Constellations of Words

Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Goat

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

Capricornus means literally a goat’s horn, it denotes a male goat, or billy-goat. The figure of the Constellation has the head of a goat, and the tail of a fish and is associated with two types of goats: the Mountain-Goat and the Sea-Goat. It is said to be a symbol of the climbing goat ascending from the waves. It represents the Winter Solstice (December 21st or 22nd) where the Sun, going south reaches its lowest point on the ecliptic, the Tropic, or turning, of Capricorn. There the Sun turns and starts to climb up, heading towards the northern hemisphere, and thereafter the Sun begins to appear higher and higher in the sky each day. An analogy can be drawn with this pattern and a goat climbing a mountain, because according to Olcott (p.116) that animal in feeding always ascends the hills, and is naturally a climbing animal. The sun in like manner when it arrives at Capricorn begins to mount the sky, and hence the goat was adopted as a symbol of the apparent climbing motion of the sun, while the fish-tail was significant of the rains and floods of the winter season.

The Winter Solstice represents the new-born sun and occurs near Christmas which is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. This time of year is said to be celebrated in many ancient cultures; Yule or Yuletide is a pagan religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, Egyptian Horus, Tammuz, Mithra, etc. David Booth in The Analytical Dictionary, 1836, says “it was the cradle of the infant year of the Birthday of the Sun and of the incarnate Deities of heathen Mythology.”

There are other goats in the constellations; the female goat or nanny-goat, Capra, is represented in the alpha star of the constellation Auriga, i.e. Capella. There are also two kid goats in Auriga; Hoedus 1, and Hoedus 11, these words are from Latin haedus, ‘kid, young goat’, and cognate with the English word goat

The Sea-Goat is said to express the more esoteric nature of Capricorn. Manilius (Astronomica, p.267) in referring to this sea-goat tail part of the figure says: “The last part of Capricorn, which consists of the sting at the end of its tail, prescribes for its children service upon the seas and the handling of ships, a hardy calling and one which is ever close to death.” See the word captain below, also the story below of Acoetes, identified with this constellation, the captain of a pirate ship. Two named stars mark the tail of the Goat, the Two Friends, the two were the “Bringer of Good Tidings”; gamma (γ, Nashira) and delta (δ, Deneb Algedi).

Capra is the term used for the goat genus. Capricorn, the he-goat, and the feminine Capella, the she-goat of Auriga, come from the Latin word caper, ‘goat’. Latin caper comes from the Indo-European root *kapro– ‘He-goat, buck’. Derivatives: cabriolet (a two-wheeled, one-horse carriage, French cabriole, ‘leap of a goat, caper’), cab (car), caper (a playful leap or hop), caprine (characteristic of a goat), capriole (a playful leap or jump; a caper), chevre (cheese made from goat’s milk), chevron (denotes rank on a uniform, an inverted V shape pattern, the inverted V peak shape of a roof of a house, or rafter), caproicacid (also known as hexanoic acid). [Pokorny kapro– 529. Watkins

Caproicacid is a fatty acid found naturally in various animal fats and oils, and is one of the chemicals that gives the decomposing fleshy seed coat of the ginkgo (gingko) its foul goaty smell [].

Capricorn is from caper, ‘goat’, + cornu, horn, literally ‘having horns similar to those of a goat’, properly loan translation of Aigokeros, the old Greek name for this constellation [Klein, Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary]. The Capricorn Goat represents Aigipan, “Goat Pan”, a character distinct from Pan (some say Aigipan is identical with Pan), sometimes said to be the father of Pan, or a companion of Pan, and he has been depicted together with Pan. When the gods fled from the monster Typhon and hid themselves in animal form, Aigipan assumed the form of a fish-tailed goat. According to Hyginus (Fab. 155) Aigipan was the son of Zeus and a goat, or of Zeus and Aega (Aix or Aex), the wife of Pan [], who some think might be Aix Amaltheia, identified with the star Capra (Capella) in the constellation Auriga

The two goats of Yom Kippur might represent the dual nature of Capricorn, the climbing mountain goat and the sea goat. On Yom Kippur, the festival of the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen and lots were drawn for them. One was sacrificed and the other allowed to escape into the wilderness, symbolically carrying with it the sins of the community. From this comes the word ‘scapegoat‘. When used as a metaphor, a scapegoat is someone selected to bear blame for a calamity []. The escaping goat might relate to the theory that Capricorn is the ‘Gate of the Gods’ where one ‘escapes’ this life on earth. 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 the 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”.

To escape as Klein explains originally meant ‘to throw off the cowl’, formed from ex– and Late Latin cappa, and he supplies these relatives of Latin cappa: cap, cape, caparison, capeline, capuche, Capuchin, cappuccino,chape, chapeau, chapel, chapelet, chaperon, chaplet, cope (a long cloak), escape, kepi (a peaked cap worn by soldiers).

goatThe knees are the part of the human body which the Capricorn rules in astrology, a knee has a cap, a kneecap. Capricorn rules the 10th house in astrology, and in mundane astrology the 10th house represents the capital cities of countries. In a personal astrological chart the midheaven represents the climax of one’s achievements. The goat’s aim is to reach the top of a mountain which is often capped with snow. When climbing, a goat can cleave onto the tiniest ledges with its cloven feet. It will carefully lean against the vertical incline before making the leap (Latin caper ‘leap of a goat’) to the next precipice.

Allen in Star Names mentions Acaetes (Acoetes or Acetes) in connection with Capricorn. Ovid tells the story of Acoetes, who was the captain of a pirate ship, and was perceptive enough to recognize a god in Bacchus/Dionysus. Acoetes tells how he climbed to the top of a high hill to see what the wind promised before sailing. He was captured and taken to Pentheus who told him “O you who are about to die, and, by your death, teach the others a lesson”. Pentheus (whose name means pain) told his attendants to put Acoetes in a dungeon and to torture him. Acoetes manages to escape from his dungeon (Ovid’s Metamorphosis).

Goats are notorious escape artists and on farms will easily escape standard fencing used for other animals. Dabih was the title of the Arabic 20th manzil, the stars of which were alpha (Gieda Prima) and beta (Dabih) Capricorn. The influences of this Moon Mansion were: “Helps the escape of servants and captives”.

Goats have a hierarchical society, only the leader goat is allowed to mate with the females, the other males in the herd accept this situation and remain bachelors. There is also the proverbially lusty goat. A Roman depiction of Eros riding on the back of an Aigipan, the sea goat, of Capricorn. Eros represents erotic love. Eros riding a goat would be an allusion to the goat’s lusty habits.

Hircus is a Latin term for a male he-goat; related to the word hirsutism, the growth of excessive male-pattern hair on a woman:

“The he-goat (hircus) is a lascivious animal, butting and always eager to mate; his eyes look sideways on account of wantonness, whence he has taken his name, for according to Suetonius (Prata, fr. 171), hirqui are the corners of the eyes. His nature is so ardent that his blood by itself dissolves adamantine stone [diamonds], which can be overpowered by neither fire nor iron. Larger he-goats are called cinyphii from the river Cinyps in Libya [meaning Africa], where they are born large” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.247.]

Double Chevron-Rank: Corporal E4,US Army

The chevron (from *kapro-) denotes rank on a uniform, an inverted V shape pattern, and male goats have what is described as a rank smell. Isidore says:

“Some call the armpits subhirci, ‘undergoats’ [sub-hircus], because in many people they give off the rank smell of goats [].” “Goatish (ircosus, i.e. hircosus), because one stinks with the fetid sweat of his body.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.222].

An important feature of male goat which Capricorn represents is the very strong smell which is compared to human body odor. The word hercine, “of or characteristic of a goat, especially in strong odor”, is from the Latin word for the billy goat, hircus. The word fetid, or foetid, is also believed to belong here. Valpy (An etymological dictionary of the Latin language p.534) quoted Varro as saying the Latin word foeteo, or feteo, comes from the Sabines, an Italian tribe, and was derived from hoedus, to smell like a goat. Isidore might have drawn from this source along with Vergil’s Aeneid in the following quotation:

“Foul (foedus) takes its name from goats and kids (haedus, also spelled aedus), with the letter added. The ancients would use this with a serious connotation, as (Vergil, Aen. 2.502): Defiling (foedare) with his blood the fires that he himself had consecrated” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.219.]

Isidore mentions the armpits, subhirci, and calls them sub-hircus, from he-goat (hircus). The armpits also provides the underarm sweat glands. They are at the underside of the shoulder joint, also called the axilla, related to ala, ‘wing’, probably meaning ‘joined to the wings’, this area is the base of wings in birds. It is among the warmest areas of the body which is probably the connection with Hestia (Roman Vesta) that Manilius mentions below: “In her shrine Vesta tends your fires”.

The word gutter, with its smelly connotations, is from Old English gotere, and believed by folk-etymology to be a relative of ‘goat’, because in some English dialects a ‘gutter’ was spelled ‘goat’, ‘got’, ‘goyt’, and ‘gowt’ [Folk-etymology; 1882, Abram Palmer, p.146].

Latin also had the word tragus, “the smell of the armpits”, from Greek tragos, a goat [Valpy, p.481]. Our word tragedy, goat-song, is derived from Greek tragos, “a singer competing for a he-goat as a prize”, another explanation is given by Ayto (Dictionary of Word Origins) “it is thought that the underlying reference may be to a sort of ancient Greek drama in which the chorus were dressed as satyrs, goatlike woodland deities”, tragic, tragus, the pointed flap of cartilage that lies above the earlobe [].

A Judas goat is a goat trained to lead other goats to a place of slaughter, or a goat trained to find feral goats that are targeted for eradication.

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

“In her shrine Vesta tends your fires, Capricorn: and from her you derive your skills and callings. For whatever needs fire to function and demands a renewal of flame for its work must be counted as of your domain. To pry for hidden metals, to smelt out riches deposited in the veins of the earth, to fold sure-handed the malleable mass—these skills will come from you, as will aught which is fashioned of silver or gold. That hot furnaces melt iron and bronze, and ovens give to the wheat its final form, will come as gifts from you. You also give a fondness for clothes and wares which dispel the cold, since your lot falls for all time in winter’s season, wherein you shorten the nights you have brought to their greatest length and give birth to a new year by enlarging the daylight hours. Hence comes a restless quality in their lives and a mind which is often changed and floats this way and that; the first half of the sign is the slave of Venus, and that with guilt involved, but a more virtuous old age is promised by the conjoined fish below.” [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, book 4, p.241.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Capricornus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
Giedi Prima alpha (α) 02AQU22 03AQU46 20h 17m 38.9s -12° 30′ 30″ +06 59 37 4.55 G5
Dahib beta (β) 02AQU39 04AQU03 20h 21m 0.7s -14° 46′ 53″ +04 35 38 3.25 F8
Alshat nu (ν) 03AQU02 04AQU26 20h 20m 39.8s -12° 45′ 33″ +06 34 52 4.80 A0
Oculus pi (π) 03AQU19 04AQU43 20h 27m 19.2s -18° 12′ 42″ +00 54 16 5.20 B8
Bos rho (ρ) 03AQU46 05AQU10 20h 28m 51.6s -17° 48′ 49″ +01 12 12 5.00 F1
psi (ψ) 05AQU47 07AQU10 20h 46m 5.7s -25° 16′ 15″ -07 01 18 4.26 F1
omega (ω) 06AQU35 07AQU58 20h 51m 49.3s -26° 55′ 9″ -08 57 30 4.24 M1
Armus eta (η) 11AQU21 12AQU44 21h 4m 24.3s -19° 51′ 18″ -02 59 14 4.90 A4
Dorsum theta (θ) 12AQU27 13AQU51 21h 5m 56.8s -17° 13′ 58″ -00 34 49 4.19 A0
zeta (ζ) 15AQU33 16AQU56 21h 26m 40s -22° 24′ 41″ -06 59 14 3.86 G4
iota (ι) 16AQU18 17AQU41 21h 22m 14.8s -16° 50′ 4″ -01 21 46 4.30 G6
Castra epsilon (ε) 18AQU48 20AQU12 21h 37m 4.8s -19° 27′ 58″ -04 58 21 4.70 B5
Nashira gamma (γ) 20AQU23 21AQU47 21h 40m 5.5s -16° 39′ 44″ -02 33 09 3.80 F2
Deneb Algedi delta (δ) 22AQU08 23AQU33 21h 47m 2.4s -16° 7′ 38″ -02 35 36 2.98 A5

Hevelius,Firmamentum, 1690 

History of the constellation

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Capricornus next to the eastward from Sagittarius, is our Capricorn, the French Capricorne, the Italian Capricorno, and the, German Steinbock, — Stone-buck, or Ibex, — the Anglo-Saxon Bucca and BuccanHorn

The common Latin name was varied by the Caper of Ausonius, flexusCaper of Manilius, Hircuscorniger of Vergil, hircinusSidus of Prudens, Capra and aequorisHircus, the Sea Goat; while Minpheu’s “CapraillaAmalthea” indicates that it was identified by some with the goat usually assigned to Auriga. All this, doubtless, was from oriental legends, perhaps very ancient, which made Capricorn the nurse of the youthful sun-god that long anticipated the story of the infant Jupiter and Amalthea. The Latin poets also designated it as Meptuniproles, Neptune’s offspring; PelagiProcella, the Ocean Storm; Imbrifer, the Rain-bringing One; Signumhiemale, and Gelidus, because then at the winter solstice, the equivalent Athalpes appearing with the Greeks, which Riccioli repeated as Athalpis

Aratos called it Aigokeros, the Horned Goat, to distinguish it from the Aix of Auriga (a female or nanny-goat), as did Ptolemy, but Ionic writers had Aigokereus and this word, Latinized as Aegoceros, was in frequent use with all classical authors who wrote on astronomy. The AraboLatinAlmagest of 1515 turned this into Alcaucurus, explained by habenscornuahirci; and Bayer mentioned (Page 136} Alcantarus. Eratosthenes knew it as Pan, and Aigi-Pan, the Goat-Footed Pan, half fishified, Smyth said, by his plunge into the Nile in a panic at the approach of the monster Typhon; the same story being told of Bacchus, so that he, too, always was associated with its stars.

In Persia it was Bushgali, Bahi or Vahik, and Goi; in the Pahlavi tongue, Nahi; in Turkey, Ughlak; in Syria, Gadjo; and in Arabia, AlJady, usually written by us Giedi; all meaning the Goat, or, in the latter country, the Badan, or Ibex, known to zoologists as Caprabeden. Burritt’s TowerofGad, at first sight presumably Hebrew, would seem rather to be a bungled translation [The Arabic word Burj signifies both Constellation and Tower, or Fortress] from the Arabic, and in no way connected with the Jewish tribe. Riccioli had Elgedi, Elgeudi, and Gadio

Very frequent mention was made of this constellation in early days, for the Platonists held that the souls of men, when released from corporeity, ascended to heaven through its stars, whence it was called theGateoftheGods; their road of descent having been through Cancer. But some of the Orientals knew it as the SouthernGateoftheSun, as did the Latins in their alteraSolisPorta. Berossos (the Babylonian historian Berossos, about 200 BC) is reported by Seneca to have learned from the old books of Sargon [this Sargon has been considered the almost mythical founder of the first Semitic empire, 3850 BC.] that the world would be destroyed by a great conflagration when all the planets met in this sign.

Numa Pompilius, the second mythical king of Rome, whose date has been asserted as from 715 to 673 B.C., began the year when the sun was in the middle of Capricorn, and when the day had lengthened by half an hour after the winter solstice.

In astrology, with Taurus and Virgo, it was the EarthlyTrigon, and black, russet, or a swarthy brown, was the color assigned to it; while, with Aquarius, it was the HouseofSaturn, as that planet was created in this constellation, and whenever here had great influence over human affairs; as Alchabitus asserted, in the Ysagogicus of 1485, caputetpedeshabet; and it always governed the thighs and knees. It also was regarded as under the care of the goddess Vesta, and hence VestaeSidus. Ampelius singularly associated it with the burning south wind Auster, and Manilius said that it reigned over France, Germany, and Spain; in later times it ruled Greece, India, Macedonia, and Thrace, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg, {Page 137} Saxony and Wilna, Mexico and Oxford. Manilius also wrote of it as in our motto,

And at Caesar’s Birth Serene he shone.

The almanac of 1386 has: “Whoso is borne in Capcorn schal be ryche and wel lufyd”; in 1542 the Doctor, as Arcandum was called, showed that a man born under it would be a great gallant, would have eight special illnesses, and would die at sixty; and according to Smyth it was “the very pet of all constellations with astrologers, having been the fortunate sign under which Augustus and Vespasian were born,” although elsewhere, in somewhat uncourtly style, he quotes: “prosperous in dull and heavy beasts.” It also appears to have been much and favorably regarded by the Arabians, as may be seen in their names for its chief stars, and in the character assigned by them to its lunar mansions. But these benign qualities were only occasional, caused probably by some lucky combination with a fortunate sign, as is known only to the initiated, for its general reputation was the reverse; and, in classical days, when coincident with the sun, it was thought a harbinger of storms and so ruler of the waters, — Horace’s

tyrannus Hesperiae Capricornus undae.

Aratos had clearly showed this long before: 

Then grievous blasts

Break southward on the sea, when coincide

The Goat and sun; and then a heaven-sent cold.

Ovid expressed much the same opinion in connection with the story of Acaetes (Acoetes or Acetes); but ages before them this seems to have been said of it on Euphratean tablets.

Caesius and Postellus are authority for its being Azazel, the Scapegoat of Leviticus; although Caesius also mentioned it as SimonZelotes, the Apostle. Suetonius in his LifeofAugustus, and Spanheim in his DeNummis, said that Capricorn was shown on silver coins of that emperor, commemorating the fact that it was his natal sign; and it always has been regarded in astrology as the MansionofKings. It is seen, too, on a coin found in Kent, struck by the British prince Amminius, and was the most frequent of the zodiacal figures on uranographic amulets of the 14th and 15th centuries, “worn as a kind of astral defensive armor.”

Its figuring generally has been consistent, and as we now see it, with the head and body of a goat, or ibex, ending in a fish’s, tail. Manuscripts from the 2nd to the 15th century show it thus; a Syrian seal of 187 BC. has it in the same way; as also an early Babylonian gem, surmounted, not {Page 138} inappropriately, by the crescent moon, for Capricorn was a nocturnal sign; and the same figure is on a fragment of a Babylonian planisphere, now in the British Museum, supposed to be of the 12th century B.C. So that this may be considered its original form, in full agreement with its amphibious character, and with some resemblance, in the grouping of the chief stars, to a goat’s horns and a fish’s tail. From this figuring Camoes, in OsLusiadas of 1572, called it the SemiCapranFish, as it now is with us the GoatFish and the SeaGoat. Still at times it has been a complete goat-like animal, and was so considered by Aratos, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy, as by the more modern Albumasar, Kazwini, Ulug Beg, and in occasional mediaeval manuscripts. It was thus shown on some Egyptian zodiacs; although on that of Denderah it appears in its double form, where “an ibis-headed man rides on Capricomus, under which sign Sirius rose anti-heliacally”; the ibis being sacred to Isis, with which Sirius was identified. Still differently, a silver bowl from Burma engraved with the Brahmin zodiac, probably copied from original sources, makes the Fish entire in Capricorn, and omits the Goat; while Jensen says that in Babylonia the Goat and Fish, both complete, were occasionally used together for the constellation.

Jewish Rabbis asserted that the tribe of Naphtali adopted this sign as their banner emblem, — “Naphtali is a hind let loose,” — as if Capricorn were a deer, or antelope; others ascribed it to Benjamin, or to Reuben; but Aquarius more fitly represented the latter.

Some connect the sign in Egyptian astronomy with Chnum, Chnemu, Gnoum, or Knum, the God of the Waters, associated with the rising of the Nile and worshiped in Elephantine at the Cataracts, this divinity bearing goat’s, not ram’s, horns. Others have said that it was the goat-god Mendes; and La Lande cited the strange title Oxirinque from the Greek adjective descriptive of a Swordfish, our constellation sometimes being thus shown, when it was considered the cause of the inundation. In Coptic Egypt it was Opeutus, BrachiumSacrificii; and Miss Clerke says that it was figured in that country as a Mirror, emblematic of life.

Earlier Hindu names were Mriga and Makara, — the Cingalese Makra and the Tamil Makaram, an Antelope; but occasionally it was shown with a goat’s head upon the body of a hippopotamus, signifying some amphibious creature, and a later term was Shishumara or Simshumara, the Crocodile, although this originally was marked by stars of Draco. Varaha Mihira took his title for it, Akokera, from the Greeks; and it was the last in order of the zodiacal signs of India, as on the Euphrates. In the Aztec calendar it appeared as Cipactli, with a figure like that of the narwhal.

{Page 139} It was the zodiacal Bull, or Ox, of Chinese astronomy, that later became MoKi, the Goat-Fish. Williams says that, with stars of Sagittarius, it was SingKi, the Starry Record, and with a part of Aquarius Hiuenhiau; while in very early days, with Aquarius and Sagittarius, it was the BarkWarrior, etc., the so-called Northern one of the four large divisions of the zodiac. Flammarion asserts that Chinese astronomers located among its stars a conjunction of the five planets 2449 B.C.

Sayce, Bosanquet, and others think that they have without doubt identified it with the Assyrian Munakha, the Goat-Fish; and we see other probable names in Shah or Shahu, the Ibex, and in Niru, the Yoke, this last perhaps a popular one. Brown gives for it the Akkadian Sutul of the same meaning; and another possible title, resembling the early Hindu, was Makhar, claimed also for Delphinus. It seems likewise to have been known as the DoubleShip. Jensen says that “the amphibious Ia Oannes of the Persian Gulf was connected with the constellation Capricomus”; Sayce, that a cuneiform inscription designates it as the FatherofLight, — a title which, astronomically considered, could not have been correct except about 15,000 years ago, when the sun was here at the summer solstice; that “the goat was sacred and exalted into this sign”; and that a robe of goatskins was the sacred dress of the Babylonian priests. So that, although we do not know when Capricomus came into the zodiac, we may be confident that it was millenniums ago, perhaps in prehistoric days. It was identified with the 10th Assyrian month Dhabitu, corresponding to December-January.

Its symbol, , usually is thought to be tr, the initial letters of tragos, Goat, but La Lande said that it represents the twisted tail of the creature; and Brown similarly calls it “a conventional representation of a fish-tailed goat.” Indeed it is not unlike the outline of these stars on a celestial globe.

The sun is in the constellation from the 18th of January to the 14th of February, when, as Dante wrote in the Paradiso

The horn of the celestial goat doth touch the sun;

and Milton mentions the latter’s low elevation during this time,

Thence down amain

= As deep as Capricorn.

The title Tropic of Capricorn, originating from the fact that when first observed the point of the winter solstice was located here, now refers to the sign and not to the constellation, this solstice at present being 33° to the westward, in the figure of Sagittarius, near its star mu.

{Page 140} Capricorn is, after Cancer, the most inconspicuous in the zodiac, and chiefly noticeable for the duplicity of its lucida

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