Like a spinning top that is slowly losing momentum, the Earth wobbles on its axis, describing a great circle in space once every 26, years Irightj. The vernal equinox shifts backward along the ecliptic through one full constellation every 2, years the time- span indicated between points A and B -one-twelfih of the time it takes the Earth to complete its wobble.
Aries, shown in red, was the constellation rising with the Sun on the vernal equinox. The beginning of Aries marked the beginning of the zodiacal year. The signs and the constellations no longer correspond. Sidereal astrology takes note of actual stellar positions, but tropical astrology does not. The latter maintains the calendrical connection between Aries and the equinox, but in fact the sign and the constellation are no longer synchronous.
In essence, then, the tropical astrology favored in the IVesf is more metaphorical than real.
The constellation that rises with the Sun on the vernal equinox stays the same for more than 2,years and gives its name to the age. Thus the Age of Aries was ending about 2,years ago, and Pisces was beginning. Pisces is now yielding to Aquarius, but there is debate over exactly when the change occurs. This is because the constellations, defying schematics, do not Jit neatly into their thirty-degree segments.
Depending on where each one begins and ends, the Age of Aquarius may have already begun-or, as some astrologers maintain, it may dawn as late as the twenty- fourth century. Ancient astrologers knew as early as BC that the stars provided a stationary backdrop for the planets' movements across the sky. Surely a similar conflict would soon take place on earth. Much effort went into satisfying the gods' desires. Eventually Ishtar went down to fetch him, and the priests would chant prayers and light torches to illuminate her way. The shadow passed, and the moon emerged unharmed.
The Sumerians thrived for many centuries, until elbowed aside by newer arrivals. These included Semites from Arabia, who around BC united Mesopotamia with the kingdom of Akkad, the first regional empire; another Semitic people known as Amo- rites, whose capital at Babylon in the eighteenth century BC was a place of legendary splendor; then Hittites, Kassites, and finally the Assyrians, whose conquests swallowed up all previous realms.
Astrology was no exception. A forecaster's only client was the king himself, and the astrologer's main task was to discern the will of the gods so that the ruler could fix state policy accordingly. With their nations' futures on their shoulders, royal soothsayers in Babylonia and Assyria used every possible means to read ahead. The liver, being the largest organ, received particular attention. Some seers devoted themselves entirely to hepatoscopy, the art of its analysis.
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As part of their efforts to please and observe their deities, the lords of Babylon and Nineveh built temples on the summits of lofty stepped pyramids, called ziggurats— the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament is perhaps the most famous. The complex geometry of the heavens has always been a source of wonder and frustration. The astrologer would discern patterns, with one cluster shaped like a tuft of hair, another like a scorpion, still another like a strutting lion.
But a number of prominent orbs refused to fit into this regular format. Even a casual observer knew that in summer the sun rose earlier, stayed up longer, and took a higher path than it did in winter. The sky watchers also had the key to a nearly infallible prediction. By counting the days after the sun started moving north, they could estimate when the Mesopotamian rivers would rise with the spring flood, and when it would be time for farmers to plant their crops.
Another gleaming exception to overall celestial conformity was the moon.
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Not only did it rise and set at odd times of the day and night, but it was constantly changing shape as well. Gloriously bright at the full, it dwindled to the smallest crescent, then to nothing—only to reawaken in newborn splendor. Each cycle became a month, and twelve months added up to roughly a year. Certain days of the month were set aside for Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, fertility, and war depicted in this alabaster figure from the third century BC, was thought to be the daughter of either the sky god or moon god.
Since Venus is the first object to appear in both the morning and the evening skies, forming a symbolic link between the sun and the moon, Ishtar was identified with that planet. On the twenty-ninth of Tebit the king did not leave his palace, lest he "meet with witchcraft in the wind of the street.
The observance of this day of rest passed on to other cultures: thus the origin of the Jewish Sabbath and, later, of the Christian Sunday. Both sun and moon were important deities 1 in the pantheon of Mesopotamian sky gods, and so were other bodies whose movements seemed even more erratic. These were the planets, and the seer on his ziggurat could pick out five in all. The most brilliant was Venus—Ishtar, to the Babylonian seers—star of both morning and evening, who sometimes shone forth even when the sun was up.
Since her brightness fluctuated in an enticing manner, she was seen as the goddess of youth, beauty, and amorous love. But Ishtar was also known as the Lady of Battles and was depicted riding on a lion with a weapon in her hand. Jupiter J was another intensely bright planet, whose regal and steadfast glow the seer associated with Marduk, king of the gods. Marduk could unleash storms and cataclysms, but he was generally gracious, and he presaged worldly power and renown. The remote, slow-moving Saturn—Ninurta to the seer-reigned as the pale and flickering deity of time, old age, and scholarly pursuit.
With a cycle around the heavens of almost thirty years' duration, Ninurta took the long view of things. The planets appeared to roam the sky at will, with no logical relationship to one another or to anything else. Mercury danced back and forth in the vicinity of the sun.
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Saturn might linger in a single constellation for years on end, as though chained in place. Sometimes a planet would march ahead in good order, then pause or even reverse itself and move backward. The seers referred to these whimsical orbs as bibbus, or wild goats-an oddly irreverent term for the gods of human destiny. As the wild goats cavorted about the sky, the so-called fixed constellations provided convenient reference points for plotting their movements.
The seers divided the heavens into three broad avenues, which carried the stars along as though on conveyer belts. According to some authorities, this belt belonged to Anu, the ruling sky deity. Enlil, god of wind and rain, controlled the middle belt, whose stars were seen to rise and set with the daily turning of the earth.
The southernmost belt, with stars that might vanish for months on end in the winter, when the Northern Hemisphere was tipped away from them and the sun, was the domain of the water god Ea, who would periodically surface to rescue humankind in times of crisis, then fade back into his native ocean.
Envisioned as a wise old man wearing a fish-shaped cloak, Ea gave the world its science, its art, and its writing, as well as its knowledge of magic. New cultural influences poured in from Persia in the east and from the Greek-speaking westerners who lived on the shores of the Aegean Sea. But during his reign, from to BC, he rebuilt Babylon into a place of unrivaled splendor, with Hanging Gardens that ranked among the world's great wonders and a splendid new seven-tiered ziggurat for inquiring into the celestial mysteries.
Observations became more exact, with researchers using mathematics to pinpoint various astral bodies. Sundials and water clocks helped in the timing of stellar events. For precision, the researchers split the day and night into standardized periods: twelve hours from one noonday to the next, with each hour divided into sixty minutes, and each minute into sixty seconds.
The principal constellations also came under study. A fair number had been identified in earlier times, to be sure. Chung K ang's astronomers.
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The sun was saved, but not so the astronomers For their failure to warn of the attack on the sun -known to modernity as an eclipse— the two were put to death The Chinese were not alone in their fear of the darkening of the day or the sudden waning of the moon in a cloudless sky Indeed, the word cchpsc. The sun went down in the daytime. One day, as the Athenian I commander. Virgo, seen originally as a furrow in a grain field, stood for fertility.
Scorpio, an autumn sign, pierced the sun with his poison stinger, leaving the sun feeble and dying. Eventually, seers divided the Way of Enlil into twelve evenly spaced, month-long segments, and they named each segment after its corresponding star group. It did not matter that there were more constellations than segments, or that some constellations sprawled across greater expanses of sky than others. Some were dropped, and the differences in size among the rest were ignored. With a few minor changes, it would remain astrology's basic tool from then on.
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Among the most ardent surveyors of the heavens were the philosophers of Greece. But the philosophers, many of whom lived in Greek settlements in Ionia, on the west coast of modern Turkey, had no practical end in view. The sky gods had no hold over them. Nor did they seek to divine the future; the Greek oracle at Delphi was judged sufficient for that. Well versed in Eastern mathematics he is said to have brought geometry to Greece , Thales devised a new approach to cosmic study.
He sought to sweep the sky clean of the ancient mythologies and to substitute physical laws. The world could not have been formed, as the Babylonians thought, when Marduk slew the dragon Tiamat and shaped the cosmos from her parts.
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Applying his physical laws, Thales became adept at analyzing and predicting the movements of heavenly bodies. Another pupil, Anaximenes, suggested that the stars and planets were like the heads of shiny nails that had been driven into orbiting spheres of a transparent, crystal-like substance. He This early Greek bas-relief depicts Fanes, the god of light, truth, and justice, surrounded by the zodiac signs and the symbols of the four elements-a coiled snake for earth, a drinking bowl for water, wings for air, and a lion's head for fire.
According to Greek mythology, Atlas had to hold up the heavens after losing a war against Zeus, god of the sky. But both men sought a rational explanation for natural events. And for all their lofty speculation, the students of Thales could be resolutely down-to-earth. Anaximander, for example, took time to draw a map of the known world, which was astonishing in its overall accuracy. As these heady ideas swirled about in the intellectual debates of the philosophers, other schemes of thought rose up to confront them.