Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Scales, the Claws

Urania's Mirror 1825

Astraea was the last of the gods to stay on Earth, as mankind became wicked, she ascended to heaven to become the constellation Virgo; the Scales of Justice she carried became the nearby constellation Libra. Originally the Greeks saw the Scales of Balance as being the claws of the Scorpion.

Read what writers on mythology have said about Astraea on this Theoi Project webpage

"They named Libra from the equal balance of this month because on September 24 the sun makes the equinox while running through this sign. Whence Lucan also says (Civil War 4.58): To the scales of just Libra” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.106.]

The word Libra, from Latin libra, plural librae, Greek lithra, a weighing scale, is related to the words: level, lira, deliberate, equilibrium (from æquus, equal + libra), litra (name of a Greek weight and coin), litre (liter, a metric unit of volume)", librate (land worth a pound a year, the word used to mean; to vibrate as a balance; to be in equipoise; to waver between one thing and another). The process of librating or swinging from side to side is spoken of as libration.

"From time immemorial the scales have been the principle attribute of justice, it being impossible to even a little right with any quantity of wrong" [Brewers Book of Myth and Legend, p.253].

The scales are balanced when they are just even, level. The words just and justice come from the Indo-European root *yewes- 'Law'. Derivatives: jural (law), jurist, jury¹, abjure (to renounce under oath; forswear), adjure (to command or enjoin solemnly, as under oath), conjure (to summon up energy for a specific purpose), injury, juridical, jurisconsult, jurisdiction, jurisprudence, objurgate, perjure, (these words from Latin jus, ius, stem iur-, law, and its derivative iurare, 'to pronounce a ritual formula,' swear), just¹ (from Latin justus, iustus, just), justice. [Pokorny ieuos- 512. Watkins] Names: Justin, Justina, Justus.

The word balance comes from Latin bi-, 'two, twice', + Latin lanx, genitive lancis, 'plate, dish; scale of weighing machine'.

“A pound is made of twelve ounces [Troy weights?], and thus it is considered as a type of perfect weight because it consists of as many ounces as there are months in the year. It is called a 'pound' (libra) because it is independent (liber) and contains all the aforementioned weights within it.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.333.]

The symbol for the British currency called the pound '£' (L with a horizontal line), and the pound, weight, is also known as the 'lira sign'. The pound currency unit was so named because it was originally the value of 1 pound Tower Weight of fine silver. Both symbols derive from librum, the basic Roman unit of weight, in turn derived from the Latin word pendere, for scales or balance.

“A weight (pondus) is so called because it hangs (pendere) balanced in the scales, hence also the term pensum ('something weighed'). The term pondus is loosely used for one pound (libra). Hence also the dipondius (i.e. dupondius) is named, as if it were duo pondera ('two pounds'); this term has been retained in usage up to today.” [p.332.] “Steward (dispensator) is the name for a person entrusted with the administration of money, and such a one is a dispensator because in former times the person who dispensed money would not count it but 'weigh it out' (appendere).” [p.217.] “A 'measure of wool' (pensum) for women is named from weighing (pendere, past participle pensus), whence also the words 'rations' (pensa) and 'expense' (impensa) [p.389.]”   [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD]

"From the same pendere ‘to weigh or pay, comes dispensator ‘distributing cashier,' and in our accounts we write expensumexpense’ and therefrom the first pensio ‘payment’ and likewise the second and any others, and dispendium ‘loss by distribution,' for this reason, that money is wont to become less in the dispendendo ‘distributing of the payments’; compendium ‘saving,' which is made when it compenditur ‘is weighed all together’" [Varro: On The Latin Language, 1st century AD, p.171.]

Latin pendere comes from the Indo-European root *(s)pen- 'To draw, stretch, spin'. Derivatives: spend, spider (related to the verb pendere, to hang, let hang; scales 'hang in the balance', Arachne, the spinster spider hanged herself), spin, spindle (a slender, tapered rod for twisting and holding thread in spinning), spinster, painter² (a rope attached to the bow of a boat, used for tying up, as when docking or towing), pansy (French pensée 'thought.' The flower resembles a little face crinkled up in thought, from Latin pensare to weigh and ponder about), penchant, pend, pending, pendant¹, pendentive, pendulous, pendulum, pensile (hanging loosely; suspended), pension¹, pensive, peso, poise¹ (to carry or hold in equilibrium; balance), antependium (a decorative hanging for the front of an altar, lectern, or pulpit), append, appendectomy, appendix (a human appendix hangs at the end of the large intestine), avoirdupois (weight or heaviness, especially of a person), compendium (a short, complete summary; an abstract), compensation, counterpoise, depend, independence, independent, dispense, expend, expensive, impend, penthouse, perpend (to consider carefully; ponder), perpendicular, prepense (contemplated or arranged in advance; premeditated: malice prepense), propend (to have a propensity; incline or tend), recompense, stipend, suspend, vilipend (treat with contempt; despise), -penia (lack; deficiency as in leukopenia), geoponic (agriculture or farming), lithopone (a white pigment), span² (to bind or fetter), spancel (a rope used to hobble an animal, as a sheep), spanner, span¹ (the extent or measure of space, the span of life determined by the fates, lifespan), spangle (sparkling object), pound¹, ponder, ponderous; equiponderate, preponderate, spontaneous. [Pokorny (s)pen-(d-) 988. Watkins] In the names: Spencer, Aspen, Pentagon, Pennsylvania.

Johann Bode, Uranographia, 1801.

The head of an obsolete modern constellation, Turdus Solitarius, encroaches onto one of the scales of Libra, the one with the alpha star, Zuben Algenubi. Turdus Solitarius, the solitary thrush was a constellation that was never widely recognized and was replaced by other birds, including Noctua, the owl, and the Hermit Bird. The constellation was located on the end of the tail of Hydra, the water-snake, just below Libra, the scales. Its stars have been incorporated back into Hydra. Manilius says the scales represent 'balancing night with the length of day'. This particular scale, alpha, might represent the night scale; Noctua means night owl. The words ostrich and thrush comes from the same root, ostrich (avis + Late Latin struthio, Greek strousthos), turdus and thrush (from Greek strousthos). It is said that the Egyptian goddess Maat used an ostrich feather to measure the weight of the heart, or soul, in which a person’s heart or soul lies in one pan and the ostrich feather of the goddess Maat in the other [3].

In earlier times, Libra was represented not by a balance, but as the claws of a scorpion, Scorpius. At first Scorpio held the scales in his claw, or his claws were the scales. The Zuben- prefix in the names of the stars of Libra is from the Arabic word for 'claw'. The Romans created the constellation, Chelae, 'claws', was a common Roman title for Libra, but as Ian Ridpath (Star Tales) explains the idea of a balance in this area did not originate with the Romans. The Sumerians knew this area as ZIB-BA AN-NA, the balance of heaven, 2000 years BC, and where no doubt the Arabs got the name Zuben. Hence it seems that the Romans revived a constellation that existed before Greek times.

Allen [Star Names] says that the sacred books of India mentions this constellation as Tula, the Tamil Tulam or Tolam, a Balance. Greek has the plural word talanton, 'pair of scales', 'balance', related to Sanskrit tula, 'balance', tulayati, 'lifts up, weighs', from the Indo-European root *tele- 'To lift, support, weigh; with derivatives referring to measured weights and thence to money and payment'. Derivatives: telamon (a figure of a man used as a supporting pillar from Greek talanton, 'pair of scales, balance, a weight'.), toll¹ (a fixed charge or tax for a privilege, especially for passage across a bridge or along a road), philately (stamp collecting), tolerate (from Latin tolerare, to bear, endure), talion (a punishment identical to the offense, as the death penalty for murder), retaliate (from Latin talio, reciprocal punishment in kind, possibly 'something paid out'), talent (from Greek talanton, any of several specific weights of gold or silver, hence the sum of money represented by such a weight), ablation (from ab, away + latus, carried), collate (to examine and compare carefully in order to note points of disagreement), dilatory (dis + latus, intended to delay), elate, elated (used as the past participle stem of effere ‘to carry up’, from ferre ‘to carry’. Exultantly proud and joyful), elative, illation (the act of inferring or drawing conclusions), illative (drawing conclusions), legislator (lex, law, + lator, bearer, from latus), oblate¹, prelate, prolate, relate, sublate, superlative, translate, (these words from Latin latus, 'carried, borne,' used as the suppletive past participle of ferre, to bear), dilate (Latin dilatare, literally ‘to spread widely apart’, from latus ‘wide’), lateral, latitude (Latin latitudo, ‘breadth, width’, from latus ‘broad’), tola (a unit of weight used in India, from Sanskrit tul, tula, scales, balance, weight), extol (to praise highly; exalt). [Pokorny 1. tel- 1060. Watkins] Atalanta means 'equal in weight', derived from Greek atalantos. Atalanta was a fierce huntress, she said she would marry anybody who could beat her in a foot race - a competition.

[I speculate that Latin tela, 'a web', from the stem of texere, 'to weave', might fit here. The word bears a phonetic similarity to *tele- word above, and could explain the cognates of pendere ‘to weigh'; i.e. 'spider' and 'spin'? Derivatives of tela 'web': text, textile, tissue, context, texture, subtle (sub 'beneath' + tela 'web'), technical; from *teks- 'To weave'.]

The lex talionis (law of retaliation) is a theory of retributive justice which says that proper punishment should be equal to the wrong suffered [6]. The most common expression of lex talionis is 'an eye for an eye'.

In the Bible Daniel 5:27 Tekel can mean weighed or shekel.

"Tekel: You have been weighed on the balances and found wanting."

Spiders (aranea) are vermin of the air (aer), named from the air that is their nourishment. They spin out a long thread from their little body and, constantly attentive to their webs, never leave off working on them, maintaining a perpetual suspension in their own piece of craftsmanship.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.258.]

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

"Balancing night with the length of day when after a year's space we enjoy the new vintage of the ripened grape, the Scales will bestow the employment of weights and measures and a son to emulate the talents of Palamedes, who first assigned numbers to things, and to these numbers names, fixed magnitudes, and individual symbols. He will also be acquainted with the tables of law, abstruse legal points, and words denoted by compendious signs; he will know what is permissible and the penalties incurred by doing what is forbidden; in his own house he is a people's magistrate holding lifelong office. Under no other sign would Servius [translator's note: Servius Sulpicius Rufus, ca. 106-43 BC, extolled as the greatest of jurists by Cicero] more fittingly have been born, who in interpreting the law framed legislation of his own. Indeed, whatever stands in dispute and needs a ruling the pointer of the Balance will determine"  [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 4, p.239].

Some scholars have connected the name of Palamedes with palame, "palm of the hand" [7]. Libra is stamped on the coins of Palmyra. The palms of the hands are used like scale-pans of balance to judge weights.

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Libra
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Zuben Elgenubi alpha 13SCO41 15SCO05 222 01 38 -15 50 07 +00 20 22 2.90 A3
Zuben Elakribi delta 13SCO53 15SCO17 224 34 27 -08 19 18 +08 15 07 4.90 var A1
Zuben Hakrabi nu 17SCO22 18SCO46 225 57 29 -16 03 51 +01 12 07 5.28 K5
Zubenelschemali beta 17SCO59 19SCO22 228 34 41 -09 11 59 +08 30 06 2.74 B8
sigma 19SCO18 20SCO41 225 17 04 -25 05 13 -07 38 18 3.41 M4
iota 19SCO37 21SCO00 227 20 30 -19 36 14 -01 50 37 4.66 B9
Zuben Elakrab gamma 23SCO44 25SCO08 233 10 53 -14 37 28 +04 23 28 4.02 G6
upsilon 27SCO31 28SCO54 233 49 58 -27 58 16 -08 25 51 3.78 K5
tau 27SCO58 29SCO21 233 53 40 -29 36 54 -10 00 53 3.80 B3

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

the scale of night

Silently with the stars ascended.

—  Longfellow's Occultation of Orion.

Libra, the Balance or Scales, is the Italian Libra and Bilancia, the French Balance, the German Wage, — Bayer's Wag and Bode's Waage, — but the Anglo-Saxons said Wæge and Pund, and the Anglo-Normans, Peise, all meaning the Scales, or a Weight.

The early Greeks did not associate its stars with a Balance, so that many have thought it substituted in comparatively recent times for the Chelae, the Claws of the Scorpion (Scorpius), that previously had been known as a distinct portion of the double sign; Hyginus characterizing it as dimidia pars Scorpionis, and Ptolemy counting eight components in the two divisions of his Khelai (claws),    Boreios and notios with nine amorphotoi. Aratos also knew it under that title, writing of it as a dim sign, — phaeon epiduees, though a great one, — megalas khelas. Eratosthenes included the stars of the Claws with those of our Scorpius, and called the whole Skorpios, but alluded to the Khelai; as did Hipparchos, although with him the latter also were Zugon, or zugos, these words becoming common for our Libra, and turned by {Page 270} codices of the 9th century into Zichos. They were the equivalents of the Latin Jugum, the Yoke, or Beam, of the Balance, first used as a stellar title by Geminos, who, with Varro, mentioned it as the sign of the autumnal equinox. Ptolemy wrote these two Greek titles indiscriminately, and so did the Latin poets the three, — Chelae, Jugum, Libra, — although the scientific writers of Rome all adhered to Libra, and such has been its usual title from their day. The ancient name was persistent, however, for the Latin Almagest of 1551 gave a star as in jugo sive chelis, and Flamsteed used it in his description of Libra's stars.

The statement, often seen, that the constellation was invented when on the equinox, and so represented the equality of day and night, was current even with Manilius, —

Then Day and Night are weighed in Libra's Scales

Equal a while, —

repeated by James Thomson in the Autumn of his Seasons,

Libra weighs in equal scales the year, —

by Edward Young in his Imperium Pelagi, apostrophizing his king, —

The Balance George ! from thine

Which weighs the nations, learns to weigh

More accurate the night and day, —

and by Longfellow in his Poet's Calendar for September, —

I bear the Scales, when hang in equipoise

The night and day.

This idea gave rise to the occasional title Noctipares; yet Libra is rarely figured on an even balance, but as described by Milton where

The fiend looked up, and knew

His mounted scale aloft.

The Romans claimed that it was added by them to the original eleven signs, which is doubtless correct in so far as they were concerned in its modern revival as a distinct constellation, for it first appears as Libra in classical times in the Julian calendar which Caesar as pontifex maximus {Page 271} took upon himself to form, 46 B.C., aided by Flavius, the Roman scribe, and Sosigenes, the astronomer from Alexandria. Some have associated Andrew Marvell's line,

Outshining Virgo or the Julian star,

with Libra, but this unquestionably referred to the comet of 43 B.C. that appeared soon after, and, as Augustus asserted, in consequence of, Caesar's assassination in September of that year, being utilized by the emperor and Caesar's friends to carry his soul to heaven. This comet, perhaps, was the same that has since appeared in 531, 1106, and 1680, and that may return in 2255.

Medals still in existence show Libra held by a figure that Spence thought represented Augustus as the dispenser of justice; thus recalling Vergil's beautiful allusion, in his 1st Georgic, to the constellation's place in the sky. Addressing the emperor, whose birthday coincided with the sun's entrance among the stars of the Claws, he suggested them as a proper resting-place for his soul when, after death, he should be inscribed on the roll of the gods:

Anne novum tardis sidus te mensibus addas,

Qua locus Erigonen inter Chelasque sequentes

Panditur; ipse tibi jam brachia contrahit ardens

Scorpius, et coeli justa plus parte relinquit;

so intimating that the place was then vacant, the Scorpion having contracted his claws to make room for his neighbor. But subsequently he wrote:

Libra die somnique pares ubi fecerit horas;

and a few lines further on tells of twelve constellations, — duodena astra.

Milton has a reference in Paradise Lost to Libra's origin, where

Th' Eternal, to prevent such horrid fray,

Hung forth in heaven his golden scales, yet seen

Betwixt Astraea and the Scorpion sign;

and Homer's

Th' Eternal Father hung

His golden scales aloft,

is similar; but, although doubtless the original of Milton's verse, probably is not a reference to our Libra; for the Greek poet very likely antedated the knowledge of it in his country, and is supposed to have known but few of {Page 272} our stellar figures, — at all events, has alluded to but few in either the Iliad or the Odyssey.

Bayer said that the Greeks called it Stathmos [representing the distance between two stations on the Persian royal road, or a day's march. Equal to about five Persian parasangs, or about 28 kilometers], a Weigh-beam, and Stater, a Weight; while Theon used for it the old Sicilian Litra and Litrai, which, originally signifying a Weight, became the Roman Libra. Ampelius called it Mochos, after the inventor of the instrument; and Virgo's title, Astraea, the Starry Goddess, the Greek Dike has sometimes been applied to these stars as the impersonation of Justice, whose symbol was the Scales. Addison devoted the 100th number of the Tatler that of the 29th of November, 1709 — to "that sign in the heavens which is called by the name of the Balance," and to his dream thereof in which he saw the Goddess of Justice descending from the constellation to regulate the affairs of men; the whole a very beautiful rendering of the ancient thought connecting the Virgin Astraea with Libra. He may have been thus inspired by recollections of his student days at Oxford, where he must often have seen this sign, as a Judge in full robes, sculptured on the front of Merton College.

Manilius, using the combined title, wrote of it in much the same way as of influence over the legal profession:

This Ruled at Servius' Birth, who first gave

Our Laws a Being; —

a reference to Servius Sulpicius Rufus Lemonia, the great Roman lawyer, pupil, and friend of Cicero.

Cicero himself used Jugum as though it were well known; and, with evident intention of upsetting Caesar's claim to its invention, wrote:

Romam in Jugo Cum esset Luna, natam esse dicebat .

The sacred books of India mention it as Tula, the Tamil Tulam or Tolam, a Balance; and on the zodiac of that country it is a man bending on one knee and holding a pair of scales; but Varaha Mihira gave it as Juga or Juka, from Zugon, and so a reflex of Greek astronomy, which we know came into India early in our era; but he also called it Fire, perhaps a recollection of its early Altar form, mentioned further on.

In China it was Show Sing, the Star of Longevity, but later, copying our figure, it was Tien Ching, the Celestial Balance; and that country had a law for the annual regulation of weights supposed to have been enacted with some reference to this sign. In the early solar zodiac it was the Crocodile, or Dragon, the national emblem.

{Page 273} Manetho and Achilles Tatios said that Libra originated in Egypt; it plainly appears on the Denderah planisphere and elsewhere simply as a Scale-beam, a symbol of the Nilometer. Kircher gave its Coptic-Egyptian title as Lambadia, Statio Propitiationis.

The Hebrews are said to have known it as Moznayim, a Scale-beam, Riccioli's Miznaim, inscribing it, some thought, on the banners of Asher, although others claimed Sagittarius for this tribe, asserting that Libra was unknown to the Jews and that its place was indicated by their letter Tau, while still others claimed Virgo for Asher, and Sagittarius for Joseph.

The Syrians called it Masatha, which Riccioli gave as Masathre; and the Persians, Terazu or Tarazuk, all signifying Libra; the Persian sphere showing a human figure lifting the Scales in one hand and grasping a lamb in the other, this being the usual form of a weight for a balance in the early East.

Arabian astronomers, following Ptolemy, knew these stars as Al Zubana, the Claws, or, in the dual, Al Zubanatain, degenerating in Western use to the Azubene of the 1515 Almagest; but later on, when influenced by Rome, they became Al Kiffatan, the Trays of the Balance, and Al Mizan, the Scale-beam, Bayer attributing the latter to the Hebrews. This appeared in the Alfonsine Tables and elsewhere as Almisan, Almizen, Mizin; Schickard writing it Midsanon. Kircher, however, said that Wazn, Weight, is the word that should be used instead of Zubana; Riccioli adopting this in his Vazneschemali and Vazneganubi, or Vaznegenubi, respectively applied to the Northern and Southern Scale as well as to their lucidae.

Libra is stamped on the coins of Palmyra, as also on those of Pythodoris, queen of Pontus.

While it seems impossible to trace with any certainty the date of formation of our present figure and its place of origin, yet there was probably some figure here earlier than the Claws, and formed in Chaldaea in more shapes than one; indeed, Ptolemy asserted that it was from that country, while Ideler and modern critics say the same.

Brown thinks that its present symbol, , generally considered a representation of the beam of the Balance, shows the top of the archaic Euphratean Altar, located in the zodiac next preceding Scorpio [Ara, the altar is below Scorpio], and figured on gems, tablets, and boundary stones, alone or in a pair. Miss Clerke recalls the association of the 7th month, Tashritu, with this 7th sign and with the Holy Mound, Tul Ku, designating the biblical Tower of Babel, surmounted by an altar, — the stars in this constellation, alpha, mu, xi, delta, beta, chi, zeta, and nu, well showing a circular altar. Sometimes this Euphratean figure was varied to that of a Censer, and frequently to a Lamp; Strassmaier confirming this by {Page 274} his translation of an inscription as die Lampe als Nuru, the Solar Lamp, synonymous with Bir, the Light, also found for the sky figure. In this connection it will be remembered that another of the names for our Ara, a reduplication of the zodiacal Altar, was Pharus, or Pharos, the Great Lamp, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world. This Lamp also has been found shown on boundary stones as held in the Scorpion's claws, and we see the same idea even as late as the Farnese globe and the Hyginus of 1488, where the Scales have taken the place of the Lamp. When the Altar, Censer, and Lamp were in the course of time forgotten, or removed to the South, the Claws were left behind, and perhaps extended, till they in turn were replaced by Libra. Miss Clerke additionally writes:

The 8th sign is frequently doubled, and it is difficult to avoid seeing in the pair of zodiacal scorpions, carved on Assyrian cylinders, the prototype of the Greek Scorpion and Claws. Both Libra and the sign it eventually superseded thus owned a Chaldaean birthplace.

Brown also says that the Euphratean Sugi, the Chariot Yoke, which he identifies with alpha and beta of this constellation, remind us by sound and signification of the Zugon and Jugum of Greece and Rome respectively, and that astrology adds evidence in favor of a Chaldaean origin, for it has always claimed Libra — the Northern Scale at least — as a fruitful sign, taking this from the very foundations of astrology in the Chaldaean belief that "when the Sugi stars were clear the crops were good." In modern astrology, however, the reverse of this held in the case of the Southern Scale.

It seems not unreasonable to conclude that in Chaldaea the 7th sign had origin in all its forms.

In classical astrology the whole constituted the ancient House of Venus, for, according to Macrobius, this planet appeared here at the Creation; and, moreover, the goddess bound together human couples under the yoke of matrimony. From this came the title Veneris Sidus, although others asserted that Mars was its guardian; astrologers of the 14th century insisting that

Whoso es born in yat syne sal be an ille doar and a traytor.

It was of influence, too, over commerce, as witness Ben Jonson in The Alchemist:

His house of Life being Libra: which foreshowed

He should be a merchant, and should trade with balance;

{Page 275} and governed the lumbar region of the human body. Its modem reign has been over Alsace, Antwerp, Austria, Aethiopia, Frankfurt, India, Lisbon, Livonia, Portugal, Savoy, Vienna, and our Charleston; but in classical times over Italy and, naturally enough from its history, especially over Rome, with Vulcan as its guardian. It thus became Vulcani Sidus.

To it was assigned control of the gentle west wind, Zephyrus, [This was the same as Roman Favonius, — at first regarded as strongly blowing, but later as the genial Zephyros, the Life-bearing] personified as the son of Astraeus and Aurora.

Pious heathen called it Plutos Chariot, in which that god carried off Proserpina, the adjacent Virgo; but early Christians said that it represented the Apostle Philip; and Caesius identified it with the Balances of the Book of Daniel, v, 27, in which Belshazzar had been weighed and "found wanting."

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]