Synopsis: This article makes a case for a collective awareness of the twelve archetypes, and of their qualities and meanings, preceding both the drawing up of the tropical zodiac, and the naming of the set of twelve constellations that lie along the ecliptic, thus suggesting an alternative view of the origins of astrology.
We can take either a quantitative or a qualitative approach to the earth and sky. The former, left-brained and male, is analytical and proceeds via reason and measurement. The latter is right-brained, female and synthetic. It ascertains the quality of phenomena within their wider contexts of meaning through the use of imagination and intuition. Astronomy, which employs mathematics as a calculation tool, is an example of the quantitative approach, while astrology - the art of determining the quality of time - shows the qualitative.
In their role as astronomers, the priests of the ancient cultures measured the cycles of the sun and moon and created calendars to organise daily life more efficiently. However, when they were wearing their astrologers’ hats, their task was a more momentous one. It was nothing less than striving to maintain on earth the divine order they saw in the sky. And this involved diagnosing the quality of the times, so that the appropriate rituals and religious ceremonies could be performed at the right moment to harmonise the human sphere with the celestial.
The construction of the Cairo calendar (1), which consists of a listing of all the days of the Egyptian year, required both astronomical and astrological skills. Each day within it carries a three-part entry: first, the type of day, whether favourable or unfavourable, is noted. Secondly the appropriate rituals for the day are prescribed, and, thirdly, a mythological event is cited that encapsulates its quality. The Cairo calendar is thought to derive from the second millennium BCE.
Perhaps our ability to distinguish time quality goes back to beyond the beginnings of the human race and is shared with the animals. But let’s begin in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods when the moon was represented by different goddesses depending on her phase, showing that the different phases of her cycle were distinguished qualitatively. And the sun in Egypt had three different names depending on its position in the sky. ‘Lo! I am Khepera at dawn, Ra at high noon, and Tum at eventide,’ reads an inscription below a carving of the sun disk (2). Also in some cultures Venus bore different names depending on whether she was a morning or an evening star, which does not necessarily prove that people then were unaware that they referred to the same planet! Venus was personified as different goddesses at two discrete phases of her cycle, because, like the sun and moon, she was a ‘carrier’ of more than one archetype.
In mythologies the world over we find the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west ruled by gods and goddesses whose different characters express the qualities associated in past cultures with these directions. The cardinal directions are also structurally decisive in the layout of ancient temples, which often have four gates in their outer walls, as well as in the ground plans of stone circles and ancient earthworks. The square bases of the Giza pyramids are perfectly aligned to them. Moreover alignments were created within the temples and circles to the solstice and equinox points - the four peaks of the sun’s annual cycle. These were celebrated with major religious festivals as times when the power of the divine cardinal archetypes could be tuned into. Our understanding of Aries, Libra, Cancer and Capricorn is derived from the collective experience of these high points in time and cardinal directions in space. And I suggest that they are cardinal in an absolute sense, irrespective of shifts in the solsticial and equinoctial points within the precessional cycle, being primarily associated with twelve divisions of the surrounding landscape and the horizon (3).
The astronomers, who followed the sunrise points and measured the sun’s declination, also noted the mid-seasons when the sun’s progress along the horizon slows, which correspond to the south-east, south-west, north-west and north-east directions. These times of year were celebrated by the Celts with the festivals - Beltain, Lugnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc. And our understanding of the archetypes we call Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius is rooted in the collective experience of the cosmic energies that were tuned into during these festivals. Together the cardinal and the fixed points create two crosses or squares within the circle of the horizon (Fig. 1). Thus the squared circle, a basic form in sacred geometry, shines through in our experience of the qualities of these different periods of time.
When we add the four mutable sectors to these eight, the circle of twelve unchanging archetypes is complete. Fig. 2 shows a cross section of sky and earth, demonstrating how they relate to the local landscape and are extended above the circular horizon into the sky to become twelve celestial mansions.
To understand how the archetypes are related to the qualitative dimension of maths and geometry we must turn to Egypt and Greece. For the Pythagoreans, as for the Egyptians, geometry was considered sacred because it offered knowledge of the gods. In Egypt, where Pythagoras went to study maths, the archetypes were called the Neters, and worshipped as the mathematical principles governing the universe. The sacred tetractys (Fig 3) represents them as digits arranged in a pyramid form revealing their inter-relationships. I owe the following interpretation of the tetractys to John Anthony West, whose account is based on the research of the deceased Egyptologist Schwaller de Lubicz (4). It demonstrates how the Egyptians saw numbers as more than a system of quantities, intuiting their qualitative, mystical dimension. Thus the ten digits of the tetractys do not symbolise the Neters, they are the Neters, and therefore powerful, intelligent and purposeful cosmic forces in their own right.
Starting at the top, in the beginning is One, which is the Absolute, the All, represented by a point or circle.
Then One becomes Two, which is the primordial duality separating heaven and earth, represented in geometry by a line.
Then Two becomes Three, which adds a third transcendent point uniting the Two, represented by a triangle. Three stands for the passage of time with its cardinal, fixed and mutable phases.
Then Three becomes Four when matter is created. Four stands for material manifestation, the cross of earthly life, and is expressed in the four elements.
Together the digits add up to ten, which then reduces back to one (1 + 0= 1). Within the pyramid the numbers also relate to each other through addition and multiplication.
Thus 3 x 4 =12, which is the total number of the archetypes ruling earthly life, and twelve is also the number behind all the phenomena that make up reality.
Also 3 + 4 = 7, representing the union of spirit and matter. Seven stands for progression within time. Just as there are seven notes in the harmonic scale so all phenomena develop in seven stages. The seven planets ruling the seven spheres also represent seven steps back to the One.
So the twelve astrological archetypes derive from the four Neters forming the base line of the tetractys, which are the only Neters to manifest in substance. They correspond to the fixed archetypes we call Leo (fire) Aquarius (air) Scorpio (water) and Taurus (earth), which are known as the four corners of the material world. Their animal symbols are amalgamated in the mythological image of the winged sphinx that inspired Ezekiel’s vision of ‘the four living creatures’. “They four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.” (5). (The eagle is an alternative animal symbol for the Scorpio archetype.) We should note that this passage derives from the period of the Jewish exile in Babylon, which predates by a century the time when historians claim the zodiac was created.
When the four Neters on the base line of the tetractys are multiplied by the three Neters of the line above, representing the cardinal, fixed and mutable modes, twelve qualitatively differentiated archetypes result. These we refer to as the astrological archetypes. Twelve is the number of the sides of a dodecahedron – the twelve-sided solid, said by Plato to be the ultimate shape of the universe (and some of today’s scientists agree with him!). When flattened into two-dimensions, the dodecahedron becomes the circle divided into twelve equal parts familiar to astrologers (Fig 4).
“The wheel of time formed with twelve spokes spins in the heavens maintaining order,” to quote the Rigveda (6). I see the circle divided into twelve equal parts as one of the structure-giving geometric forms eternally present in the universal mind.
In my previous article in The Astrological Journal (7), I described the absolute geometric relationships between the twelve archetypes that govern the different sections of the wheel, which are the alpha and omega states of the multitude of inter-relationships coming and going within time cycles. I also claimed that in any circle, whether a stone circle, a fairy ring, the ecliptic, or the circle of constellations behind it, the twelve archetypal energies align in the same order and with the same internal geometry. This archetypal geometry is responsible for the qualitative differences between the twelve sections of a circle manifesting in space, and the twelve phases of any time cycle.
The tetractys demonstrates how One becomes Twelve, which is expressed in the myth of the divine child killed and eaten by twelve Titans. Afterwards, as we are told, Zeus blasted the Titans and created mankind from their ashes, implying that the twelve archetypes are scattered in all of us. This idea is also echoed in the myths of Osiris and Dionysius who were dismembered, and their parts were dispersed throughout the universe.
Therefore the twelve archetypes are present in everything that exists, a truth that lies behind the system of correspondences known as the Great Chain of Being. Medicine in ancient Egypt, as in the European Middle Ages, was based on the correspondences between the organs of the body and the archetypes represented by the planets. And alchemy rested on the correspondences between the seven metals and the planets. This lost vision of an analogous universe can explain the passage in Exodus where Moses is instructed to make a breastplate set with twelve gemstones. The majority of the stones the Bible mentions are still listed today under their zodiac signs in popular astrology books. Moses, it should be noted, lived in the twelfth century BCE. That was eight hundred years before historians say the zodiac was invented (8). And then there is the story of Joshua who, after leading the Israelites across the river Jordan, was ordered by God to build a circle of twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel at a place called Gilgal (the name means wheel or circle) (9).
In cultures the world over the number of the astrological archetypes has always been twelve, although the animal symbols used to represent them vary. They have had different carriers over the ages. For example, the fixed archetypes that we call Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius were once carried by the four stars Aldebaran, Regulus, Antares and Formalhaut (today assigned to Pisces) - which form a cross in the sky and were called ‘the four supports of heaven’. That may have been before the constellations they belong to were delineated and named.
John Anthony West, drawing on the research of Schwaller de Lubicz, shows that the art and architecture of the Egyptians expressed the archetypes from pre-dynastic times onwards. In contradiction to orthodox opinion, he proves they had knowledge of the precession, and consciously employed symbols of duality during the age of Gemini, of bulls and cows during the age of Taurus and of rams during the age of Aries. He proves how they went to the lengths of dismantling and rebuilding their temples and monuments every two thousand years so that their architecture and symbolic art would accord with the new archetype coming in (10). I suggest that, when the age of Aries began around 2000 BCE, the Aries archetype, whose qualities the Egyptians were already familiar with, became identified with the small triangle of stars we know as the constellation of Aries the ram, then the heliacal rising stars.
My thesis - that the twelve astrological archetypes were recognised and qualitatively distinguished from each other from very ancient times - requires us to adjust our ideas concerning the history of astrology. Our minds are steeped in four hundred years of scientific materialism, and stamped with the Darwinian concept of evolution. This influences the language in which our history books are written, and has resulted in the history of astrology becoming an account of a development from primitive beginnings to the state-of-the-art astrology we believe we have today. However it is primarily the left-brained side of the work, expressing in the invention of techniques and new methods of calculation, that has become more sophisticated, rather than astrology itself. I believe the art of the interpretation of the quality of time, deriving from an in-depth understanding of the twelve archetypes, was more advanced in ancient civilisations.
So when the tropical zodiac was drawn up in the 5th century BCE - an astronomical work that enabled the tabulation of planets and stars according to degrees of the ecliptic - the twelve archetypes and their qualities were already part of Babylonian culture. Nick Campion in The Dawn of Astrology writes, “Marduk’s creation of the constellations and 12 months in the Enuma Elish points to an Old Babylonian recognition that twelveness is important for space and time” (11). The fifth century BCE astronomers created the signs by measuring the ecliptic and dividing it into twelve equal sections, which were then given the names of the archetypes, because time was already seen as patterned into twelve qualitatively different phases. The circle of the tropical zodiac thus became a carrier for the archetypes.
I also suggest it was around that time that the full set of twelve constellations lying along the ecliptic were finally delineated and named, although a number of them (Leo, Taurus and Scorpio, for example) had been long associated with their respective animals and used as carriers of their archetypes. However it so happened that that phase in the precessional cycle was reached in the middle of the first millennium BCE when the sections of the ecliptic and the twelve constellations behind them coincided. Thus it was natural for those living then to see the sections of the ecliptic and the constellations as one and the same thing, which is why they share the same names.
So perhaps the constellations were named after the signs instead of vice versa. They were certainly named after the archetypes. Robert Powell in his book The History of the Zodiac makes a case for the sidereal zodiac being earlier than the tropical and therefore being the true zodiac. I argue, however, that both the tropical and the sidereal zodiacs were drawn up at roughly the same time. The earliest surviving representation of a zodiac is on a tablet dated to 475 BCE. And as I see it the priests who created them had their astronomers’ rather than their astrologers’ hats on.
I feel it is particularly important in these times, when our civilisation is approaching a crisis point during a mutable phase of a precessional cycle, to become aware once more of the twelve eternal archetypes that govern the cycles of time and invisibly structure our everyday lives (13). The Egyptians’ awareness of them enabled their civilisation to endure through cardinal, fixed and mutable phases for over four thousand years. Today the period of stability that enabled our culture to flourish is coming to an end. Our economic and ecological systems are veering out of control and chaos looms. We urgently need the calm acceptance that arises from the understanding that mutable phases always bring loss of coherence and the disintegration of systems, which is necessary within a cycle of renewal. And we need to revive the faith of our forefathers that the universe in which we are embedded is alive and intelligent and has a feeling soul. Also that whatever happens within it is ultimately an act of love. Divine love moves the stars, as Dante put it. ‘This one universe is all bound together in shared experience and is like one living creature, that which is far is really near….and nothing is so distant in space that it is not close enough to the nature of the one living thing.’ Plotinus (14)
(1) A Bakir The Cairo Calendar (La Caire, 1966) (2) D.A.Mackenzie Egyptian Myth and Legend (London, 1907) (3) See Phoebe Wyss Hercules’ Labours: the Evolutionary Path round the Horoscope (Crediton, 2007) (4) John Anthony West Serpent in the Sky (Wheaton, Illinois 1993) and R.A.Schwaller de Lubicz Le Temple de l’Homme (5) Ezekiel 1 v. 10 (6) Rigveda quoted by Linda Johnsen ‘Twelve Ancient Houses’, The Mountain Astrologer April/May 2003 (7) See in this context my article ‘An Archetypal View of the Houses’, The Astrological Journal 49/6, also on my website. (8) Exodus 28 v.15-21 (9) Joshua 4 v.19-22 (10) John Anthony West, Ibid (11) Nick Campion The Dawn of Astrology (London, 2008) (12) Robert Powell The History of the Zodiac (California 2007) (13) To this end I have written my book ‘Virtual Lives: the Animated Zodiac’ to give readers, especially those who do not believe in astrology, an experience of how the archetypes appear in many guises and with many different messages in our personal lives. See Phoebe Wyss Virtual Lives: the Animated Zodiac (Crediton, 2008) (14) Plotinus The Enneads
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