Occult Fundamentals 004: What is the Zodiac?

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Astrology is a practice that studies how celestial objects influence living beings, non-living being, and earthly circumstances. Studying the stars is one of the oldest sciences, perhaps originating in ancient Sumer, or most likely earlier elsewhere.

Humans had to be able to predict the seasons in order to survive in many parts of the world – recognizing patterns in the heavens is basically in our blood. In many places the early humans that lacked this ability would have simply died out, removed from the evolutionary gene pool forever. You are descended from those that were able to successfully predict the immediate future by observing the natural world around them. The stars were one of man’s first allies in this task.

Astrological arts were found in ancient Egypt, Rome, Vedic culture (in India), ancient China, the Persian empire, and in most other civilizations. We will do an in depth look at the history of astrology and man’s relationship to the stars in a later chapter.

Astrology eventually developed into astronomy, although for many centuries they were the same thing.

Today, most people recognize that astrology is, at least in some sense, subjective and intuitive, unlike the science of astronomy. I think of astrology as a spiritual practice, not a science. Even if celestial objects have no influence on Earth at all, astrology still has much to offer us in terms of being a symbolic philosophy that explains and encapsulates the largely spiritual essence of life. It is, like the four elements, a lens through which we can see and understand the invisible forces that we often interact with. In fact, I would say one of the main functions of astrology is to give us a larger symbolic vocabulary that we can use to make sense of and explain the typically abstract and poorly defined forces and motivations that govern our lives.

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Most people are familiar with astrology from personal horoscopes. It goes much deeper than that and progresses directly into the analysis of the spiritual, moral, physical, and intellectual dynamics of the cosmos.

We’ll be getting a clearer picture of what astrology really is as we progress, I just wanted to give you a little background info before we build on the four elements with our next symbolic system: the zodiac.

Before we discuss the zodiac, there is one more term I have to define: apparent. In the context of astrology and astronomy, apparent means how it appears, not how it actually is. So, for example, the sun and the moon are apparently the same size. Their apparent size is the same. Obviously they are not the same size in reality, but they look like they’re the same size to an observer on Earth. This word will be crucial to understanding the next few concepts.

Anyway, the zodiac is a group of twelve constellations in the sky. Sometimes, our view of the night sky is discussed as though we are looking out on to a giant sphere from the inside. We call this the celestial sphere (it is apparently a sphere turning around us – get it?).

celestialsphereWhen we discuss astrology, you should imagine the stars and planets as though they’re placed on this celestial sphere.

Each zodiac sign is evenly spaced along a circular path that runs around this sphere called the ecliptic. If you imagine yourself on the Earth in the above picture, inside of the celestial sphere, the ecliptic is the apparent path of the sun over an entire year.

This sounds confusing, but it is actually very simple. If you could see the stars during the day, you would see the sun moving against a backdrop of stars over the course of the year. You would see it in front of Aries in the spring, and then the backdrop would slowly turn and it would move in front of a bunch of other constellations, and next spring you would see Aries come back over the horizon and the sun would be right in front of it again – it makes a full circle around the celestial sphere over the course of the year. This circle it makes is called the ecliptic.

Said succinctly, the ecliptic is the apparent circle the sun makes around the celestial sphere every year.

Just to make sure that this is perfectly clear, I’ll also explain it to you as a modern person who believes that the Earth orbits the sun. In this GIF, the pink arrow is your line of sight as an observer on Earth who is looking at the sun. You can see that as the Earth moves around the sun (over 365 days), you would see it moving against the backdrop of stars I’ve just described.

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Over the course of a year you would see the sun move around this circle in the sky: this is the ecliptic. You can also see that it runs through different constellations: these are the zodiac constellations. It’s the larger red circle in the diagram below:

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So, to be totally clear, the zodiac is the set of constellations that the sun appears to move through over the course of a year.

In Western occult, we use a twelve-fold division of the ecliptic based on twelve of the zodiac signs. In reality, there are thirteen zodiac constellations that the sun moves across. The thirteenth sign is Ophiuchus, the snake bearer, and there are multiple reasons he is not used.

ophiucusoneeditThis is Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. He unfortunately is not used in Western astrology.

The zodiac of Western occult is a tool calibrated by generations of scholars to reflect the dynamics of the universe. I mean this both spiritually and literally. For example , the spring equinox always falls on the boundary between the last and first zodiac signs, Pisces and Aries.

It just so happens to be the case that a 360 degree wheel is easily divided into 12 parts, easily dispensing 30 degrees of the wheel to each zodiac sign. There is also an archetypal and esoteric significance to the number twelve that we will discuss later.

This calibration of the Zodiac for occult, spiritual, and practical purposes also means that the divisions of the ecliptic assigned to each zodiac sign do not exactly sync up with the constellations. For example, one constellation might actually be in a part of the sky assigned to a different zodiac sign. This is partially because the apparent path of the sun has slowly changed, and partially because of the way the system is constructed, where the 360 degree wheel has to be evenly distributed to the twelve zodiac signs. I encourage you to, at this point, think of the zodiac kind of like the four elements. They are real, yet they are also a system of powerful symbols that help us explain the forces at play in the cosmos.

Next, we’ll do a brief overview of the twelve zodiac signs.

[next chapter]

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