“And God said, let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.”
— Genesis 1:14 (KJV)
The zodiac is a belt of sky within about eight degrees on either side of the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun, and the orbital path of the Moon and planets. This belt contains the zodiac constellations: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. Although the Chaldeans are generally credited with inventing astrology, we don’t actually know where and when the zodiac originated. Some scholars have argued convincingly for an ancient Egyptian origin. The Romans inherited the zodiac from the Greeks, and astronomy and astrology still use this “circle of animals.”
The oldest description of the constellations, as we know them, comes from a poem titled Phaenomena, written in about 270 BCE by the Greek poet Aratus. After the Iliad and Odyssey, the Phaenomena was the most widely read poem in the ancient world. Ovid and Cicero translated it into Latin, it was quoted by St. Paul in the New Testament, and it was one of the few Greek poems translated into Arabic.
Although some cultures still have their own versions of the zodiac and other star groups, some reaching far back in time, since 1930, astronomers worldwide have agreed on 88 constellations. Constellations are divisions of space like states or countries on a terrestrial map. Every star and deep-space object within these divisions is plotted on the grid of the Celestial Sphere, which projects Earth’s latitude and longitude into space. The Celestial Sphere is an imaginary “globe” of gigantic proportions with Earth conceptually located at its center. The poles of the Celestial Sphere are aligned with the poles of Earth. The Celestial Equator lies along the Celestial Sphere in the same plane that includes the Earth’s equator.
As Earth travels around the Sun each year, the canvas of the night sky changes. For convenience of recognition, and aid in memory, humans have connected bright stars to make pictures. For thousands of years, these star pictures have been created and stories have been told to give meaning to the constantly changing panorama of the night sky. We still tell these stories, using many of the ancient myths, as a powerful way to give meaning to the Cosmos. Most constellation names came from the ancient Middle Eastern, Greek, and Roman cultures that identified clusters of stars as gods, goddesses, animals, and other objects. Many star names are Arabic, stemming from the time when Islamic scholars kept the light of wisdom burning while Europe was engulfed in a dark age.
Myth is sacred narrative, generally cultural in nature, regarding gods and heroes, the origin of the world, or of a people. Joseph Campbell was probably the world’s greatest scholar of myth. In his masterwork, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell says, “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the Cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
Myth uses metaphor and symbol to teach or transmit important truths. For example, in Greek myth the sun god Apollo carries the Sun across the sky in his chariot. We can visualize this, and we are charmed by the idea of the fiery Sun being carried across the sky each day by a powerful god. Myth is a poetic and more memorable way to transmit a teaching than a dry fact. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh was a way of explaining how the world and humanity were created. The Mayan Popol Vuh is another example of a creation myth, as is Genesis. Joseph Campbell has also remarked that myth is what we call other peoples’ religions. Myth is a potent way of teaching and transmitting timeless truths.
Because of the phenomenon called Precession of the Equinoxes, which causes Earth’s position relative to the stars to shift slowly over time, the star groups that were once seasonal markers have drifted backward. Therefore, the zodiac constellations, and the astrological signs that bear their names, are no longer in synch with the seasons. In the Tropical Astrology of the West, the astrological signs are a function of the seasons, and every year at Spring Equinox the sign of Aries begins. Every subsequent sign is a thirty-degree division of the circle of the year. On Summer Solstice the sign of Cancer begins. Autumn Equinox is the beginning of the sign of Libra, and Winter Solstice is the beginning of the sign of Capricorn.
The alphabet of astrology is written in glyphs and symbols, but the interpretive mechanism is built on myth. The frame of the signs is mythological. Every sign of the zodiac has a mythological origin and a story that explains the origin and significance. The Tibetan Master Djwhal Khul, through the writings of Alice Bailey, sees the signs to be like great gates, or portals, through which the reincarnating soul enters the Earth plane to have a cycle of experience. The myth of the Twelve Labors of Hercules recounts his labors as the hero, representing the Sun, journeying through the year and the ages. At a deeper level Hercules represents the incarnating soul, journeying through the experiences of twelve cycles of experience. His labors are symbolic of victory over the spiritual tests we must each face over many lifetimes in each of the signs.
Aries has been seen as a ram since Babylonian times 4,000 years ago. In later Greek myth Aries became associated with the golden ram that rescued Phrixos and Helle. Taurus the Bull is a very ancient constellation whose identity may appear in the Caves of Lascaux, France, dating to 17,000 years ago. In Greek myth the story of Taurus began with an enormous wandering bull known as Cerus that trampled everything in his path. The goddess Persephone taught the bull patience and how to use his strength wisely. Leo is one of the oldest constellations, as far as we know, and was seen as a lion by Sumerians and Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago. The symbolism of the signs embodies qualities and characteristics, strengths and challenges on the ever-turning wheels of the seasons and the ages. If we are wise, we study and learn, facing our lessons and recognizing our tests. In this way, the unfolding and developing of our soul is a more guided process.
The Greeks named the visible planets after Olympian gods. Although we have inherited the Roman names for the planets, the identities of the planetary personalities are much older.
We don’t know if the gods came first, or the need to name the planets after them, since the Greeks borrowed much from the Egyptians. The way astrologers understand the nature of planetary energies is through the mythic lens of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Venus (Aphrodite) was the goddess of love and beauty. She shines brightest of the planets and is the brightest object in the sky next to the Moon. Mars (Ares), the red planet, was the god of war. Jupiter (Zeus) was king of the gods, who ruled from his throne on Mount Olympus. Mercury, who, compared with the other planets, speeds around the Sun, was identified with the Greek Hermes, the fleet footed messenger of Greek myth.
As the planetary deities, which meant “wanderers” in Greek, traveled across the sky they interacted with each other, which created drama in heaven, and also influenced life on Earth.
Astrological interpretation is based on these mythical personalities, and in ancient times the gods had faults and blind spots along with their divine powers. They didn’t always behave in a noble fashion.
Much later, long after the Greeks and Romans, when Uranus was discovered, the planet was named after the father of Saturn, who was Jupiter’s father. Blue Neptune became the god of the sea. Because Pluto is now a dwarf planet, we can choose to eliminate him from the interpretive mix, or my preference, add Ceres, now a lovely dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. How the ancients arrived at these ideas before telescopes is unknown, but we still use these qualities in our interpretation even though modern astrologers have a more psychological approach to chart interpretation. It wasn’t until the Greeks that charts were cast for individuals.
Astrological interpretation uses the metaphor that planets are gods with unique characteristics that are played out on a cosmic stage, which in turn, affects human lives. Stories of Mount Olympus and the dramas of the gods are metaphorical and allegorical, attributing personalities and characteristics to the planets. A well-known metaphor comes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” The quote expresses a metaphor because the world is not literally a stage, but Shakespeare used points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an idea about the mechanics of human experience and the behavior of people. We understand his meaning without a long dissertation of specific examples of human drama. Our minds fill in details from our own experience, making the point more effectively. We realize that we are all playing roles according to our natures.
As the planets travel on their orbits around the Sun, they journey through the environment of different zodiac signs that can be like visiting foreign countries. Some signs seem to speak the same “language” and are more energetically compatible and familiar, while others may be difficult to understand, or even hostile. Interactions with other planets along the way can be friendly encounters or clashes of personalities. The combinations of planetary energies and signs, along with the interactions of the planets themselves, create a constantly shifting and changing mix of energies.
Some writers believe that astrology is universal in nature and is a revealed discipline—a body of vastly ancient knowledge that was taught by some advanced soul in ages past. There are similarities between facets of astrology and the Hindu Vedic system of healing and alchemy. Perhaps the very nature of reality is somehow encoded in the mechanism and the symbolism. But for now, how it works is still a mystery. We can wonder if astrology would work in a similar way on other worlds that orbit other stars. Might beings on those worlds still use the harmony of twelve to measure the apparent course of their star if their “year” was more or less than 360 days? Might they have ten signs rather than twelve? Perhaps their planets have different personalities?
Astrology is a fabulous gift, which the ancients bequeathed to us as a way to understand the dynamics of the drama of our solar system. Whatever the origin of this interpretive narrative, and however the stories have grown with the telling, the mechanism has stood the test of time. Astrology continues to serve as a potent device to decode the influences of the signs and planets. In our time of more advanced scientific discovery and psychological language, perhaps some mythically inclined astrologer might search for a way to update the characters and stories for a modern audience.
CAPTION: A 1660 chart from the Andreas Cellarius Harmonia Macrocosmica, shows zodiac and the solar system with the Earth at the center.