Skyscript home page

Page not found

Star Lore of the Constellations:  Ophiuchus - The Serpent Bearer - by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Ophiuchus: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
2 Sag 18 Yed Prior Saturn Venus 3.0 Left hand of Ophiuchus 17N 4S
3 Sag 31 Yed Posterior Saturn Venus 3.3 Left hand 16N 5S
5 Sag 36 Marfik Saturn Venus 3.8 Left elbow 24N 2N
9 Sag 14 Han Saturn Venus 2.7 Near the left knee 11N 11S
17 Sag 58 Sabik Saturn Venus 2.6 Right knee 7N 16S
22 Sag 27 Ras Alhague Saturn Venus 2.1 Forehead 36N 13N
29 Sag 45 Sinistra Saturn Venus 3.5 Left hand 14N 10S

The figure of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer is centred on the equator and stretches from the head of Hercules in the North to Scorpio in the South. It is generally depicted as a mature or elderly man holding a serpent, which is twisted and coiled around his body and returning his stare. The serpent is a separate constellation, Serpens, though occasionally the two have been described as a single constellation.

In mythology the figure of Ophiuchus is identified as Aesculapius who was said to incarnate in the form of snakes. Although capable of destruction with its poisonous bite, the snake's ability to shed its skin also makes it a potent symbol of healing and regeneration. The staff of Aesculapius, a rod with an entwining snake, remains today the official insignia of the American Medical Association.

Staff of Aesculapius

Left: The staff of Aesculapius
Right: Statue of Aesculapius outside Guys Hospital, London

King James I described Aesculapius as a mediciner after made a god [1] and several historians have speculated that the legends developed out of the memory of a real man whose medical acomplishments, obscured by myth, attracted widespread interest. It is difficult, of course, to discern whether there is any truth in this. The name Aesculapius is also common in ancient astrological texts as a proclaimed ancestor of Petosiris, Nechepso, Hermes, Hanubius, Hippocrates and the like.[2]

In myth, Aesculapius is a demi-god, the son of Apollo and the princess Coronis. But Coronis loved another man, Ischys, and embarked upon a secret love affair during her pregnancy. Being suspicious, Apollo sent his sacred bird, Corvus the Crow, to keep watch on his beloved. When the bird reported her betrayal, Apollo was unable to contain his fury and despair. He cursed the crow for delivering such evil news (turning its plummage from its original silver to black) and ordered his sister Artemis to kill Coronis with her arrows. He relented too late to save Coronis, as her body was being burned on the funeral pyre, but Apollo was able to order the rescue of his unborn son from the dead motherís womb. Apollo gave to Aesculapius the gift of healing and handed him over to the care of the centaur Cheiron, who educated him in the art of medicine and raised him to become a great physician.

Aesculapius also appears in myth as a member of the Argo's crew, where he was so successful at healing that he was able to restore life to the dead. This ability gave Pluto great concern until, eventually, he persuaded Jupiter to strike Aesculapius with a thunderbolt and immortalise him in the stars. Of this, Virgil writes:

Then Jove, incensed that man should rise
From darkness to the upper skies
The leech that wrought such healing hurled
With lightning down to Pluto's world [3]

Of the astrological influence of this constellation, Pliny says that it occasions much mortality by poisoning, whilst Manilius claims the figure renders the forms of snakes innocuous to those born under him, adding that its natives will exchange kisses with snakes and suffer no harm.[4] Firmicus also recognised an affinity with the creatures, though he too noted a dangerous influence if its stars are setting or badly placed:

Those who are born with this star rising will be snake charmers who soothe poisonous snakes. But if this star is found in its setting and malefic planets are in aspect, they will die from the bite of a poisonous snake.[5]

The constellation portrays the contradictory themes of kill or cure, both of which relate to periods of critical danger or change. Part of the myth of Aesculapius claims that the goddess Athena gave him two vials of blood from the Gorgon Medusa, whose head was decapitated by the hero Perseus. The blood from the right side of Medusa's body restored the sick to life, but that from the left side was poisonous. In addition to the astrological consideration of whether the stars are favourably or unfavourably placed in the chart, we might note that most of the stars capable of conveying harm are located on the left side of the constellation figure (see below).

The brightest star of the group is Ras Alhague, from Ras al Hawwa 'Head of the Serpent-charmer'. This is a 2nd magnitude, sapphire star, located on the forehead of the figure, which symbolically links the star to prominent mental or imaginative capabilities. Ebertin and Hoffman claim that its natives are especially prone to infectious contamination caused by toxins, have an easy dependency on drugs, and a danger of bites from animals (this would seem to reverse the general meaning of the constellation agreed by ancient authors, who only recognised such an influence when the star was badly placed). They argue that "only very few people" are able to attune themselves to the higher influences of this star, and so seem to agree with Vivian Robson that the main influence of this star is to offer mental depravity and misfortune from women.[6]

There is a sense of subtlety, craft and caution about this star, but the meanings reported by Ebertin and Hoffman, and Robson, undermine the fact that this star brings an impetus to repair and an ability to heal, as well as the potential for destruction. Dr Eric Morse, in his Living Stars, reminds us that snakes are representative of old knowledge, summed up in the saying "be wise as serpents". In the tale of Adam and Eve we are familiar with the serpent as the keeper of access to the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which we must be prepared to lose our innocence and awaken from naivety. In a more positive vein, Dr Morse writes that the implication of the constellational figure as it relates to this star is:

... this Doctor is not fighting with the creature, but actually has control over it. Since this is the Head star, the note is one of control by the mind, not by the brute strength that is so often evident in illustrations. [7]

Ptolemy gave all the stars of Ophiuchus a nature like Saturn and Venus. Those that are most usually associated with harm are located on the left side of the figure, especially around the figure's left hand, which holds the forefront of the snake's body. These include Sinistra (a name which comes from the Latin word sinister for 'left' but which obviously has ominous connotations); Yed Prior, 'the front hand' and Yed Posterior 'the back hand'; the latter of which is a red star, traditionally given an especially 'evil' influence and often associated with death.

Other stars of note, which are accorded a smilar influence include Sabik, 'the Preceding One', a pale yellow 2nd magnitude star on the left knee; Marfik, or Almirfaq 'the elbow' situated on the left elbow, and Han, near the left knee.

Ophiuchus is often referred to as the '13th sign of the zodiac'; a nonsensical label since the tropical zodiac is a division of the ecliptic into 12 equal parts, making a 13th sign a mathematical impossibility. It is one of the 13 constellations which lie on the Sun's apparent path but it has never been a zodiacal sign.
Ophiuchus and Serpens together present a large, obscure area close to the ecliptic between Sagittarius and Scorpio. Ras Alhague is most easily identified with the aid of the summer triangle, where it appears as a dimmer reflection of Deneb of Cygnus, creating an almost equilateral triangle with Wega of Lyra and Altair of Aquila. It is best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during summer evenings and spring mornings.

The Sun crosses Yed Prior around 25th November, Yed Posterior around 26th November, Marfik around 28th November, Han around 1st December, Sabik around 10th December, Ras Alhague around 14th December and Sinistra around 21st December each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] R.H. Allen, Star Names: their Lore and Meaning, Dover Publications 1899, p.153.
Back to text

  2 ] See for example, Allen, p.298, or Firmicus Maternus Mathesis (4th cent.) III.1
Back to text

  3 ] Translated by John Conington. Quoted in Myths of Greece and Rome by H. A. Guerber, American Book Co., 1893; p.63.
Back to text

  4 ] Manilius, Astronomica, (c.10 AD), translated by G.P. Goold; Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 5.389-394, (Loeb p.333).
Back to text

  5 ] Mathesis, VIII.XV.I
Back to text

  6 ] Ebertin and Hoffman, Fixed Stars and their Interpretation, 1971, p.72; Robson, The Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, 1923, p.193.
Back to text

  7 ] Amethyst Books, 1988; pp.153-4, 157.
Back to text


© Deborah Houlding. Adapted from an article first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 18; March 1999. Published online February 2008.

Stars & Constellations