Sketchbook Page 46: K is for Karkinos

June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment



Bones from a Bestiary part 11: K is for Karkinos

This is the eleventh in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

Cancer, or the Crab, is one of the constellations of the zodiac. It is a relatively small constellation with mostly faint stars that lies in the northern hemisphere.


In Greek mythology, Cancer is identified with Karkinos (or Carcinus), a giant crab that assisted the multi-headed Learnean Hydra in its battle with Hercules, one of his legendary Twelve Labours. Hera had sent Karkinos to distract Hercules and put him at a disadvantage, but Hercules quickly dispatched the creature by kicking it with such force that it was propelled into the sky. Other accounts had Karkinos grabbing onto Hercules’ toe with its claws, but Hercules simply crushed the crab underfoot. Hera, grateful for Karkinos’ heroic effort, gave it a place in the sky. Some scholars have suggested that Karkinos was a late addition to the myth of Hercules in order to make the Twelve Labors correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

In Ancient Greece, Aratus called the crab Καρκινος (Karkinos), which was followed by Hipparchus and Ptolemy. The Alfonsine tables called it Carcinus, a Latinized form of the Greek word. Eratosthenes extended this as ΚαρκινοςΟνοικαι Φατνη: the Crab, Asses, and Crib. The Indian language Sanskrit shares a common ancestor with Greek, and the Sanskrit name of Cancer is Karka and Karkata. In Telugu it is “Karkatakam”, in Kannada “Karkataka” or “Kataka”, in Tamil Karkatan, and in Sinhalese Kagthaca. The later Hindus knew it as Kulira, from the Greek Κολουρος (Koloyros), the term originated by Proclus.

In Ancient Rome, Manilius and Ovid called the constellation Litoreus (shore-inhabiting). Astacus and Cammarus appear in various classic writers, while it is called Nepa in Cicero’s De Finibus and the works of Columella, Plautus, and Varro; all of these words signify crab, lobster, or scorpion.

Athanasius Kircher said that in Coptic Egypt it was Κλαρια, the Bestia seu Statio Typhonis (the Power of Darkness). Jérôme Lalande identified this with Anubis, one of the Egyptian divinities commonly associated with Sirius.

In Chinese astronomy, the stars of Cancer lie within the The Vermillion Bird of the South (南方朱雀, Nán Fāng Zhū Què).


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