Cancer: The Crab

A hard shell, grasping claws and cautious approach protect the gentle, receptive interior of Cancer, the cardinal water sign. But it is the Moon-ruled sign’s symbolic relationship to the Sun and the nourishing role of emotional care that reveal its essential nature.

Published Categorized as Fundamentals
the constellation of the sign Cancer depicting the crab
Sidney Hall’s (1831) astronomical chart illustration of the zodiac Cancer.

But glowing Cancer (where the Summer Sun
With fiery Chariots bounds the Torrid Zone,
Drives fiercely up, then with a bending Rein
Sinks down, and runs the lower Rounds again.)
As close in’s Shell he lies, affords his Aid
To greedy Merchants, and inclines to Trade;

Marcus Manilius, Astronomica tr. Thomas Creech
  • Element: Water
  • Modality: Cardinal
  • Ruler: Moon
  • Date: June 21 – July 22
  • Symbol: Crab

Star Lore

As Hercules fought the many-headed Hydra in the swamp of Lerna, Hera commanded a lowly crab to pinch the hero’s feet, hoping that a tiny misstep might cause him to fail. The crab managed to fix its claw around the hero’s toe but was crushed just seconds later, and Hercules went on to defeat the Hydra. Hera, impressed by the crab’s fearlessness in the face of certain death, placed the loyal crustacean in the night sky in honor of its devotion and tenacity.

The constellation of Cancer has long been associated with shelled animals, from the tortoise in China and Babylon to crawfish and lobsters throughout Medieval Europe. Those familiar with Tarot may recognize it as the crustacean depicted on the Moon card. The Egyptians associated it with the sacred scarab beetle, tasked with rolling the Sun across the sky.

Indeed, it is in this sign that the Sun reaches its highest elevation in the sky of the northern hemisphere on the summer solstice. The constellation itself, however, is a dim scattering of stars, all below the 4th magnitude. It contains a nebulous cloud now known as the Beehive that ancient astrologers called the Praesepe, or multitude, long identified as a feminine area of the sky where energy dissipates.

Cancer month depicted by bright Sun and profitable agricultural estate.
The month June and the sign of Cancer, represented by a large agricultural estate being profitably maintained and managed, and by the parable of the Rich Fool.

Cancer’s role as the site of the summer solstice also fits neatly with the Hermetic view of the heavens. The sphere of the Moon, the planetary ruler of Cancer, was considered the closest sphere to the Earth. The constellation was known as “The Gate of Men”, where souls acquired their physical form before descending to Earth, in contrast to the Saturn-ruled sign of Capricorn, known as “The Gate of the Gods”, where souls shed their last ties to Earth before reaching heaven. Both the materialistic rulership of the Moon and the tenacity of Hera’s humble crab live on in the contemporary significance of the sign of Cancer.   


The fourth sign of the zodiac, Cancer the Crab is the sole domicile of the Moon. Its season begins with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year before the gradual descent into winter. By Cancer season the heat of the summer sun is undeniable, and the full force of life is evident in the fruits of nature.

A phlegmatic and nocturnal sign, Cancers are receptive and easily impacted by changes in their environment, not unlike their armored namesake. Just as the Sun grants light to the Moon, the Crab is immersed in the natural and emotional cycles associated with the nocturnal luminary. As the cardinal water sign, Cancers are acutely aware of the changeability of the emotional world, but their moods are apt to wax and wane, just like the Moon herself. This makes them less erratic than mutable Pisces, but less stoic than fixed Scorpio.

Associated with emotional release and expression, they embody a sort of predictable unpredictability, a convoluted moodiness that defies logic. While sometimes sulky, Cancers typically exude a gentle and comforting energy around those they care for. At ease in the moist nature of the sign, here the Moon’s powers are at their fullest.

While it is a cardinal sign, the Crab is far too easily bruised—and therefore too wary—to excel at head-on confrontation. Lacking the horns of Aries or Capricorn, the Cancerian approach is to sidle up alongside a challenge, scurry around it, and hide behind its shell at the first sign of danger. The crab’s hard shell protects a delicate exterior, but it is ultimately caution that serves as its most effective defense.

Like Pisces, Cancer tends to be receptive, rather than reactive. But while the spiritual generosity of the Fish leaves it at the whim of its surroundings, the Crab’s prefers to withdraw than be at the mercy of the tides, making it perhaps the only cardinal sign that tends to move backward – or sideways – rather than forward. In fact, Cancer is also the only constellation depicted as facing backward as it moves along the ecliptic.

the sign of cancer depicted by the crab in the constellation of stars
Cancer – the Crab, detail from the Horoscope from ‘The book of birth of Iskandar”

This reluctance for direct confrontation explains Mars experiencing its fall in Cancer. The planet’s hot and dry nature is at odds with the cold and moist sign, and the lesser malefic’s preference for direct confrontation is contrary to the Crab’s wary nature. The typical Cancer prefers passive aggression to open combat, nursing grudges instead of openly acknowledging a problem. However, be aware that the sign possesses a persistence that belies its shy exterior – even in conflict, the Crab may forgive but it does not forget.

Hera’s crab bravely sacrificed itself but it failed to make a dent in Hercules’ defenses; a Cancer looking to emerge victorious has much to benefit from a cautious, sideways approach. The Crab that sidles up alongside the problem can consider it from a new angle, forming a unique perspective that can confuse less intuitive minds but contains a multitude of solutions. The crab’s tenacity and aptitude for idiosyncratic approaches make it a surprisingly creative problem-solver.

At once protective and comforting, the glyph for Cancer may represent the claws of the crab, curled in a defensive position, or the cradling arms or even breasts, signifiers of motherly care and the part of the body traditionally ruled by the sign. Less effective as weapons than the Scorpion’s stinging tail, the Crab’s claws are better suited for grasping – and never letting go. The Crab can be clingy and may have trouble letting go of people, places, and relationships, even when they do not serve their best interests anymore. Many Cancers would rather be mistreated than abandoned.

While emotional connection may trump physical pleasure for the average Cancerian native, the Moon’s rulership over the material sphere also plays a role in the sign’s signification. Both sensing and sensual, the Crab may collect objects with as much zeal as people. Drawn to the past, either personal or collective, Cancers may collect mementos, souvenirs, and even antiques. Those with strong Cancer placements have a powerful memory for sensations. Many collect and file away both objects and memories like love letters to the past, so that they may leaf through them to relive emotional states, the good, the bad, and the sad.

Cancer, the Crab and the Sun and Sea, acrylic painting
Into the Sea – acrylic painting by Heni Sandoval

In contrast to the discipline and material concerns of Capricorn, Cancer is empathic and nurturing, although both signs are associated with support and upholding the structures of family and tradition. Cancer, ruled by the Moon, channels the maternal, while Saturnian Capricorn wields paternal authority. The placement and strength of the Moon in a native’s chart may represent the influence of their mother or the state of their maternal instincts.

Natives with heavy Cancer placements make natural caretakers and may channel this energy into caring for family, friends, pets, or even plants. Depending on the receiver, though, this care may range from reassuring and supportive to overly sentimental and cloying. Giving and receiving much from any kind of emotional bond, Cancers possess a strong intuition, a rich imagination, and an active sense of danger. They may have an almost-psychic sense of empathy, with a tendency to take pride in anticipating the emotional needs of others.

They crave emotional closeness and may balk at interacting with those they consider superficial or insensitive. At the same time, they can be easily misled by their emotions, resulting in an overly cautious approach in some cases and an outright refusal to recognize warning signs in others. Importantly, however, this emotional receptivity is tied to a kind of spiritual fertility, a capacity to nourish.

The nourishing quality of the sign has ancient origins. Not only does the Moon influence the tides and the reproductive cycles of humans, but it has also been associated with a motherly feminine figure throughout the history of the West, an archetype central to the sign of the Crab.

The Thema Mundi, the theoretical chart of the creation of the universe, has Cancer rising with the Moon on the ascendant. In the Masonic allegory of the death and rebirth of the Sun, it is Cancer that brings the Sun back to life, although it is the fixed fire sign of Leo that brings the diurnal luminary to its fullest strength. The capacity to nurture may contain an element of martyrdom – the Crab that bit Hercules’ toe was not the last to give its life for a cause.

Belonging to and contributing to a group, whether a biological or adopted family or even a nation, is essential to the Crab’s sense of self and security. Cancer’s wariness of strangers, at its most extreme, may be exclusive, even xenophobic. Humor, another of the Crab’s sideways weapons, can be used to emphasize an in-group at the expense of outsiders. A pessimistic, often self-deprecating sense of humor can split sides, or disarm a perceived threat.

The Cancer sign depicted by rocky arena by the seas and the crab
Cancer by Mikalojus, 1907

Stereotypically stingy, the Crab’s preservative approach to the material – especially money –makes it the exaltation of Jupiter. The typical Pisces or Sagittarius native is too open-handed to save for the future. The Crab’s concern for supporting a family typically makes it a conscientious investor, apt to save, and talented in business. Many Cancers end up as managers or business people and may show a knack for all things financial even if they build their careers elsewhere.

The drive to collect wealth stems not from an egotistical pursuit of glory, but rather a distinct nest-building tendency not unlike that of Taurus. While their moods may change as swiftly as the face of the Moon, Cancers require material stability and emotional security in their homes to thrive. Often, Cancer on a house cusp can represent where the native may exercise their home-building tendencies—Cancer in the 9th house, for example, could signify a tendency to build a home abroad.

Elevated to the heavens through an act of selfless devotion, the Crab nurtures the Sun back to health. In doing so it channels the maternal energy of the Moon, itself illuminated by the Sun, and embodies that most essential cycle of life and death. Cancer peers into the past as other, less cautious signs plunge into the future, and what it sees reminds it – even on the longest day of the year – of the inevitable descent into winter and death that will eventually confront all living things. And so it cherishes the memories, steps carefully, and shares all it can with those that make life most worth living.   


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