The mysteries of the Zodiac
October 23, 1997 -- In western astrology, the year is divided into 12 signs, named after the constellations (groups of stars forming patterns named after the imaginary objects they reminded people of) the sun passed through during its annual Ecliptic:
Aquarius, the Water Bearer, January 20 - February 18
Pisces, the pair of Fishes, February 19 - March 20
Aries, the Ram, March 21 - April 19
Taurus, the Bull, April 20 - May 20
Gemini, the Twins May 21 - June 21
Cancer, the Crab June 22 - July 22
Leo, the Lion July 23 - August 22
Virgo, the Virgin, August 23 - September 22
Libra, the Scales, September 23 - October 22
Scorpio, the Scorpion, October 23 - November 21
Sagittarius, the Centaur or archer, November 22 - December 21, a mythical creature half man and half horse with a bow and arrow.
Capricorn, the sea goat, December 22 - January 19. The sea goat was a mythical creature with the upper body of a goat and the tail of a fish.
Ask a modern-day astronomer what the stars have in store for you and you’re likely to receive short shrift. Yet for most of the millennia that humans have sought to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos, scientists saw no fundamental division between astrology and astronomy: Ptolemy, the Roman astronomer, not only charted the stars but also wrote the earliest surviving astrological textbook, the Tetrabiblos.
The signs of the zodiac assumed their central importance for astrologers hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. A large part of the menagerie of myths associated with the signs originated with ancient Greek stargazers: ‘zodiac’ is Greek for ‘little zoo’. Noticing how the sun, moon and planets appeared to circle the earth, scholars divided the route they traced through the sky into twelve segments, assigning the now-familiar names – Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces – to the constellations of stars they observed in each.
Some received their names from the stars themselves – Gemini, the twins, for example, merely refers to the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. But their significance has always been held to be far greater, for they are believed to channel the cosmic forces embodied by the planets into specific patterns of physical, emotional, and intuitional urges which make up a distinct personality.
Their influences are negative as well as positive: thus Aries is assertive but aggressive, and Gemini is witty but superficial. Scorpio is shrewd and masterful, if sometimes criminal, while Leo’s warm-heartedness can descend into pomposity.
The signs quickly entered the complex webs of Greek and Roman mythology. One tale holds that the stars of Virgo represent Erigone, a legendary figure who hanged herself after her father was killed by drunken shepherds. Taurus may derive from the Babylonian bull sacrificed at New Year to placate the god of thunder and lightning, while Capricorn’s goat-fish symbol is said to evoke the Bablyonian god Ea, ‘the antelope of the seas’, who emerged from the ocean dressed as a fish to impart wisdom to humans.
Later, Christians adapted the legends, equating Virgo with Mary and Pisces with Jesus. The Piscean symbol is the same as that used to direct worshippers to banned Christian meetings in Roman catacombs.
Reliance on the signs of the zodiac was seriously challenged by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and an 1824 law even made astrology an offence in Britain. But the revival of mysticism in the twentieth century has heralded a renaissance for the zodiac, and few people today do not take at least a passing interest in their horoscopes. (Story: Oliver Burkeman)