Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Libra

Leaving the virgin to her rituals, we reach the balance of the year and the halfway point of the zodiac. Libra marks the point of the autumn equinox (in the northern hemisphere) when the days and nights are of equal length. As a cardinal air sign, it seeks to bring harmony through judgement based on a refined perception of the laws of proportion and beauty.

Libra is a masculine sign and ruled by Venus. It’s balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Aries, ruled by Mars. The combination of both masculine and feminine in the quality of the sign and its ruler gives Libra an androgynous feel that’s reflected in the mythology, as we’ll see. This also reflects the need for balance between opposites, which Libra achieves through relationship.

The first six signs of the zodiac are more personally focused, but the final six connect us to others and the collective. Libra is the first of these more sociable and other-oriented signs. And yet it’s represented by an inanimate object – a pair of scales. This tells us we’ve moved beyond the instincts of the body and feelings into the realm of ideas and rational laws.

The constellation of the Scales was originally seen as part of Scorpio in some cultures, and was called ‘the Claws.’ Eventually it was recognised as a constellation in its own right, probably due to the precession of the equinoxes. As Libra shifted into place on the ecliptic, it would have made sense to see it as representing balance at the equinox.

Although Libra no longer rises on the ecliptic at the equinox – precession never ends! – it still holds the meaning of balance, harmony and beauty as they relate to society and its human laws. Judgement and justice was often represented as a goddess in the ancient world, but not in Sumer…

Libra Myths – Sumer

In Babylonian astrology, Libra was called ZIB-BA AN-NA, or Zibanu, which means ‘the scales’ or the ‘balance of heaven’, but they also called it the Claws of the Scorpion. When the sun rose in Libra at the autumn equinox, it was referred to as the ‘weighing place’ because the scales belonged to the sun god Utu, or Shamash.

Utu ruled over justice and truth, and was associated with law and order, and harmonious living in society. As the sun, he represented the power of light to reveal the truth by shining into the darkness. He was often depicted holding a serrated saw that he used to cut through mountains. It may also have been a symbol of retributive justice, and as Gavin White explains:

“…the sun god’s saw and scales can still be recognised in the modern figure of ‘justice’ that stands above the British law courts. She is blindfolded to symbolise her impartiality, and holds the sword of punishment in one hand and the scales of judgement in the other.”

The Adda Seal: Utu cuts through a mountain with rays rising from his shoulders while Inanna hovers to his left, weapons rising from her shoulders. The others are Enki with water and fish, and Usimu, his two-faced vizier

Utu was the twin brother of Inanna who was also a goddess of justice, as well as love, beauty, fertility and war. She was associated with the planet Venus and its cycle in relationship to the sun (more on that here: Venus Retrograde). As the goddess of love she was linked to fertility rituals and ideas of death and renewal rather than relationship as such. She’s not connected to ideas of marriage and she’s certainly not balanced or refined in her behaviour – she shouts at a mountain because its beauty pisses her off!

Inanna enforces divine justice in her characteristically fierce way, but she only has that power because she stole the mes. These were the sacred powers that belonged to the gods and included things like the social constructs of law and kingship, as well as concepts like Truth and Counsel. Inanna seems a good match for Libra but only if you squint. Perhaps she represents its shadow side.

Libra Myths – Egypt

The ancient Egyptians recognised Libra as a constellation in its own right but the sign was still connected to the Scorpionic realm of the dead in their mythology. Egyptian religion and society was based on maat, or cosmic order, which had to be balanced against isfet, or chaos.

Maat covered all areas, from the physical world and politics, to personal conduct and ethics. Egyptian society was modelled on the cosmic harmony reflected in the stars and the regular patterns of life, such as the flooding of the Nile. It was the pharaoh’s job to maintain the balance between heaven and earth, but everybody was expected to live according to the laws of maat.

After death, Anubis led the soul into the Hall of Two Truths in the underworld to be judged. The heart was weighed against the feather of Maat on a pair of scales. If the heart was light and equal to the feather, the soul would continue on to meet Osiris. But if the heart was heavy, the soul would be fed to Ammit, a goddess whose name means ‘devourer’ or ‘soul eater’ – a mix of lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile.

Book of the Dead: Hunefer the scribe has his soul weighed while Thoth records the results, and then he meets Osiris

Before the weighing of the heart, the soul had to make a ‘negative confession’ – all the bad things they didn’t do during their life. This was based on the 42 divine principles of Maat, such as:

  • I have not stolen.
  • I have not cursed.
  • I have not closed my ears to the truth.
  • I have not polluted myself.
  • I have not been exclusively angry.
  • I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern.
  • (You can read the complete list here)

Maat was the goddess and personification of truth and justice. She regulated the stars and the seasons, and stood for balance, harmony, morality and law. Daily life was lived in accordance with her ethical codes in order to maintain cosmic and social harmony. The concept of maat is similar to the Taoist principle of the Tao or the Way of Heaven, as well as dharma in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Libra Myths – Greece

Libra is often associated with Astraea, but as we saw in the Virgo post, she fits better with Virgo because she’s associated with natural law, not the laws of mankind. However, Themis was also depicted holding a pair of scales and was known as the Lady of Good Counsel. She was the goddess of divine law and when these laws were transgressed, she unleashed Nemesis to correct the balance.

Themis was a Titan who gave birth to the Horae, or Hours, who were goddesses of the seasons and time. The Hours were originally the personification of the order of the seasons, but later became goddesses of order and justice. Originally there were three Hours: Dike, Eunomia, and Eirene. Dike was the goddess of moral justice, Eunomia was the goddess of law and legislation, and Eirene personified peace and wealth.

Themis, bottom left holding the scales, with the Horae

Greek mythology also contains stories about hapless humans who are forced to make a judgement on behalf of the gods. For example, the Trojan War was triggered when Paris was asked to settle an argument between three goddesses. He had to choose which of Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite was the most beautiful – obviously a trick question. Hermes gave Paris an apple which he was to give to the winning goddess.

But Paris wasn’t stupid and knew he would get in trouble if he picked only one of them, so he offered to split the apple into three parts. Zeus was having none of that and insisted he choose only one. The goddesses all promised not to seek revenge if Paris didn’t choose them (yeah, right!). They also promised him various gifts, and Aphrodite said he could have the most beautiful woman in the world if he picked her.

So of course, Paris chose Aphrodite. Hera and Athena weren’t happy, but Paris didn’t mind because he got Helen. Result: the Trojan war and Paris was slaughtered, along with his family. Helen was fine.

The Judgement of Paris

Another myth tells the story of how Tiresias the blind seer lost his sight. One day, Tiresias is walking in a sacred grove on Mount Kyllene when he encounters two loved-up serpents. They both attack him and he manages to kill the female by striking it with his staff. This has the effect of turning him into a woman, whereupon he goes off and becomes a great harlot (as you do).

Seven years later, he returns to the same spot and as luck would have it, witnesses the same act. This time, he kills the male serpent and is returned to his masculine form.

Meanwhile, Zeus is having a row with his wife, Hera (again). She’s fed up with his philandering and gets even more annoyed when Zeus claims she enjoys sex more than he does. So poor old Tiresias gets dragged into the argument and is asked to settle it once and for all.

He tries to be diplomatic (like a good Libra), but eventually has to tell the truth. He sides with Zeus and agrees that women do experience more pleasure than men. Hera is enraged and blinds Tiresias, but Zeus takes pity on him and gives him the gift of second-sight and enhanced longevity.

In a different version, it’s Hera who allows Tiresias to see the serpents in her sacred grove. When he asks which of the two serpents has the most pleasure, she can’t answer. So she allows him to spend some time as a woman so he can find out for himself. After returning to his male form, he reports back and tells Hera that women experience more pleasure. This time, Zeus is enraged and strikes Tiresias blind.

The Meaning of Libra

The Libra archetype is focused on relatedness, partnership and cooperation, and covers all things social, from marriage and business contracts, to beauty and the arts. It’s an idealistic sign that seeks fairness and balance. This forces Libra to make judgements, but as the stories of Paris and Tiresias show, there are always consequences.

The idea of judgement implies the existence of universal principles of right and wrong on which you can base your judgement. The Scales of Maat represent these principles and the ideal of life as fair and just. If you’re good you’ll be rewarded, and if you’re bad you’ll be eaten by a monster. Simple.

But life is rarely that straightforward. No matter how hard you try to live up to the ideals of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, you’re going to fall short at some point. Nobody is perfect. And how do you define the good, the true and the beautiful, when they mean different things to different people? Context is everything.

Judgement means making a choice and that requires consciousness and reflection. You have to be able to stand back and take a rational, balanced perspective in order to resolve dilemmas and conflicts. Without this ability, arguments quickly descend into all-out fights, retribution and unending wars.

Then again, look at what happened to Paris. He was forced to make a choice and it went horribly wrong. But it would have gone wrong no matter which goddess he chose because the others would have sought revenge.

Librans often try to avoid making choices because they’re so aware of the possible pitfalls and they don’t want to upset anybody. But in the end, it can’t be avoided.

You can’t live without making judgements. Life – or the gods – force you to make choices because you can’t have it all in this finite world. But in the process of choosing, you discover something about yourself. You find out what really matters to you. Choosing forces you to become more conscious, more self-aware and more discerning – and over time, perhaps you can learn to make better choices.

When Paris was asked to judge the relative beauty of the goddesses, he was really choosing between the various gifts on offer. Hera offered him riches and power; Athena offered him victory in battle; and Aphrodite offered him love and beauty. He couldn’t have it all, so he chose the thing he valued the most – love.

We often think of love as mysterious and that you can’t control who you fall in love with. But that experience seems to be rooted more in the feelings and the endocrine system – pure instinct on the one hand, and a mystical merging or loss of boundaries on the other.

Libra is about what happens after the initial madness of falling in love has worn off. The sign may be ruled by Venus, the planet of relationships, but it’s more interested in the idea of love than the messy emotional reality of it. Libra reflects the choice to marry, to continue relating even when it’s difficult, and the struggle to find harmony and balance between two different people.

Love is a choice – as seen in The Lovers tarot card – and can only exist in the world of duality. When you love someone, or something, you choose to relate and bring yourself into harmony with the beloved while remaining separate. Intimacy and understanding require compromise and appreciation. Love is a choice, but it’s also an art.

Libra strives to maintain the delicate balance between self and other but can sometimes compromise too much. The desire for fairness can push Libra to overcompensate. They can be argumentative for the sake of balance, playing devil’s advocate, and pushing the art of diplomacy until it distorts into manipulation and lies – the exact opposite of the truth Libra seeks.

The ideal is to find a point of equilibrium or equanimity between opposing positions. The challenge lies in maintaining that point of balance in a world that’s constantly changing. Life works best in a state of dynamic equilibrium, readjusting to conditions as necessary. But underlying the apparent chaos, are deeper laws and truths – the laws of beauty and harmony found in nature itself.

The deepest meaning of Libra is that love is the ultimate law of the universe. This is reflected in the cycles of Venus with the Sun that conform to the Golden ratio of phi (1.618). Phi is an expression of divine order, harmony and beauty and is one of the mathematical principles that govern the shape of galaxies and spirals, and the structure of DNA and how plants grow.

It’s this connection to the principles of sacred geometry and cosmic harmony that gives the sign its aesthetic sensitivity. Libra wants to make the world a more beautiful place through creativity and art. The desire for balance and harmony fuels the search for the right word, or the right sound, or colour, or fabric, and so on.

By attuning to the deepest laws of the universe you can learn to see with the eyes of the soul and give expression to what you find. But as with the process of making judgements, there’s often a cost for seeing into the heart of nature – as revealed in the story of Tiresias.

Tiresias strikes the serpents

When Tiresias sees the serpents he’s given a glimpse into the secrets of nature and has to pay the price for that knowledge. He loses his sight but gains wisdom through his experience of being both a man and a woman. In mythology, blindness is often symbolic of inner sight and awareness of the true Self which can only be achieved through balancing the opposites within.

This isn’t about toggling from one to the other and back again in a literal way like Tiresias. It’s about balancing the opposites without denying the importance and validity of either side. The solution is to find a path through the middle without sitting on the fence and denying the necessity of making a choice.

The stories of Paris and Tiresias show that the gods can’t see themselves clearly and need our help in order to reflect upon themselves. The gods represent archetypes of the natural world so they can’t change. Gods can only be what they are. The natural world is what it is and can’t be negotiated with – you can’t reason with a tornado or a forest fire.

But that also means the gods can’t be trusted and that life is unfair. That means we have no choice but to develop our ability to reflect and judge. We have to choose so we can create lives of value and meaning and beauty.

We have to choose to love. If we don’t, civilisation fails.

Libra on Film

Films that represent the Libra archetype include anything about relationships, love, and the balance/war between the sexes, plus courtroom dramas, justice, judgement and fairness. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Libra on film:

  • Susan Vance pursuing David with a little help from her leopard in Bringing Up Baby. (One of my all-time favourite films!)
  • Harry Burns and Sally Albright showing the course of friendship leading to true love in When Harry Met Sally.
  • Jamal Malik winning the quiz of his life just to find Latika in Slumdog Millionaire.
  • Fergus the terrorist who wants to give up a life of hatred and violence, and finds love in an unlikely place in The Crying Game.
  • Michael Dorsey becoming Dorothy to get a job and discovering new dimensions of himself in Tootsie.
  • Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who creates his own justice in The Shawshank Redemption.
  • Atticus Finch standing up for truth and decency in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Michael Clayton, a fixer for a law firm uncovering corruption in Michael Clayton.

More on the tense world of Michael Clayton here. Next month we’ll look at Scorpio Myths

Discover more Zodiac Myths here

More on Libra:

Images: Libra; Utu; Maat; Themis; Paris; Tiresias

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