Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of May 21st - May 27th,  2004

Chapter XVI

Water, water everywhere...

Columns Archive

Cancer, the Crab

What's it to ya?

  Like the summer rain which falls soft and gentle upon the land from cloud filled skies, collecting first in mountain streams, later in rivers, finally gathering its greatest volume in the embrace of the ocean which wraps the Earth; so our celestial saga continues as this week we look at Cancer, the 4th sign of the zodiac.

  Cancer is a cardinal water sign. It is ruled by the Moon, and represents emotions and feelings. Since the term 'cardinal' indicates activity and initiation, this is moving water, fast and restless. It is the sign of femininity, of women and girls, childbirth and labor pains. The Moon rules over the body, clothing, washing (water), and our homes. It rules the night, darkness and sleep. It is eating and drinking, food, springs, rivers, and fishing. While death is ruled by Pluto, the grave is said to be ruled by Cancer, the final resting place of the body.

Rain on the mountain

Rain on the mountain

  Book 16 of Homer's Iliad equates to Cancer, our wonderfully wet water sign. One of the repeating themes in this work is the way in which Homer opens the chapter with an image representative of the sign in question. Book 16 is no exception. As a cardinal water sign, Cancerians are the people most moved by tears and sadness. From line 2,

  "Meanwhile Patroklos
approached Akhilleus his commander, streaming
warm tears
- like a shaded mountain spring
that makes a rockledge run with dusky water.
Akhilleus watched him come, and felt a pang for him.
Then the great prince and runner said: 'Patroklos,
why all the weeping? Like a small girlchild
who runs beside her mother and cries and cries
to be taken up
, and catches at her gown,
and will not let her go, looking up in tears
until she has her wish: that's how you seem,
Patroklos, winking out your glimmering tears...'"

Crying child

Crying child

  This is a wonderful image to set our stage. Mountain springs and little girls, clinging to their mother's skirts, excellent Cancerian archetypes all. Tears are but one way in which emotion is expressed. Others can be grief and groaning, themes that this chapter is loaded with. But even the actions of individuals and the troops are depicted in Cancerian terms:

"In painful gasps his breath came, sweat ran down
in rivers off his body
"Now the Trojans
with a great outcry streamed away; Danaans
poured along the curved ships..."
"Aye, though he knew the tide of battle turned..."
"When he had cut their first wave off..."

a small stream

a small stream

  These water images are rich throughout. Rivers, rain, springwater, cups and the sea will all be themes which interweave with our storyline, diving beneath the plot, and then bobbing to the surface once again, leaving us wet with anticipation. We will return to this image at the end of our Grecian column.

  Cancer is the sign of motherhood. Now it is Akhilleus' mother, Thetis, whose memory is evoked as she takes care of her son, by having sent him to war with a chest full of shirts, cloaks and rugs. It even has in it a cup, used only for homage to Zeus, and of how to wash it with clear water...

the cup

the cup

went to his hut. He lifted up the lid
of a seachest, all intricately wrought,
that Thetis of the silver feet had stowed
aboard his ship for him to take to Ilion (Troy),
filled to the brim with shirts, wind-breaking cloaks,
and fleecy rugs. His hammered cup was there,
from which no other man drank the bright wine,
and he made offering to no god but Zeus.
Lifting it from his chest, he purified it
first with brimstone, washed it with clear water,
and washed his hands, then dipped it full of wine..."

  Proper dietary rituals and good common sense. He later cleans the cup before putting it back in the chest. Returning now to our watery theme, the first company (of five) of Akhilleus's men is led by a man whose mother was mortal, but whose father was "a river fed by heaven."

  "Peleus' daughter,
beautiful Polydore, had conceived him
lying with Sperkheios, untiring stream,
a woman with a god..."

  While the leader of the second company is born of a woman who dances for Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon.



  "A second
company was commanded by Eudoros,
whose mother was unmarried: Polymele,
Phylas' daughter, a beautiful dancer
with whom the god Hermes fell in love,
seeing her among singing girls who moved
in measure for the lady of belling hounds,
Artemis of the golden shaft..."

  And indeed, the feminine issues around Eudoros, leader of Akhilleus' second company, continue to be expanded upon, with labor pains, being born into the light of day, and finally raised by a man who nurtures him as if he were his own.



  "When Eileithyia, sending pangs of labor,
brought him forth to see the sun-rays, then
strong-minded Ekhekleos, Aktor's son,
led the girl home with countless bridal gifts;
but Phylas in his age brought up the boy
with all kind care, as though he were a son."

  Eileithyia is the midwife of ancient Greek mythology. She presided over birth and brought to women in labor both pain and deliverance. These are maternal themes, and not images one would expect to find in the midst of battle, as troops prepare for war. Twenty eight lines are given to the description of these first two of five of Achkilleus' commanders, repleat with their feminine weave. The remaining three, who do not find Cancerian themes being used to describe them, rate only an additional six lines. After these commanders and their Myrmidons return to battle, Homer uses another Cancerian metaphor (returning to our water imagery) as Patroklos despatches one of the Trojans,

Just keep swimming...

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming...

  "He hooked him by the spearhead
over the chariot rail, as a fisherman
on a point of rock will hook a splendid fish
with line and dazzling bronze out of the ocean

  And, as if once were not enough, this theme is repeated, again by Patroklos, as he makes fun of another of the Trojans he has just killed.

  "God, what a nimble fellow, somersaulting!
If he were out at sea in the fishing grounds
this man could feed a crew
, diving for oysters,
going overboard even in rough water,
the way he took that earth-dive from his car (chariot).
The Trojans have their acrobats, I see."

  The Myrmidons, the troops of Akhilleus, are even described as being 'hungry and thirsty' for battle. Notice that the water is back.



  "Like wolves,
carnivorous and fierce and tireless,
who rend a great stag on a mountainside
and feed on him, their jaws reddened with blood,
loping in a pack to drink springwater,
lapping the dark rim up with slender tongues,
their chops a-drip with fresh blood, their hearts
unshaken ever, and their bellies glutted:
Such were the Myrmidons and their officers,
running up to form round Akhilleus' brave

  And indeed, the Danaan (Greek) captains are later also described as 'ravenous wolves' in this chapter, but drinking, springwater, eating and glutted bellies are not the only Cancerian themes at work here. The body is said to be ruled by both the Moon and Cancer, and in a manner which seems strange to us today, but which would make perfect sense on the field of battle, the body of two fallen soldiers becomes the pivot around which the fighting turns, for which the troops strive. Indeed, this fighting is even cast in a noctural mold.

  "Zeus unfurled a deathly gloom of night
over the combat, making battle toil..."

Lunar phase

A lunar phase

  The battle contines to rage for many lines fighting for the corpse of Sarpedon, the son of Zeus. Later in this chapter, the battle is over the body of Kebriones, a son of Priam, and the charioteer for Hektor as they confront Patroklos on the battlefield in the latter's final moments.

  "So you sprang, Patroklos,
on Kebriones. Then Hektor, too, leapt down
out of his chariot, and the two men fought
over the body like two mountain lions
over the carcass of a buck, both famished,
both in pride of combat. So these two
fought now for Kebriones, two champions,
Patroklos, son of Menoitios, and Hektor,
furling their bronze to tear each other's flesh.
Hektor caught hold of the dead man's head and held,
while his antagonist clung to a single foot,
as Trojans and Danaans pressed the fight."

Milk pail

Got Milk?

  Need I point out that a carcass IS a body? Notice that each of these champions, in our metaphor, are famished. Drawing upon another image which one might not think of in the heat of battle, we have yet another Cancerian theme around which the symbolism turns. Cancer rules women, the stomach and breasts. In what should be an obvious extension of the feminine, 'milk' seamlessly works its way into the scenes depicted by Homer.

"Men kept crowding around the corpse. Like flies
that swarm and drone in farmyards round the milkpails
on spring days, when the pails are splashed with milk:
just so they thronged around the corpse."

  Images which seem to contrast, at opposite ends of creation's spectrum, but which flow smoothly down our Cancerian stream of metaphors. After Sarpedon dies, the images of washing, clothing and a rich, broad land enter the picture, with kin, tomb and gravestone emerging as yet another Cancerian tributary.

Sarpedon taken by Sleep and Death

Sarpedon taken by Sleep and Death

"...wash him in the river,
annoint him with ambrosia, put ambrosial
clothing on him
. Then have him conveyed
by those escorting spirits quick as wind,
sweet Sleep and Death, who are twin brothers. These
will set him down in the rich broad land of Lykia,
and there his kin and friends may bury him
with tomb
and stone, the trophies of the dead."

  Ambrosia is the food of the gods. 'Sleep' (ruled by the Moon and the noctural) bobs to the surface in this chapter, of being a counterpart or 'equal' of death. Here it is simply being being viewed as another way of looking at these energies.

The Storm of Zeus

The storm of Zeus

  We saw earlier how Akhilleus used his cup exclusively for Zeus (Jupiter). Jupiter is said to be in its exaltation in Cancer, and in the following lines, we catch a sense of how, for Homer and the Greeks at least, morality and water may have intertwined in at least one way.

"As under a great storm black earth is drenched
on an autumn day, when Zeus pours down the rain
in scuddling gusts
to punish men, annoyed
because they will enforce their crooked judgments
and banish justice from the market place,
thoughtless of the gods' vengeance; all the streams
run high and full
, and torrents cut their way
down dry declivities into the swollen sea
with a hoarse clamor
, headlong out of hills,
while cultivated fields erode away-
such was the gasping flight of the Trojan horses."

the river

The river

  In our analysis of the sixteenth chapter, we have limited ourselves to the images which deal with Cancer and its rulership under the Moon, but for those trained in the ways of heaven, our astrological primer is not limited to these themes. The other dignitaries, of Jupiter's exaltation in this sign and of the fall of Mars in this location, are also interwoven into our epic poem, as is the Sun's reaching its greatest height (longest day of the year) while in Cancer, but with the couple of exceptions just noted to Zeus, we have not investigated these, in order to keep the story line simpler. Naturally, there are other images presented here which might seem to work better in other chapters, such as Patroklos and Hektor fighting as lions, but in each chapter the preponderance of the themes which rise to the fore correlate with the astrological symbolism. These images begin to make sense when you realize this is a tapestry of celestial themes, woven together in a choreography of heaven and earth, as an primer for those just setting out on their soul's journey to learn how to navigate their way home via the stars.