Many of the signs got their names from various Greek and Roman legends, but some predate even those cultures. Explore the mythology of your sign.
March 21 – April 19
Athamas, a king in the land of Croneus, had a son, Phrixus, and a daughter, Helle, by his first wife, Nephele. Eventually he grew tired of his first wife, as kings often did and still do. He sent Nephele away and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes. Ino also bore two children to the king, and over time she grew hideously jealous of Nephele's children. She wanted the kingdom for her own sons and decided to use treachery and deceit to get it.
Corn was the major crop of the kingdom at the time, and a good corn harvest meant that the people and animals of the kingdom would be well fed in the months to come. Knowing this, Ino convinced the women of the kingdom to roast the seeds of corn before the men planted them in the field. She managed to hide what she had done from the men. Naturally, when the ruined corn failed to grow, no one thought to blame her. As was the custom at the time, the king decided to consult an oracle to see what he could do to appease the gods and bring back the crops. He sent messengers to the oracle, and the devious Ino paid off the messengers, bribing them into lying about its advice.
According to the messenger, Phrixus and Helle were the cause of the famine. They would have to be sacrificed to the gods before the kingdom would have corn again. Of course, 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 was fearful for her children's safety, and had sent a protector into the castle walls to watch over them. This protector was not a person, but 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. It warned them to hold on tight, and then the ram sprang into the air and flew away, across the ocean. Helle, who was weaker than her brother, fell off the Ram's back and to her death in the sea. The place where she fell is called Hellesponte.
Phrixus survived, and ended up marrying 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. Phrixus hung the ram's fleece in a special spot in Colchis, where it would be the theme of legends to come. Zeus hung the ram's likeness in the sky to commemorate its bravery, and it shines there to this very day.
April 20 – May 20
Zeus was a lover of women, both mortal and immortal. Of course, he was sometimes hard put to escape the watchful eye of his wife, Hera. He also was unable to appear in his true form, as he would strike too much fear into the hearts of mortal men and women. Truth be told, he sometimes needed to be somewhat roundabout in his courting because he was pursuing women that ought not to be pursued -- such as young virgins or other men's wives. One of Zeus' favorite methods was to change himself into an animal of one sort or another, thus allowing himself to escape notice and get close to the woman of his choice.
One day, Zeus' eye fell on the beautiful maiden, Europa, as she was out playing with a group of girls by the seashore. Knowing that she and her friends would be terrified if a strange man or god approached them, he changed himself into a beautiful white bull. He then wandered up to Europa, who was so amazed by the beauty and gentleness of the creature before her that she forgot all caution. She petted and played with her new pet, forgetting 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.
This is what Zeus had been waiting for. He 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. Zeus hung the image of the bull in the heavens, where it represents love, strength and beauty.
May 21 – June 21
The third constellation in the zodiac represents two heroic Greek brothers named Castor and Pollux. The brothers were twins, according to many accounts, although it is hard to determine their actual parentage. Their mother, Leda, was one of Zeus' many love affairs, after which she had four children: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra and the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Castor and Pollux are sometimes known as the Dioscuri, meaning 'sons of Zeus' or the Tyndarides, meaning 'sons of Tyndareus,' the man who was Leda's actual husband.
Castor and Pollux were legendary adventurers and fighters. They were members of the Argonauts, the group of brave young men who set off with Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. The two brothers are also known for their constant rivalry with Theseus of Athens. Theseus, in fact, kidnapped their sister Helen one day and locked her up in Athens. When Theseus was away attending to other business, Castor and Pollux stormed the city and took Helen back.
As may seem fitting, the twins died fighting while they were still relatively young. Castor was killed in a struggle with the Leucippidae, who were actually cousins of his. Zeus saw the struggle and the death from his place in the heavens. The twins were among his favorite mortals, and Zeus did not want to see them both go to Hades, so he hurled a thunderbolt at the Leucippidae and killed them. Then he took Pollux up to the heavens. Pollux did not want to be immortal while his brother was still in Hades. He begged Zeus to bring his brother up to the sky. Zeus finally consented, whereupon the brothers reunited and remained together forever.
June 22 – July 22
The Crab is the first symbol of the zodiac to be placed there by an immortal other than Zeus. The deed was done by a servant of Zeus' queen, Hera. This crab was also not a particularly benevolent creature while on Earth. It was originally called Carcinus, which is Greek for 'crayfish.' It dwelled underwater, and was huge and rather malevolent.
This crab was sent by Hera to plague the Greek hero Heracles, who she hated. Heracles was in the middle of the Twelve Labors, his punishment for crimes committed as a young man. In a fit of madness -- which was placed on him by Hera herself -- he had killed his wife and young sons. The gods decreed that even though he wasn't entirely responsible for the crime, he would need to spend many years atoning for his sins.
They put him in the service of his brother, Eurystheus, who was more than happy to set him to task after task, all of which seemed impossible to accomplish. Heracles was no ordinary man, and in the course of his labors he gained glory, renown and the favor of most of the Olympians. Hera, however, remained implacable in her hatred.
At the time when Hera sent the giant crab to attack Heracles, the hero was fighting a much more terrible foe. This beast was the Lernean Hydra. It was a giant fire-breathing snake with many heads. Each time Heracles cut off one head, two more would grow back in its place. Hera thought that Heracles would be too busy fighting the Hydra to pay attention to the giant crab, or that if the crab distracted him, the Hydra would have an opportunity to finish him.
Unfortunately for the crab (and the Hydra), Hera was mistaken. Heracles killed Carcinus easily, then turned his attention back to the Hydra. Hera, who had watched the incident, did not forget the animal that had died at her command. She placed it in the heavens to show that she was grateful for its efforts.
July 23 – August 22
The fifth group of stars in the zodiac, much like the sign of Cancer, is representative of a mythical monster fought by the great Heracles. This monster was the Nemean Lion. The valley of Nemea had been terrorized by the beast, which was thought to be impossible to kill.
The First Labor of Heracles was to find the lion in its mountain lair and destroy it before it could completely wipe out the Nemean countryside. Once he had killed the lion, his brother and taskmaster Eurystheus wanted him to bring its hide back to the city as proof that he had actually accomplished the task.
Heracles sought out the lion and immediately tried to kill it, first with his arrows, then with his giant sword. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the lion's hide, and the sword broke. When Heracles realized that the lion's hide was truly impenetrable, he decided to kill it using brute force. He wrestled the lion, strangling it with his bare hands. Then, he skinned it using its own claws and carried it triumphantly to Eurystheus. His brother panicked and ran when he saw the lion's remains. He told Heracles to leave his spoils outside the city gates in the future.
Heracles took the lion's carcass away. He made a cloak out of the skin and a helmet out of the head. Pictures of him nearly always show him clothed in the skin of the Nemean Lion. The spirit of the lion was placed in the sky, where, no longer deadly, it has become beautiful.
August 23 – September 22
This constellation is said to be the figure of a goddess, not an animal or a human. According to Greek legend, during the Golden Age (often thought to be under Titan rule instead of Olympian) the gods and goddesses lived on Earth among men. Things began to change in the beginning of the Olympian era. Zeus was a harsh and strict ruler during these times, as many new rulers tend to be. He saw humans as rather lowly creatures who were far beneath immortals, and in fact 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. Outraged, Zeus chained Prometheus to the top of the Caucasus Mountains, intending to leave him there forever. However, Zeus was not finished punishing Prometheus -- or the human race -- yet. He sent down Pandora, the first woman. Ancient Greeks believed that women were the source of all evil and discomfort.
The symbolic representation of women's corruption of humanity is Pandora's Box, which was filled with all the demons that torture humanity, from greed to spite. After Pandora unleashed these demons, the remaining immortals on Earth quickly departed for Olympus. The last one to leave was Astraea, the daughter of Zeus and Themis. She was also the sister of Pudicitia, or Modesty. Astraea was the goddess of virtue. Although she went to the heavens, she still hopes to return to Earth, and she watches from the sky every night to see when earth will be ready for her to return.
September 23 – October 22
Libra, the Scales, obviously dates back to the predecessors of the Greeks. The legend of this sign seems to originate in Egypt, where the Egyptian lord of the dead used a scale to weigh the souls of those who had died.
Anubis is portrayed with the head of a jackal. He 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.
Anubis sent worthy souls to the kingdom of Osiris, which was the equivalent of what the modern era refers to as heaven. He could be seen as a benevolent deity in this respect. However, he could also be seen as a dark and terrible figure from whom there was no escape. His attribute, the scales, was a symbol of final judgment. It was only appropriate that the Greeks allowed them to retain their place and legend in the heavens.
October 23 – November 21
The Scorpion was another monster summoned at the will of a wrathful goddess. Instead of Hera, though, it was Artemis, who called upon the creature to destroy Orion.
Orion was not a human, but a giant. As such, he was more than mortal, but less than a god or goddess. He was the son of Poseidon, the sea god, and is often supposed to be the son of Gaia, as were all giants. Orion was prodigiously strong and very beautiful, but he shared the fatal flaw of many traditional Greek heroes: He thought much too highly of himself and forgot to show proper respect toward the immortals.
It is not clear what Orion did to anger Artemis. According to one version, he tried to rape one of her handmaidens. According to another, he may have tried to force himself on Artemis herself. Perhaps he simply boasted that he was a better archer than she was. Of all the goddesses, however, Artemis may have been the worst one to cross. She was the goddess of the hunt and the goddess of revenge, and she was ruthless and violent once angered.
She became furious with Orion's impudence and commanded a giant scorpion to attack him. The scorpion stung Orion and killed him. Artemis placed her servant in the heavens as a reward for doing her bidding. Because of Orion's parentage, he could not go to Hades. He was placed in the heavens as well, where he continues to flee across the night sky, away from the poisonous scorpion.
November 22 – December 21
The Archer, as the constellation is called, commemorates one of the more heroic figures of the zodiac. This mythical figure is Chiron, the kindest and gentlest of the Centaurs. Centaurs were half man, half horse. Although many of them were stupid and violent.
Chiron was known for his wisdom, his caring nature and his ability to teach. He was immortal; his father was Kronos and his mother was a daughter of the sea god Oceanus. Chiron tutored the young Greek heroes Achilles and Jason, among others. He was renowned among the Greeks, although he lived by himself in a cave in the countryside.
Heracles shot him with an arrow by accident. The hero had been trying to wipe out the other vicious centaurs who were plaguing the countryside. He had no intention of shooting Chiron, and was extremely remorseful. Although Chiron used his medical skills on the wound, it was incurable. Heracles' arrows were tipped with the deadly venom of the Lernean Hydra, which killed any victim it touched.
But the centaur was an immortal, which changed the situation. Chiron was in terrible agony, but he could not die, although he wanted to. Prometheus the Titan saw his plight and managed to help him. It is not clear what exchange Prometheus and Chiron made, but the Titan made Chiron mortal, and enabled him to leave the Earth and go up to the heavens.
December 22 – January 19
This constellation is one that has retained a mythological explanation that predates the Greeks. Capricorn, the Seagoat, is thought to be the image of a powerful Babylonian deity named Ea. He has the lower half of a fish and the head and torso of a goat.
The god lived in the ocean. He came out every day to watch over the land, and he returned to the sea every night. The Greek version of this legend does not match with the physical description of the Seagoat. Greeks thought that the starry figure was Pan, a Greek demigod. Pan had the upper half of a man, but he had the legs of a goat. He was the son of Hermes and a forest nymph.
According to legend, when the nymph saw her strange baby, she shrieked in fear and ran away. Hermes, however, loved his strange son. He took him to Olympus, where the other gods and goddesses also took a liking to Pan. He became the god of shepherds and flocks, taking the responsibility from his father. He did not dwell on Olympus; he preferred to live among the shady trees in the mountains. He amused himself by playing his beloved reed pipes (known as Panpipes), or by chasing nymphs through the woods.
January 20 – February 18
In many ancient cultures, including Babylonian, Egyptian and Grecian, there was a god known as the 'Water Bearer' or 'Water Pourer.' Water is the bringer and sustainer of all life; therefore the force that made water rain down from the heavens was among the most revered by ancient peoples. In Greek legend, Zeus was the Water Bearer. Although he was the god of many things, one of his most important roles was as the god of storms. The constellation Aquarius could have originally been representative of Zeus as the Water Bearer.
Another myth, probably of more recent origin, is the myth of Deucalion, the only man to survive the Great Flood. The story of this flood is very similar to the Judeo-Christian legend of Noah's Ark. It took place during the time named by Greek legendas the Iron Age.
As the story goes, during the Iron Age, humanity had become more savage than the wildest animals. Brother fought against brother, sons killed fathers, and no one was safe on the roads or in their own home. Both men and women were violent, bloodthirsty and utterly without morals. The words of the gods meant little or nothing to them, and no one would repent for their sins. Zeus, despairing for humankind, sent a great flood upon the Earth. The flood destroyed all the people in the world -- with the exception of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha.
Zeus had noticed this couple during his last visit to Earth. They lived alone in a simple hut. They had almost no food, and definitely had no material goods. Despite this, they fed Zeus, gave him shelter for the night and spoke kindly to him, even though they had no idea that he was a god. They were the last godly people on Earth, so Zeus allowed them to survive the flood. After it ended, he helped them to create a new race of men, which was supposed to be stronger and better. Deucalion is known as the 'Water Bearer' because he not only lived through the flood, but he helped to bring life to a new generation.
February 19 – March 20
This constellation, the last in the zodiac, is associated with a Greek legend about Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, and her son Eros, the god of love. The two were walking along a river one day when the terrible monster Typhon suddenly rose up out of the water, intent on their destruction.
Typhon was ancient and awful. He is alternately identified as the offspring of Gaia and Tartaros, of Hera and Kronos or of Hera alone. No matter what his parentage, Typhon was as strong as a Titan, and therefore as strong as the Olympians. He was as tall as the heavens and his eyes shot flames. Instead of fingers, he had 100 dragonheads sprouting from his hands.
None of the Olympians had the power to destroy Typhon alone. For a time, all they could do was flee from him. They often did so by transforming themselves into animals. Aphrodite and Eros, in this case, transformed themselves into fish and swam away. Alternately, they dove into the river and were rescued by two friendly fish, who carried them to safety. Two fish were hung in the sky, their tails intertwined, to commemorate the day when love and beauty were saved.