Constellations of Words

Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

the Crab

Urania’s Mirror1825

1. Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature
2. The fixed stars in this constellation
3. History_of_the_constellation

Clues to the meaning of this celestial feature

Cancer is the sign of the summer solstice, and represents the sun at the highest point of summer. The constellation is identified with the crab, Karkinos, or Carcinus, that was sent by Hera to bite the foot of Hercules as he battled with the monstrous Hydra. Hercules crushed the crab with his foot. Hera placed the crab in the sky for this service. The crab is a symbol of powerful gripping and holding power.

According to Chaldaean and Platonist philosophy, Cancer was the ‘Gate of Men’ through which souls descended from heaven into human bodies, or into creation. Its opposite sign Capricorn represents the ‘Gate of the Gods’ where souls of the departed ascended back to heaven. Kuhn in The Lost Light explains; “in sign of Cancer the crab is emerging from the water and in Capricorn the goat (half goat or land animal, half fish or sea animal) is in the water. The crab lives part of its time on the earth, and part in the water. In this constellation there is a configuration of two Asses, the Aselli (gamma, Asellus Borealis, and delta, Asellus Australis) outflanking a star cluster called the ‘Manger’ (Praesaepe). Some think this might be the origin, as seen in nativity pictures of the birth of Christ, of the positioning of a donkey always behind the manger. The baby born in a manger might relate to this idea of Cancer being the ‘Gate of Men’.

The word Crab is from the Indo-European root *gerbh- ‘To scratch’. Derivatives: carve (from Old English ceorfan, to cut), kerf (a groove or notch made by a cutting tool, from Old English cyrf, a cutting off). Variant form *grebh-; crab (from Old English crabba, a crab, from Germanic *krab(b)-), crayfish (from Old High German kerbiz, edible crustacean, from Germanic *krabiz-). Perhaps Germanic *krab-; crawl (from Old Norse krafla, to crawl). Zero-grade form *grbh-; glamour, graffito, graft¹, gram¹, –gram, grammar, –graph, –grapher, graphic, –graphy; agrapha, agraphia, anagram, diagram, epigram, epigraph, graphite, graphic, graffiti, iconography, paragraph, parallelogram, program, programme, telegram, gramophone (these words from Greek graphein, to scratch, draw, write), landgrave (a man in medieval Germany who had jurisdiction over a particular territory), margrave (governor of a medieval German border province), palsgrave, (these words from Middle Dutch grave and Middle Low German grave, count, from West Germanic *grafa, a designation of rank, possibly borrowed from Greek grapheus, scribe). [Pokorny gerebh– 392. Watkins] The verb ‘to crab‘, is to drift sidewise (nautical and aviation). The word craps, for the dice game, derives from the word crab and is unrelated to the term for excrement.

The crab performs a sideways scuttle rather than a direct, linear line, then it appears to move backwards, like the movement of the Sun appears to us as it reaches the Summer Solstice before it turns southward. The path that the sun traces might look similar to a graph. Greek graphein, ‘to scratch, draw, write’, might also relate to the scratching marks in the sand from the crab’s movements, the graphic tracks in the wake of their crawling

Cancer is a hard-shelled animal with strong gripping and holding power in its pincers. The word Cancer comes from the reduplicated form *kar-kr-o– of the Indo-European root *kar- Also *ker-. ‘Hard’. Also ker-. ‘Hard.’  Derivatives: cancer, canker, carangid, chancre [a type of ulcer], from dissimilated Latin cancer, crab, cancer, constellation Cancer. 4. Suffixed form *kar-k-ino-. carcino-, carcinoma, from Greek karkinos, cancer, crab. ] [Pokorny 3. kar– 531. Watkins

In Egypt Cancer was the scarab beetle:

“In the Egyptian records of about 2000 B.C. the constellation of Cancer was described as a Scarabaeus, sacred, as its specific name sacer signifies (Scarabeus sacer are dung beetles), and an emblem of immortality. This was the Greek karabos (or Kharabos), with its nest-ball of earth in its claws, an idea which occurs again even as late as the 12th century, when an illuminated astronomical manuscript shows a Water-beetle” [Allen, Star Names].

“The hieroglyph of a Scarab in ancient Egyptian has the phonetic value of (k)hpr (the adopted pronunciation is Kheper, with vowels added). It acts as an ideogram for the following words:

  • (k)hprr: The insect itself – the dung-beetle
  • (k)hpr: a verb that expresses the concept of taking a place within the cyclical nature of the world, of existence. 

“Further, while not acting as an ideogram in this context, Kheper adds its phonetic value to the name of the god Khepri, the first stage of the sun god – that of the sun just risen. The word also has phonetic associations with:

  • nhp: the ball of dung that the dung-beetle rolls, and
  • nhp the verb for shaping something on a potter’s wheel”

The Egyptians sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer), a beetle which rolls its dung in the dust, making pellets in which its eggs are laid. This related to their concept that a celestial scarab beetle symbolically pushed the Sun across the heavens []. “Sometimes the scarab would be standing in the boat bearing the Sun in its pincers” []. A caravel is a ‘small wicker boat covered with leather’, from Late Latin carabus from Greek karabos, beetle. “In Egyptian mythology, Khepri (also spelt Khepera, Kheper, Chepri, Khepra) is the name of the god associated with the scarab” []. It has been suggested that because of the phonetic similarity of the words; the word keeper, said to be ‘of uncertain origin’, could come from this source; the crab (and by extension those influenced by the sign) holds onto, or keeps what it can grab onto.

Cancer was the ‘Gate of Men’ through which souls descended from heaven into human bodies, or into creation. The god Khepri (‘he who has come into being’) represented the scarab. It was believed that the dung beetle was only male in gender, and reproduced by depositing semen into a dung ball. The supposed self-creation of the beetle resembles that of Khepri, who creates himself out of nothing.

“Crabs (cancer) are so called because they are shellfish possessing legs (crus, genitive cruris)” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.262.]

In astrology the sign Cancer, along with representing the Summer solstice, also represents the Moon. Crabs are influenced by the phases of the Moon and the tides which are governed by the Moon. Cancer also represents the mother, yet to my knowledge it has not been identified with any particular mother in mythology.

Hor-Apollo observes: “They say also that the beetle lives six months underground and six above”. If he does, nature surely has cast him in the role of Proserpina [who is the Roman Kore], not to say that of the human soul, figuratively. The six lower signs typify incarnate life. But the beetle has further instruction for us. He observes that the beetle deposits its ball of eggs rolled in dung in the earth for the space of twenty-eight days–a lunar cycle–during which the moon passes through its smaller round of the twelve zodiacal signs. But on the twenty-ninth day, the day of the resurrection according to lunar markings, there occurs the baptism of the beetle. The Scarabaeus then casts his ball into the water. It opens to give birth to the young beetle. This immersion and baptism leads to renewal and regeneration. So Taht (Ptah) [Khepri?], the lunar god, was always declared to be self-created, never born. [The Lost Light by Alvin Boyd Kuhn]

The disease Cancer is the result of cells escaping normal control mechanisms and growing uncontrollably as a result.

One habit crabs have is when they are put in a barrel and one tries to escape the others will pull him back down, giving rise to the term “crabs in a barrel“. It relates to people who envy another’s success and go out of their way to do things to hold them back and drag them down. The expression is generally applied to those who are from the same class or race that do not like to see others of their kind achieve more than they had.

The fifth century Greek lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria wrote that the Cabeiri, “the Great Gods of Samothrace” whose cult reached its height in the 4th century BC.,

 “were karkinoi (‘crabs‘). The Cabeiri as Karkinoi were apparently thought of as amphibious beings (again recalling the Telchines). They had pincers instead of hands, which they used as tongs (Greek: karkina) in metalworking”. [ ]

Other “sons of Hephaestus” were the Kabeiroi on the island of Samothrace; they were identified with the crab (karkinos) by the lexicographer Hesychius, and the adjective karkinopous, “crab-footed” signified “lame”, Detienne and Vernant have observed: the Kabeiroi were seen as lame too. [ ]

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

Shining at the hinge of the year by the blazing turning-point which when recalled the Sun rounds in his course on high, the Crab occupies a joint of heaven and bends back the length of day. Of a grasping spirit and unwilling to give itself in service the Crab distributes many kinds of gain, and skill in making profits; he enables a man to carry his investment of foreign merchandise from city to city and, with an eye on steep rises in the price of corn, to risk his money upon sea-winds; to sell the world’s produce to the world, to establish commercial ties between so many unknown lands, to search out under foreign skies fresh sources of gain, and from the high price of his goods to amass sudden wealth. With heaven’s favor he also sells seasons of idleness at rates of interest to his liking, wishing the swift passage of time to add to the principal. His is a shrewd nature, and he is ready to fight for his profits.” [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, book 4, p.235.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Cancer
Fixed Star Long 1900 Long 2000 Decl 2000 Lat 2000 R A Sp. Cl Mag.
AL TARF Beta (β) 02LEO52 04LEO15 +9° 11′ 8″ -10.17 8h 16m 30.9s K4 3.8
ACUBENS (Sertan) Alpha (α) 12LEO15 13LEO38 +11° 51′ 28″ -05.04 8h 58m 29.2s F0 4.3
iota Cancer (ι) 04LEO57 06LEO21 +28° 45′ 36″ -10.17 8h 46m 41.8s G6 4.2
The Asses
ASELLUS BOREALIS Gamma (γ) 06LEO09 07LEO32 +21° 28′ 7″ +03.11 8h 43m 17.1s A0 4.7
ASELLUS AUSTRAL Delta (δ) 07LEO19 08LEO43 +18° 9′ 15″ +00.04 8h 44m 41.1s K0 4.2
The Beehive
PRAESAEPE M44 05LEO57 07LEO20 +19°52’00” +01.17 8h37m30.0s 3.7

Hevelius,Firmamentum, 1690

History of the constellation

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

. . . and there a crab

Puts coldly out its gradual shadow-claws,

Like a slow blot that spreads, — till all the ground,

Crawled over by it, seems to crawl itself.

  — Mrs. Browning’s Drama of Exile

Cancer, the Crab, is derKrebs of the Germans, — dieKrippe of Bayer; Cancre, or Ecrevisse, of the French; and ilCancro or Granchio of the Italians, lies next to Gemini on the east, and is popularly recognized by its distinguishing feature, the Beehive, ancient Presaepe. Aratos called it Karkinos, which Hipparchos and Ptolemy followed; the Carcinus of the AlfonsineTables being the Latinized form of the Greek word. Eratosthenes extended this as Karkinos, Onoi, kai phatne, the Crab, Asses, and Crib; and other Greeks have said Opisthobamon, and Oktapous, the Octipes of Ovid and Propertius. Litoreus, Shore-inhabiting, is from Manilius and Ovid; Astacus (the European crayfish) and Cammarus (the mantis shrimp) appear with various classic writers; and Nepa is from Cicero’s DeFinibus and the works of Columella, Manilius, Plautus, and Varro, — all signifying Crab, or Lobster, although more usual, and perhaps more correct, for Scorpio. Festus, the grammarian of the 3d century, said that this was an African word equivalent to Sidus, a Constellation or Star.

It is the most inconspicuous figure in the zodiac, and mythology apologizes for its being there by the story that when the Crab was crushed by Hercules, for pinching his toes during his contest with the Hydra in the marsh of Lerna, Juno exalted it to the sky; whence Columella called it Lernaeus. Yet few heavenly signs have been subjects of more attention in early days, and few better determined; for, according to Chaldaean and Platonist philosophy, it was the supposed Gate of Men through which souls descended from heaven into human bodies.

In astrology, with Scorpio and Pisces, it was the WateryTrigon; and has {Page108} been theHouseoftheMoon, from the early belief that this luminary was located here at the creation; and theHoroscopeoftheWorld, as being, of all the signs, nearest to the zenith. It was one of the unfortunate signs, governing the human breast and stomach; and reigned over Scotland, Holland, Zealand, Burgundy, Africa (especially over Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis), and the cities of Constantinople and New York. In the times of Manilius it ruled India and Aethiopia, but he termed it a fruitful sign. Its colors were green and russet; and early fable attributed its guardianship to the god Mercury, whence its title MercuriiSidus. When the sun was within its boundaries every thunder-storm would cause commotions, famine, and locusts; and Berossos asserted that the earth was to be submerged when all the planets met in Cancer, and consumed by fire when they met in Capricorn. But this was a reversal of the astrologers’ rule; for, as Pascal wrote:

“They only assign good fortune with rare conjunctions of the stars, and this is how their predictions rarely fail.”

It is said to have been the Akkadian SunoftheSouth, perhaps from its position at the winter solstice in very remote antiquity; but afterwards it was associated with the fourth month Duzu, our June-July, and was known as the NorthernGateoftheSun, whence that luminary commences its retrograde movement. Nangaru is Strassmaier’s transliteration of the cuneiform title; others being Pulukku and Khas, Division, possibly referring to the solstitial colure as a dividing line. Brown has recently claimed for it the title Nagarasagga, the Workman of the Waterway.

The early Sanskrit name was Karka and Karkata, the Tamil Karkatan, and the Cingalese Kathaca; but the later Hindus knew it as Kulira, from Kolonros, the term originated by Proclus for our colure.

The Persians had it Chercjengh and Kalakang; the Turks, Lenkutch; the Syrians, and perhaps the later Chaldaeans, Sartono; the Hebrews, Sartan; and the Arabians, AlSaratan, all words equivalent to Cancer. Al Biruni added AlLiha’, the Soft Palate, but this was an early title of the Arabs in connection with their manzilAlNathrah

Kircher said that in Coptic Egypt it was Klaria, the BestiaseuStaticTyphonis, the Power of Darkness; La Lande identifying this with Anubis, one of the divinities of the Nile country commonly associated with Sirius. But the Jews assigned it to the tribe of Issachar, whom Jacob likened to the “strong ass” that each of the Aselli (asses – gamma, Asellus Borealis, and delta, Asellus Australis) represents; Dupuis asserting that these last titles were derived from this Jewish association.

A Saxon chronicle of about the year 1000 had “Cancer that is Crabba”; {Page 109} Chaucer had Cancre, probably a relic of Anglo-Norman days, for in his time it generally was Canser; and Milton called it the TropicCrab from its having marked one of these great circles.

Showing but few stars, and its lucida being less than a 4th-magnitude, it was the DarkSign, quaintly described as black and without eyes. Dante, alluding to this faintness and high position in the heavens, wrote in the Paradiso

Thereafterward a light among them brightened,

So that, if Cancer one such crystal had,

Winter would have a month of one sole day.

Jensen makes it the Tortoise of Babylonia, and it was so figured there and in Egypt 4000 B.C.; although in the Egyptian records of about 2000 B.C. it was described as a Scarabaeus, sacred, as its specific name sacer signifies, and an emblem of immortality. This was the Greek karabos (or Kharabos), with its nest-ball of earth in its claws, an idea which occurs again even as late as the 12th century, when an illuminated astronomical manuscript shows a Waterbeetle. In the Albumasar of 1489 it is a large Crayfish; Bartschius and Lubienitzki, in the 17th century, made it into a Lobster, and the latter added toward Gemini a small shrimp-like object which he called Cancerminor

Caesius likened it to the BreastplateofRighteousness in Ephesians vi, 14; while Praesaepe and the Aselli (asses – gamma, Asellus Borealis, and delta, Asellus Australis) were the Manger of the infant Jesus, with the Ass and Ox presumed to be standing by. Julius Schiller said that the whole represented SaintJohn the Evangelist.

Our figure appears on the round zodiac of Denderah, but in the location of Leo Minor

Cancer appears on the Farnese globe underneath a quadrangular figure, in the location of our Lynx, of which I can find no explanation.

In this constellation, with some slight variations as to boundaries at different times in Hindu astronomy, — gamma (Asellus Borealis) and delta (Asellus Australis) – the Aselli (asses) – always being included and occasionally eta, theta, and Praesaepe, — was located the 6th nakshatraPushya, Flower, or Tishiya, Auspicious, with Brihaspati, the priest and teacher of the gods, as presiding divinity. It was sometimes figured as a Crescent, and again as the head of an Arrow; but Amara Sinha, the Sanskrit author of about 56 B.C., called it Sidhaya, Prosperous.

The manzil, AlNathrah, the Gap in the hair under the muzzle of the supposed immense ancient Lion, was chiefly formed by Praesaepe; but later gamma (Asellus Borealis) and delta (Asellus Australis) – the Aselli – were sometimes included, when it was AlHimarain, the Two Asses, a title adopted from the Greeks. The Arabs also knew it as AlFumalAsad and as AlAnfalAsad, the Mouth, and the Muzzle, of the Lion, both referring to the early figure.

The sieu (Moon mansion) Kwei, Spectre, anciently Kut, the Cloud-like, was made up from Praesaepe with eta and theta, the latter most strangely selected, as it is now hardly distinguishable by the naked eye, and yet was the determining star, — perhaps a case of variation in brightness. This asterism, with Tsing in our Gemini, formed ShunShow, one of the twelve zodiacal Kung, which Williams translates as the Quail’s Head, giving the modern title as KeuHea, the Crab; this Quail being otherwise known as the Phoenix, Pheasant, or the Red Bird that, with the stars of Leo and Virgo, marked the residence of the Red, or Southern, Emperor.

Like Gemini and Taurus, it was shown rising backward, to which some of the ancients fancifully ascribed the slower motion of the sun in passing through these constellations, as well as its influence in producing the summer’s heat; even Doctor Johnson, in Rasselas, alluded to “the fervours of the crab.” Very differently, however, Ampelius associated it with the cold Septentrio, or North Wind.

Coins of Cos in the Aegean Sea bore the figure of a Crab that may have been for this constellation.

The symbol of the sign, , probably is “the remains of the representation of some such creature”; but it is also referred to the two Asses (gamma, Asellus Borealis, and delta, Asellus Australis) that took part in the conflict of the gods with the giants on the peninsula of the Macedonian Pallene, the early Phlegra, afterwards rewarded by a resting-place in the sky on either side of the Manger.

The sun is in Cancer from the 18th of July to the 7th of August; but the {Page 111} solstice, which was formerly here and gave name to the tropic, is now about 33° to the westward, near eta Geminorum.

The celebrated Halley comet first appeared here in 1531; and in June, 1895, all the planets, except Neptune, were in this quarter of the heavens, an unusual and most interesting occurrence. Argelander catalogues 47 stars in the constellation in addition to Praesaepe; and Heis, 91.

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