or, The Constellations
by Frances Rolleston
Philologos Religious Online Books
"Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?" — Job xxxviii. 32.
The power and majesty of the Creator have ever been admired in the starry heavens; and still, as in the days of the inspired poet, in that firmament which showeth the works of His hands are the traces of His infinite wisdom sought out of all those who have pleasure therein; but His glory has long ceased to be deciphered, where it was once clearly read, in those long misunderstood records of remote antiquity, the names and figures of the ancient constellations*, as attributed to them beyond the memory of man, beyond the range of history. The first vague yet sublime impression with which all behold the splendid luminaries of the midnight sky is weakened, if not destroyed, when taught to associate with them the debasing legends of heathen mythology, or the trifling allusions** to the seasons of the revolving year and the habits of the beasts that perish. How has the poetry of heaven been lowered into the most miserable, the dullest prose! How has that ignorance, which was bliss, been regretted, when exchanged for that wisdom of the world, which it may be a relief to find utter foolishness!
* These constellations are imaginary divisions of those stars which are seen in the north temperate zone.
** After the refutation of these supposed allusions, by the great astronomer Montucla, it might be superfluous to expose their absurdity, but that they are still met with in popular lectures and elementary books for education.
Most incongruous are such associations with the great honour which has of late been put on astronomy, by an argument now urged from its recent discoveries. That science is now appealed to in proof of the unity of God. By the universe of worlds obeying one law is indicated that all were originated by one mind, the work of one Creator: that law which brought the apple to the ground is found to rule the remotest stars, which, if scarcely discernible, are still ascertained to influence each other in obedience to the force of gravitation.
Geology, showing that the earth was once a molten mass, on which nothing that now lives on it could have existed, proves that there must be a Creator. Astronomy not only manifests the existence, but the unity, the omnipotence, the omnipresence of that Creator. If this mind-exalting study can be freed from desecrating incumbrances, over which many of its most gifted students have lamented, they will surely rejoice in its rescue.
If a high, pure, and spiritualizing purpose can be shown to have suggested the invention of the names and symbols of ancient astronomy, will it not gladden all who love to contemplate the glory of God as made known in His magnificent creation?
If we may connect with every constellation, and each remarkable star, some divine truth, some prophetic annunciation, how adequately grand becomes the contemplation, how congenial the interpretation!*
If there we find recorded some hope, some promise given to the first parents of mankind, to support them under the loss of innocence and of Eden, will not that memorial be equally precious even now, shining like the stars that bear it, with undiminished lustre, on us their remote descendants? So read, the "poetry of heaven" will become its Scripture, and its line once more go out to the ends of the earth, declaring the glory of God to every nation.
Now that the hieroglyphics of Egypt are interpreted, and the characters of Babylon and Assyria deciphered, should those far more ancient and more widely diffused, the primitive hieroglyphics of the whole human race, be neglected? Those, the great enigma of ages, transmitting far more important intelligence, shall they not seem worthy of investigation? The Egyptian, belonging to a peculiar people, in a most peculiar climate, numerous and complex as they are, yield up their meaning lost for so many centuries. Those of the constellations, few and simple, formed from familiar objects and conveying ideas intelligible to all, should they be left hopelessly obscured in the darkness that has gathered around them?
The sculptures of Assyria in their stern grandeur have great analogy with the leading symbols of astronomy, but have corrupted in imitating them. Still it may be seen whence they originated.* Those Egyptian hieroglyphics hitherto explained inform us only of the names and conquests of a race of half-forgotten monarchs. The Assyrian inscriptions seems mostly of the same nature. Both, however, corroborate historical allusions in the Holy Scriptures, thus warning believers to trust what they cannot as yet explain.
A far higher purpose is latent in the names and emblems of ancient astronomy: from them we may learn the all important fact that God has spoken, that He gave to the earliest of mankind a revelation, equally important to the latest, even of those very truths afterwards written for the admonition of those "on whom the ends of the world" should come. Then, as now, the heaven-guided spirit in man sought to trace the glory of the Creator in His works: then, as now, the best aid was found in His revelation. That there was a revelation is shown by the prophetic import of these names and emblems, even that revelation recorded in the book with which they correspond.
Without the history of the fall of man we should not know by what types it had pleased God to foreshow his restoration. The seed of the woman in the ear of corn, the enemy in the serpent, might have been in vain set forth in the constellations, as unintelligible from their beginning as they became in the lapse of ages, and even now are when not viewed by the light of revelation. Without the figures of the sphere, "the record in heaven," that revelation had wanted the witness of its being coeval with the calamity whose remedy it declared.
There are few who have not heard of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac; but what they are is not always distinctly understood. It is sometimes imagined that the forms of a ram, bull, or lion may be traced among the stars: but none such can be recognized. Those stars said to belong to the Ram might as well be supposed to belong to the Bull or the Lion. Only one of the constellations has a definite figure: The Northern Crown is circular, resembling a diadem. In all the others the names have no affinity with the natural position of the stars: they are what the inventors of astronomy thought fit to annex. They will be seen to convey prophecy*, as regularly, as systematically arranged, as the stars to which they are applied are apparently irregularly scattered over the dome of heaven. There must doubtless be Divine wisdom in this apparent confusion, but as yet the science of man has failed to trace it.
Abundant evidence exists that the explanation of these emblems by prophecy is no new system, not a theory spun from raw materials, but a thread of gold, unravelled from an ancient and neglected but superb tissue, originating with the early patriarchs, in which, as in the embroidery of old, were inwoven the records they desired to transmit.*
These signs were known among all nations and in all ages. From the almost antediluvian chronologies of China, India, and Egypt, to the traditions of the recently discovered islands of the South Sea, traces of them are discerned, most clearly among the most ancient and earliest civilized nations. In the remains of Assyria they are recognized; in those of Egypt they are perfectly preserved; in those of Etruria and Mexico they are traceable.
This wide diffusion indicates a common origin, both of the race of man and of the symbols of astronomy. The love of symbols has been considered as natural to man; the creation amid which he is placed, as symbolical.* Of this universal tendency the inventors of astronomy seem to have availed themselves, rendering it subservient to man's spiritual education, by familiarizing to his mind the lofty truths of Divine revelation.
The signs were in use before the corresponding prophecies were written, unless, as has been supposed by many authorities ancient and modern, the art of writing were invented by those to whom the origin of astronomy is attributed.* Even then the two records were coeval. If Adam caused to be transmitted to his descendants, either by writing or by memory, the words of the first promise, the ideas of it were repeated in the emblems of the constellations. That promise announced that the seed of the woman was to come to bruise the serpent's head, and to be Himself bruised in the heel. He has come, He has received the predicted bruise. The fulfilled part of the prediction is delineated in action in several of the starry emblems, as in Virgo, in Ophiuchus, in Capricornus: the unfulfilled in Leo, in Hercules, and in Aries. As the reflection in the water doubles the evidence that the sun has risen, so the early existence of these emblems corroborates that of the recorded revelation.
The most determined sceptic does not deny that a person claiming to be born of a woman without a human father, did come, and, dying on the cross, did both literally and figuratively receive the predicted wound in the heel. Nor can he deny, when looking on the ancient monuments of Egypt, that before his birth and crucifixion, the woman in the zodiac held the seed, the ear of corn, and that the serpent was under the foot of the lion. Let him examine the sphere as now figured, supposed to have come to use from the ancient Chaldeans*, and there he will see the prophecy even more strikingly portrayed, as in the figure of Ophiuchus conflicting with the serpent. How can that sceptic account for the existence of these emblems? How can they be explained but by the previous revelation with which they correspond? If future events are foretold with a decision and particularly beyond human sagacity, that Infinite Spirit who governs while He foresees, the Sovereign of the universe, has spoken. The father of mankind heard, repeated the message, and his descendants all and every where have transmitted the echo of that sound. He alone who is the First and will be the Last sees the end from the beginning: He alone enables man to describe it.
The earliest positive evidence of the primeval existence of the signs is in the Chinese annals*, where it is said that the Emperor Yao, 2317 years before the Christian era, divided the twelve signs of the zodiac by the twenty-eight mansions of the moon**: but it is not said that he invented them. The Chinese national emblem of the dragon appears to be the dragon of the sphere, which was at that time the polar constellation, the brightest star in the dragon's head having been the pole-star in the antediluvian ages.
The Signs are next alluded to by the patriarch Jacob, who in his dying blessing was held by the ancient Hebrews to have spoken of them as the appointed cognizances of his twelve sons, and as such they were borne on the standards of Israel in the wilderness.*
The Egyptians, on whose early monuments the signs are found, acknowledged that they derived their astronomy from the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans attributed their science to Oannes, supposed to be Noah. The Arabs and Brahmins, among whom astronomy was early cultivated, seem to have derived it from Abraham, through Ishmael and the children of Keturah. The Greeks supposed their imperfect knowledge of the subject came through the Egyptians and the Chaldeans. The Romans are thought to have received through the Etrurians the names of the signs still in use among the European nations.* The Etrurians are considered to have derived them, with their other arts and sciences, from Assyria. The early Greek poet Hesiod is said to have made use of Assyrian records. He mentions some of the constellations by the names they now bear.
Pythagoras taught in Greece what he learnt in Phoenicia; but what he might know of the signs has not reached us. Other Greek philosophers, it is certain, were acquainted with them, as Cleostratus, who wrote on Aries and Sagittarius. A later Greek poet, Aratus, described the constellations such as we now have them, and by equivalent names. He gave neither history nor conjecture as to their date, their meaning, nor their origin. They were to him, as to us, of immemorial antiquity. Cicero, in translating from Aratus, says, "The signs are measured out, that in so many descriptions Divine wisdom might appear:" but he does not say in what manner. No attempt is made by any of these writers to explain the figures, or to assign any inventor to them. The fables annexed to them must have been known to Cicero, but he seems to have held them unworthy of notice. None of these earlier writers allude to any tradition concerning the meanings of the names and emblems of the constellations, nor as to where, when, or by whom they were originated.
Soon after the time of Cicero these fables were collected by Hyginus, who characterizes them as little to be depended on. Still through his whole detail may be traced the tradition of a Son of the Supreme Deity, sometimes as the conqueror of the serpent, sometimes as the suffering benefactor of the human race, dying by the serpent's venom. Often he is wholly divine and immortal, or is born of a human mother, dying on earth to live again in heaven; sometimes as a divinity, sometimes as a constellation. If the unenlightened heathen thus still acknowledged among the starry heavens some vestiges of ancient prophecy, shall Christians neglect to trace there the memorials of a revelation from the Divine Creator?
Nonnus afterwards sought to account for the signs by the twelve labours of Hercules.* No two authorities agreed as to what these twelve labours were, or in what order they were accomplished.** At all times and in all places the order of the signs is invariable: they could not therefore have been borrowed from the labours, though these might have been, and probably were, borrowed from them.
* Nonnus lived about A.D. 400.
Before the Christian era, and for three centuries after it, no attempt was made to explain the meaning of these emblems: but as distance adds to indistinctness, antiquity stimulates imagination. The ancients on this point knew that they knew nothing; but Macrobius, in the fourth century, fancied in them a possible suitability to the seasons of his age and country. He either overlooked or was ignorant of the astronomical fact of the precession of the equinoxes, by which, if they suited Italy at that time, they could not have been adapted to those Eastern climates and remote ages to which he attributes their invention. He however says that not Leo alone, but all the signs have reference to the nature of the sun. The sun, as an appointed type of Him who was to come, the Light of the world, the Sun of righteousness, is indeed referred to in all the constellations; for even in the female figures, typifying the Church, there is in the hand a branch, His well-known emblem; and those of the serpent, the enemy, are under the foot of figures representing Him.
Though the signs are found nearly as we now have them on early Egyptian monuments, no Egyptian explanation of them has yet been discovered; but from the various minor emblems accompanying them, it should seem the Egyptians themselves attached to them some meaning. It has been thought that in Aquarius might be traced some allusion to the inundation of the Nile: but here again geology interposes. When the summer solstice, and consequently the inundation, would have taken place in that sign, man did not exist; after his creation, when these stars would be seen at night, at that season, could it be traced in a slender stream poured into the mouth of a fish? If a symbolical meaning be given to one of these figures, the rest should be taken as equally significant: if one be interpreted of the seasons, so should the others. If one be taken as seen at midnight, so should the remainder. But it will be found that when any one of the signs is made to coincide with any particular season, there is seldom a plausible explanation to be given of another, and never of all of them. If the Nile overflowed under Aquarius, the harvest of Egypt could not take place under Virgo, nor either equinox under Gemini, as has been sometimes supposed. Could these difficulties be overlooked, and the inundation be imagined to be figured where the Egyptians have not traced it, would it not remain to be told why events which every returning year brought in due succession should need to be typified among the stars of heaven? Has it been usual to institute memorials of what cannot be forgotten, or to take precautions against overlooking what is present to the senses?
Some record of the past, some admonition addressed to the future, has ever been the purpose of such aids to memory. Some such origin might therefore have been looked for in these names and emblems, even if to it they had not borne internal testimony. Invariably connected with the most striking, the most sublime appearances in the visible creation, seen in all climates, accompanying the wandering tribes of man in all their migrations, the only unchanging, the only fixed among the objects of his senses,--should we not expect to find among the names and figures annexed to the stars some memorial of great and universal importance to the whole human race? Guided by the inspired writer, should we not confidently look up to the starry heavens, expecting to trace in the names and symbols universally and from all antiquity associated with them, some signification that shall verily be found to declare the glory of God?
Like others of the sceptic school, Volney reports every where in antiquity the existence of the tradition of the expected conqueror of the serpent, a divine person, born of a woman, who was to come; and sees this tradition reflected in the constellations referred to the seasons, but as to what the serpent could have to do with those seasons, he offers no conjecture; the only point on which he is very decided is that the seed-bearing woman of the zodiac figured the harvest. That the harvests in different countries are at different times he overlooks, and also that in the same country the lapse of ages would transfer the time of harvest from one sign to another. When the summer solstice was in Leo, or even in Cancer, Egypt was under water in Virgo. The Nile, says Herodotus, rises for a hundred days, and sinks for a hundred more. During those days there could be no harvest. It is only in modern times and more northerly climates that the time of harvest is while the sun is among the stars of Virgo. In Egypt and Palestine, in the time of Moses, the corn was in the ear at the time of the Passover, at the vernal equinox, then just entering Aries. There was then some other reason than that of the harvest for the figure of the woman bearing the ear of corn, even that it set forth the prophecy of the seed of the woman who should come to bruise the serpent's head.
Volney seems also to have traced some idea of analogy between the sun and the expected conqueror of the serpent; but the sun is not the enemy of serpents, they are fostered by his rays. The true analogy he did not perceive; the sun comes, enlightens, blesses, goes away, but surely comes again. Thus the sun of this world daily teaches, daily prophesies of the Sun of righteousness, arising with healing on his wings, setting as it were for a while, but surely to return in the glory of morning to renew the face of earth.