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20. The Ongoing Battle between Ophiuchus and Scorpio

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

The constellations Ophiuchus and Scorpio are two sides of an everlasting battle, or balance. Ophiuchus is located just above Scorpio. In art, this is often represented as a man,r angel or deity with a foot on a snake, dragon or devil's head, and holding a lance, spear or sceptre, often seen to be going through the creature's mouth or head. However, judging by the way this battle is represented in art usually, with both attacker and attacked looking serene, bemused, tired, or even slightly bored, it can be inferred that the spearing of the Scorpio figure by the Ophiuchus figure represents an attempt to control chaos, to limit the powers of the forces of darkness, of evil, of destruction. The look on the two protagonists' faces in a Michael - Devil painting perhaps conveys a sort of Buddhist detachment from suffering, an understanding that bad things can happen, and that you might as well be prepared. There is no drama in these images, no anguish, no fretting, no rage, no chance of escape either. The relationship between Ophiuchus and Scorpio is mostly used as an allegory, whereby the forces that shape the world, that create order and chaos, are locked together, and both need and repel each other. These images become an acceptance of evil and chaos, and in that there the passing down through generations of a great wisdom.

Ophiuchus and Scorpio, drawings by H.A. Rey in The Stars
Set spearing Apep on the solar boat, Wikimedia Commons

Saint George and the Dragon 16th century. From Radishchev State Art Museum, Saratov, Russia.

The Archangel Michael, 16th century, anonymous, from the church of San Miguel de Otal, an abandoned village in Aragon, Spain. Photo by stavlokratz on Flikr.

Saint Michael and the dragon, by B van den Bossche

Mosaic uncovered at Pompei. David Warner Mathisen's interpretation of this image is that the top figure is Hercules, the one below is Ophiuchus, then Scorpio and finally Hydra. See David's post:

Crowned Hermaphrodite (Androgyne or Rebis) (c. 1400) Perhaps even this goes back to Ophiuchus and Scorpio.

Sometimes the constellation Virgo is the force that dominates Scorpio.

The constellation Virgo. If you replace the scales at her feet with scorpion's claws, which is the way Scorpio would have looked up until the first century B.C.E., she is standing on Scorpio just as Ophiuchus does.

The Glorification of the Virgin (c. 1490–1495) by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Wikimedia Commons

There is no question in these images as to who is in charge however. Ophiuchus is the dominant figure. Scorpio is always prone, receiving or about to receive a wound, and slightly smaller. This is especially so since what were once the claws of the Scorpio became the weighing scales, Libra. The struggle between Ophiuchus and Scorpio is not a face to face battle, between equals. The Scorpio figure is however a force to be reckoned with. In some Christian art, when depicted as the devil, he is sometimes seen snatching the souls that the Archangel Michael (Ophiuchus) is supposed to be guiding to the after life. The dragon, the snake, the devil - as Scorpio is depicted in Christian imagery - is what the Ophiuchus character needs to be and stay a hero, a god.

When St Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, in popular legend, this is a strange twist on the Ophiuchus-Scorpio relationship, as if the forces of evil and chaos could be got rid of, just like that.

Perhaps the story of St Patrick was meant to undermine a local pre-Christian imagining of the Ophiuchus-Scorpio power struggle, which understood Scorpio as a necessary part of the universe which can never be truly controlled, and perhaps even made sacrifices to a corresponding deity in order to appease it. This would have seemed unacceptable to a Christian. Banishing the Scorpio character from the divine duel left St Patrick, the Ophiuchus character, without a role. Perhaps the tellers of the St Patrick story had forgotten that Ophiuchus needs Scorpio, that order and chaos are simply two aspects of the universe.

Yet, in other aspects of the Christian world-view, the battle between order and chaos, or good and evil was well preserved in the Ophiuchus-Scorpio dialectic. This can be seen in the many images of Saints Michael and George, also in some images of the Virgin Mary standing on a snake. It can also be seen in the stage that was created for the Pope when not appearing our of a window in the Vatican.

The Paul VI Audience Hall, from the dome of St. Peter's, showing the photovoltaic panel roof (2011) Photo by TeeBee, Wikimedia Commons

This is an aerial shot of the pope's audience hall in the Vatican city. It's also called the Paul VI Audience Hall, and Hall of the Pontifical Audiences. It was designed by by the Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi and completed in 1971. Part of the building is in Italy, extraterritorial area of the Holy See. It is used by the pope for his General Audiences on Wednesday mornings as an alternative to St Peter's Square.

Does the building looks like a snake's head? Absolutely.

There are several interesting articles on this building online, as well as YouTube videos such as The question is: why a snake? Is the Pope speaking from the mouth of a snake and is that not surprising? It would be very surprising if that were the case, but perhaps the snake motif can be taken differently.

Inside the building, the snake similarities continue.

So what's it all about? Does the pope want to be seen to be speaking from the mouth of a snake? Or is the pope pitting himself against a snake when he addresses his flock? Why is this building, both inside and out, so out of character with the rest of the Vatican City, and with religious buildings in general? Why is the iconography so at odds with what you'd expect from a Catholic church? There are no crosses, no images of the Virgin Mary, no images of saints. The building is very sparse, very protestant, and perhaps that's stranger even than the snake imagery. Rather than worshipping snakes, is the pope casting himself himself in the role of dragon or serpent slayer?

St Peter's Basilica is the burial site of Saint Peter. Like St Peter, the Pope has two keys, at least symbolically, on the papal coat of arms. The pope is considered to be the living embodiment of St Peter on earth.

Looking down into the confessio near the tomb of Apostle Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, photo by Tieum512, Wikimedia Commons

Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter, by Pietro Perugino (1481–82), Wikimedia Commons

St Peter by Francesco del Cossa, 1473, Wikimedia Commons

Why Saint Peter, you might ask. I don't have the answer, but it's interesting to remember that Saint Peter's name means rock, and the constellation Ophiuchus, when not represented as the slayer of dragons, snakes and devils, is sometimes a rock. Just a rock, in the middle of a painting, the link to the constellation being made possible from the position of figures which can themselves be linked to constellations. Rocks are held to be sacred in many religious traditions, including Christianity. There are many example of rock hewn churches and chapels and churches built on the tops of rocks. There is good reason to believe the worship of rock is ancient, and links the traditions of St Peter, St Michael, St George and many others with the constellation Ophiuchus.

For example in the painting by Titian below, the arrangement of the figures could be understood as Sagittarius to the left, the Milky Way through the centre, symbolised by the trickling water and the stream, Virgo the main figure to the right, with arm outstretched, just like the constellation, and perhaps Scorpio is the dog. This would mean that the central pillar in all this, with the mysterious carvings on its side, is Ophiuchus.

Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559, Titian, Wikimedia Commons

Anonymous after Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 - 1617). Apollo Killing Python, ca. 1589. From Metamorphoses. Engraving. This image is used as an example by David Warner Mathisen to show the Apollo corresponds to the constellation Sagittarius, the dragon to Scorpio, and the mountain in the background to Ophiuchus.

Possibly, some hills and rocks considered sacred correspond to the constellation Ophiuchus.

Chapel of St Michel, Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Wikimedia Commons

St Paul is an Ophiuchus figure, like the Archangel Michael, a psychopomp who guides souls after death, and connected to stone by his very name, Peter the rock. Both saints Michael and Peter are figures that are supposed to help people, either in life or after, to provide a link to the divine realm, and protect them. So I would suggest that when the pope is on that stage in the snake head audience hall, that's exactly what he is doing: immersing himself in chaos, representing the link between the world of the living and the dead, between chaos and order. The pope is portraying himself as fighting the forces of chaos and evil, and as an Ophiuchus / St Michael / Peter figure he has to face the serpent in the eye as he speaks to his flock. Whether he imagines his flock to be an integral part of chaos, part of the snake, is unclear. It is also unclear whether or not the snake imagery and the pope's role as chaos and evil slayer is meant to be obvious or not. What is evident however, is that the Ophiuchus - Scorpio battle endures.

That the pope's audience hall is a snake's head is possibly significant, just as it is the head that is the target of Ophiuchus's spear in a lot of Christian artwork. Does the building represent Antares? In the constellation Scorpio, this is where the star Antares is located. The name Antares means anti-Ares, or anti-Mars, and like Mars, Antares has a reddish hue. The Babylonian name actually refers to the breast, not the head of the scorpion: GABA GIR.TAB, "the Breast of the Scorpion", and in Arabic, Calbalakrab from قَلْبُ ٱلْعَقْرَبِ Qalb al-Άqrab, means the heart of the scorpion. In Ancient Egypt, one of its names was called tms n hntt "the red one of the prow", an allusion to the solar boat, though it also corresponded to the scorpion goddess Serket. The ancient Chinese called Antares 心宿二 (Xīnxiù'èr, "second star of the Heart"), and the Maori of New Zealand call Antares Rēhua, and regard it as the chief of all the stars, father of Rigel, Orion's knee. Antares seems to have been an important star all around the world, and no wonder as it is massive. It may be that when Scorpio included what is now Libra in its contours, Antares corresponded to the heart, but after the break away new constellation of the scales was formed, the outline of the scorpion was shortened so as to place Antares in the head. Whether it points to the heart or the head of the scorpion, Antares is a mysterious star.

Antares, in the constellation Scorpio, from

If Scorpio were extended, to incorporate Libra as I have done below, it would be much closer in size to Ophiuchus. Would that make a difference to whether Antares were the head or the heart? Perhaps. But it is hard to see a head on an actual scorpion!

If Scorpio were extended all the way to Virgo, it could explain images of Mary standing on a snake, or even the scorpion could be incorporated to the constellation Virgo, which could correspond to the scorpion goddess figure in the Pompeii mosaic.

This would be an interesting twist on the relationship between the constellations Scorpio, Virgo and Ophiuchus.

With Virgo and Ophiuchus standing on Scorpio, however, the relationship could be symbolic of the tension between order and chaos, light and dark, good and evil, or even master and slave.

On approaching the other it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as another being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for this primitive consciousness does not regard the other as essentially real but sees its own self in the other.

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); Paragraph 179, Pg. 111.

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