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Welcome to the Zodiac, Ophiuchus. But Who Are You?

6 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

The cosmic news broke without warning. Or did the solar eclipse and floods and blizzards herald the rediscovery of the new sign of the zodiac, Ophiuchus, the snake holder? His usurpation of the 19 days between Scorpio and Sagittarius has altered everyone’s horoscope — and perhaps altered our personalities too. I used to be a Cancer (and crabby) and now I am a Gemini — and two-faced? Confused, yes.

But who exactly is Ophiuchus?

All the dozen previous signs of the zodiac have roots in classical mythology — specifically in the legend of how the 12 Olympian gods took the shape of various animals and creatures to flee the sulfurous, multiarmed monster Typhon, who was causing havoc and ripping up mountains and such. (Only Zeus stood his ground and, gathering up his courage and his lightning bolts, let fly with those weapons of mass destruction, burying Typhon under a mess of rock, which smolder to this day as a volcano, Mount Etna.) The myth doesn’t bear much fact-checking — or math. Does Gemini, for example, count for one or two? And if Zeus stood firm, then … something is missing … And what god or goddess would have sought refuge in the shape of Libra, a scale?

(See more on the Earth rotation that changed our zodiac signs.)

Otherwise, the symbols are meaningful only in terms of mnemonics — giving earthly shape to the constellations that occupy the moving belt of stars that define the terrestrial year. Allusions to myth help give each meaning. Cancer, for example, being perhaps a giant crustacean defeated by Herakles (Hercules, for those who prefer Latin) but also being a hard-shelled creature, provides a metaphor for the nature of any human born under the sign (hiding in one’s shell: by extension, a homebody, as I was comfortable being until now, when I must learn to be a Gemini).

So, what kind of creature is Ophiuchus? The illustrations that have emerged (old prints from shortly after the time of Gutenberg, it seems) portray some sort of heavily muscled person holding on with difficulty to a veritable anaconda in the sky. There are various myths attached to the constellation. Most are obscure, and two are quite telling — if ominous. A third I have come up with on my own.

(See what you need to know about Ophiuchus.)

The first is that of Asklepios (in Latin, Aesculapius, which has somehow become acceptable in English as Asclepius), who was, as the old Greek stories often go, the offspring of a tragic match. His mother, impregnated by the god Apollo, started a dalliance with someone else. It is not good to cheat on a god — and certainly not one associated with the sun. The poor woman was set on fire and her child ripped from her womb (Asklepios etymologically meaning “to be cut out”). The infant was given over to be raised by the good and wise centaur Chiron. He grew to be wise himself, able to cure the sick and raise the dead. The serpent, already a symbol of wisdom and its goddess Athena, was associated with Asklepios’ rejuvenating skills because it could renew itself, becoming “young” again by shedding its old skin. But the fates and the gods did not like the idea of a human with the ability to grant other humans the gift of eternal life. So Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt. His father Apollo, however, raised him from the dead — and eventually Asklepios became the god of healing and medicine. Some early Christian writers went on to say that he was a prefiguring of their own savior — perhaps propaganda against the cult of Asklepios, which was a potent rival to the faith of the followers of Jesus.

The other tale has a magnificent piece of art associated with it: the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture found in Rome and reassembled by Michelangelo. It stands in the Vatican Museum and shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by serpents. Why was Laocoön so punished? Because he warned his fellow citizens of Troy not to let into their walled citadel the giant wooden horse left behind by the Greeks. The goddess Athena (she of the snakes) sent enormous serpents to strangle and kill the priest and his sons. The Trojans interpreted it as a sign that it was all right to let the gift horse in without looking into its contents. The rest is, again, tragedy.

The key to both tales is the snake, symbol of wisdom and of all the knowledge hidden beneath the Earth. One of the great sites of prophecy in the ancient Greek world was Pythia, from where we get our word python. And so, I have a third scenario to help explain who Ophiuchus is. It isn’t a story told very often, but while not perfectly matching the “snake holder” description, it involves wisdom and snakes.

(See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2010.)

Tiresias was considered the wisest of men, and he was summoned before the gods because Zeus and his sister-spouse Hera were quarreling. Zeus insisted that women enjoyed sex more than men; the prudish Hera said it was not true. The only one who knew for certain was Tiresias. Why? Once when he was walking through the woods, he came upon two enormous serpents that were mating. Being curious and not afraid of disturbing these symbols of wisdom as they copulated, he poked at them. As punishment (or a boon), Tiresias was transformed into a woman and lived, fully, as a woman. Years later, walking through the same woods, he again came across serpents mating. He knew exactly what to do. He poked them again. Poof. He was a man.

And so, Zeus asked, having been both male and female, who derives more pleasure from sexual intercourse? Tiresias did not hesitate and said, “Woman.” Hera was incensed and struck him blind. Transgender, inquisitive, brave enough to risk the wrath of Hera (whom even Zeus feared), Tiresias, blind as he may have become, is the most modern embodiment of Ophiuchus.

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