A Primer of Stellar Astrology
Introducing the Real-Sky Zodiac and StarBase
Chapter 1: In the Dark of Night
Signs and Constellations
This illustration shows the composite of the constellation of Cancer, the Crab, and its signature. (Source: Skywatching by David Levy, Harper/CollinsPublishers, 1996). The composite (dark blue area) is the total collection of stars in the constellation. The signature is the star-to-star formation that visually identifies the constellation. It is composed of the brightest stars, so that when scanning the composite, the eye tends to put together the signature automatically as it responds to these outstanding stars and connects them. The signature for Cancer is a wide inverted Y. The yellow broken line slanting downward right to left is the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun which is in reality the earth's orbital plane.
The ecliptic is so-called because it is the median strip of the region where eclipses occur when sun, moon, and earth are aligned. Only the sun and the earth are ever exactly on the ecliptic, or the moon periodically when it crosses the ecliptic (at the lunar nodes). The course of the moon snakes above and below the ecliptic. The other planets revolve around the sun within a region of about eight degrees above (north) or below (south) the precise ecliptic median. This region is called the ecliptic zone. Uniquely, the outermost planet pluto has such a slanted orbit relative to the earth's orbital plane that it sometimes stands beyond the ecliptic zone.
Cancer is a recogizable pattern in the real-sky zodiac or stellar zodiac, one of the thirteen perennial figures in the ecliptic zodiac comprised of the constellations that lie along the orbital plane of the earth, not on that plane but along the line defined by its extension into space. The sun transits the Crab from July 21 to August 8, roughly speaking. The exact visual boundaries of this constellation (and others) are not sure and distinct, so it is impossible to give unequivocal figures. Also, it is impossible to observe the transit: the sun in passing before a constellation renders it invisible. The central star of the signature is delta Cancri, ecliptic longitude 129 or 9 degrees of the sign Leo. The sun passes directly in front of this star on August 1 each year, but it is of course impossible to observe this transit.
Astronomers use the Greco-Latin names for the constellations, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and so on. Unfortunately, astrologers use the same names for the starless sectors of the tropical zodiac. For instance, in ILL. 1, the neighboring constellation to the right (west) of the Crab is the Twins, called here by its Greco-Latin astronomical name, Gemini -- but Gemini is also the astrological name of an entirely different entity, a celestial sector that cannot be seen. Note the prominent head-stars of the mythological twins, Castor and Pollux.
To solve this problem of celestial nomenclature, I propose using graphic or story-book names for the visible constellations, Ram, Bull, Twins, Crab, etc, and reserving the Greco-Latin names for the signs, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, etc. Signs and constellations are not identical, and never have been. They do not "correspond" in such a way, for instance, that the personal traits attributed to the sign Cancer can be applied to the constellation of the Crab. Understanding the incongruity of signs and constellations is an essential in learning StarBase or true stellar astrology.
The Ecliptic Scale
Below is an astronomical map of a section of the ecliptic zodiac, showing the Scales, Scorpion, Snaketamer, and Archer. This model gives the story-book names in lower case and the Greco-Latin names in upper case. This is helpful in a way, but again, it is wrong to equate Libra, the astrological sign, with the constellation of the Scales or Balance. (Source: Michael Erlewine, Astrophysical Directions, Heart Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1977)
The curving line that runs from the Scales across to the Archer is the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun -- the orbital path of the earth. Of course, the earth does not move in the region of these star remote patterns. But if we extend the plane of the earth's orbit into far-distant space, it selects these patterns out of the total array of 88 constellations in the celestial sphere. So they are called the ecliptic constellations; others extra-ecliptic. The shaded area respresents the region of dense star population called the Milky Way, which is the edge of the thin galactic limb we inhabit, seen from within. The 13 zodiacal constellations do not belong to the Milky Way, but the ecliptic intersects the Milky Way at two places, so some of the ecliptic constellations lie within the Milky Way, partly at least. As clearly seen, the lower torso and tail of the Scorpion lie in the Milky Way. The Archer is entirely immersed in the Milky Way, except for the lowest stars of the signature (hind legs). The looming figure of the Snaketamer (serpent holder) that stands astride the Scorpion has his right leg immersed in the Milky Way from the hip downward.
The number 230 in the Scales is the ecliptic longitude at that point measured from a start-point in the first degree of the sign Aries. ECL 230 means 230 degrees from "zero Aries." This is the standard astronomical convention of measurement on the ecliptic scale. The sun moves along this scale, one degree per day. In terms of the astrological signs, ECL 230 is 20 degrees of Scorpio, where the sun stands on November 13 each year. If you are born on that day, you are a Scorpio with the sun in the Scales. Both designations fit you, but you are not a Libra by sign. The two designations do not correspond in the sense that one can be reduced to the other. Signs and constellations encode different kinds of information.
The astrological signs belong to the tropical framework codified around 150 CE by the Greek astronomer-astrologer Claudeus Ptolemy in his classic book, Tetrabiblos, as I will explain in Chapter 2 of the Primer. The tropical zodiac is a man-made construct that divides the ecliptic plane into twelve equal sections irrespective of the surrounding stars. It is called tropical because Ptolemy designated the points for defining the format by the solstices and equinoxes which mark the seasons of the year: hence seasonal = tropical. The tropical model, the basis of sun sign astrology, is the most widely used astrological format in the world. Other models of the zodiac are the Vedic, western siderealist, Chinese, Tibetan, and more. (Later I will explain why the Vedic and western siderealist systems, even though they do use the constellations, are ersatz or quasi-stellar formats and not genuine, full-blown constellational systems.)
In the Erlewine model, the ecliptic section 240-270 is the sign Sagittarius. Anyone born in this section, where the sun transits from November 23 to December 22 each year, will be a Sagittarius, as determined by the tropical format. But clearly, the sun during that period traverses first the upper torso of the Scorpion (23 November - 4 December), and then it traverses the legs of the Snaketamer (December 5 -23). So, if you were born, like Steven Spielberg, on December 18, you are a Sagittarian with the sun in the Snaketamer, positioned on the right leg that stands on the stinger of the Scorpion. A tropical astrologer reading Spielberg's chart will say a lot about his attitudes and traits as a Sagittarian, but totally ignore the constellational placement.
In astrology stores today, there is (to my knowledge) no book except Quest for the Zodiac that will tell you what it means to be born with the sun on the right leg of the Snaketamer.
In the above descriptions, I am jumping ahead a little and using some terminology that I have not yet defined. Additional to the composite and signature of every constellation are the graphics: the drawing that shows how the star-pattern is visually pictured. When I say "the sun on the right leg of the Snaketamer, above the stinger of the Scorpion," I am citing graphics. There is a wide degree of latitude in how graphics may be drawn, of course. These images from The New Patterns in the Sky by J. D. W. Stahl show some graphic variations of the Crab:
Note that Stahl uses a different signature recognized in some cultures other than the Greco-Roman tradition from which most well-known star lore derives. Normally, the inverted Y signature is formed by joining the central star, delta, to the star beta on the Crab's lower leg, to the right.
The process of mapping constellations is called stellar cartography. The art of picturing the constellations is called stellography. The huge inventory of myths and legends associated with the constellational images is called sidereal mythology. The description of any constellation in terms of its associated myths and legends is called mythography. All of these terms belong to the genre of comparative sky-lore. In learning comparative sky-lore, we use the graphics of the constellations, the "cycle of animations," as I translate zodiakos kyklos. Picturing the zodiacal constellations in massive animated forms engages our innate imaginative and story-telling faculties. The narrative faculty is highly developed in the human species. By picturing events and telling stories, we navigate through our lives and, indeed, through the course of history itself.
Sky globes survive from the Greek era, giving us some idea of the zodiacal graphics conceived in ancient times. The Dendera Zodiac, for example. Most of the graphics of the DZ conform to Greco-Roman tradition, because the planisphere was designed by Egyptians astronomer-priests as a teaching device for their Greek students, but some of the graphics are purely Egyptian. Mythical poems such as the Astronomia of the Roman astronomer Manilius (1st Century CE) give verbal descriptions that can be converted into pictures:
Arabian stellography preserved astronomical knowledge through the middle Ages. The skies are brilliantly visible in the desert, as they are in the oceans, on clear nights. Arabian star map show a high fidelity of the star-positions to the graphics. Many other star maps that survive from the Middle Ages show little or no relation between the signatures, i.e., actual star positions, and the form and gestures of the mythological figures depicted.
With the Renaissance came a rebirth of the arts and sciences of antiquity, including stellar cartography and stellography. In 1520 Albrecht Durer created two large woodcut plates of the Ptolemaic constellations, including ecliptic and extra-exliptic images. He used state-of-the-art star maps to create graphics that fit the signatures. Durer's pictorializations of the zodiac became iconic. They were copied by many stellographers who came after him, right down the 20th century.
Unfortunately, Durer's celestial graphics are esthetically ugly and awkward. The human figures such as Andromeda (extra-ecliptic) and the Twins are heavy and fleshy. The rendering is notably Germanic in style, suggesting that celestial folk dine heavily on sausage and potato salad. There are other problems as well. Consider Durer's graphics for the Scales-Scorpion-Snaketamer-Archer shown in ILL 2:
Although Durer's graphics were designed to accurately match the best calculations of star positions known in his time, but they are topsy turvy relative to the real-sky perspective. In the first place, Durer worked from a illustrated globe and transcribed the constellational figures onto a flat wooden plate. Consequently, he presents a view of the constellations as if seen from outside space, a god's-eye view. He shows the Snaketamer from behind, but in actual viewing we see him frontally, face-on. In another distortion, the order of the zodiac is reversed, with the Scales to the left of the Scorpion, the Scorpion to the left of the Archer, and so on, all the way around the ecliptic. This is a mirror inversion of how the sky really looks: the Scorpion is on the right (west) of the Archer, and rises before it, etc.
Translating from an accurate sky map to a true-to-sight version of celestial graphics involves a number of formatting problems, but they are not too complex or difficult. It took me about four years to work out the graphic model I finally adopted, called the Rimsite, as I will explain below.
For comparison to the stellar cartography (ILL 2) presenting only composites and signatures, and Durer's graphics (ILL 3), with its chunky figures and distortions, here is my version of the same section of the skies:
The constellations are identified by their story-book names. All star positions are accurate and conformable to astronomical standards. The graphics represent deliberate visualizations added to the starry patterns, of course. In observation, you perceive the star patterns and conceive or visualize the mythological figures. Doing so is an art that takes time, care, and repeated viewing. I spent years trying to come up with a set of graphics that would aid visualization and assist the observer in detecting subtle features of the sky and relationships between the great celestial animations, zodiakos kyklos. Finally, I tried to streamline and simplify as far as possible the rendering of the graphic figures.
ILL 4 shows the most remarkable tableaux of the entire zodiac. The figures are interactive in a dramatic way. Note how the Scorpion, as it emerges from the dark waters of the Milky Way, reaches out with one claw toward the crossbeam of the Scales, and jars the pans. They hang precariously, the tension momentarily knocked out of the strings. The pans are in disequilibrium, but the crossbeam is steady. As if to restrain the Scorpion from making another strike, the Snaketamer applies pressure: his left foot bears down on the heart-star of the Scorpion, Antares, and he holds his right leg straight and tensed, with his foot on the stinger. Left of him (east), the Archer also participates in this drama. He aims not for Antares, but for eta, a star in the lower torso of the Scorpion, where the poison is stored. He holds the tip of his arrow right over the stinger, where the poison is released.
Beyond the Archer, to the left (east), is the constellation of the Goatfish, a weird hybrid creature that appears to observe this entire tableau. The detachment of the Goatfish is emphasized by the void, a space empty of stars, stretching for about thirteen degrees between it and the Archer.
The circular section beneath the graphics is the ecliptic scale, accurately positioned relative to the constellations so that any planet plotted in the starless signs can be directly projected by line-of-sight into the stellar perspective: this is conversion to StarBase. The vertical line between Archer and Scorpion is the solsticial colure or line of the winter solstice. The small black triangle just off this line, very close to the tip of the Archer's arrow, is the galactic center -- or more precisely, the line-of-sight toward the center of the galaxy we inhabit. The winter solstice is in the process of lining up with the galactic center (ECL 267 approximately: 27 degrees of the sign Sagittarius). This alignment is affected by the precession of the equinoxes. Based on a initial moment encoded in the Dendera Zodiac, I estimate the timing for alignment to be around 2216 CE, about two hundred years from now. 2216 CE is midnight on the cosmic clock. In terms of the full precessional cycle of 25,920 years, we are now at eleven minutes from midnight.
JLL 16 April 2008 Andalucia
Primer to be continued....
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.