brought Castor up and reunite the brothers as Gemini, where they would be together forever.

Cancer

The Crab was originally called Carcinus (“crayfish”). It was big and lived underwater. Meanwhile, Heracles was in the middle of the Twelve Labors, his punishment for his crimes when he was driven insane by Hera. The gods decreed that even though he was not entirely responsible for the crimes he committed in his insanity, Heracles would still need to spend many years atoning for his sins – hence the twelve labors. Heracles was working for his broher, Eurystheus, who was quite happy to give him one impossible job after another. Heracles completed the tasks and in the course of his labors he gained glory and the favor of most of the Olympians, except Hera who decided to send Carcinus to attack him.

When Hera sent Carcinus to him, Heracles was fighting the Lernean Hydra, a giant fire-breathing snake with many heads. Each time Heracles cut off one head, two more would grow back in its place. Hera figured that Heracles would be too busy fighting the Hydra to pay attention to Carcinus, or at least if Carcinus distracted him, the Hydra would have an opportunity to finish him off.

In a bit of an anti-climax, Heracles killed Carcinus as soon as he saw him and, without missing a beat, turned his attention back to the Hydra. Hera, who watched the incident, took Carcinus and placed him in the heavens to show that she was grateful for his efforts.

Leo

Leo is a representative of a mythical monster. He represents the Nemean Lion which terrorized villages, scared young children and was impossible to kill. For one of his twelve labors, Heracles was sent to find the lion in its mountain lair and destroy it before it could completely wipe out the Nemean countryside.  Eurystheus wanted him to bring the lion’s hide back to the city as proof that he had actually killed it.

Heracles tried to kill it with his arrows. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the lion’s behind. Heracles then tried the sword. The sword broke. Then he wrestled the lion, strangling it with his bare hands and skinned it using its own claws. He made a cloak out of the lion’s skin and a helmet out of the head. Pictures of  Heracles almost  always show him clothed in the skin of the Nemean Lion. The spirit of the lion was placed in the sky as Leo.

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Virgo


During the Golden Age the gods and goddesses lived on Earth among men. Things began to change when Zeus became the king of the gods. Zeus may be indiscriminate in his choice of lady friends and would take female human lovers,  but he saw humans as lowly creatures, far beneath immortals, and should be treated as animals.

Prometheus, a Titan, became the protector of men and sided against Zeus. He even went so far as to steal fire from the Olympians and give it to humans. Zeus was outraged and chained Prometheus to the top of Mount Caucasus. Although Prometheus was later set free, Zeus was not finished with him, or the human race, yet. He sent down Pandora.Pandora’s box was filled with demons that torture humanity. After Pandora unleashed these demons, the remaining immortals on Earth quickly left for Olympus. The last one to leave was Astraea who loved earth the most. Although she went to the heavens, she still hopes to return to Earth, and she watches from the sky every night as Virgo waiting for the day when earth will be ready for her to return.

Libra

The legend of Libra originated in Egypt. Anubis, the Egyptian lord of the dead used a scale to weigh the souls of those who had died.

Anubis and his brother Apu-at watched over the two roads that led to the Underworld. Anubis would weigh the souls of the dead to determine their value based on what they had done on Earth and send worthy souls to the kingdom of Osiris, which was the equivalent to heaven. His attribute, the scales, was a symbol of final judgment. The Greeks retained this symbol as Libra.

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Scorpio

The Scorpion was a monster summoned by Artemis. She called the scorpion to destroy a giant named Orion. Orion was strong and handsome, but conceited, and always forget to show proper respect towards the deities. There are a couple of versions of how Orion managed to get Artemis cross. One  version says that he tried to force himself on one of her handmaidens. Another version says that he tried to force himself on Artemis herself who, being the virgin goddess, would have none of it. Another version says that he boasted that he was a better archer than Artemis.

Artemis ordered a giant scorpion to attack Orion. The scorpion stung Orion and killed him. Artemis placed the scorpion in the sky as a reward for doing her bidding. However, she was not finished with Orion. She also placed Orion in the heavens where he continues to run from the scorpion across the night sky for all eternity.

Sagittarius

The popular version of the legend of Sagittarius is that the Archer is Chiron, a centaur. Chiron was known for his wisdom, his caring nature and his ability to teach. The immortal centaur tutored young heroes Achilles and Jason, among others. Although he lived by himself in a cave in the countryside Chiron was renowned among the Greeks for his skills and wisdom.

When he was trying to wipe out some vicious centaurs who were plaguing the countryside, Heracles accidentally shot Chiron with an arrow. Chiron’s wound was incurable as Heracles’ arrows were tipped with the venom of the Lernean Hydra, which killed any victim it touched. However, Chiron was immortal. Although he was in terrible agony, Chiron could not die. Prometheus the Titan saw his plight and made him mortal thus enabling him to die. As he was so beloved by everyone, Chiron was immortalized as a constellation after his death.

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The Maidens and the Stars: Star Legends of Aboriginal Australia

In the Dreamtime, the cluster of stars which we know as the Pleiades were seven beautiful ice maidens. Their parents were a great mountain and an ice-cold stream that flowed from the hills. The seven sisters wandered across the land, their long hair flying behind them like storm clouds. Their beauty was so entrancing that every man who saw them fell in love with them instantly. But the maidens’ affections were cold.

One day a man named Wurrunnah captured two of the maidens and forced them to live with him while their five sisters travelled to their home in the sky. When Wurrunnah discovered that the sisters he had captured were ice maidens, thus could never return his affection, he was disappointed. So he took them to a camp fire to melt the cold crystals from their limbs, hoping to somehow turn them mortal. But as the ice melted, the water quenched the fire, and he succeeded only in dimming their brightness.

Disappointed as he was, Wurrunnah kept the two ice maidens captive and had them help him with chores around the house. The two sisters longed for their home in the clear blue sky. One day, Wurrunnah told them to gather pine-bark in the forest. After a short journey, they came to a great pine tree, and commenced to strip the bark from it. As they did so, the pine tree extended itself to the sky. The maidens climbed home to their sisters. However, they never regained their original brightness, and that is  why there are five bright stars and two dim ones in the group of the Pleiades.

Of all the men who loved the seven sisters, the Berai Berai (two brothers) were the most faithful. When the maidens set out on their long journey to the sky, the Berai Berai were grieved. They laid aside their weapons and mourned for the maidens until the dark shadow of death fell upon them. When they died, the fairies pitied them, and placed them in the sky, where they could hear the sisters singing. On a starry night, people can always see them listening to the song of the seven sisters. We know them as Orion’s Sword and Belt.

Rolla-Mano was the old man of the sea in Australian Aboriginal mythology. He ruled a great kingdom in the depths of the sea filled with shadows and strange forms. One day, Rolla-Mano went to fish in a lonely mangrove swamp close to the sea shore. He noticed two beautiful women approaching him and was determined to capture them. He hid in the branches of the mangrove tree, and, when the women were close to him he threw his net over them. One woman escaped by diving into the water. He was so enraged at her escape that he jumped in after her with a burning fire stick in his hand. As soon as the fire stick touched the water, the sparks hissed and scattered to the sky, where they remain as golden stars to this day.

Rolla-Mano never did caught the woman who dove into the dark waters of the swamp. He returned to the shore in a foul mood after a fruitless search and threw the other woman to the sky to forever separate her from her sister. That woman became the evening star. From her resting place, she gazes with dread through the mists of eternity at the restless sea – the dark, mysterious kingdom of Rolla-Mano, and with longing to the dark waters where her sister disappeared. On a clear summer night, when the sky is studded with golden stars, the people remember that they are the sparks from the fire stick of Rolla-Mano, and the beautiful evening star is the woman he captured in the trees of the mangrove swamp.

Deus Lunus: the Men of the Moon

Due to the influence of the Greek Artemis-Selene and the Latin Diana-Luna, we generally associate the moon with femininity. Among the Germanic nations, the moon is masculine and the sun feminine. It is the daughter of Sol, the Norse Sun-goddess, who in the regenerated world shall ride on her mother’s track when the gods are dead; and it is the god Mani, who at Ragnarok, the Twilight of the gods, shall be devoured by the Wolf of darkness, Managarmr (Moon-swallower), a reduplication of the terrible wolf Fenrir.

In Egypt, Chons is the personification of the moon. In this character, he is called Chonsaah or Chons the moon. His name seems to mean “the chaser,” or “pursuer”. He is said to be personified as the Unicorn who chases the Lion-sun. Another Kamic-lunar personage is Thoth, the weighing and measuring god as well as the lord of knowledge and writing. The crescent is found followed by the figure of Thoth in several hieroglyphic legends, with the phonetic name Aah.

Arabian mythology consider the moon masculine – a belief that survives to this day. In Sanskrit, the most current names for the moon, such as Kandra, Soma, Indu and Vidhu are masculine. The names of the moon are frequently used in the sense of month, and these and other names for month retain the same gender.

Yue Lao (old man under the moon), is a god of marriage and love in Chinese mythology. He is immortal and is said to live either in the moon or in the underworld. He appears at night, and unites with a silken cord all predestined couples, after which nothing can prevent their union.

During the Tang Dynasty, there was a young man named Wei Gu. Once he was passing the city of Songcheng, where he saw an old man leaning on his pack reading a book in the moonlight. Being amazed at it, Wei Gu walked up and asked what he was doing. The old man answered, “I am reading a book of marriage listing for who is going to marry whom. In my pack are red cords for tying the feet of husband and wife.” When Wei Gu and the old man came together to a marketplace, they saw a blind old woman carrying a three-year-old little girl in her arms. The old man said to Wei Gu, “This little girl will be your wife in the future.” Wei Gu was not too impressed by the looks of the little girl and thought this was too strange to believe. He ordered his servant to stab the girl with his knife.

Years later, a high official offered his daughter in marriage to Wei Gu who happily accepted and pleased that he finally found a wife. On the wedding night, he noticed a scar between her eye brows and enquired about it. His new wife told him about an incident where she was stabbed by a man in the City of Song. Wei Gu realized that his wife was that little girl whom he tried to kill – perhaps understandably, he never told his wife that he tried to have her murdered.

The cult of the Moon-god Mên in Asia Minor was widely established in Asia Minor. The Augustan History has the Roman emperor Carcalla (r. 198–217) venerate Lunus at Carrhae. This masculine variant of the feminine Latin noun luna (“Moon”), has been taken as a Latinized name for Mēn. The same source records the local opinion that anyone who believes the deity of the moon to be feminine shall always be subject to women, whereas a man who believes that the moon is masculine will dominate his wife.

Carcalla is also said to have visited the temple of Sin, the Babylonian and Assyrian Moon-god. The expression, “From the origin of the god Sin,” was used by the Assyrians to mark remote antiquity; because as chaos preceded order, so night preceded day, and the enthronement of the moon as the Night-king marks the commencement of the annals of cosmic order.

The Akkadian Moon-god, who corresponds with the Semitic Sin, is Aku, the Seated-father, as chief supporter of kosmic order. Among the Finns, Kuu is the male god of the moon,  and exactly corresponds with Aku. It is singular to find also Kua as a moon-name in Central Africa.

Among the Mbocobis of South America, the moon is a man and the sun his wife. Amongst the Mexicans, Metztli, the Moon, was a hero. According to an Australian legend, Mityan, the Moon, was a native cat [male], who fell in love with some one else’s wife, and was driven away to wander ever since. The Khasias of the Himalaya say that the moon [male] falls monthly in love with his mother-in-law, who throws ashes in his face, which explains the spots we see on the moon.

Sol et Luna: Creation Myths of the Sun and the Moon

A solar creation myth from Japan contains a reference to a floating cloud in the midst of infinite space, before matter had taken any other form. This also nicely describes the original nebula from which scientists say the solar system was evolved. The legend says that when there was no heaven, earth, sun, or moon, there was only the Invisible Lord of the Middle Heaven existing in an infinite space. With him there were two other gods. Between them, they created a floating cloud in the midst of which was a liquid formless and lifeless mass from which the earth was evolved.

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After this, seven generations of gods were born in heaven – the last and most perfect were Izanagi and Izanami who went on to become the parents of the world and all that is in it. After the creation of the world of living things, Izanagi bathed his left eye and sprang Amaterasu, the great Sun-Goddess. Izanagi rejoiced and put a necklace of jewels he around her neck. He said to her, “Rule thou over the Plain of High Heaven.” Thus Amaterasu became the source of all life and light worshipped by mankind. Then Izanagi he bathed his right eye, and there appeared Tsukuyomi,the Moon-God. Izanagi said, “Rule thou over the Dominion of Night.”

In Norse mythology, Odin arranged the periods of daylight and darkness, and the seasons. He placed the sun and moon in the heavens, and regulated their respective courses. Day and Night were considered mortal enemies as light came from above, and darkness from beneath. However, there is another version which says that the sun and moon were formed from the sparks from the fire land of Muspelheim. The father of the two luminaries was Mundilfare, and he named his beautiful boy and girl, Maane (Moon) and Sol (Sun). The gods took his children from him and placed them in the heavens, where they permitted Sol to drive the horses of the sun, and gave over the regulation of the moon’s phases to Maane.

Among the Eskimos of Behring Strait, the creation of the earth and all it contains is attributed to the Raven Father. The Raven Father came from the sky after a great deluge. He made the dry ground and created human and animal life. But mankind threatened the animal life, and this so annoyed the Raven Father that he punished man by taking the sun out of the sky, and hiding it in a bag at his home. The people were frightened at the loss of the sun, and offered rich gifts to the Raven Father to appease him. So he relented somewhat, and would hold the sun up in one hand for a day or two at a time, so that the people could have sufficient light for hunting, and then he would put it back in his bag again. This arrangement, though better than nothing, was not satisfactory to people. The Raven’s brother took pity on them, and thought of a scheme to better human conditions. He faked his death, and after he had been buried and the mourners had gone away, he came forth from the grave, and turned himself into a leaf which floated on the surface of a stream. Later, the Raven’s wife came to the stream for a drink and, dipping up the water, she swallowed with it the leaf. The Raven’s wife soon after gave birth to a boy who cried continuously for the sun. To silence him, his father often gave him the sun to play with. One day, the boy flew away with the sun and placed it in its proper place in the sky. He also regulated its daily course, making day and night, so that the people always have the constant light of the sun to guide them by day.

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The ancient Peruvians believed that the god Viracocha rose out of Lake Titicaca, made the sun, moon and stars, then regulated their courses. The Muyscas, who inhabited the high plains of Bogota, was said to have lived in a state of savagery before the arrival of an old bearded man from the east named Bochica (the Sun) who taught them agriculture and the worship of the gods. However, his wife Huythaca was not pleased with his attentions to mankind and caused a great deluge which drowned most of the inhabitants of the earth. This, of course, angered Bochica. He drove his wife away from the earth by turning her into the Moon. He then dried up the earth, and once more made it habitable for mankind to live in.

According to Mexican tradition, Nexhequiriac was the creator of the world. He sent down the Sun-God and the Moon-God to illuminate the earth, so that mankind could see to perform their daily tasks. The Sun-God went on his way without delay, but the Moon-God, who was hungry, saw a rabbit and started chasing it. This, of course, took some time. After he caught and ate the rabbit, the Moon-God looked up and found his brother, the Sun-God, had outdistanced him. The Sun-God was, in fact, so far ahead, so that thereafter the Moon-God was unable to overtake him. This is also the reason why the sun always appears to be ahead of the moon, and why the sun always looks fresh and red, and the moon sick and pale. Those who gaze intently at the moon can still see the rabbit dangling from his mouth.

According to the Tonga tribe, of the South Pacific Islands, before there was any light upon the earth, Vatea and Tonga-iti argued about which one of them was the parent of a child. Each was confident the child was his and to end the dispute they decided to share it. The infant was then cut in two. Vatea took the upper half as his share, and squeezing it into a ball tossed it up into the sky where it became the sun. Tonga-iti allowed his share, the lower part of the infant, to remain on the ground for a day or two, but seeing the brightness of Vatea’s half, he squeezed his share too, and threw it up into the dark sky when the sun was absent in the underworld, and it became the moon. Thus the sun and the moon were created, and the paleness of the moon is due to the fact that all the blood was drained out of it when it lay on the ground.

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The Comfort of Mystery: In Defense of Mythology

We often hear something being dismissed as “just a myth” to imply that it is not true. In fact, “myth” and “truth” are often seen as opposites. If it is not analysed, written down in reports and be seen or heard, then it is a myth (“pics or it didn’t happen!” as young people like to say). For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more incredible elements and contradictions, see them as fabrications to be discarded because we like to think that we are too “sophisticated” to believe in something so ridiculous. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. When recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely, some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology. Love, hate, empathy, aversion, hunger, greed, altruism and all the other positive and negative aspects of being human are also facts. To ignore them by putting everything into numbers is to treat people as insensate objects and their lives as mechanical conditioned responses. This is a statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.

 Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family into which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents, grandparents or siblings. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false. Rather, a myth attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format long before art, language or the written word.

Of course, there are certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. However, we understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions – two things we cannot measure even if we tried. The stories of Icarus, for example, resonates with us because we have all experienced within ourselves tendencies to fly too high or to force things only to crash and burn. Although no myth can completely represent all of human experience as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience which it is meant to represent. It is like a map which captures only important features of the terrain but not every detail of the terrain it represents. Just like looking at maps, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the colorful adventures of the deities or heroes. Although mythology is not a literal description of a culture’s history, we can still use myths to explore the culture itself and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask – who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?

Truthfully, human beings are never meant to be totally rational. We therefore crave a bit of mystery to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world.  To lend this comfort of mystery, humanity have had deities for many aspects of life. The Egyptians had more than 2000 deities while the Hindus have 333 million. The Irish honored both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River (Logia). There are deities for cities (such as Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and many more. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture, love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, gambling, drunkenness and the toilet. Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object and emotion, lending a bit of their magic into what would have been rather mundane and tedious interactions.

Myths also bring out our sense of protectiveness. Mistakes in relating mythological stories may meet with sneers or even anger. Much like a family member being misunderstood or criticized, we stand by our myth because we know that it is our root, the culture from where we came.

Like the lack of sense of family or community, a lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement and cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. As myths are necessary, and we neglected to preserve most of the ancient ones, our modern society develops its own myths. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress” or “freedom”) and in larger-than-life celebrities. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions and we project the “hero” archetype onto other people. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” with the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggression of Ares when he stepped into the boxing ring. Through all these reverence, we somewhat conveniently leave out the fact that Albert Einstein failed every exams he had ever attempted in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a peaceful man off the ring – in short, they were all human: complicated, vulnerable and fragile. But to understand and relate to them, we amplify aspects of them that are easiest for us to understand.

There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes. We each have our own mythology which we create. We have things and people which are important and valued to us personally. We are heroes in our “mythical journeys” by which we romanticize our various passages through life. The truly satisfying and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions and our own visions. It just so happens that those myths have existed since the ancient times one way or the other.

Cupid and Psyche: Love Cannot Live where There is No Faith

A beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about Venus, who is supposed to be the most beautiful being ever. Jealous, Venus plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.

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“Cupid and Psyche” by François Gérard  (1770 – 1837)

Meanwhile, Psyche’s family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Although this is not the most appealing offer in the world, Psychefaithfully follows the instructions. She waits until she falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.

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” Le ravissement de Psyché ” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 -1905)

After that, she never sees him in the light. But she lives happily with him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.

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“Cupid and Psyche”, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754 – 1829)

When she sees Cupid asleep on her bed, she immediately realizes what she has done.  Cupid awakens and leaves her because Love cannot live where there is no faith.

Celebrating Ancient Valentine: She-Wolf, Politics and Whippings

Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14. It is recognized as a celebration of romance in many regions around the world.

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This holiday that evolved to what we know as Valentine’s Day today was a very ancient pre-Roman pastoral festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city. According to Plutarch, from February 13th to 15th romantic Roman fellows stripped naked, grabbed some goat-skin whips and whipped consenting young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.

This festival was Lupercalia, said to be connected to the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to the Roman god Faunus. The Greek word λύκος (lukos) means “wolf”, so does the Latin word lupus. Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin word lupus (“wolf”), as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was also slang for prostitute.

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Conrad Dressler (1856-1940) – Lupercalia (1907)

However, Lupercus was only a part of the celebration. The Lupercalia festival was best known as a celebration in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, which explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”). According to tradition, the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus established the Lupercalia with two gentes, one for each brother. Each gens then contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter’s priest in charge from at least the time of Emperor Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci (“brothers of the wolf”).

The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilii, representing Romulus and gens Fabii, representing Remus. The Fabii were almost annihilated in 479 CE at Cremera and the most famous member of the Quinctilii has the distinction of being the Roman leader at the disastrous battle at Teutoberg Forest. In 44 BCE, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival – an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd.

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The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.

Although striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure,  there was also a decidedly sexual component.  Symbolically, if the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was also to represent penetration. Of course, the husbands would not have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival’s inception. After 276 BCE, young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. In his time, Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked.

The cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification – February. Since early in Roman history March was the start of the New Year, the period of February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new.

It’s this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine’s Day holiday. However, the ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century CE. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But that didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love. Coincidentally, around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” This was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound similar.

Valentine'S Day, Chocolates, Candy

Can We Really Trust the Rat? 6 reasons the rat came in first in the race of the legendary Chinese Zodiacs

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The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka

There are many versions and stories popular in different regions of China about the legend of the Chinese Zodiac. Why were there twelve animals in the zodiac calendar and where did the order come from? How did the rat get first place and the dragon come in fifth? Consensus seemed to say the rat cheated which, according to at least three of the versions, he totally did! But, then again, the following versions are only six out of probably thousands, so I may be a tad unfair to the little beast.

  1. The 12 animals came to bid Buddha farewell.

Buddha summoned all of the animals of the earth to come before him before his departure from this earth, but only 12 animals actually came to say goodbye. To reward them,  named a year after each of them. The years were given to them in the order they had arrived.

  • The rat forgot to wake the cat up and ditched the ox

The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. The cat and the rat were good friends, so when they heard this news, the cat asked the rat to wake him up very early the next day so they could get in early together. The rat said yes. So the two happy little animals slept excitedly that night.

But then, in the morning, the rat was too excited to remember his promise and went straight to the gathering place. On the way, he saw the tiger, ox, horse, and other bigger animals that ran much faster. To catch up with him the rat thought of an idea. “That ox fellow is pretty quick for a big guy!” So he decided to trick the ox. The rat told the ox to let him jump onto his back so that he could sing to him and make their journey to the gathering place more pleasant. The ox agreed. Soon without knowing, the ox was walking to the signing post, forgetting the rat on his back. When they reached there, the rat jumped off and claimed first place. The ox and the rest followed.

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he Garden of the Chinese zodiac in Kowloon Walled City Park
  • The rat forgot to sign in on behalf of the cat and got into the elephant’s trunk.

In this story, it was the Yellow Emperor who wanted to select twelve guards The rat told the cat that he’d get there early to sign up for the both of them. But then rat completely forgot., or maybe he intentionally didn’t do it for the cat. Either way, the attending animals were  requested to have a swimming race and the  elephant also participated. The rat didn’t fancy getting drowned, so he decided to hitch a ride on the big elephant. Since the elephant was too big and round, the mouse could only got into its trunk. The elephant ran away in fright, and centuries later elephants are still afraid of rats.

  • The rat didn’t cheat, but he had the correct amount of toes.

Many famous scholars in history had their own interpretations about this. Hong Xun from the Song dynasty based his theory on the Yin and Yang Theory. Among the twelve animals – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig – rat, tiger, dragon, monkey and dog have five toes. Five is an odd number which is thought to be in yang side (or positive). Horse has one toe, also an odd number. Others animals have toes of even numbers which are thought to be yin, negative. Snake has no toe but its tongue has two tips in even number. Ying and yang animal signs were interlaced. The rat’s forepaws have four toes and hindpaws have five toes, with both odd and even numbers. For such a special creature among the twelve animals, he won the first place.

  • The rat was the hero who started the world.

In the Chinese mythology about the origin of world, the universe was dark and shaped like an egg before the earth and heaven were separated. It was the rat that bit a crack and let the air in. He was the hero who started the world.

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Jade Dragon Temple, Malaysia
  • The animals arrived according to their natures.

The cat and the rat were the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although they were poor swimmers, they were both quite intelligent. To get to the meeting called by the Jade Emperor, they had to cross a river to reach the meeting place. The Jade Emperor had also decreed that the years on the calendar would be named for each animal in the order they arrived to the meeting. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the ox, who agreed to carry them both across. Midway across the river, the rat pushed the cat into the water. Then as ox neared the other side of the river, the rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first. So he claimed first place.

The ox followed closely behind him and earned second place. Then came the tiger, panting, explaining to the Jade Emperor how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But he made it to the shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.

Suddenly, the rabbit arrived. He jumped from one stone to another nimbly. Halfway through, he almost lost the race, but he grabbed hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. He became the 4th animal in the Zodiac cycle. In 5th place was the dragon. He  had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, and therefore was held back. Then, on his way to the finish, he saw a little helpless rabbit clinging onto a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore.

Then the horse appeared. Hidden on the horse’s hoof was the snake, whose sudden appearance gave the horse a fright, making it fall back and the snake slithered into the 6th spot, while the horse placed 7th.

Not long after that, the goat, the monkey and the rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the goat and the monkey cleared the weeds and pulled until the raft got to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the emperor named the goat as the 8th creature, the monkey as the 9th, and the rooster the 10th.

The dog was the 11th animal. He was supposed to be the best swimmer,  but he couldn’t resist the temptation to play a little longer in the river. Just as the Jade Emperor was about to call it a day, a little pig arrived. The pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast and then fell asleep. After the nap, he continued the race and was named the 12th animal of the zodiac cycle. The cat drowned and never made it in the zodiac. Centuries later, cats always chase rats, to get back at them for tricking them out of their chance of being a zodiac.

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Fung Ying Sen Koon temple Chinese Zodiac statue heads

The Sisters of Fire and Water

When the Hawaiian sea goddess Namakaokahai met the mighty sorcerer, Aukelenuiaiku, she was impressed by his warrior spirit. Soon, she married him, showed him all her forms and taught him her magical powers.

Unfortunately, after their marriage, Aukelenuiaiku was seduced by another woman. To add insult to injury, that woman was none other than Namakaokahai’s own younger sister, Pele. It is one of the odd mysteries of life that when a man was unfaithful to his wife, the wife would first blame the other woman. Such was the case with Namakaokahai and Pele. Overcomed with rage, Namakaokahai sent high tides and floods to destroy Pele’s home. Pele fled but could not escape her sister’s wrath.


Pele’s help came in the form of her oldest brother Kamohoali’i, the god of the sharks. He gave her a great canoe to escape. Accompanied by her brother and her favorite sister Hi’iaka, she traveled far from home, over the wide expanse of the seas, sailing on this great canoe eventually to find Hawaii. 

Pursued by Namakaokahai, Pele landed first on Kauai. However, every time she thrust her o’o (digging stick) to dig a put for her home, Namakaokahai would flood the pits. Pele moved down the chain of islands until eventually landing on Mauna Loa – the tallest mountain on earth. As even the sea goddess herself could not send the ocean’s waves high enough on Mauna Loa to drown Pele, Pele established her home on its slopes. She pronounced the cliff on nearby Kilauea Mountain as sacred to her eldest brother Kamohoali’i, who saved her life. Kamohoali’i became the keeper of the gourd that held the water of life which gave him the power to revive the dead. Out of respect for Kamohoali’i, to this day Pele never allows clouds of volcanic steam to touch his cliff. Her other brothers who accompanied her on her journey also still appear on the Big Island mountain. Kanehekili appears as thunder, Kapohoikahiola as explosions, Keua’akepo in showers of fire, and Keoahikamakaua in spears of lava that escape from fissures during eruptions.

Pele may not have been on the best of terms with her older sister, but perhaps sometimes it is better to argue with your family instead of being a complete stranger to them. From her new home, Pele engaged in battles with Namakaokahai. To this day, Pele’s eruptions from Hawaii Island’s volcanoes flow thick and hot till they reach the sea — symbolizing the match in strength between the sisters of fire and water.

Image by Adrian Malec from Pixabay

Is Life Easier for Beautiful People? Great Men, Evil Women and Standards of Beauty

In Canada in 2014, the rather beautiful Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of the older, somewhat less Disney prince-like, then-prime minister Stephen Harper with 38 percent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most versus 31 percent weighing in for Harper and 30 percent for Tom Mulcair – this was despite Trudeau’s own lack of experience and sustained political attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. Sensing trouble, the other political party tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative adding the qualifier “Nice hair, though”. But in doing so, they unwittingly drew attention to a powerful trait that Trudeau had to smooth over voters’ uncertainty. Thanks to this, Trudeau’s physical presentation became his most recognizable feature, setting him apart from his competitors and filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his experience and trustworthiness. When the time came, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shorty after this, he and his also beautiful wife appeared on the pages of Vogue.

As much as our parents like to tell us to not judge a book by its covers (ignoring the fact that most books with ugly covers aren’t flying off the shelves), or “it’s the inside that counts” (as if anyone ever fall in love with a particularly attractive pair of kidneys), we cannot deny that beauty is power. For thousands of years, philosophers and poets marvel at the mysterious power of beautiful people. Each trying to come up with the best way to describe what “beauty” is, giving it numerous other qualities beyond that which we can see such as “a certain something”, “aura”, “sex appeal”, “inner beauty” etc. In the 1960s, a psychological research reveal we tend to persuade ourselves of the greatness of people who we consider as beautiful. We happily project virtues onto the beautiful person without the slightest knowledge of whether or not they possess them. Study after study has shown that we assume beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and more trustworthy even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces. 

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, Plato says. But even Plato must have noticed that those beholders have strangely similar tastes relating to facial and body symmetry. He would have realized, then, that agreement on what is “beautiful” is often consistent within nationalities and ethnic groups. For example, women in Egyptian art are often depicted as slim with high waists and narrow hips, ideally with dark black hair and golden skin. In Ancient Greece, however, the ideal woman was light skinned and plump. Plato also tells us tells us the three wishes of every Greek: to be healthy, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Ancient Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two deities of beautiful physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.

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Adonis by Rinaldo Rinaldi at Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The rules of beauty were all important in ancient Greece especially for the men. This was, of course, fabulous news for men who were buff and pretty. A full-lipped, chiselled man in Ancient Greece understood that his beauty was a gift of the gods and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection, he therefore had no qualms in spending more than eight hours at the gym every day to maximize his gifts. For the ancient Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. 

This did not apply to the ladies. Although being a beautiful man was good news, being a beautiful woman spelt trouble. That charming fellow Hesiod described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon (“the beautiful-evil thing”). The woman was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. But what is this “evil” that women had? Helen of Troy gives us an example. Her “evil” beauty was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she “made” men feel and what she “made” men do. When we first meet Helen in book three of Homer’s Iliad. The old men sing about her “Oh what beauty!”. “Terrible beauty – beauty like that of a goddess” – meaning that Helen has the kind of presence that drives men to distraction. Helen’s beauty, in the ancient world, was a weapon of mass destruction. The “evil” of women’s physical beauty is also emphasised in a famous anecdote about Phyrne. Phyrne was the young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles. She was also the model for some of his most beautiful works. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, Phyrne called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, were then also forced to wash their faces. Young and naturally beautiful, Phyrne of course looked none the worse, but her older companions had to spend an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.

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Phyrne, Walters Art Museum

This “eyes of the beholder” business that Plato talked about is also surprisingly specific and modern. One might remember the awful “thigh gap” fashion which started in 2013. We also have that search for the “perfect nipple” in 2017. Nipples that occupied between 25 and 30 percent of the breast were rated highest in terms of desirability. At the top of customers’ cosmetic surgery wish lists is having a symmetrical pair of nipples, despite the fact that most women have asymmetric nipples to go with their also asymmetric breasts. Second on the wish list is making the size of the nipple and areola (the pigmented area surrounding it) smaller. Those are just two examples of our many modern preoccupation with the “ideal” beauty.

The ancient Greeks also recognized specific characteristics as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead, a low forehead and perfect eyebrows called “eyebrows of grace” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose – a feature which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today as we call it “unibrow”. The mouth admired by the Greeks was naturally reddish, with the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper lip. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, should be dimple-free.

The ancient Greek housewives were somewhat exempt from this fuss. As Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.” The use of makeup of enhance one’s appearance was therefore limited to the hetaera (courtesans) as a plain housewife was preferable.

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The Dahuting Tomb ( 打虎亭汉墓) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In Asia, in the Han Dynasty of China (c. 206 BC – 220 AD) very slim women with long black hair and red lips were favoured. While the Japanese Heian beauty included pale skin, round and rosy cheeks, and little bow lips. In pre-modern Chinese literature, the ideal man in caizi jiaren romances was said to have “rosy lips, sparkling white teeth” and a “jasper-like face”.

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By Yashima Gakutei (Japan, 1786 -1868)

Despite the obvious perks of being beautiful, Bob Dylan was right when he said that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” The public tends to be more scathing and less forgiving when a person perceived to be beautiful made mistakes and show weaknesses as they hold this person to a higher standard. This also works the other way. The world’s most incompetent politicians and worst dictators in history tend to be quite unattractive with hideous haircuts. Although no one really expect people with such serious and demanding jobs to look like supermodels,  these politicians would have had access to the best barbers in their countries – therefore, they really had no excuse to have their hairs looking so ridiculous. One can only assume that they were so miserable to live with that the people in their lives may have let them out of the house looking like that as a form of payback. However, they seemed to enjoy a higher degree of freedom as they tend be held to a much lower standard and able to get away with so much more than their more beautiful counterparts.