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Explaining the science and mythology behind the constellation of Cancer

Zodiac star, Cancer constellation, on night sky with cloud and stars.
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The story behind Cancer the crab zodiac sign is connected to the mythology of the superhero of Hercules.

Do you know your zodiac sign? Would you know how to find it in the night sky? To help us learn about the astronomy and mythology behind the zodiac, astronomy contributor Jean Creighton, director of UW-Milwaukee’s Manfred Olson Planetarium, joins Lake Effect.

Constellations of the Zodiac: Cancer

Creighton says that even though people are born during the Cancer zodiac sign season, they should not expect to see their constellation now. "So even though, you know, many people are celebrating their birthday as Cancers, they should not anticipate that they'll be able to see their constellation. Their present is a few months before or after, like outside your birthday."

The story behind Cancer the crab zodiac sign is connected to the mythology of the superhero of Hercules. "Hercules had dealt with all kinds of monsters in his labors; he had 12 labors. And one of the labors he was assigned to kill Hydra," says Creighton. "Hydra comes from the word 'Hydor,' which means water. So this was a water monster that waited by the water hole, and as often, these creatures have multiple heads, and then they would just sit there and wait until some unsuspecting animal comes for water, and they would snatch it."

As it turns out, says Creighton, this Hydra monster was tricky because when you cut one of its heads, you would get two. So, Hercules had to swallow his pride and get help from his nephew. And because Hercules got help, she says, the goddess Hera sent a crab to bite Hercules and distract him and hoped it might give Hydra the advantage. But, Hercules stepped on the crab.

"To repay the creature for their help, the goddess put the crab up in the sky to honor it. And that's the story of how Cancer the crab got to be in the sky," says Creighton.

The planetarium has been hosting series of events based on the zodiac, and this month they are highlighting Cancer. The live, interactive show, Constellations of the Zodiac: Cancer, takes place June 24.

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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