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The Greek Origin of Zodiac Signs in Astrology

Astrological signs in a window in Köln Cathedral in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
Astrological signs in a window in Köln Cathedral in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Credit: LynnMGallagher/CC BY-NC 2.0

We all know our own astrological sign. But you might not have known that the origins of astrology link back to ancient Greek mythology, with every sign of the zodiac representing a Greek god, goddess or other important figure from mythology.

The history of astrology dates back more than four thousand years to the first great civilizations of the world. These societies used constellations to predict the changes of the seasons, climatic events, and as part of their religious worldview.

The names of the constellations of the western zodiac actually come from the 12 Olympian gods of Greek mythology. Each god is the protector of his own sign, and every sign denotes a different personality type, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Each sign is influenced by a planet or star. These bear the names of figures from ancient Roman mythology which have an equivalent in Greek mythology, for example, Venus is Aphrodite and the Sun is Helios.

The ancient Greek origin of the astrological signs

Aries

Aries is the first astrological sign. This sign is represented by the ram, which symbolizes rebirth and beginnings. Aries, which is ruled by the planet Mars, is associated with the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts.

Hele and Phrixus on the Golden Ram, astrological sign Aries
Helle and Phrixus on the Golden Ram. Illustration from a book from 1902. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

The myth tells the story of Phrixus and Helle, who were born of Athamas, a Boetian king, and the goddess of the clouds, Nephele. Athamas fell in love with a woman named Ino, and Nephele left in anger, causing a drought in her wake. Ino attempted to sacrifice Phrixus and Helle in order to end the drought that had stricken the land. Nephele prevented this from happening by sending a ram with golden wool to rescue them. The two children escaped on the winged ram’s back.

The ram was initially meant to be sacrified to Mars, but Zeus took it and placed it in the sky in his honor.

Taurus

Taurus, the second constellation, is symbolized by a bull that represents fertility. Taurus is ruled by the planet Venus.

The Rape of Europa, astrological sign Taurus
The Rape of Europa by Titian (1562). Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

The constellation of Taurus is associated with the Greek myth of Europa. Europa was ravished by Zeus, who had taken on the form of a white bull. Taurus is said to represent Zeus in this state.

Gemini

Gemini, the third astrological sign, is represented by two twin brothers, who symbolize duality, inner unfolding, and the antagonism of the body and the soul. The sign is ruled by the planet Mercury.

Sculpture of Castor and Pollux. astrological sign Gemini
Sculpture of Castor and Pollux. Credit: Wikipedia/Ad Meskens/Public domain

Gemini is associated with the Greek myth of Castor and Pollux. Castor and Pollux were the sons of Leda, an Aetolian princess. Leda was seduced by Zeus after he took the form of a swan. Pollux was immortal, but Castor was not. When Castor was eventually killed, Pollux asked Zeus to reunite him with his fallen brother. Zeus obliged by turning them both into the constellation Gemini.

Cancer

Cancer, the fourth astrological sign, symbolizes the family. Cancer is represented by a crab and is ruled by the Moon.

Artistic representation of the Moon, the ruling star of the astrological sign of Cancer
Artistic representation of the Moon, the ruling celestial body of Cancer. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

Cancer is associated with the crab that Hera sent to fight Heracles (also known as Hercules). Hera, who was Zeus’ wife, despised Heracles because he was born out of Zeus’ affair with Alcmene. Hera cast a spell of madness onto Heracles that caused him to kill his own children.

Heracles was sent to complete 12 labors as penance for his crime. One of his tasks was to slay the serpent beast Hydra. Hera sent a crab to help the Hydra in its battle against Heracles, but he easily killed the crab by crushing it under his foot. Hera memorialized the crab’s effort by making it into a constellation.

Leo

Leo is the fifth astrological sign, symbolizing the force of life. Leo, which is represented by the lion’s mane, is ruled by the Sun.

Hercules fighting with the Nemean lion
Hercules fighting with the Nemean lion. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain

The constellation of Leo is associated with the mythical lion of Nemea. Heracles was tasked with killing Nemea as the first of his twelve labors. Heracles strangled the lion, and after its death he removed its skin and turned it into armor that he then wore. Zeus rewarded the lion’s bravery by giving him a constellation.

Virgo

Virgo is the sixth astrological sign, symbolizing labor. Virgo is ruled by the god Mercury and is represented as a woman. Because of this, Virgo has been associated with various goddesses, such as Artemis and Aphrodite. In Greek mythology the constellation is represented by the goddess Astrea.

Astrea
Astrea, the virgin goddess of innocence and purity. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain

Astrea helped her Titan father by being a bearer of lightning during the war between the Titans and the Gods. Zeus respected her loyalty and decided to raise her into the heavens, placing her among the stars and creating the constellation Virgo.

Libra

The seventh astrological sign symbolizes harmony. Libra, which is represented by the scales of justice, is ruled by Venus.

Astrea figure in the Supreme Court room of Vermont State House
The figure of Astrea in the Supreme Court room at the Vermont State House. Credit: Wikipedia/GearedBull/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Libra, like Virgo, is also associated with the goddess Astrea. When Zeus raised Astrea to the sky and placed her amongst the stars the scale of justice she carried became the constellation Libra.

Scorpio

The eighth astrological sign, Scorpio, is represented by a scorpion. The creature symbolizes destruction and rebirth; the constellation is ruled by the planets Mars and Pluto.

The origin of the constellation comes from the Greek legend of Orion. Orion was a hunter who arrogantly declared that he would kill all of the animals on Earth. Artemis, the god of the hunt, sent a scorpion to kill him in response to that threat. The arachnid chased Orion until it finally bit and killed him.

Orion constellation.
The constellation Orion. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain

The gods raised Orion and the scorpion to the heavens and placed them at opposite ends of the celestial vault. This positioning was intentional: when the constellation Scorpio rises over the horizon the constellation Orion hides, fleeing from the animal that caused its death.

Sagittarius

Sagittarius, the ninth astrological sign, symbolizes higher consciousness. The sign, which is represented by the archer’s arrow, is ruled by Jupiter.

Chiron and Achilles
Chiron and Achilles. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain

The constellation is associated with the centaur Chiron. Chiron was an intelligent, wise, and good-natured creature — unlike most of his kind. He lived in a cave on Mount Pelion in Thessaly.

The centaur was a great educator and the tutor of several of the most prominent heroes in Greek mythology, such as Achilles, Asclepius, Jason, Aristeo and Actaeon.

Capricorn

Capricon, the tenth astrological sign, is represented by a goat that symbolizes wisdom. Capricorn is ruled by the god Saturn.

Childhood of Zeus
Childhood of Zeus (The goat Amalthea feeds Zeus). Credit: Wikipedia/Jakob Jordaens/Public domain

Capricorn is related to the myth of Amalthea, a woman who also took the form of a goat. Amalthea raised the infant Zeus after his mother Rhea hid him in the mountains to protect him from his Titan father, Cronos. When Zeus became an adult he fought the Titans in goatskin armor to honor her.

Aquarius

The eleventh astrological sign, Aquarius symbolizes revolution and wisdom. Aquarius, which is represented by the water bearer, was traditionally ruled by the planet Saturn, but this has since shifted to the planet Uranus.

Ganymede pouring a libation to Zeus
Ganymede pouring a libation to Zeus, on a Greek krater from the 5th century BC. Credit: Wikipedia/David Liam Moran/CC BY-SA 3.0

The constellation of Aquarius is associated with Ganymede, who was considered the most beautiful mortal man. Zeus kidnapped Ganymede and took him to Mount Olympus to make him a cupbearer.

Pisces

The twelfth and last astrological sign, Pisces symbolizes division, personified by Aprhodite and Eros in the form of two fish swimming in opposite directions. Pisces is ruled by Neptune and Jupiter.

Aphrodite and Eros
Aphrodite and Eros. Credit: Wikipedia/Yair Haklai/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Typhoon, a gigantic water serpent, was one of the most fearsome Titans during the war between the Titans and the gods. Many gods took on animal forms in an attempt to flee his wrath. Eros and Aphrodite fled in the form of fish and were subsequently caught by a fisherman.

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