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About Zodiacs & Astrology (Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Chinese)
The Zodiac probably provides the first "months" of history, at least the oldest still known, although they are not based on the moon. The trail leads via Babylonia and back to Sumer, one of the two oldest civilisations known. Many call them "the oldest", but in my opinion Egypt is another strong candidate. It is also clear that the knowledge of astronomy and astrology, which were one and the same subject in the past, was much more advanced in Egypt than what is commonly believed.
Original Egyptian astrology, however, was "Decanic", which is an entirely different system than the Babylonian. Although the Egyptians must have known of the Babylonian/Sumerian tradition, they first came to merge into "horoscopic" astrology in Ptolemaic Alexandria, which is quite late in history. The Greeks are sometimes given the honour of having added the concept of birth horoscope, where the position of celestial bodies at birth determined an individual's destiny. I doubt that, however, since, contrary to the commonly held view, the Greeks were not intellectually creative at all. They obtained their knowledge from different sources and transferred it for posterity. If they were at all involved in the development of this "new" astrology, they had certainly snatched it somewhere else. This Alexandrian "horoscopic astrology", however, spread across the West and the Middle East. (The common derivation of the word "horoscope", a term not in general use until the Middle Ages, means "hour watch". Another explanation frequently suggested is that the first part is derived from "Horus"; the zodiacal signs were "the watchers of Horus".)
Ptolemy (in Arabian tradition called Batlaymus), approx. 90–168 AD, played a central role here and might be the reason for the idea that the Greeks invented the birth horoscope. He wrote in Greek, which was the international language of his time, and he was a Roman citizen. Although it is often taken for granted that he was a Greek, his ethnicity is something of an enigma. Much indicates that he was from southern Egypt, and thus a genuine Egyptian. Yet, in the end it is still unclear how much he personally contributed, and to what extent he was just a compiler.
In Egypt, the Dandarah Zodiac has been found in the Hathor Temple at Dandarah. It is circular, which is uncommon for old Egyptian zodiacs, and it may be the form on which later systems of astrology and astronomy were based. Its age is not all that impressive, it is now commonly suggested to be from approximately 50 BC. (This relief can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.) Strictly, it is more like a map of stars than a zodiac, and in many ways it resembles Babylonian more than Egyptian tradition. I suspect it to be an "Egyptianised" version of a Babylonian star map. This does not mean that genuinely Egyptian zodiacs did not exist, but only that we have no knowledge of it. As far as we know, our Zodiac today is descended from the Babylonian, but the Dandarah Zodiac might have been an intermediary. If there were an early cross-fertilisation between Egyptian and Babylonian-Sumerian traditions is impossible to say, but it is probable. Contacts between the old civilisations were quite intense. It is likely that the Egyptians knew about the Zodiac much earlier. If they did not use it, they probably did not need it. But they certainly knew about its constellations. However, there are Egyptian "zodiacs" more recent than the Dandarah Zodiac, which display other signs. This raises the question whether there were earlier zodiacs in Egypt, which have yet to be discovered.
The age of the Zodiac as we know it today is not easy to establish. Attempts have been made, albeit none of them convincing. Names of the constellations can possibly give us a clue if we simulate changes of the sky throughout the ages. We would need to find a pattern where constellations resemble the zodiacal figures at least to some extent. Such a simulation could be done with a computer. On the other hand, we do not know if the constellations have ever looked as we assume from their names, or if the perspective is even terrestrial. Advocates of ancient-astronauts theories might very well suggest that the Ram, Bull, Twins, Crab, Lion, Virgin, Scales, Scorpion, Archer, Sea-Goat, Water Bearer, and Fish were once seen from an extraterrestrial perspective. Or perhaps we've got it all wrong?
I consider it likely that the constellations have never had a logical connection between appearance and denotation, but that some deeper symbolism, lost for humanity early in history, was the basis for their naming; a symbolism based on a mind-set totally alien to us today. I am not saying that the mystery cannot be penetrated, but I think that doing so requires an approach free from all forms of prejudice.
This, of course, not only holds for the constellations of the Zodiac, but also for several others whose names go back into the dawn of history; such as Ursus Major (The Great Bear), and Canis Major (The Great Dog). Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the meanings of names have remained intact throughout history and through several steps of translation.
This is the present Zodiac as most of us know it. The dates are given according to the Ptolemaic Tropical Zodiac, the one commonly referred to. In English, the Zodiacal constellations are known by their Latin names.
1. Aries, 20 March – 20 April
2. Taurus, 20 April – 21 May
3. Gemini, 21 May – 21 June
4. Cancer, 21 June – 22 July
5. Leo, 22 July – 23 August
6. Virgo, 23 August – 23 September
7. Libra, 23 September – 23 October
8. Scorpio, 23 October – 22 November
9. Sagittarius, 22 November – 22 December
10. Capricorn, 22 December – 20 January
11. Aquarius, 20 January – 18 February
12. Pisces, 18 February – 20 March
There is a 13th constellation of the Zodiac, Serpentarius, or Ophiuchus, the "Serpent-holder". However it is not used in astrology and therefore less known.
Indian (Jyotish, Vedic) and also some Western astrologers work with a Sidereal Zodiac. It contains the same signs, but the dates are different. Simply put, tropical astrology places Earth in relation to the solar system while sidereal places it in relation to the visible stars. It is a difference in perspective.
Indian astrology is complicated and very scientific. Based on Vedic sources, it is also influenced by the Egyptian-Babylonian tradition, yet not to an extent which would remove its specific Indian character.
The 12 animals below, constitute the Chinese Zodiac. They are of profound importance for the Chinese calendar and astrology, while it has nothing to do with astronomy. (In the case of astronomy, the zodiacal area is covered by 28 "Mansions", a concept based on traditional Chinese constellations being different; they have grouped the stars in a different way. But that is beyond the scope of this essay.)
The Chinese Zodiac consists of:
1. zi (rat)
2. chou (ox)
3. yin (tiger)
4. mao (hare, rabbit)
5. chen (dragon)
6. si (snake)
7. wu (horse)
8. wei (sheep)
9. shen (monkey)
10. you (rooster)
11. xu (dog)
12. hai (pig)
One sign for each Chinese Lunar year during a 12-year cycle.
This is made to a 60-year cycle, by combining the animals' "earthly branches" with 10 "celestial terms" according to certain principles.
Astrology, however, also knows inner animals, at a monthly rotational cycle, just as the common "western" zodiac. In addition to that, there are "secret animals", the same cycle repeated on a "shichen" basis (increments of 2 hours, dividing a day in 12 parts). So what you are is determined by the year, the month, and the "shichen" you were born in. Thus you might be, for instance, a Tiger, but internally a Dog, and secretly a Snake. Likewise, the days can be represented by the animals, then in a 60-day cycle. Astrology also pays attention to yin and yang and other concepts of Chinese philosophy, such as the five elements earth, water, metal, wood, and fire.
There is a special calendric addition for agricultural use called the "solar terms" [jieqi]. They are not based on lunar months, but on 24 yearly periods, "solar terms", with one of the zodiacal animals representing each pair of "terms". These are markers which compensate for the calendar's otherwise missing correlation with the solar year and agricultural seasons.
The origin of Chinese astrology is lost in the mists of history. Whether it was in any way influenced by alien systems is hard to say. The Indian system seems to be the most likely, but it is not apparent. However, influences from the other direction, from China to India, have taken place.
Except for features shared by all lunisolar calendars, the Chinese one stands apart; and the Zodiac too is different in at least one major point: it is not based on constellations. The Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai Zodiacs are essentially the same as the Chinese, with just minor differences. Huns and other genuine Turk-peoples also based their zodiac and calendar on the Chinese.
It seems as if the Chinese developed their own system, completely separate from the Egyptian-Babylonian. The Indian system is hard to place here, but it is possible that we should talk about an Egyptian-Babylonian-Indian and a Chinese system, or we might consider the Indian one separately. The Chinese system, however, spread in the area surrounding China, and with the many waves of migrating Turks (of which the Huns were the first) when they were driven westwards from the Chinese vicinity. It has been used as far west as in parts of Eastern Europe.
In Alchemy, Mysticism, Symbolism, and Folklore, the Zodiac is linked to concepts of the number twelve, and it is related to number magic. Israel's twelve tribes were sometimes seen as the earthly manifestation of the Zodiac. Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic peoples, Hindus, they have all had twelve great gods in their pantheon. Christianity has twelve Apostles.
In Alchemy, the Zodiac's twelve divisions represented twelve stages in the process of something, material or spiritual, to reach its fulfilment.
The Zodiac was also considered as "the wheel of anxiety"; according to Jakob Bhöme (1575-1624), "elemental wheel of anguish", lit by Vulcan, or "wheel of anxiety of outward nature". The Dualistic Gnostics called it "the dark circle of twelve vices".
Another great wheel was based on how the moon (as opposed to the sun) passed through the Zodiac.
"As the moon passes through the whole of the zodiac in twenty-eight days, the most ancient astrologers assumed that there were twenty-eight stages [...] Within these twenty-eight stages lie many of the secrets of the ancients, miraculously affecting all things beneath the moon."
(Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1486–1535; De occulta philosophia, 1510)
William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) also used a wheel to illustrate his ideas, one of twenty-eight spokes.
"This wheel is every completed movement of thought or life, twenty-eight incarnations, a single incarnation, a single judgement or act of thought." (A Vision, 1925)
(This article is based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo, and in my e-book “Numericon”, 2019.)