Rahu and Ketu, the north and the south nodes of the moon, can be rightfully called the most mysterious objects in astrology. They are always directly opposite each other, and almost constantly retrograde. Their symbolism seems to be entirely mystical, referring mainly to past lives and karma. They are not even planets but rather mathematical points that are only visible as the eclipses, remaining the rest of the time as mere shadows lurking somewhere in the sky. Yet the mythology behind these nodes is far more widespread and consistent than most of us realize, and just as the nodes themselves it is hidden in plain sight.
The Head and the tail
The Basis for the astrological interpretation for the lunar nodes and the best known mythology surrounding them is the Hindu story of Rahu and Ketu and how they came to be who they are through the Samudra Manthan – The churning of the ocean. Once the churning was complete and produced Amrita, the nectar of immortality which was supposed to end the war between the Devas (gods) and Asuras (Antigods) by granting them both immortality, Vishnu tried to trick the Asuras by taking the form of Mohini, the most beautiful of beings.
The only one of the Asuras who wasn’t stricken by lust was Swarbhanu, who noticed the trickery and tried to squeeze in between Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon) masquerading as a Deva. Unfortunately for him, Surya and Chandra ratted him out to Vishnu just as he was taking his sip of the Amrita, and Vishnu promptly chopped of his head. The head did however absorb enough Amrita to stay alive, becoming Rahu who periodically swallows the Sun and Moon in revenge thus causing the eclipses, while the body was cast aside and became Ketu.
While Rahu and Ketu are the best known Hindu deities associated with the nodes, they are in fact not the only ones. Another even more prominent Deity who is rarely considered in astrology is Ganesha, the beloved god of obstacle removal and prayer conveyance best known for having an elephant’s head. When he was born, Ganesha was ordered to guard the entrance to his mother’s chambers and he fulfilled his duty without question. Unfortunately he never had the chance to meet his father up to that point so when Shiva, his father, came to visit his wife he found himself faced with an aggressive youngster who attacked him and his retinue, mirroring the disregard for authority and the brazen actions of Swarbhanu in the Samudra Manthan.
Not known for his pacifism, Shiva promptly beheaded the brazen youth only to find out far too late that he had just killed his own son. Thankfully, the head of Gajasura who is portrayed either as an elephant or an Asura depending on the particular story, was found to be an effective substitute thus bringing Ganesha back to life. The body of Ganesha is often associated with Ketu, and the epithet “separator” is indeed a good match for the remover of obstacles while Ketu’s other epithet, “the flag”, fits well with Ganapati the “Standard bearer\leader of the host”. As Ganapati, he also controls spirits and phantoms, and amongst his duties is the conveyance of prayers between men and the rest of the deities, mirroring Ketu’s position as the mystical ‘planet’ of phantoms and spirits, and the one that brings spirituality and liberation.
The Furies and the chariot
With their vast and elaborate mythology, the Greeks and Romans had surprisingly little to say about eclipses. In most cases they were considered an omen from Zeus who decided to block the sun from shining, or Apollo\Helios (the sun) punishing people for some transgression.
But at least in one story, the Thebaid by Statius, the eclipse was caused by the Erinyes\Furies. In the story, the Furies took the form of the Dirae, celestial avengers and storm deities similar to the Rudras of India, and scared the horses that drove the sun’s chariot thus freeing their mother Nyx (night) and causing the eclipse.
Surprisingly, even though the mythology itself was clearly absent, in the astronomical and astrological texts the nodes\eclipse points were still referred to as “Caput et Cauda Draconis” – the head and tail of the dragon.
While the eclipse mythology was lacking in Ancient Greece, they did have very prominent counterparts to the Hindu Rahu and Ketu. For the Greek equivalent of Rahu vas of course Dionysus, god of wine, madness and liberation who was worshipped by the outcasts and misfits of society. He was also known for turning people into dolphins while his followers were best known for drunken orgies and for tearing Orpheus and king Pentheus apart with their bare hands in fits of frenzy. Quite ironically, Dionysus was an outcast in his own right both because he was raised in nature and not accepted as a god until he died, and also because he was one of the oldest gods in Greece yet his cult did not became prominent until the Hellenistic period when he was turned from a mature, horned anti-establishment deity into a young party animal.
The best counterpart for Ketu on the other hand, remained horned from the beginning of Classical Greece until his death circa 33 AD (as reported by Plutarch). The god in question is of course Pan, the half goat half man god of the wild, shepherds, instincts, impulses and lust, who was known to lose control when “nature called”.Pan is also associated with the Vedic god Pushan, the toothless shepherd deity of Revati which represents final liberation and who’s symbol is the fish, the Ketu avatar of Vishnu. Another famous god that reportedly died in 33 AD is of course Jesus Christ, who was also called a shepherd and had a fish as his symbol.
Another important and very direct parallel to Rahu and Ketu in Greek mythology is the gorgon Medusa, who is often portrayed as a villain but in fact was an innocent victim. Born a human, she was turned into a gorgon by Athena after she was raped by Poseidon in her temple. Her legs turned into a serpentine tail, her hair into vipers and her gaze turned all who looked at her into stone. When the “hero” Perseus chopped of her head, the body was discarded giving birth to the twins Pegasus and Chrysaor, while her head became a weapon that defeated Ketus, a sea monster that looks suspiciously like the Makara\Capricorn iconography. Interestingly, her mother’s name was Keto, and all three of Keto’s daughters were gorgons but only Medusa was mortal.
Shouting Vikings and hungry wolves
In Norse mythology, the eclipses were caused not by serpents or dragons such as the Jormungandr (Midgard serpent), but by the twin children of Fenrir, the dread wolf, named Hati and Skoll. After their father was bound to stop his insatiable appetite, Hati (Hate) and Skoll (treachery) were spellbound by Odin to chase the sun and the moon. This was in fact a necessary evil, as Sunna (sun) and Mani (moon) were often neglectful of their duties, frequently changing their orbits or the duration of night and day. As a result, Skoll was charged with harassing Sunna, while Hati was charged with harassing Mani to keep them under control. Yet the spell did not keep the wolves permanently in the sky, and when the sun and moon resume their courses the wolves become free to roam the earth.
This myth is a parable not only for the appearance of the eclipses, as the solar extinguishes the suns light while the lunar turns the moon bloody red, but also of our own lives. Just as the majestic sun can be extinguished by an eclipse, so can one lose himself by betraying his own heart. Similarly, hate can poison and eclipse even the most pristine mind, leading to nothing but bloodshed. This is why the Norse were tasked with making as much noise as possible when seeing an eclipse, while also remaining vigilant of the wolves within themselves.
A more direct Norse equivalent to Rahu himself however, is Loki the trickster who is the father of both the Midgard Serpent and Fenrir and grandfather of Hati and Skoll. Unlike the rest of the Norse gods, Loki wasn’t an Aesir (God) but a Jotunn (Giant), an outsider that became part of the pantheon through a blood oath with Odin. He is famous for his wit and quick thinking, but also for many acts of treachery and deceit that include betraying the Aesir when his children bring about Ragnarok, the end of days.
Another parallel, even more direct than Loki and probably stemming from the same root as the myth of Rahu, can be seen in the story of Mimir, the wisest of the Aesir. During the Vanir-Aesir war, a story closely mirroring the Deva-Asura conflict in Hindu mythology, Mimir is sent to the Vanir as an emissary but is beheaded by them just like Swarbhanu is beheaded by Vishnu. And again just like Swarbhanu, the head of Mimir is still alive and is collected by one-eyed Odin who often turns to it for council, just like one-eyed Shukracharya keeps Rahu.
When it comes to the serpentine\draconic side of things a very similar character to Medusa can be seen in Fafnir, the dragon slain by the “hero” Sigurd in the Volsunga Saga slightly before the reign of Attila the Hun. Hreidmar, a dwarven king and Fafnir’s father, was accidentally given a cursed treasure by the Aesir as bloodgold after Loki unknowingly killed his son Otr. The curse drove Fafnir mad with greed, making him kill his own father and turning him into a dragon that fiercely guarded the treasure until slain. And just like the Greek monster Ketus, the Norse Midgard Serpent was a huge sea monster that never stopped growing until slain by Thor (the Norse Jupiter) during Ragnarok.
Beating pans, drums and dogs
The idea of scaring away the eclipse causing monster was far more universal than a bunch of shouting Scandinavians. In fact, this idea can be found as far away as Peru, where the Incas viewed the lunar eclipse as a bloody assault by a giant jaguar. They also believed that once he is done with the Moon, he will descend to the earth and start devouring people.
The prospect of the jaguar descending was in fact so frightening to the Inca, that in their attempt to drive away the lunar eclipse they were even willing to beat their dogs to make them howl and scare the beast away. This is quite ironic considering that in Vedic astrology dogs are actually symbolised by Ketu.
While much of the other Native American myths and legends associated with Rahu and Ketu such as the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl\Kukulkan, one interesting association can be found not in the stories themselves but in the ritual of smoking tobacco. In Hindu astrology and belief there is an old adage saying that “Rahu produces smoke and Ketu inhales smoke”, and this is mirrored closely in the use of tobacco smoking by many Native American cultures to convey messages to the spirit world, making its role identical to that of Ganesha in Hinduism. This ritual use of tobacco was also adopted by the followers of the Voodoo\Vodun religions, who sometimes use dried animal parts as fetishes further mirroring the Ketu symbolism. The secular use of tobacco in modern society on the other hand, perfectly mirrors the symbolism of Rahu including the “bad boy” rebellious image, chemical additives, addiction and the out of control cell growth commonly known as cancer.
Royal woes and substitute kings
While the for the Inca lunar eclipses justified cruelty to animals, the ancient Sumerians and Hittites were scared enough to go a step further. For them, a lunar eclipse was a clear and immediate danger to the king, and in the absence of mitigating planetary positions (such as a visible Jupiter) required the coronation of a substitute king.
While this might seem quite benign, the poor soul selected to be the substitute was actually executed after the eclips has passed. The reason for that is that a lunar eclipse was believed to symbolize the death of a king, hence the death of the substitute fulfilled this fare while keeping the real monarch safe. Echoes of this symbolism can also be seen in Ketu who signifies losing ones head, in this case the king being the head of the state.
A surprising Sumerian equivalent to Rahu and Ketu themselves on the other hand, can be seen in Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the heroes of the oldest written story surviving to this day. Gilgamesh, the king of the civilized and modern Uruk, was out of control killing his subjects and raping their women until a prostitute seduced a Pan-looking horned Wildman called Enkidu to wrestle with him which calmed him down. After wrestling Gilgamesh and Enkidu became friends and undertook a quest where they killed and decapitated a monster named Humbaba which was capable of paralyzing it’s pray just like the Greek Medusa.
After Gilgamesh rejected the proposal of Inanna (Venus) to become her lover, mirroring the story of Mohini and Swarbhanu, she sent Taurus to attack him but Enkidu tore the bull apart and hurled his leg at Inanna to drive her away. In retaliation, Inanna killed Enkidu by infecting him with a disease, and this made Gilgamesh obsessed with immortality, mirroring the story of Rahu. Eventually he did obtain the “plant from the ocean” (possibly a seaweed or coral) that grants immortality just like the Vedic Amrita, but ironically before he could use it the plant he collected was eaten by a snake.
The charging boar and the dying lord
While the serpentine Ketu symbolism is well known world wide, the association of Rahu with the boar and the surrounding symbology have been nearly forgotten. In Hindu mythology, the boar Varaha is the Rahu Avatar of Vishnu who rescues Bhudevi the earth goddess from the demon Hiranyaksha, decapitating him in the process. In Greek mythology however, the boar is sent by Nemesis the goddess of vengeance to kill Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite (Venus) whose name comes from the Canaanite Adon (lord\master).
The Norse had a slightly different version of events, as their version of Adonis, Baldr (lord), is killes by Hodr who is tricked by Loki into doing so, while the boar Hildisvíni is actually a devotee of Freya (Venus). In the Sumerian mythology where this story originated, Dumuzid\Tammuz the dying shepherd god, prototype for Adonis and Baldr and the lover of Inanna\Ishtar (Venus), is dragged into the underworld by demons at her behest and the role of the boar falls mainly on Gilgamesh who is wooed by her after decapitating Humbaba.
While the accounts themselves differ in their details, in all of these stories the Rahu figure kills the lord\master in an act of cosmic rebellion and in the process setting Venus, Bhudevi or the cedar forest free. This mythology is a parable to rebellions and younger generations replacing older ones, reminding us of the impermanence of power and ownership and even of our own mortality as the ever charging boar of the future will sooner or later behead us all.
Without a single
Life to live
To end the
Seikilos, in memory of Eutrop*
Circa 1st century AD