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Old woodcarving of Capricorn - the goat

Capricorn Mythology

The origins of Capricorn mythology are practically unknown. The ancient Greeks had sea-goats, but there was little told about them. Even though Capricornus is the second faintest constellation in the sky, after Cancer, it is associated with myths and images that go way back to the 21st century BC.

The story of Capricornus originated with the Babylonians and Sumerians. The Sumerians knew it as the goat-fish, or Suhurmashha, while the Babylonian star catalogues dating back to 1000 BC mention the constellation as Mulsuhurmas, also meaning “goatfish.” In the early Bronze Age, Capricornus marked the winter solstice and, in modern astrology, Capricorn’s rule still begins on the first day of winter.

The story behind the Capricorn zodiac sign begins with the sea-goat Priscus. Priscus is the father of the race of sea-goats, who are known to be intelligent and honourable creatures who live in the sea near the shore. They can speak and think and are favoured by the gods.

Priscus is tied to Chronos, the god of time. Chronos is the creator of the immortal Priscus, who shares Chronos’ ability to manipulate time.

The Greeks associated the constellation with the forest deity Pan, who had the legs and horns of a goat. Crotus, his son, is usually identified with another amphibious creature, represented by the neighbouring constellation Sagittarius.

During the gods’ war with the Titans, Pan helped scare the Titans away by blowing his conch shell and he later warned the gods that Typhon, a monster sent by Gaia to fight the gods, was approaching. He also suggested that the gods disguise themselves as animals until the danger passed.

In the myth, Pan eluded the monster himself by jumping into the river Nile and turning the lower part of his body into that of a fish. Zeus eventually killed Typhon with his thunderbolts. In reference to the myth, Capricornus is still often depicted as a goat with the tail of a fish.

Pan was placed in the sky by Zeus in gratitude for his coming to the other gods’ rescue on several occasions.

In another story, Capricornus is identified as Amalthea, the goat that suckled Zeus when he was an infant, hiding from his father Cronos. Cronos had devoured his other children, all future gods, and goddesses, because of a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of them.

The legend that ties Priscus to Capricorn mythology begins when the younger sea-goats, Pricus’s children, find their way onto the shore. The sea-goats seem to be naturally drawn to the shore. They can use their front goat legs to pull themselves onto the beach and lay in the sun. The longer they stay onshore, though, the more they “evolve” from sea-goats into regular goats. Their fishtails become hind legs and they lose their ability to think and speak, essentially becoming the goats that we know today.

This upsets Priscus a great deal. As the father of the sea-goat race, he is determined to make sure that his children never get to the shore. If they do, he fears they will become mindless animals who can never return to the sea.

After losing several of his children to the land, Priscus decides to use his ability to reverse time to force his children to return to the sea. During this time reversal, everything on earth, except Priscus, reverses itself to where it was previously, thus the goats revert back to the time before they returned to land.

Priscus, being unaffected by the time shift, is the only one who knows what is to become of the sea-goats. He tries to warn them, even forbid them from setting foot onto the shore, but no matter what he does, or how many times he reverses time, the sea-goats eventually still find their way onto land and become regular goats.

The pivotal moment in Capricorn mythology occurs when Priscus finally realises that he cannot control the destiny of his children and that trying to keep them in the sea will never work, no matter how many times to tries to “start over”. He resigns himself to his loneliness and chooses to no longer reverse time, instead of letting his children live their lives out to their own destiny.

In his misery, Priscus begs Chronos to let him die, as he cannot bear to be the only sea-goat left. Chronos instead allows him to live out his immortality in the sky, as the constellation Capricorn. Now he can see his children even on the highest mountain tops from the stars.

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