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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/May 1898/A Relic of Astrology


THE mysterious picture of a nude man surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, which forms a prominent feature of nearly all patent-medicine almanacs, is familiar to every one, yet few realize the great antiquity of the symbolism implied and the interesting history of this persistent relic of astrology.

The supposed connection between the zodiac and the anatomy of the human body is related in the following lines:

"The Head and Face the Princely Ram doth rule,
The Neck and Throat falls to the sullen Bull,
The lovely Twins guide Shoulder, Arm, and Hand,
The slow-paced Crab doth Breast and Spleen command,
The Lion bold governs the Heart of Man,
The modest Maid doth on the Bowels scan,
The Reins and Loins are in the Ballance try'd.
The Scorpion the Secret Parts doth guide,
The Shooting Horse lays claim to both the Thighs,
The Knees upon the headstrong Goat relies,
The Waterman he both the Legs doth claim,
The Fishes rule the Feet, and meet the Ram again."

Moore's Vox Stellarum, 1721.

As commonly drawn, this "repulsive picture" has changed very little in the last fifty years; a study of the bizarre conception takes us back to the earliest records of civilization: Chaldean astronomers laid its foundations, Hebrew sages and Greek philosophers built on them, Christian mystics and mediæval astrologers enlarged them so that a popular superstition arose which still has a hold on the common people. The first step in the evolution of this conception was taken more than four thousand years ago, when the star-gazers of Babylon observed the circular zone through which the sun appears to pass in the course of a year, and divided it into twelve constellations, creating what is known as the zodiac. To these twelve divisions signs were given, some of which are said to be Babylonian ideographs of the months. The astronomers of Egypt adopted this system, and their lively imaginations peopled the constellations with genii; thus arose a symbolism in which each group of stars is likened to a given animal or human character; these zodiacal signs are found sculptured on Egyptian temples and inscribed on papyri.

The second step was taken when philosophers, who "in the infancy of science are as imaginative as poets," assumed that the celestial bodies exert a controlling influence on terrestrial life. This belief is alluded to in the earliest poetical book extant; the Almighty himself is represented as saying to Job: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?" The word Mazzaroth is said by commentators to signify the signs of the zodiac.

The idea that man's life on earth and destiny for good or for evil is subject to the heavenly planets and stars and to their relative positions obtained in the early centuries of the Christian era; on a tombstone erected 364 a. d., in memory of an infant named Simplicius (that died the day it was born), there is an inscription which states that this double event took place in the "fourth hour of the night, of the 8th ides of May, the day of Saturn, the 20th day of the moon, under the sign Capricorn" The details of this epitaph are intended to account for the sad affliction of the parents.

"Almighty Wisdom by a Mistique Tye
Spread through the World a Secret Sympathy,
Impregnating Superiours to dispense
On lower Bodies, daily Influence."

Ames' Almanack, 1730.

Astrology flourished mightily throughout the middle ages, and by degrees a novel conception became ingrafted on the pseudo-philosophy; the physical universe came to be regarded as an organized being endowed with a soul and analogous to man. An intimate correlation between the universe and man was held to exist, the universe controlling the organism and destiny of man, and man having power over the fundamental laws of Nature. In this connection the terms macrocosm and microcosm came into use—the former to designate the world at large, and the latter the smaller world within man.

In the "Epistle of Tsis, Queen of Egypt and wife of Osiris, to her son Horus" a Greco-Egyptian writing on the "Sacred Art" of obscure origin and unknown authorship, man, as the microcosm, is regarded as the physical epitome of the universe, or macrocosm. Hermes calls man the microcosm, because the man, or the small world, contains all that which is included in the macrocosm or great world. Thus the macrocosm has small and large animals, both terrestrial nd aquatic; man, on the other hand, has fleas and lice—these are the terrestrial animals; he has also intestinal worms—these are aquatic animals. The macrocosm has rivers, springs, and seas; man has internal organs—intestines, veins, and arteries. The macrocosm has aërial animals; man has gnats and other winged insects. The macrocosm has volatile spirits, such as winds, thunders, and lightnings; man has internal gases and pordas of diseases. The macrocosm has two luminaries, the sun and moon; man has also two luminaries, the right eye representing the sun, and the left eye the moon. The macrocosm has mountains and hills, man has bones and skin. The macrocosm has heavens and stars, man has a head and ears. The macrocosm has twelve signs of the zodiac; man has them also from the lobe of the ear to the feet, which are called the fishes." This writing dates approximately from the fourth or fifth century.

The expressions macrocosm and microcosm are frequently met with in astronomical, medical, and theosophical writings of the middle ages; they are found in the works of Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, John Baptist van Helmont, and of Nicolas Culpeper. Shakespeare used one of them; Menenius says to Sicinius, "If you see this in the map of my microcosm, follow it that I am known well enough too?" (Coriolanus, ii, 1). The phrase "map of my microcosm" obviously refers to the picture of the nude man surrounded by the zodiacal signs.

This "wicked stupefaction of the mind" astrology, has been kept alive during the past two hundred years largely through the wide popularity of almanacs. From their earliest appearance these useful aids to everyday life have mingled truth with error; and through the prevailing association of astrology with the diseases of man and the means of curing them, they become the vehicles for advertising quack medicines. This feature of almanacs is said to have originated with Francis Moore, whose Vox Stellarum was founded in 1698; but I have found an advertisement of a medical nostrum in the Merlini Anglici Ephemeris of 1671; the "Elixir Proprietatis" is advertised as an "effectual medicine for griping of the guts, putrid Feavers" and other distressing maladies.

The pictorial representation of the influence of the zodiac on man's anatomy occurs as early as the year 1496, in Gregor Reisch's Margarita Philosophica, a famous encyclopædia that went through many editions. This engraving is amusingly described by Robert Southey in The Doctor: "There Homo stands, naked but not ashamed, upon the two Pisces, one foot upon each; the fish being neither in the air, nor water, nor upon the earth, but self-suspended, as it appears, in the void. Aries has alighted with two feet on Homo's head, and has sent a shaft through the forehead into his brain. Taurus has quietly seated himself across his neck. The Gemini are riding astride, a little below his right shoulder. The whole trunk is laid open, as if part of the old accursed punishment for high treason had been performed upon him. The Lion occupies the thorax as his proper domain and the Crab is in possession of the abdomen. Sagittarius, volant in the void, has just let fly an arrow. which is on the way to his right arm. Capricornus breathes out a visible influence that penetrates both knees. Aquarius inflicts similar punctures upon both legs. Virgo fishes, as it were, at his intestines; Libra at the part affected by schoolmasters in their anger; and Scorpio takes the wickedest aim of all."

A similar woodcut appears in James Scholl's Astrologia ad medicinam adplicatio, published at Strasburg in 1537.

An examination of Astrology's Last Home, a Musty Pile of Almanacs, published in England and the United States between 1659 and 1897, shows that this emblem, modified in various ways, has been introduced since the end of the seventeenth century. In Great Britain's Diary for 1721 the central figure takes the form of a nude woman seated on a globe, and surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. Beneath is the following legend:

"Should I omit to place this figure here
My Book would scarcely sell another Year.
What (quoth my Country Friend) D'ye think I'll buy
An Almanack without th' Anatomy?
As for its Use, nor he nor I can tell.
However, since it pleases all so well
I've put it in, because my Book shou'd sell."

In Gadbury's Ephemeris for 1721, and in Poor Robin's Almanack for 1729, the emblem takes quite another shape, being a plump cherub curved backward within a circle, which is surrounded with the usual signs. In the latter issue the following stanza appears:

"The little Mortal in the Ring below
Drawn Neck and Heels, doth to the Reader show
That part of Men and Women, Sheep and Swine
Are govern'd by each Celestiall Sign.
But Women's Tongues, when Passion once gets vent.
Break out from this and other Government!"

Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and Poulson's Town and Country Almanac (Philadelphia) contain similar emblems. The present style of an erect man with the zodiacal signs appears in Saunders's Poor Richard Improv'd for 1783, and it has been a valuable trade mark for more than a century.

Modern pretenders to a belief in the influence of the zodiac on human life are as bold in their claims as the most superstitious charlatans of the seventeenth century. One, writing in 1894, represents the physical framework of man as merely "a vessel of breath, motion, and vibration, played upon by active thought atmospheres, waves of sound and light, and positive and negative electro-magnetic forces in limitless activity" Although the twelve signs point to weak or vulnerable parts of the body, they have no power over the spiritualized man, spirit being absolute over matter. The same writer informs us that "Aries is the head-sign of the Grand Man; cardinal, masculine, equinoctial, and movable, the positive pole of the Fire Triplicity. People born under Aries are usually very executive, earnest, and determined, also noble, generous, magnetic, and have occult powers and metaphysical tastes. Good scholars and great talkers" The modern astrologer professes to predict the personal appearance, characteristic temperament, dominant faults, prevalent diseases, love affairs, and character of children born under each of the twelve signs.

This "craft by means whereof knaves practice on fools" is now enjoying a revival in both Europe and America. Several periodicals are devoted to its propaganda; as recently as August, 1897, a monthly magazine was started in New York city, and, as an inducement to subscribe, every one is promised, not a chromo, but a "Free Horoscope of Events for 1897 and 1898." In December, 1897, a society was formed by women in New York city to study the influences of the zodiac on human life and destiny; the society is called The Zodiac, and plans to hold monthly meetings at which each sign is to be studied in turn.

The "Faust Institute of Solar Biology, Occult Science, Astro-Phrenology, and Biblical History" situated in Philadelphia, employs a perambulating agent to lecture in the streets of Eastern cities to the admiring crowds that are attracted by a vividly colored diagram and by printed handbills. Those seeking more light are referred to "Professor Faust."


M. Pierre Leroy Beaulieu concludes an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes, on social conditions in Australia and New Zealand, with some observations on the effect of the enlargement of the sphere of occupations for women in the postponement of the age of marriage. In 1883 the proportion of married women who were minors in New South Wales was 28·17 per cent; in 1892 it had fallen to 23·55 per cent. A similar condition is found in Victoria, where the proportion of married women under twenty-one years of age was 21 per cent, and of those between twenty-one and twenty-five years old 43·2 per cent, from 1881 till 1890, while the corresponding figures in 1893 were only 17·4 and 39·8 per cent. In New Zealand, where the married women minors constituted 29·4 per cent of the total in 1882, they formed no more than 19·3 per cent in 1893. "When a woman earns her living herself," M. Leroy Beaulieu observes, "and custom allows her considerable independence, she is in less haste to marry; and often, too, marriage forces her to give up her calling." The fact that children are less numerous when marriages are so late is the principal objection brought against this system by the author. Yet, he remarks, we ought not to sacrifice the woman's independence or forbid her all occupation unrelated to housekeeping in order that more children may be born.
  1. Abstract of a paper read at the Baltimore meeting of the American Folklore Society December 28, 1897.