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Distant Beginnings

How, where, when, did astrology originate? How, where, when, why did man first begin to believe that the Sun, Moon and visible planets influence his character and life, the health of his beasts, the quality of his crops, the weather - indeed, every aspect of life on earth?

The answer must be, almost as soon as he was capable of intelligent thought, for he then realized that the Sun as a source of warmth and light ruled all living things; that with the Moon the tides swelled and sank, that it affected other natural cycles, that it had an effect upon emotional stability. Here was the basis of an astrological theory. Interestingly, some of the earliest astrological artefacts to have survived come from the Middle East where, in about 15,000 BC, the earliest agricultural systems evolved - gardeners have always recognized that there is a difference between the quality of morning and afternoon light, and that the times at which plants are planted, herbs picked, seem to affect their growth and virtue.

On the whole, it must have been man's natural reverence for the magical, strange moving lights in the sky, regarded as gods, that led to the development of astrology. Out of the thick mists that conceal the earliest history of the subject have come down to us a number of cuneiform tablets - brick and stone slabs inscribed with triangular or wedge-shaped characters - recording the very simplest astronomical phenomena: eclipses of the Moon, certain planetary movements, interpreted as predicting famine or war or peace or plenty.

Babylonia during the 18th-17th centuries BC was riddled with superstition, and many omens were used and recorded - the bites of certain animals, dreams, patterns of bird flight, the appearance of new-born babies ('When a woman bears a child with small ears, the house will fall into ruin'), and such eccentricities as the appearance in one's house of a pig with palm fibres in its mouth. Astronomical phenomena were only one aspect of man's attempts to predict the future, but a very widespread one: an interest in the earliest form of astrology was common to several early civilizations, not only in the Middle East, from Anatolia to Persia, but in the Far East and in the Incan, Mayan and Mexican civilizations, where those planets that could be seen by the naked eye - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - were identified as gods with various names and personalities, and where their movements against the background pattern of the stars were regarded as obviously significant.

Astronomer-astrologers slowly acquired more and more knowledge about the planets, and began not only to observe eclipses but the way in which the planets moved - sometimes hesitating, sometimes appearing to move backwards, sometimes seeming to meet each other, then part; as they did so, they elaborated the predictions they based on the movements. Only the roughest forecasts were being made in the time of Ammisaduqa, tenth king of the First Dynasty, in the 17th century BC, but royal libraries of the Assyrian kings at Nineveh, Calah (Nimrud) and Ashur in the 8th-7th centuries BC, and the temple libraries of the chief cities of Babylon, had on their shelves a collection of over 7000 astrological omens recorded on 70 tablets (now known, after the opening words of the first omen, as Enuma Anu Enlil).

The reason why this elaboration of the astrological theory took place in the Middle East rather than, say, among the American Indians of Wisconsin or among the Aztecs, who certainly had an equally keen early interest in the subject, was that the Babylonians were better astronomers and mathematicians; they evolved a calendar, and by 500 BC were already moving towards the invention of the zodiac, that essential element in the personalization of astrology.

The Babylonians puzzled for centuries over the patterns in the night sky before producing a calendar reliable enough to enable them to predict eclipses and to work 'backwards' in order to figure out the celestial events of the past. They seem to have started by simply working out the duration of day and night, then of the rising and setting of the Moon and the appearance and disappearance of Venus. The very earliest calendars date a new month from the first appearance of a new Moon. But the fact that the interval between new Moons is irregular - on average, 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 seconds - meant that it was extremely difficult to devise a calendar in which each month began with the new Moon, but each year began at the spring equinox. (To do so, you have to declare an extra month every two or three years - and even then you will be one and a half days out every eight years.)

The details of early calendars and their evolution are complex; suffice to say that the problem was solved with reasonable accuracy (and, let us remember, without the aid of mechanical clocks) by the Babylonians. Since then, there have been additional complications and evolutions. Julius Caesar had to summon an astronomer from Alexandria to sort out the muddle into which the Roman calendar degenerated, and his Julian calendar eventually fell out of phase by no less than eleven days, so that in 1752 Britain was forced to adopt the Gregorian calendar (established in the rest of Europe by Pope Gregory in 1582), cutting eleven days from the year. At midnight on 2 September came 14 September, and people rioted in the streets because they thought the civil servants were doing them out of eleven days of life.

Once a calendar had been devised, observation and the application of mathematics meant that planetary movements could be predicted. The next step was the invention of the zodiac.

In the first place this was devised as a means of measuring time. It is a circle around which twelve constellations are set, each marking a segment of thirty degrees of the ecliptic, the imaginary path the Sun seems to follow on its journey round the earth. Because that journey takes more or less 365 days, astronomers in Babylon, Egypt and China independently arrived at the idea of dividing the ecliptic into 360 degrees, easily divisible into twelve sections.

The circle, for practical purposes, had to start somewhere. In ancient times it started variously from certain fixed stars - from Aldebaran or the Bull's Eye, for instance, or from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. In modern astrology it starts from the vernal equinox - the point at which the Sun seems to cross the equator from south to north at the spring equinox of the northern hemisphere on 20, 21 or 22 March each year.

But the equinox not only never occurs in the same spot for two years running, but its place slowly seems to rotate around the sky, taking about 28,800 years to complete the circuit (a phenomenon known as Precession of the Equinox). This is because the Earth, as it rotates, wobbles like a top slowing down; the Pole thus describes a circle, moving backwards through the zodiac. Similarly, if the zodiac is measured from a fixed point (say the first degree of Aries), it moves slowly backwards. However, this is the system used by most modern astrologers; it is known as the tropical zodiac. Some astrologers, like the ancients, use the fixed or sidereal zodiac, measured from the stars (not as fixed as all that, however, for it too moves - by one day in every 72 years!).



ARIES hunga













mastabba.galgal (great twins) (lion)

ab.sin (furrow)

zihanitu (horn, later scales) (scorpion)



suhur.mas (goat-fish)



zibbati (tails)


China (equivalent months)

ch'un feAn (vernal equinox) ch'ing ming (clear and bright)

ku yu (grain rains) ii hsia (summer begins)

hsiao man (grain fills) mang chung (grain in ear)

hsia chih (summer solstice) hsaio shu (slight heat)

ta shu (great heat) ii ch'iu (autumn begins)

ch'u shu (limit of heat) pai lu (white dew)

ch'iu feAn (autumn equinox) han lu (cold dew)

shuang chiang (hoar-frost descends)

ii tung (winter begins)

hsiao hsu~eh (little snow) ta hsi'eh (heavy snow)

tung chih (winter solstice) hsiao han (little cold)

ta han (severe cold) ii ch'un (spring begins)

yu shui (rain water) ching chih (excited insects)




Mesha (Ram)

Tauros Vrisha


Didumoi Mithuna




Leon Simha


Parthenos Kanya














Ka rkinos

Zugos (yoke)


Tox otes (archer)

Aigokero~s (goat-horned)

Hydrokhods (water-pot)


Plejades zappu (tuft ofhair)

Ryades (bull ofheaven)

Orion (shepherd ofheaven)

Perseus Sugi (charioteer

Aurige gamlu (scimitar)

Praesepe la.lul (crab?)

southern fish sim.mah (great swallow)

n6rthern fish aninitum (a goddess)

The Precession of the Equinox presents astrologers with a problem. Aldebaran, on 15 degrees of Taurus in ancient times, has now moved forward so that it is on 8 degrees of Gemini, and someone born with the Sun in Taurus centuries ago might well be born in now with the Sun in precisely the same spot relative to the Earth, but be in popular parlance 'a Geminian' rather than 'a Taurean'. Throughout the ages critics have used this as a weapon against astrologers, without realizing that it is only popularly that astrology has anything to do with the constellations, 'the stars' as astrology columnists put it. Astrologers are, with a few exceptions, concerned with the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets within the solar system, describing these in terms of their background. That background may change, but the planets' positions relative to Earth (all that matters) will not.

For some time it was believed that the zodiac as we know it originated in Babylon. More recently, it has become clear that it is the product of Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian astronomy. The Ram, for instance, the symbol of Aries, is of Egyptian origin; Taurus, the Bull, originated in Babylon, where it was called Gud.anna. Leo, the Lion, is Egyptian (in Babylon the same constellation figure was called the Great Dog). Some signs sprang to symbolic life in two countries: the Geminian Twins were the Babylonian Mastabba.galgal, but also very probably the Two Stars of Egypt; and the Crab of Cancer was Babylonian, but also existed as the Egyptian Two Turtles, and later became the Tortoise of Greek and Chinese astrology. The symbols attached to the constellations have a long history: the Bull and Scorpion can be found, signifying spring and autumn, on a stele (commemorative stone) of Nebuchadnezzar I, who reigned during the 12th century BC.

How did the constellations get their names? Clearly, most of them were not instantly recognizable in the pictorial sense. Who could possibly claim that shown the pattern of stars which makes up, say, Taurus, they would automatically connect them into the shape of a bull? On the other hand it seems very possible that Gemini became the sign of the twins because of the bright twin stars in the constellation; Scorpio's pattern does seem to suggest a tail like that of a scorpion; and it seems similarly likely that the pattern of stars in Leo did remind someone of the silhouette of a lion.

Other connectlons arose for other reasons, perhaps agricultural (when the Moon was full in Virgo, for instance, the Babylonians could expect the fruition of the young standing corn), perhaps growing from the dark realms of the collective unconscious; and one or two of the signs may simply have been named as the result of some early astronomer imposing his own pattern upon a constellation for no other reason than that he needed to call it something, and the most memorable way of naming it was to connect it with a myth.

The earliest Babylonian zodiac of which we know had eighteen constellations: ten of the twelve we still use, and in addition the Pleiades, Hyades, Orion, Perseus, Auriga, Praesepe and the southern and northern fish. These are described in the mul.APIN tablets from the royal libraries of Assyria as 'constellations which stand in the path of the Moon, and into the region of which the moons pass monthly, and which they touch.'

As early as about 1000 BC a zodiac of a kind existed, even if not the one we know today. The eighteen-sign zodiac was still in use between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC. We cannot know with any certainty when the twelve-sign zodiac came into being; all we can say is that it did so very slowly and uncertainly, for even as late as the beginning of the Christian era the zodiac as we know it was not settled, although the earliest record we have of its being used for astrological prediction is from the 5th century in Babylon, and the 3rd century in Egypt.

The concept of the Great Year also arose early, and is still with us. The basic idea is that at the beginning of the world all the planets started their journeys from 0 degrees in Aries, and will return to that position -- marking either the end of the world or the coming of the Golden Age, according to whether the astrologer is an optimist or a pessimist.

Each age is said to last for something under 26,000 years (there is of course a connection with the Precession of the Equinox); the Taurean Age is supposed to have begun in about 4139 BC, the Arian Age in about 1953 BC, the Piscean Age round about AD 220, and the Aquarian Age will begin in about 2375. These dates are of course extremely rough; no one knows when the Age of Aquarius will begin - it may already have done so, for astrologers argue that the transition from one age to another probably takes a couple of centuries.

It is perhaps interesting that as the Arian Age began, the Ram god Amun was at the height of his power in Egypt; Christianity, represented in its early years by the fish symbol so often found scratched in the Roman catacombs, began to spread throughout the world in the 2nd century AD, when the Piscean Age was beginning; and with the coming of the Aquarian Age organized religions seem to be giving way to a trust in science and world government as the twin saviours of humanity.

But what of astrology outside the Middle East? Its development in India is if anything more difficult to trace than in Babylon, for the early history of astronomy and astrology in India is not only obscure but often falsified: at least we can assume that this is so when we read the still commonly asserted statement that the first Indian astronomical textbook, the Surya Siddhanta, was published in the year 2,163,I02 BC.

If the origins of astrology are obscure, the influences on Indian astrologers are clearer. Alexandria, for instance, had a great influence during the 6th century AD, when many Greek terms found their way into Indian astrological terminology during the lifetimes of the most famous ancient Indian astronomers, Aryabhata, Varaha Mihira and Brahmagupta. And it seems likely that the concept of the zodiac reached India via Alexandria, for Indian astrologers for some time used two sets of names for the constellations - one a straight transliteration of the Greek, the other a translation into Sanskrit; so the Greek Tauros became Taurusi, and then in Sanskrit Vrisha (the Bull), while the Greek Leon became Leya and was then translated as Simha (the Lion).

It is strange that astrology did not make its way to India via Persia, just east of Babylonia - the gateway to Samarkand and China. But the Persian interest in the planets was quite different, in early centuries, from that of the Babylonians; its only contribution to the history of the zodiac seems to be the 'invention' of the four elements, Fire, Earth, Air and Water, later brought into the astrological scheme by Ptolemy. It was in Persia, however, that Mithraism arose - a religion that flourished between 100 BC and AD 400, and was to be responsible in large measure for the spread of astrology through the Roman empire, when as a military faith it carried belief in the influence of the planets to the furthest outposts, including Londinium. The signs of the zodiac were found in every mithraeum, often surrounding a carved representation of Bull sacrifice.

Neither in Persian nor in Arabic was there ever any distinction between the terms for astrology and astronomy; when the classical texts refer to munajjimun, it almost always means both (and this is true throughout the world). Islamic astronomy derived from Greek, Indian and Persian sources - from Dorotheus of Sidon, Ptolemy, Antiochos of Athens, Vettius Valens and Teukros, along with Sassanid works which were often translations of Greek and Indian texts into Pahlavi, the main language of Persia in the 3rd to 7th centuries AD. Obviously Islamic astrology was a relatively late development.

The Muslims were naturally attracted to the subject, however. (The Koran seems to have encouraged them, with its various astrological references - for instance, 'He it is Who hath set for you the stars that ye may guide your course by them amid the darkness of the land and the sea.') Muslim astrologers drew up individual horoscopes and wrote astrological world histories (the best known being by Masha'allah and Abu Ma'shar al'Balkhi), but their chief interest was in cosmological symbolism - in astrology as it provided a means through which man could discover his own place in the cosmos and become aware of the 'reality' lying outside his own earthly life.

The Chinese have a list of twelve animals which mark their years: a child is born in the year of the boar, the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster or the dog - alternatively 'positive' or 'negative' signs (the boar is 'negative'), and with the first three signs being 'water' signs, the next three 'wood', the next three 'fire' and the last three 'metal'. They are often represented in a circle (a 'zodiac' of 28 constellations was said to have originated in 2317 BC), but although there are certain very faint connections between the Western signs and the Chinese animals, these are hardly worth detailed examination. The Western zodiac was known in China by the 17th century AD, having been taken there by the Jesuits - but perhaps even earlier by travellers along the central Asian caravan routes.

The earliest Chinese astrologers did not use the ecliptic at all, but the circumpolar stars: the Chinese empire saw itself as the counterpart on earth of the Middle Kingdom of Heaven, the region of the stars that never set - the circumpolar stars are indeed seen all year round. The Emperor, representing the Pole Star, sat facing south to give audience; and his astrologers used an obscure system of four 'Palaces'. It was only in the 1st century AD that the ecliptic was given a name in Chinese: 'The Yellow Road', as opposed to the equator, which was 'The Red Road'.

It has sometimes been supposed that astrology did not reach the Americas until at least the age of Columbus. Historians assume that when the Bishop of Chiapas wrote in 1698 that certain sections of the Quiché, an ancient Peruvian tribe, 'believe that the birth of man is regulated by the course of the stars and planets; they observe the time of the day and the month at which a child is born, and predict the conditions of its life and destiny', he was reporting the use of astrological techniques brought to South America by the Spaniards. But there was certainly a kind of astrology in use in Mexico before Columbus, even if it was based on a system unlike anything in Europe: Toltec astronomy, for instance, divided the world into five 'directions' - north, south, east, west and centre, the first four ruled by the Bull, Lion, Eagle and Man. (These coincide somewhat with the European fixed signs of the zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius, much later associated with the symbols of the four Apostles - Luke (the Bull), Mark (the Lion), John (the Eagle) and Matthew (the Man, or Aquarius).

The mystery of how the constellations used in the zodiac acquired their own characteristics - why astrologers should have begun to associate Gemini with liveliness and versatility, Aries with courage and selfishness, Libra with charm and ease - is unfathomable. The association made by early man between the planets and certain human characteristics is easier to understand: the Sun, blazing in all its glory, was certainly the major visible symbol of royalty and nobility, pompous and domineering; equally, the Moon's association with motherhood can safely be associated with its influence on the female cycle, and on the feminine element, water - the rivers and seas with their regular tides. One may even suggest that Mars was associated with aggression because of its relatively fiery, red appearance in the bright night skies, and Venus with beauty and love because of its clear, bright steadiness. On the other hand, how did Jupiter come to be associated with optimism and justice, Saturn with practicality and caution?

These characteristics appeared very early. In 235 BC, an astrologer told a client that 'If your child is born when Venus comes forth and Jupiter has set, his wife will be stronger than he' - Venus associated with indecision and laziness, Jupiter with kindliness, loyalty, ease. The same astrologer associated Leo with wealth and power, Cancer with water, Taurus with strength in battle. To all these simple associations modern astrologers would to some extent assent.

Astrologers argue that associations between the signs and planets and certain characteristics were empirically made: that over the centuries it became clear that man was more amorous when Venus was prominent, more prone to violence when Mars was active; that when certain planets were in Gemini at the time of the birth of a baby, it would grow up to be talkative, quick-moving and hasty. And certainly there is much evidence to suggest that the elaboration of the techniques of astrology came about not through psychic guesswork, or even the symbolic unconscious, but (as in science) through observation and careful record.

However that may be, once the signs and planets had begun to assume their characteristics, the zodiac was formed and a reliable calendar devised, the last ingredient was available for the development of the horoscope as we know it, and of modern astrology. The simple omens of early times were about to give way to more elaborate predictions: at first still relatively simple, but becoming more and more complex until far from such simple statements as 'If a child is born when the Moon is come forth, his life will be bright, excellent, regular and long', astrologers would be able to write many thousands of words about the personality, character, potential, health and motivations of a new-born child.