“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a machine.”
—Sir James Jeans
In 2011 a research team published a scientific paper that described the discovery of what they claimed may be the oldest astrologer’s board. Staso Forenbaher and Alexander Jones published their paper in the Journal for the History of Astronomy. Jones said, “This is probably older than any other known example. It’s also older than any of the written horoscopes from the Greco-Roman world.” He added, “We have a lot of horoscopes that are documents on papyrus or on walls but none of them are as old as this.”
This ivory board was discovered in Croatia, in Nakovana Cave, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The original board was circular and engraved with zodiac signs. Dating back more than 2,000 years, the surviving portion of the board consists of thirty ivory fragments that are engraved with zodiac signs. The researchers spent years removing the fragments from the dirt inside the cave and reassembling the surviving pieces. Inscribed in a Greco-Roman style, what remains are images of Cancer, Gemini, Pisces, and possibly part of Sagittarius.
While the Croatian artifact is certainly a great find and an impressive artifact, it does not accurately date the antiquity of zodiacs—the story is much older. Human beings have gazed at the stars for many thousands of years, looking up with a sense of wonder. We long to know our place in the universe, and we naturally respond to a universal impulse to seek inspiration and perceive order. Astrology is fundamentally a search for meaning by observing cycles and interpreting correspondences between celestial occurrences, planetary positions, human affairs, and terrestrial events. As the Hermetic Axiom states, “As above, so below.”
For most of its history astrology was considered a scholarly tradition and was a common pursuit in academic circles, often in close relationship with astronomy, alchemy, and medicine. In the “modern” world, science views astrology with disdain. However, those who have taken the time to thoroughly research the matter by studying the horoscopes of people they know, or watching correspondences with life events, typically change their minds. Astrology seems to be based on interpreting a resonance with the solar system and universe that our science has yet to comprehend.
Astrology is seen to have its roots in calendric systems used to predict seasonal shifts and celestial cycles. Among earlier Indo-European people astrology has been dated to the third millennium BCE. From earliest times Chinese, Mesopotamian, Indus Valley, Egyptian, the Maya of Central America, and other cultures have used zodiacs and developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations. The Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Hindus, and Chinese all had zodiacs. The Central and North American Indians also had an understanding of the zodiac, but patterns and numbers of the signs differed in many details from those in the Eastern Hemisphere. Primitive astronomical observatories have been discovered in many parts of the world. Although the telescope was unknown to ancient sky watchers, these cultures made remarkable calculations with instruments cut from blocks of granite or pounded from sheets of brass and copper.
The historian Herodotus has said, “The naming of almost all the gods has come to Hellas (Greece) from Egypt. The Egyptians had names of all the other gods in their country for all time. The Egyptians knew what god corresponded to each month and each day, and what fortunes someone would meet who was born on any particular day, how he will die, and what kind of a man he would be. These inventions were taken up by those of the Hellenes.” Even conventional dating of Egypt stretches back 8,000 years in its pre-dynastic beginnings.
In Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall states, “It is difficult for this age to estimate correctly the profound effect produced upon the religions, philosophies, and sciences of antiquity by the study of the planets, luminaries, and constellations. Not without adequate reason were the Magi of Persia called the Star Gazers. The Egyptians were honored with a special appellation because of their proficiency in computing the power and motion of the heavenly bodies and their effect upon the destinies of nations and individuals.”
The zodiac is an area of the sky that extends approximately eight degrees north and south of the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the Sun as it seems to move across the celestial sphere during a year. The ecliptic is also the path of the Moon and planets that orbit the Sun within the band of the zodiac. The word ‘zodiac’ is derived from the Greek zodiakos, which means “a circle of animals.” The Greeks, and others influenced by their culture, divided the band of the zodiac into twelve sections, each being sixteen degrees in width and thirty degrees in length. Twelve constellations of irregular shape and size occupy the zodiac belt, and some of these shapes have been imagined as figures by connecting bright stars to form “star pictures” like the Scorpion or the Scales of Libra.
In the past, different cultures imagined the stars as different “pictures” and had different zodiacs. Over thousands of years the shapes of the constellations have morphed, and some stars have changed alliances. For example, the claws of the Scorpion, which still bear the earlier names of Northern and Southern Claws, are now the scales of Libra. Likewise, in times past, Pisces only had one fish. But since 1930, the International Astronomers Union has agreed on eighty-eight constellations.
The zodiac that astrologers use is a celestial coordinate system that takes the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun, as the origin of latitude, and the position of the Sun at spring equinox as the origin of longitude. Astrological signs are related to time and the seasons, using the solstice and equinox points as primary markers. The twelve zodiac signs are thirty-degree divisions of the circle of the year. This same method was used by astronomy until about one hundred years ago. Astronomers now measure the circle of the zodiac from zero to 360 degrees, but degrees of Celestial Longitude still define the zodiac.
The constellations are divisions of space like countries on a terrestrial map that contain all the known celestial objects inside those lines of demarcation against the backdrop of the Celestial Sphere. Because of the phenomenon of precession, Earth’s seasons relative to the stars shift very slowly over time. As the zodiac signs present a yearly circle of archetypal experience, the larger cycle of the ages offers a longer dispensation of these energies. Symbolically, the zodiac forms a cycle of experience that provides a template of evolution in nested cycles through which Earth receives the influences of the Sun and planets.
So how old is astrology? Scientists believe that “modern humans” developed about 600,000 years ago. These ancestors of ours were capable of watching the sky and observing patterns. While no artifacts may have survived, ruling out how they may have used this knowledge seems prejudiced.
Archaeology is undergoing a profound paradigm shift as discovery and recognition of ancient cultures and their amazing achievements forces the recognition that history is not what we supposed. Growing awareness of ancient cultures such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey keeps moving the timeline backward. In the face of growing evidence, archaeology and history are challenged to rethink former assumptions about our past.
The famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France, have been dated to 17,000 years ago. (I explored their astronomical significance in Atlantis Rising Issue #122). French researcher Dr. Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez has worked at Lascaux for a decade. She found orientations to sunset during solstices in more than 120 of the sites. Using modern astronomy software, she believes the famous paintings at Lascaux record the constellations of a prehistoric zodiac, which includes major stars as wells as solstice points. She was able to determine that summer solstice sunsets penetrated the caves and illuminated certain paintings. Her work is based on identification of dots and tracings superimposed on the paintings of bulls, horses, and aurochs on the cave walls. These appear to correspond to the constellation of Taurus, the asterism of the Pleiades, and the stars Aldebaran and Antares.
Even more stunning in terms of antiquity is the Gallery of Discs at the Cueva de El Castillo, or El Castillo Cave, in the Cantabria region of Spain. The region contains the oldest known cave art in Europe. Researcher and naturalist Bernie Taylor, author of Before Orion: Finding the Face of the Hero, believes the image of the red-haired man with a club painted on the wall is a very early depiction of a hero that later became Orion, moving across a stellar landscape. This Orion character appears in Chapter 5 of his book and represents the original hero in what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “hero journey.” The red-haired man is an earlier version of Hercules and his labors.
Taylor has also identified a series of pictorial constellations on the same panel, from Aquila, Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus, Leo, Ursa Major to Cygnus, among others, that the hero encounters and draws strength from on his journey. The naturalist shows that there is a geographic connection for the animals in these constellations, ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to western North Africa, which shows that the earth and sky worlds were once considered as one. He proposes that “certain ancient cave paintings are fundamental pieces in the human journey to self-realization, the foundation of written language, and a record of biological knowledge that irrevocably impacted some of the artistic styles, religious practices, and stories that are still with us.”
Ancient sky watchers and astronomer priests did not possess the telescope. Instead, they relied on their eyes to observe the stars and their inner vision to interpret the meaning. It’s tempting to imagine how people might have been transformed as they sat in a dark cave 34,000 years ago and gazed at paintings that depicted the sky. How were they changed by the rituals they experienced? Or, how were ancient Egyptians impacted as they stood among immense temple columns and watched bright stars travel over the night sky?
In a real sense, astrology was the beginning of measurement and instrumentation as the ancients used a variety of methods to calibrate cycles. We now live in a time where science has made phenomenal strides. Perhaps the risk of too much instrumentation is losing the faculty of intuition and disconnecting from the mystery of our intimate connection with the Universe. Technology has greatly increased the pallet of interpretation for astrologers, adding outer planets, asteroids, and plutoids. Sadly, most modern astrologers use computers and rarely look at the night sky. They are therefore unable to identify by sight the very planets they interpret or the stars that form the backdrop.
I believe this disconnects us from the deeper impact to the very real energies that heavenly bodies possess. Perhaps someday, science will develop instruments capable of measuring subtle energies—maybe even quantify love. Meanwhile, it’s worth the effort to go outside on a dark night and look up at the radiance of the stars.
CAPTIONS: Ceiling zodiac in Egypt’s Dendera temple.
A fragment from the Nakovana Cave ivory board with a crab image (Credit: Staso Forenbaher)
Hellenistic floor zodiac mosaic in a synagogue in the Hamat-Tiberias archaeological site in Israel.
Red-haired man with a club, a very early depiction of a hero that later became Orion.