Origin of the Zodiac Explained: A Brief History of Astrology Signs 

Updated August 19, 2021
Zodiac signs and astrology with constellations

Humanity has a long history of looking up at the stars in the zodiac to plan their lives. Farmers used the zodiac as a calendar, and travelers used it as a compass. For some, it was a source of mystical direction. For others, it had ceremonial or religious significance. Discover the origin of the zodiac and it's long history.

The Zodiac Defined

The astronomical zodiac is an imaginary band in the heavens centered on the ecliptic that incorporates the apparent paths of all the planets. In ancient times, the zodiac signs roughly corresponded to and were named after 12 of the 13 constellations that straddle the ecliptic.

The Constellations

Most of the names of the constellations come from Middle Eastern, Greek, and Roman cultures. The Babylonians were the first to apply gods, goddesses, and animal stories and myths to the star clusters to give definition to the 12 signs of the zodiac. The Babylonians also followed a 12-month calendar and assigned each month a zodiac sign. However, throughout time, cultures worldwide--Indigenous American, Mesoamerican, China, and Egypt, to name a few--have pictured the zodiac's stars from their own cultural perspective, devised their own zodiacs, and bequeath them with their own symbolic meaning.


Origin of the Zodiac

It should not be surprising that the origin of the zodiac and the signs of the zodiac was the "Cradle of Civilization." Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the "cradle" includes the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the area that contains the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians. Throughout history, most depictions of zodiacs have used a circular star map that shows the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets at a specific time and place.

The Oldest Zodiac Imagery

The oldest zodiac imagery is from the Paleolithic era's cave dwellers. This is known because, at Lascaux, France, archeologists found Paleolithic cave paintings of bulls, horses, and other animals with backgrounds that seem to incorporate prehistoric star charts. This puts the knowledge of the zodiac back as far as 20,000 years ago.

The Sumerians

The first recorded history of astrology begins in ancient Sumer. The Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, made a significant contribution to astrological history when he gathered together a series of Sumerian astrology tablets, known as the Enuma Anu Enlil. These Sumerian tablets make up the first historical record of the zodiac. They are considered to be the oldest astrological documents. These tablets named many of the constellations and gave definition to the nature of numerous heavenly bodies.

The Babylonians

The ever-evolving idea of a zodiac passed from the Sumerians to the Akkadians, to the Assyrians, and on to the Babylonians. The zodiac achieved the circular form around 700 BCE when the Babylonians created the zodiac wheel with planets and houses.

The Persians

The Persians further evolved the zodiac between 550 - 420 BCE. They have been credited with the birth chart, the ephemeris, and locating the planets within zodiac signs.

The Greeks

Early in the 4th century BCE, Babylonian astrology was introduced to the Greeks. The Greeks applied the term "animal circle" to the zodiac. Through the studies of Plato, Aristotle, the stoics, and other like-minded Greeks, astrology became highly regarded as a science in ancient Greek culture. Additionally, the names of the planets and signs come from Greek myth and literature.

The School of Athens

Alexander the Great

The Babylonian zodiac spread through the Greek-speaking world through the two Greek states built by Alexander the Great: the Seleucid empire of Mesopotamia and the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. Alexander's Empire resulted in the export of the Greek zodiac to Greek-speaking cities and kingdoms from Africa to Asia. The first surviving zodiac images, the Seleucid Zodiac from Mesopotamia and the Dendera Zodiac from Egypt, come from the Hellenistic period, that falls between the death of Alexander the Great and the emergence of the Roman Empire (323 to 31 BCE).

Ptolemy of Alexandria

The Greek polymath Ptolemy of Alexandria first proposed the geocentric (Earth-centered) model of the universe. In the 2nd century CE, Ptolemy wrote the "Tetrabiblos," which laid the foundation for Western astrological traditions. In this famous text, he described the basic techniques of astrology that are still used today; these include the zodiac signs, planets, houses, aspects, and angles.

The Romans

Astrology was very much in vogue in the Roman Empire (27 BCE - 476 CE). However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, western astrology seemed to disappear for 500 years. Still, the Persians, Arabs, and Indians continued studying and developing Greek astrology according to their own language and cultural beliefs. Still, Western astrology survived in Persia, exerted a powerful influence on India's astrology, and was assimilated into the Islamic world. It would not return to the West until the 12th century.

Middle Ages

During the late Middle Ages, from about 1200 to 1400 CE, astrology flourished and was an intrinsic part of the culture. Many esteemed European universities taught astrology, and royals had court astrologers. The church in Rome accepted astrology. Copernicus, who further advanced the theory that the Earth travels around the Sun, dedicated his main work to the astrologer, Pope Paul III. However, interest in astrology was once again declined during the mid-1500s due to the Protestant reform movement.

The English Renaissance

The English Renaissance occurred from the early 16th century to the early 17th century. It is the transitional period between the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. Astrology, its legitimacy, and the limits of its acceptable practice were debated during this time. This debate resulted in the flowering of astrology, as well as poetry, music, and literature. Astrology was having a heyday during England's Elizabethan era (1558 -1601), as people consulted astrologers for almost every facet of their lives.

The Age of Enlightenment

During the Age of Enlightenment (1650-1780), as a reaction to the superstition, authority, and control from religious institutions and skepticism, science came to the forefront. This was the time that saw the divorce of astronomy from astrology. Once again, astrology went into decline and was viewed as nothing more than entertainment.

The 19th Century

Renewed interest in spirituality and mysticism during the 19th century re-birthed astrology. The spiritualism of the 19th Century influenced psychologist Carl Jung, who, during the early 20th century, pioneered the use of astrology in psychological analysis. This evolved astrology from a predictive tool into a psychological healing tool.

The 20th Century

In the 1920s, newspapers and magazines began publishing entertaining Sun-sign-based horoscopes, and astrology was again rising. Perhaps the most influential astrologer of the 20th century was Dane Rudhyar, who pioneered modern transpersonal astrology and integrated elements of depth psychology into astrology. During the 1960s and '70s, the "New Age" movement gave a considerable boost to astrology. Later in the Century, computers made it fast and easy to cast charts, replacing the need to do laborious hand-calculated charts.

The 21st Century

In the 21st century, the internet allows everyone to access astrology from the comfort and privacy of their own home. The easy availability of an extensive array of astrology classes and more in-depth astrological information online meant anyone could efficiently study astrology. The internet lessened the stigma attached to astrology and gave it a vast online following of younger people. In 2014, a National Science Foundation poll found that more than half of millennials think astrology is a science.

Female astrologer with her laptop

Astrology and Astronomy

Although divorced, astrology and astronomy have maintained a relationship. As astronomy discovers new heavenly bodies and gives them names, astrologers provide their discoveries with symbolic meaning and include them in the zodiac. As an example, consider Pluto: Its discovery, in 1930, coincides with the discovery of a weapon that could destroy mankind, the atom bomb. Astronomers named Pluto after the Greek god of the underworld. Due to the timing of Pluto's discovery and the name astronomers gave the planet, astrologers assigned some rather dark and destructive attributes to the planet, Pluto.

The Ever-Evolving Astrological Zodiac

As humanity evolved, the zodiac evolved. Over the ages, it was transformed by different cultures and passed on to new generations that continued to advance its uses. As it evolved, it went from a planting and harvest calendar and a navigation tool to a divination tool, a medical tool, and eventually to a tool for self-realization. The astrological zodiac has been in favor and out of favor, but it's alive, thriving, and growing in the 21st century.

Origin of the Zodiac Explained: A Brief History of Astrology Signs