The Origins of the Zodiac Signs Begin in Mesopotamia
The astrology we know and love originated in ancient Mesopotamia, and we have the Sumerians to thank for the origins of the zodiac signs.
The oldest astrological records we have belong to the Sumerians, dating back at least to 3100 BCE. However, similarities between the Sumerian and Babylonian constellations and the reliefs found at Göbekli Tepe suggest the meanings of the constellations may predate Sumerian culture by another 10,000 years, but that’s a conversation for another day. Sumerian documents contain the oldest human writing system, cuneiform. These cuneiform texts hold the oldest known astrological information on the planet.
Sumerian obsession with time
The Sumerians paid close attention to the sky and the seasons. They seemed to be obsessed with understanding time. Sumerian calendrical systems were primarily lunar, but included solar tabulations, as well. The 30-day lunar month reigned supreme, as did the Sumerian god of the Moon, Nanna. Behind them was the seasonal solar calendar and the sun god, Utu. When the cycles of the Sun, and the rising and setting of the stars and planets aligned with lunar time, it was considered fortuitous. When they acted out of turn, it was a bad sign.
Sumerian Astrology Lived On
As the millennia progressed, and the Sumerian people and culture were overshadowed by the Akkadian empire, much of Sumerian knowledge, including myth, legend, and astrological omens remained a prominent feature in the ancient Near East through the Late Babylonian period. Sumerian documents were copied and transcribed into Akkadian, which is how scholars were able to decipher their cuneiform tablets.
Until quite recently, astrology and astronomy were considered the same science. It’s no wonder the Sumerians took such great care to record the movements of the heavens and the affects they had on the world. These astrological omens were re-recorded over thousands of years by the skilled hands of priests and scribes, well into the late Babylonian period. Along the way, they gave us astronomical terms still in use today, such as spheres, orbits, ecliptic, inclination, and poles.
Babylonian Astrology Becomes Canon
The most well-known compilation of such omena is 𒌓𒀭𒈾𒀭𒂗𒆤𒇲 U4 AN.NA DEN.LIL.LA; lit. When Anu and Enlil…) Also known as Enuma Anu Enlil, or EAE for short. It includes 68-70 cuneiform tablets with anywhere from 6,500 to 7,000 omens, which became the hallmark of Babylonian astrology.
It’s believed to have been compiled in its canonical form between 1595-1157 BCE, during the Kassite period. However, evidence suggests earlier versions dated back to the Old Babylonian period, around 1950-1595 BCE.
Another well-known astrological catalogue was 𒀯𒀳 MUL.APIN. Literally, the Plow Star, or Plow Constellation. It’s primarily concerned with 66 stars and constellations, and their rising, setting, and culmination dates. The canonical text has been dated to 1000 BCE, but like other Babylonian astrological texts, they are likely the remnants of a much older Sumerian astrological tradition. In fact, the 17 constellations in the prominent Path of the Moon are the original constellations of the elder Sumerian zodiac.
The Origins of the Zodiac Signs
The 17 constellations that were the origin of the zodiac signs were:
- MUL.MUL—(Many Stars/Star Cluster)—Pleiades [Taurus]
- GU4.AN.NA—Bull of Heaven—Taurus
- SIPA.ZI.AN.NA—True Shepherd of Anu—Orion
- ŠU.GI—Old Man/Enmešarra—Perseus
- MAŠ.TAB.BA.GAL.GAL—Great Twins (Lugalirra and Meslamta’ea)—Gemini
- AL.LUL—Pincers/Deceptive Digger—Cancer
- UR.GU.LA—Great Carnivore/Exalted Lion—Leo
- ZI.BA.NI.TU4—Balance—Libra and lower part of Virgo
- GIR2.TAB—Scorpion—Scorpius and Legs of Ophiuchus
- GU.LA—Great One— (Ea/Enki) Aquarius
- KUNMUŠ(ša)/SIM.MAḪ—The Tails of the Great Swallow—Western Fish of Pisces
- A.NU.NI.TU4—Anunitum—Eastern Fish of Pisces
- LU2.ḪUN.GA2—Hired Man—Aries and Triangulum and the head of Cetus
Over time, the 17 constellations were reduced to the 12 zodiac signs you’re probably familiar with. These 12 signs that were transmitted eastward into India via trade routs. Vedic astrology, or Jyotisha, as it’s more appropriately called, uses the same 12 constellation zodiac compiled in Babylon, and originating in ancient Sumer.
Sumerian and Babylonian Astrology in Practice
The Mesopotamians believed the constellations were depictions of the gods, if not the gods themselves. The wandering stars, or planets, which included the Moon and Sun, were both celestial bodies and gods in their own right.
The deity each planet, star, and constellation represented, varied by time and culture. Generally speaking, the Sumerian gods of the planets were:
Sumerian and Babylonian Gods of the Moon, Sun, and Planets
- Moon: Nanna[r] 𒀭𒋀𒆠 (DŠEŠ.KI, DNANNAR)
- Sun: Utu 𒀭𒌓 (DUTU)
- Venus: Inanna 𒀭 𒈹
- Mercury: Ninurta 𒀭𒊩𒌆𒅁 (DNIN.URTA)
- Mars: Gibil 𒀭𒉈𒄀 (DBIL.GI)/Nergal 𒀭𒄊𒀕𒃲 (DKIŠ.UNU or DGÌR.UNUG.GAL)
- Jupiter: An 𒀭 (AN/DIĜIR)/Enlil 𒀭 𒂗𒆤 (EN. LÍL)/Enki 𒀭𒂗𒆠 (DEN.KI)
- Saturn: Ninurta 𒀭𒊩𒌆𒅁 (DNIN.URTA)
The approach and arrival of planets in relation to each other and the constellations was watched and documented as though life and death depended on it. And in fact, they often did. Celestial movement was believed to bring life and death the land, the nation, and the king himself. Bad omens could be countered with apotropaic rituals; a practice which has remained alive in Hindu religion and culture.
Natal Astrology Was Not a Greek Invention
Contrary to what some scholars purport, Mesopotamian astrologers were almost certainly doing mundane natal astrology. Hittite texts outline the natal prognoses of children born in each month. Der Alte Orient, J. Friedman (1925) And the Babylonians had numerous natal horoscopes based on birth date and time. All that aside, divinations of all sorts, especially liver divinations, were common in Sumer. Omena traditions continued throughout the Near East well into the common era, and there’s no reason to think that astrological divinations weren’t just as commonplace, and just as common in use in daily Sumerian life.
The Greek Usurpation of Babylonian Astrology
Not surprisingly, Babylonian astrology became popular among the Greeks, and many innovations—many erroneous, in my view—were made in Hellenistic times. One such unfortunate innovation was the Greek element-modality system, which associated each of the 12 zodiac signs with one of the four classical elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. It also associated them with a modus operandi of either Cardinal, Mutable, or Fixed. Another Greek ‘innovation’ was the planetary-rulership system, which usurped the original divine associations of the constellations, by assigning randomly assigning them luminaries and planets, which they felt fit their alchemist schemes.
Greek changes to the astrology of the ancient Near East became so commonplace, that the modern practitioner of astrology—including Vedic astrology and Jyotisha—is barely aware of its ancient Babylonian and Sumerian origins.
Origins of the Zodiac Signs Summary
Origins of the zodiac signs are rooted in the 17 Sumerian constellations known as the Path of the Moon and were reduced to 12 major Babylonian zodiac signs. The astrology of Mesopotamia was adopted and altered by the Greeks, and transmitted to India. Classical Greek astrological associations remain prevalent in Vedic astrology or Jyotisha.
Discover the Secrets of the Original Zodiac Signs
Astrology played a vital role in Sumerian spirituality and culture. They devoted much of their time to studying the heavens. Their collective wisdom can be yours.
Schedule your ancient sidereal astrology reading today and find out with the ancient origins of the zodiac means for you!