How Cancer Became a Constellation

Hercules Killing the Lernean Hydra by Cornelis Cort from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Once upon a time, the Greek hero Heracles lost his mind and killed his wife and children. As penance, Heracles performed twelve difficult feats, called labors, in service to his cousin Eurystheus, the King of Mycenae.

His second labor was to kill the Hydra of Lerna, a serpentine water monster with numerous heads. She had the worst case of halitosis ever recorded and blood so venomous, its scent was fatal. As Heracles approached Hydra’s lair (mouth/nose covered as to not inhale), he shot flaming arrows into the cave. She emerged hissing and not in the best of moods. As the two fought and Heracles decapitated her heads, two heads would replace the former. So Heracles asked his nephew, Iolaus, for a hand. Iolaus scorched the severed necks to cauterize the stumps preventing grow back.

Upon seeing Heracles’s progress, Hera—who had raised the Hydra to destroy Heracles—asked Carcinus, an enormous crab, to help the Hydra. Carcinus synched down on Heracles’s heel and for a moment, it seemed as though the Hydra would win. But then Heracles killed the crab and with the help of Iolaus (and Athena) slayed the Hydra. In gratitude for its service, Hera swung the crab up into the heavens and there it shines as the constellation Cancer with Hydra to its south.

In Asteroid Goddesses, Demetra George shares that Hera was worshipped by the indigenous goddess cults as the “cow-eyed sky queen who presided over all phases of feminine existence.” Originally, Hera reigned alone. Demetra George points out that she was raised by the seasons and her temple at Olympia was far older than Zeus’s… “And while Homer has traditionally depicted Hera as the jealous and quarrelsome wife, in realty she is the image of the turbulent nation princess coerced, but never really subdued, by an alien conqueror.” .

Further, the Hydra itself has a feminist origin. She was the child of serpentine giants Typhon and Echidna (half woman-half snake), who themselves were children of Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life. Lerna was thought to be the gateway to the Underworld.

As we put the pieces of the archetypal story together, we see the age-old story of the battle between solar and lunar, masculine and feminine, yin and yang, the conqueror and the conquest, and the eternal quest for balance. Carcinus rose up to protect and defend the grand daughter of Gaia herself, the snake monster, a feminine principle. Unlike the jealous shrew persona we’ve been sold, Hera looks for balance in the male/female dynamic and to remain sovereign which is why she and Zeus never got along. She was raised by the seasons. Her operating system was completely different.

As we contemplate the powerful New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer, it behooves us to remember Cancer’s origin story and of her instinct to protect, defend, and rise to the battle of equality and sovereignty.