Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Sagittarius

After the darkness of the scorpion comes liberation on the wings of a horse. As a mutable fire sign, Sagittarius is on a quest for enlightenment and higher knowledge of the truth. It unifies the animal and the human to create a bridge between earth and the heavens.

Sagittarius is a masculine sign and ruled by Jupiter, and is balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Gemini, ruled by Mercury. The glyph is the upward-pointing arrow of the archer, ready to be fired into the future. Sagittarius embodies adventure and the pursuit of meaning. It’s a freedom loving sign, restless and playful, but easily bored.

The Sagittarius constellation is a mythological creature, the half-human half-horse Centaur. In myth, the centaurs were known for their debauched parties. They were wild and savage and loved to get drunk and make prophecies. As Hagrid says in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“Never try an’ get a straight answer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin’ closer than the moon.”

Centaurs are a mix of heaven and earth, but not just because they embody the conflict between animal instincts and civilised humanity. They also have mixed parentage and were born of a king, Ixion (who was tormented on a burning wheel for eternity) and Nephele, a cloud nymph in the image of Hera.

The centaur often associated with Sagittarius is Chiron, the wounded healer, who we’ll look at later. But there’s another figure that fits the sign: Krotos (or Crotus) who was a satyr. Satyrs were half-human half-goat and only had two legs, so it doesn’t quite work. However, Krotos was the son of Pan, god of wild nature, and Eupheme, a female spirit of praise and triumph. He was a hunter and invented archery and hung out with the Muses, who had him placed in the sky as the constellation of Sagittarius, according to some sources. So Krotos does have many of the qualities associated with the sign after all.

The most important archetypal image for Sagittarius is the horse, which connects the sign to ancient shamanic practices and the journey of the soul after death. Horses also represent movement, travel, wisdom, status, protection and power. We still use the phrase ‘horsepower’ when talking about engines today. Let’s explore the details…

Sagittarius Myths – Horses

Wild horses appeared in Palaeolithic art as far back as 32,000 BCE and are featured prominently in the Chauvet cave in France. The images may have formed part of the shamanic practices of the horse-worshipping cults of the region. In many ancient cultures, the horse represented a psychopomp that carried the souls of the dead into the next world. The horse below was drawn onto an indentation in a recess making it look like the animal is emerging out of the rock – perhaps from the spirit world beyond…

One of the many horses in the Chauvet cave – more here

In shamanic practices, the horse was also used by the shaman as a means to travel between worlds and connect with the ancestors and spirits. Horse hair and drums made from horse skin were used in ceremonies (and still are) to trigger ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. The shaman’s drum was often called ‘the horse’ and some also used a symbolic horse-headed stick – which perhaps still survives in folklore as the hobby horse, ridden on May Day in fertility festivals around Britain.

In Kazakhstan, petroglyphs have been found carved into granite at Botai settlements in the Akmola region. Most of the images are representations of an ancient breed of horse, the Mongolian takhi, or wild horse. It’s believed that the Botai culture domesticated the horse c. 6,000 BCE, although the petroglyphs have been dated to c. 2,000 BCE. In local myths, the dead are said to take the form of horses so the images may represent the ancestors of the tribe: (source)

“The horse carvings are not only visions of the spirits but also the physical manifestation of a dreamtime of ancestors in the living landscape. These equine petroglyphs also … enable a crossing or mixing of other worlds. Individual members of a past society could have made special journeys to the hills of Terekty Aulie in order to consummate themselves with the ancestral time of the horse.”

Petroglyph of a strange horned horse plus rider (source)

Meanwhile, the Yakut of eastern Siberia believe horses have a divine origin and that mankind is descended from a centaur called Uordakh-Djesegei. He’s depicted as a white stallion and appears in clouds during the summer solstice festival when copious amounts of fermented mare’s milk is drunk. The Yakut shamanic beliefs also include guardian spirits who descend to earth as horses, and the shaman is said to go into the sky on his horse while drumming.

Similar shamanic traditions are found all around east and central Asia where the Wind Horse symbolises the human soul. This idea was also incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism and prayer flags are often known as ‘windhorse’ – carrying prayers to heaven like a flying horse.

Tibetan statue of a happy wind horse (source)

The connection between horses and the afterlife is also found in Sumer where Sagittarius was represented by a figure called Pabilsag – a centaur with wings, two heads (one human, one dog), and two tails (one horse, one scorpion). The human head looks forward while the dog looks backwards, emphasising the dual nature of the sign and the idea that our animal nature is never far away.

Pabilsag means ‘Forefather’ or ‘Chief Ancestor’, and he was responsible for driving dead souls away from the earth up into the heavens. The ancients saw the Milky Way as the path the soul took on its journey into the afterlife, and Sagittarius sits right on it. One of its stars (Sgr A*) is an astronomical radio source in the centre of the Milky Way and the location of a supermassive black hole – the entrance to the Otherworld perhaps?!

The Uffington White Horse (source)

More examples of shamanic horses can be found in Germanic, Scandinavian, Celtic and British folklore. On the hills of the Berkshire Downs in south-east England there’s a prehistoric hill figure carved into the chalk that dates to c. 1,400 BCE. Called the Uffington White Horse, it might represent a tribal ancestor or a guardian spirit who guides the souls of the dead.

The various Celtic cultures of Europe and Britain relied heavily on horses so they had many horse goddesses and queens. Epona was a fertility goddess and a protector of horses and those who rode them. Her name means ‘Great Mare’ and she was often depicted surrounded by horses or riding a horse. It’s no surprise that Epona and her horses acted as a guide to souls entering the afterlife.

Epona and her horses (source)

In Norse mythology we have the legendary Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse who was born to Loki when he took the form of a mare. Sleipnir was described as ‘the best of all horses’ and travelled between the worlds, ferrying souls to Hel, the land of the dead. The Valkyries also took the souls of dead warriors to Valhalla on horseback.

Odin is a shamanic figure, father of the gods and associated with war, wisdom, magic and the dead. He lost an eye while hanging from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, in order to gain the wisdom of the runes. The name ‘Yggdrasil’ means ‘Horse of Odin’ – Yggr is one of Odin’s many names, and in old Norse, drasil means both ‘horse’ and ‘gallows tree.’ Sacrifices to Odin were often hung in trees.

Odin also led the Wild Hunt, a marauding band of supernatural hunters that swept the land during the cold midwinter nights. Seeing the Wild Hunt was considered a bad omen and you might get abducted and carried off into the underworld. It was a procession of the dead and obviously related to earlier ideas of the soul being transported to the Otherworld on horseback.

Odin rides to Hel on Sleipnir (source)

Finally, we come to the centaur most often linked to Sagittarius: Chiron. He wasn’t like other centaurs, being more civilised and kind, and he was often depicted with human front legs rather than those of a horse. Some sources also gave him an alternative parentage and made him the son of Cronus (Saturn) who took the form of a horse to impregnate the nymph Philyra.

Chiron embodies the intersection between the chthonic gods of the past and the coming age of the sky gods of wisdom and enlightenment. He became the king of the centaurs and taught various heroes from his cave in Mount Pelion. But he was accidentally wounded by Hercules using an arrow dipped in the deadly venom of the Hydra (see Scorpio myths). The wound was in the animal part of his being and was incurable, despite all his knowledge of the healing arts. Chiron couldn’t die because he was immortal, but he couldn’t live either because he was in agony. Eventually, Prometheus took pity on him and offered his life in exchange so Chiron could ascend to the heavens. (more here: Chiron Myths)

Chiron, Peleus and the infant Achilles (source)

The Meaning of Sagittarius

As a symbol, the centaur represents the combination of human intelligence and animal instincts. Ideally, the mind and body cooperate, like a horse and its rider, and the intellect responds to the instincts rather than repressing them or trying to control or dominate them. But the body can sometimes be a problem for Sagittarius because it feels too restrictive and slow. It pulls you back down to earth when you want to be flying free.

Chiron’s wound highlights the gap between the mortal body and the immortal soul. The incurable wound is to the physical part of his being and represents the wound of being alive and trapped in a mortal body. Sagittarius has a wonderful vision of a meaningful and exciting life, but this often collides with the unfairness of life and the reality of being human in an imperfect world.

The limitations of being in a body slow Sagittarius down, especially as they get older, and this inspires the quest to escape and the search for meaning. The wound is caused by the Hydra’s poison, so it’s from the shadow side of life – death, decay, and suffering – all the things Sagittarius doesn’t want to think about. But the pain of the wound creates wisdom if you can accept and work with it.

The wound is a reminder to stay grounded, even as you aspire to transcendence. You can’t fire off arrows willy-nilly. You need to choose a target and then be still enough, just for a moment, to aim and fire.

The bow and arrow has two aspects and you need both for it to work. The bow represents receptivity and stillness, and the arrow is action and inspiration. The arrow rests on the bow, which gives it direction. But if your bow is wobbly because you can’t sit still or don’t know what you want, then hitting your target will rely more on blind luck than intelligence or wisdom.

Try to keep it in your pants, Zeus…

Another mythological figure that embodies the conflicts of Sagittarius is the Greek version of Odin, Zeus the god of thunder, lightning and storms. Like Chiron, he was the son of Cronus and became king of the gods after overthrowing the Titans, the old earthy gods. Zeus represents the new order of sky gods. His ancient name was Dyeus, which means ‘Sky Father’ and ‘to shine.’

In mythological terms, Zeus represents the shift in consciousness away from a fate governed by scary chthonic gods (see Scorpio myths), to the transcendent spiritual principles of the sky gods based on religious rituals and social laws. The old cycles of life and death are transcended with a new vision and a quest for eternity. It’s a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy, from Necessity and Fate to destiny and immortality.

But it’s not that simple. As the myth of Chiron shows, it’s not really possible to escape the body – at least, not while you’re living in it. The quest for eternity and immortality can only happen while you’re alive and that may be the whole point of existence. Spiritual revelation and enlightenment depend on you being in a body, and we can see this clearly in the myths about Zeus.

Zeus is endlessly promiscuous and will basically shag anything that moves, taking any number of forms to do it, including a horse. He’s the ultimate patriarch – not a favourite of the women’s movement! But despite his roving eye and hands (and everything else), he’s bound in a tempestuous marriage to Hera. It’s a marriage of equals and they’re always fighting, but Zeus never wins or manages to escape for long. He always returns home to the missus.

Sagittarius often embodies this myth in some way. They’re always looking for the next adventure or chasing exciting ideas and possibilities. They don’t like to be tied down by too many commitments, rules or expectations, and prefer to be spontaneous. Their desire for freedom can turn into an avoidance of responsibility and consequences, and they can be tactless and ride roughshod over others in pursuit of their latest vision.

But in the end, reality always catches up with them. Sagittarius often ends up bound to something unavoidable, like a relationship, job, house, or illness. And then expends a huge amount of energy trying to escape it – like Zeus trying to escape Hera.

But Zeus is nothing without Hera. Without the challenge she provides, he’d be bored out of his mind and life would be too easy. Hera keeps Zeus on his toes and stops him getting lazy and taking life for granted.

Hera represents the world of the feminine, the material world of form. She’s a link back to the ancient Mother goddesses who represent the body, death, and fate – the world of the chthonic gods, the old order Zeus thought he had overthrown. In fact, Zeus only achieves this with the help of his mother, Gaia – the ultimate Mother goddess. And his power to rule depends on the alliances he makes via various relationships to the feminine world.

Zeus’ marriage ties him to the material world of form and makes him squirm with frustration. But his restlessness gives rise to new creative possibilities and human values. In The Astrology of Fate, Liz Greene points out that through his conquests, Zeus fathered the three Graces (the opposite of the Fates), the Muses, and the Horai (see Libra Myths):

“Thus his struggle to be free of Hera generates many of the qualities which we traditionally associate with Sagittarius and, perhaps more importantly, a realm of justice is born which is an alternative to the merciless vengeance of Nature and Necessity.”

The sky gods introduced a new perspective into the collective consciousness of humanity – the possibility of freedom and the potential to transcend fate and death. Rather than submitting blindly to fate, you can turn the pain of being alive in a mortal body into wisdom. By struggling with your limitations, medicine for the soul can be created out of the poison that made the wound.

As we saw in Scorpio myths, when Perseus beheaded Medusa, the winged horse Pegasus erupted from her body. Pegasus represents the possibility of transcendence without denying nature and the body. He was used as transport between worlds, like the other mythological horses we’ve already met, and stands for the creative spirit and imagination.

This is the vision of truth that Sagittarius seeks: the truth of your immortal soul that releases you from the wheel of birth and death – the quest for enlightenment. You’re no longer bound by fate; you can soar on the wings of Pegasus into the future.

With Sagittarius comes a vision of freedom and meaning based in human creativity and culture. But you can’t create anything unless you give it form. Creativity without form is nothing but a dream – it has to be grounded. Any new vision has to be tested in the world of commitment, morality and responsibility.

Pegasus has to land eventually.

Sagittarius on Film

Films that represent the Sagittarius archetype include stories that involve quests, travel and adventure, the search for truth or meaning, as well as films about religion, philosophy, and education. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Sagittarius on film:

  • Indiana Jones and his various quests to secure priceless artefacts of religious significance.
  • Vincent and his dream of space travel threatened by his ‘In-Valid’ status in the genetically engineered world of Gattaca.
  • Philandering doctor Nicholas Garrigan and his dangerous adventures in The Last King of Scotland.
  • Aron getting his arm trapped between rocks while out adventuring in 127 Hours.
  • Thelma and Louise searching for freedom and escaping their wounds in Thelma and Louise.
  • Walter discovering the secret to life when he stops daydreaming and chases his dreams in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
  • Carl Fredricksen making new friends after his wife’s death on the ultimate adventure in Up.
  • Donnie grappling with the meaning of life, multiple universes and time travel in Donnie Darko.
  • Max Cohen endangering his sanity in his search for the ultimate number in Pi. (read post)

More on the obsessive world of Pi here. Next month we’ll look at Capricorn Myths.

Discover more Zodiac Myths here

More on Sagittarius:

Images: Sagittarius; Chauvet; Zeus

9 thoughts on “Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Sagittarius

  1. You might get bombarded with wordy thoughts from me on this one… 😛

    I just scrolled up to the Pegasus birthing story, and it got me thinking…

    Tales of slaying serpentine creatures often if not always relate to some kind of geographical change regarding water supplies, namely rivers. Now, if Medusa was actually some system of streams, possibly polluted or in a place that looked like death–hence the association with “her” guarding the underworld (gateway)–perhaps the slaying is actually some switch to the waterway (system), like a dam or aqueduct chain that cleansed the waters and allowed for some divine inspiration to be born, hence the winged horse. Horses being associated with Poseidon for whatever reason; maybe because Poseidon had dominion over the land parallel to the sea while Zeus supposedly ruled the heavens and Hades got the slice of the world unseen by mortals, underground.

    So, while it’s crazy beyond belief to imagine a snake-woman servant/prisoner of the underworld, with deadly powers, being cut down and sliced open to release a gleaming, virgin flying horse, maybe, like putting numbers and other clues together from Bible stories to determine some secret code to a birthdate or why something was built a certain way, the whole Medusa/Pegasus story is about improving the water supply for creative minds and general communal optimism, turning a death-warmed-over landscape into something cultural and livable.

    I paid a very brief visit to Barcelona, Spain, some years ago and had this tiny feeling there was some strong association with “the ancients” and horses there…possibly a Pegasus story of their own.

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    1. Interesting ideas – I haven’t come across the connection between killing serpents and changes in rivers, but it makes a kind of sense. The only thing I would add is that in mythology, serpents are often symbolic of energy rather than water per se – as in Kundalini, the life force, etc. The movement of water may be part of it too though.

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      1. I read something somewhere that mentioned myths relating to geographical components and shifts. So, maybe, I took it one step further and started looking at waterways and such to see where a system might be depicted as a hydra or some other creature. I think it helped seeing Greece as a sort of snake with a human head at the tip. There’s a map somewhere you could look up that points this out. Though, I can’t understand how some ancient people who didn’t even know the world was round could see their land and water this way. Unless the gods conveyed some info about geography.

        But, Kundalini…that’s not Greek, right? So, not knowing much beyond Greek/Roman mythology, I cannot attest to what other cultures associated with serpents. Though, I have noticed every culture features a variety of serpents with different elements, just as there are nymphs in every area of nature, from plants to the deep sea and clouds. So, maybe, in general, serpents are just flows of energy of some element, perhaps tails/trails of nymphs and the like.

        There are some books by Mercedes Lackey that deal with some of these concepts in terms of magic.

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  2. I would like to say more once I take the time to read the whole. I don’t know how I missed this post when I even said I was looking forward to it a month or two ago. But, I just glanced over the FILM section and couldn’t help feeling two things.

    1) Why is Carl from UP featured in this AND the Capricorn listings as iconic film characters in a particular sign?
    and
    2) Why does the list of feature films for this sign give me uneasy, unsettling chills like there’s nothing truly good about the sign, just crazy, drunken adventures that lead to nowhere and ruin, whether you lose a house to gain a cliff dwelling or go off a cliff to your death? It’s all a wild ride to a speedy demise in some attempt to escape “the system?” With the exception of Indiana Jones, of course, whose ambitions aren’t quite clear, just a smirking, grisly hero chasing glimmering treasures for some reason before the whole world collapses into a void and he wakes up in a classroom with a girl who painted some lewd invitation on her eyelids and the woman he might have had a thing with is no longer there.

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    1. ‘Up’ is on this list and Capricorn because it fits both archetypes. Carl is on an adventure (Sagittarius) but the film is also about old age and Carl becoming a wise guide to the kid who accidentally comes on the adventure with him. Most good films are about more than one thing and the archetypes are multidimensional – makes it more challenging to find good examples.

      I’m sure you could come up with some better examples of Sagittarius – you being one! But if you think about it, a film about a character who goes on an adventure and has a really great time and then comes home unchanged would be a pretty dull film. Most good stories are going to have layers and darker sides to them – it’s how they structure them and create conflict.

      I didn’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing good about Sagittarius – astrology doesn’t work that way anyway. All signs have positive and negative expressions, depending on how you work with them. My purpose here is to explore the deeper meaning of the sign and look into some of the mythology that feeds into the archetype. There’s plenty of other stuff online about zodiac signs to balance it out.

      I just thought it was interesting that the roots of Sagittarius is in myths about horses carrying the soul into the underworld. The other side of that – the positive side, if you have a problem with ‘death’ – is that it’s a visionary journey. The shaman or artist, or whatever, finding inspiration and wider horizons – and that can be done internally or externally as travel and adventure. Nothing inherently negative about that. It’s about the meaning of life – so it depends what you believe…

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      1. Being on an adventure doesn’t automatically make you Sagittarius. If anyone is a Sagittarius in that movie, it would be the little scout boy, despite his inhibitions. Both Carl and the “villain” have similar levels of determination and survival skills which are used in the adventure/conflict, but can they be both the wisdom-hungry mountain climbers and the dreamy-eyed, optimistic, imaginative adventure seekers? I just thought, when giving examples of particular signs/types, you’d want more solid evidence of one or the other; it makes me think back to my term paper days and teachers wanting stronger arguments.

        Yea, if I gave it some serious thought, I could probably come up with some other Sagittarius-in-film examples, which would only stir more debate as to whether they were accurate examples or not.

        I dunno. Ratatouille started out a more interesting story about a rat trying to teach a human to cook, then that human sparking a connection with a female chef and dealing with some shady authority figures, eventually taking ownership of a restaurant but depending upon his friends to cook because he never changed, never learned anything new, as far as I could tell.

        I think the Lord of the Rings stories are good Sagittarius examples of daring quests for some prize or to right a wrong. Superheroes are often associated with Sagittarius. So, Spider-Man would be a good example, considering even he has to learn the hard way about responsibility, something Sagittarius, the “Peter Pan” sign has a hard time hearing. And, Spider-Man would not continue being adventurous and exciting if he didn’t pick himself up and start swinging, again, instead of leaving his costume in the trash when he had a bad day.

        I am okay with your explorations of mythology relating to the signs; that’s what I came to investigate; that’s what draws my curious mind which first took interest in astrology back around the time when Yahoo was in its infancy.

        Well, as a Sagittarius in a Sagittarius family, I can assure you we do not like to talk about death or look at anything that sounds “final.” We don’t like endings. We look for beginnings and signs of good things continuing infinitely. Don Quixote doesn’t want to hunt the last dragon…er, windmill…he wants to go on hunting, even if he claims to be tired. There will be another urge, soon enough. Whatever drives a Sagittarius can become a persistent torch to carry and/or follow. And, if anything dashes hope in that quest, the flame goes out, hopefully replaced by another pursuit. Otherwise, without some lofty, soul-satisfying quest or routine (even though Sagittarius isn’t fond of routine), the fire of Sagittarius dwindles.

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        1. “Being on an adventure doesn’t automatically make you Sagittarius.” No, of course not, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the archetypes, not individuals. Everybody has every sign in their horoscope, so everybody has some part of their life that resonates with the Sagittarius archetype. Carl doesn’t have to be a Sagittarius to have an adventure.

          ‘Ratatouille’ would be a Taurus film on an archetypal level – although I didn’t put it on my list, maybe I should add it! ‘Lord of the Rings’ is an excellent example of a Sagittarius movie (or movies) – as is anything involving a quest for a prize of some sort.

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