The Zodiac

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE ZODIAC


When Iswara was telling the pranavamantram to Parvathi, his son Subramania happened to hear it, and having learnt it, unknown to his parents, went and concealed himself. Iswara wanted to find him and to do so invented astrological science.

Sainyamuni Sutra

 Like the rim of a great celestial wheel, the stars in the sun's ecliptic appear to revolve in age-old patterns around the earth. The ancients, drawn to them as living entities, called their apparent orbit the Wheel (diakos) of Life (zoi) or Zodiac, and linked its course with the fortunes of men. They saw the symbolic patterns of stars as powerful clusters of beings whose various qualities affected the earth and all that lived upon it. For millennia Hindu astronomers measured the coming and going of whole epochs by the calculations of stellar movements. In Plato's time the Athenians marked a daily calendar with stars that rose or set upon the horizon as the ecliptic wheel appeared and disappeared in a serpentine fashion due to the tilting of the earth in its revolution. On the basis of such observations, peoples of ancient cultures came to relate the moment of birth to a certain rising star or constellation. Not all have been considered fortunate, as Shakespeare acknowledged when he caused Romeo to speak these despairing lines:

O here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this
world-wearied flesh.

 Shakespeare also suggests that man may play an active role in response to these sidereal influences. In The Tempest Prospero declares:

I find my Zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star; whose influence,
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.

 It is said that the sun, signifying the heart of man, relates to his innermost desires and that if one is born at sunrise, noon, sunset or midnight, the solar influence is strongly manifest. While this is believed to be more significant as one gets older, the young are generally thought to be more influenced by the rising constellation of their birth, the star under which they were born. But how do the stars and planets affect us? How can the symbolic characters we have attributed to these celestial orbs have distinctive influences on the lives of human beings? Is it through a subtle gravitational pull that affects the psycho-physical nature or is it by the operation of some sort of 'synchronicity' which links events occurring at the same time and yielding similar effects? Do local conditions of events at any moment reflect, in miniature, the evolution of the world as a whole? For example, will a person born at sunset always express psychological tendencies analogous to the character of the moment when the sun sinks out of sight? Perhaps there is a substratum beneath the analogical correspondences existing in the solar system which activates tangible spiritual and psycho-physical causes, operating to produce a complex metaphysical and physical chain of effects. Or, as the ancient Hindus thought, there may be a process whereby ethereal substances flow forth from the stars and planets and affect their material counterparts on earth. In the Hindu pantheon there are millions of spirits, gods and elementals magnetically attracted to certain quarters of the heavens. With stars and planets assuming various aspects, shoals of friendly or hostile elementals are thought to pour in upon our atmosphere, variously affecting individuals and races according to their natures. On the basis of millennia of carefully recorded observations, Eastern astrologers believe that there are different groups of spirits which have special sympathies with certain human temperaments, and the very elements themselves are believed to have their origin in the stars, a conclusion endorsed by contemporary astrophysics.

 Pythagoras taught that the entire universe is one vast series of mathematically correct combinations, an idea beautifully echoed in the Platonic axiom: God geometrizes. If the passage of influences between bodies making up this complex design is based upon a pervasive universal law, then one can see the zodiac, with all its complicated attributes, as a natural symbol reflecting the myriad expressions of an ordered system. Far from seeing the zodiac as arbitrary in its various conceptions and interpretations, Plato accepted it as an archetypal religious symbol of the Many and the One.

 Natural symbols are ideas that belong to the collective human psyche. On one level symbols relate the image of something to its intellectual meaning through a merging of the unconscious with the conscious mind. On another level the idea of a symbol like the zodiac may be seen as not merely corresponding to the interpretations people place upon their experiences but also to an objective reality where certain antecedents must cause certain consequences which are neither replaceable nor arbitrary. If the idea of the zodiac is a projection of the human mind, which merely takes on forceful reality through collective consciousness, we are speaking of it as the result of an intellectual structuralism which may, at one particular level of consciousness, have great validity. If, however, we consider the zodiac as a natural archetype, we are implying more than an individual or collective projection. We are suggesting the existence of an idea based upon a universal fact which expresses itself mentally, psychically and physically, which partakes of substance as well as consciousness, and depicts something fundamental about the nature of being itself. Though the zodiacal signs are abstract ideas, they designate particular stars which are related to the earth and other planets in precisely ordered ways. Similarly, though spirits, gods and elementals are idealizations, they represent manifest force-fields in the heavens and on earth which have been observed in their effects by scientists and magicians in all parts of the world.

 The Hindus, the Chinese and Greeks, as well as many other peoples, were quick to echo this archetypal celestial pattern in their cities and sanctuaries. The Chinese Empire was called the 'Middle Kingdom' or the earthly counterpart of the zodiac, while the Emperor himself represented the Pole Star at its centre. They observed the months when various phenomena were most active and allocated the appropriate names and shapes to the constellations dominating the heavens at particular times of the year. The empire was divided into twelve provinces, each with its presiding sign, much as Athens was divided into twelve portions, radiating outward from the central Acropolis, each containing temples of worship dedicated to the appropriate zodiacal god. These ancients perceived the correspondence of twelves at various levels involving temporal as well as spatial units, and in many cultures the hours, months and years were delineated and named after the celestial signs.

 The zodiacs of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as of Mexico and Peru, demonstrate a high degree of uniformity of application as well as conception. Several days of the Aztec month had names identical to their Chinese counterparts. Variations of the zodiacal pattern existed in North America in pre-Columbian days, and rock paintings in Africa and Australia testify to the worldwide nature of zodiacal symbolism. Its permutations indicate a great time-span of development and even if we attribute its universal presence to diffusion from one or two cultural centres, that in itself would argue for its immense antiquity. Indeed, the zodiac is felt by some to be the root of all mythologies. The Dendera Zodiac, for instance, shows the passage of three sidereal years, indicated by the inversion of the Lion, which represents a transposition of the poles, and by the triple image of Virgo. The Secret Doctrine describes this and other zodiacs at Dendera as records of the last part of the Fourth Sub-Race of the Fifth Root-Race going back seventy-five to eighty thousand years. The pattern of the Dendera Zodiac was evidently widespread, for the monolithic rocks of Stonehenge are positioned in a closely similar design.

 Though many modern scholars argue for a Chaldean origin for the zodiac, believing that after the Macedonians received it Alexander brought it to India, there is ample evidence that the zodiac and the science of astrology were highly developed in India long before the arrival of the pugilistic Greeks. For one thing, the Hindu epoch 3102 B.C., which marks the beginning of Kali Yuga, could not have been derived from a more recently borrowed science of astrology because the determination of such an epoch requires hundreds of centuries of observation of the average motions of stars and planets. Nor did the Hindus merely compare borrowed intervals to arrive at their epochs, since theirs are not at all connected to those of the Greeks. In addition, the astronomical instruments used by the two cultures are markedly dissimilar.

 The Rig Veda teaches: Astrology is the eye of Brahma. Attempting to 'see' through this eye, the ancient Hindus and Egyptians took their zodiacal measurements from four 'fixed' stars that moved. They realized that the zodiac moved one degree in every seventy-two years and completed an entire rotation in some twenty-six thousand years. This was the original sidereal zodiac, differing from the later Greek system that the West inherited, which in practice froze the zodiac by assuming that the sun peaked at the solstices at the same celestial position year after year. More recently, many have realized the arbitrariness of the later system and have switched to the use of the sidereal zodiac wherein the 'Greek Leo' and the 'sidereal Cancer' are really the same thing. In the second century A.D. Ptolemy, using the Greek system, introduced the idea of cardinal signs, identifying them as Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn, or those in which the equinoxes and solstices fell. Because these signs are still identified with the times of solstice and equinox in the West, they are still called cardinal, though the equinoxes and solstices now fall in the celestial regions of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius. Esoteric sources indicate that the vernal equinox has already passed out of Pisces into Aquarius, ushering the largely unwitting world into a New Age.

 It has been suggested that the signs of the zodiac symbolize and analyze phases of the cycles and evolutionary stages which they embrace. This may be seen in many correlative observations made by various cultures such as the concurrence of a full moon in Virgo with new crops. The signs have characteristics which can be symbolically related to the nature of cycles or stages. It is thought-provoking to consider that "the orbit of the sun through the twelve divisions corresponds to twelve degrees or stages in the action of the active principle upon the passive." In the Hindu tradition there has long been an exact correspondence between the signs of the zodiac and the cosmic cycles of Avatars, while in the tradition of the Jews the characteristics of the signs can be recognized in the words of the dying Jacob to his sons when he indicated to them the future of each of the twelve tribes.

 The zodiacal signs are ideographs and hieroglyphs with number, colour and tone. Their number is significant by its ordinal place in the series as well as its factorial position, the latter indicating whether it is cardinal, fixed or mutable, properties which can in turn be related to other trinities such as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the three gunas, and concepts such as knowledge, devotion and sacrifice. These can be seen as aspects of consciousness expressing themselves through certain signs or as symbols of stages of human life. The tropical Aries corresponds with the newborn baby who sees the world subjectively in terms of his own being. Taurus suggests a growing awareness of the world in relation to oneself while Gemini relates to play and the development of the capacity to articulate one's newly discovered knowledge. Cancer, connected with the moon, symbolizes adolescence and emotional turbulence, followed by Leo, where the individual attempts to stand on his own two feet and assert his own sense of identity. This sign characterizes a certain exuberance which is liable to incur difficulties, but Virgo, with its willingness to learn and serve, marks a maturing corrective stage. Libra, symbolizing balance, corresponds to a finding of one's place in the scheme of things, while Scorpio suggests a creative direction to one's energies and a fruitful consummation, Sagittarius a steady will to improve, and Capricorn, practical attainment on the basis of recognized ideals. These are followed by Aquarius, where an impartial understanding of things is possible which may lead the individual to a Piscean expression of ultimate meaning or, if the Aquarian potential was poorly grasped, an obverse expression of emotional reinvolvement and its attendant suggestion of futility.

 In the Abhidhammatha Sangha the twelve Nidanas, the causes of sentient existence expounded in Buddhist teachings, are linked with the twelve signs of the zodiac. Their division into two sixes is reminiscent of the way Patanjali distinguishes the individuality from the personality. Here, Aries is related to avidya or the ignorance and non-cognition responsible for birth. Taurus relates to samskara, the karmic conditions from previous lives, while Gemini corresponds to vijñana, or egoic self-consciousness. This is followed by Cancer, related to namarupa, or name and form, Leo to sadayatanam or the six senses, and Virgo to sparsa, the contact with the outer world. These first six, relating to the personality, are followed by the second six related to individuality. Libra corresponds with vedana or perception and sensation, while Scorpio relates to trishna, thirst or desire, and Sagittarius is connected with upadana, clinging. Capricorn relates to bhava, becoming, Aquarius to jati, birth, and Pisces to jara marana, decay and death. The last two are especially significant in relation to the potentiality of the soul's liberation from the wheel of life and death and have direct implications for the future. The first two are related to the past, while those in between mark the conditions and possibilities of the present. These temporal correlations remind one of Plato's account of the Moirae, the goddesses of past, present and future who enforce destiny through the 'Spindle of Necessity,' eternally ensuring the reincarnation of all life that is not yet fully enlightened. In this powerful metaphor Plato depicts the soul as it first chooses to descend into a personality and then becomes forgetfully enveloped while the forces of the three goddesses bear it towards its destiny.

 BEHOLD THE BEGINNING OF SENTIENT FORMLESS LIFE

 The stillness of the deep gives rise to One followed by Seven which is Three and Four, the multiples of which are Twelve. The hierarchy of Creative Powers is divided into seven esoteric aspects within the twelve great Orders that are recorded in the twelve signs of the zodiac. In the ancient Etruscan tradition this was spoken of as the apportionment of Twelve Millennia for the acts of creation which were then assigned to the twelve signs of the zodiac. The Secret Doctrine describes the highest hierarchical group as composed of the Divine Flames or 'Fiery Lions' hidden in the sign of Leo. This is the nucleole of the superior divine world. From this flame come the three descending groups. In Hindu tradition the Twelve Great Transformations of spirit into matter are said to take place during the four great ages of the first Mahayuga. This is the hidden meaning of the Kabalistic axiom: the Dodecahedron lies concealed in the perfect cube.

 These magnificent conceptions are synthesized in the symbol of the zodiac which covers, with its pictorial garments, the most arcane mysteries of manifested life. Hidden within the signs are the clues to the gradual understanding of how the universe is evolved from pre-existing matter, how it is one of an endless series, and how "Eternity is pointed off into grand cycles." The first six signs involve a steady materialization, the second six a gradual refinement, followed by a great indrawing of all life. The zodiac thus symbolizes an entire cosmic cycle of evolution and dissolution.

 In the Hindu system of zodiacal correlations the process of manifestation from the Word to the universe of thought is traced through the twelve signs. Mesam is related to Aja, or that which has no birth - Parabrahm. Sabham is Pranava or the Word. Mithunam is Ardhanarisvara, the first androgyne, while Karkatakam is numerologically linked to the Tetragram. Simham is related to the Jivatma. Its position as fifth in the series explains its synonym - Pancasyam - relating the lion to the Five Brahmas while another synonym - Hari - links it up with Narayana as representative of Jivatma, the animating power of the universe and of man. Kanya, the virgin, reflects the six primary forces or shaktis, while the next sign, Tula, involves the balanced preparation of the way toward the earthly manifestation of man. Hamsa becomes the manifest swan. Next, Vrscikam symbolizes Vishnu, or that which is the universe expanded in subjective thought. Then Dhanus follows, representing the nine Prajapatis and Makaram, the pentagon or the symbol of man. Kumbham or Aquarius identifies the fourteen lokas of Hindu tradition, while Minam is related to the five elements which are the keystones of evolution and which provide the vehicles through which the Word becomes increasingly manifest. From the One (Parabrahm) to the Three (the first androgyne) to the Four (the Tetragram), which is Seven (the universe expanded in thought), and finally to the five elements or pentagonal faces of the universe shaping the dodecahedron of the manifested world, the work of the Divine Creative Powers is completed.

 The tropical signs of Libra and Scorpio were latecomers to what was originally a scheme of ten exoteric signs and two hidden mystical signs. They contain the explanation of the gradual transformation of the world from the spiritual and subjective into the two-sexed and objective. Libra and Scorpio are blinds to "conceal the true names which gave the key to the whole secret of creation, and divulge the origin of 'good and evil.' " Libra is a turning point between the 'descending' and 'ascending' signs and as such, in man, marks the beginning of self-devised efforts. Scorpio is not only related to sexual generation but to the lighting up of Manas. The Scorpion, when linked with Uranus, is the 'Bond Breaker' which, by its sting, breaks up the sense of self and awakens cosmic consciousness. Esoteric tradition teaches that in this sign the centrifugal forces of evolution begin to draw into separative centres of self, gathering together powers of a volcanic potential and permitting Uranus to supplant the fiery and expansive Mars.

 The zodiac is the womb of the earthly universe where the essence of each form in manifested life can be traced back to its germane archetype. The Vedas and the Upanishads spoke of the icosahedron as representing the astral light which stands behind the material universe whose power is surrounded by the dodecahedron. The structure of the icosahedron is based upon the number ten and is related to the ten signs which existed before the separation of the one sign Virgo-Scorpio into the three separate signs of Virgo, Libra and Scorpio. The twelve-faced zodiac and dodecahedron reflect the patterns recorded in the astral light and form a link between the objective and subjective sides of nature. Through them radiate the 'Twelve Founts' of the Law, the apertures releasing the stream of power, "which taketh its type from the impress of the power of the invisible waters above." Spreading into our solar world from this invisible source, it becomes concentrated in the form of the sun, whence it radiates outwards to the seven sacred planets which refract its re-synthesized unity in the myriad sounds, rhythms and colours of the spheres.

 Plato called the planets 'visible gods' and while the rulers of the twelve zodiacal signs were said to be invisible, they were causal to the twelve principal manifestations of the creative force which runs the universe. Thus Plato taught that the Dodecatheoi, who were pictured on the central milestone of Athens from which all distances were measured, were not the visible signs or stars but gods who ruled behind and through them. These are the Lords of the zodiac from whence springs the human soul.

 Plato speaks of the soul's striving to follow one of the Twelve Gods and later, when fully incarnated, attempting to recognize what kind of spirit was trying to express itself through the soul's lunar vesture. In a more active sense, the soul could be seen as a sun journeying through the womb of the world (zodiac) along a ray of particular tone and colouring which is connected with one of the twelve signs. Combining these particular forces in a unique way, the soul becomes an agent perpetuating and refining divine energy in the world, while the signs themselves represent work to be completed during the many turnings of Ezekiel's wheel.

 The zodiacal or Ezekiel's wheel is symbolically related to Ouroboros - the serpent biting its tail which symbolizes AEON or duration. The serpentine motion of manifesting cosmic power is Fohat or kundalini working on ever more concrete levels, and its wave-like action is symbolized in the glyphs for Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius: Believed to be of great antiquity, they indicate the moving powers in evolution and the progressive stages of awakening. In Mediterranean mythology the bull is often either slain by the hero or devoured by the lion, which in turn is slain by the initiate who finally, as the Scorpion must, in stinging himself, destroy the lower man and release the higher mind into Aquarius. Thus the serpentine power is latent in Taurus, active in Leo, fully awake in Scorpio and transcendent in Aquarius. It is said that when man becomes manifested in Aquarius, he will be like Horus in the cippus of Alexandria, who stands holding the serpent and all the other signs in his hands. He will represent the culmination of all creation which was subjected to four groups of the twelve powers of the World-Soul.

 Behind the Twelve are the Four and the Three, which sequence lends meaning to the idea that the twelve signs derive from the four elements combined with the three gunas, which latter number times twelve can be correlated with the thirty-six principles of essential being, or tattvams. The same thirty-six can be arrived at by multiplying the four elements times nine, a numerological derivation related to the Prajapatis who assisted the Demiurgos in constructing the universe. The elements can be conceived as modes of motion characteristic of different stages of evolution, while the gunas represent qualities of being at various levels of essence, transition and materialization. From the flame of the 'Fiery Lions' come the three descending groups or qualities which commence the twelve great transformations through the four stages. The dodecahedron lies concealed within the triangle and the perfect cube.

 In the Symposium it is stated that "Sacrifice and Divination is the art of communion between gods and men," the art of reconciling the conscious and the unconscious. Perhaps this is a necessary reflection of the sacrifice of the zodiacal gods themselves suggested in Hindu tradition where it is said that the astral prototypes of the zodiac created by Brahma were sacred sacrificial animals. Indeed, the sign of Aries, which in the tropical zodiac ushers in the initial stage of evolution, is the Ram or Iamb of sacrifice. In Egyptian symbolism, during the first stage of its journey through the world, the solar boat bears the sun in the form of a ram-headed man. Man, in sacrificing the Iamb to God, attempts to reciprocate on the plane of matter, releasing the essence of the sacred animal to its source. The sacrifices of Avatars, in their many zodiacal forms, are echoed in the most ancient types of religious ritual reflecting the highest aspects of man's link with the stars.

 Just as men sacrifice to the gods, so they must sacrifice to one another, for all human problems are problems of relationship. All relationships are symbolized by the zodiac and the twelve types of sidereal power combine in all possible ways as they circle around the focus of life. If the sun must pass through them all, so must the soul pass through and alchemize their qualities, reflecting thereby the greater balance of the heavens. This it does by relating to others as well as to itself. The only way by which a zodiacal balance can be reflected among human beings is through continual sacrifice and divination, the reconciliation of self with Self, the One with the Many. There can be no doubt that great Compassionaters have set the pattern for us. Just as the sidereal archetypes exist as models, so there must have been actual realms on earth where Masters of Wisdom walked. Esoteric tradition teaches that in what is now the Gobi desert there were once twelve islands, the abodes of the Twelve Hierophants, which existed until the last great glacial period. Among the Kalmucks of Central Asia this profound and beautiful idea continues as a living reality. They identify cardinal islands in a circle of twelve, representing the reflection of the twelve lands above.

 Through the zodiacal modes, the pilgrim soul attempts to merge itself back into the divine source of its Ray. At the point of the tropical Aquarius, the soul may drink of the waters of the Supernal Cup and be released from the wheel.

Say, I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven,
But my race is of Heaven alone.
This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish,
Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth
From the Lake of Memory.
             Orphic Mysteries

 But if the waters of Lethe are drunk, the pilgrim soul will enter into Pisces, all wrapped in emotion, to die and be reborn upon the wheel once more. The Supernal Waters can fill the being with ananda, a love for all mankind, the platform which may bear the soul into the sign of Pisces, a saviour. But if the soul would sacrifice for humanity, it must be capable of total liberation from the wheel at the air sign of Aquarius. The death in Pisces which follows will then be one pursued by choice and on behalf of the whole.

 The Twelve Gods watch through the duration of great kalpas. They endure as man evolves and reaches dimly toward their light. They wait as man slowly marshals their mighty forces within his being and rises heavenward with Aquarius to take the whole of the zodiac into his own hands.

 'It is the sun who preserves and nourishes all creatures; and even as the Ideal World which environs the sensible world fills this last with the plenitude and universal variety of forms, so also the Sun, enfolding all in his light, accomplishes everywhere the birth and development of creatures. . . . Under his orders is the choir of Genii, or rather the choirs, for there are many and diverse, and their number corresponds to that of the stars. Every star has its genii, good and evil by nature, or rather by their operation, for operation is the essence of the genii. . . . All these Genii preside over mundane affairs, they shake and overthrow the constitution of States and of individuals; they imprint their likeness on our Souls, they are present in our nerves, our marrow, our veins, our arteries, and our very brain-substance.'

The Secret Doctrine