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Deb Houlding

Deborah Houlding

This article was published in the Mountain Astrologer Magazine, issue #110, Aug/Sep 2003

Heavenly Imprints

Heavenly Imprints

Development of the Zodiac
and the early origins of
Aries & Taurus

by Deborah Houlding

Most attempts to explain the symbolic origin of zodiac constellation figures do so by reference to classical mythology. This has created a clouded veneer for anyone wishing to take their origin to its primitive root or ask why a certain creature, to the exclusion of all others, should be honoured in the stars; why in that place, why at that time? Mankind creates its environment with a purpose and stamps its achievements in the monuments set on Earth and the symbolic imprints left in heaven. What great victory or cultural advances were being celebrated through the naming of the constellations that lay in the belt of prime importance? It is not enough to know that Aries pays tribute to the ram because rams were symbols of the Sun, or that Taurus reveres the bull because bulls were symbols of fertility, when the questions of what is sun-like about a ram, or so fertile about a bull go unanswered.

The classical constellation myths are rich and exciting, full of drama, and whisper archetypal truths on human experience. It cannot be denied that they have left an indelible mark upon astrological meaning, but they are for the most part extensions or adaptations of a deeper vein, which courses through them, obscured and inconspicuous. Unveiling the underlying foundation has become a difficult task, not least because their period of evolution stretches back into prehistory: there is no direct route to follow; currently, no authority to lean on, only clues and suggestions that must be pieced together like the scattered remnants of an archaeological find.

But within this area of astrological pre-history, so void of academic interest, there are amazing treasures to be restored. Unearthing the origin of the zodiac reveals secrets that are not only pertinent to the history of astrology, but reflect upon religious beliefs and cultural traditions that remain at the very heart of modern day life.

Before digging into the depths of any of the constellations, it is necessary to understand something of the history of the zodiac as a system; in particular, the embedded problem of precession. The first part of this article offers an overview of the zodiac as an astronomical device, allowing the spiritual, mythological and political significance of its divisions to be explored in an appropriate context. The conclusions may be perceived as challenging and controversial, but they throw up questions that cannot be ignored and highlight coincidences that have been far too easily overlooked. Could it be that astrology has had a much more pertinent and effective role in the foundation of modern religious belief than anyone is letting on?

Development of the Zodiac

The Zodiac belt extends from the ecliptic, the Great Circle that marks the Sun's transit around the Earth.[1] This is also the circle upon which the cycle of the Moon is centered, and takes its name from the eclipses that occur in the joining of the Sun and Moon on this path. The constellations that lie behind the ecliptic have always been a focus of attention in astrology, a useful backdrop against which luminary movements and the positions of the planets can be tracked.

But the zodiac we know today is a relatively recent refinement that appeared around the 6th century BC and spent several centuries struggling to gain common acceptance. It was once believed to be purely Babylonian in origin since the majority of constellation names can be traced far back in ancient Mesopotamian history. Research, however, has proved a combination of cultural influences with some signs, such as the Ram, demonstrating a long history in ancient Egypt while unknown of in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians conquered Egypt in 671 BC, a key date at which two great civilizations could directly persuade each other and blend the ideas from which the zodiac evolved. To comprehend the scientific thrust and widespread celebration that accompanied this event, we need to consider the previous attempts to chart and sectionalise the sky.

Evidence of man's progress one step earlier is provided by the two tablet Assyrian text, mul Apin, 'stars of the Plough', which was discovered in the library of King Ashurbanipal, ruler of Assyria between 669-626 BC. This is a document of great importance: our oldest detailed catalogue of the constellations, and a compilation of all the astronomical knowledge available to the Mesopotamians before the 7th century BC. An existing copy has been dated to 687 BC, although it is known to be a reproduction of an earlier text presumed written around 1000 BC.

Assyrian Astrolabe The forerunners to the mul Apin were various astrolabes and star lists, drawn to show which stars were visible in the sky at the different seasons of the year. Astrolabes were circular devices that arranged the stars into three 'paths', trisecting the sky at the eastern horizon. The central segment contained the larger part of the constellations Pisces, Aries, Taurus and the Pleiades. The northern path held Cancer, Leo and Ursa major, and the southern contained Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn and Aquarius. This three-sectioned 'wheel' was then subdivided (like an astrological chart) into twelve sections, allowing the months of the year to be identified with the rising of particular stars. The oldest surviving astrolabe, produced in Assur around 1100 BC, also details the relative positions of the stars, their risings and settings, and their relevance to agriculture and mythology.

The mul Apin was a significant improvement upon these earlier astrolabes, but similar in form and structure. It gave detailed astronomical information on the Sun and Moon, the planetary periods, the constellations, visibility of the stars, as well as listing astronomical and mathematical techniques and astrological omens. It specified eighteen constellations along the Moon's path, the twelve in use today, plus six that were later amalgamated with the others in the development of the equally spaced zodiac. The constellations were introduced in the series as: "the gods standing in the path of the Moon, through whose domain the Moon passes every month and whom he touches", and listed as in the table below:

Constellations of the Mul Apin

As the Mesopotamians became more advanced in astronomical techniques, the rather clumsy measurement of the heavenly bodies against the background stars became increasingly unacceptable. This method of observation has many disadvantages, one notable drawback being the obscuration of the stars by mist and the difficulty in distinguishing constellation boundaries. It became clear that a mathematically devised system was necessary to allow for greater precision in recording planetary movement. The solution was the introduction of the zodiacal 'signs' - in effect, a redefinition of the constellations along the ecliptic. [2]

Various factors converged to inspire the selection of a twelve sign zodiac. Astrolabes had long been dividing the heavenly sphere into twelve parts, to establish an association between astronomical conditions and the twelve lunar months of the solar year; it therefore became practical to identify the stars more closely with the monthly divisions. Allotting 360 to the whole circle (the nearest easily divisible number to the Sun's 365-day cycle) meant that each sign measured exactly 30, even though the constellation figures they were named after varied considerably.

In its beginnings the zodiac was a convenient celestial measuring device, unrelated to astrological activity. Babylonian astronomical diaries dated to the middle of the 6th century BC show it was being used at that time for the recording of astronomical data, yet observation of the effects of the planets for astrological purposes continued to be related to the visible constellations. There was a lengthy overlapping of the use of zodiacal signs and visible constellations before the equally defined zodiac was firmly established, but eventually its astronomical advantages, which included a more accurate recording of time and the production of reliable ephemerides, made it widely accepted. Of the six extant Mesopotamian texts that use the zodiac for astrological purposes the oldest has been dated to 263 BC. [3]

Notes & References:

  1 ] To be politically correct I should say "the Sun's apparent transit around the Earth"; I realise the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. But from hereon we take the viewpoint of the ancients, that the Sun made an annual circle around the Earth because - apparently - it did.
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  2 ] This zodiac is, of course, an imaginary device, which no longer tallies with the visible constellations. The use of the word 'sign' derives from the use of the zodiacal constellations as signals for forthcoming weather conditions or agricultural events, whilst the name Zodiac is of Greek origin, meaning 'circle of animals'; the circle extending 8-9 either side of the ecliptic and containing the orbits of all the visible planets.
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  3 ] A. Sachs, 'Babylonian Horoscopes', Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1952. Vol. VI, p57.
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Deborah Houlding has been studying astrology for over twenty years. An international demonstrator, teacher and writer, her articles have appeared in popular media and astrological publications around the world. Deborah edited the UK magazine, The Traditional Astrologer, whilst her book The Houses: Temples of the Sky, presents research on the history, development and traditional meaning of the astrological houses. Deborah specialises in horary and the traditional application of astrology. This article is adapted from an unpublished work and may not be reproduced without permission.
© Deborah Houlding, 1997.

History of the Zodiac
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