Aries is the first sign of the zodiac and marks the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. This is the start of the astrological New Year, so what better time to begin a new series on the myths behind the zodiac. Aries – as cardinal fire – is all about new beginnings.
Aries is a masculine sign and is ruled by the planet Mars. It’s balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Libra, ruled by Venus. Aries brings new ideas and a new hope – the rising of spring after a hard winter.
Like all fire signs, Aries tends to mythologize himself and wants to be the hero of his own story (or heroine!). Aries is a crusader with a righteous vision of life. Where there’s a mission or cause to be fought for, you’ll find Aries, armour glinting in the sunshine. The Aries myth is about the future and vanquishing the enemy, doing the noble deed with passion and adventure. Let’s see where the Aries drive and energy comes from…
Aries Myths – Sumer
The Aries constellation is the Ram and this gives us the first meaning of the sign: fertility. The ram is a symbol of virility and the renewal of the life force, and to find the source of this image we have to go back before the dawn of language in Sumer. There’s a cylinder seal dated c. 3,500 BCE that shows two rams standing on a mound, from which rises a double-headed serpent. Between the rams is a flower and standing on their backs is an eagle.
The drama playing out on the seal depicts the cycle of life and renewal through death: the rams look like they’re about to eat the flower and the serpent is about to bite the rams, while the eagle pounces from above. All these symbols relate to the ancient goddess cultures and later became associated with the Sumerian god Dumuzi, consort to the goddess Inanna.
“And since all of the figures represent the power of the same god, the mythological theme represented is that of the self-consuming, ever-dying, ever-living generative energy that is the life and death in all things.” – Joseph Campbell
Originally, the fertility of the earth came directly from the Mother Goddesses, but this evolved into the inclusion of a male consort. So the Aries ram is really a dual symbol: the ram and the ewe – the goddess and her son/consort. Male virility and fertility worked in service of the goddess and in harmony with the natural cycles of life.
This was achieved through the annual ritual of the sacred marriage in spring, where the goddess bestowed kingship on her chosen candidate. There’s evidence for this in Sumerian cultic love songs and myths, but it’s not clear if the ritual was performed ‘in real life.’ Either way, by uniting with the goddess, the king was given the power to ensure the fertility of the land.
Dumuzi the Shepherd is the Sumerian god of vegetation and livestock, often depicted with his flock. He was also responsible for the abundance of dates, which were grown all year round – sometimes thought to be the fruit from the Tree of Life, another symbol of the Great Goddess. (She’s everywhere!)
As mentioned, Dumuzi is the consort of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and goddess of fertility, war and thunderstorms. She was also identified with Venus as the Morning and Evening Stars, and shares many characteristics with the goddesses who came after her: Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Astarte, and Aphrodite. Inanna is often depicted with lions so perhaps belongs under the sign of Leo, but she also embodies many personality traits of Aries:
She’s a force of nature and endlessly fertile, a source of great creative power. Although her main focus is fertility, it’s not in the spirit of the nurturing mother goddesses. Inanna is fierce and independent. She’s impetuous, wilful, and clever, with an unstoppable erotic drive. She never takes no for an answer and is always seeking further conquests to get more power for herself. In one myth, she steals the gifts of civilisation from Enki and gets away with it. She rampages around, shagging anything that moves, and pretty much does whatever she wants, until her dark sister, Ereshkigal, teaches her a lesson.
This is the Descent of Inanna where she attempts to gatecrash the Underworld and extend her power over the dead, only to end up a corpse herself. It’s often thought that Inanna goes down into the realm of the dead to rescue her lover, Dumuzi, but that interpretation comes from later, fragmentary myths based on the original Sumerian tale. In fact, she allows Dumuzi to be dragged into the Underworld because he doesn’t mourn her death while she’s gone.
Joseph Campbell says Inanna embodies the pre-patriarchal imperious manner of the earlier matriarchs. Maybe, but her purpose is to keep life moving, even if that means transgressing a few boundaries and stepping on a few toes. She isn’t averse to causing fights, and battles were sometimes called the ‘Dance of Inanna.’ Another myth says,
“She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals.”
War doesn’t appear to have much to do with fertility and the continuation of life, what with all the killing and death. But in ancient belief systems, blood is the source of life. To spill blood is to fertilise the land, so a battle becomes a mass sacrifice. If you want abundance, something must be given in return: a sacrifice must be made. The corn or wheat is sacrificed to produce the crop. The seeds are killed – threshed – to produce the bread of life.
Dumuzi plays his part in this cycle too. As god of vegetation, he spends half the year in the Underworld and returns to ensure the fertility of the land – a reminder that life depends on death and can only be renewed through the sacrifice of old, worn-out forms.
In other words, life is always changing and becoming something new…
Aries Myths – Egypt
In Egypt, Aries is associated with Amun and his consort Amunet, who together represent the life force of the universe. The Pyramid Texts describe Amun as the primeval creator and a symbol of creative power. His name means ‘the hidden one,’ and he’s the force behind ‘the invisible wind.’ Amun is also called, ‘He Who Abides in All Things,’ and ultimately, all Egyptian gods were seen as aspects of this one god.
So Amun/Amunet has a dual nature that embodies the masculine and feminine sides of creation. This means Amun is self-creating and can take many forms. Sometimes he’s seen as the Great Cackler: the goose who honked the first sound (the Word?!) and so gave birth to the universe. Sometimes he lays the World Egg, or fertilises the egg in his form as Kematef the serpent. Kematef is “the Primeval One of the Two Lands, Who made Himself” and rose from the watery abyss at the beginning of creation.
During the New Kingdom, Amun was syncretised with the Sun god Ra, becoming Amun-Ra, and was often depicted with a ram’s head. In this form he represented fertility and was responsible for the regeneration of life at the start of the year in spring.
The older symbols of Amun should be familiar as representations of the Goddess: the mound or world egg, the serpent, and a bird. In this case, they contain the opposites within them and so point back to an older source. There’s also an interesting connection with Vedic astrology which gives Aries a similar meaning to that of Amun:
Here Aries is Mesha, which means ram or sheep. But Mesha is also called Aja, which means unborn, or the unmanifest potential of life bursting to come into existence. Mesha is creative energy and future possibilities, vitality and life force. From VedicTime:
“The root or basis of Mesha lies in Spirit, but both its conflict and its purity arise from the paradox inherent in making spirit manifest in a world of matter.”
Compare this to Liz Greene in The Astrology of Fate:
“Ammon is the original creative spirit which out of itself generates the manifest universe.”
In the horoscope, the conscious self is birthed in Aries and the first house from the unconscious watery depths of Pisces and the 12th house. This represents a movement from source to manifestation, from collective to individual, from the oceanic bliss of the womb to the terrors of birth and life in the world.
Aries Myths – Greece
By the time we get to Greece, the myths have evolved again. Shepherd kings like Dumuzi were the son of the Ewe and were given the right to rule by the Goddess. However, the Goddess was sidelined by the rise of the Sun and Sky Gods and the ram became a symbol of male power, wealth and prosperity. But there are hints of the older myths if you know where to look…
The Greeks linked Amun (or Ammon) with Zeus, the King of the Gods and ruler of thunder, lightning and storms. He has immense phallic power and is always on the hunt for new erotic conquests – a bit like Inanna. Zeus is also the god of illumination and enlightenment, which links him to Yahweh of the Old Testament. This reveals the intellectual and visionary side of Aries; it’s not all about fighting! In The Astrology of Fate, Liz Greene says she’s seen more Aries types:
“who are dedicated to mental and spiritual enlightenment than…the traditional pugnacious sportsmen Ariens who live for physical combat.”
Aries is also associated with the golden ram who rescued Phrixus and Helle, the children of King Athamas, after his ex-wife tried to kill them. The ram carried the children away on its back, but Helle couldn’t hold on and fell to her death. Phrixus survived and sacrificed the ram to Zeus in gratitude. The golden fleece was then hung in a sacred grove, where it was guarded by a dragon or serpent. (So the grove belonged to the Goddess…Her again!)
This brings us to a quintessential Aries myth: Jason and the Argonauts. Jason is sent by the gods on an impossible mission: to retrieve the golden fleece. Liz Greene says this quest symbolises the need to claim your individual identity by killing the negative father. It’s about claiming sovereignty over your own life and developing inner authority by accepting responsibility for becoming a leader.
The negative or Terrible Father is an archetype of extreme control and oppression. So this myth is about how new life overthrows the old order – or how life overcomes death. The king who sends Jason on his quest represents the old order that must be overthrown. The negative father stands for the collective values of society that have become too constricting, reflecting the fact that Saturn is considered to be in fall when placed in Aries – i.e. it doesn’t function well that sign. It may seem a bad thing to be oppressed, but being opposed provides the fuel for Aries to find himself (or herself). It forces the growth of new life.
So Jason must overcome the negative father to establish his own sovereignty or divine nature. The golden fleece symbolises the true father, or inner spiritual values. Gold is associated with the idea of incorruptibility and eternal life, as well as kingship and sovereignty. The golden fleece, then, also provides a connection back to Amon, the self-creating, ever-present life-force that informs all things.
So how does Jason fare on his quest? Well…not so good. He jumps at the chance to be a hero, but then does everything wrong and gets himself in a right old pickle. Jason succeeds in his initial quest for the fleece but then makes a fateful mistake. He only succeeds with help from Medea, but after returning home, he dumps her for another woman. Medea isn’t about to accept that kind of disrespect and goes ballistic, killing their kids and Jason’s new bride (in true Scorpio style).
Medea is a symbol of Jason’s anima, or unconscious feminine side – his soul. Jason apparently dumps her because he’s bored, and this reveals the shadow side of Aries: a tendency to forget that the world doesn’t revolve around him and his quest and to get bored when the fighting is done. But there’s more to Jason’s oversight than simple boredom.
Jason ditches Medea because he wants a queen more fitting to his new station as king. He overthrows the old order but then wants to seize collective power for himself, which he does by denying his own soul. They say you become what you fight against, and the hero who fights against tyrants often ends up becoming one himself. And so Jason becomes a tyrant. He ends up old and impotent, all meaning crushed from his life. Finally, Jason is killed when a timber falls on his head from his own rotting ship.
Jason fails because he’s out of balance. He undervalues, and underestimates, the power and importance of the feminine – and the goddess. He doesn’t honour the natural cycle of life and the need for renewal, and so death claims him.
The Meaning of Aries
A more positive embodiment of Aries can be found in the story of Robin Hood. He’s a champion of the poor and oppressed, redistributing the wealth that he takes from corrupt authority. He enjoys the danger and excitement of battle, but has a great time hanging out with his mates in the forest and waylaying unwary aristocrats. Robin Hood fights for change, progress and fairness – the perfect Aries.
So what is Robin Hood doing right? As we’ve seen with Inanna, Aries has a lot of energy and it’s always seeking to express itself. Aries can’t just sit about and be nice. He has to do something with all that fiery passion. He needs a quest, a reason to live.
Aries needs to master his fighting spirit and channel his aggressive energy into positive growth. According to Dana Gerhardt, the labour of Hercules that depicts Aries is the taming of the wild horses that belong to the barbaric King Diomedes. Hercules gets a gang together and they grab the horses through sheer blind aggression, but one of the men is killed – you could say, sacrificed – in the process. Hercules finally manages to tame the horses by feeding them Diomedes’ flesh.
By eating their old master, the horses internalise the untamed spirit. This symbolises self-mastery: gaining control of the ego and its unending desires. Until Aries masters his lower nature, he’s liable to cause himself, and others, problems through his own wilfulness and blind aggression; whether that’s expressed outwardly in the obvious way, or inwardly through self-destructiveness or passive aggression.
Aries has immense power but it must be wielded in the service of life, just as the Shepherd kings used to serve the goddess to ensure the return of spring.
Aries on Film
There are loads of Hollywood movies that riff on Aries because it fits so well with the mythology of America and the rugged individualist or pioneer blazing a new path, saving the world and getting the girl… You can make your own list, but a good example is Iron Man:
Tony Stark starts out as a weapons manufacturer, like his old dad, but gets captured by terrorists using his own bombs. He builds the Iron Man suit by re-engineering his own weapons and then escapes. But then has to fight his father’s old business partner, Obadiah Stane, for control of the company and to stop the killing.
Here’s a few more examples of Aries characters on film:
- Jason and the Argonauts – obviously.
- Robin Hood – ditto.
- Luke Skywalker fighting to free the far, far away galaxy from Imperialist forces in Star Wars.
- Han Solo fighting with Luke, but mainly for himself, and then slowly getting won over to the cause.
- Xena: Warrior Princess fighting her way to redemption by defending the innocent.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer fighting evil with her friends.
- Joan of Arc fighting to restore the rightful king (possibly) to the throne on behalf of God (possibly).
- Tyler Durden/Jack finding himself by fighting himself in Fight Club, assisted by a gang of friends and leading them to destroy the structures that oppress them.
- Wonder Woman searching for Ares, the god of War, in the world of Men, in a quest to end war and affirm the power of love and truth. Read more on this film here.
Discover more Zodiac Myths here
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