Almost exactly 17 years ago there was quite a bit of fuss in the British newspapers about the “discovery” of a 13th sign of the zodiac. In a
BBC television series called “Heavenly Bodies” a member of the Royal Astronomical Society revealed that between the constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius was another that crossed the ecliptic (what I like to call the zodiac line), the line that marks the sun’s progression through one constellation to the next. That extra zodiac constellation is Ophiucus.
It wasn’t a new suggestion, but it upset a lot of the tabloid newspapers because they relied on daily horoscopes to help keep regular readers and an extra star sign mucked things up! Ever since 1933 when the present constellations were made “official” anyone with a star map could see that Ophiucus crosses the zodiac line for themselves quite clearly (as can be seen in the accompanying map).
I won’t go into the slagging match that went on between astronomer and astrologers over the matter, so we’ll turn to the constellation itself.
Generally speaking, Ophiucus is represented on old star maps as a Greek man holding a snake in his hands – the constellation Serpens, divided into 2 (Serpens Caput, the serpent’s head, and Serpens Cauda, the serpent’s tail). Quite often this man is identified as Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, son of last month’s star subject Apollo. The snake entwined around Asclepius’s walking staff is still used as a symbol of healing (the 2 snakes entwined around a winged staff that you often see is a symbol of Hermes and has nothing to do with healing).
But if we go back to the origin of the name Ophiucus and its earliest depictions we’ll discover why I believe that identifying the constellation with Asclepius is wrong, and that it actually represents one of Apollo’s many male lovers.
The word Ophiucus means “snake bearer”. It seems that this area of the sky has had snake connections since the ancient Babylonians. In the 4th century BC the constellation is described as a man wrestling with a giant snake around his waist, grasping it’s head and tail in his hands. Pictorial versions also show him like this. This means that the constellation representing the snake – Serpens – is divided into 2 with Ophiucus in the middle (see the map again – Ophiucus is in pink, Serpens in light green). So we must consider both constellations together.
In the legends of Asclepius there is no story of him wrestling or battling snakes, only observing them.
The most likely origin of Ophiucus and the snake comes from the Mediterranean island we now know as
Rhodes. Legend says that the island was overrun with giant snakes or dragons. The people of Rhodes called their island Ophiussa, the Lands of the Snakes (“ophi” means “snake”). The dragon-snakes killed many people and soon the island was virtually uninhabited by humans. In their desperation the remaining islanders called upon Apollo to send them a hero who could kill the monsters.
Apollo sent young Phorbas of Thessalia. The legends say he was one of Apollo’s young lovers but they don’t go into any other detail. On his arrival on Rhodes Phorbas set to and killed all the giant dragon-snakes. In gratitude Apollo asked Zeus to put Phorbas in the night sky as the snake-battling Ophiucus.
To me this seems the most likely origin of Ophiucus and Serpens than the Roman-based Asclepius version. And as far as the 13th sign of the zodiac is concerned – according to modern astrology we’re right in the middle of it now.