Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Cancer


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.”

Retrieved from

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.

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50 Responses to Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Cancer

  1. As you know,now, my zodiac sign is Cancer: I particularly liked the “pearl” passage as it comes frequently in my visualizations and dreams. “Rolling the pearl up the hill” hum! the Sisyphean metaphor/myth: the existentialist me…in one of my posts (radical rhetoric), I radically turn away from the myth. Of course, a pearl is not a boulder. Sometimes, I rather feel like a dung beetle, but that also has its function. Right?
    Interesting: my attraction with Chinese culture (painting and martial arts especially) and med. has some type of explanation now. I am still far from the “milk of human kindness”, I’m a very crabby sort of pearl 😉 , but I improve with time. The defensive mode, I know that: alas, 2 steps forward, 3 steps backwards, sideways of course, and having red Sun Zu’s “Art of War”, I know that the best defense is attack.
    Thanks you for this post Monika.


  2. Soul Fields says:

    I enjoyed this article so much, that I stayed with it for a while in pleasurable silence.

    I have Jupiter (retrograding) in Cancer in the 4th House. My Moon is in the Sixth House.

    (What comes to Gemini, I have no planets in it in my natal chart, but my 3rd house and Imum Coeli and True Node /2nd House are in Gemini. My Mercury is in Sagittarius/end of 8th House.)


    • Oh, thank you! I am touched. So you are going to celebrate your Jupiter return. Actually, I wanted to post this exactly on the day when Cancer has entered Jupiter. I have always had excellent communication with Sagittarius Mercurys. They often have a talent for symbolic thinking. My Saturn and progressed Sun are in Cancer, I have Neptune in the fourth house and very strong lunar energies.


      • Soul Fields says:

        I follow my transits “loosely” and intuitively these days, so I´m amused about the synchronicity that I happened to mention about my Cancer, and received your exact info of it. Thanks!

        I so often refer to this intuitive side, because having a tendency to even over analyze things and because having processed and deeply and intensively my own “being” and issues and layers and ways of perceiving the world, and so on…I have since for quite while had a kind of letting go and letting flow phase when it comes to myself. Still, it is good to refresh and share here and there.

        In my progressed chart Ascendant seems to be in Cancer. 😀

        By the way – where is your natal Moon?

        PS. Yes, the symbolic and “unseen” is my food, too, and I have always been interested in what´s beyond the surface. Even my master’s thesis was related to semiotics (in advertising. I studied economics/marketing there back in time, because not wanting to decide exactly yet what my final profession would be. Even then I mainly chose subjects that are psychological in nature).


      • My Moon is in Taurus. I tend to follow my transits and progressions meticulously. This feels right for me but I know that not everybody needs it. Better to do what feels natural.


    • Soul Fields says:

      Yes, there is a purpose in what we are drawn to do. 🙂 And would I write about astrology, I´d feel the need to follow everything in more detail. It was important to me to be informed about the Jupiter return…I might have not noticed it, although I go almost daily to All in all I have lately been drawn to refresh certain astro knowledge.


      • I think Jupiter return is important and I am so glad I was the messenger for you. Looking forward to more magnanimous and expansive posts on your blog.


      • Soul Fields says:

        Thank you. And I´m glad it was you. This is a particularly important Jupiter return to know from the beginning, because of its retrograde in my natal chart. One thing that is said concerning that natal retrograde is that the other half of the life is “lotto winning” after all the delays of the first part of it (have you heard this interpretation?)…I am at my late forties…

        (And with the Mercury in retrograde now, there must be cosmic humor. 😀 Well, but usually Mercury retrogrades have not had big influences on me and my life, they have been more subtle in nature.)


      • I hope you are right about the lotto winning (I am in my late 30s by the way).


  3. Awesome post. Though I don’t resonate with the obsession part of the Cancerian psyche, I totally jive with the pearl. “The pearl of great price” is the phrase used in the Agni Yoga literature for the wisdom that leads to the inner essence and the usual hard journey to live both (wisdom and inner essence). Also, the description of Artemis not being the attacker yet orchestrating the deed is well stated. It’s the side-stepping of Cancer to usually not engage conflict head on – like Capricorn its opposite or Aries. Libra and Cancer back door the situation, or are oblique through couching words and conciliatory gestures. Learning to be simply straight and therefore, straightforward, are an important personal learning curve for a person with strong Cancer. Thanks for the post, Monika!


  4. Katalina4 says:

    Much gratitude for this article. I am a double-Cancer – sun sign and rising sign – and let me tell you there is too much stuff around here…lol. But it is a struggle to remember the good about Cancer, and you have offered many ways to think of what is positive in the sign. Thank you.


  5. what a treasure trove of symbology here , now I am curious about all those hands! I attribute the moon and lunar types to be closely linked to dream activity and psychic ability. Do you agree? My moon in the 4th in particular aids these tendencies and my awkward mars in cancer is tied to most of my chart. I would guess a triple cancerian mother would deeply influence your fascination with this sign and of of course play out in your chart. It is so cool ( eerily so ) how synastry is so prevalent in families of origin..


    • (How fitting yours is my 1000th comment on the blog – I would not want anyone else but my first true follower!) I agree about the dreams and psychic stuff. I am also curious about the hands. It is a mystery I have not solved but they tickle me. They seem really in place, fitting the landscape wonderfully. Maybe I should organize an interpretative competition. My mother has her Sun in Cancer conjunct Uranus and Venus and her Moon is in Aquarius. She has had a pretty conventional life nevertheless, maybe I am supposed to express all that pent-up Uranian ‘craziness.’ Don’t you think children have to live the unlived energies of their parents?


      • congratulations on 1000 comments! I did not know I was your 1st follower, glad that so many enjoy your blog as much as i do. My mom is not that cancerian,, she has a stellium in aries sun uranus mars in 8th house, but virgo rising and taurus moon tamed that wild streak, Her north node is exactly on my aquarius ascendant and she has neptune on her ascendant. Her neptune is very active. I am saying all this to convey that her neptunian and uranian/aquarius attributes came through me. Her 8th house also translates to both her children who are plenty plutonian and are therapists. And one of them is very involved in 8th house matters( me). I so agree with you and have felt this way for a very long time. sorry so wordy today, can I use merc retro as an excuse ? 😀


      • Fascinating stuff and how fitting we should be taking about Mother around the Cancer symbol of course. I am sure you are an excellent therapist. I kind of enjoy Mercury retrograde. I have bought Mystic Dreamer Tarot deck and I intend to spend the retro days losing myself in it.


      • enjoy! glad you found your tarot deck 😀


  6. I feel disconnected to this post. Of course, the post itself is beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading it. It must have something to do with the obsession and getting stuck in it. I see all the hands in the painting holding on to things. I recognize it, but no longer sympathize with it. I do recognize that I can use the cancer sign as a tool to take personal inventory and see what I might still be holding on to past its usefulness. Still, I keep thinking of ‘cancer gone wild’. As cancer seems to relate to the root chakra as in safety, and sacral chakra as in family, if there is no balance then obsession takes over.


    • Don’t shoot the messenger 🙂


    • But seriously, I am happy because you have expressed the Cancer archetype, especially its shadow, beautifully and precisely in your comment. The hands do look obsessive.
      I was just thinking… You also collect treasures and gems and the things that you love on your blog. Can there be evolution without it?


      • I have made the transition from off-loading what I have collected and still collect onto the blogs. The cancer sign warns me not to hold on to the collection beyond its use. There is so much more to discover! So, even though I need it as a tool to unload and be able to learn new things, I already know that it is temporary. I can only proceed if I am willing to let go at the same time. Two fishes in the stream, instead of two claws buried in the sand. The online ‘museum’ is far down on the shore when I log off, but within a few clicks reach when I need it.
        Most importantly, no longer distracted by ignorance, I could go beyond your post and get a better understanding. I do not have like it, but as I look around my office right now, I can clearly see that the end of the paper/book age is coming. I have finally risen above it. I am disconnecting from empty obsessions, which allows me to discover the universe (university) within. See… reflecting on your post keeps on giving. But, I can log off from it for today.
        Namaste. 🙂


      • Another great comment. I love what you said about the two fish. I also think that too much Cancer can be extremely suffocating and obstructive.


  7. This image of Cancer is so deep and contemplative. I think it is interesting how we have similar interests in archetypal figures, as Artemis has always stood out to me in myth, but since Artemis is almost never written about in astrology, i have not before thought much about how she would connect in with Cancer or other astrological archetype. I like what you had to say about her, and it inspires me to possible write about her in the future because the Artemis asteroid is significant in my chart.

    I also like how you connected Cancer to esoteric astrology and Neptune, a connection I am at an early stage of understanding. It does make me think of the work of Stanislav Grof and how in his death-rebirth archetypal theories of our birth process, Neptune is connected to the womb stage, so the Cancer stage. peace, Gray


    • This may be just my favourite image among all the 12.
      I am grateful to you because I have just discovered that Artemis makes a precise conjunction with my Moon. This has made my day. I definitely see her as a lunar goddess, but her connection with Cancer is not crystal clear to me.


    • As an afterthought, I have read that one of her attributed was the chariot. Kelsey Lynore told me that the Chariot in the tarot is related to Cancer. In my new tarot deck (The Mystic Dreamer tarot) the chariot is driven by a woman through the woods – Artemis!


      • Yes you are right. Interesting because I thought of the Chariot this very morning, because I am thinking of writing about the Jupiter – Neptune cycle next, coming in to its first quarter trine. And so I was thinking of using the Chariot as an image because it is Cancer. The deck I use, Motherpeace, also has a woman driving a chariot as the image., but it is Athena. I have Artemis in Aries conjunct my Venus in 11th. I just noticed the Artemis asteroid is currently opposite Neptune!


  8. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Leo | symbolreader

  9. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Virgo | symbolreader

  10. Casey says:

    I’m a Cancerian, married to a Taurean, with a Capricorn, Virgo and Aries daughters. I’ll be checking out your other signs…

    It’s been a LONG time since I have explored the symbolism of astrology.

    “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.”

    I’d say I resemble this, including mildly obsessive tendencies to hold onto the past and lost loves…

    Also I find the breastfeeding tidbit fascinating. I had some difficulty with breastfeeding my first two when I worked out of the home (in a medical genetics laboratory) and couldn’t make it to a year with either one (and broke my heart), but extended breastfed my third (3 years!).

    I never knew that about Proust. One of these days I’ll get to reading his works.

    My library has a copy of The Museum of Innocence. I’ll be definitely reading that one.

    Thanks for the follow.

    I am enjoying your blog. =)



    • Hi, thank you very much for your comment. I am always happy when my descriptions resonate with natives of the sign. Of course there is more to astrology than Sun signs. I saw your thoughtful comment on Debra’s blog and decided to pay you a visit. Thank you again.


      • Casey says:

        Well, I’m glad you found me so that I could meet you. =)

        I’m not versed in astrology, so I’m sure I don’t know much – but I have been fascinated by it (and laughed at by people when I would talk about it, so I kind of gave it up). Maybe I can be educated while I’m here.

        I’m curious…what do you know about Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She’s a Jungian Analyst and cantadora (I think that’s what it’s called). I really like her exploration of the cultural myths of the world to help us in our understanding of our selves. She’s also helped me tap into the feminine/maternal side of me that was disowned in me and provide me with feminine wisdom and heal some of my childhood wounds from having a narcissistic mother. I love listening to her on MP3s…such a pretty voice.

        I really like what you have to say about language, about Jung, and about symbolism.

        I have a few books on Jung, but haven’t yet delved deeply into it. I also have a few books from Freud, as well, and have been interested in the relationship between the two, the influence of Sabina Spielrein on both men, and the parting of ways between Freud and Jung.

        There’s not enough time to explore and write about all that I want to….


      • I absolutely agree about Clarissa Pinkola Estes: she is adorable. I am really fascinated by the return of the sacred feminine and feminine wisdom. I have blogged about this on numerous occasions. I am sorry about your femininity being wounded by your mother.
        And I agree there is not enough time to explore all our fascinations. Thank you again for your thoughts.
        My best,


      • Casey says:

        That’s really wonderful to know. I will definitely have to look for them. I have one post regarding Estes…

        But I also have more I want to contemplate and write about. I have her CD’s The Red Shoes, Seeing in the Dark, Warming the Stone Child and The Dangerous Old Woman. I still would like to have the rest of the set…I think it’s still on sale where I’ve been thinking of buying it.

        And I think the worst outcome for being wounded is in two major ways – 1) I struggled with mothering my daughters because I didn’t have a model; and 2) not having close female friendships because my mother and sisters have brought harm to me over and over again that I mistrusted women for a long time. I’m regaining trust in myself as a nurturer and in other women, too. It’s been really wonderful.


      • I think it is really significant that we are talking about this in the comment section to my Cancer description, Cancer being the sign of the Mother, also the Great Mother. I think it was Liz Greene who said that we actually need to grow into our Sun signs, it is a lifelong challenge to develop our solar personality. I do not want to use too much astro jargon with you; I just want to say I am happy you found a way to your Cancerian self.


      • Casey says:

        Hopefully this will end up in the right place down below.

        I too, think it’s really significant and fitting to be talking about this here. I’m looking forward to learning more from you. But for now, I have some things to take care of.

        Thanks so much for the dialogue.




  11. Reblogged this on Blazing Light, Love's Song and commented:
    Symbol Reader takes up each sign of the zodiac in her particular deep way. Always exposing the layers of the psyche, tales and myths of the sign’s expression, all written as if painted. This post gives ALL 12 signs.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Tehra says:

    The hand holding the red ball with a cross on top … I see that in so many esoteric and religious paintings + drawings… Do you know what it means?

    Thanks in advance.


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