Excerpt from my book Horary Astrology – Your Ultimate Horary Textbook with 124 Example Cases (available on Amazon)
Early “stargazers” (they could also be called ancient astronomers/astrologers since both fields of research were once inextricably linked) studied the skies for purely practical reasons. In order to organize their daily lives, our ancestors had to create a calendar that told them when the seasons would change, and when they could expect droughts, rains, floods, and other weather changes. The paths of the “moving stars” (the Sun, the Moon, and the visible planets) and the positions of seemingly immovable stars were dutifully traced through millennia, and the space behind them was divided into segments. Both the number and the size of those segments differed from continent to continent and from country to country, as each part of the world developed its own, unique astronomy. The Sumerians and later Babylonians or the Chaldeans (the beginners of our, western astrology) who lived in the territory of today’s Iraq between 2000 and 500 BC, grouped the stars in all visible firmament into 17 (or 18 – due to scarcity of sources, opinions are divided) uneven segments or “constellations”. The formation of constellations focused primarily on the areas that were occupied by the “moving stars” (the Sun, the Moon, and the planets of our solar system). The basis for the classification of constellations and later of the zodiac, invented by the Babylonians, was, as with other cosmological traditions, the ecliptic – the apparent annual path of the Sun around the Earth. The number of the ecliptic constellations decreased over time; only 13 remained, of which 12 are “zodiacal” – meaning that they bear the same names as the 12-fold division of ecliptic which we term “zodiac”. But throughout the ages, with the advance of astronomy, the number of “off-the-ecliptic” constellations gradually increased. In his book, Mathematica Syntaxis (later Almagest), the famous Greek astronomer/astrologer Ptolemy from the 2nd century AD, lists 48 constellations, including no less than 1022 stars. In later centuries, new constellations were added, and today there are 88. The constellations visible from the southern hemisphere were formed and named last, of course, as our ancestors in the northern hemisphere could not see them.
But the historians say that Babylonians, the founders of western astrology, whose records on the collections of stars were found on a pair of clay tablets (called MUL.APIN, likely compiled around 1000 BC), decided to divide all constellations (uneven groups of stars) into 12 equal parts – nowadays known as zodiacal signs. This supposedly happened in the early part of the first millennium BC. Why 12? Why did they leave out Ophiuchus, for example, which was then already categorized as a constellation? Or any other constellation that lies in the background of the Sun? The answer is simple – they needed 12 signs for timing purposes because the natural yearly cycle is composed of 12 lunations. Their reasons were the same as ours – we “need” exactly 12 months to make up a year! We have 12 synodic lunar months in a year (a synodic month being the time that elapses from one New Moon to another – 29.5 days) whereas the number of sidereal lunar months (one Moon’s orbit around the Earth – 27 days) is between 12 and 13, and this is probably the reason why the number of all zodiacal constellations was initially reduced to 13, not to 12. Anyway, I hope you now understand that the 12 zodiacal constellations have practically nothing to do with the stars, but only with the natural Sun/Earth/Moon cycles. Some 2000 years ago, astronomers/astrologers started to differentiate between constellations and signs, understanding that the first was spatial while the latter was a time category. Alas, they still share the same names, and it’s important that we understand the origin of their names. So, how were the names of the constellations/signs chosen? The ignorant think that the ancient “stargazers” actually looked at the stars and star groups, and saw in them the shapes of animate and inanimate objects after which they were named (for example leo, the scales, scorpio, etc.). But such thinking is wrong, of course. If we didn’t know the constellations’ names today, we’d have to stare into them, even with all our modern telescopic equipment, until our eyes fell out – and we still wouldn’t recognize the crab, goat, a pair of fish, and so on.
The truth is that the names of the constellations themselves should tell us that their origins are to be sought on Earth, not in the sky! The only star that has anything to do with the constellations’ names is our Sun. These names are living proof that the ancient astrologers chose them in accordance with the particular developments in nature in every month that they chose to associate with a particular animal or object. For each month when the Sun passed through a certain section of the sky, they sought out the name of an animal (or object) that they deemed the most appropriate – from the point of view of life on earth, not of the figures in the sky! I will describe these periods and corresponding descriptions very briefly and simply because I want to make you familiar with the ancient “symbolism” based on the observation of natural, astronomical cycles. The naming and fixing of the signs’ borders (cusps) were carried out in several phases, by a process that is practically impossible to summarize in a few sentences. We should know, though, that the Babylonians began to use the zodiac as a time belt, divided into 12 equal parts, between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, although the beginnings (zero degrees) of the four “cardinal” signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn) were back then not yet equated with the beginnings of the four seasons, as they are today and as they already were in the first centuries AD, that is in the period when the signs’ characteristics began to be ascertained and categorized. (Can the “siderealists” read this again, please?)
The earliest part of spring when the weather warms up and days start getting longer than nights when the seeds germinate, the buds sprout and leaves start to grow, was in the eyes of our earliest (known) astrologers associated with a ram – an animal that’s always embodied courage, boldness, self-initiative and independence. And so they decided that the section of the sky that the Sun traversed during that time should be called the Ram/Aries, and they named the group of stars behind that section of the ecliptic by the same name. (Sumerians, predecessors to Babylonians, named it “Field Dweller” or “the Agrarian Worker”, which also alludes to the fact that work on the fields – plowing, sowing, and planting – began at that time of the year.). The second part of the spring, when the plants get stronger by “hungrily” drawing nourishment from the soil, was called the Bull/Taurus – after the vigorous, powerful, sturdy animal which almost incessantly feeds on grass and also symbolizes fertility. The symbolism is appropriate also because the Sun at that time persistently rises over the equator, lengthening the days slowly but surely, as if letting the world know that it is here to stay! The third part of the spring is when the Sun approaches (and reaches) the highest point above the equator (summer solstice), from where it begins to slowly descend to reach the same declination as it had during the rising period. This “duality” might be the reason why that part of the sky was called the Twins/Gemini, although the “official” explanation is that the constellation was so named because of the two big stars Castor and Pollux which shone brightly behind the Sun’s path at that time, and which they called “the celestial twins” due to their proximity to each other. But let us remember that around 1000 BC, the Sun reached the summer solstice at around the middle of the Twins (Gemini) – the fact which perfectly validates the name of the sign. The first summer sign the Crab/Cancer followed – a logical name for the time when the Sun begins to descend from the highest northern declinations (today exactly from the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year). We know that crabs move backward! Then came the Lion/Leo – describing the time of the year when nature is at its fullest and most opulent. Leo is the symbol of excellence, power, pride, and authority, just like the middle part of the summer when trees are full of delicious fruits and nature smells of “wealth”. Next comes the third and last summer sign, Virgo, in the ancient Babylonian scriptures called “furrow”. Of course, the end of the summer calls for the harvesting of the crop! The Virgin which holds a wheatear in her hands is, for this part of the year, definitely a very eloquent symbol.
On the autumn equinox or beginning of autumn, day and night are equal in length – just like perfectly balanced
scales. By this day, the Sun had made half of its yearly cycle since the spring equinox, so the Scales/Libra is a very appropriate name for this “constellation” – but by now we already know that we are speaking of the natural yearly cycle and not of the starry firmament, right? (Again, let us remember that at the autumnal equinox, the sign behind Libra was Virgo about 3000 years ago, but as already said, the signs have become exactly aligned with the beginnings of the astronomical seasons gradually.) Next came Scorpio – a dangerous, poisonous animal that in extreme danger is likely to commit suicide. It symbolically corresponds to mid-autumn when cold, “poisonous” winds start blowing, leaves are falling off and nature is “dying”. Scorpio is inimical to life! Then came Sagittarius, originally a “centaur”, called also “defender” and “soldier”. Just like Gemini which lies opposite to it in the time circle, it’s a double-bodied sign, with its animal back part looking towards Capricorn and its human fore part looking towards Scorpio. (Which is just an unfortunate picturing, if you ask me – the creature should be turned around so that the forepart, with the arrow, would look at Capricorn.) In the course of Sagittarius, the Sun reaches solstice again (the winter one this time), the lowest point in the sky, from whence it starts to rise again, to repeat the course, albeit in the opposite direction. Sagittarius, therefore, is a double-bodied sign for a reason! The creature obviously is a fighter and a traveler. During its first part, there was still some (wild and windy) way to go until the longest night, while during its second part, the new, upward cycle began, comparable to a setting off on a long, “inspirational” journey. Back then, Capricorn which is the first winter sign, started soon after the winter solstice when the night is at its longest and day at its shortest, but from then on, with the ascent of the Sun towards the equator, each day would be longer than the night. The mountain goat (Capricorn) is the animal that can climb highest; this symbolism corresponds to the Sun which from now on has the task to climb all the way to the equator and from there to its highest northern declination (Tropic of Cancer) again. (Note that this animal was once also portrayed as a “goat-fish” – an animal with a goat’s head and a fishtail, probably because this period was rainy.) The Water-Bearer/Aquarius corresponds to mid-winter which used to experience the strongest rainfall in the ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean climates, and the symbolism – a young man pouring water from a large vessel down on Earth, is indeed very clear. When the Sun traverses the segment of the sky called The Fish/Pisces, winter is already taking leave but the earth is soaked with water which enables the dormant seeds to swell and prepare for the coming spring. This sign is double-bodied, too: one fish looks back towards the winter while the other looks forward towards the spring. The equator (today zero degree of the next sign, Aries, back then the point behind Pisces) is an important dividing line.
Therefore, the zodiacal circle is a time category, just like our calendar, but it is a natural, cosmically defined time category. Signs are projected onto space, but they would exist even if there was not a single star in the sky! (Except for our Sun, of course, which is the star of our solar system and the actual reason for the existence of the zodiac.) Al- though zodiac is defined as a belt of the sky, extending about 8-9 degrees north and south of the ecliptic (to embrace the planets which move above and below the ecliptic – except for Pluto which reaches greater celestial latitudes, but Pluto was not known at the time when the zodiac was formed), it is primarily a time circle. A year is basically divided into four segments (seasons) with each of the four furtherly divided into three so that it forms 12 equal parts, called zodiacal signs. As already said, this is consistent with the twelve lunations or twelve months in the course of a year.
The “purely natural” astrological months begin with New Moons which are among the most important astronomical/astrological markers. The soli-lunar cycle was extremely important for the development of all astronomy and astrology. For example, in Chinese cosmology, the astrological year always begins with the first New Moon in Aquarius. There is also the opinion that the Babylonians defined their original constellations by the Moon and not by the Sun, since they could not observe distant stars during the day. But with the progress of time, the zodiacal circle was formed by the more predictable and steady movement of the Sun. This is how our current tropical sign borders were established.
The zodiacal year doesn’t begin on January 1, like the calendrical year, of course. It actually doesn’t start any- where, since it’s a circle having no beginning and no end. But the four Sun’s turning points – 2 solstices and 2 equinoxes – are important boundaries, and the astrological (zodiacal) year is often considered to begin with Aries which starts at the spring equinox on (or about) March 21.
As already said, when the Chaldean zodiac was invented, the four cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn) did not yet start on the Sun’s turning points. Around 1700 BC, zero Aries (spring equinox) was approximately in the middle of the constellation (or the “then” sign) Aries. Later on, zero Aries drew nearer to the equinoctial point until this was finally defined as the beginning of the sign in the Ptolemaic era when constellations and signs were roughly covering the same space and the Greek astrologers aligned the beginnings of the four cardinal signs with the Sun’s turning points. Ptolemy’s definition of zodiacal signs was postulated in his Tetrabiblos, written in the 2nd century AD. At that time astronomy was already developed to the degree that the precession of the equinoxes was a known and accepted fact.
So, what is precession? The Earth does not rotate only around its axis, but the axis itself revolves slowly so that it makes a whole circle in 26 thousand years. (think of a peg-top, that’ll give you the idea.) The consequence of this slow circular movement of the Earth’s axis is that the equinoctial points (the points at which the Sun crosses the celestial equator and are the basis for the measurement of the natural year) slowly move backward through the “fixed” firmament, with that motion being opposite to the motion of the Sun along the ecliptic. As the equinoctial points move backward, the stars (measured in the ecliptic system) move forward, by 51 seconds of arc per year which is 1 degree in 72 years. This is called the precession of the equinoxes or the backward shift of the equinoctial points. The logical consequence is that the entire constellations slowly move forward, by about 30 degrees in 2000 years. This is the reason why constellations are not aligned with the signs – nor are they supposed to be and they were never supposed to be. They were (approximately) aligned when the zodiac came into existence, but astrologers started to recognize and formulate the qualities and innate natures of zodiacal signs after the 4 cardinal signs’ cusps had been aligned with the 4 turning points of the Sun. Before that time, signs were a 12-fold division of space and time, serving orientation purposes only/mainly. All astrology, related to sign meanings, was developed later.
Precession was discovered by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC. Ptolemy who lived in the 2nd century AD, of course, knew all about it, but because he could distinguish between constellations and zodiacal signs, he defined zodiac as “tropical” – related to the ecliptic (Sun’s path). There is another kind of zodiac, called “sidereal”; this developed within the Vedic astrological tradition (Jyotish) and remains bound to constellations. It is therefore immovable – unlike ours, which, due to the precession of the equinoxes, is a movable one. In other words, while our zodiac begins with the spring equinox, the sidereal zodiac starts at a point that is distanced from the equinox by the length of “ayanamsa” which is currently approximately 24° so that each of the 360 degrees of our zodiac is 24° ahead of each degree in the sidereal zodiac. (When, say, the Sun in our zodiac is at 27° Aries, it is at 3° Aries in the sidereal zodiac.)
We should be aware that Indian astrology has developed separately from ours and that the sidereal zodiac has nothing to do with the classical tropical zodiac that has evolved entirely apart from the “constellational signs” by the ancient Greeks, Persians, and others who built upon Babylonian astrology. Our zodiac is a time circle that would exist without a single star in the sky – except for the Sun which defines it.
Initially, astrologers deduced the basic “qualities” of individual signs from the quality of the seasons and their constituent parts (individual months), as described in chapter THE YEARLY RHYTHM (see p. 35). Later on, that simple body of knowledge was developed and built upon by the Babylonian planetary exaltations and sign triplicities, whereas Greeks added sign rulers, elements, and qualities. The psychology of zodiacal signs did not fully develop until the 19th and 20th centuries; during the development of horary astrology the psychology was still in its beginnings, yet it was already sufficiently thorough and clear to form an important element of judgment.
What about constellations and stars? Is there a link between them and zodiacal signs? As already said, the ancient astronomers/astrologers diligently recorded the positions of individual stars and placed them into the “head, heart, neck, left shoulder, right knee, tail” etc. of certain constellations. But this was done AFTER the constellations/signs had been named, following the above-mentioned criteria (Sun’s path, seasonal activities, etc.). The stars were grouped into meaningful forms (and their parts) for purely practical reasons, just so that the ancient “stargazers” could orientate themselves in time and space. Because in those ancient times perception of reality was probably quite different from today’s, it’s even possible that they thought that gods arranged the stars so that they could recognize in them the forms of animals and objects, but this was most probably done after they had named them, and certainly did not affect their astrological insights which were arrived at by observation. As for the influence of individual stars, they were also inferred from the events in nature at the time when one or the other star was rising, setting, or culminating – in the same way as they recognized the mode of action of the “moving stars”, that is, the visible planets of our solar system. Western astrologers make use of several fixed stars, but independently of zodiacal signs.
Zodiacal signs play a less important role in horary astrology than in modern, psychologically-oriented natal astrology, but the understanding of how the ascendant, the Sun, the Moon, and the planets express themselves in different signs, is essential to the understanding and interpretation of a horary chart. More on that in chapter ESSENTIAL DIGNITY (see p. 89). Let us now briefly look at the factors that are the basis for determining the qualities and characteristics of each sign.