The Zodiac and Its Signs

By Manly P. Hall


IT is difficult for this age to estimate correctly the profound effect produced upon the religions,philosophies, and sciences of antiquity by the study of the planets, luminaries, and constellations. Not without adequate reason were the Magi of Persia called the Star Gazers. The Egyptians were honored with a special appellation because of their proficiency in computing the power and motion of the heavenly bodies and their effect upon the destinies of nations and individuals. Ruins of primitive astronomical observatories have been discovered in all parts of the world, although in many cases modern archeologists are unaware of the true purpose for which these structures were erected. While the telescope was unknown to ancient astronomers, they made many remarkable calculations with instruments cut from blocks of granite or pounded from sheets of brass and cop per. In India such instruments are still in use, and they posses a high degree of accuracy. In Jaipur, Rajputana, India, an observatory consisting largely of immense stone sundials is still in operation. The famous Chinese observatory on the wall of Peking consists of immense bronze instruments, including a telescope in the form of a hollow tube without lenses.

The pagans looked upon the stars as living things, capable of influencing the destinies of individuals, nations, and races. That the early Jewish patriarchs believed that the celestial bodies participated in the affairs of men is evident to any student of Biblical literature, as, for example, in the Book of Judges: "They fought from heaven, even the stars in their courses fought against Sisera." The Chaldeans, Phœnicians, Egyptians, Persians, Hindus, and Chinese all had zodiacs that were much alike in general character, and different authorities have credited each of these nations with being the cradle of astrology and astronomy. The Central and North American Indians also had an understanding of the zodiac, but the patterns and numbers of the signs differed in many details from those of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The word zodiac is derived from the Greek ζωδιακός (zodiakos), which means "a circle of animals," or, as some believe, "little animals." It is the name given by the old pagan astronomers to a band of fixed stars about sixteen degrees wide, apparently encircling the earth. Robert Hewitt Brown, 32°, states that the Greek word zodiakos comes from zo-on, meaning "an animal." He adds: "This latter word is compounded directly from the primitive Egyptian radicals, zo, life, and on, a being."

The Greeks, and later other peoples influenced by their culture, divided the band of the zodiac into twelve sections, each being sixteen degrees in width and thirty degrees in length. These divisions were called the Houses of the Zodiac. The sun during its annual pilgrimage passed through each of these in turn, Imaginary creatures were traced in the Star groups bounded by these rectangles; and because most of them were animal--or part animal--in form, they later became known as the Constellations, or Signs, of the Zodiac.

There is a popular theory concerning the origin of the zodiacal creatures to the effect that they were products of the imagination of shepherds, who, watching their flocks at night, occupied their minds by tracing the forms of animals and birds in the heavens. This theory is untenable, unless the "shepherds" be regarded as the shepherd priests of antiquity. It is unlikely that the zodiacal signs were derived from the star groups which they now represent. It is far more probable that the creatures assigned to the twelve houses are symbolic of the qualities and intensity of the sun's power while it occupies different parts of the zodiacal belt.

On this subject Richard Payne Knight writes: "The emblematical meaning, which certain animals were employed to signify, was only some particular property generalized; and, therefore, might easily be invented or discovered by the natural operation of the mind: but the collections of stars, named after certain animals, have no resemblance whatever to those animals; which are therefore merely signs of convention adopted to distinguish certain portions of the heavens, which were probably consecrated to those particular personified attributes, which they respectively represented." (The Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology.)

Some authorities are of the opinion that the zodiac was originally divided into ten (instead of twelve) houses, or "solar mansions." In early times there were two separate standards--one solar and the other lunar--used for the measurement of the months, years, and seasons. The solar year was composed of ten months of thirty-six days each, and five days sacred to the gods. The lunar year consisted of thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, with one day left over. The solar zodiac at that time consisted often houses of thirty-six degrees each.

The first six signs of the zodiac of twelve signs were regarded as benevolent, because the sun occupied them while traversing the Northern Hemisphere. The 6,000 years during which, according to the Persians, Ahura-Mazda ruled His universe in harmony and peace, were symbolic of these six signs. The second six were considered malevolent, because while the sun was traveling the Southern Hemisphere it was winter with the Greeks, Egyptians, and Persians. Therefore these six months symbolic of the 6,000 years of misery and suffering caused by the evil genius of the Persians, Ahriman, who sought to overthrow the power of Ahura-Mazda.

Those who hold the opinion that before its revision by the Greeks the zodiac consisted of only ten signs adduce evidence to show that Libra (the Scales) was inserted into the zodiac by dividing the constellation of Virgo Scorpio (at that time one sign) into two parts, thus establishing "the balance" at the point of equilibrium between the ascending northern and the descending southern signs. (See The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries, by Hargrave Jennings.) On this subject Isaac Myer states: "We think that the Zodiacal constellations were first ten and represented an immense androgenic man or deity; subsequently this was changed, resulting in Scorpio and Virgo and making eleven; after this from Scorpio, Libra, the Balance, was taken, making the present twelve." (The Qabbalah.)

Each year the sun passes entirely around the zodiac and returns to the point from which it started--the vernal equinox--and each year it falls just a little short of making the complete circle of the heavens in the allotted period of time. As a result, it crosses the equator just a little behind the spot in the zodiacal sign where it crossed the previous year. Each sign of the zodiac consists of thirty degrees, and as the sun loses about one degree every seventy two years, it regresses through one entire constellation (or sign) in approximately 2,160 years, and through the entire zodiac in about 25,920 years. (Authorities disagree concerning these figures.) This retrograde motion is called the precession of the equinoxes. This means that in the course of about 25,920 years, which constitute one Great Solar or Platonic Year, each one of the twelve constellations occupies a position at the vernal equinox for nearly 2,160 years, then gives place to the previous sign.


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From Kircher's Œdipus Ægyptiacus.

The ornamental border contains groups of names of animal, mineral, and vegetable substances, Their relationship to corresponding parts of the human body is shown by the dotted lines. The words in capital letters on the dotted lines indicate to what corporeal member, organ, or disease, the herb or other substance is related. The favorable positions in relation to the time of year are shown by the signs of the zodiac, each house of which is divided by crosses into its three decans. This influence is further emphasized by the series of planetary signs placed on either side of the figure.


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The plane of the zodiac intersects the celestial equator at an angle of approximately 23° 28'. The two points of intersection (A and B) are called the equinoxes. 

Among the ancients the sun was always symbolized by the figure and nature of the constellation through which it passed at the vernal equinox. For nearly the past 2,000 years the sun has crossed the equator at the vernal equinox in the constellation of Pisces (the Two Fishes). For the 2,160 years before that it crossed through the constellation of Aries (the Ram). Prior to that the vernal equinox was in the sign of Taurus (the Bull). It is probable that the form of the bull and the bull's proclivities were assigned to this constellation because the bull was used by the ancients to plow the fields, and the season set aside for plowing and furrowing corresponded to the time at which the sun reached the segment of the heavens named Taurus.

Albert Pike describes the reverence which the Persians felt for this sign and the method of astrological symbolism in vogue among them, thus: "In Zoroaster's cave of initiation, the Sun and Planets were represented, overhead, in gems and gold, as was also the Zodiac. The Sun appeared, emerging from the back of Taurus. " In the constellation of the Bull are also to be found the "Seven Sisters"--the sacred Pleiades--famous to Freemasonry as the Seven Stars at the upper end of the Sacred Ladder.

In ancient Egypt it was during this period--when the vernal equinox was in the sign of Taurus--that the Bull, Apis, was sacred to the Sun God, who was worshiped through the animal equivalent of the celestial sign which he had impregnated with his presence at the time of its crossing into the Northern Hemisphere. This is the meaning of an ancient saying that the celestial Bull "broke the egg of the year with his horns."

Sampson Arnold Mackey, in his Mythological Astronomy of the Ancients Demonstrated, makes note of two very interesting points concerning the bull in Egyptian symbolism. Mr. Mackey is of the opinion that the motion of the earth that we know as the alternation of the poles has resulted in a great change of relative position of the equator and the zodiacal band. He believes that originally the band of the zodiac was at right angles to the equator, with the sign of Cancer opposite the north pole and the sign of Capricorn opposite the south pole. It is possible that the Orphic symbol of the serpent twisted around the egg attempts to show the motion of the sun in relation to the earth under such conditions. Mr. Mackey advances the Labyrinth of Crete, the name Abraxas, and the magic formula, abracadabra, among other things, to substantiate his theory. Concerning abracadabra he states:

"But the slow progressive disappearance of the Bull is most happily commemorated in the vanishing series of letters so emphatically expressive of the great astronomical fact. For ABRACADABRA is The Bull, the only Bull. The ancient sentence split into its component parts stands thus: Ab'r-achad-ab'ra, i. e., Ab'r, the Bull; achad, the only, &c.--Achad is one of the names of the Sun, given him in consequence of his Shining ALONE,--he is the ONLY Star to be seen when he is seen--the remaining ab'ra, makes the whole to be, The Bull, the only Bull; while the repetition of the name omitting a letter, till all is gone, is the most simple, yet the most satisfactory method that could have been devised to preserve the memory of the fact; and the name of Sorapis, or Serapis, given to the Bull at the above ceremony puts it beyond all doubt. * * * This word (Abracadabra) disappears in eleven decreasing stages; as in the figure. And what is very remarkable, a body with three heads is folded up by a Serpent with eleven Coils, and placed by Sorapis: and the eleven Volves of the Serpent form a triangle similar to that formed by the ELEVEN diminishing lines of the abracadabra."

Nearly every religion of the world shows traces of astrological influence. The Old Testament of the Jews, its writings overshadowed by Egyptian culture, is a mass of astrological and astronomical allegories. Nearly all the mythology of Greece and Rome may be traced in star groups. Some writers are of the opinion that the original twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were derived from groups of stars, and that the starry handwriting on the wall of the heavens referred to words spelt out, with fixed stars for consonants, and the planets, or luminaries, for vowels. These, coming into ever-different combinations, spelt words which, when properly read, foretold future events.

As the zodiacal band marks the pathway of the sun through the constellations, it results in the phenomena of the seasons. The ancient systems of measuring the year were based upon the equinoxes and the solstices. The year always began with the vernal equinox, celebrated March 21 with rejoicing to mark the moment when the sun crossed the equator northward up the zodiacal arc. The summer solstice was celebrated when the sun reached its most northerly position, and the day appointed was June 21. After that time the sun began to descend toward the equator, which it recrossed southbound at the autumnal equinox, September 21. The sun reached its most southerly position at the winter solstice, December 21.

Four of the signs of the zodiac have been permanently dedicated to the equinoxes and the solstices; and, while the signs no longer correspond with the ancient constellations to which they were assigned, and from which they secured their names, they are accepted by modern astronomers as a basis of calculation. The vernal equinox is therefore said to occur in the constellation of Aries (the Ram). It is fitting that of all beasts a Ram should be placed at the head of the heavenly flock forming the zodiacal band. Centuries before the Christian Era, the pagans revered this constellation. Godfrey Higgins states: "This constellation was called the 'Lamb of God.' He was also called the 'Savior,' and was said to save mankind from their sins. He was always honored with the appellation of 'Dominus' or 'Lord.' He was called the 'Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.' The devotees addressing him in their litany, constantly repeated the words, 'O Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Grant us Thy peace."' Therefore, the Lamb of God is a title given to the sun, who is said to be reborn every year in the Northern Hemisphere in the sign of the Ram, although, due to the existing discrepancy between the signs of the zodiac and the actual star groups, it actually rises in the sign of Pisces.

The summer solstice is regarded as occurring in Cancer (the Crab), which the Egyptians called the scarab--a beetle of the family Lamellicornes, the head of the insect kingdom, and sacred to the Egyptians as the symbol of Eternal Life. It is evident that the constellation of the Crab is represented by this peculiar creature because the sun, after passing through this house, proceeds to walk backwards, or descend the zodiacal arc. Cancer is the symbol of generation, for it is the house of the Moon, the great Mother of all things and the patroness of the life forces of Nature. Diana, the moon goddess of the Greeks, is called the Mother of the World. Concerning the worship of the feminine or maternal principle, Richard Payne Knight writes:

"By attracting or heaving the waters of the ocean, she naturally appeared to be the sovereign of humidity; and by seeming to operate so powerfully upon the constitutions of women, she equally appeared to be the patroness and regulatress of nutrition and passive generation: whence she is said to have received her nymphs, or subordinate personifications, from the ocean; and is often represented by the symbol of the sea crab, an animal that has the property of spontaneously detaching from its own body any limb that has been hurt or mutilated, and reproducing another in its place." (The Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology.) This water sign, being symbolic of the maternal principle of Nature, and recognized by the pagans as the origin of all life, was a natural and consistent domicile of the moon.

The autumnal equinox apparently occurs in the constellation of Libra (the Balances). The scales tipped and the solar globe began its pilgrimage toward the house of winter. The constellation of the Scales was placed in the zodiac to symbolize the power of choice, by means of which man may weigh one problem against another. Millions of years ago, when the human race was in the making, man was like the angels, who knew neither good nor evil. He fell into the state of the knowledge of good and evil when the gods gave him the seed for the mental nature. From man's mental reactions to his environments he distills the product of experience, which then aids him to regain his lost position plus an individualized intelligence. Paracelsus said: "The body comes from the elements, the soul from the stars, and the spirit from God. All that the intellect can conceive of comes from the stars [the spirits of the stars, rather than the material constellations]."

The constellation of Capricorn, in which the winter solstice theoretically takes place, was called The House of Death, for in winter all life in the Northern Hemisphere is at its lowest ebb. Capricorn is a composite creature, with the head and upper body of a goat and the tail of a fish. In this constellation the sun is least powerful in the Northern Hemisphere, and after passing through this constellation it immediately begins to increase. Hence the Greeks said that Jupiter (a name of the Sun God) was suckled by a goat. A new and different sidelight on zodiacal symbolism is supplied by John Cole, in A Treatise on the Circular Zodiac of Tentyra, in Egypt: "The symbol therefore of the Goat rising from the body of a fish [Capricorn], represents with the greatest propriety the mountainous buildings of Babylon rising out of its low and marshy situation; the two horns of the Goat being emblematical of the two towns, Nineveh and Babylon, the former built on the Tigris, the latter on the Euphrates; but both subjected to one sovereignty."

For Further Reading

THE SECRET TEACHINGS OF ALL AGES by Manly P. Hall [1928, copyright not renewed]. The text has been reformatted, page numbers have been removed, images have been resized and paragraph continuity has been rearranged for reader's convenience. While we have made every effort to present the text accurately we do not accept any responsibility for any inaccuracies, errors or omissions in its reproduction.
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