Scorpio, that is suffering: a natural history of a medieval Zodiac symbol

Black scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda).  Photo by Per-Anders Olsson, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s incredibly frustrating when you know you have read something somewhere and can’t remember where.  Such as the time I read an article or book which made an excellent point about Anglo-Saxon zodiac illustrations.

Most medieval psalters and other liturgical books begin with a calendar, the primary purpose of which is to list the feasts of the saints and other important days, but it will also usually note when the Sun has moved into a new constellation of the zodiac.  Today, the Sun has moved into the sign of Scorpio … but what is a scorpion anyway?  This scholar, whose name and work I have forgotten, pointed out that most Anglo-Saxon manuscript illustrators had never seen one, and therefore they might have received a slightly inaccurate idea of what the creature looked like, if they didn’t have personal experience of being in southern Europe, or an Mediterranean exemplar to work from.  I suppose it is fair to note that England is also somewhat low on lions, but perhaps people were more likely to have seen a picture of such a majestic animal, and ‘big cat with a fur-scarf’ is an easier concept to convey.

But whatever a scorpion was, the Anglo-Saxons knew that it meant suffering.  Literally – the Old English word þrowend is related to þrowian, to suffer.

Þære sunnan gear is þæt heo beyrne ðone micelan circul Zodiacum · 7 gecume under ælc þæra twelf tacna … Eahteoðe is Scorpius · þæt is þrowend.

Heinrich Henel, Aelfric’s De Temporibus Anni, p. 26.

(A year of the sun is one in which it runs the great circle of the Zodiac, and comes under each of the twelve signs … the eighth is Scorpio: that is, scorpion.)

So, at the start of the Zodiac month, let’s take a look at a few medieval scorpions!


Realistic scorpion

Scorpio JulAvi8r
London, British Library Cotton MS Julius A. vi, fol. 8r

This eleventh-/twelfth-century hymnal features a metrical calendar: one with a four-line Latin verse for each month.  The accompanying line drawing of a scorpion is a relatively realistic depiction, down to its front pincers, three other pairs of legs, and long stinging tail.  The artist of the manuscript, or of its exemplar, or its exemplar’s exemplar, clearly knew what a scorpion was.  Unlike …


Fantastical scorpion

Scorpio Ar60.6v
London, British Library Arundel MS 60, fol. 6v

… the artist of this late eleventh-/twelfth-century psalter, a personal favourite of mine.  This beautiful manuscript has detailed line drawings of each sign of the zodiac: do take a look through all of them.  Scorpio is represented by a vaguely canine winged dragon with what I suppose is a forked tongue, but looks like an arrow being fired into its obligingly open mouth.  Even so, the long, curled tail is a nod to the real scorpion’s sting.


Dragon scorpion

Scorpio Lansdowne383.7v
London, British Library Lansdowne MS 383, fol. 7v

The artist of this twelfth-century psalter was thinking along much the same lines, but this time in full colour rather than Arundel 60’s neat but simple line drawings.  This one is more certainly a dragon, wings poised, breathing fire, and with a tail that curls down into the feast of St Crispianus.


Ten-legged scorpion

Scorpio Roy1Dx13v
London, British Library Royal MS 1 D. x, fol. 13v

It’s the thirteenth century, now, and scorpions are back to looking considerably more arachnid – but what’s with the extra pair of legs?  It’s also got a surprisingly cute little face for such a threatening little beast.


Bird scorpion

Scorpio CamTrinB10.9.6v
Cambridge, Trinity College MS B. 10. 9, fol. 6v

This thirteenth-century scorpion is a little unclear, but the artist has hopped on the winged scorpion idea and taken flight.  It is depicted in calming, peaceful tones, and isn’t breathing fire.  It even has a little pair of ears.


Pincered, winged, ten-legged, cute-faced: to what extent do these images reflect what English illustrators and their predecessors actually believed scorpions to look like?  Are they intended to be accurate depictions of the Mediterranean beast, or emblematic images, intended to convey something of what the sign of Scorpio stood for?

Whatever the answer to these questions, in transforming the scorpion from a venomous, stinging creature, to a dragon, to an almost cartoonish creature, medieval artists knew how to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and let their imaginations take flight.


Words cited:

Heinrich Henel, ed., Aelfric’s De Temporibus Anni, EETS 213 (London: OUP, 1942).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. … not a tongue, but an arrow… Sagittarius?!
    …the ‘ten legged’ one… reminds me the draco/dracco/drako from P. Rothfuss (A crônica do Matador do Rei – Vol II – a north american writer…)


    1. katehthomas says:

      Yes, the arrow thing is odd, since they are clearly labelled as being Scorpio … maybe Sagittarius is shooting at it from his page!


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