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  • Writer's pictureAlex Brûlée

Where Zodiac Signs Come From

Everyone has a strong opinion about zodiac signs. Whether you believe in them or consider them a pseudoscience, chances are, you’ve looked up your own chart on at least one occasion to see what it has in store for you. So with something so widespread and hotly contested, it begs the question: where do zodiac signs come from?

First we need to address what the quintessential horoscope is. It was originally thought that predicting the future was possible from tracking the “movement” of the stars… but stars don’t actually move. The reason why stars look like they’re moving, both throughout the night and over the course of the year, is because the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits around the Sun. But, before most humans knew that, they spent a lot of time postulating on the happen-stances of the “heavens.”

The practice of looking at nature to predict the future or human affairs is longer than the history of the written word. According to Sten Odenwald, the director of Citizen Science at the NASA Space Science Education Consortium. “There’s some indication that cave art shows this idea that animals and things can be imbued with some kind of spirit form that then has an influence on you, and if you appease that spirit form, then you will have a successful hunt. That was taken over by the idea of divination, where you can actually look at things in nature and study them carefully, such as tea-leaf reading.” The earliest known civilizations to have divination practices where China and Sumeria. Chinese emperors would study cracked turtle shells when considering important policy, while Sumerians would examine the entrails of sacrifice animals to predict the harvest’s yield.

The Sumerians also watched planets and the stars as a way to keep track of where gods were in the sky. The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the ancient Sumerian version of an 8-ball fortune teller, is one of the earliest pieces of what’s been called Babylonian planetary omens. The ancient Egyptians contributed the idea that patterns of stars made up constellations, through which the sun appears to “move” at a specific times during the year.

It’s thought that when Alexander the Great conquered what was Babylonia and Egypt, these two planetary fortunes came together. Alexander, a Macedonian imbued with Greek cultural values like mathematics and logic absorbed this planetary divination in a unique way that wouldn’t conflict with his own social conventions: i.e. they created a lot of the rules for how this could work. And this is where our beloved zodiac comes in.

In the words of Sten Odenwald, the ancient astrological world looked something like this,

“Imagine a straight line drawn from Earth through the Sun and out into space way beyond our solar system where the stars are. Then, picture Earth following its orbit around the Sun. This imaginary line would rotate, pointing to different stars throughout one complete trip around the Sun — or, one year. All the stars that lie close to the imaginary flat disk swept out by this imaginary line are said to be in the zodiac. The constellations in the zodiac are simply the constellations that this imaginary straight line points to in its year-long journey.”

And, keeping with the Babylonian calendar, which had twelve months in a year, and the Sumerian mathematical system, which counted in terms of 12 (not in our terms of 10), 12 just seemed like a good fit. The names, Taurus, Gemini, Capricorn, etc. were named after pre-existing greek myths and constellations so that they would be more palatable to Alexander’s newly multinational empire.

But, it’s worth noting that if you’re trying to match up to the ancient greek calendar, that March-April= an Aries baby etc., you’ll find those “divinations” aren’t accurate anymore. The Earth has moved on its axis since then, a process known as precession. Now the dates that are used to mark the signs don’t really correspond to the background constellations that give them their signs names. In fact, the chronology has really shifted one sign to the West. That means zodiac sign dates, based on the mathematical division of the year, basically correspond today to the presence of the sun in the constellations of the signs that come before them. To fix this, modern astrologists have adapted to looking at the alignment of all 12 planets (hence the terms “sun sign” “moon sign” “rising” sign etc.), instead of just a sun sign (the sign attached to the monthly bracket you were born in), for greater accuracy.

The “accuracy” in question is… dubious at best. Astrology and divination have never been based in any science. But astrology’s popularity relies on factors that numbers can’t compute, and the appeal of looking to the stars for answers that have not waned since Alexander’s time. Some have gone so far as to say that even if astrology’s answers aren’t based on scientific study, the reason people keep turning to the sky does come down to something very real: a psychological phenomenon he calls the human tendency for “self-selection,” the search for interpretations that match what we already hope to be true. Whoever you are, whether you’re from 600 BCE or 2020, you probably want to feel unique- destined for something greater.

But, even if we can’t find comfort in astrology to tell us we’re chosen for a greater purpose, there is some comfort in knowing that however cringey you think you are for looking up you and your crush’s compatibility on, humans have been doing that for almost 2,000 years. We look up on a search to look within. Keep on searching, maybe you will find something.

To read more articles from Alex Brûlée click here.

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