The constellation of Cancer marked the summer solstice during the last two millennia BC. The ancient Greek name for this constellation was Καρκινος (Karkinos). This word is closely related to the Sanskrit names Karka and Karkata, relating to the same constellation.
The reason why the constellation was “cancer”, the crab, is due to the specific way that this animal moves – backward. The same happens with the Sun after the summer solstice. For the same reason, the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians saw this constellation as a scarab beetle.
A crab, scarab… or two donkeys?
The ancient Greeks knew the two stars of the Cancer constellation as “Asses”. In Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 23, there is a myth that explains how it happened. Namely, it was Dyonisus who placed them in the sky. On one occasion Dyonisus came across a swamp he couldn’t cross. He saw two donkeys and climbed one of them. In this way, he managed to cross the swamp, “not touching the water at all”. As a token of gratitude, he placed both donkeys among the stars.
Even nowadays, the two prominent stars of the Cancer are Asellus Australis and Asellus Borealis – the southern and the northern donkey.
Besides this myth, there was another popular episode in Greek mythology that relates to them. Namely, when gods banished Hephaestus from Olympus, it was Dionysus who helped him to return. The triumphal return of Hephestus was on a donkey.
Notice how most of the ancient art shows Dionysus sitting backward – an obvious allusion to the Sun’s retrograde movement. But also notice how the story of Hephestus echoes that of Jesus, who returned to Jerusalem on a donkey.
Messiah rides a donkey
In Jewish tradition, the “Messiah’s Donkey” (Hebrew: חמורו של משיח) refers to the donkey upon which the Messiah will arrive to redeem the world at the end of days. Zechariah 9:9 states: “Your king is coming… humble and mounted on a donkey”.
The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem was a fulfillment of this prophecy. In the New Testament, Jesus asks his disciples to bring him a colt “that has never been ridden”. This is an obvious stellar allegory, as no one can ride the stellar donkey, except the Sun.
A common belief is that Jesus chose a donkey as it symbolizes peace, as opposed to the horse, that relates to war. However, Dyonisian symbolism does not give me this impression at all. It is more likely that the donkey was a symbol of a Sun that stubbornly decides not to continue forward. Instead, it remains stationary for three days, before going backward.
For the last two millennia before Christ, the spring equinox was in Aries, the ram, while the summer solstice was in Cancer. The myth of the “stellar donkeys” comes from this period. Indeed, the ram was an animal sacred to Dionysus. The Old Testament comes from the same period. Therefore it is not surprising that its authors knew the story of a “Messiah’s Donkey”.
However, we must not forget that Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of Rome, came from ancient Thracia. Therefore, some of the influence on the earliest form of Christianity may not have been Semitic at all, but rather Thracian / Dionysian.
Christianity marked the new age, that of Pisces – as the spring equinox moved there. And the summer solstice moved from Cancer to Gemini. But it seems that the old stories were so popular, that they had to be used in the new narrative. The idea of Dionysus riding a donkey and “not touching the water”, is the same one as Jesus’s walking on the water. They both relate to the constellation Aquarius, which lies opposite to Cancer, and whose astrological symbol is water.