A Hunting We Go for Beasts That Lurk Along the Zodiac
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Mention the word Zodiac and different people will immediately think about a variety of things. Some might reflect on a famous murderer. Others will ponder their astrological sign. A few might contemplate animals, and some will consider a set of constellations that lie in a band around the sky.
With this article I introduce a series about the collection of constellations comprising the zodiac. I will devote one of my two articles each month to a zodiacal constellation until we have covered all twelve of them. First, lets consider the zodiac generally as preparation for exploring its parts.
A band of twelve constellations (once there were 13) forms a celestial highway along which the wanderers of the sky travel. The Greek word planetes, the wanderers, originally referred to the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the seven "planets" known to the ancients. In more recent times the word has come to refer to the larger bodies orbiting the Sun, including Earth and those discovered since the invention of the telescope, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. The word "zodiac" comes from the Greek zodiakos, referring to animals. Not all of the constellation figures, however, are animals: three are people, one is half human and half animal, two are creatures of the ocean, one is a poisonous insect, another is an instrument for weighing things, and the final four-and-one-half are, indeed, animals. Against this set of figures, formed by stars as seen in the minds and mythologies of the ancients, the Sun, Moon and planets run their perpetual races, never straying from the boundaries of the "circle of beasts."
Because the stars maintained their patterns while planets mysteriously moved among some of them, the constellations of the zodiac acquired particular significance. No one can say when this started, for the naming of the old constellations predates recorded history. Lots of magical and mystical ideas were invented and circulated about both the planets and the constellations through which they moved, and these persist for those choosing to embrace astrology.
Belief in astrology is a fine example of people craving prescriptions for living without applying the best and most current knowledge available. Indeed, "genuine" astrologers attempt to recapture the oldest interpretations, believing them to be the most inspired. They even use for birth and forecast "signs" the constellations the Sun moved through in olden times when astrology had its origins, rather than correlating the dates and constellations the Sun currently moves through.
In order to understand what the zodiac is, imagine watching the movements of the solar system from the Sun. Viewed from that high bright station we would see the entire fleet of planets, including Earth, move around us through the zodiac. Earth would trace a line we call the ecliptic and the other planets would trace paths nearly coinciding with the ecliptic.
From Earth we look out and see a changing relationship between the Sun by day and stars of the zodiac by night. Watching just before sunrise and after sunset, we discern that the Sun appears to be moving through the zodiac. This is, of course, merely a reflection of our own orbital motion around the Sun. When we see the Sun against one side of the zodiac, our imaginary observer located on the Sun would see Earth on the opposite side. Thus, it is no mystery why the Sun travels against the distant background of zodiacal stars, nor is it puzzling that the other planets appear to move through this celestial realm. We see them by the light they reflect from the Sun and their apparent paths show their orbital motions about the Sun as seen from the moving Earth.
Mysterious or not, this set of constellations has become the reference background for studying the objects closest to us, the ones we have been able recently to visit with scientific instruments. In a sense they also provide orientation for studying the entire universe around us. Position of stars, galaxies and other objects are specified by reference to a single point located along the ecliptic, the vernal equinox. This is the point the Sun occupies as it moves from the southern hemisphere of the sky into the northern in late March. When this system for measuring the location of things in the sky was first established, the vernal equinox was located in the constellation Aries, the Ram. It became known as the "First Point of Aries." Because the force of gravity between Sun, Moon and Earth is not uniform over time, resulting from the fact that Earth is not quite spherical, the vernal equinox slowly moves around the ecliptic. It is now located in the constellation Pisces just west of Aries. It will move completely through the zodiac, around the ecliptic, in 26,000 years.
Over the next 12 months, I invite my readers to become acquainted with this fascinating region of the sky. Some of the constellations will be easy to find. Others will be much more challenging. In order to encourage you to learn them in order, as we begin our exploration, I give you a little verse that I wrote to prod your memory:
THE HERD IN THE SKY
Aries and Taurus are in the corral,
While the Twins (Gemini) go hunting for Crab (Cancer).
The Lion (Leo) watches over the Virgin (Virgo),
Who weighs her jewels on the Scales (Libra).
The Scorpion (Scorpius) crawls away from the Archer (Sagittarius),
And the Sea Goat (Capricornus) swims from the shore.
Aquarius pours water on Fishes (Pisces)
That swim away in the swirl.
Now we are back at the beginning,
Of the pathway where wanderers whirl.
Together we will look around and go a-hunting for beasts long ago imagined to lurk among the stars, and for ideas, both old and new, that have been discovered along the zodiac.