Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Zodiac and Its Signs

Teacher's Story

The mysterious symbols of the Zodiac on the first pages of almanacs are always a source of wonder and awe to children, and remain a life-long mystery to most people except fortune tellers; and yet the Zodiac is the simplest thing in the world to understand. However, the lesson should not be given until after the children have had their lessons on the sun and the shadow-stick, and also the lessons on the stars.

The ancients who believed the earth stood still and the sun moved around it, noticed inevitably that the path through the heavens pursued by the sun reached in summer a point farther north and higher up than in the winter, and they naturally wished to map this path, so as to fix it in their minds and writings. Nothing could be easier, for there in the skies were the eternal stars always following the same fixed path through the heavens and never wobbling up and down like the sun. So they chose the constellation which marked the highest point in the sun's path for each month, and these constellations might be likened to a stairway with six steps down toward the south and six steps up toward the north, the highest stair being reached by the sun in June, for then the sun is highest in the heavens and the farthest north. So beginning in June with Cancer, (the Crab), which is high in the heavens, it steps down to Leo, (the Lion) in July, takes another step lower to the Virgin in August, another down to the Scorpion in September, and comes to the lowest step of all, Sagittarius, (the Archer), in November; for at the last of November, the sun's path reaches its lowest point farthest south in the heavens and then the days are shortest. But in December it begins to climb and takes a short step up to Capricornus, (the Goat), in January it rises to Aquarius, (the Water Carrier), and in February rises another step to Pisces, (the Fishes). In March it reaches up to Aries, (the Ram), in April attains Taurus, (the Bull), and in May reaches Gemini, (the Twins), which step is almost as high and as near to the North Star as was the Cancer, where the journey began the June before.

It may be difficult for the pupils to learn to know all these constellations, as some of them are not very well marked; however, if they wish to learn them they can do so by the use of the planisphere. Some of the Zodiac constellations are marked by brilliant stars which have already been learned. Regulus is the heart of Leo, the Lion; Spica which means "ear" is the ear of wheat which the Virgin is holding in the constellation Virgo. Red Antares lies in the Scorpion; and the Milk Dipper, which is shaped like the Big Dipper, but smaller, marks Sagittarius. Red Aldebaran is the fiery eye of Taurus, the Bull, while the Gemini, or Twins, are the most conspicuous of the stars in the evening skies of February and March. It should be noted, however, that at the present day, owing to the peculiar movement of our earth, the path of the sun in climbing up and down these constellation steps is not quite the same as it seemed to the ancients.


From Todd's New Astronomy

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