Capricornus is a zodiacal constellation depicting an amphibious hybrid which has the upper body and head of a horned goat and the lower body of a fish. Despite being a rather faint astronomical asterism that can be hard to observe, Capricornus was catalogued by ancient civilizations since the 4th millennium BC. Because it marked the winter solstice until 130 BC, Capricornus had a much greater significance during the Bronze Age.
The Sumerians were perhaps the first to give the constellation a name – SUHUR-MASH-HA which is commonly translated as “(the) Goatfish” – and a mythological association: the goat-fish hybrid was a symbol of their god Enki. In Sumerian mythology, Enki was associated with the cosmic waters of creation, making him one of the most important (and complex) deities in the Sumerian pantheon. Enki was thought to have his abode in the primeval subterranean ocean – the Abzu – where he lived with his wife Ninhursag and his mother Nammu.
Isimud, Enki’s advisor and messenger, Lahmu, the guardian of Abzu’s gates, and an entire host of subservient creatures also resided in this watery abyss; among these creatures there was the goat-fish hybrid. Both the goat and the fish were symbols of Enki and animals strongly associated with fertility. In time, the two creatures were combined into a single beast – the Goatfish, prototype of Capricornus.
The Babylonians, like the Sumerians before them, called the constellation MULSUḪUR.MAŠ, which means the same thing as in Sumerian – the Goatfish. Capricornus was recorded in the famous Babylonian star catalogues around 1000 BC. There are visual representations of Capricornus dating back to more than four thousand years ago on cylinder seals depicting Enki. The Ancient Greeks most likely adopted the constellation from the Mesopotamians, calling it Aigōkeros –“Goat-Horned”; Capricornus is the Latin translation of this term.
In Greek Mythology
When Claudius Ptolemy listed Capricornus among the so-called 48 classical constellations in his Almagest (2nd century AD), the celestial goat-fish was associated with Pan, the satyr god of the wilds. Pan, like most satyrs, was imagined having goat-like features, including the legs and horns of a goat. According to the ancient Greek legends, Pan aided the Olympian gods in their time of need when the monster Typhon was unleashed by Gaia to destroy them.
There are more versions of this myth, but those given by Pindar, Nicander and Apollodorus state that when Mount Olympus came under attack, the gods transformed themselves into animals and fled to Egypt. Apollo became a hawk, Hermes an ibis, Ares a fish, Artemis a cat, Hephaestus an ox and so on, while Pan gave himself a fish tail and jumped into a river. Zeus did not disguise himself as any animal, but grappled with Typhon in a cataclysmic battle. The monster overpowered the Lord of Olympus and torn out the sinews from his arms and legs.
Crippled and powerless, Zeus was carried by Typhon “across the sea” and thrown into the Corycian cave in Cilicia. Before long, Hermes and Pan (or Cadmus and Pan according to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca) recovered the sinews, which were hidden in a bearskin, and gave them back to Zeus. With his powers restored, the thunder god managed to utterly defeat Typhon and buried him under Mount Etna in Sicily, or according to another version, under the volcanic island of Ischia. Zeus rewarded Pan’s heroic efforts by placing him among the stars as the constellation Capricornus, to stand on the firmament as a reminder of those events.
Gaius Julius Hyginus neatly summarized this catasterism in his Fabluae (CXCVI. Pan):
When the gods, in Egypt, took fright at the ferocity of Typhon, Pan told them to turn themselves into wild beasts to deceive him the more easily, and Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt. By the will of the gods, Pan was placed among the stars because his advice had enabled them to escape from the power of Tyhpon; and because he had turned himself into a goat on that occasion, he was called Aigōkeros, which we translate as Capricornus.
Depictions of Capricornus in the Middle Ages
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Ridpath, I. (1988). Star Tales. James Clarke & Co.
- Ridpath, I. (2012). A dictionary of astronomy. Oxford University Press.
- Smith, R. S., & Trzaskoma, S. M. (2007). Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology.Hacket Publishing Company Inc.
- Condos, T. (1997). Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook. Phanes Press
- , H., A., & Hard, R. (2015). Constellation Myths: with Aratuss Phaenomena. Oxford University Press.
- Rogers, J. H. (1998). Origins of the Ancient Constellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 108, 9-28.
- Harris, B. (2011). Ancient Skies: Early Babylonian Astronomy, with Specific Reference to MUL. APIN(Doctoral dissertation, Stellenbosch: University of Stellenbosch).