Thursday, September 03, 2009


So many and varied are the explanations available on the orgin of the zodiac signs that some theories are surely suspect. What is especially intriguing is how and why each sign of our zodiac came to carry the seeds of the interpretations we now apply.

Once one starts the enquiry its not long before feeling overwhelmed and submerged in theosophy, physics, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, mythology, morphology, Sumeria, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, and much more, until the eyes glaze (are yours glazed already?) Mention of India and China is omitted to simplify matters, they have their own stories.

What follows is my own, highly-distilled and simplified version - the way I understand it.

In order to trace the origin of the zodiac it's necessary to look for the origins of astrology itself, to discover whether the zodiac as we know it appeared intact from the beginning. "The beginning" of astrology is in question. Dates from 2000 to 9,000 years BC and even eras beyond that are mentioned in various sources, depending on exactly how one defines astrology.

Apparently astrology as we now understand it (or try to) did not exist in the beginning. Longer ago than anyone knows for sure, our ancestors in Sumeria, the area now known as Iraq, were recording the movements of the Sun, Moon and visible planets against the background of stars whose positions appeared not to vary.

Over a long period of time the cyclical and seasonal nature of those movements was understood and put to use counting time and in assessing orientation. This knowledge would have been valuable in agriculture and the production of food, for planning activities and journeys. Not surprisingly, early peoples attributed the planets and stars with god-like abilities.

It's amazing that such people, observing the sky with nothing but the naked eye, using pieces of stone and a carving tool, were able to make lasting records of their findings, a few examples still survive. It's tempting to wonder whether they had some kind of head start, essential knowledge handed down from a time of which modern man is no longer aware, a civilisation which may have perished leaving no trace but for some oral traditions retained by a few survivors. Or perhaps the ancient peoples did, after all, work things out for themselves by patient observation. We shall never know. (Right" Sumerian astrology tablet, dating from around 2,300 BC)

By the time of Greek civilisation astronomical knowledge acquired by groups living further East had been passed along to Greece, probably via established trade routes over land and sea. The Greeks were great philosophers and seminal scientists.

When Greek philosophers put their minds to work on the basic knowledge, they garnished it, made it more palatable to their own people, and added to it by further observation and the use of geometry. Embellishment, using their own mythology - heroes, gods and goddesses must have helped make it accessible to those who sought to understand. It is probably around this stage that a zodiac, in a form familiar to us, appeared on the scene. The earliest rudimentary example of an actual astrological "reading" of a natal chart is said to date from around 410 BC.

Some historians say that the Greeks discovered the precession of the equinoxes, others contend that it was known at a much earlier stage. It's a thorny subject. Suffice to say that the discovery or re-discovery of precession resulted in two different zodiacs: the constellation-based zodiac, called "sidereal", and the solar-based tropical zodiac, most popular in modern times. The tropical zodiac was set to fix the vernal equinox at 0* Aries, rather than shifting over centuries along with the backdrop of stars. This had the effect of appointing the Sun as our main indicator, which of course, for life on Earth, it surely is. It also means that the constellations of stars which originally gave the signs their names no longer correspond with tropical zodiac signs. This can lead to confusion.

But how and why did each constellation of stars originally acquire its name? It is difficult to accept that stars in the constellations really do trace the outline of a lion, a scorpion, a virgin carrying a sheaf of wheat, a ram, a bull, etc. Yet the meanings we accept, the interpretations arising from them, are at the very core of astrology, and do seem to retain their accuracy, even after the tropical signs have moved on well past their sidereal position. This is the crux of the mystery.

Some modern sources surmise that the the basis of broad characteristics attributed to the 12 signs might be explained by a kind of electro-magnetic wave effect. This is not easy to fully understand or for me to explain succinctly.

The Greeks, who may appear to have been making wild guesses, attributed mythical figures to the visible planets (Mars, Venus, Jupiter etc.) and associated these (and related characteristics ?) with the 12 signs. But were they guessing, or is there a deeper explanation? Was there other knowledge available of which we remain unaware? How did they choose which to associate with what? The Egyptians are said to have had access to mysterious, now lost, knowledge. Was secret information from Egypt amalgamated with the Greeks' philosophies and scientific work?

(Above: Engraving illustrating a zodiac circle found on a celing of the Temple at Dendera, Egypt. Thought to date from 50 BC)

The elements (Earth, Fire, Air, Water), modes (Cardinal, Fixed, Mutable), and polarities (masculine/feminine, yin/yang) were associated with the zodiac signs at some stage, but exactly when this happened is not easily established. Again, there's evidence of a kind of interlinked wave effect going on.

Many texts were destroyed at various times in the distant past, by rulers or church leaders standing against astrology. Much crucial information must have perished. It's likely that the most important texts were the ones to go.

Astrology and the zodiac came to prominence in Europe, beyond Greece, in mediaeval times. What is now called "traditional astrology", based on the Greek version with many additions, modifications, bells and whistles, became the great-great grandfather of the basic astrology we use today. It should be mentioned that druids and the Celtic tribes are thought to have practiced a form of astrology in parts of Europe long before the more sophisticated Greek version arrived. They certainly used astronomy - close observation of the skies, Stonehenge is one of many pieces of evidence.

The zodiac, its signs and all they have come to represent, will not go away any time soon. They have survived longer than almost anything else in human experience, and will continue to survive. It's even possible that somewhere, hidden in all the detail, they contain a key to the greatest mystery of all - the mystery of mankind.

(Edited and illustrated version of my post of Jan. 2007)


Wisewebwoman said...

Most informative, T, there is strong evidence in old sites in Ireland of astrological influence and characters.
I too wonder at whether there were ocmpletely advanced civilisations that were annihilated in so-called prehistoric times...

Laura said...

Whatever the origins are of the Zodiac its a fascinating subject and something which I have only recently begun paying attention to.

RafaelVR said...

Hi Twilight !

That’s why I have an intense motivation when studying astrology, for its mysteries beyond our comprehension and a possible tool for analyzing the life itself, because life itself is a mystery, even if you are much grounded, you wouldn’t miss the transcendent experience.
Our ancient people were gifted this manner, but for them, personally I think the whole astrology thing was a bigger mystery for them too, maybe more for them than for us, you get interested in astrology nowadays and next you have loads of information already there, where it opposes the reality they had, although the methods of observation and reasons for one to accept as true fact in astrology are basically the same.
And I really believe that they were people with extremes sense of time and in tune with the dance of the universe, not saying that we are not, but now we are only updating it and expanding wherever its logically and spiritually possible.
We all have the same sky but no one has the same horizon.

anthonynorth said...

This is an excellent post. As to its foundations, well, I think there would be a universal urge to track the sun worldwide as agriculture began. As to the exact formulation, I thnk we can only work with specific cultures, the universal aspect working alongside the local.
I would tend to go outside astrology and look at it in terms of epochs related to myths. In the western tradition we definitely know of the fishy phase. Myths show a definite Ram epoch, and prior to that, we just have knowledge of Bull cults in myth. This suggests a growing formalisation around 2000BC, as the Sumerian was giving way to the Babylonian. Zero degrees Aries would also take take us to here.

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ Yes, the Celts were definitely into some form of astrology. The lost civilisation theory is one I keep going back to whenever I ponder on these things.

Twilight said...

Laura ~~~ It's a fascinating study - but a frustrating one too, because there are no sure answers.

Twilight said...

Rafael ~~~ Hi there! You put it all very well. The ancients were more in tuune with nature, for sure, and therefore with the cycles going on above them. We've lost ithat - or almost lost it.

I like you last thought - same sky different horizons.....lovely!

Twilight said...

AnthonyNorth~~~ Thanks, glad it was of interest.

It's such a vast study that it's difficult not to become bogged down, and lose the thread....I feel certain there is a thread.

Your point about epochs is a good one, the Ram and the Bull and The Fishes have all represented epochs, though whether this directly involves astrology isn't clear to me. And if it does, which came first...that age old question (chicken/egg): The Ram/Bull/Fishes or astrology? And if astrology - where from?

anthonynorth said...

One point I didn't mention was my interest in lost civilisations. If you remember, I argue there was a fisheries revolution thousands of years earlier than the accepted date for civilisation, leading to a split in humanity between primitive stoneage and a more technological, port based maritime global culture. We lost this with rising water levels at the end of the last ice age, and I argue the remnants moved inland to kick start civilisation as we know it. With them, they would also take their knowledge of stars, which they would have needed for early navigation. I wonder if astrology, as a concept, could have arisen from this? Which would, of course, make it very early.

Twilight said...

AN ~~~ Yes, I recall your piece on that topic. I suppose that kind of early civilisation could also be the source of Atlantis myths, (which have since been embellished a lot). such a civilisation would have surely watched the skies vrery carefully. Whether astrology would have been a part of their culture we'll never know.
Also, it'd be fascinating to be able to trace their background.
These cycles of civilisation could go on infinitely, couldn't they?

I'd like to know where the stuff about astrology/astronomy in the Book of Enoch comes into it all, without getting too far into Sitchin's realm of thought and fantasy. :-)

So many mysteries - so little time.

Shawn Carson said...

in an effort to simplify my own astrology, i look mostly to planets and aspects and not so much at signs. i suppose the signs do modify the planetary energies, but mars square saturn is just as frustrating in aquarius as it is in virgo, and so on.

Twilight said...

Shawn ~~~ I often find myself doing that too. I think there are modern astrological systems (Uranian? Harmonics?) which ignore the signs completely.

I like the signs and elements and modes though, find them and the reason behind them intriguing.

Maybe we could liken working with planets only to a black and white photgraph, the information is there, but including signs adds some color? :-)

Candela said...

anthonynorth, I've got an interest in archeology too, and the mention you made on fishery based civilization that may have given rise to agriculture just made a few things click in my head. As it happens, I'm from Finland, where the sealevel has been steadily rising from after the last glaciation, and where agriculture arrived relatively late. There's a host of very rich archeological findings dating from around 4000-3000 BC here talking about what I'd definitely call culture (permanent villages that traded their surplus production) that was indeed based on fishing and seal hunting. So, I've no trouble believing the people living in the coastal area around Black Sea later covered by water would have been leading a similar lifestyle before the sudden rise of the sealevel. I really think that I should visit a famous site my godmother (a Pisces seeker) now lives nearby to see if there are any signs of astronomical knowledge there. Maybe that hasn't even been taken in consideration by the established archeologists !

Anyhow, it seems that archelogist just recently discovered that the cairns here from the Bronze age (2000-1500 BC) era had an astronomical function. Which, I think, wasn't a surprice at all.

Twilight said...

Candela - Hi there! That's interesting information - I'll alert Anthony North that you've added it. Thank you for doing so! Some articles on Anthony's blog might interest you too:

anthonynorth said...

Hi Candela,
Thanks for that info. I've never looked at Finland, I must admit. I must do so. All the time new archaeology is being found, and old sites being reinterpreted as the idea of a real lost civilisation gathers pace. I'm convinced there has to be something to it.

Thanks for the nod and url, Twilight.

dark_knight said...

Excellent article, but have you read Walter Cruttenden's Book 'LOST STAR OF MYTH AND TIME' ? Most of our questions on the origin of Life, and not only the Zodiac are answered in the book...........

Lori Tompkins said...

India's role in matters of the Origin of the Zodiac should not be overlooked. That's when the story gets really interesting. I recently wrote an article discussing the connection between the Vedic sanatana dharma (eternal truth of being and becoming), the tropical zodiac, and world harmony ... it's called 'In Harmony's Way'. I hope some readers can find their way to this article because the zodiacal plot really thickens.

Twilight said...

dark_knight ~~~ hi there!
thank you for the recommendation - I shall seek out the book you mention. Sounds like my kind of book! :-)

Twilight said...

Lori Tomkins ~~ Hi there!
Oh, many thanks for the link. I'll look forward to reading your article. Sorry for the delay in responding.
We've been without power for 5 days. :-)