The practical sea goat is washed away by the water carrier. As a fixed air sign, Aquarius shares the gifts attained by climbing the mountain in Capricorn, and reforms society for the benefit of all. Through mastery of the mind, it awakens to the reality of humanity’s true nature.
Aquarius is a masculine sign and ruled by Saturn and Uranus, and is balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Leo, ruled by the Sun. It’s often mistaken for a water sign for understandable reasons. Aquarius means ‘of water’ or ‘water carrier’, the glyph comes from the Egyptian hieroglyph for water, and the constellation shows a man pouring water from an urn.
It’s also found in the area of the sky known as ‘The Sea’, maybe because it was where the sun was travelling during the rainy season in ancient times. The life-giving waters brought fertility to the land, and this is reflected in the myths associated with the sign. The waters of Aquarius are also connected to ideas of baptism, washing away sins, cleansing and purification, and a return to youth. The urn, vase or cup could also be seen as the Holy Grail.
But everybody knows that electricity and water don’t mix, so how do we make sense of Uranus ruling an air sign that’s awash with water symbolism?
Well, it’s not really water in the urn.
The ancients called this area of the sky ‘The Sea’ because it was seen as the source of life from the primordial waters. But these waters aren’t H2O; they’re the waters of the firmament – the ‘waters above.’ In other words: ether – also known as prana, chi or spirit. Prana is the sea of energy that creates all forms, and the life-force and breath that animates the body.
One of the hymns of the Atharva-Veda personifies Prana as the supreme spirit, saying:
“…reverence, O Prana, to thy thunder, reverence, O Prana, to thy lightning, reverence, O Prana, to thy rain! When Prana calls aloud to the plants with his thunder, they are fecundated, they conceive, and then are produced abundant.”
This could easily be Uranus. As a sky god, he’s associated with thunder, rain, and lightning, but it’s not just rain that helps plants to grow. Lightning also seeds life by fertilising the soil with nitrogen.
Uranus is also associated with electromagnetic forces at the atomic level, including charged particles, such as negative ions. These are produced by moving water, such as waterfalls and rivers, but also by thunderstorms. Negative ions have a positive effect on life, energising and purifying the body and mind.
So Aquarius pours the water of life from his urn as the cosmic life-force, carrier of creative energy and knowledge, as well as purification through renewal.
Both ‘water’ and the urn, vase or cup are symbols that are associated with goddesses, but Aquarius is represented by a male figure. Originally, however, the energy of the sign may have been attributed to a goddess. By the time the constellations were codified into a system, the symbolism had been transferred to male gods. Eventually, the goddess was written out of the story completely – but not everywhere…
Aquarius Myths – Water
In India, Aquarius is called Kumbha, meaning water-bearer, but it’s also related to the word kumbhaka, which relates to holding your breath during pranayama. This is a yogic practice that involves mastering the movement of prana in the body using the breath as an aid to moksha, or awakening. A kumbha is also a type of pot especially associated with the goddess Ganga, the personification of the river Ganges.
The Bhagavata Purana tells the story of her birth and how the river descended to earth. While Vishnu was measuring the universe, he poked his toe through the cover, piercing a hole. The water of the Causal Ocean (Divine Brahm-Water) poured through the hole and became the Ganges. Bathing in this river is believed to wash away sins and brings you closer to liberation.
In Sumer, Aquarius was called Gula the ‘Great One’, and was associated with Enki, or Ea by the Babylonians. The Great One was also known as ‘the Irrigator’ who ensured the fertility of the fields by harnessing the power of rain and floods. Enki was the god of wisdom and water, and was often depicted with fish swimming in the streams flowing from his shoulders. He’s also seen holding vases that pour water onto the earth.
Enki is also associated with Capricorn the sea-goat, perhaps reflecting the shared rulership of Saturn with Aquarius. However, he was only linked to Aquarius from the Akkadian period in the 2nd millennium BCE. There are also depictions of a female version of the Great One and Gula was originally a goddess, so this feminine version might be the oldest.
However, it’s not clear whether ‘Gula the Great One’ is the same being as ‘Gula the goddess of healing’, who we met in Virgo Myths. Gula was a goddess of the underworld who could heal and restore life. She was thought to bring earthquakes and storms (similar to Uranus) and one of her epithets was ‘She Who waters the tree that forms the axis of the world and offers its fruit to Her worshippers.’ Bit of a mouthful, but perhaps there’s a connection via the fruit of knowledge, as we’ll see.
In Egypt, Aquarius was associated with the god Hapi, pouring the waters of the Nile from two cups. He was the cause of the annual flooding of the river which ensured the fertility of the land. Hapi was depicted as androgynous: a male god with breasts. But it’s possible that he was originally represented as a goddess and they retained the breasts as a symbol of the nurturing of the land.
Aquarius Myths – Greece
In Greece, Aquarius was associated with Ganymede, a Trojan hero. Zeus lusted after the handsome youth so brought him to live with the gods on Olympus to become his personal cupbearer (possibly a euphemism 😉 ). The cupbearer was responsible for pouring nectar and ambrosia, the divine elixir of life that made the gods immortal and kept them young.
But the job of cupbearer used to belong to Hebe, goddess of eternal youth. One of her earlier titles was Ganymeda, which means ‘Gladdening Princess.’ She was the daughter of Zeus and Hera, and as the youngest of the gods, it was her job to keep the rest of them eternally youthful. Hebe was also worshipped as a goddess of pardons and forgiveness, and freed prisoners would hang their chains in her sacred grove at Phlius.
Hebe was replaced as cupbearer when she married Hercules. This might just be the process of male figures usurping the roles of earlier goddesses, and reflect the Greek cultural emphasis on homosexuality (and misogyny). But there could be a deeper significance to the substitution.
When Ganymede replaced Hebe, a mortal man became responsible for dishing out the food of the gods. Perhaps this reflects a shift in consciousness, showing that mankind now has access to the secrets of immortality. It also connects to Gula and another myth, as we’ll see.
The modern ruler of Aquarius is Ouranos, the primal god of the sky. Along with his wife Gaia, he created the physical universe and the race of Titans, including Saturn, the ancient ruler of Aquarius. His name means ‘rainmaker’ and he was seen as a personification of the sky. Ouranos produced a lot of children with Gaia but hated them because they were hideous monsters. So he shoved them into Tartaros in the bowels of the earth, which upset Gaia no end. To stop the madness, Gaia enlisted the help of Kronos (Saturn) who castrated his father (see Capricorn Myths).
As a myth, Uranus doesn’t represent Aquarius well. It kind of fits, but it’s well-known in astrological circles that Uranus was misnamed when it was discovered. It should have been called Prometheus. (Read Prometheus the Awakener by Richard Tarnas to find out why.)
Prometheus is a Titan, like Saturn, who had a long-running feud with Zeus. His name means ‘the one who foresees’ and in some myths, he was responsible for the creation of mankind from clay. He’s a redeemer and trickster god who taught mankind the arts of civilisation, such as astronomy, mathematics, architecture, metallurgy, and medicine.
He also brought us the gift of fire. The story goes that Zeus wanted to destroy mankind but Prometheus persuaded him not to. But then Prometheus couldn’t resist tricking Zeus in a ruse over some meat. Zeus took revenge by denying mankind the gift of fire, saying, “Let them eat their meat raw!”
Fire is a symbol of consciousness and the creative spirit. If humans had fire, they would become more like the gods, and Zeus wasn’t having any of that. Prometheus could see the potential of humanity, using his foresight, so he stole the fire and gave it to humans.
Zeus was enraged and chained Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus mountains. Every day an eagle ripped out his liver, and every night it grew back, until Hercules brokered a deal with Zeus that allowed Chiron to take Prometheus’ place. Prometheus was freed on condition that he wear one of the chains on his finger as a reminder that Zeus was still in charge – a symbol of humility before the gods.
The Meaning of Aquarius
Aquarius is a complex sign with two rulers who don’t get on. Uranus is the father of Saturn, but Saturn is the ancient ruler while Uranus is recent – it seems backwards somehow. The ancients didn’t know about Uranus, so Saturn was the obvious choice to represent the continuation of the journey from Capricorn into service of society at large in Aquarius.
But the ancients also had a different sense of themselves as individuals in relation to society. They were embedded in the community and had less freedom of choice over how their lives would unfold. Uranus was discovered in 1781 during the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, when individualism began to take root. So perhaps it’s only now that we can begin to understand what this sign really means. (Get a head start by reading this excellent post on aperspectivity.)
Aquarius represents the need for civilisation to reform and grow. The structures of society will stagnate and decline if they’re not changed through vision, innovation and revolution. But this process isn’t always positive and can create unintended consequences that lead to disintegration and chaos – something we’re all too familiar with these days.
At best, the collective works together in friendship to create equality, freedom and peace for all. But it rarely works that way because it runs into the shadow side of Aquarius. As an air sign, it tends to have a problem with the body, the instincts and emotions, and a great fear of the irrational. The messy side of humanity makes them uncomfortable and they prefer the rarefied atmosphere of the abstract world of the mind.
This is reflected in the myth of Uranus and his love of the refined and hatred of the crude. Just as Uranus rejects his deformed creations, Aquarius wants to remake humanity into something resembling the ideal in their heads. But when you reject the body, all the feared things are pushed into the unconscious and it creates a blind spot.
This is why utopian visions descend into dystopia and revolutions never end well. They may work in the abstract but backfire when the ideal runs up against reality. In other words, Saturn – the reality principle – and according to the myth, Saturn castrates Uranus. Out of that violent act come the Furies, goddesses of vengeance who punish crimes against the natural order.
The Furies represent what happens when people are overtaken by a fanatical desire to change the world. Their idealism and lack of connection to reality can lead them to become what they’re fighting against. Fanaticism feeds on itself and polarises into an extremity that can only end in nihilism. The French Revolution is the perfect example: Robespierre kicked off the Reign of Terror and ended up losing his head.
There’s nothing wrong with ideals and humanitarian visions of a more equal future, but human nature can’t be erased so easily. The fanatic tries to force reality to conform to an ideal. But in the end, the ideal will be forced to follow the rules of reality. This raises the question: what is reality?
Don’t assume, as Aquarius might, that science and technology will provide the answer!
Perhaps we can blame Prometheus for this dilemma. The myth of stealing fire represents a shift in consciousness that makes us human. It separates us from nature and creates a desire to transcend the instinctual world and create culture. It’s a civilising impulse that brings us closer to the gods. But there are consequences.
The gods are jealous and don’t want to share their knowledge.
We see a similar idea in the Genesis story in the Bible where God forbids Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, saying “for you shall surely die.” But the serpent tells Eve this is a lie and that “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
There are problems with the Christian myth that I can’t get into here. Suffice to say, I don’t believe God wants us to remain ignorant of our true nature. But those with worldly power do want to keep us in the dark – hence religion. Anyway…
Prometheus knew what would happen if he went against Zeus, but he did it anyway. This implies the theft of fire was necessary – essential to humanity’s survival and evolution. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid the consequences. There’s a cost that must be paid.
Prometheus pays for his rebellion, and so do we.
The increase in consciousness creates suffering. We become aware that we’re going to die, but we still have to live and find meaning. We’re divided against ourselves – aware of good and evil. The suffering this creates can trigger a repressive part of the psyche that tries to stop us from waking up – like Saturn castrating Uranus, or religion forbidding self-knowledge.
Waking up to the truth of who you are is a great responsibility. The more fire you steal, the more consciousness you have and the more darkness you have to face and integrate into your being. This doesn’t mean the darkness disappears or is transmuted, although some of it might. Mostly, it means coming to terms with reality as it is and accepting the suffering you can’t change.
Aquarius, of course, will always try to change things, to remove suffering and improve life for everyone. It’s a noble vision but its success depends on humility. When we forget the ring on Prometheus’ finger, we believe we can become God and overturn the natural order. But we can’t be free unless we respect the limits of reality and give the gods their due.
In one version of the myth, Zeus allows Prometheus to go free because the Titan knows something about Zeus’ future fate. There’s something the king of the gods doesn’t know – he has his very own blind spot. This relates to the idea found in esoteric religion that God needs mankind to complete his creation. He needs us to wake up and remember who we are so we can return to him and bring our knowledge with us.
This is the process of individuation and enlightenment that can only be fulfilled when the ego is transcended. Aquarius can awaken to the truth of the divine Self – Christ consciousness, Buddha nature, or whatever you want to call it. This happens in a flash (Uranus), which then has to be mastered and lived in reality (Saturn).
The Aquarian vision builds on the realisation of Capricorn and recognises that all beings are interconnected. The Self of one is the Self of all.
This isn’t about you as an individual ego, but how you interconnect with the whole without losing your sense of self as an individual. In other words, you surrender to God and allow him to work through you in service to others.
The elixir of immortality is the realisation that you’re already one with God and that true freedom is only found in that knowledge.
If Aquarius can get its ego out of the way, it can achieve great things in service of humanity. But the idea of becoming God has to go. You don’t become God. You already are God – not your ego, not the small self – but the inner Christ or Buddha.
But to really understand this, we need the next sign…
Aquarius on Film
Films that represent the Aquarius archetype include most sci-fi and space movies, as well as stories about originality and independence, invention, revolution, utopia/dystopia, community and friendship, and angels. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Aquarius on film:
- Dave Bowman battling an insane computer and evolving to new state of being in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Read the book review here)
- Neo taking the red pill and discovering a dystopian reality in The Matrix.
- Robert Capa and the crew of Icarus II on a mission to reignite the sun in Sunshine.
- Theodore Twombly who forgoes human relationships for a love affair with his phone in Her.
- Edward R. Murrow fighting to report the truth in Good Night and Good Luck.
- Robert Angier the magician who goes too far in his pursuit of power in The Prestige.
- Damiel the angel who falls in love with a human and chooses to become mortal in Wings of Desire.
- Rick Deckard hunting replicants and questioning his humanity in Blade Runner.
More on the dystopian world of Blade Runner here. Next month we’ll look at Pisces Myths
Discover more Zodiac Myths here
More on Aquarius:
- Aquarius Keywords
- Aquarius Traditional Correspondences
- The Story Behind Saturn
- The Story Behind Uranus