The Sun got into Sagittarius a few days ago and the branches of the trees are more and more bare. The chill is setting in and the days are getting to be a quick fling of the Sun in a low arc over the south. On bright days the light is dazzling, shining deep into our home from low in the sky, and then it heads for dusk by about 4pm.

Sagittarius is one of the Jupiterian signs (the other being Pisces) that lead us into or out of Winter. Mars begins and ends it, Jupiter takes us there and back, Saturn guards its heart.

For a while I used to think that Sagittarius was associated with the figure of Chiron, and while Chiron is a wonderful figure with a complex myth, a very atypical centaur and a child of Saturn, it turns out that Sagittarius may well be associated with a different mythological figure (and Chiron is already identified with the constellation Centaurus).

According to Eratosthenes Sagittarius is associated with the satyr Crotus, a son of Pan who lived with the Muses, and hunted on horseback using a bow and arrow. He was placed in the heavens by Zeus at the request of the Muses.

“Some say that he is Crotus, son of Eupheme, nurse of the Musae (Muses). As Sositheus, writer of tragedies says, he had his home on Mount Helicon and took his pleasure in the company of the Musae, sometimes even following the pursuit of hunting. He attained great fame for his diligence, for he was very swift in the woods, and clever in the arts. As a reward for his zeal the Musae asked Jove [Zeus] to represent him in some star group, and Jove did so. Since he wished to display all his skills in one body, he gave him horse flanks because he rode a great deal. He added arrows, since these would show both his keenness and his swiftness, and he gave him a Satyrus’ tail because the Musae took no less pleasure in Crotus than Liber [Dionysos] did in the Satyri. Before his feet are a few stars arranged in a circle, which some said were a wreath, thrown off as by one at play.”

Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 27, quoted on Theo.com

The Constellation Guide says that Sagittarius has an association with the god Nergal from the Babylonians. Nergal was a god of death, plague, pestilence, warfare and the netherworld according to Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses (AMG&G) . The Encyclopedia Britannica associates him with scorched earth. He was fiery, fierce, forceful, and had an association with intentional death, whether by human, divine or demonic hands¹. As AMG&G points out, death brought by Negal had a supernatural dimension, and Mesopotamian psychology often attributed to  disease a “demonic agency”. Nergal controls a number of demons, and consequently he also had an averting and protective function, as demonstrated by his appearance on house amulets.

There is a fair amount of overlap (and later even syncretism) between Nergal and the god Ninurta, and Ninurta was often shown holding a bow and arrow or a sickle sword. There are indications that Nergal could fulfil a Mars-like role, and Ninurta a Saturn-like role in ancient Babylonian religion (certainly links with the heavenly bodies). Mesopotamia.co.uk claims Ninurta was often shown running on the back of a monster with a lion’s body and scorpion’s tail. He does also have rain, thunderstorms, flood, and agriculture/fertility associations.

Renna Shesso links Sagittarius to the Babylonian Pabilsag, a figure shown with a horses legs, great wings, and a scorpion’s tail, sometimes with a small dog on his back or at the back of his head.

“Some of the earliest lore connects Pabilsag with Ninurta, who eternally wrestles with the Cancer turtle. Other stories …… credit him with the role of psychopomp, a guide for the souls of those departing from life”

Renna Shesso, “A Magical Tour of the Night Sky

AMG&G notes syncretisms between Pabilsag and both Ninurta and Nergal, and his functions are suggested as including healing, judgement, war and hunting, plus connection with the otherworld of the dead. In terms of representation the author also notes:

“In the first millennium Pabilsag could be depicted as a high administrative official (Akkadian zazakku) (Krebernik 2003-05: 164), while by Hellenistic times he was depicted as a centaur, a mythical creature part human and part horse, sometimes with the tail of a scorpion (Green 1993-95: 256). By that era he was also identified with the constellation Sagittarius”

Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses

A very interesting PDF with information on Pabilsag and Sagittarius by Gavin White can be found here.

“The origins of Sagittarius, the Archer, are to be found in the strange composite figure known as Pabilsag. The familiar image of the Greek constellation as a horse-centaur armed with a bow and arrow is, in fact, a simplified version of the Babylonian figure, which is a truly composite character with a number of features not seen in the Greek version, such as a set of wings, a scorpion’s tail and the head of a dog. The details of Pabilsag’s iconography show a considerable amount of variation – some depictions omit the wings or dog’s head altogether, while other images can replace its back legs with those of a bird”

Gavin White, Babylonian Star Lore

Pabilsag, as per illustration shown by Gavin White. Note centaur form but with wings, dog's head looking backwards, scorpion tail and erect phallus. This drawing done by Mo Batchelor

Pabilsag, as per illustration shown by Gavin White. Note centaur form but with wings, dog’s head looking backwards, scorpion tail and erect phallus. This drawing done by Mo Batchelor

Gavin goes on to say that though the horse-centaur image can only be traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE, the figure is “undoubtedly older as the constellation name appears in the star-lists of the preceding Old Babylonian period”. An older form of the Archer can be found on entitlement stones, combining a human archer with a scorpion’s body and bird-like feet. He adds: “Very similar creatures first appear in Akkadian artwork where they can have wings and often have a snake-headed phallus. It isn’t known if these Akkadian images represent an early form of Pabilsag, nevertheless their iconography certainly seems to have influenced its later appearance”.

Gavin also notes that from the Old Babylonian period Pabilsag is often identified with Ninurta, but little is known about him. He is the son of Enlil, his wife was the healing goddess Ninisina, and their son was called Damu (“the child”) and was annually reborn after midwinter. Ninisina’s constellation was the She-Goat, and her divine symbol was the dog. Damu was represented by the “Swine-star”.

Gavin White mentions a few other things too. As Pabilsag’s star rises, the Sun “descends to its lowest ebb at the winter solstice and the gates to the underworld are opened symbolizing the transition between death and new life”. 

Another is that Pabilsag is situated within the course of the Milky Way:

“where it abruptly rises from the southern regions close to the horizon into the higher reaches of the heavens. Judging by the other constellations found in this part of the sky, such as the Eagle and the Panther, this section of the Milky Way arguably represents the souls of the dead on their way to the afterlife. Taken together these features paint a picture of Pabilsag as a guardian and guide to the souls of the deceased. In many of his essential features he can therefore be equated with the figure of the Wild Hunter found in western folklore”

Picking up that association of hunting I found fascinating. The name Pabilsag can be translated as forefather or chief ancestor, and Gavin considers the hunt references to be camouflaging the ancestor’s role  “as the guide to the deceased, spiriting away the souls of the dead with the winds, away from the earth and into the heavens above.”

“The themes of death and destruction are very apparent in the astrological lore of Pabilsag. So far only omens for Jupiter’s presence have been recovered but these paint a pretty desolate picture predicting destruction and carnage for the land, and the death of the prince. Like the other ecliptic constellations that rise during the winter Pabilsag has surprisingly few omens explicitly attributed to him. This lack of omens is ingenuously circumvented by Babylonian astrologers by identifying his component parts with other independent star figures of a similar appearance – in this instance, Pabilsag’s arrow can be identified with the constellation of the Arrow (properly speaking the star Sirius, which marks the summer solstice), and his scorpion-tail can be identified with the Scorpion’s Stinger. The close affinity between Pabilsag and Ninurta may have contributed to these particular identifications, as both the Arrow and the Scorpion’s Stinger are closely associated with Ninurta in astrological lore”


Nergal and Ninurta give us Mars and Saturn associations, and as we have noted, Mars begins and ends Winter, while Saturn lies at its heart. The figure of Pabilsag seems to lie at the root of Sagittarius, and brings in associations of the Wild Hunt, the ferrying of souls, the divine psychopomp. This all fits those connections with the netherworld and the dead which have also been noted. Pabilsag seems to have elements reminiscent of Scorpio as well, while the modern constellation of Sagittarius shoots it’s arrows back into Scorpio, at Antares, the “heart of the scorpion”. Antares is the “anti-ares” star, similar to or rivaling Mars. Of the fixed stars it has a pretty infamously rough reputation, but has been said to be of the quality of Jupiter and Mars, while others say it is of Mars and Saturn. The themes connected with Sagittarius are pretty fierce, one way or another. He seems to have a touch of St George slaying the dragon that would hold us back, but his roots have a sting in his own tail. If he can combat darkness, it is because he also is darkness. He ferries us into Winter, but as leader of the Wild Hunt his accompaniment is compelling, wild, and possessed of a very firm grip. Even in his modern form he is noble, far sighted, magnanimous, healing, teaching, an opener up of horizons; but we need to remember and respect that his roots are in the bestial and the feral. It’s a whole deal, not a half.

For myself, at this time of year, which is to say after Halloween, I notice that one of my bright and beloved gods has disappeared from the “outer” world of visions, and his brightness has become now the inner light. I would be fibbing if I said I even knew what that really meant, but I accept it with gratitude and renewed surprise each time. I just have to watch, as a child would.

Incidentally, the centre of our galaxy lies in the direction of the constellations Sagittarius, Ophiuchus (the “serpent bearer”) and Scorpius.

However you’d like to view Sagittarius, keep warm and bright, and your spirits light, and may your footsteps be well guided through Winter. And Happy Thanksgiving to any of my American readers who celebrate it.

"Bare hooves prints" by Alex Brollo, electronically solarized. Used under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Bare hooves prints” by Alex Brollo, electronically solarized by Credencedawg. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

¹ Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses




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