In everyday parlance, the word myth means little more than fiction. However, properly understood, myth is not fiction at all. Myth may be true, even if it never occurred as an historical event. It is another kind of knowledge such as that we gain through dreams. An understanding of ancient astrology and astronomy requires a receptivity to mythic knowledge. Please note that the videos below are part of a much larger series on YouTube.
Those who follow my articles will know that I have all the time in the world, but not much for dogma. This is one those short pieces that ask about the origin of things. To get to the root of ideas, we could do much worse than study the Creation myths of a given culture. We will find that there is a great deal more in common across cultures than was once believed,
The interpretation of Pisces is, by and large, cliched and vague. This is in no small part due to the modern astrological mis-association with Neptune. This is regrettable and I find that even some traditional astrologers have not been able to shake off all this misinformation off. It ought to be clear that a sign ruled by the Greater Benefic (Jupiter) and exalted in the Lesser Benefic (Venus) must have better qualities than are usually assigned to Pisces.
There has always seemed to be something not quite right about the assumption and teaching that the Fishes are bound together, causing all manner of difficulties, including psychological and spiritual pathology. I recently read comments on Pisces which claimed that the upper fish was Christ and the other, Antichrist. At very least, the bound fish represent conflicting natures
that almost always work against each other, in a never-ending tug of war. Yet the venerable Vettius Valens also tells us that Pisces is “in conflict with itself because one Fish is northern, the other
southern.” (Anthologies, Book I. p.6). In the same paragraph, however, he states that the sign is ” scaley, sinewy, humpbacked [and] leprous. He by no means stops there. He adds “lewd, with some limbs missing” to his description. While admitting the great value of his Anthologies in the study of Classical Astrology, I think most of us are baffled by this and numerous other passages in his work. It doesn’t engender great faith in his views regarding the Sign. One has the sense that he’s actually referring to something else or he chose to write like this to put off casual readers.
Moreover, there is no particular myth that would insist on the binding of the fishes. The Pisces myths most familiar to us are variations on one Greek myth. The essence of all the variations is for all intents and purposes the same.
According to different versions of this legend, either Aphrodite and Eros turn into fish, two fish approach them and swim them away to safety, or they turn into fish AND two other fish take them to safety. Whichever version you prefer, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, the two escape from Typhon, thanks to two fish.
Threatened by Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros either turn into fish or else two fish approach and rescue them. In either case, Aphrodite and her son, Eros are saved by fishes. The Greeks were also familiar with the original Syrian story in which the fish of Pisces assisted at the birth of Ashtarte. The theme of Venus born from the sea foam is most famously portrayed in Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere. In other versions of the myth, Aphrodite and Eros are specifically on the shores of the Nile when Typhon, a chthonic force. tried to take them. This points again to an oriental origin of the story. Zeus is in an eternal struggle with Typhon. Again, this sounds more Oriental than Classical Greek.
Typhon corresponds to a significant extent to Seth, an Egyptian god associated with winds, storms, chaos, evil, darkness, strength, war, conflict. Zeus as a perpetual adversary of Typhon Ra shares many of the attributes of Zeus, such as being credited as the creator of all things. He was also the father of other gods like Zeus. Jupiter is of course now associated with Jupiter, but in this myth, he is primarily Solar.
The name for the constellation that has come down to us as Pisces which comes from the Indo-European root *peisk– ‘Fish’. Derivatives: fish (from Old English fisc, fish). Suffixed form *pisk–i; piscary, piscatorial, Pisces, pisci-, piscina. [Pokorny peisk– 796. Watkins]
As Ovid tells the tale “”Piscis [Pisces], heaven’s horses. They say that you and your brother–for your stars gleam together–ferried two gods on your backs. Once Dione [Aphrodite], in flight from terrible Typhon [Typhoeus]–when Jupiter [Zeus] armed in heaven’s defense–, reached the Euphrates with tiny Cupidos [Eros] in tow and sat by the hem of Palestine’s stream. Poplars and reeds dominated the tops of the banks; willows, too, offered hope of concealment. While she hid, the wood roared with wind. She pales with fear, and believes a hostile band approaches. As she clutched son to breast, she cries : ‘To the rescue, Nymphae (Nymphs), and bring help to two divinities.’ No delay; she leapt. Twin fish went underneath them; for which, you see, the present stars are named. Hence timid Syrians think it wrong to serve up this species; they defile no mouths with fish.” (Fasti 2. 458 ff . Trans. Boyle). There’s not a cord in sight.
The associations of Babylonia, Sumerian, Assyrian, Greek, Persian Indian, Persian, and Greek were highly significant. We are only now realizing the full extent of this exchange, adoption, adaptation and assimilation. The meaning of Pisces actually becomes clearer the further back we go. In doing so, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Ikhthus with an unbreakable cord forever holding it in thrall is probably both apocryphal and misleading.
“There is every reason to believe that the idea of the cord would only have been applied to these stars in the latter half of the 1st millennium when they came to mark the position of the spring equinox. Before this time the two component parts of the cord would have been envisioned as the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris, and Euphrates. The origin of the ‘knot’ that unites the two cords represents the Shat-al-Arab where the two great rivers join together before flowing into the Gulf of Bahrain.” (White, Gavin. Babylonian Star-Lore p 216)
Ancient cultures understood that whatever appeared or happened on the Earth corresponded to the heavens. I have mentioned that the Egyptians referred to the Milky Way as the true Nile. Hindus believe the same of the Ganges. The Tigris and the Euphrates are of up-most importance for creating a fertile land that was home to some of the most ancient civilizations and believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden, variations of which abound in ancient narratives.
The place of the confluence of the two rivers corresponds to the Fishes, with the fixed star at the point of contact. None of the stars in Pisces are particularly bright. but if you know where to look, this star should easy enough to find. The name that has come down to us through Arabic means knot, but the image we usually see of Pisces with two fishes yoked and swimming in different directions is only one interpretation, unfounded in any definitive source. However, if remember that the cord is actually two rivers supporting civilizations and a great variety of agricultural endeavours.
The symbol of the Cosmic Fish is ubiquitous. I personally `find explorations of how such symbols manifest in various cultures, and even more so of those cultures have influence one another. The Fish is recognizable from Babylonian Cosmology, Greek Myth, and symbols in Hindu Metaphysics. From there, we can take a deeper, more informed understanding of the Sign and Constellation of Ikhthus
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot:
The Nativity story is powerfully evocative, even for those who do not profess to be Christian, despite the fact that it is almost or entirely apocryphal. For centuries the festival of Christmas, allegedly marking the birth of the Messiah, has almost seamlessly blending with parallel traditions and folklore, such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees, flying reindeer and gift giving. Few theologians still believe that 25 December is the actual birthday of Jesus. As we will see, literalism is not at home here. The original Christian Nativity narrative is related only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The two remaining canonical Gospel writers don’t mention the Nativity and Paul never refers back to it. The Christ of Paul is Christ Crucified. He shows no real interest in the life of the historical Jesus.
I doubt very much that there could ever be a definitive explanation of The Procession of the Magi which could take all elements and traditions into account. Rather, this is an exploration of the theme as it has expressed itself, even before the Christian narrative. I suggest that the story itself has so much power that it can accommodate, expand and deepen several traditions that coincide in some way with Christmas. It’s as if nature itself anticipates the “return” of the Sun. Yet there are no records, either Jewish or Roman that could confirm or deny the event. Nevertheless, the story endures and is passed on even by people who have little idea of its origin.
Interestingly, Luke makes no mention of the Magi. Surely such an extraordinary event would have been recorded, if only by the other apostles. The meaning or identity of the star they followed
has also given also rise to a great deal of speculation, but no clear evidence has settled the debate. In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (KJV) the apostle writes:
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (KJV) the apostle writes:
2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
The two accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great to a betrothed virgin whose name was Mary.
There are, however, major differences. Matthew has no Census to report, no annunciation to the shepherds or a presentation in the Temple.and has him born in a house there and an unnamed angel appears to Joseph to announce the birth.
In Luke there are no Magi, no flight into Egypt, or Massacre of the Innocents, Joseph is a resident of Nazareth, the birth appears to take place in an inn instead of the family home, and the angel (named as Gabriel) announces the coming birth to Mary.
While it is possible that Matthew’s account might be based on Luke or Luke’s on Matthew, the majority of scholars conclude that the two are independent of each other. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that tale of the Magi may well pre-date Christianity. The inclusion of them adds another dimension and underscores the status of The Prince of Peace.
This is neither plagiarism nor wishful thinking. Those with a familiarity with the Gospel of John and the work of Philo will find them speaking the same language. Philo was a Hellenized Jew and prolific author of a large body of Neo-Platonic thought, set in the context of Judaism. His work On Creation is almost certainly the immediate source of the Logos or Word, which gives us the opening of John’s Gospel.
Philo wrote well before any Christian writing. John appears to be strongly influenced by Philo throughout hos own writings. Christianity and Neo-Platonism have enjoyed a harmonious relationship at the heart of much of Christian theology.
The Persian Magi were philosophers and priests. They were learned and skilled in medicine and natural science, including Astrology. They were prophets, although Christians preferred to use the term “soothsayers.” The Magian religion was Zoroastrianism. Which had greatly informed Judaism, Sorcery was forbidden. They resembled the Brahmans in function and status. Their position and role in society were very much like that of the Druids.
Tradition has it that the Magi arrive at their destination on Epiphany, the final day of what became the Twelve days of Christmas. The Twelve Days is associated with Saturnalia. Twelfth Night is a holiday on January 5 that marks the 12th and final night of the Christmas season. The Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days beginning on the night of Christmas (December 25) and ending on Epiphany on January 6. We can say that among other interpretations, the Epiphany is the recognition of Christ
Moreover, the number twelve has great significance. It’s the number of astrological Signs and the Apostles. It should come as no surprise that in ancient times the Sun was worshiped as a god. If there is no Sun, there is no life. The association of the Sun with life itself became spiritualized, perhaps we should say internalized – a guiding light. We are in fact made of stardust. The Solstice is an astronomical event with major implications for life on Earth.
By the time of the European Renaissance, the Magi are invariably portrayed in the finery one might expect of a courtier. It became common to portray the Magi as representing the three stages of life. In fact what we find over the centuries is a practice of applying ever more meaning, as if projected upon them. This is surely the intent and the effect is to create a Universal story, with clear roots in the Solar Mithraism and Zoroastrianism expressed through Christian mysticism. The favoring of evocation over definition is part of the nexus.
The “three kings” have also been associated with the three bright stars in Orion’s belt. Depending on your point of view, this either confuses or enriches the story. The “Three Kings” illustrated here is part of a much grander design in the “Chapel of the Magi” commissioned by the elder Cosimo and the family has been insinuated into the paintings, creating the sense that the Magi and the Medicis are part of the same story. The artist has included the three sisters of Lorenzo which offers up the idea that the Procession or Adoration of the Magi is a Universal, one in which we all share in one way or another. Our culture will determine the details and some may never understand the mystical significance. It would be a mistake to insist on literalism or historicity.
Similarly, it is not at all out of the question that the Three Kings are related to the Trinity in the Renaissance Magi, but in the sense of one to adore each Person of the Trinity. These kinds of associations were in congruence with the syncretic philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, a Catholic Priest who was also a Magus, translator of the Hermetica and almost all the works of Plato. His magnum opus was his Theologia Platonica. They were also at home in the antiquity of India, Persia, Egypt and other rich cultures who, to a greater or lesser extent, informed each other.
The origin of the word Magi is Persian. They are astrologers and sages. not kings. The star in the East was almost certainly Sirius. The coincidence with the Winter Solstice is no accident. What we have is a Solar festival, but also a mystical vision. The Epiphany and the Procession of the Magi are not just something that happened more than two thousand years ago. If that were the case, the story would have little relevance. They were perhaps not so much following a star as acknowledging and venerating a great light that drew them to an epiphany. We can associate it of course with the Winter Solstice, the longest night followed by the waxing of the light. The Yule log, the lighting of candles and merry-making seem to fit seamlessly into the story.
In Polish tradition, the “star of Bethlehem” is the first star seen to rise on Christmas Eve. Gwiazdka is a symbol of the “Star of Bethlehem, whose appearance was accompanied by the birth of Jesus. Thanks to the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi could reach the place of birth of the Savior. Today, we expect the first star, which appears in the Christmas sky during Christmas Eve (Wigilia). Only after it shines, Poles sit at the table, divide the wafer and exchange Christmas greetings.” ( see Polish Toledo) The spirit of Christmas takes precedence over identifying a particular star. Literalism misses the point.
The Epiphany and the Procession of the Magi are not just something that happened more than two thousand years ago. If that were the case, the story would have little relevance. They were not so much following a star as seeing a great light that drew them to an epiphany. We can read the event as a Solar pilgrimage and celebration that includes a rich tapestry of related traditions, with sources reaching back to remote antiquity.
Ficino is most eloquent on this point: that the Magi were embraced in the same way that the Academy of Florence had embraced Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras and of course, Plato. Ficino accepted that all these sages had drunk from the same well of the prisca thelogia. He often referred to the Nativity in his writings, particularly in his letters and in the Apologia. He had a life-long fascination with the Magi.
Just as the Zoroastrian is not worshipping fire. The flame is an outer manifestation of an inner state of being. We are drawn to the light in many ways and in many vessels.
In Part II of this article, I will examine the astronomy and astrology of the event as seen from 7BC.
(This article was originally published December 21, 2016)
What I have to say here is not limited to Judaism by any means, but there are key concepts and beliefs within the religion that are helpful in explaining the often awkward relationship between astrology and particularly monotheistic religions.
The term mazel tov is usually regarded as a Jewish phrase expressing congratulations or wishing someone good luck. It’s more complex than that, though. Mazel is fate, in the sense of G_d working through the constellations. This the essence of the doctrine that the stars impel, they do not compel.In this respect the Jewish and Islamic view is the same.
There are of course many forms of astrology and they are not all viewed in the same way. Some off the main forms of astrology are Mundane and all forms off Predictive Astrology, including Horary. These seek to see into the future, in one way or another : to predict a political win, a war, the establishment of a new kind of order and so on. in Horary, the question isn’t always about the future. It could be a question such as ‘where are my keys’? or ‘does that girl like me?’ Since the means of prognostication have to do with the interactions of energies. Is this really so different rom a doctor listening to your pulse? I don’t say there are no differences. I only suggest that the line is more difficult to draw than is often assumed.
The second group consists of Nativities, Medical Astrology and Electional Astrology. The first is what everyone calls a birth chart that describes the nature o the person, showing strength, weaknesses with an aim to help the person or her parents to help create the best environment and tools. This is actually less predictive than a weather forecast. The goal is to understand and help.
Medical Astrology is perhaps the most useful of all forms. It not only provides us with what we need to know about the person’s humours and temperament. We will find out what kinds of healing are likely to work best for this person and also gives us reliable information as to which kinds of diseases the native will most likely encounter. Hippocrates said “He who does not understand astrology is not a doctor but a fool.”
Electional astrology in essence is not a great deal different from consulting the Farmer’s Almanac, although considerably more refined.. To find the best time to do something, we choose a moment that is most propitious for the given purpose. This actually the same in spirit as planting by the Moon. It will of course be specialized for the person who asks when something might be done. Again, this is a means of helping others and doesn’t contradict the Jewish and Islamic prohibitions, or would not if understood.
So in reality, there are few out and out predictions made by anyone, not because it’s wrong or doesn’t work, but because it’s only used when needed, It is a false idea turned dogma that the stars are the means by which Divine Will, or Great Spirit, speak to us. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds.of kinds of divination but astrology has stood the test of time for several millennia
It’s a rare event to find a Rabbi discussing these issues and I commend him for doing so.
It is always a daunting task to interpret the subtleties of Marsilo Ficino’s thought. Not only was he brilliant in an age of brilliance, his interests were as deep as they were impressive in their broad compass. He was ever attempting to reconcile different religions and philosophies in search of the Prisca Theologia. His massive translation projects put him at the vanguard of Italian Renaissance endeavours. His syncretic Ne0-Platanism was at the root of his intellectual pursuits, which gives us one key to systems. However, no matter how prepared, I shall no doubt raise more questions than provide solutions. If nothing else, it is my hope that this short study might lead to fruitful discussions.
His father was a well-respected physician in Florence. When Cosimo de Medici met Marsilio he said “Cosimo, perceiving the genius of the young man and recognizing in him the extraordinary desire for study which set him afire, re-joiced greatly as if he had now fully understood that, beyond any doubt, this would be the man whom he had long since chosen to shed light on the
philosophy of Plato. And presently summoning Ficino, he exhorted him to take especial care over Marsilio’s studies so that he should not go against his natural disposition. He said that there was no reason to take account of domestic hardship, for he would never neglect him in any matter but would supply everything most generously. ‘You, Ficino,’ he said, ‘have been sent to us to heal bodies, but your Marsilio here has been sent down from heaven to heal souls.’ The Life of Marsilio Ficino by Giovanni Corsi p.6
However, Marsilio was also a skilled physician. With the combined knowledge of medicine and astrology, he was also a magus, philosopher and musician. He certainly knew his way around the complexity of a human being from the points of view of body, mind and soul.
To know anything much about Ficino at all is to know of his life-long project of finding ways to minimise the deleterious effects of Saturn. He was passionate about it. He refers to its influence on himself as the great burden of a Melancholy Humour, otherwise known as an excess of black bile. Ficino was certainly among the brilliant minds of his age and has a reputation of having been a competent astrologer. He certainly knew the humoral system, probably as well as any physician of the time. However, we have Ficino’s birth chart and his comments upon it and they may well give us pause,
He certainly knew the humoral system, probably as well as any physician of the time. However, we have Ficino’s birth chart as well as his comments upon it. Ficino makes numerous comments on his severe Melancholy, but the most succinct passage, dealing with both his chart and humours is as follows in a letter to Giovanni Cavalcanti he writes “Saturn seems to have impressed the seal of melancholy on me from the beginning; set, as he is, almost in the midst of my ascendant in Aquarius, he is influenced by Mars, also in Aquarius, and the Moon in Capricorn. He is in square aspect to the Sun and Mercury in Scorpio, which occupy the ninth house. But Venus in Libra and Jupiter in Cancer have, perhaps, offered some resistance to this melancholy nature.”Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, [Florence 1489] 1989, p. 20
Further in a letter to Rinaldo Orsini, archbishop on Florence, he wrote “Venus subdues Mars and Jupiter Saturn. Letters Vol II. p.15
It was an odd comment to make to Cavalacanti because Ficino didn’t have the salubrious Venus in Libra or Jupiter in Cancer in his horoscope. Venus is instead in Virgo and Jupiter in Leo. This isn’t a minor error. His horoscope would have to have been in the previous year to have the Jupiter he cites. Of course, if Ficino had said or meant that his chart would be better with the impossible planets, we can write this off as an error in communication. No other plausible option occurs to me.
I have no way of guaranteeing the provenance of the chart above but it does closely match his own comments on it. The green planets have been added by an astrologer, noting the disparities between the original, using modern software and Regiomontanus houses, If however we use Porphyry houses the resulting chart is almost identical to the one he describes, with the exception of the impossible positions of the greater and lesser Benefics.
We have seen that Ficino notes that Jupiter in Cancer would have helped the situation, but if Jupiter were at that degree in Cancer, it would set the chart back one year while leaving everything more or less as is..
Instead, Jupiter is very much in Leo It isn’t easy to understand why Ficino would wish that Jupiter were in another sign, because Plato’s horoscope has the same first / seventh house axis in Aquarius and Leo. It is evident that Ficino admired Plato in the highest degree. I think at times the identity of Plato and Ficino got blurred. Further, we can argue that Ficino knew what he was doing, He certainly had extraordinarily wealthy and generous patrons and friends to remind him of the Royal throne of Jupiter.
In Book Six of his Mathesis, the fourth century CE Roman astrologer, Julius Firmicus Maternus, gives the following account of the natal chart of Plato, the fifth century BCE Athenian philosopher:
If the ascendant is in Aquarius, and Mars, Mercury, and Venus are in conjunction in that degree; Jupiter is on the descendant in Leo; the Sun is on the anafora of the ascendant in Pisces; the Moon is in the fifth house in Gemini, in trine to the ascendant; and Saturn is in the ninth house in Libra-this chart produces an interpreter of divine and celestial matters. He possesses a combination of learned speech and divine intelligence and is trained by some kind of heavenly power to give true expression to all secrets of divinity. This chart is said to have been that of Plato. (Mathesis VI.XXX.24)
Whether or not Plato shared what Ficino considered salient similarities with respect to his own horoscope, Ficino found his own to be problematic because as he stated “Saturn seems to have impressed the seal of melancholy on [him] from the beginning;” His references to this excess of black bile, which he sometimes refers to as scholarly melancholy are ubiquitous. It’s virtually impossible to think of Ficino without recalling his Melancholy humour.
In spite of the challenges in the horoscope, the philosopher has Sun and Mercury in the 9th House disposited by Mars in his sign of Exaltation.
However using traditional methods of determining humor from the horoscope, we see immediately that he actually has more of the Sanguine and Choleric Humour. Sanguine is warm and wet, Melancholic is cold and dry.
So what happened? Did he perhaps feel the leaden weight of Saturn and conclude, considering also the exact Saturnine ascendant, the with the Moon and Mars disposited by Saturn.
At first glance, it appears that his humour is far more balanced than he suggests, with Melancholy taking no more than 16.67% Sanguine shares dominance with Choleric and Phlegmatic takes the same as Melancholy. if we use the classical systems available to us, which take the sign. phase and many other elements into account. If he ignored the Oriental or Occidental significators, he would deduce a Humour that is about 50%. of the Melancholy Humour. This still means the dominant Humour is Melancholy. However, it matters how the black bile is produced. His biographer tells us:
His bodily constitution contained excessive blood which was mixed with a thin subtle red bile. His health was not at all settled, for he suffered very much from a weakness of the stomach, and although he always appeared cheerful and festive in company, yet it was thought that he sat long in solitude and became as if numb with melancholy. This came about either from black bile produced by the excessive burning of bile through continual night study, or, as he himself said, from Saturn, which at his birth was in the ascendant in Aquarius and nearly square to Mars in Scorpio. The Life of Marsilio Ficino by Giovanni Corsi p.46
If we take the considerations or Oriental and Occidental we would have the possibility of “excess blood with thin subtle red bile.” The other calculation renders no Choleric. This is a degree of sophistication that goes far beyond the usual calculations. What Ficino is saying is that how we live affects the expression of our humours. Humours can be altered in the process or their interaction with each other. His penchant for describing his own condition as scholarly melancholy takes on another level of meaning.
There will be a Part II, mostly to tie up one or two loose ends and to discuss his various remedies, including his use of sympathetic magic.
If you’ve ever been to a planetarium, the chances are the presenter took ten minutes or so to heap scorn on the ignorant ancients who must have been smoking and drinking powerful drugs in order to see things like goats or virgins in the night sky. This is usually intended as the first blow against the “completely unfounded” science of astrology. The intended knock out punch is the reference to the Precession of the Equinox which means those Sun Sign columns in the tabloids offer a contrived system that ignores precession.
The idea is very simple and easy to grasp. The sign that was rising at the Vernal Equinox has moved back almost one whole sign since their alignment. This means that what are called Sun Sign Geminis are actually Taurus – except of course they are not. Our astrology is seasonal in its basis, just as it was for the ancients. The critics of the zodiac based on Precession are missing the point. Nevertheless, this is lost on astronomers. For them, these things are conclusive proof that astrology and its adherents are delusional and primitive minded. The irony of being called “primitive minded” has not been missed; nevertheless who can blame them for their views in the absence of coherent apologetics?
Authentic astrologers would agree on pretty much all counts, but come to a very different conclusion. I’m not aware of a true astrologer who isn’t well aware of the phenomenon of the Precession. I would be the first to agree that the appearance of constellations has precious little, if anything, to do with their names. This is where things become really interesting and is the reason I chose the word “primordial” as part of the title advisedly.This is the first in an intended series of articles on this theme. This first part can be little more than a sketch. It serves as an introduction.
It has become all but impossible for many to view a clear a night sky with little or no light pollution. It cannot be overstated that this has changed us to a very large extent. It is now common to find people who cannot identify a single constellation or star. Anyone in or close to large city see almost no stars or perhaps none at all. The best viewing experience I’ve had was in a desert area of British Columbia, on a small mountain away from any artificial light and no Moon. At first, the brilliance of countless stars are such that it is difficult to find constellations amongst them until the eyes get used to it. The simple connecting of dots yields little or nothing, In the Middle East, particularly under very arid conditions, it is said that one feels that one may reach out and touch the stars. They seemed very close indeed and quite obviously significant.
I would like to take some stars and constellations as examples, questioning the asterisms and looking to alternate, more ancient ways of relating to the heavens.
Antares is a bright orange star, It is among the clearest stars and easy to find if the skies are clear and you know where to look. It is in the centre of the neighbourhood of Scorpio and, with our preconceived conception of the Scorpion, we join the dots.
That’s how its supposed to work, but the image below showing Scorpius, probably as clearly as it can viewed almost anywhere, doesn’t particularly look like a Scorpion. It could just as easily be an angel, a rabbit, a buffalo or a river. Both photos are included here with the kind permission of David Malin.
Here is the same section of the sky with constellation lines drawn in. Drawing the ecliptic further helps to provide orientation.
Even with the lines drawn, it still takes a great deal of imagination to see the constellation as a scorpion rather than anything else. Unfortunately for the scathing astronomer at the planetarium, that is simply not how the constellations came to be, The situation is of course compounded by the simple fact that different cultures give different names to the same asterisms. Strictly speaking, there are no constellations until we decide that a given asterism has boundaries and significance and visa versa – One might say a constellation is a projection of an archetype.
Gavin White has produced three illuminating works on ancient Babylonian star lore that challenge later interpretations.. I have consulted Babylonian Star-Lore : an Illustrated Guide to the Star-Lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia (2008) and his The Queen of Heaven I have also consulted The Heavenly Writing by Francesca Rochberg, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Gardner and Maier 1984 ed.) Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983 The Babylonians (HWH Saggs ] Cambridge UP) and The British Museum.
White tells us that: “In astrology the Scorpion’s armoured body segments and its array of weaponry predisposed it to become a creature symbolizing war and the martial prowess of the king. However a different meaning is attached to it in mythic texts such as the Gilgamesh Epic where Scorpion-men and women guard the sacred mountain through which the hero has traverse on his quest for immortality. The Scorpion-people are said to guard the sun at his rising and setting and because Gilgamesh is a favourite of the sun god they allow him to travel the subterranean path that the sun travels every night under the mountain.” (all references to Gavin White’s The Queen of Heaven A New Interpretation of the Goddess in Ancient Near Eastern Art’ by Gavin White can be found on the publisher’s web site).
However, the form of the Scorpion People of the Sumerian and Babylonian constellation is utterly morphed. “The Scorpion People were powerful servants of the sun god Utu (Shamash). They had a human head, arms and torso but were bird-like below the waist (sometimes with human legs, sometimes bird) and a scorpion’s tail. The people of Mesopotamia invoked the Scorpion People as figures of powerful protection against evil and the forces of chaos. In The Epic of Gilgamesh the Scorpion couple, Scorpion Man and Scorpion Woman, guard the great Gate of the Mountain where the sun rises and are described as `terrifying.” (Gavin White – Queen of Heaven.)
The most easily recognized constellations in the Northern Hemisphere are the Circumpolar Ursa Minor and Ursa Major followed by Orion, mostly because of the several brilliant stars, including Betelgeuse, Rigel and Bellatrix. However none of these are part of the zodiac. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been highly significant in different cultures throughout history,
The constellations have two primary points of reference. The first is particularly referring to the circumpolar stars. The second which has the most immediate importance is the temporal. This is a simple case of a season matching an asterism which is then circumscribed and named. So for example, Aquarius the Water Bearer rose during the rainy season of late winter and early Spring. But Pisces is now in that temporal place, while Aquarius is rising in the cold but dry season. And how, we may well ask, does Pisces represent either late winter or early spring. What do fish have to do with the season? It takes an exceedingly vivid and guided imagination to translate the asterism to embody two fishes tied together and pulling in different directions for eternity. The same is true of most of the zodiacal asterisms.
However, when we look to Pisces as a temporal reference, the time of year of great floods, other significance can be found. Like Anunitum, the Fish symbolizes the season of flooding, which commences in the early spring. “Like other creatures of the Abyss, fish were thought to be symbols of wisdom and were accordingly held sacred to Enki, the god of creative intelligence, incantations and magic.” (QoH) The cord is indicative of the two rivers flowing into the sea. This isn’t how Pisces is represented today and before the end of the epoch prior to 500 B.C. much, but by no means all, had already been lost.
Of course some zodia are deceptively simple. They make sense due to the Season in the Northern Hemisphere; Leo is probably as good an example as any. The Lion has been seen by cultures everywhere as the “king of the beasts” courageous and Solar – why not reign in the hottest and driest part of the year,
White tells us: “Lion (Leo) The Lion has two main strands of symbolism. Firstly as a seasonal star it represents the ferocious heat of summer – its radiant mane stands for the overbearing radiance of the summer sun. Secondly, as the sacred beast of the war goddess Inanna-Ishtar, the Lion represents victory and war. The bright star at its breast (our Regulus) is known as the King Star – here representing the favourite of the goddess to whom she grants victory.” (QoN)
Our knowledge of Ancient History is poor, but great progress has been made even in the last two decades. It has become increasingly apparent that our classical Greek and Roman archetypes are in most cases pale shadows of their original significance. To get to the heart of the zodiac, we need to go back at least as far as Babylon. Here we find a very different reality where the counterpart of Venus, for example, is the goddess of sexual love, fertility and warfare. The word “pretty” simply doesn’t apply to her. In fact, we have lost most of the archetypal origins of the zodiac and find ourselves trying to make sense of fragments of a powerful, illusive, but clearly profound inheritance.