Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Cancer

We leave behind the mental chatter of Gemini and enter the deep waters of Cancer. As a cardinal water sign, Cancer is concerned with emotional security and achieves strength through surrender. Water takes the form of whatever container it flows into, and will flow around obstacles or slowly wear them down. Water doesn’t resist; it just flows ever onwards – like life.

Cancer is a feminine sign and is ruled by the Moon. It’s balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Capricorn, ruled by Saturn. Cancer is sensitive and changeable, creative and nurturing. The crab seems a strange symbol for such a watery sign, but it connects to the primordial source of life. Crabs live in the sea and on land, suggesting the idea of life’s first emergence from the oceans.

Cancer is associated with birth and the life giving properties of water, as well as Mother Nature. The ancient Greeks called it the Gate of Men. Souls were said to descend to Earth from heaven through the Cancer constellation, and then go back the other way and ascend to heaven through the Gate of the Gods in Capricorn.

But this means Cancer is also connected with death. In Babylonian astrology, Cancer was seen as unfortunate because it marked the entrance to the underworld. Gavin White believes this was due to the sign taking over from the constellation of the Hydra. In Babylonian Star-lore he describes how Cancer inherited the symbolism of the Hydra as the earlier sign slipped from view thanks to precession. The Cancer constellation sits beside the Hydra and this is also reflected in Greek mythology which placed the entrance to the underworld next to the Hydra’s lair.

Cancer stands at the gateway between worlds and marks the point of incarnation into the physical realm. So to understand this sign we must enter the world of the Mother…

Cancer Myths – Mothers

In the beginning, before there was anything else, there was the Mother Goddess or Mother Earth, the source of all life. There are so many of these goddesses, it’s like looking at a vast multidimensional crystal with more sides than you can count. But they all share similar characteristics so these symbols are coming from a deep place in the collective consciousness.

The Mother is one of the oldest religious symbols and is often connected with the primordial ocean or the Earth itself – or Herself. The Mother is mysterious, nurturing and sustaining, but also dangerous, dark and destructive. From her comes abundance and the power to give and sustain life, but also the unavoidable fact of death. The Mother is womb and tomb, and contains the whole cycle of birth and death within her being.

Venus of Hohle Fels with a pendant hook in place of the head

Mother Goddess figurines are called ‘Venuses’ – we’ve already met a few in the Taurus and Gemini posts. These figures are representations of the primordial Mother and were carved to be held, carried or worn. Many don’t have heads or proper limbs, but all are voluptuous with exaggerated breasts and hips, or they have a child in their arms, or are pregnant or giving birth. They may have been votive offerings, fertility charms, or used in rituals connected to birth and death.

The oldest figure could be the Venus of Berekat Ram, but the claim is contested. If true, it dates to 250–280,000 years old and was probably carved by Homo erectus. It looks like a pebble with vaguely feminine curves. Some say it’s been modified, but I’m not convinced – see for yourself here. The oldest undisputed figure is the Venus of Hohle Fels, which dates to 40–30,000 BCE and was carved from mammoth ivory. It’s only about 6 cm high and was worn as a pendant (see above).

The Venus of Willendorf dates to 30,000 BCE and has a curious covering over her head so that her face is hidden. In contrast, the Venus of Dolni Vestonice has two slits for eyes but no other features on her head aside from holes in the top that were probably used to hold flowers. She dates to 29,000 BCE and is one of the oldest known ceramic figures, and is believed to have been carved by a woman.

Mother myths originated with a primordial being that represents chaos. This may be a goddess or an androgynous being that gets split up to create the universe. The early Mother Goddess figures contained the whole cycle of life and death within one symbol. Later they evolved into the double goddess figures introduced in the Gemini post, which later still would be split into light and dark goddesses, like Inanna and Ereshkigal.

In India, the primordial force behind existence is Shakti who is embodied as various goddesses, but they’re all manifestations of the One Great Mother. As mother, she’s known as Adi Shakti or Adi Parashakti, which means ‘The Eternally Limitless Power.’ Shakti is the power beyond the universe that both creates and destroys it, and Maya – the illusion behind this reality – is manifested by her smile. 🙂

One of Shakti’s forms is the mighty Kali, the ‘Black Mother,’ who is worshipped as the Divine Mother and Mother of the Universe. Her name also means ‘time’ or ‘the fullness of time’ and relates to the idea of change within nature where all things are born and then die. Her dark appearance represents the mystery from which everything is born. As Kali Ma she’s seen the kindest and most loving of all the goddesses.

In Sumer, the oldest primeval goddess of the sea is Nammu, ‘Lady of the Beginning.’ She’s the source of water and fertility, and gave birth to the first gods: An (heaven) and Ki (earth). Ninhursag-Ki is the daughter of Nammu and a Great Mother and Creatrix in her own right. Originally she was just called Ki and later took the name Ninhursag, which means ‘Lady of the Sacred Mountain’. She’s a fertility goddess and Earth Mother out of whom everything grows.

In Egypt, the primal mother is Mut who is associated with the waters from which everything is created. Her many titles include: World Mother, Queen of the Goddesses, Lady of Heaven, Mother of the Gods, and She Who Gives Birth But Was Herself Not Born of Any. Later she gained a consort in the form of Amun, the Hidden One (see Aries Myths). Another early goddess said to be the first and prime creator is Neith, who weaves the universe from the primordial waters. She’s often called the grandmother of the other gods and is the guardian of the mysteries of life.

But the ultimate Egyptian mother goddess is Isis, the ‘Creatress of Green Things’ and ‘Lady of Abundance,’ amongst many other things. Her consort is her brother Osiris, god of the underworld, and together they embody the mysteries of the cycles of life and death. Isis was also the Creatrix of the pharaohs who were called ‘sons of Isis’ because they were embodiments of her son, Horus.

Finally, in Greece, the primal mother goddess is Gaia, who is a personification of the Earth and was the first to be born from chaos. She’s the sister/lover of Ouranos, god of heaven, and together they create the manifest universe. Gaia is the ancestral mother of life, and from her came all the other gods, including the three Moira, or Fates, who spin the web of life.

The Dark Side of the Mother

The Mother demands recognition and the honouring of the natural cycles of life, death, and renewal. But she can also become a menace. The dark side of Cancer is the Terrible Mother who smothers in the name of protection and security. The Dark Mother is the part of nature that’s always trying to pull you back into unconsciousness and must be overcome.

This process is shown in the evolution of mythology where the ancient Mothers were overthrown by Sun gods and heroes. These myths mark the rise of the new patriarchal order, but they also represent an important psychological milestone in the development of our consciousness – the birth of the ego.

In Babylonia, the Great Mother of the Gods and ‘Lady of Primeval Chaos’ was Tiamat – a later version of the Sumerian Nammu. She was a dragon goddess of the sea and her consort was Apsu, god of fresh water. Together they created all the other gods. But Apsu got fed up with the noisy younger generation and plotted to have them killed. Enki got wind of the plan and killed Apsu instead.

Taimat wasn’t happy and unleashed all manner of monsters against the younger gods until they found a hero willing to fight for them. Marduk, who was the son of Enki, managed to slay Tiamat and chopped her up and used her body to create the physical universe.

Tiamat getting herself done in by Marduk

In Greek myth, Hercules did battle with the Hydra and during the fight, Hera sent the crab Karkinos to pester him. It snapped at his heels until he stamped on it and crushed its shell. Hera rewarded the poor crab by placing it in the sky as the constellation of Cancer.

Hera sent the crab because she hated Hercules because he killed his wife and children in a fit of madness. His twelve labours were an attempt to atone for this crime. But the mad rage that drove Hercules to kill in the first place, was caused by Hera who resented his heroic potential.

“The crab is here the archaic Cancer for whom motherhood is all, and for whom the father is merely the provider of the seed. This more regressive element in Cancer pits itself against the ego’s claim to consciousness and freedom of choice, just as the archetypal Terrible Mother prefers to battle with and even destroy her son rather than permit him to escape her domination.” – Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate

Marduk and Hercules represent the heroic ego battling to define itself as an individual. The Dark Mother stands in the way of this natural process of separation. She’s possessive and overprotective and the consequences of failing in this hero’s quest can be catastrophic: dependency, feelings of powerlessness, and a desire to escape the pain and suffering of life through addictions of all kinds. In short, a living death.

(More on overcoming the monster: Prometheus: the Alchemy of Space Aliens)

The Dark Mother isn’t always monstrous; sometimes she’s just a bit overbearing, like Thetis, mother of Achilles. She didn’t want her son to leave home so she made him (almost) immortal by dipping him in the Styx and then hid him among the women on Skyros. Eventually Odysseus found him and took him to join the Trojan War. But this didn’t stop Thetis interfering. She kept turning up in his tent to fuss over him, bringing clean linen and new armour.

Overbearing mothers are manipulative and controlling in an effort to protect their children from the emotional pain of life. But it’s only through suffering and challenge that you learn and grow. Without the struggle to become conscious you would never gain sovereignty over your life. Life may be painful at times, but the alternative is worse.

(More on the dark feminine: Dark Angel: Hecate and the Dark Night)

The Meaning of Cancer

Cancer is attuned to the source of life, which is both creative and destructive. This is the primordial chaos symbolised by the Uroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. In the form of the Dark Mother, it’s what you have to escape, but it’s also what you must return to at a higher level as the Divine Feminine.

This is the collective unconscious that contains all and unifies the opposites. It starts in an undifferentiated state of fusion, or chaos, but then splits itself in two in order to become conscious and know itself.

Cancer may resist that split and remain fused with the Mother in an attempt to stay safe. But life will push you out of the nest sooner or later. You have to slay the Terrible Mother within your own psyche so you can know yourself as you truly are – as an expression of the divine and one with all life. (See the Evolution of Consciousness series for in-depth exploration of this process.)

Cancer may have a mother complex, but it’s really a disguised version of this desire to reconnect with the divine feminine. It’s often projected into a tendency to look for someone or something that will take care of you and make you feel that you belong. But this search for emotional security and roots can only be found within. The key is to do it in the right direction – not back into regression, but forwards into the recognition of your inherent divine nature (or Buddha nature, if you prefer.)

The creative side of Cancer is the power to give birth to new ideas, visions, creative works, projects, companies, and families. The creative process is mysterious and most of the important work happens in the unconscious and comes up through dreams and imagination. As creative midwife, Cancer can dredge images from the depths of the collective unconscious and give them form.

“No true artist can really explain where the source of his inspiration lies. It’s like the ocean – huge, fathomless. He, like the crab, inhabits the patch of sand midway between the mysterious ocean and the dry land of ordinary life. Ideas and images come to him, and he gives birth to them. Then the tide recedes, and for a time he is stranded. Then the process begins again.” – Liz Greene, Astrology for Lovers

Like Proteus, the shape-shifting prophet in Greek myth, the images of the imagination are constantly changing shape. To receive a prophecy from Proteus you have to pin him down and hold him there while he shifts form and tries to freak you out – probably to make you let him go. But if you hang on, he’ll eventually take his true form and deliver his message.

Creativity involves a similar process of sorting through the images and ideas that come up from the depths and waiting for them to evolve into something you can work with. It feels chaotic and confusing, but it’s an unavoidable part of the process. (More on Nurturing your Creativity here.)

This applies just as much to the process of developing self-awareness by exploring your dreams and imagination. Creativity and self-knowledge both require a conscious self that can navigate the watery depths and choose what to focus on and what to let go. You need a safe place in the world so you can allow space within yourself for your innate creativity to be born. Part of you needs to hold firm in the face of chaos so you’re not washed away by it and overwhelmed. The chaos has to be contained and held. Cancer is both the chaos and the container.

The dark side of Cancer may be pretty destructive, but if you can resist the desire to return to the womb, you can give birth to the creative potential of this sign.

Cancer on Film

Films that represent the Cancer archetype include anything about mothers, childhood, and the search for roots and belonging. You could also include films that feature big horrible monsters that have to be conquered. You’ll have your own favourites, but here’s a few examples of Cancer on film:

  • Ripley taking care of Newt in Aliens shows the nurturing side of Cancer, whereas the Alien Queen herself reveals the dark side of the Great Mother.
  • Another destructive mother is Grendel’s mother in Beowulf.
  • Cersei Lannister going to extremes to keep her family in power in Game of Thrones.
  • Lady Macbeth driven mad by the death of her child in Macbeth.
  • Philomena Lee searching for her lost child in Philomena.
  • Juno MacGuff dealing with an unexpected pregnancy while still at school in Juno.
  • Sam Fox raising her daughters as a single mum and working actress in Better Things.
  • The unnamed mother renovating her house and receiving unwanted guests in Mother!

More on the Gnostic world of Mother! here. Next month we’ll look at Leo Myths

Discover more Zodiac Myths here

More on Cancer:

Images: Cancer; Hohle; Willendorf; Dolni; Tiamat

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6 thoughts on “Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Cancer

    1. On that note, I am curious what will come of Sagittarius, curious and a little scared.

      And, what a lovely “crab” (or Krabulus, as I like to say) you are, Miss Siyahi. 🙂 You exude softness of emotion and sympathy.

      Liked by 1 person


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