Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Aquarius

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

Ganga and her pot

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.

The Great One

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 in the Dendera zodiac

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.

Hebe

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.

Prometheus bound

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:

Images: Aquarius; Ganga; Dendera; Hebe; Prometheus

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5 thoughts on “Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Aquarius

  1. Thank you. Just to be clear, I was thinking about the relation of good judgement to appetites in a phenomenological sense. The former always seems tyrannical from the latter’s point of view. Then it suddenly occurred to me that the theogony described the same. Since Zeus became king, nobody keeps their resolutions. E.g.:

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2019/01/01/why-you-should-ditch-depressing-new-years-resolutions-and-do-this-instead/#2bb1c4e3722e

    Like

  2. Thank you for another extraordinarily insightful post! I have been thinking about a few things and maybe you would be so kind to offer your opinion.

    (1) Hesiod’s “Works and Days” recounts the ages of humanity and it describes Saturn as the ruler of the Golden Age. With Jupiter’s ascendancy, the descent of the human ages begins. I have been wondering about the meaning of this fact and then it occurred to me that it might be an example of the “unreliable narrator,” (e.g. like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa) as it were, since Zeus won the battle, and “the victor writes the history.” Zeus is obviously an embodiment of passions and appetites, among other things, as evidenced by his promiscuity. From the perspective of our appetites, reason always seems tyrannical. Could it be that the fall from the Golden Age represents humanity’s increasing estrangement from the “Dharma” and identification with its appetites? Gaia then appears as the symbol of the creative unconscious, whose issue is continually “swallowed up” by reason. What do you think of this?

    (2) You wrote:

    “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.”

    Many Gnostics thought the serpent was an emissary of the supreme being and the Jehova was a tyrant, but obviously the orthodox interpretation of Genesis is different. Do you think when God says “for you shall surely die,” it is meant as a threat of retribution, or do you think that the fact that eating from the fruit would bring about the Fall is the reason that it was prohibited to eat in the first place?

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Max and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      I like the idea of the unreliable narrator in mythology. It’s frustrating that we’ll never really know what the ancients believed because we only have what was written down – and who knows what spin those stories were given or how much they changed before they were written down and fixed? But I also have to remind myself that they didn’t have our trouble with the post-modern tendency to deconstruct everything and their attitude towards mythology and history was totally different, presumably. We can only guess at what happened.

      What you said about falling away from the Golden Age reminded me of the Hindu cycle of Yugas and that we’re now in the Kali Yuga – although some think we’re heading back up the other way again. If something like this is true – and intuitively I feel it could be in some way – then that makes it even harder for us to discern the truth. It’s the blind men describing an elephant problem – they all feel a different part of the animal and none of them know what it is. We’re all stumbling around in the dark trying to understand what’s going on but the tools we have (our minds) seem inadequate to the task. We don’t even know what we don’t know.

      Then again, that could be part of the ‘plan’ (if there is one). There’s nothing more motivating than finding yourself in the dark and needing to find the light switch, especially if you want to stop bumping into the furniture.

      When our minds ‘switched on’ and we started to become aware, perhaps it diminished our access to the instinctive realm and produced a loss of energy. This could be seen as reason swallowing the instincts. But we don’t have much choice in the matter because our big brains mean we’re born prematurely (in comparison with other apes) and that means we have a longer childhood. We can’t rely on instinct as much and have to learn how to think instead. This creates a split in our consciousness and we feel cast out of Eden.

      Perhaps when God says “for you shall surely die” he means you’ll become aware of death. Up until that point, we were living embedded in nature, in instinct, and unaware that we were even alive. It’s just pure life force doing what it does. But when you eat from the Tree of Knowledge you become aware of duality – the mind splits experience into subject and object, me in here versus the world out there – and that means you know you’re alive and that you’re going to die. Death becomes a reality for the first time. But it’s only through that awareness that you can also become aware of your true immortality, your divine nature – the spark hidden in matter.

      I suspect the Genesis story is another example of an unreliable narrator. I tend to see it as a warning against the old shamanic tribal consciousness and pagan rituals that people were still practising back then. The tree, the fruit, Eve, and the serpent are all symbols associated with the ancient goddess cults so the new monotheistic religions had to suppress them.

      Something I wanted to include in this post but couldn’t cos it was already too long, was the idea that Prometheus could represent this older shamanic mythology too. He’s the classic trickster god who steals fire and there are multiple examples of this story all around the world. Prometheus is older than Zeus so perhaps he’s a representative of the shamanic consciousness of the past, when people lived in smaller tribal groups. When they started to live in larger towns and cities, religion became more organised and controlled by priests and priestesses. Perhaps the fight between Prometheus and Zeus represents the tension between these different worlds and the new religious order asserting its dominance. In a similar way, the Bible turns the old pagan gods into demons to encourage people to follow the new religion.

      Then again, there is a need for more reason when you encounter some of the denizens of the collective unconscious. You can’t just let it all hang out, as it were. If you see the fruit of knowledge as an entheogen or some sort of shamanic technique that produces altered states, then there could be a real need to warn against using it. Until you can tell the difference between the lower astral realms and the higher spiritual realms, then it’s something you should be very careful with.

      I can feel this turning into a long ramble, so I’ll stop here. Hope some of this makes sense…!

      Like

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