Capricorn and the Sea

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swiveled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland

Any connection between the sea and Capricorn seems, at first blush, implausible. What could a vast expanse of water possibly have to do with the cardinal earth sign? But in fact the connection was commonly made from as far back as Babylonian astrology through the Greeks into the time of William Lilly. When looking at our sources, we must bear in mind that some of these nautical meanings were derived from the constellational zodiac and later transferred to the tropical, while others are more definitely grounded in the tropical system and its rational scheme of qualities and rulerships.

Capricorn is among the most ancient signs to have survived more or less intact in form and symbolism to the present day. Although a faint constellation, it has been represented as a goat-fish hybrid from the Middle Bronze Age and named as such in the 3000-year-old Babylonian star registers. For the Babylonians, Capricorn belonged to Ea, the benevolent god of water and life who stood in midst of the primordial sea and brought the gifts of writing, culture and magic to the first human being.[1] We may surmise that Ea/Capricorn is a personification of the first world mountain, which pushed back that waters of chaos and made space for the creation of culture and civilization, an event described in the Enuma Elish and echoed in the myths of the Egyptians and Hebrews. Thus, Capricorn does not so much signify the sea per se but rather what can stand firm in the sea without being deluged.[2] Still, the link to the sea is surely there.

Classical antiquity retained and expanded Capricorn’s maritime associations. Ptolemy notes its central place in an area of the southern sky that came to be known as “The Sea”[3] due to the many aquatic constellations there, including also Aquarius (the Water Bearer), Pisces Australis (the Southern Fish), Cetus (the Whale), Eridanus (the River), Hydra (the Sea Serpent), Pisces (the Fish) and others.[4] This association with water may be due to the fact the Sun passed through this part of the heavens during the rainy season; the Roman poets did call Capricorn “Imbrifer” or the Rain-Bringer. Or else, the winter Sun’s low declination might have come to be symbolically linked to the destructive threat embodied in the seas, a seemingly boundless source of peril.

The classical period preserved and expanded these themes. Greek mythology identified Capricorn as the she-goat Amalthea, daughter of the sea-god Oceanus [5] and nurse of the infant Zeus after his rescue from his psychopathic father Kronos. Capricorn was also explained as a special form taken by the god Pan when he plunged into the Nile to escape the monster Typhon: above the water, goat; beneath the water, fish.[6] Both myths, like the Babylonian myth of Ea, associate Capricorn with the sea: as an amphibious creature, Capricorn is at home in the depths and shows men how to survive its dangers. From this, I suspect, comes the inspiration for one of Capricorn’s more peculiar titles in antiquity – “The Double Ship”;[7] a ship is, after all, a thing made on land to ride out the dangers of the seas, part above and part below the waters.

We might expect Manilius, with his broad knowledge of classical myth, to remind us of Capricorn’s maritime significance. In fact, such allusions are few, possibly because the four-fold elemental attributions of the tropical signs and the system of planetary rulerships had already solidified by his time.[8] One such reference does deserve attention:

“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.”[9]

Manilius says very clearly what the foregoing tradition has implied: that Capricorn’s link to the oceans is more about seafaring than the sea as such. The mythogical depth is missing. But it makes a more accessible, this-worldly sense of the fact that Capricorn mixes “watery and earthly elements… in an even compact”.[10]

The later tradition takes off from there. Ibn-Ezra allots sailors to Capricorn, along with farmers and shepherds, attributions that fold together the old maritime associations of the sign, its rulership by Saturn (hence, farmers) and perhaps its connection to goats or rocky places (hence, shepherds). Later, William Lilly preserves a remnant of the older tradition in giving to Capricorn places “where Sails for Ships and such materials are stored”.[11] It is an attenuated link but a valid one nonetheless.

In judgment, we often fall back on the essential qualities of the signs: gender, element, modality. This is fine. It’s usually a good idea to keep things simple. At the same time, we should always bear in mind that each sign is what Vedic astrology calls a rashi – a “heap of things”, a bundle of attributions. These attributions include the essential qualities, traits emanating from constellations and fixed stars, those based on the tropical system (e.g., crooked vs. straight), those inherent in the zoidia (e.g., mute, great-voiced, barren, et al.) themselves, and even part-by-part analogy to other holistic structures (e.g., the human body, the parts of a ship, the lay of the land).

Equipped with a broad knowledge of the signs, we can create the kind of accurate description that is at the heart of a good horary reading. Oftentimes Capricorn will show rocky peaks, or low dark places near the ground. But occasionally there will be ships at sea in Capricorn. We need to know when the one, and not the other, is the better choice.

[1] John H. Rogers, “Origins of the ancient contellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions“, Journal of the British Astronomical Association 108 (1998) 12. Curiously enough, Cancer – our cardinal water sign – was given to the sky-god, Enlil. The solsticial axis expressed the polarity of heaven (Cancer) and earth/sea (Capricorn), rather than the more abstract contrast between elemental water and earth. We can imagine why this would be so. At the summer solstice, Babylonia astronomers would have known that the Sun, when in the constellation Cancer, reached its highest declination: the place of the sky-god. Similarly, in Capricorn, the Sun would be at its lowest point, hence in the realm of the amphibious god of earth and sea.

[2] The ur-mound of Capricorn becomes the ziggurat temple, just as in Egypt the primordial hill is re-presented in the pyramid, structures that rise from earth to heaven, leading mortals to the realm of the gods. Much later, Plato maintains the essence of this spiritual cosmology, inasmuch as he has the souls of the dead mount up to heaven through the gate of Capricorn.

[4] Tetrabiblos I.9.

[5] Similarly, according to W.T. Olcott, “The Latin poets also designated [Capricorn] as “Neptune’s Offspring,” thus preserving its maritime significance.” See Star Lore of All Ages, 119.

[6] R. H. Allen, Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning (New York: Dover) 135-6.

[7] W.T. Olcott, Star Lore of All Ages, 118.

[8] Manilius says of Capricorn, “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.” Manilius, Astronomica 4.243-259, trans. G.P. Goold (London: Loeb Classical Library v. 469, 1997) 241. Part of Manilius’ inspiration is Capricorn’s sacred power as the solsitial sign in which the Sun first begins to “renew its flame”. But a case could be made that he is also combining Capricorn’s standard late antique attributions: earthiness along with dominion by Saturn and Mars. The earthiness contributes the “riches deposited in the veins of the earth”, while Saturn gives the “hiddenness” and Mars the “prying”, “smelting” and “folding”.

[9] Astronomica 4.568-570, trans. Goold, 267.

[10] Astronomica 2.232-2, trans. Goold, 101.

[11] Christian Astrology, p. 98.

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