Though familiar to all, the twelve-strong Western Zodiac remains an enigmatic artifice of the archaic past. To date, no scholar has been able to determine who conjured up its constellations and when this might have happened. Nor do we know what the grand design behind this innovative endeavor might have been. This book, however, goes a long way towards answering those questions by combining together a variety of clues from multiple disciplines, including astronomy, archaeology, and linguistics. It provides a comprehensive framework that greatly expands our understanding of the genesis and purposes of this remarkable intellectual relic of our cultural heritage. The book’s overarching outcome – that the zodiacal necklace in the sky appeared gradually over time in three different stages, with each reflecting the immanent social and spiritual concerns of its time – provides a fundamental impact to reconsider our understanding of prehistory. No special knowledge is necessary to understand this captivating writing.
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The Western Zodiac in Astronomy and Culture
The term, the Zodiac, is striking in multiple languages and has the same Greek primary source as the English zoo; the Zodiac means a circle of animals. An insight into this term is even more evident in some tongues that have created special words for the Zodiac. In Czech, for example, it is Zverokruh, which is plainly and literally a "circle of animals." The same takes place in German (Zodiac = Tierkreis).
In contemporary practice, with the trademark Zodiac we address several different entities. Since antiquity, this brand served to denote the belt of 12 constellations that line the annual circular passage of the Sun on its starry background. As it is detectable from the Earth, like a watchful guardian, the Sun throughout the year consistently visits all its celestial subordinates. Today, the starry necklace of the Sun would be more correctly referred to as the ordinary Western Zodiac, and it is the focal point of our interest.
Much later, at the time of cultural mixing, another meaning of the Zodiac took root. The name was extended to label the antique 12-year Chinese calendric cycle. This cycle is employed by many nations of the Asia-Pacific area. The menagerie of the 12-year Chinese cycle serves as curious monikers to distinguish one year from another. Referring to this cycle, it is appropriate to call it the Chinese, or Eastern, Zodiac.
The institution of the Chinese Zodiac is traditionally ascribed to the Yellow Emperor. Some Chinese writers suggest that their nation actually begins with the Yellow Emperor because he is credited with the integration of the country. While the majority of Western historians dismiss the historicity of the Yellow Emperor, most Chinese historians regard him as a real person. Soon after him, the 12 beasts of the Eastern Zodiac surfaced in historic writings (Wu, 1982; Hucker, 1975). Depending on the interpretation of data, the count of the Chinese cycles starts in 2637 or 2697 BCE. Of course, both dates are questionable.
The Chinese Zodiac has nothing in common with the starry sky or any constellations. It is a string of tags applied to successive years, arising out of the particular mythology of the ancient Chinese world. The only commonality between the Western and Eastern Zodiacs is the use of sets comprised of 12 units (a 12-strong set). Otherwise, their respective long histories do not intersect.
The term Zodiac is also often used in referring to the star groupings that were arranged along the track of the Sun by indigenous Mesoamerican cultures (Aveni in Walker, 1996, pp. 269-303). However, those cultures were separated from the so-called Old World by the long-impassable Atlantic Ocean and had no influence on Western civilization. Knowledge of extinct Zodiacs of Mesoamerica is not widespread among the modern public, and, more to the point, has no connection with the contents of this book.
The accomplishment that is the conventional Western Zodiac is unique among the highlights of human intellect. In this book, we narrate only the birth of this pattern – the Zodiac in its Western form.
Zodiacs: Solar and Lunar
The Zodiac has many faces, and here is an additional facet. On the high seas of scientific publications, one can be confronted by a baseless assertion that our subject – the Western Zodiac – was preceded in time by a system of Lunar Lodges. Some scholars designate the regular 12-strong Western Zodiac as the Solar Zodiac in contrast to Lunar Lodges that compile the Lunar Zodiac. The latter contains 28 (or sometimes 27) starry groups, which in their totality denote the path of the Moon among stars in such a manner that it covers each "Lunar Lodge" in one day. In the sky, the observable path of the Moon is pretty close to the path of the Sun, but the Moon is moving among stars much faster than the Sun, performing one full revolution in about 29.5 days. This means that "Lunar Lodges" have to be about two and a half times smaller than one constellation of the Solar Zodiac.
The Lunar Zodiac has nothing to do with the genuine article, and the idea that it is more ancient is misguided. Moreover, while observations of the waning and waxing of the Moon are easy to conduct, the movement of the Moon among stars is so tangled that each "Lunar Lodge" cannot be determined from simple observations. The new Moon is born each time amongst different starry groups and moves sometimes above, sometimes below the path of the Sun. Finding the regularities of the Moon's motion is a daunting task even for modern astronomers. For the ancients it was nigh impossible. Under these circumstances, the Lunar Zodiac can be considered only as a later upgrade of the genuine Zodiac specifically for lunar observation.
There exist at least two substantial pieces of evidence why the Lunar Zodiac is significantly younger than the genuine Solar Zodiac. Using an analysis of the Chinese sky, this has been convincingly shown by Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker (1997).
The second major proof was granted in 2000 by the American astronomer Bradley Schaefer, who published a paper with an evaluation of the date of origin of the "Lunar Lodge" systems on astronomical grounds. He concluded (p. 283) that
"the best estimate for the date of formation of Chinese lodge system is 3300 BC with a one-sigma [i.e., one standard deviation - A.G.] statistical uncertainty of 480 years. Similarly, the dates for the formation of the Hindu and Arab system are 1750 ± 640 BC and 200 ± 600 BC respectively."
Further in this volume, I shall demonstrate that the offspring of the genuine Zodiacal system is several thousand years older than that. The trace and influence of the Lunar Zodiac in world culture is considerably less meaningful in comparison with the Solar Zodiac, so I shall not touch on the Lunar Zodiac in this book.
The Western Zodiac as an Astronomical Gadget
The Western Zodiac stems entirely from observations of astronomical phenomena. Relative to each other, the stars are practically stationary, while the Sun, the Moon, and the planets wander among them. The Zodiac was designed to denote these movements. Moreover, each zodiacal constellation corresponds to a calendric month, and, through this, the Western Zodiac is clearly related to another astronomical undertaking – the solar calendar.
Having survived in various times and lands, today the Zodiacal dial is a symbolic incarnation of the solar year with its regular rotation of the 12 months. And, though the Zodiac belongs to the science of astronomy, it would be incorrect to consider it as purely a scientific tool. The Zodiac was incorporated into the greater fabric of Western mythology and symbolism, so that in discussing it one must treat it as much more than a mere astronomical utility. In this book, I will be forced to consider the Zodiac in a much broader cultural context.
The Western Zodiac as a Symbolic Contrivance
The Western Zodiac has long ago taken its place among the world's cultural gems. First and foremost, it is a great and complicated symbolical unity. It had to be somehow developed from a simpler assemblage to a more elaborate one. But, so far, such statements are not more than guesses. In current scientific literature, there is not even a hint concerning the original symbolic meanings of the zodiacal constituents.
It is the metaphorical aspect of the Zodiac that requires a multidisciplinary approach that can go far beyond the scope of astronomical phenomena alone.
Prominent experts in symbolism, such as Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), and Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), have repeatedly demonstrated symbols' tendency to morph and cross the narrow boundaries. For example, a specific agricultural symbol like an ear of corn can gain a wider significance and become a spiritual/ religious symbol. This, in turn, enters both the visual culture and the language, spawning other offshoots and contingent symbols. In the end, this symbol is almost omnipresent in a culture even though its origins may well be forgotten. The same is entirely true for the Zodiac. Only an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of the Western Zodiac can allow scholars to move from the current standstill and achieve new results.
Sometimes, ancient symbolic iconography is easily decoded. It is known to many, for instance, that the Greek sun god, Apollo, drives a quadriga chariot. The term of classical times, quadriga, means a chariot drawn by four horses. In Apollo's case, the four horses symbolize the four seasons of the solar year. The symbolic relationship of the sun god Apollo and his four horses is indisputable, but it is unfortunately infrequent that a symbol is so transparent.
The German writer and polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), gave an instructive definition of symbolism:
"Authentic symbolism is present when something specific represents something more universal, not as a dream or a shadow, but as a living momentary revelation of what is inscrutable."
In the forthcoming research, the decoding of the zodiacal symbolism will be crucial.
Images of the Zodiac as a latent Clue to its Deciphering
How did a bull, a water-bearer, or a ram first make their way up into the sky as constituents of the Western Zodiac? What is the veiled meaning of the 12 mystic zodiacal icons? To speak metaphorically, when and wherefore did Pisces swim up into the stream of zodiacal emblems? The heavenly fishes are as silent as the earthly ones. Why, for Heaven's sake, have these mutes floated into the waters of the Zodiac?
The more down-to-earth inquiry is why and when were pagan labels projected onto the sky of the Northern hemisphere of the Earth? Are the constellations merely a form of ancient funny comics? Did ancient peoples pin up these images in the sky merely for some form of spiritual satisfaction? Or did the constellations carry out a more terrestrial function for the early sky-gazers, as well?
It is possible that once upon a time somewhere on Earth there was an aged savant cognizant of the clue to those questions. Maybe a hint was buried among the innumerable papyri of the Alexandrine Library, which are now long gone. Today, it is unlikely that we can apprehend that clue from among a few ancient scrolls, palimpsests, or cuneiform tablets that have survived in the museum showcases. If such a finding were possible, any curious digger of archaic writings would have long since recognized it and paid attention to such a sensational artifact.
How, then, can the history of the Zodiac still be supplemented, given that the amount of applicable ancient sources is rather scant and that numerous accomplished scholars have tried to unveil the secrets of the Zodiac with limited success?
In the eyes of this author, there exists a resource that has been underused: the images of constellations themselves, along with their celestial locations, sizes, names and their symbolic filling. A key to the history of the starry map could be hidden in the starry map itself. For the Zodiac's decoding, it is imperative to peruse the constituents of the Zodiac itself.
Images of the Sun, the Moon, and stars adorn many Paleolithic caves, though no depictions of constellation maps have yet been found. This, however, does not mean that pre-literate cave dwellers did not connect stars into patterns in the sky. In various museums, among ancient rarities, there are all kinds of mysterious objects claimed to be of astronomical significance. The absence of clear-cut evidence might discourage some from pursuing the subject of pre-written astronomy altogether, but this author believes it is a healthy exercise to stretch our scientific imagination, to use reason and archaeological findings to come up with a plausible working hypothesis on the roots of the 12 pagan images of the Western Zodiac.
Let me allude to the French astronomer and great popularizer of science, Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), who began one of his portrayals of the sky with a very thorough analogy of the constellation nomenclature to the names of streets and squares of an expanding city. Citing Paris, he followed the evolution of the type of its street names from epoch to epoch.
At the dawn of the city's existence, its narrow and curved lanes were designated in keeping with local sights: the Street of Martyrs, the Street of Pits, the Street of Troughs, Oven Street, Bread Street, Fish Street, and so on. During Medieval times and through the 17th century, the streets became longer, broader, and straighter. These were mostly named after saints, as a weapon in the Catholic ideological struggle against the rise of Protestantism. In the 18th century, and the advent of the Enlightenment, came the turn of statesmen, seafarers, and savants.
Regular alterations can be traced in the development of the Parisian map. Like tidal waves came periods of philosophers and military leaders; then distinguished officials and city representatives.
One can readily gather that the social and political concerns of Parisians at any given time were reflected in the names they gave to their physical surroundings. The same is true of celestial names. As Flammarion concludes,
"Issues that the thoughts and feelings of the people were focused on in various periods of their lives, were mirrored in the names and titles recorded in the Sky as well as on the Earth."
Is Camille Flammarion's judgment adequate? An answer to such a question is not straightforward. An assiduous critic of investigations in this field, Edward C. Krupp, the Director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, noted that over the last century and a half inquiries into the origin of constellations have followed two strategies. In one case, literally following written sources and iconography, researchers reached as far back as Mesopotamia of the 3rd millennium BCE. The other strategy, according to Krupp,
"involves juggling the properties of constellations as a set, in the belief that the distribution across the sky constrains their origin" (2000, p.46).
This is Flammarion's strategy. It is shaky but exciting because it requires a more generalized abstract view. One has to look at the big picture rather than focus on any individual element. By no means do I want to suggest that the comparison Flammarion draws to the Paris map can alone serve as proof of the possibility of decoding the meanings of the most ancient of constellations. By itself, it is nothing more than an analogy, but Flammarion's parallel concerning constellation nomenclature hits the nail right on the head.
Both the map of Paris and the map of the sky present themselves as patchwork quilts, and they were sewn together and patched up in various times. To me, similarities in these two cases are eye-catching. Flammarion's thought is echoed by a contemporary scholar, Keizo Hashimoto, of Kansai University, Osaka, Japan, who condenses it into two phrases:
"Constellations are the invention of human imagination. With constellations the sky is a unique document of ancient astronomy and ancient society" (See Hashimoto's Preface to Xiaochun and Kistemaker, 1997).
My primary focus in this book is that this paperless but priceless source, the chart of the sky, could be self-sufficient for the investigation of its own genesis. Being the unique product of ancient astronomy and ancient society, the sky map itself might be a clue to its own life story even without recorded data. After all, ancient peoples were not adherents of the scientific method in white lab coats, but weavers of myth and allegory, of tales and poetry.
Transfer of Knowledge and Traditions
To give a green light to our further investigation we need to get down to brass tacks, i.e. to define clearly our basic stance on the transfer of knowledge and cultural traditions. Even when someone looks back into the depths of history, what he will see there is largely predetermined by social and cultural context of one's own time. That is why, over the course of various historic epochs, views regarding the genesis of the Zodiac have fluctuated wildly. For instance, the ancient Greek thinkers, to the best of our knowledge through written sources, paid no attention to the origin of the Zodiac whatsoever. They accepted the existence of the Zodiac for granted regardless of its origin.
Excerpted from "The Puzzle of the Western Zodiac: Its Wisdom and Evolutionary Leaps"
Copyright © 2017 Alex A. Gurshtein.
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Table of Contents
1. The Western Zodiac In Astronomy And Culture, 1,
2. Archaic Stargazing and the Essential Zodiac, 19,
3. Naming the Sky: Findings from Written Sources, 46,
4. More on the Zodiac: Trampoline to a Brainstorm, 82,
5. The Gradualist Model: Four Seasonal Labels, 102,
6. Exhibits of the zodiacal Zoo, 154,
7. The Egyptian Homeland of the Zoomorphic Set?, 195,
8. Saga of the "Heretic" Pharaoh, 224,
9. Moses and the Twelve-strong Group Symbolism, 240,
10. General Overview:, 266,
Selected Bibliography, 289,
Chronological Summary, 327,
About the Author, 349,