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This webpage reproduces a section of
Star Names
Their Lore and Meaning

Richard Hinckley Allen

as reprinted
in the Dover edition, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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. . . a broad belt of old of wide extent,

Wherein twelve starry animals are shown,

Marking the boundaries of Phoebus' zone.

Luis de Camões' Os Lusiadas.

The Solar Zodiac.

Many theories have been propounded for the birthplace and time of formation of this; but there now seems to be general agreement of opinion that it originated, mainly as we have it, in archaic Euphratean astronomy, possibly with only the six alternate signs, Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricornus, and Pisces, and later divided because of the annual occurrence of twelve full moons in successive parts of it. Yet Servius, about A.D. 400, said [ad Verg. Georg. I.33] that for a long time it consisted of but eleven constellations, Scorpio and its claws being a double sign, this characteristic feature descending to Greece and Rome.

Riccioli, about 1650, cited as a "Chaldean" title Hadronitho Demalusche, or Circle of the Signs; but this must be taken with much allowance,​1 for in his day Babylonian study had not begun, while modern scholars think that it was known to the Akkadians as Innum, and as Pidnu-sha‑Shame, the Furrow of Heaven, ploughed by the heavenly Directing Bull, our Taurus, which from about 3880 to about 1730 B.C. was first of the twelve.

Although our knowledge of that country's astronomy is as yet limited it is certain that the Akkadian names of the months were intimately connected with the divisions of this great circle; the calendar probably being taken from the stars about 2000 B.C., according to Professor Archibald Henry Sayce, of Oxford. Thence it passed to the Jews through Assyria and Aramaea, as the identity of its titles in those countries indicates; and the eleven, or twelve, signs for a time became with that people objects of idolatrous worship, as is evident from their history detailed in the 2d Book of the Kings, xxiii.5.

In the Babylonian Creation Legend, or Epic of Creation, discovered by  p2 George Smith in 1872,​2 the signs were Mizrātā, — a very similar word appears for the Milky Way, — generally supposed to be the original of the biblical Mazzārōth; Mazzālōth being the form used in the Targums and later Hebrew writings. This word, although of uncertain derivation, may come from a root meaning "to watch," the constellations thus marking the watches of the night by coming successively to the meridian; but Doctor Thomas Hyde,​3 the learned translator at Oxford in 1665 of the Zīj, or Tables, of Ulug Beg, and of Al Tizini's work, derived them from Ezor, a Girdle; while the more recent Dillmann referred them to Zāhir, from Zuhrah, a Glittering Star, and so signifying something specially luminous. Still this Bible word has been variously rendered, appearing for the Greater Bear, Sirius, the planets, or even for the constellations in general; indeed it has been thought to signify the Lunar Mansions.

Another name with the Jews for the zodiac was Galgal Hammazālōth, the Circle of the Signs; and Bayer said that they fancifully designated it as Opus Phrygionarum,​a the Work of the Phrygians, i.e., of the embroiderers in gold.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, followed by Saint Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 200, surmised that the twelve stones in the breastplate of the high priest might refer to the twelve zodiacal constellations. Philo Judaeus, of about the same time, associated the latter with the stars of Joseph's dream; the modern poet Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller, in Die Piccolomini, thus alluding to the ancient opinion as to its sacred character:

Twelve! twelve signs hath the zodiac, five and seven,

The holy numbers include themselves in twelve;

while Smyth wrote:

The allegorical images of Jacob's blessing have been identified by several writers with the signs of the Via Solis, whence God, as bow-man, becomes Sagittarius. Hebrew antiquaries have long recognized Enoch as inventor of the Dodecatemory divisions; and both Berosus [Berōssōs as now written, — the Chaldaean historian of about 260 B.C.] and Josephus declare that Abraham was famous for his celestial observations,

and even taught the Egyptians.

As to this last people, while our twelve figures appear on the Denderah  p3 planisphere doubtless from Greek or Roman influence, we have little knowledge as to what was the zodiac of their native astronomy, although it perhaps represented their twelve chief divinities; and Saint Clement tells us that the White, or Sacred, Ibis, Ibis aethiopica or religiosa, was its emblem. The Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher,​4 1602‑1680, has left to us its separate Coptic-Egyptian titles in the Greek text, with their supposed significations in Latin; but these, presumably translations from the originals, are not lexicon words. Among them, for the zodiac itself, is Ταμετοῦρο εντενίφθα,º whatever that may be. But Miss Agnes M. Clerke says that when Egypt adopted the Greek figures it was with various changes that effaced its character as "a circle of living things."b

In Arabia the zodiac was Al Minṭakah al Burūj, the Girdle of the Signs, that Bayer quoted as Almantica seu Nitac; and, more indefinitely, it was Al Falak, the Expanse of the Sky.

In Greece it was τα Δωδεκατημόρια, the Twelve Parts, and ὁ Ζωδιακός Κύκλος; but Aristotle, the Humboldt of the 4th century before our era, called it ὁ Κύκλος τῶν Ζωδίον,​5 the Circle of Little Animals, the signs before Libra was introduced being all of living creatures. The German Thierkreis has the same signification. Proclus of our 5th century called it ὁ Λοξός Κύκλος, the Oblique Circle, that originally was for the ecliptic; but with Aratos, who regarded the claws as distinct from Scorpio, it was τα Ἔιδωλα δυοκαίδεκα, the Twelve Images [Phaen. 454]. As Homer and Hesiod made no allusion to it, we may consider as in some degree correct the statement that another poet, Cleostratos of Tenedos, made it known in Greece about 500 B.C., from his observations on Mount Ida.

In Rome it commonly was Zodiacus; the Orbisº qui Graece Ζωδιακός dicitur of Cicero's De Divinatione [II.89]; and the Orbis signiferus, or Circulus signifer, of Cicero and Vitruvius, the Sign-bearing Circle, that became Signiportant in the Livre de Creatures, the 12th‑century Anglo-Norman poem of Philippe de Thaun. Poetically it was Media Via Solis and Orbita Solis; the Balteus stellatus of Manilius, the Starry Belt; and the varii Mutator Circulus anni of Lucan.

Bayer's Sigillarius probably is a Low Latin word for the Little Images; and he quoted Limbus textilis, the Woven Girdle, and Fascia, the Band, that Ptolemy used for the Milky Way.​c

 p4  Chaucer's line in Troilus and Criseyde —

and Signifer his candeles shewed brighte

was borrowed from Claudian's In Rufinum [I.365], and referred to the sky; but the Astrolabe had

This forseide hevenish zodiak is cleped the cercle of the signes.

Elsewhere he called the zodiac figures Eyrish bestes and the Cercle of the Bestes, for

zodia in langage of Greek sowneth bestes in Latin tonge;

ζῶα, the original word in The Revelation, iv.6, being translated "beasts" in our Authorized Version and "living creatures" in the Revised. Chaucer's terms may have been taken from Ovid's Formasque ferarum.

In manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxons it is Mielan circul zodiacum, the Great Zodiacal Circle, and Twelf Tacna, the Twelve Signs; but their descendants, our English ancestry of four or five centuries ago, knew it as the Bestiary, Our Ladye's Waye, and as the Girdle of the Sky; while the ecliptic was the Yoke of the Sky, or Thwart Circle, and the prime meridian, the Noonsteede, or Noonstead, Circle.

Milton, in Paradise Lost, thus accounts for the obliquity of the earth's axis, as if by direct interposition of the Creator:

Some say, he bid his angels turn askance

The poles of earth twice ten degrees or more

From the sun's axle; they with labour push'd

Oblique the centric globe: some say, the sun

Was bid turn reins from th' equinoctial road

Like distant breadth to Taurus with the seven

Atlantic Sisters, and the Spartan Twins,

Up to the Tropic Crab; thence down amain

By Leo, and the Virgin, and the Scales,

As deep as Capricorn, to bring in change

Of seasons to each clime.

Pope, in his Essay on Man, called it the Solar Walk, and, before his day, its various divisions were the Houses of the Sun, and the Monthly Abodes of Apollo.

Dante Alighieri, 1265‑1321, designated it

The oblique circle which conveys the planets,

and called it Rubecchio, the Tuscan word for a Mill-wheel whose various cogs were represented by the various signs, an image often made use of by  p5 the great poet. Longfellow translated this the Zodiac's Jagged Wheel. But many centuries, perhaps millenniums, before Dante the Rig Veda of India had

The twelve-spoked wheel revolves around the heavens;

720 children in pairs [= 360 days + 360 nights] abide in it.

And again,

The fellies are twelve; the wheel is one; within it are collected 360 [spokes].

A common title for it in India was Rāsi chakra.

In the neighboring Persia, the Bundehesh, or Cosmogony, in the Pahlavi dialect, of about the 8th or 9th century, a queerly mixed farrago of Persian and Semitic words, mentions our zodiacal divisions as the Twelve Akhtārs that lead the army of Ormuzd, while the seven Asvahtārs, or planets (including a meteor and a comet), fight for Āryamān.

But the twelve signs of that country, as also those of China and India, were gathered into four great groups marking the four quarters of the heavens, each with a Royal Star or Guardian; and the Avesta, or Divine Law, of Zoroaster is thought to mention a heavenly circle of figures equivalent to our zodiac.

Mr. Robert Brown, Jr., says that in China the Kung, or

zodiacal signs, are the Tiger (Sagittarius); the Hare (Scorpio); the Dragon (Libra); the Serpent (Virgo); the Horse (Leo); the Ram (Cancer); the Ape (Gemini); the Cock (Taurus); the Dog (Aries); the Boar (Pisces); the Rat (Aquarius); the Ox (Capricornus). This is a zodiac indeed; but although the latest research [notably by the late Doctor Terrien de Lacouperie] points to a more western origin of Chinese civilization [as of about 4000 years ago], and even (a most interesting fact) to the original identity of the Chinese pictorial writing with the Akkadian Cuneiform, as both springing from one prior source, yet the Chinese Zodiac is evidently independent, and none the less so because it happens to include the Ram and the Bull, which, however, are not Aries and Taurus.

It is well shown on the Temple Money,​6 a full set of which, of uncertain age, is in my possession.

This Chinese zodiac, however, progressed in reverse order from our own, opposed to the sun's annual course in the heavens, and began with the Rat. It was known as the Yellow Way, the date of formation being assigned to some time between the 27th and 7th centuries before our era, and the twelve symbols utilized to mark the twelve months of the year. It was borrowed, too, by the neighboring nations ages ago, some of its features being still  p6 current among them. After the establishment in China of the Jesuits in the 16th century our zodiac was adopted, its titles being closely translated and now in current use.

In England the Venerable Bede, 673‑735, substituted the eleven apostles for eleven of the early signs, as the Corona seu Circulus sanctorum Apostolorum, John the Baptist fitly taking the place of Aquarius to complete the circle. Sir William Drummond, in the 17th century, turned its constellations into a dozen Bible patriarchs; the Reverend G. Townsend made of them the twelve Caesars; and there have been other fanci­ful changes of this same character. Indeed, the Tree of Life in the Apocalypse has been thought a type of the zodiac, as

bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month.

Probably every nation on earth has had a solar zodiac in some form, generally one of animals. Even in Rhodesia, the aboriginal Mashona​7 Land of South Africa, there has recently been found a stone tablet thirty-eight inches in diameter, with the circle of the zodiacal signs on the edge; and early Mandaean tradition makes its figures children of their creative spirits Ur and Rūhā.

The introduction of the twelve figures into the walls or pavements of early churches, cathedrals, and public edifices, as well as, sometimes, private houses, is often to be noticed in Europe, and still more frequently in the temples of the East;​8 while all visitors to the New York State Building in the World's Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893 will recall the striking octagonal zodiac​9 designed by Messrs. McKim, Mead, and White, and laid in brass in the floor of the entrance hall, which, although not astronomically correct, greatly added to the interior effect of that beauti­ful structure.

The zodiacal constellations being of unequal extent, Hipparchos more scientifically divided the ecliptic circle into twelve equal spaces of 30° each, the twelve signs still in almanac use; but these are not now coincident with the similarly named constellations, having retrograded about 33° on the sphere since their formation.

The constellation north or south of the one of the zodiac that rose or set synchronically with it in Greece was known, in later days, as its paranatellon.

The Author's Notes:

1 In fact the same caution may be exercised in regard to much of the Euphratean transcription and translation throughout this work, as well as of the Chinese.

2 This was found on tablets of the reign of As‑sur-ba-ni‑pal, 600 B.C., although supposed to have been originally composed about 2350 B.C.: a supposition confirmed by Père Scheil, who recently has found a fragment of this legend on a tablet bearing the name of Am‑mi-za-du‑ga, King of Babylon, 2140 B.C.

3 It was this Doctor Hyde who first described the wedge-shaped characters of the Persepolis Inscriptions by the term cuneiformes, now a word of universal acceptation.

4 Kircher was a distinguished mathematician and scholar to whom, as also to Roger Bacon of four centuries previously, is attributed the invention of the magic lantern. In Samuel Boteler's celebrated poem Hudibras, 1663‑1678, he is alluded to as "the Coptic priest Kircherus." It was he who began the modern study of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

5 This is the first mention of the zodiac by any extant writer.

6 These are sharply minted coins, somewhat smaller than an American dime, apparently of silver and copper alloy, with a square perforation similar to that in the tsien or cash.

7 This word is Anglicized from Amashuina, the Baboons, the nickname given by the Matabele to their neighbors the Makalanga, the natives of Mashona Land.

8 Miss Clerke has much information as to this in her interesting article on the zodiac in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as has Brown in the 47th volume of Archaeologia.

9 This is now in the Boston Public Library.

Thayer's Notes:

a Like much of Bayer's language, this is no longer exactly Latin; were I in a less charitable mood, I might have called it barbarous — which, in passing, is why I usually don't put his Latin in the same color that I normally use for Latin. Anyhow, the term is opus phrygionium, meaning "embroidery": a rare word, occurring most prominently in Plin. H. N. VIII.196; Pliny derives it from Phryges = Phrygians.

b Enc. Britannica (1911), XXVIII, p995.

c More Bayer: The sigillaria were little images, alright — see the article Sigillaria in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Fascia, on the other hand, is a Latin word, and Ptolemy wrote in Greek: I haven't yet seen the passage, but it's unlikely he used the term.

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Page updated: 15 Dec 17