Cancer Symbolism and Mythology Explained

Cancer is the fourth sign in the Zodiac. It is named after the constellation of Cancer. It is also known as «the Crab», which is the form it takes to represent itself with in the heavens.

The constellation of Cancer has had many symbols used to portray it in ancient days. The one that we used today is the crab, but ancient Egyptians used the scarab for it. Although the symbols have changed over the years, one thing that has remained constant is that it has almost always been seen as a creature with both an exoskeleton and claws. The crab even played a very minor role in one of Hercules 12 Labours. The story begins the way all Greek myths do, with tragedy that the hero must overcome.

It begins with the story of Heracles. He was caught up in a fit of anger and wasn’t thinking very straight. According to the legend, this madness was brought on by his step mother the goddess Hera. (It would seem she didn’t like him very much). So the legend is that while he was throwing this tantrum Heracles killed his wife and children. (Did I mention that Heracles Roman name was Hercules?) Once the madness passed he realized what he’d done so Heracles ran away. The legend isn’t clear as to why he ran and hid. It doesn’t say if he isolated himself out of grief for what had happened, or if it was because he didn’t trust himself to not hurt someone else.

Regardless of why, Heracles did go into hiding for a time until eventually his brother managed to track him down and persuade him to go and speak with the Oracle at Delhi. So Heracles agrees. He speaks to the Oracle and is assigned 12 tasks, or labours as they were called, that he needs to accomplish in order to gain forgiveness for what he’d done.

It was during the Second Labour that he first met the crab. His second task was to slay a serpent with 9 heads, called Lernaean Hydra. This beast was so poisonous that even its breath could kill you. Despite its bad breath, Heracles found a way to get close enough to fight it. As he was doing so, Hera who really seems to have it out for Heracles, sent a crab to bite at his feet and distract him. She hoped he would be distracted long enough from the monster he was fighting that it could kill him. However her plan didn’t work and Heracles triumphed and killed the nine headed serpent despite her interference.

Her plan might not have worked this time, but that didn’t mean she’d quit trying. It’s interesting to note that the reason Cancer has such dim stars, is blamed on the crab that tried to bite Heracles. Since the crab wasn’t able to distract him, he wasn’t rewarded with bright stars. So Hera rewarded the crab by immortalizing it in the constellations, but punished it for not succeeding by giving it the dimmest stars.

In ancient Egyptian times, the scarab (once associated as the symbol of the constellation of Cancer) was considered sacred. The Egyptians even had a god called Khepera, who was their scarab-beetle god. He was believed to be responsible for helping the sun to set. Many times when they buried their dead they would place an amulet representing this beetle over the heart of the one who had died. This was to symbolically keep the heart from testifying against them in the final judgement.

The «element» Cancer is associated with is water and has «cardinal» for its quality. This makes this sign very creative as well as loving and kind. They are also very protective of those they care for.

Tattoos could be quite varied for this symbol. They could include a crab carrying a bucket, which would represent not only the constellation but also include their «element» of water. Or perhaps even a rendering of an ancient Egyptian scarab, since at one time it was thought to represent Cancer. Or even you could have the artist draw the crab biting at Heracles heals.

Whichever you decide, make sure you talk with the artist who will be giving you your tattoos. They often have great ideas that will add to what you had in mind.

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