Constellations and Horoscope Signs

About 2,000 years ago, the signs of the zodiac (familiar from newspaper horoscopes) and the actual constellations corresponded to each other. This is not so any longer. Your horoscope sign may be Aries (the Ram), but this does not mean that the Sun was in the constellation of Aries when you were born! Quite probably the Sun was in Pisces (the Fishes) at the time. The reason for this is that the constellation names and dates in newspaper horoscope columns correspond to those in a book on astrology written by the astronomer Ptolemy nearly 2,000 years ago. The zero point or the start of the sequence of constellations was the vernal equinox, the point where the Sun on March 21 crosses the celestial equator going from the southern to the northern celestial hemisphere. However, this zero point is not fixed but moves slowly relative to the stars and constellations. The time interval from then until now has resulted in a change of about one constellation. This motion makes a full circle every 26,000 years and it was discovered observationally by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus (circa. 190-120 BC). Physically, we now know that the movement of the zero point is due to the Earth's axis slowly wobbling like a top about to tip over due to gravitational effects of the Sun and Moon on the slightly flattened Earth. To read a horoscope corresponding to your "up to date" sign, just read the newspaper entry above the one you would usually consult. Then you can choose the one you like better!

The Babylonians made regular observations of planets that also move close to the ecliptic. They knew Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Mercury, and interpreted their behavior as important signs corresponding to what will happen on the Earth. The various movements of the planets, their encounters with each other and with the Moon, their appearances and disappearances, gradual fading and brightening, all offered information for the interpreter who did not know the real reasons behind such phenomena (Fig. 1.3). The Babylonian astrologers, who were also priests of the great temples, were interested in state affairs, prospects of economy and agriculture, the health of the king, success in war, and such things. It was only later that personal horoscopes based on the time of birth appeared (among the Greeks).

The astrologers noted that the planets followed the same general route as the Sun in the ecliptic, but now and then they slowed down, even stopped altogether and went back a few steps in the sky before again continuing their normal way from east to west. This retrograde motion of the planets was a major feature that needed explanation both for the Greeks and later for Copernicus in making mathematical models of planetary motion.

For Babylonian astrologers predicting retrograde motion would be important to predict future events on Earth. Also desired was the ability to foretell the frightening eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. The Assyrians collected accurate statistics of lunar eclipses and found some regularity in their appearances. The Babylonians further developed the art of eclipse prediction. They noted that lunar eclipses had a long period after which they are repeated similarly. This periodicity is governed by the "Saros cycle," a little over 18 years (18 years and 111 days). It allowed one to calculate tables showing the possible dates of lunar eclipses far in the future. The astrologers found periodicities in the motions of the planets as well and they could predict their future motions and positions by clever arithmetic methods.

Thus ancient sky watchers learned not only to interpret the events in the sky at each moment - but also to predict significant celestial events well in advance. Babylonian astrology/astronomy reached its peak during the centuries before Christ.

Fig. 1.3 The solvogn (the Sun carriage) from the Bronze Age Denmark, expressing the old belief that the Sun was carried across the sky every day. The same idea may be found, e.g., among the Egyptians and the Babylonians, though the vehicles were different. This over 3,000-year-old artifact is at display at the National Museum in Denmark (image: courtesy of Malene Thyssen)

When the "wise men from the east" of the Bible, likely Babylonian astrologers, arrived to worship the newborn after having seen his star, Babylonian culture was already declining. However impressive these predictions were, this systematic gathering of observations was not scientific, in the usual meaning that we today attach to this term. Some key elements were missing. Posing questions and an investigative attitude, which later proved to be a source of real knowledge, were still rare. Modern

Fig. 1.4 The brightest fixed star in the sky, Sirius in the constellation of the Great Dog (Canis Major) close the Orion, was worshipped in ancient Egypt. The appearance of the "Dog Star" in the morning sky heralded the beginning of the flood of the river Nile. Just across the band of the Milky Way there is Procyon, the brightest star of the Little Dog (Canis Minor). For today's stargazers those brilliant points are material objects in space, and we wonder: How far away are they? What makes them shine?

Fig. 1.4 The brightest fixed star in the sky, Sirius in the constellation of the Great Dog (Canis Major) close the Orion, was worshipped in ancient Egypt. The appearance of the "Dog Star" in the morning sky heralded the beginning of the flood of the river Nile. Just across the band of the Milky Way there is Procyon, the brightest star of the Little Dog (Canis Minor). For today's stargazers those brilliant points are material objects in space, and we wonder: How far away are they? What makes them shine?

astronomers observe the sky to understand what the celestial bodies are, how they are born and evolve (Fig. 1.4).

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