The Western Astrological Zodiac
You are about to take a journey, actually, two journeys: first, an ancient history journey back to the beginnings of astrology, and second, a personal journey that will create an incredible context for all your future self-learning. Both of these journeys are not only well-established in the human consciousness, but, as you will realize, firmly set in our subconscious as well.
The Ancient Journey
Somewhere around the 5th Century B.C., the astronomers of ancient Babylonia, the cultural center of the ancient Mesopotamian region, created what is known as the Zodiac, now used in western astrology. They needed a series of reference points along the ecliptic, the plane that the sun and earth share in a solar year. Of course, it wasn’t until the 16th Century that Nicolaus Copernicus convinced a few people that the Sun was the center and the Earth went around it. The ancients only noticed that twelve constellations rose in the East at night and fell to the West before the pattern repeated itself each year. These constellations had been named hundreds of years before the Zodiac was established. The word “zodiac” was a shortened version of the Greek word for “a circle of little animals.” Eight of the twelve constellations used animals of one sort or another as their symbols.
There is in fact a thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, that falls within the purview of the Zodiac (8 degrees north or south of the ecliptic), but you can hardly blame the ancients for ignoring it given that it overlaps two other constellations. Besides, the number twelve is so much easier to deal with. Over many centuries, religious and non-religious groups used the number twelve as an organizing principle. Witness the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles of Christianity, the twelve holy shrines of the Hindu Shaivites, the twelve Olympians of the Greeks, the twelve Labors of Hercules, the twelve lictors of Roman tradition, the twelve sons of Odin in Norse tradition, the twelve imams of Mohammedanism, the twelve months of most calendars, and it goes on and on in our human history. One reason why twelve is so important is that it is easily dividable by 2, 3, 4 and 6. This is convenient in breaking the larger group into smaller groups and is especially useful in astrology.
One can’t help but notice what a large role ancient mythology plays in astrology. There has been a tradition in both astronomy and astrology (they were once inextricably connected) to name newly discovered objects in the solar system with mythological names. This naming of planets, asteroids, centaurs and other solar system objects is done today under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which was founded in 1919. An example of this process is the naming of the object Chiron in 1979 just two years after it was first discovered. The official name came from a group called the Minor Planet Center under the auspices of the IAU. In mythology Chiron was a centaur and a great healer, astrologer and oracle who taught many mythical heroes about the medicinal qualities of herbs, among other things.
It is my personal belief that the naming of solar objects and constellations has always been an exceptionally intuitive act in which the person or persons naming have tapped into an emerging energy that describes a subconsciously shared human understanding. For example, when the (now minor) planet Pluto was discovered in 1930, the name of the Underworld Death God was particularly apt considering the global death events that soon followed.
The Personal Journey
We begin here the process of astrology education, starting most importantly with the details which allow you to read and interpret your birth chart --- the most unique and interesting part of astrology. Here is how the signs, elements and three stages of development appear in the Zodiac:
NOTE: I use an astrological software program called “Solar Fire” to create charts and do many other calculations but there are many other good ones out there as well.
In the outer ring of this diagram, I also include the twelve standard glyphs (or symbols) for each sign as follows:
= Aries (the ram’s head)
= Taurus (the bull’s head)
= Gemini (the twins)
= Cancer (the crab’s claws)
= Leo (the lion’s head)
= Virgo (the maiden carrying a sheaf of wheat)
= Libra (the balance scales)
= Scorpio (the scorpion’s stinger)
= Sagittarius (the archer’s arrow)
= Capricorn (the mountain goat’s head)
= Aquarius (waves associated with the water-bearer)
= Pisces (the heads of two fish facing each other)
It is very useful to become accustomed to these glyphs both because they have symbolic associations with their signs and because they are often used as a shorter way of indicating the sign, which is particularly helpful when one is trying to put as much information as possible on a birth chart. Remember that when someone asks, “What’s your sign?” they are asking where the Sun was when you were born. While the Sun is a significant factor in your birth chart, it is by no means the only factor. The following explanation of the glyphs and their symbolic meanings applies in a general way to their behavior but is never the whole picture. These effects can also apply to planets that occur in the sign.
Aries (the ram’s head) --- A ram has become a symbol of Aries because of a mythical ram which could fly and had golden fleece and was very much sought after, most notably by Jason and the Argonauts. When the ram had been caught and sacrificed to the gods, its fleece was hung in a wood that was sacred to the Olympian, Ares, god of war. Besides the inferences of bravery and physical prowess in this story, the fact that rams are noted for their butting heads is appropriate for the sign. I think of the essential Aries character as courageous, not afraid to get things started. People with the Sun in Aries when they were born (Ariens) are bundles of energy, which need to act. They can be impulsive and impatient at times, and they like to be independent. They also like having a cause to work for.
Taurus (the bull’s head) --- The bull has long been a symbol of prosperity and many cultures, including the Romans, sacrificed a bull for the well-being of the state. The Bible refers to the time of the Golden Calf when the Hebrews created a golden statue to the bull-god. In Mesopotamia, when astrology was in its infancy, the constellation Taurus rose over the eastern horizon on the vernal equinox, so Taurus was considered the first sign in their Zodiac. I think of the essential Taurus character as down-to-earth. People with the Sun in Taurus when they were born (Taureans) are methodical and like to take the time to be sure they know what they are doing. They are often literally down to earth because they connect with the growth of plants and trees, and the sowing of seeds that happens in the spring. They are often involved in business because they seek the solidity and security of the earth.
Gemini (the twins) --- The constellation Gemini includes two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, who were Greek mythical figures. They traveled famously with Jason and the Argonauts. The main ideas that the twins represent are duality, inventiveness, communication between humans (the “Word”), information, the act of breathing and the act of creating a name for anything. I think of the essential Gemini character as inquisitive. People with the Sun in Gemini when they were born (Geminians) are known for being witty and quick-thinking, as well as changeable in their outlook. They would probably prefer to be called adaptable since that implies open-mindedness. As an air sign, Gemini represents the personal aspects of that element, especially a busy mind that is very alert.
Cancer (the crab’s claws) --- The word “cancer” is the Latin word for a crab. The myth associated with this sign has to do with a giant crab (Karkinos) who was sent by Juno (Hera) to distract Hercules (Heracles) in his fight against the nine-headed Hydra (2nd Labor of 12.) As it turned out, Hercules either stomped on Karkinos and crushed him or kicked him so hard he ended up in the sky as the constellation Cancer, depending on which myth one subscribed to. I think of the essential Cancer character as reactive. People with the Sun in Cancer (Cancerians) are like the crab in that they tend to be tough on the outside and soft in the middle. Cancer is the first water sign, and as such it represents the individual’s emotions. The Moon is its “ruler” (we cover the concept of rulership later.)
Leo (the lion) --- The lion has always been a symbol of royalty and leadership (king of the jungle.) Leo is the first of the social signs and signifies interactions with other people on a “fiery” basis. That includes competition, attraction, drama, dancing, flirting, and generally anything that shows the active interaction between people. I think of the essential Leo character as playful. People with the Sun in Leo (Leos) are known to be generous and fun-loving, and some people may find them to be over-bearing or self-centered but this is not their essential nature.
Virgo (the maiden) --- Virgo is the second of the social signs and signifies the interaction with others on a “down-to-earth” basis. The Sun enters Virgo at the time of year when preparations have historically been made for the coming harvest. This has been a time of people gathering to work together, and in the end celebrate the harvest. So Virgo is associated with having working skills and paying attention to all the critical details that bring people to a healthy place for the up-coming winter. The unusual glyph that represents the sign is a maiden holding a sheaf of wheat. Virgo is the sign of health, healing and diet. I think of the essential Virgo character as diligent. People with the Sun in Virgo (Virgoans) are known for their work ethic and they sometimes focus on details at the expense of the big picture.
Libra (the scales) --- The word “libra” in Latin literally meant the scales that were used to weigh and determine who would get how much pay when the work was done. So fairness and justice was at the center of this sign. The Sun enters Libra at the autumnal equinox when light and dark was at a balanced point. The scales glyph is the only inanimate symbol of the twelve signs. As the social air sign, Libra represents thinking, especially as it relates to others. Peace is another theme of Libra because nothing keeps the peace in a relationship like fairness and balance. Often, people who have strong Libra in their chart have difficulty making decisions because they can see two points of view. I think of the essential Libra character as graceful. People with the Sun in Libra (Librans) are often interested in art and the arts in general.
Scorpio (the scorpion) --- The animal scorpion is noted for its stinger, although only a relatively few of their many species are poisonous to humans. The astrological scorpion is also noted for its intense sting. The Sun enters Scorpio while vegetation in the northern hemisphere is transforming itself for winter. Transformation is a central concept for Scorpio and in order to transform one has to go deeply into the emotional depths. I think of the essential Scorpio character as intense. People with the Sun in Scorpio (Scorpios) are noted for their intensity of feeling and their willingness to face emotional challenges.
Sagittarius (the archer) --- The glyph for Sagittarius is often depicted as a centaur (half-man, half-horse) shooting an arrow. This suggests that the sign has represented a duality in humans that indicates a struggle with spirituality over bestiality. The sign is the first of the “universal” signs and has a “fire” or spiritual base. I think of the essential Sagittarius character as philosophical. People with Sun in Sagittarius (Sagittarians) tend to look for a broader view of the world and very often love to travel. Unlike the Virgoans, they are likely to miss details in favor of the larger picture.
Capricorn (the mountain goat) --- The glyph for Capricorn represents the mountain goat, a creature that climbs great heights in search of an earthly goal. As the second “universal” sign and an earth sign, it represents a need to gain height and stature in the world. I think of the essential Capricorn character as purposeful. People with the Sun in Capricorn (Capricornians) have a sense of service and usefulness for the greater good. They are also strongly connected to the concept of discipline in anything they do.
Aquarius (the carrier of water) --- The glyph for Aquarius is a depiction of waves, indicating that water is involved as a symbol. But Aquarius is not a water sign because the focus is on the human being who carries the water. This concept of containment of water (emotions) is essential to Aquarius, an air (thinking) sign. There is always a sense with Aquarius that the act of thinking and the containment of emotion are important parts of the universal aspect of great thinking. I think of the essential Aquarius character as thoughtful. People with the Sun in Aquarius (Aquarians) are strongly connected to the human race and an egalitarian point of view.
Pisces (the fish) --- The glyph for Pisces is a depiction of two fish facing each other, indicating that water is the essential element for the sign. It is also a universal sign. The most universal of emotions is compassion. Jesus has been known for two millennia as the Piscean Master because of his emphasis on compassion as an essential human trait. The fish in the ocean are literally immersed in water and the Pisces person is highly aware of his/her human surroundings. I think of the essential Pisces character as imaginative. People with the Sun in Pisces (Pisceans) are creative and often other-worldly. Their consciousness of the suffering of the world is strong.
Another point about the birth chart is that, unlike usual maps, the Eastern horizon (Ascendant) is on the left as though one were standing, facing south and looking up at the sky, while the Descendant (point on the Western horizon) is on the right. The midheaven (or north orientation) is still the same, back up over one’s head, and the Nadir (or south orientation) is where one looks in front of you. This may take a little time getting used to.