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Its Origin and Meaning in Astrology
The above image is the established symbol (also called glyph) for the Zodiac sign Cancer, the Crab. It’s a simplified drawing of the crab’s rounded shape and two big claws. Both the Zodiac sign and its symbol have been along for ages.
The Zodiac division of the ecliptic into twelve parts, each assigned a Zodiac sign, is probably of Babylonian (Mesopotamia) origin. They were very early with astrology, mapping the sky and noting planetary movements thousands of years ago.
The Zodiac, very much like the one we know today, might have emerged in Mesopotamia around 1000 BC. But Babylonian astrology is probably far older than that.
Crayfish or Crab
The Babylonians connected this Zodiac sign to a similar marine species. They called the sign The Crayfish. But already in Classical Greece, the Crab was established as the name of the sign and the constellation.
Still, through the centuries, this crab has been pictured in many different ways, more than a few of them looking more like a crayfish. On the other hand, antique images of animals were often far from photographically exact or even aiming to be.
The small constellation of Cancer is not much like a crab. A crayfish with its long body and extended claws is more near at hand. Through history, this has also been a common image, but there have been crabs as well. Several of the Zodiac constellations are equally vague or even more so. Here’s the constellation Cancer:
As you can see, the formation of the stars suggest – if anything – more of a crayfish than a crab.
Below is an antique illustration of the same constellation, where the figure of the crayfish has been added. It’s from a 17th century book: Firmamentum sobiescianum, by Johannes Hevelius, 1690.
Cancer in Ink
Below is an ink version of the symbol for Cancer, which I did a number of years back in an experiment of using Japanese ink calligraphy (shodo) for old European astrology symbols. I’ve used these pictures on my astrology websites, mainly for fun and for the odd graphic effect, and I’ve seen them copied all over the Internet. I’m fine with that, although I think it wouldn’t hurt if the source was mentioned. Well, what to do?
Anyway, here’s that ink again, this time in the original black and white (click on the image to see a bigger version):
Cancer the Sign
As for the picture commonly used to represent the Cancer Zodiac sign, it’s been an image of a crayfish or a crab for as long as that has been its name – probably longer than the symbol described above has existed. Below is one typical example, where the stars of the constellation Cancer have also been marked. It’s an illustration from Poeticon astronomicon, a 1482 book by Hyginus.
For the header of this website, I combined the symbol for Cancer with an image of an actual crab, which shows the great similarity between the symbol and the actual animal.
The background is a doll house, as a symbol of the typical Cancer care for the home and the family. This is a famous Dutch antique doll house made by Petronella Oortman (1656-1716). Here’s the whole doll house:
Here are the symbols (glyphs) of all the twelve Zodiac signs, and links to pages telling more about each Zodiac sign symbol.