This used to be a blog dedicated to one of my interests, dream interpretation. I have decided to expand it to include thoughts about pretty much Everything.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Did the ancients understand precession sooner than we think they did?

Happy Summer Solstice! 

Quite by accident, yesterday I began thinking about a topic that turned out to be very timely to the subject of the solstice.  Here was my train of thought:
  • For some reason, a reference to a lion reminded me of learning, in a Bible survey class I took in high school, about the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) being prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel, and reflected in the Book of Revelation.
  • I hadn't thought about Biblical prophecy in a long time, and I was interested in re-examining this particular prophecy with fresh eyes.  

Here is the prophecy from Ezekiel chapter 1 (KJV, emphasis mine):
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
 10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
 Clearly, Ezekiel was viewing extra-dimensional beings.  (Wonder what drug he was taking!) Let's compare this with the vision of John the Beloved, in Revelation 4 (KJV, emphasis mine)
And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever...
The same animals appear in both visions, though in slightly different forms.  The animals are also relating to the Throne of God in both visions. The Book of Ezekiel is said to have been written in 593-571 BCE, while the prophet was in exile in Bablyon. (The exile period proved to be extremely influential on Jewish literature, culture, and theology, as any historian who's even cursorily studied the subject knows.)  The Book of Revelation was probably written somewhere around 85 CE.

I can't explain most of the content of those visions, but I think I do understand one thing.  It's difficult to understand today how these four beings: Ox, Lion, Eagle, and Man could be very much meaningfully related, but that's because astrology is no longer common knowledge.  Any ancient mystic would understand it.  These animals are four signs in the zodiac, and they are related by 90ยบ angles to each other.
*the sign of Scorpio is sometimes interpreted as a scorpion, sometimes as a dragon or serpent, and sometimes as an eagle, depending on which tradition is talking.

The symbolism of the signs of the zodiac are extremely ancient.  These four beasts in both visions just simply can't NOT be astrological in connotation. 

In Hellenistic astrology, which would be developed about 400 years after Ezekiel's vision, they codified these four signs as related by the fixed mode.  (The two other modes are cardinal and mutable.)  Now, the first question I asked myself is why these four signs would be so important in a prophetic vision about the glory of the Lord.   The Cardinal mode signs would make more sense.  Cardinal signs mark the beginning of each season; they initiate and create.  While fixed signs maintain the seasons once established, and Mutable signs start closing things down to get ready for the next season, it's the Cardinal signs that witness the major turning points of the earth's cycle each year. All signs are equally important, but many major religious traditions place their sacred holidays around the times of the seasonal changes — the equinoxes and solstices — which are defined by the Cardinal signs.  If anything were to symbolize the power of God, it seems like Cardinal signs would make more sense.  It was puzzling to me.

Then I remembered precession. Aha!

Western astrology begins the sign of Aries with the spring equinox each year. However, the actual constellation rising in the sky at the time of the equinox is no longer the sign of Aries; it is Pisces.  This is due to the phenomenon of axial precession.  This phenomenon causes the positions of the zodiacal signs to shift by one degree about every 71.6 years.

Astronomers and astrologers have known about precession for centuries.  Its discovery is attributed in the West to Hipparchus, who lived in the 2nd century BCE (about 400 years later than Ezekiel, but 200 years earlier than John the Beloved), though Indian Vedic astrologers may have known about precession as early as 700 BCE.  At the time of Hipparchus, the sign of Aries did rise in the sky at the time of the vernal equinox, but it would not always be so.  Western astrology made the conscious choice to base their astrology on the tropical (season-based) year, not the sidereal (star-based) year. Thus, in the system of Vedic astrology, which is sidereal, the signs are now about 23 degrees different than the signs in Western astrology.

The sign of Aries marked the vernal equinox for a few thousand years.  Then the equinox point moved into the area of sky dominated by Pisces (though Westerners still called the vernal equinox Aries, because they'd decided to use a tropical system, remember).  Here's a chart showing how the vernal equinox point has changed through history. The numbers are years, BCE and CE. See how we're getting close to the end of Pisces, and you know what that means...  (Insert Hair reference here, of course... with much eye-rolling...)
Equinox path.png
By Dbachmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6394235

Taurus isn't labeled in the above chart.  It's the constellation mostly below the ecliptic, that has Aldebaran in the center.

Figuring out when to declare a change in ruling sign of the vernal equinox is complicated and hotly debated.  But there are definitely periods where it's very clearly one sign or the other.

Here's my hypothesis: What if Ezekiel and John understood precession?  Or, at least, some simplified form of it via the understanding that the vernal equinox point (the start of the new year) gradually changed signs over the period of thousands of years?  According to a second century CE Jewish scholar, the date of creation is about 3761 BCE.  Perhaps other Jewish astronomers along the way before him arrived at a similar calculation.  If so, the vernal equinox point would have probably been in Taurus at that point (though it depends how you divide the sky. As I said, there is a lot of dispute over how to do this.)

If the Jews did, indeed, calculate the beginning of creation at some point when the vernal equinox was in Taurus --and I know this is a lot of "ifs"-- that would mean that Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius were the equinox and solstice signs at the year of creation.  Thus, these four animals -- the ox, the lion, the eagle, and the man-- would have sacred significance as the witnesses of creation. They were the initial guardians of the changes in seasons. They were the original markers of the most sacred points in the year.  They were the midwives of God's original intentions when she birthed this vast world.  Thus... it is significant that these four beasts support God's throne in both mystical visions listed above.  Referencing them in one's literature would be calling on the ancient knowledge of God as the one who is before all of history, existing in eternity, and the one who set the great wheels of time spinning, who holds the seasons together, and, therefore, who has authority over all of time and space.

Perhaps more interesting to modern minds, if my hypothesis is correct, this could mean that the ancients had some kind of understanding of precession at least 400 years before we think they did.  That would be pretty amazing if it were true.

Happy solstice!!