A fable of Argus tells of a time when the constellation of Cancer was at the South Pole, opposite the Goat at the North. The Earth then lay on her side, the terrestrial and the ecliptic poles coinciding with one another. During this ancient age the Mother created from her own bosom and the Lords of the Moon brought forth men of their own nature. The Fathers of the Sacred Flame had not yet come but the form of man was made ready by the sacrificial workers. This may be why, in Chaldean and Platonic philosophy, Cancer is called the Gate of Men, the oldest constellation and the witness of the first acts of creation. As the eighteenth of the Hebrew Paths of Wisdom, called the House of Inflowing, it was the gate through which souls descend after passing through the pillars of Gemini. It may have marked the polar entrance of the earth through which the souls poured in, and perhaps, when at her northerly extreme, it will be the exit through which they leave. The soul, having passed from the monad into the duad, now extends itself out through the vehicles of name and form in the domain of Cancer.
The sign of the Crab is overbrooded by the moon and symbolizes the realm of the personality or mask. Through the forces emanating from its gateway, the budding self-consciousness of androgynous Gemini becomes focussed on the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Consciousness begins to trace out impressions upon the fine veil of matter. In a Burmese legend, the Bodhisattva Hkun Hsang L'rong took the shell of a crab in his hands and said, "If in truth this world is to be the abode of rational beings and the birthplace of the five Buddhas, then let this be for a sign, that where the shell of this crab falls, there shall a lake be found." Thus Nawng Hkeo, the sacred lake of Wa, was formed at the place in the motherland whose inhabitants were to be the parents of all generations of men. With the sign of the Crab, the Bodhisattva created an impress in the earth to contain the reflective waters needed to mirror the will of the overbrooding host of deities. An Indonesian legend reveals an additional dimension of this picture. The Kayan of Indonesia say that at the dawn of manifestation there was only primeval sea and over-arching sky. Out of this airy expanse appeared a great spider's web into which dropped a tiny stone that grew and gathered particles, slowly becoming soil. Upon this soil, which increased to form the earth, dropped a crab with great claws. It dug and scratched in the ground, forming the myriad mountains, valleys and river beds of the globe.
In both legends the crab is associated with the formation of the earth's surface and its differentiation into high and low places. This seems to corroborate the symbolic relation of Cancer to the process of objectivization. The lake of Wa in the Burmese legend is also an objective focal point and the source of the further generation of form. In Euphratean tradition, the Akkadian name for the stellar crab was Nagarasurra, which means 'the workman of the river bed'. The name suggests that it is along the ducts and valleys created by the work of Cancer that the waters of life will flow. Thus, the formative power inherent in this sign holds the possibility of great positive or negative developments having far-reaching influence over patterns of subsequent growth on the earth.
In a vision experienced by an intuitive student of occultism, the glyph of Cancer was seen to undergo an interesting metamorphosis. What are usually interpreted as the two claws of the crab became instead two lily leaves of translucent fibre revealing their inner cellular structure. Consciousness was seen to pass into the cells and thousands of workers were busily engaged in the metabolism of elaboration, breaking down and building up food through the energy of sunlight. At the core of this insightful perspective lies the archetypal process of nutrition, growth and unfoldment, the work of maternal nature nurturing the development of the fledgling Ego. This gestation is intimately linked to the moon for, while the sun brings life to the entire solar system, the moon influences only our earth. It is a diminished and reflected extension of solar powers, but totally focussed upon our globe. This is only natural, considering that the moon is said to have given over, wave after wave, all classes of her lives to the earth, her own fledgling offspring.
The influence of the moon upon the earth takes place on the astral plane through a transmission of consciousness from the realm of the lower astral light to the realm of solidified material. Cancer is governed by the moon in the performance of its symbolic role as mediator between the formless and form-filled worlds. It is significant that H.P. BIavatsky, who gave freely of her own astral essence in order to lay down the lines of the Theosophical Movement in the world, was born under the constellation of Cancer. In the past several hundreds of years, she, more than any other being, provided the spiritual nutrition and the impress upon the psyche of the world necessary for the growth and elaboration needed by the Ego if it is to acquire true self-knowledge. Emissary of the solar Lodge of Adepts, she was an incarnated ray of their wisdom, like the moon reflecting solar light into the world. In her person these beneficent ones took on a form and breathed forth the substance of their will as though through a focalized form of maternal nature. Acting as the Cancerian mediator between the ethereal and concretized worlds, she made herself subject to the laws of change affecting the grosser realm and suffered the painful modifications inherent in that condition. Much of this she endured on the physical plane but few will know what she may have suffered on more subtle planes as she permitted the objectivized extension of herself to serve as the material matrix around which the work of the movement would grow.
The symbols of the crab and the turtle are linked since both creatures possess a hardened carapace or shell. It represents the density of matter in which spirit is clothed at this stage in evolution. This hardness consolidates the formations in pure ethereal matter, and several mythologies describe the world itself as being supported upon the back of an armoured creature. Out of the wateriness of the astral sea, the shell supports and permits the growth of all the forms we associate with the last several million years of evolution. Greek myths describe the first acts of the newborn Hermes, which involved the slaying of a tortoise and the use of its shell to fashion a lyre. The symbolism here reveals the other side of the work of Cancer, which is the destruction of form in order to liberate sound so that its melodious essence may accompany the further activities of the Sun's divine messenger, illustrated by the fact that at one time Cancer was ruled by Mercury, an influence echoed in the loftiest examples of Cancer's work in the world today.
In Egypt the scarabaeus beetle replaced the crab or tortoise as the sign of Khepera. This beetle stood for the objectivization of a primeval god depicting the type of matter which contains within itself the germ of life about to spring into a new existence, the dead body from which the spiritual body prepares to rise. While Khepera was the creator of the forms of existence, he himself was unknown and hidden, his substitute being the Divine Disk. This symbolical designation marks the phase in soul-evolution where the divine germ, clothed in a dense vehicle, is beginning to unfold and evolve.
The characteristics conventionally attributed to the sign of Cancer are those of changeableness and a concern with public service and opinion. The individual born under this sign is supposedly fertile, democratic, easily affected by others, mutable in opinion and mobile like water. Being ruled by the moon, Cancer is changeable only on the surface. Depending upon the inner development of an individual born in Cancer, this mutability in action will either result from an externalized desire to maintain the goodwill of others, or from an internal commitment to serve the needs of others on whatever level is appropriate to their circumstances. This great contrast in interpretation of traits, possible in considering any of the twelve signs of the zodiac, is particularly relevant in understanding the force-field operating through the great work of a spiritual Teacher. Many sketches of the characteristics of Cancer stress qualities of showmanship, and the native is portrayed as living entirely by his relations with the public. Obviously, it is critical whether such outgoing behaviour is motivated by self-interest or by service. Among individuals with a concern for something far deeper than superficial relations and personal gain, any showmanship and seeming fluctuations are mere guises used to engage interest in the hidden side of things. Buddhist texts urge the Bodhisattva to practise 'vivid appearance' for the sake of the dharma. The democratic tendency seems to contradict the natural hierarchy of the chain of spiritual beings who impart divine teachings to those below them on the ladder of self-knowledge, but in a Teacher's work in the world among those starved for the want of soul-wisdom, there can be no exclusion. Many who associated H.P. Blavatsky with the zodiacal sign of Leo thought of her in terms of a powerful imposition of will upon a situation through the sheer force of character. Cancer, exoterically associated with the incarnation of popular will, seems to belie the nature of her work. But if one considers the deeper esoteric role that Cancer plays in relation to the moon, it becomes apparent that the entire process whereby the great Lodge took on the sheaths of earthly existence, enabling it to introduce a critical spiritual impulse in the dark age of Kali Yuga, may be subtly grasped in terms of the symbol of the crab. The constellation of Cancer is not boldly apparent to the physical eye and, like the great Lodge, it is a nebula-like zone of profoundly occult influence, its stars sharpening and individuating only to the gaze of one who has knowledge of the precise inner instruments which can reveal their nature.
The nidana or cause of existence traditionally associated with Cancer is namarupa, name and form. Pictographic renderings of this condition display a ship symbolizing the body and containing four passengers who are the four mental aggregates manifest at this stage of egoic evolution. One of the four, consciousness or vijnana, is the first embryonic physical body as well as the mental skandhas of feeling, perception and volition. Though consciousness is causal to these, it is none the less an effect and, combined with the other mental skandhas and the physical body, it produces the personality focussed upon existential phenomena. This is natural because rupa itself is not merely matter but a congeries of events involving matter, a heterogeneous conglomerate whose nature is constantly changing and proliferating. Rupa is composed of the four primary material phenomena of cohesion, undulation, radiation and vibration as well as the twenty-four secondary phenomena including sex and race. The other skandhas constituting namarupa are vedana, the bodily and mentally pleasant, painful and neutral feelings; samjna, the perception of phenomena through sense-organs and a special mind-organ; and the samskaras or formations in an active sense which embrace fifty mental phenomena. Of these latter, eleven are broadly psychological, twenty-five are moral, and fourteen are karmically unwholesome qualities. Personality is neither simple nor is it composed of simple elements, and if one translated it in terms of the scattering of energy, the sad noise and futile discord of the world would be explainable.
The Sanskrit name for Cancer is Karkatakarn which, if translated numerologically, represents the sacred Tetragram, the Parabrahmatarakarn. It is the Pranava or AUM resolved into four separate entities corresponding to its four matras or sacred syllables. In Hebrew tradition, its secret lay in the four-letter name of God, IHVH, which combined the Sephirothal aspects of Chochmah, Binah, Tiphereth and Malkuth, the latter being the tenth Sephira, the final syllable of the Tetragram who is called the Queen or Veil of Ain-Soph. Known as the Tetraktys, the One under its four aspects was considered by the Pythagoreans to be the primeval triad merged in the divine monad. It was by the Sacred Four that these disciples swore their most binding oath and committed themselves to many lives of walking the difficult path leading to enlightenment. They treated the four syllables as points which formed the base of the Pythagorean decad and recognized the significance of there being four levels composing the entirety of it. The One is at the first level and signifies the impersonal force of God. Two are on the second level and indicate pure matter. The third level holds three points signifying the combination of the monad and the duad which will produce the phenomenal world, and the four points on the bottom of the decad express the emptiness of all, pointing back to the ten making up the entire cosmos. If one looks at these levels in terms of the zodiac, one can see that the first level relates to Aries, the second to Taurus, the third to Gemini, and the fourth to Cancer. The symbol of the crab, being related to both material phenomena and the knowledge of the emptiness of it, is revealed as having two functions. It is both needed to bring form into being and to reveal its unreality.
The eighteenth enigma of the Tarot depicts the moon suspended over a huge red crab which gathers up that which lies around it. In this dramatic illustration, Cancer is shown as devouring all that is transitory and represents the volatile element in alchemy. It is oddly appropriate, perhaps, that the disease known as cancer manifests as an abnormal cellular growth which literally devours healthy bodily tissue. The fact that in occult philosophy cancer is seen as the effect of greed seems to indicate that the abnormality of human avariciousness in relation to material existence renders the Ego incapable of expressing its higher nature and attracts those forces in nature which will dissolve the selfishly impressed vehicle with a swiftness and finality that dramatically permits a deeper understanding of the many-leveled workings of Karma. The anatomy of the physical crab seems to reinforce both this devouring nature and the symbolical function of the zodiacal sign, for it possesses six awesome pairs of jaws and has forelegs which can clutch and grasp as well as dig and penetrate. It is omnivorous, like the lunar forces of nature which take all away through disintegration and death but give all back in new life and growth. Its hard material shell is supported by ten feet. As a decapod it symbolically relates to the Pythagorean decad and suggests that the four points of Cancer at its base are metaphysically convertible into the ten points of the cosmos. Though the carapace is empty transitory matter, it contains the infinite germ of the eternal.
Representing the relatively dark constellation of Cancer, the crab as a shrouded unknown entity which seizes or swallows but also guards the light that lies concealed behind it, is the emblem of the Mysteries. It is like the Sephira Malkuth, the Veil of Ain-Soph who comes to earth as objectifying nature but who secretes in her bosom the highest divine truths. Like great Teachers who mirror her, she introduces the impress which provides the vehicle of spiritual growth and simultaneously ensures the death of all that is devoid of the living germ of spirit. For this reason the presence of such emissaries in the world is like a death-knell to effete institutions and causes. Their teachings only mirror that which points beyond form and they immediately reveal the lifeless character of mummified religious and social structures. The great lesson to be learned through the force of Cancer in the world is extended through namarupa, name and form, and serves to teach that the mask is false, the form is hollow, the show unreal. The astral essence given forth to the world by H.P. Blavatsky was given freely not so that men could partake of more names and forms but so that they could gain access to the solar impress which the substance of her consciousness so generously conveyed. Like the queen Moon, she faithfully reflected the light of the great Dhyan Chohans, and her entrance into the world was made through the gate of the human soul, the northern gate of the sun. She came as an emissary of the oldest constellation which witnessed the first acts of creation and which remains in the heavens as the silent watcher over the earth, observing the development of whole races of beings upon its shifting continents, hastening where Karma permits the divine process of spiritual evolution.
Thou hast seen this form of mine which is difficult to perceive and which even the gods are always anxious to behold. But I am not to be seen, even as I have shown myself to thee, by study of the Vedas, nor by mortifications, nor alms-giving, nor sacrifices. I am to be approached and seen and known in truth by means of that devotion which has me alone as an object.
Hermes, August 1977