It is 1975, a glorious spring in Istanbul. Kemal, member of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shop assistant and a distant relative. They embark on a secret love affair but Kemal cannot make up his mind whether he should break up with Sibel. When he reaches his resolve and breaks off his engagement, it is already too late. In the meantime, his love for Füsun has become an obsession. He has turned into a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his love for her. She lives with her parents now and does not appear to be interested in a relationship with him. However, she tolerates his frequent visits during which he steals various objects belonging to her. With that loot he builds a museum, a shrine dedicated to his lost love. His treasures include hairpins, a salt shaker that she touched and all manner of objects that remind him of their precious moments together. In the chapter entitled “The Consolation of Objects” his obsession reaches disturbing proportions:
One palliative for this new wave of pain, I discovered, was to seize upon an object of our common memories that bore her essence; to put it into my mouth and taste it brought some relief.
(about a cigarette butt) I picked it up and rubbed the end that had once touched her lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my neck, and the recesses under my eyes, as gently and kindly as a nurse salving a wound. Distant continents appeared before my eyes, sparkling with the promise of happiness, and scenes from heaven; I remembered the tenderness my mother had shown me as a child…
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk contains a stunning vision of an obsession with the past and a lost happiness. The feeling of nostalgia accompanied by a compulsion to collect various memorabilia is a mark of the sign Cancer. The treasure chest featured in Johfra’s painting is a rich, multi-faceted symbol, and one of its possible meanings is that it stores the objects treasured by the Soul. It is buried in the sand for safekeeping. Crab’s pincers, the hands and chest being deeply embedded in the sand all symbolize the Cancer’s tendency to cling to the objects of their affection. Excessive attachment can be a true vice of Cancer.
Even more than other Johfra’s paintings that I have already written about, the one depicting Cancer begs for quiet contemplation. Words may not do justice to its haunting atmosphere, the feeling of getting lost in one’s deeper musings that it evokes, the nostalgia, dreaminess, wistfulness and melancholy that I feel looking at it. Marcel Proust could have written In Search of the Lost Time on that beach. He could have if he had not been a loner afraid to leave his safe nest of an apartment. He spent the last three years of his life never leaving his cork-lined super safe bedroom. He would write at night and sleep during the day. He was a true Cancerian after all with four planets in Cancer in the fourth house, which is ruled by Cancer. A safe container, a secure space mimicking the mother’s womb is Cancer’s bliss. The sign Cancer is ruled by the Moon and the Moon is “a symbol of that aspect of the psyche which contains and supports life. … it is also an image of … the mother, who is our physical container during pregnancy and our psychic container during childhood. “ (Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate)
The treasure chest contains two important symbols – the scarab rolling a pearl and a crab coming out of its shell. The pearl symbolizes the mystic Centre, the human Soul. Pearls are the only gemstones made by living organisms, therefore there are not two identical pearls. What is more, each pearl has some imperfections. Born in confined darkness and in a sealed vessel (associations with alchemy spring to mind), the pearl symbolizes the lower instincts being purified into a white, luminous sphere – an image of the enlightened Soul. The pearl is also an important gnostic symbol. The Hymn of the Soul is a beautiful account of raising up the treasure from the dark waters of the unconscious. Here is what Johfra adds about the meaning of the pearl:
I have chosen the pearl to represent the acquisition of emotional experiences; it is the classic symbol of suffering that leads to insight. A pearl is by way of being a symptom of illness in the oyster. Should a foreign body – a stone or fragment of shell – enter the oyster’s shell, its weak, sensitive body is irritated and it reacts by covering the alien object with layer upon layer of pearl, so smoothing it and making it less painful. In this way suffering brings about the growth of a beautiful jewel – the eternal essence of spiritual wealth.
The scarab, the Egyptian symbol of rebirth, is rolling the pearl up the hill. For me it is a beautiful image of the Soul’s immortality achieved through reincarnation. In the Egyptian Zodiac, it was the scarab beetle which was placed in the position of Cancer:
“The beetle is clearly linked to the moon’s twenty-eight day cycle. It deposits its ball of eggs, rolled in dung in the earth, for the space of twenty-eight days, which is the time it takes for the moon to complete a full revolution through the twelve zodiacal signs. The Egyptians considered the twenty-ninth day to be a day of resurrection, and according to lunar markings, there occurs the baptism of the beetle, when the scarabeus casts his ball into the water, opening to give birth to the young beetle. This immersion and baptism became naturally associated with renewal and regeneration. In this way, the lunar god was always declared to be self-created, never born. This symbolism seems to fit very aptly for the sign of Cancer, so seemingly introverted and self-contained.
The Summer Solstice marks the entry of the sun into Cancer in the tropical zodiac on 21st June and we can find this symbolism highlighted through the behaviour of the scarab beetle. The creature certainly carries solar symbolism, perhaps on account of its ray-like head and the dung ball representing the Sun. The scarab-beetle god was known as Khepera and was believed to push the setting sun along the sky in the same manner as the beetle pushes his ball of dung, a scene frequently depicted in various artefacts. The beetle would, for example, push the dung ball to the top of a sand ridge and then allow it roll down again, a motion that would seem to reflect that of the Sun rising to its zenith in the sky at Summer Solstice before descending again. The scarab can be seen in various depictions apparently holding the sun aloft, suggestive perhaps of the solstice sun.”
Another emblem of longevity is a pair of tortoises on the beach, which also carry the symbolism of the Great Mother and of matter or material existence. It is hard not to think of the World Turtle in Hindu mythology that supports and contains the World.
The castle visible on the shore is a complex symbol also associated with Cancer. It is simultaneously a house, an enclosure and it usually contains walls for protection. Retreating to a safe lair and preserving safety are Cancerian characteristics. The Great Wall of China is a magnificent Cancerian symbol, all the more interesting when we realize that China in mundane astrology is assigned to the sign Cancer.
The veil of darkness endows any Cancer with a feeling of security. In the painting, the giant crab seems to be bathing in moonlight, worshipping the Moon and the lunar goddess Artemis. Cancer is adept at defense but quite poor at attack. According to myth, Hera sent a crab while Heracles was fighting the Hydra. The crab bit the hero on the foot and was crushed swiftly and mercilessly.
The goddess Artemis has long been one of my favourites. Here is a passage from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso:
The infant Artemis sat on Zeus’s lap. She knew what she wanted for the future and told her father all her wishes one by one: to remain forever a virgin, to have many names, to rival her brother, to possess a bow and arrow,…, to hunt wild beasts, to have sixty Oceanides as an escort, … to hold sway over all mountains; she could get by without the cities.
She defended ferociously what she held dear. We often underestimate Cancer natives and think of them as weak. When Artemis’ protective instincts were awoken, she could be ruthless and efficient. The poor Actaeon, who by accident saw her bathing, was turned into a stag by her and torn to pieces by Artemis’s dogs. Artemis was cruel, wild and unforgiving like Nature herself. She was not the attacker, though, but the defender and protector.
In Ephesus she was worshipped as a mother goddess and her cult image was adorned with multiple breasts. Breastfeeding is connected with the sign Cancer, which rules breasts. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth we find a wonderful metaphor of ‘the milk of human kindness’ symbolizing care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being too kind and thus unable to destroy his opponents and realize his political ambitions. As the anatomical chest houses the heart, so the chest contains a treasure. The ultimate treasure sought by Cancer is Christ Consciousness, limitless compassion and bringing nourishment to the whole world. The esoteric ruler of Cancer is Neptune symbolized by the primordial ocean featured in the painting. A Soul-centred Cancerian becomes Great Mother to all humanity, and all the precious gemstones that the Crab has gathered in the Neptunian unconscious ocean depths will be symbolic of the eternal gifts of pure Spirit.