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.

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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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