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Deborah Houlding

Deborah Houlding

Also by Deborah Houlding

The Moon - Lantern of Heaven

Venus - the two-faced goddess
Mars - solar hero or deadly villian?

Heavenly Imprints

Heavenly Imprints

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

by Deborah Houlding

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Precessional Shifts & Zodiacal Splits

There was, perhaps, a more pertinent reason why the astrologers of the early Classical period chose to ignore this matter, one that suggests that by covering up this 'inherent flaw' of the zodiac, they were also obscuring a philosophical problem that had wider implications. Firm astrological principles had been established during the rise of Hellenistic astrology, principles that were heavily dependent upon accepting the zodiac as the pivot around which astrology turned. Classical historians generally had a way of exaggerating the antiquity of their belief systems and since the zodiac had been in existence for several hundreds of years, they were quick to view it as an essential and immutable tool that ran back through the mists of time. Within these principles Aries was commemorated as the sign of spring - it had been for thousands of years. Astrology had a marked political power during this period and astrology itself rested upon the founding principle that Aries marked the season that ushered in a new cycle of fertility and growth. But it was during the commencement of the Christian Era that precession was shifting the vernal equinox, the herald of spring, out of Aries and into Pisces, where it has remained since. What were astrologers to do? Rewrite the so-called immutable testimony of the stars and proclaim Pisces as the new starting point? The meanings of all of the signs were heavily dependent upon seasonal activities and calendrical events; this would have meant a complete re-evaluation of astrological philosophy at the very period it had come to the height of its power in the western world. And part of the reason it had become so widespread and powerful was because of the perceived antiquity of its teachings. This was a major dilemma. The zodiac - the new, improved, mathematically designed tool of astronomical reference - so essential to the Classical world, was breaking apart from its philosophical and symbolic stem. It was tempting indeed to turn a blind eye, to let some other astrologer deal with it in some future generation when it really mattered.

Some claim that the great astronomer Ptolemy was the one burdened with the responsibility of taking a philosophical stance and offering a resolution. Ptolemy lived and worked in the second century AD, at the time when the Vernal point had its last tenuous grip in the sign of Aries, falling in the first degree. The problem had reached the point where it could no longer be ignored. Ptolemy supported the symbolic connection between the signs of the zodiac and the cycle of the seasons, writing in his Tetrabiblos:

"....although there is no natural beginning of the zodiac, since it is a circle, they [the ancient astrologers] assume that the sign which begins with the Vernal Equinox, that of Aries, is the starting point of them all, making the excessive moisture of the spring the first part of the zodiac as though it were a living creature and taking next in order the remaining seasons, because in all creatures the earliest ages, like the spring, have a larger share of moisture and are tender, and still delicate. The second age, up to the prime of life, exceeds in heat, like summer; the third, which is now past the prime and on the verge of decline, has an excess of dryness like autumn, and the last, which approaches dissolution, exceeds in its coldness, like winter." [7]

So, was the beginning of the zodiac to be maintained at the shifting Vernal Equinox which slowly circles against a sliding backdrop of stars, or permanently aligned to a more constant point in space, such as one of the prominent fixed stars? For most astrologers Ptolemy's symbolic reasoning in connecting the characteristics of the signs with climatic temperaments has decided the matter. The 'Tropical Zodiac' begins at the first degree of Aries, and the first degree of Aries is determined by the position of the Vernal Equinox. The two are bonded together. As the Vernal Equinox winds slowly westwards so do all the hypothetical signs of the zodiac, tying them to the relationship of the Sun and the Earth, and maintaining the symbolism of the seasons. That the zodiac sign of Aries overlays the stars of the constellation Pisces is irrelevant; the imaginary, symbolic zodiac is now distinct from the stars and supersedes them as a point of astronomical and astrological reference.

The tropical zodiac is in keeping with much of the fundamental philosophy at the root of astrology, especially in focusing upon man's unique relationship with heavenly cycles. But it is a moving zodiac that no longer bears direct relation to the constellations of stars in whose honour its signs are named. This has caused considerable controversy amongst astrologers, with some western astrologers and many eastern astrologers preferring to maintain a 'Sidereal Zodiac' as permanently aligned to the stars and measured from a fixed reference point, chiefly the fixed star Spica. This retains a closer alignment between the visible constellations and sidereal signs, although they do not correspond exactly, since it too uses equal divisions while the constellations themselves are irregularly spaced. The two zodiacs now begin at starting points placed 24 apart, with the Vernal Equinox presently located in the early degrees of Pisces in the sidereal zodiac.

Returning to our quote from Ptolemy, there are two additional factors that need to be considered here. The first is a minor matter; the fact that it could be argued Ptolemy never actually resolved anything or took a philosophical stance at all. He merely stated the astrological situation as it stood in his day. His carefully crafted words were not in the least bit controversial since at that time the Vernal Point still lay within Aries, the year 220 AD being reckoned as the one in which it moved into the sign of Pisces. If his words were seen as authoritative in resolving the problem one way or another, this was no doubt down to subsequent astrologers conveniently choosing to interpret them that way.

The second point is more relevant to the history of cosmic symbolism, and generally overlooked by authors who write on the great mysteries of precessional ages. The precessional 'ages' of antiquity are often dated by projecting backwards the precessional shifts over zodiac sign boundaries, yet they are founded on a method of zodiac division that didn't even exist during those periods. Prior to the Classical period, astrologers never encountered the problem of the Vernal Point shifting over the boundaries of a mathematically conceived sign. They could only have been aware of precessional shifts as the point moved from the stars of one constellation to the next. This throws dispute on the oft-quoted dates of ancient astrological ages being based on periods of approximately 2160 years.

This fact was still relevant in the Classical period. Besides the illustrious astronomers and mathematicians of ancient Greece, there were a great many astrologers who were still firmly attached to the lore and symbolism of the stars and constellations. The date generally given to the movement of the vernal point out of Aries and into Pisces - 220 AD - is a date that recognizes the boundaries of the imaginary, tropical signs, not the actual constellations. The date given for the transition between the unequal constellations of Aries and Pisces is the year 29 AD, some say 0 AD, but certainly accepted as overlapping with the reputed life span of Christ. Given that our earliest recorded use of the tropical zodiac in Mesopotamian texts dates to 263 BC, it is a reasonable assumption that the ancient astrologers of that period were already aware of the upcoming transition of the Vernal Point out of one sidereal constellation and into the next.

The problem of precession has been the subject of much intense research of late, with a number of dense and highly researched books in the field of archeoastronomy arguing that Hipparchus's 'discovery' was more a 'rediscovery' of a principle not only known to the ancients, but considered by them to be the basic mechanism of the universe. Precession represents a shift of only 1 in 72 years so is virtually imperceptible in one life time, yet the ancients had been recording their data for thousands of years and aligning their temples and other constructions with the positions of the stars, in some cases rebuilding them to keep the alignment accurate. As meaning comes to light of the true nature and design of ancient monuments, there appears to be a wide body of evidence to suggest that an understanding of precession, if not the formal knowledge attained by Hipparchus, is embedded in the myths of many cultures, in the form of recurring themes such as usurpation and replacement. If this theory can be proved, it has to be demonstrated against the previous precessional shift - the movement of the Vernal Point out of Taurus and into Aries, which took place within the golden heyday of ancient astrological worship, in the 2nd millennium BC. If we try to go back beyond that period of time, we are in danger of committing a modern viewpoint on a period of prehistory that we know very little about.

Notes & References:

  7 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (Loeb edition) Translated by F.E. Robbins. Harvard/Heinemann; Ch. 1.10.
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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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  Development of the Zodiac


  Precessional Shifts & Splits

 Origin of Taurus & Aries
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