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18. The 13th Zodiac? Ophiuchus, Orion, Perseus, Regeneration.

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

A 16th century German woodcut print of the twelve signs of the zodiac, Wikimedia Commons


The constellation Ophiuchus sometimes gets a little bad press, when rumours go round that a new thirteenth sign will be incorporated into the zodiac and mess things up for astrology followers everywhere. Every so often, questions about this so-called thirteenth zodiac being reincorporated into the pantheon of twelve signs circulate. Should Ophiuchus be an astrological sign? After all, the sun does go through it, and being on the sun's course is the defining attribute of each zodiac constellation. Ophiuchus has in fact been an important constellation for millennia, just not as a zodiac. The Archangel Michael is one of many mythical and divine figures associated with the constellation, and is often depicted slaying a dragon or the devil, which in turn is associated with Scorpius, located just below Ophiuchus. The Archangel often holds a pair of weighing scales, symbol of his role as defender of justice, and indeed, beside Ophiuchus is the constellation Libra.

The constellation Ophiuchus, from H.A. Rey's The Stars, A New Way to See Them.

The Archangel Michael, painting by Pedro Garcia de Benabarre c.1470

Scorpius is a very important constellation itself, and has a special partnership with the constellation Taurus: they are at opposite ends of the zodiac belt. It is noteworthy therefore that other divine or mythical figures which may be associated with Ophiuchus, such as Horus and Mithras, are known for slaying a bull. So what exactly is Ophiuchus's role, as a mythical or religious archetype, in relation to the zodiac? Both Ophiuchus and Orion are associated with religious or mythical personifications of the sun, from the Archangel Michael, to Osiris, Horus, Apollo, Jesus Christ, and many others. How to Ophiuchus and Orion relate to each other and to the zodiac?

The Twelve

Back in 2016, NASA announced that Ophiuchus was definitely a zodiac constellation, that is, one which the sun appears to pass through, as seen from here on earth. The announcement was due to an observation that the earth's north pole axis had shifted slightly, that is, the projected line emanating from the earth's North-South axis, around which the planet rotates. A flurry of articles with titles such as “Your Astrological Sign Just Changed, Thanks To NASA” then appeared on the internet, with one article on Yahoo stating:

“We don’t want to be dramatic, but NASA just ruined our lives. For the first time in 3,000 years, they’ve decided to update the astrological signs. This means that the majority of us are about to experience a total identity crisis. Apparently, these changes are due to the fact that the constellations are not in the same position in the sky that they once were, and the star signs are about a month off now, as a result. To further confuse things, there is now a new, 13th sign, called Ophiuchus, which those born between November 29 and December 17 are lucky enough to have to learn to pronounce.”1

There are several surprising things about the concerns expressed in this article, starting perhaps with the slightly hysterical reaction to the change. Firstly, most people are well aware that the zodiac system as used in astrology hasn't been updated in many centuries, and the signs, as they are demarcated in magazines, do not match the places in the sky where the sun actually rises at those dates today. Over time, things have changed, so it should come as no surprise that the zodiac constellations as studied by astronomers mark different periods of the year than the astrological determinations, which correspond to observations made several thousand years ago. What was the sign Aries in Ancient Greece would now be Pisces for example, if the astrological system were brought in line with current observations. The zodiac signs as they are organised in astrology, date-wise, do not match what we can observe in the night sky in our epoch, so it is surprising that the threat of including Ophiuchus into the party of twelve should cause such concern.

Furthermore, the sun does in fact pass through constellations other than the official twelve zodiac ones, and Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus is however the most important of these other constellations, in that the sun spends more time there than it does in Scorpio. The twelve zodiac signs are not just important because the sun passes through part of them, it is also because they are part of an ancient system of organising space, literally, in space. The sun's path through the zodiac constellations is neatly summed up by researcher Robert Powell:

The ecliptic is a line, a circle, through the celestial sphere, and the zodiacal belt is a region, a belt, around the celestial sphere. The relationship between them is given by the fact that the circle of the ecliptic passes through the middle of the zodiacal belt.(3)

Why twelve? John Anthony West explains, enigmatically:

The zodiac is divided into six sets of polarities, four sets of triplicities (the modes) and three sets of quadruplicities (the elements). Each sign is simultaneously polar (active or passive), modal (cardinal is that which initiates; fixed or fixing is that which is acted upon; mutable is that which mediates or effects the interchange of force) and elemental (fire, earth, air, water). Polarity is realised in time and space (six times two), spirit materialised (three times four) and matter spiritualised (four times three). (21)

Was Ophiuchus ever part of the official zodiac signs? It seems the Greeks, the Babylonians and the Sumerians all had settled on twelve constellations in the zodiac band, twelve evenly divided sections of this axis.

The ancient Egyptians held Ophiuchus in high regard, and even associated the constellation with a real person, Imhotep, who was the chancellor to the Pharaoh Djoser, and perhaps also the architect of Djoser's pyramid. Imhotep was also, and perhaps most importantly, a high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. This begs the question of whether his memory was combined, after his death, with the solar god itself, and for that reason associated with Ophiuchus. In the Denderah zodiac, the constellation Ophiuchus is clearly in the part of the sky where a solar boat has been drawn, and so it is reasonable to assume that Ophiuchus represented, for the Ancient Egyptians, either the solar boat Atet, or the sun itself.

Atet, the solar boat, Wikimedia Commons

It is possible then that Ophiuchus represented a supreme deity, who ruled over twelve lesser gods or divine beings. This might be reflected in the way Christians regard Jesus Christ and God as one, served most closely by twelve apostles. The twelve zodiac constellations might also correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, or to Hercules's twelve labours. Perhaps only monotheistic religions and religions which have one leader deity above all the others might associate Ophiuchus with the zodiac twelve, as their ring leader. With twelve main gods in their pantheon, including the leader of them all as one of the twelve, perhaps the status of Ophiuchus might have been less important than for the Egyptians, or for monotheistic religions. The Greeks associated Ophiuchus with Aesclepius, the god of medicine and son of Apollo - not a major god at any rate. The Ophiuchus / Scorpio constellations are clearly represented in images of Aescelpius, with Ophiuchus as a standing figure, often holding a staff of spear, and Scorpio as a snake, to the bottom right.

In The Stars, H.A. Rey points out that Orion and Scorpio are at opposites ends of the sky and can never meet:

In Greek mythology, Asklepios was originally a mortal physician who never lost a patient by death. This alarmed Hades, god of the Dead, who feared unemployment, and when Asklepios tried to revive Orion, who had been killed by a scorpion, Hades prevailed on his brother Zeus to liquidate Asklepios with a thunderbolt. In recognition of his merits, however, Asklepios was put into the sky as a constellation, together with the scorpion, but far away from Orion to avoid further trouble. Since then, Orion and Scorpion never meet, being on opposite sides of the sky. When you see one, you cannot see the other. 6

Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre, Wikimedia Commons

The constellations Taurus and Scorpio are directly opposite each other in the zodiac belt, and both have a first magnitude star at their centre. Taurus's is Aldebaran, one of the brightest stars in the sky, and is an orange giant star. Antares is the brightest star in Scorpio, and also is distinctly reddish, known as the heart of the scorpion. Antares and Aldebaran mark two opposite ends of the zodiac belt, dividing it into two equal parts, and when one rises, the other sets. The Babylonians used these two stars to mark out a grid against which to determine the location of other celestial bodies, and it can be said that these two stars define the zodiac. A bull, and a dragon / snake / scorpion, two creatures which Ophiuchus related figures have a fondness of slaying.

Cleomedes was a Greek astronomer who wrote an influential work in the first or fourth century of our era entitled On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies, in which he discusses various aspects of astronomy, from Aristotle to Eratosthenes. Article 46 reads:

46: Something like the following is seen among the phenomena. There are two stars, identical in both color and size, and directly opposite one another. One occupies the 15th degree of Scorpio; the other, which belongs to the Hyades, occupies the 15th degree of Taurus. Their color resembles that of Mars, and they are always observed on the horizon at the same time, with the one rising as the other is setting. This would not occur if the bulk of the Earth could obstruct any part of the zodiacal circle: for although one star rises and the other sets at the same time, the setting of the one that has risen would anticipate the rise of the one that is setting by the total interval of time in which it was necessary for the one rising over the part of the heavens obstructed by the bulk of the Earth to become visible on the horizon. (4)

The constellation Taurus, Wikimedia Commons

Tauroctony is the name given to images found in old Roman mithraeums, centres of worship of the cult that prospered within the armies of the empire. The central imagery of mithraism is the killing of a bull.

Tauroctony scene on side A of a two-sided Roman bas-relief. 2nd or 3rd century, found at Fiano Romano, near Rome, now on display in the Louvre. In the upper corners are Helios with the raven, and Luna. Photo by Jastrow, Wikimedia Commons

Tauroctony fresco in the mithraeum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, 2nd century. Photo by Dom De Felice, Wikimedia Commons

A scene such as this one would be found in every mithraeum. The bull is not the only animal in the scene: also present are a snake, a dog, a scorpion and a raven. This shows clear astronomical links. If Scorpio and Taurus are at opposite ends of the sky and can never meet, though, how is it that a scorpion and a bull feature on the same mithraic image? Why is Taurus under attack like this? A man or god alone would be hard enough to fight off, but a snake, a dog and a scorpion make this look like an unfair fight. Tauroctony scenes seem to incorporate the two opposite and defining ends of the zodiac belt, Scorpio and Taurus, as well as several other constellations such as either Orion or Perseus for Mithras, possibly Hydra for the snake, and Sirius and Canis Major for the dog and Corvus for the raven. Curiously, one of the defining parts of the zodiac belt, one of the two constellations with a first magnitude star, Scorpio, has to attack the other, Taurus.

The constellation Orion, from H.A Rey's the Stars, A New Way to See Them

The group of stars next to Aldebaran, on the right in the picture above, is the Pleiades, and it is perhaps these stars that Mithras targets with his sword when he attacks the bull. These stars were assigned by the designers of the zodiac to the part of a bull that Mithras stabs.

Taurus, the Pleiades and Orion. From Boy Scouts of America. Wikimedia Commons

Orion and Perseus

Orion is a constellation near Taurus, and below Orion, to the left, is Canis Major. Together, these two constellations are usually interpreted as the hunter and his dog. So it would make most sense to interpret the conventional Mithras imagery as Orion, Taurus and Canis Major. There are plenty of snakes in the night sky, and the one in the Mithras tauroctony image could be any of those, Hydra, Draco, perhaps even Serpens, but Hydra fits well in terms of its shape and the location near Corvus, which is almost certainly the raven, below Virgo. But why is there a scorpion, which clearly belongs to another part of the sky altogether, and is usually associated not with Orion but with Ophiuchus?

Scorpio is no where near Taurus, but both constellations are on the Milky Way as well as the ecliptic. In the star map below, you can see Ophiuchus, Scorpio, Orion, Canis Major and Taurus are all, at least in part, on the Milky Way band. The orange dotted line is the ecliptic, the sun's course.

The constellations. (Not sure who to credit, apologies to whoever designed this, but it's the best star chart.)

In the chart above, it is clear that Taurus is very far from Scorpius.

Detail of Mithas statue at the British Museum, photo by Mike Young, Wikimedia Commons

Detail of Mithras statue at the British Museum, photo by Mike Young, Wikimedia Commons

Strangely, Osiris was murdered by Set "on the seventeenth day of the month Athyr, when the sun is in the sign of the Scorpion" 7

Osiris with an Atef-crown made of bronze in the Naturhistorisches Museum (Vienna), Photo by Marco Almbauer, Wikimedia Commons

Karl Bernhard Stark, professor of archaeology at the University of Heidelberg in the mid nineteenth century, wrote a paper about the tauroctony in the German town of Dormagen, which was published in 1868. In this paper, he identified the scene as celestial in nature. It seems this theory was not widely influential until a century later, with the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies in 1971. (17) In this vein, other researchers have explored the celestial nature of the Mithras imagery, from Stanley Insler, Alessandro Bausani, Michael P. Speidel, David Ulansey, to David Warner Mathisen, and attributed the figure of Mithras himself to either Orion or Perseus. Perseus is a strong contender, partly because the constellation is situated above Taurus, with its head in the Milky Way band, just as images of Mithras show him to be beneath an arch, which could be the Milky Way itself, as shown by David Warner Mathisen and David Ulansey (19). So in Perseus, we have another hero archetype in close proximity to the zodiac constellations and with a strong link to the sun.

Perseus and Taurus, according to H.A. Rey, in The Stars, A New Way to See Them

David Ulansey argues in The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (20) that the slaying of a bull could commemorate the transition between two ages, from the Age of Taurus to the Age of Aries - when the sun would rise in Aries for the spring equinox. So Perseus becomes the constellation which wields the power to turn the heavens and make precession of the equinoxes happen. His power is so great that he has conquered even the sun.

We now carry the argument one final step further by focusing on the word invictus (unconquered) in the title Mihtras sol invictus. When Mithras is referred to as the unconquered sun, one naturally becomes curious as to whether of not there is also a conquered sun. And here, of course, Mithraic iconography gives us an absolutely explicit answer: all of those scenes depicting the sun god kneeling before Mithras or otherwise submitting to him make it abundantly clear that it is the sun itself who is actually the conquered sun. Mithras, therefore, becomes the unconquered sun by conquering the sun. He accomplishes this deed, (...) by means of the power represented by the symbol of the celestial pole which eh holds in his hand in the "investment" scenes, a power which consists in his ability to shift he position of the celestial pole by moving the cosmic structure and which clearly makes him more powerful than the sun. And so we may say that Mithras is entitled to be called "sun" insofar as he has taken over the role of kosmokrator formerly exercised by the sun itself. (20)

Tauroctony from the Temple of Mithras display, Museum of London

One historical detail, together with the presence of the scorpion in the Tauroctony, present a possible connection between Mithras and Ophiuchus too. It's the fact that many mithraeums are on the same site or very near churches dedicated to the Archangel Michael, across Italy, France and Britain. As the Archangel Michael is most definitely associated with Ophiuchus, this might suggest a link between Mithras and Ophiuchus too, or perhaps between the Archangel and Perseus. There is also a connection between solar deities and the constellations Orion, Perseus and Ophiuchus.

Perhaps in this image, in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Archangel Michael is channelling Perseus. Unusually for a St Michael scene, the dragon is injured not in the mouth but in the neck, just like Taurus in the Tauroctony.

Mont Saint-Michel and the Archangel, Freres Limbourg, Trs Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 15th century, Wikimedia Commons

When Horus finally kills Set, it is with a spear through the head. The Archangel Michael spears the dragon or devil's head (or sometimes the chest). This is characteristic of an Ophiuchus - Scorpio scenario.

The story of Horus's revenge begins like this:

It was in the three hundred and sixty-third year of the reign of the God Ra-Horakhti upon earth that the great war happened between Horus and Set.
The Majesty of the God Ra, whom men call Ra-Horakhti also, was in Nubia with his army, a great and innumerable multitude of soldiers, footmen and horsemen, archers and chariots. He came in his Boat upon the river; the prow of the Boat was of palm-wood, its stern was of acacia-wood, and he landed at Thest-Hor, to the east of the Inner Waters. And to him came Horus of Edfu, he whose name is Harpooner and Hero, seeking for that Wicked One, Set, the murderer of Osiris. Long had he sought, but Set had ever eluded him.
The Majesty of Ra had gathered his forces, for Set had rebelled against him, and Horus was glad at the thought of battle, for he loved an hour of fighting more than a day of rejoicing.

After many trials, finally Horus is triumphant against Set.

And Horus took upon himself the form of a young man; his height was eight cubits; in his hand he held a harpoon, the blade was four cubits, the shaft twenty cubits, and a chain of sixty cubits was welded to it. Over his head he brandished the weapon as though it were a reed, and he launched it at the great red hippopotamus which stood in the deep waters, ready to destroy Horus and his Followers when the storm should wreck their boats.
And at the first cast the weapon struck deep into the head of the great red hippopotamus and entered the brain. Thus died Set, that great and wicked One, the enemy of Osiris and the Gods.
And to this day the priests of Horus of Edfu, and the King's daughters, and the women of Busiris and the women of Pé chant a hymn and strike the drum for Horus in triumph.
And this is their song: "Rejoice, O women of Busiris! Rejoice, O women of Pé! Horus has overthrown his enemies!
"Exult, dwellers in Edfu! Horus, the great God, Lord of heaven, has smitten the enemy of his father!
"Eat ye the flesh of the vanquished, drink ye his blood, burn ye his bones in the flame of the fire. Let him be cut in pieces, and let his bones be given to the cats, the fragments of him to the reptiles. (18)

The Ophiuchus - Scorpio relationship between Horus and Set seems clear from this except, though Set is in this version a hippo not a snake. And yet, Set too is also to be found spearing snakes in the mouth, and what's more, he does this as part of his role as solar deity, with his falcon headed nephew sitting behind him. Set, it seems, is in that role and Ophiuchus figure himself. The snake below the solar boat is Apep, the Egyptian deity of chaos and opponent of light and order. The Denderah zodiac shows quite clearly that the solar boat itself occupies the place in the sky where Ophiuchus is to be found in contemporary zodiac design, right above Scorpio. The image of Set below is classic Ophiuchus - Scorpio, as can be found in many pictures and sculptures of the Archangel Michael.

Set spearing the snake Apep (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

Escutcheon with the figure of Saint Michael the Archangel slaying Satan, within an oval framework like a sun. Unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons

It seems that different mythical and religious figures can be associated with different constellations at various times in their story, and one constellation can provide the archetype for two deadly enemies - in this case, for both Horus and Set, in Ophiuchus. The writer David Warner Mathisen has written extensively about the correlations between mythical and religious figures from all over the word and the constellations. He has found evidence of links between Jesus Christ and Ophiuchus (see Star Myths of the World ,Volumes Two and Three), but also with Aquarius.

Jesus is undoubtedly associated in some of the gospel texts with the sign of Aquarius, such as when he describes himself as being associated with the sign of the Son of man in the heaven" (in Matthew 24:30) and says " he shall set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on the left" (Matthew 25:33), which certainly describes Aquarius, situated between the signs of Aries (a ram or sheep) and of Capricorn (a goat). (17)

David Warner Mathisen also associates the figures of Solomon with Ophiuchus, and the constellation above, Hercules, with his father David. he also shows that the constellation Hercules is often connected to the God of the Bible. In images where Christ is on the cross being pierced by a lance, the matching constellations would be Ophiuchus and Sagittarius.


One bull slayer who can be connected to Ophiuchus, is Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, avenging the murder of his father by his uncles - the story of Hamlet. In earlier traditions, Horus is the son of Geb and Nut. Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, and curiously, in relation to the above images, his penis is said to have been eaten by a crab or a catfish. In the battle between Set and Horus, each fighter mutilates and is mutilated: Horus injures or steals Set's testicles and Set damages or tears out one, or occasionally both, of Horus's eyes. Perhaps the Scorpio / Taurus image above echoes Set's injury, or Osiris's. Both Horus and Set take on many forms in various episodes of their lives, but in some versions of this battle, Set is a bull, and Horus cuts off the bull's leg and throws it into the sky. It is possible that there are several links to be made between this version and mithraic imagery.

Another divine figure with a connection to the archangel Michael and to the sun is the Roman god Attis, a beautiful androgynous young god, in charge of vegetation, and the sun of Cybele, the originally Anatolian mother goddess, and hermaphrodite daimon. The cult of Attis was a strange and bloody one: during the annual spring festivities in his honour, his followers would work themselves up into a frenzy and castrate themselves. While no such drastic action was required of Michael or Mithras worshippers, there is a connection in that several sites in Italy that were devoted to the cult of Attis were in the Christian period changed over to the worship of the Archangel Michael, such as the Santuario di San Michele alle Grottelle in Padula. As with Michael, Mithras and Jupiter worship, Attis was associated with rock and was, like Mithras, born out of stone. Indeed, the cult of Attis and Cybele seems to have originated in modern day Turkey on or near Mount Agdistis. This mountain was in fact Cybele, Attis's mother, who bore both male and female attributes, and when (s)he appeared to him on his wedding day he went mad and cut off his genitals, as did his prospective father-in-law.

Cybele and Attis, Wikimedia Commons

Santuario di San Michele Alle Grottelle, Padula, Photo

In The Golden Bough, Robert Frazer describes the spring time rituals in honour of Attis:

On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem. On the second day of the festival, the twenty-third of March, the chief ceremony seems to have been a blowing of trumpets. The third day, the twenty-fourth of March, was known as the Day of Blood: the Archigallus or highpriest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. Nor was he alone in making this bloody sacrifice. Stirred by the wild barbaric music of clashing cymbals, rumbling drums, droning horns, and screaming flutes, the inferior clergy whirled about in the dance with waggling heads and streaming hair, until, rapt into a frenzy of excitement and insensible to pain, they gashed their bodies with potsherds or slashed them with knives in order to bespatter the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood. The ghastly rite probably formed part of the mourning for Attis and may have been intended to strengthen him for the resurrection. The Australian aborigines cut themselves in like manner over the graves of their friends for the purpose, perhaps, of enabling them to be born again. Further, we may conjecture, though we are not expressly told, that it was on the same Day of Blood and for the same purpose that the novices sacrificed their virility.

Wrought up to the highest pitch of religious excitement they dashed the severed portions of themselves against the image of the cruel goddess. These broken instruments of fertility were afterwards reverently wrapt up and buried in the earth or in subterranean chambers sacred to Cybele, where, like the offering of blood, they may have been deemed instrumental in recalling Attis to life and hastening the general resurrection of nature, which was then bursting into leaf and blossom in the vernal sunshine. Some confirmation of this conjecture is furnished by the savage story that the mother of Attis conceived by putting in her bosom a pomegranate sprung from the severed genitals of a man-monster named Agdestis, a sort of double of Attis.

Sculpture of Attis. Museum of Ephesus, Efes, Turkey. Photo by Pvasiliadis Wikimedia Commons

The story of Attis is also an allegory of the seasons: there is a dispute between two goddesses as to who should have him. An agreement is reached, dividing the year into three parts, two of which will be spent above ground, and one in the underworld. And so, a major part of Attis's story is going back and forth between the the land of the dead and the land of the living, having a wife in each place. From this it can be inferred that he is associated with the sun. In addition to rock, the Archangel Michael and Attis are mostly depicted in art as being young, androgynous and handsome, and both are associated with the sun and with rock. In many paintings, Michael is painted with gold and blue, and is seen high up in the sky. So why is a god of vegetation, a bringer of spring associated with castration and emasculation? Why is Attis himself the son of a hermaphrodite daimon who castrates a man-monster and in the process magically becomes pregnant with Attis? Why is Horus born of a similarly strange and unusual process, his mother having to assemble together the pieces of her dead husband and fashion a new penis in order to have a child? ("However, the genital member of Osiris had been eaten by the fishes, so Isis made an image of it instead, and the image is used by the Egyptians at their festivals to this day."8) Why does Horus castrate his uncle Set? Why does a scorpion attack the genitals of the bull of the Mithras tauroctony? Why did followers of Attis have to emasculate themselves? Why do major religions today require celibacy of their priests?

The foregoing survey of the myth and ritual of Osiris may suffice to prove that in one of his aspects the god was a personification of the corn, which may be said to die and come to life again every year.(9)

Osiris-Nepra, with wheat growing from his body. From a bas-relief at Philae.The sprouting wheat implied resurrection. Wikimedia Commons

A little like Attis, whose mother was literally Mother Earth, a daimon and a mountain, Osiris was was said to be the offspring of Sky and Earth, as well as a god of vegetation. Another thing they have in common is their emasculation. You might be forgiven for thinking the opposite were required of a god of vegetation. Also, while one comes and goes from the land of the dead to the land of the living every year, to spend time in each place, the other is killed and brought back to a sort of life, enough to have a son anyway. The powers of a life-giving deity seem bound up with its emasculation and re-birth. Like Attis, Osiris is also a tree spirit, but Osiris is also a god of the dead, a role that links him to other psychopomps such as the Archangel Michael. It is possible that the archangel inherited some aspects similar to Osiris's (guiding souls after death) and Attis others (emasculation, encouraging growth in spring). Set's emasculation is also very significant. John Anthony West writes:

"Set represents the contractive force, the coagulating fire, the styptic power of the sperm. It is Set that imprisons spirit in the matter; hence the phallic significance. For it is the procreative act that ensnares the 'soul' and imprisons it in human form. Strictly speaking, esoterically, it is incorrect to say, 'Man has a soul'. It should be the other way round: 'The soul has a man.'"(11)

While bulls provide a link between Mithras and Orion, or Perseus, the two constellations closest to Taurus to have an anthropomorphic form, it is the pig that links Attis and Osiris. James Frazer writes:

For it was in the shape of a black pig that Typhon injured the eye of the god Horus, who burned him and instituted the sacrifice of the pig, the sun-god Ra having declared the beast abominable. Again, the story that Typhon was hunting a boar when he discovered and mangled the body of Osiris, and that this was the reason why pigs were sacrificed once a year, is clearly a modernised version of an older story that Osiris, like Adonis and Attis, was slain or mangled by a boar, or by Typhon in the form of a boar. Thus, the annual sacrifice of a pig to Osiris might naturally be interpreted as vengeance inflicted on the hostile animal that had slain or mangled the god. But, in the first place, when an animal is thus killed as a solemn sacrifice once and once only in the year, it generally or always means that the animal is divine, that he is spared and respected the rest of the year as a god and slain, when he is slain, also in the character of a god.

Typhon is Set, Horus's uncle, and the murder of Osiris. Sometimes Set is a hippo, and mostly at the time of his final defeat at his nephew's hands, Set is a serpent. But in some versions of the story (such as the Papyrus Leiden I), Set is a bull, both at the time he kills Osiris (by trampling him) and at the time he in turn is killed by Horus. And it's true that in the night sky the constellation Taurus looms over Orion, facing the hunter, perhaps about to charge. However, Taurus is to the right of Orion (just as Scorpio is slightly to the right of Ophiuchus ) and as luck would have it, the night sky rotates from left to right: this means that Taurus (and Scorpio) end up getting trampled themselves as they plunge into the abyss of the underworld , as if at the hands of Orion and Ophiuchus respectively.

Taurus and Orion, Alexander Jamieson, 1822, Wikimedia Commons

In in order to prevent Set from harming anyone else (even in death!), Horus cuts off the bull's foreleg and chucks it into the sky, where it becomes the Great Bear, or Ursa Major.

The Great Bear, according to H.A. Rey, The Stars

Attis, though killed by a wild boar, was also associated with the bull, and James Frazer writes evocatively about the gory rituals his followers conducted, and it is easy to see a parallel with the tauroctony of Mithras, and here, once more, is an emphasis on the reproductive organs - in this case, of the bull:

The fast which accompanied the mourning for the dead god may perhaps have been designed to prepare the body of the communicant for the reception of the blessed sacrament by purging it of all that could defile by contact the sacred elements. In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull. For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a new-born babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox. At Rome the new birth and the remission of sins by the shedding of bull’s blood appear to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the Phrygian goddess on the Vatican Hill, at or near the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter’s now stands; for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609. From the Vatican as a centre this barbarous system of superstition seems to have spread to other parts of the Roman empire. Inscriptions found in Gaul and Germany prove that provincial sanctuaries modelled their ritual on that of the Vatican. From the same source we learn that the testicles as well as the blood of the bull played an important part in the ceremonies. Probably they were regarded as a powerful charm to promote fertility and hasten the new birth. (15)

It seems clear that, bizarrely, castration is an integral part of many ancient rituals and images connected to spring, regeneration, rebirth and vegetation.

One more important link between Osiris, Michael, Attis and Mithras is the sun. When the sun plunges below the horizon, in Egyptian belief, it enters the realm of the dead, a dark underworld, where it is personified by Osiris. When the sun rises in the east, entering once more the land of the living, it becomes Horus - Osiris's son. In this role, Horus was imagined as a falcon, or part anthropomorphic god part falcon. A similar trajectory can be assigned to the zodiac constellations, at times they enter the world below the horizon, and then are reborn again when they reappear. When Orion is goes down, Ophiuchus rises. When Taurus enters the realm of the dead, Scorpio enters the world of the living.

The two major sky circles considered here are the ecliptic (or zodiac) and the Milky Way, our galaxy. There two bands meet at two points in the sky, and traditionally these points are given the name "golden gate" and "silver gate". The golden gate is located between Ophiuchus's feet, Scorpio and Sagittarius. The silver gate is between Taurus's horns. The golden gate is a very interesting part of the sky in particular as it is there, as seen from Earth, that the centre of our galaxy is. The location of these two gates in relation to constellations associated with major deities links them together. Are Ophiuchus and Orion two constellations which are behind several deities or similar or equal calibre, and which reign over the twelve constellations and associated religious and mythological figures of the zodiac?

Another circular line in the sky is the equinoctial colure, the arc in the sky that links the place on the horizon in the east where the sun rises on March 21st and the place on the horizon in the west where the sun sets, at that date. Between roughly 4,000 and 2,000 BCE, the sun rose in the constellation Taurus and set in Scorpio. This period was therefore known as the age of Taurus, the age defined by the sun rising in Taurus for the spring equinox. It is hard to date myths, but perhaps during this period, the Bronze Age, the symbolism of a bull might have taken on added significance if the sun was rising in Taurus at the start of the year, in spring. This is long before Roman Mithras's time, but it's possible the symbolism from this event in the Bronze Age lingered on culturally.

Cautes and Cautopates reliefs found in the Grosse Klostergasse Mithraeum in Friedberg, Wetterau Museum, Friedberg (Germany), Photo by Carole Radatto, Wikimedia Commons

Are these gates the doors of heaven mentioned in spell 316 in the corridor leading to the funeral chamber of Unas, and which is discussed in detail by John Anthony West?

Black greywacke[1] sarcophagus in the funerary chamber of Unas' pyramid, Photo Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons
Draw it back, Ba-Bi!
Open the two shutters of heaven!
Open for Unas
Above the flame beneath the iknt
Of the Neters (12)

John Anthony West points out that the Sesostris text reads literally 'the phallus of Ba-Bi is drawn back". Ba-Bi possesses the power to open the shutters of heaven, and this power seems bound with his reproductive powers. West explains:

Draw back the bolt; i.e. the phallus of Ba-bi is withdrawn, hence the power of generation is suspended, which in turn means the need for reincarnation is voided, opening the gates to heaven, the reunion with the Source. (13)

Why do Osiris and Horus have to fight Set? West writes:

I believe they were expressing in the most concise dramatic form possible the universal principle of regeneration, with the phallus, symbol of the fecundating principle unaffected by death and dissolution, acting upon the feminine principle and generating a new cycle. This new cycle was not merely a renewal and repetition of the old cycle, but a transcendent version of it. For Horus will avenge his father Osiris, and after endless battles, defeat Set and live in eternity as the eye of Ra - that is to say as the observing organ of the divine. The myth is thus simultaneously science and theology, describing a natural process and at the same time furnishing a model for spiritual struggle - for Horus in this context is the divine man, born of nature, who must do battle against Set, his own kin, ultimately defeating him and being reconciled to him. (14)

The regenerative principle is not a simple concept. It is bound up with violence.

In Hamlet's Mill (10), the authors make a compelling argument that the legend of the murder of Osiris by his brother Set is directly related to the failure of Orion to rise on the expected day due to the ages-long delaying action of precession. The motion of precession delays the time of the heliacal rising by about four minutes every 72 years, barely enough to make much difference in one lifetime, but enough that over 2,160 years the date of the heliacal rising will be an entire month later. Another way to think of this phenomenon is that the preceding constellation will be rising on the expected day, while the expected constellation is "delayed." This shift to the preceding constellation is the reason this phenomenon is called precession.

So what is the relation between Orion, Ophiuchus and the zodiac? The mythical and religious figures associated with Ophiuchus and Orion are often central to whatever body of thought has produced them, and are connected to the sun itself, to life, regeneration, and rebirth. Far from being part of a group of twelve, Orion and Ophiuchus figures, are in conflict with several zodiac constellations, notably Taurus and Scorpio - which are perhaps in conflict with each other in the tauroctony scene, but are the two defining parts of the zodiac with their first magnitude stars. Orion and Ophiuchus may also embody different aspects of the same divine figure at various episodes of their story, just as the sun may once, in the bronze age, have risen in Taurus, near Orion, and set in Scorpio, near Ophiuchus. If Orion and Ophiuchus pose a threat to the zodiac, it is because there is a strong chance that Taurus will be flattened by Orion and Scorpio trampled, and speared, by Ophiuchus.

Who knows how far back in time the imagery of the bull goes back? At Lascaux, it is thought the beautiful paintings are star charts. The struggle between Orion and Taurus, and between Ophiuchus and Scorpio has been going on for a very long time, and will continue to do so - all being well.

An aurochs bull in a cave painting in Lascaux, France, Wikimedia Commons


1. "Your Astrological Sign Just Changed, Thanks To NASA", by Erin Nicole, The Zoe ReportSeptember 15, 2016

3. "The Babylonian Zodiac", by Robert Powell,

4. Cleomedes’ Lectures on Astronomy, A Translation of The Heavens With an Introduction and Commentary, by Alan C. Bowen and Robert B. Todd University of California Press 2004 file:///C:/Users/le_ba/Downloads/Cleomedes%20Lectures%20on%20Astronomy%20A%20Translation%20of%20The%20Heavens%20by%20Cleomedes,%20Robert%20B.%20Todd,%20Alan%20C.%20Bowen%20(

6. H.A. Rey, The Stars, A New Way to See Them, p. 56

7. Frazer, Robert, 1922, The Golden Bough, Chapter XXXVIII The Myth of Osiris

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid. Chapter XL

10. de Santillana, Giorgio and von Dechend, Hertha, Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth (first published by Gambit, Boston, 1969)

11.West, John Anthony, Serpent in the Sky, p. 141-142

12. Ibid p. 141

13. Ibid. p. 140

14. Ibid. p. 128

15. Frazer, 1922, chapter XXXIV

16. Murray, M.A. 1920, Ancient Egyptian Legends, Chapter VIII the Battles of Horus

17. See Mathisen, David Warner, 2020, Myth and Trauma, Beowolf Books, p. 369.

18. Ibid. p. 374-6

19. Ulansey, David, 1989, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. Oxford University Press

20. Ibid

21.West, John Anthony, Serpent in the Sky, Quest Books, 1993, p. 53

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