Crab, Crayfish — or Scarab?

July 10, 2017

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The heart scarab of Tutankhamen

The heart scarab of Tutankhamen

If you look at old manuscripts, or the doors of cathedrals, or stained glass or indeed most representations of the sign Cancer before the Renaissance, you won’t always be looking at a roundish, cosy old crab. Sometimes Cancer is a crayfish, sometimes an odd beetley thing, sometimes who knows?!

In ancient Egypt, the constellation was named scarab, after the dung beetle, a creature of extraordinary importance in the Egyptian world. The dung beetle was associated with Khepri, the god of the rising sun, a creator god and bringer of life. Scarabs made of faience or carved from stone were popular amulets. Small ones must have been worn by everyone, since thousands and thousands have been found. On the under side, there’s usually an inscription, sometimes just a name.

However, on heart scarabs, which were attached to a mummy’s wrappings over the breast, the inscription was lengthier and the scarab much larger. Many had this spell from the Book of the Dead, begging the deceased’s heart to tell the truth when it came to being judged in the afterlife.

“O my heart which I received from my mother,
my heart which I received from my mother,
my heart of my different ages,
do not stand up against me as a witness!….”

So the constellation was associated with a deity that was both common and protective, cosy and powerful, persistent and caring. (The beetles roll their eggs wherever they go, stuffed into a giant ball of dung from which the baby beetles eventually emerge.)

This sounds very like the attributes of the sign Cancer. Even the spell from the Book of the Dead is about mothers! And, of course, the breast is Cancer-ruled

When exactly Cancer became Crab, I cannot find out, but certainly all through the medieval period, the sign is depicted as various kinds of multi-legged creature — most often a crayfish, but not always. This, of course, makes sense with Cancer being a water sign, but no one has ever insisted that Scorpios need to be represented by a lobster instead of a scorpion.

Here are some charming examples…

Above the door at Vezelay Cathedral, France.

Above the door at Vezelay Cathedral, France. Cancer is in the righthand roundel.

The parts of the body. Illuminated Manuscript, Michael of Rhodes, c. 1400

The parts of the body. Illuminated Manuscript, Michael of Rhodes, c. 1400


from The Hunterian Psalter. 12th century

from The Hunterian Psalter. 12th century

Canterbury Cathedral floor.

Canterbury Cathedral floor.

Chartres Cathedral. 12th century

Chartres Cathedral. 12th century. Love the face

Perhaps it’s time for Cancerians to reclaim the scarab.


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art, astrology, Cancer, Egypt, Gods

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