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Star Lore of the Constellations: Centaurus the Centaur, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Centaurus: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
12 Sco 19 Menkent Venus Mercury 2.1 Left shoulder 22S 36S
23 Sco 48 Agena Venus Jupiter 0.6 Right foreleg 44S 60S
29 Sco 30 Bungula Venus Jupiter -0.3 Left front hoof 43S 61S

Centaurus is a southern constellation and its brightest stars are not visible in regions above latitude 29 north. In Athens (23 N) they scarcely appear above the horizon, so the early Greek texts undermined their importance. As a consequence the alpha star of this constellation has been given little attention in traditional astrological works - considering it is, after all, the closest star to the earth and the 3rd brightest star in the sky.

The mythology of the Southern Centaur is believed to be of Greek origin, developing later than that of the more warlike Sagittarius, whose imagery is known to be Mesopotamian. Centaurus barely featured in the 4th century BC text of Aratus, but according to Eratosthenes, who wrote of the constellations in the 2nd century BC, the star group depicts the mythological figure of Cheiron: a half-man, half-horse creature who was remarkable amongst his wild and lawless race because of his wisdom, gentility and love of humanity.

Tales of the centaurs describe them as aggressive and brutal. That Cheiron was different proclaims his ability to rise above, rather than be pulled into, the expectations of his environment. He was proficient in many arts - astronomy, philosophy, botany, music, divination and medicine - and he was also a great teacher under whom many Greek heroes studied. As the son of Chronos and the ocean nymph Philyra he was immortal, but he received a terrible, poisonous wound from an arrow which was shot (in error) by Hercules. His own incurable injury gave him the empathy to understand the pain of others, and earned him a reputation as the healer who could not, himself, be healed. His place in the heavens was awarded in honour of his selfless renunciation of his immortality in favour of the Titan Prometheus.

Manilius's 1st century description of the constellation's influence is very much in keeping with the nobler aspects of Cheiron mythology. He ascribes to it a general affinity with horses and the healing art. In particular, his text describes a proficiency and intuitive skill in the veterinary vocation, for its native:

" knows how to apply the arts of healing to the limbs of animals and to relieve the dumb creatures of the disorders they cannot describe for his hearing. His is indeed a calling of skill, not to wait for the cries of pain, but recognise betimes a sick body not yet conscious of its sickness." [1]

Firmicus added that a danger from horses is indicated if the constellation is setting with malefics in aspect, while Ptolemy tells us that the stars in the upper body - the human part- are like Venus and Mercury, whilst those in the equine part, (which includes the brightest stars), are like Venus and Jupiter.[2] Yet despite being likened to such a benign planetary influence, Robson states that it gives:

" hard-heartedness, inclination to vengeance, love of arms, strong passions and an energetic nature".[3]

Many authors have also emphasized a destructive connection with poison. We can expect this is alluding to the incurable wound of Cheiron which was inflicted by a poisoned arrow, but it also demonstrates how the symbolism of this constellation contains interwoven and conflicting principles, such that innocence and guilt, and pain and healing become entangled in each other. The shadow principle of administering medicine to cure, is to administer poison to kill; so where the stars of this constellation are operating through malefic planets or destructive alignments, the more negative connotations of that principle are likely to manifest.

The 19th century Christian theologist E. W. Bullinger claims that the Greek name Cheiron derives from a term meaning either 'the pierced', or 'who pierces', applying equally to the wounder as well as the wounded. Bullinger also referred to this constellation as 'The Centaur with two natures, holding a spear, piercing a victim' - alluding to the usual depiction in star-maps of the Centaur facing eastwards towards the constellation Ara the Altar and holding Lupus the Beast on his spear, (as if carrying the beast to the altar as a sacrifice). Bullinger connects to this theme again when he tells us that another name for the constellation was, in Hebrew, Asmeath, which means a sin-offering. [4] Elsewhere, descriptions of this constellation suggest that it expresses a need to overcome negative conditioning in order to assume maturity, often with a painful acceptance of responsibility which enforces the loss of naieve understanding.Generaly, some form of sacrifice is called for.

J.E. Cirlot, in his Dictionary of Symbols, writes of centaur symbolism:

"From a symbolic point of view, the centaur is the antithesis of the knight, that is, it represents the complete domination of a being by the baser forces: in other words, it denotes cosmic force, the instincts, the unconscious, uncontrolled by the spirit" [5]

Similarly, Eric Morse writes:

"There are undoubtedly few myths which teach so clearly the battle between instinct and reason. Iconographically, centaurs are generally depicted with an expression of sorrow on their faces. They symbolize lust, with all the brute violence which can reduce mankind to the level of beasts unless it is counterbalanced by spiritual strength. They are a striking image of the twofold nature of man kind - half god and half beast." [6]

But Cheiron is not an ordinary centaur. His myth is one of having conquered his unconscious instincts, though not without personal sacrifice and pain to excuse that 'look of sorrow'. Hence, whilst Robson's definition of 'hard-heatedness' and 'strong passions' may appear to be a contradiction in terms, those born with the Sun or Moon conjunct the alpha star of Centaurus seem marked by an apparent emotional-reserve which belies a powerful sense of purpose and intensity of character. Contemporary examples include:

Bjork - Sun: 2850 Scorpio;
Charles de Gaulle - Sun: 2950 Scorpio;
Jamie Lee Curtis - Sun: 2953 Scorpio;
Boris Becker- Sun: 2919 Scorpio;
Billie Jean King - Sun: 2936 Scorpio;
Shirley Bassey - Moon: 2839 Scorpio;

and more infamously, serial killer Dennis Nilson - Sun: 031 Sagittarius. 'Hard-heartedness', with its negative connotations is probably a poor choice of words for what is really being expressed, since emotional reserve can just as easily arise from a stoical sacrifice of personal needs, as it can from an uncaring or dispassionate disposition.

The brightest star in the constellation is Bungula on the left forefoot. Its name derives from the Latin term ungula meaning 'hoof', though it is also popularly known as Rigel Kentaurus (Foot of Centaur) or Toliman. [7] This 1st magnitude, white and yellow binary system is the Earth's nearest star, beaten in brilliance only by Sirius and Canopus. Its radiance drew particular attention from the ancient Egyptians, who aligned many temples with it around the 3rd millennium BC. [8] It is generally said to have a beneficial influence, yet in addition to the expressing the themes of the constellation it is reputed to damage relationships. Ebertin and Hoffman write, that despite the Jupiter-Venus nature:

"there is the added peculiarity that relationship to female persons often seems spoiled, or an existing happy relationship is stricken by exceptional circumstances". [9]

They add that, well placed, Bungula "may help to gain a position of honour and power", but the conjunction of Neptune to this star in mundane maps "appears to be most disadvantageous they always seem to tally up with disturbances, riots, periods of storm and stress or revolt against curtailment of freedom."

Bungula was also traditionally known by the Arabic terms Wazn, meaning 'weight', and Hadar, meaning 'ground'. This may be explained by the appearance of the star so close to the horizon, but it is interesting that the alpha star of Centaurus is unusually placed at such a low extremity of the figure - most alpha stars are centrally located, or connected to the heart or the head. This again points to the suggestion that part of the 'life-purpose' embedded in this star is the need to curtail base emotions or gain mastery over unconscious instincts. Symbolically, the foot is used to represent mobility, as well as foundations, lowliness or base influences. But several authors, including Jung, have agreed that lameness in Greek legends usually indicates some defect or essential blemish in the spirit; and that the foot, being linked to the heel, is indicative of vulnerability; where this brings unbearable pain or incurable injury, remarkable talents are given as compensation. [10] In this sense at least, Alvidas's definition of Bungula as like "Mars with the Moon and Uranus in Scorpio" makes sense. [11] This star may bring hurt, pain and even emotional rejection, but that is often the means by which the drive that brings out the extra-ordinary is discovered and developed. As a general principle, Bungula, when highlighted, can be expected to show some emotional disturbance or dissatisfaction, compensated by mature judgement, sophisticated reason or an exceptional application to goals and material achievement.

Agena, on the right forefoot, the beta star of Centaurus, is another bright 1st magnitude star that can be expected to express the themes of this constellation. Its name is taken from the Arabic a gena, meaning 'the knee'. It has a similar influence to Bungula but is considered less intense. Robson claims that it gives "position, friendship, refinement, morality, health and honour".[12]

See also Acrux for stars of the Southern Cross which were once part of this constellation.

Centaurus is a large constellation with two very bright stars but their southern declination means they are unable to be viewed from latitudes higher than 29 N.

The Sun crosses Agena around 15th November, and Bungula around 21st November each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Manilius, Astronomica, (c.10 AD), translated by G.P. Goold; Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 5.355-537, (Loeb p.329).
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  2 ] Fimicus, Mathesis, 4th cent., translated by Jean Rhys Bram, VIII.XIII.4.
Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st cent. AD), trans. Robbins, published by Harvard Heinemann, Loeb classical library, London. I.9 (Loeb p.57).
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  3 ] Robson, The Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, 1923, p.37.
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  4 ] Bullinger, Rev. E.W, The Witness of The Stars, 1893. Online edition available at Back to text

  5 ] Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, p.40.
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  6 ] Dr Eric Morse, The Living Stars, 1988, Amethyst Books, London, New York. Quoted on
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  7 ] Bullinger, ibid. "The brightest star, (in the horse's fore-foot), has come down to us with the ancient name of Toliman, which means the heretofore and hereafter"
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  8 ] R.H. Allen, Star Names: their Lore and Meaning, Dover Publications 1899, p.153.

" - known to the Egyptians as Serk-t, its heliacal rising at the autumnal equinox was a basis for the orientation of at least nine temples in northern Egypt dating from 3800 to 2575 B.C., and of several in southern Egypt from 3700 B.C. onward."
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  9 ] Ebertin & Hoffman, Fixed Stars and their Interpretation, trans. Irmgard Banks (Tempe, AZ: The American Federation of Astrologers, 1971), pp.68-69.
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  10 ] Cirlot, p.111
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  11 ] Quoted in Robson, p.148
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  12 ] Ibid., p.117.
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© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 16; March 1998. Expanded and published online July 2005.

Stars & Constellations