Human beings have been fascinated by the stars since time immemorial. Long ago, they discovered the rhythm of the universe in the night sky, reflected in the cycle of seasons and months. They attributed divine qualities to heavenly bodies and devised rituals and dances symbolizing their movement. As they farmed and tended their flocks they kept the skies under constant observation, believing that the earth was governed by the stars.
The stars and planets inspired complex mythology, and people believed that their destiny was governed by heaven, as many adherents of astrology still do today. The earliest mention we find to signs of the zodiac is in the works of Homer, and the Greek mathematician Eudoxus tells us that there were 44 signs, while Ptolemy lists 48. It was the Romans who reduced the number of astrological signs to twelve.
The idea of naming them after animals is attributed to Hipparchus. The word zodiac derives from the phrase zodiakos kyklos, meaning ‘circle of animals’ or to zodia, meaning ‘small animals.’
Ottoman astrology was also based on twelve constellations called Hamel (Aries, 21 March-28), Sevr (Taurus, 21 April-21 May), Cevza (Gemini, 21 May-22 June), Seretan (Cancer, 22 June-22 July), Esed (Leo, 23 July-22 August), Sunbule (Virgo, 23 August-22 September), Mizan (Libra, 23 September-22 October), Akrep (Scorpio, 24 October-21 November), Kavs (Sagittarius, 22 November-20 December), Cedî (Capricorn, 21 December-20 January), Delv (Aquarius, 21 January-19 February) and Hût (Pisces, 20 February-20 March).
Only seven ‘planets’ – for astrological purposes term including the sun and moon – were known until relatively recently, Neptune and Pluto not being discovered until 1848 and 1930, respectively.
In Ottoman astronomy and astrology, these were called Kamer (the Moon), Utarid ( Mercury), Zuhre (Venus), Sems (the Sun), Merih (Mars), Musteri (Jupiter), and Zuhal (Saturn).
In old Ottoman manuscripts, we find many miniatures depicting the constellations, planets, and comets. A manuscript work entitled Zuptetut Tevârih (The Cream of Histories), relating the history of the world from the Creation up to the reign of Murat III (1574-1595), the then reigning sultan, and including accounts of the prophets, kings, and other famous figures of history, contains a beautiful miniature which we could describe as a map of the universe. One of the three illustrated copies of this manuscript is in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the second in Topkapi Palace Library, and the third in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. The map of the universe in this third copy consists of concentric circles, with the earth at the center, surrounded by the nine heavens in different colors.
In seven of these are the planets, in the eighth, which is colored green, are the stars, and the ninth show the sky without heavenly bodies. In the next ring are the names and symbols of the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the next two show the 28 mansions of the moon. Beyond the circles is the infinite space inhabited by angels.
Miniatures depicting the signs of the zodiac and stars are to be found in numerous Ottoman manuscripts and albums. Of three models representing Gemini reproduced here, one is from a book on astrology in the British Library collection, one from a manuscript in Topkapi Palace Museum, and the third from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Another copy of the latest manuscript is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The miniature in the British Library manuscript depicts the Twins as Siamese twins born as a fruit of the tree behind them.
When they mature they fall from the tree, are blown hither and thither by the wind, and transformed into angels. The third miniature from the Bibliothèque Nationale is the most interesting since it depicts not only the constellation itself but its relationship with four different planets. In the miniatures, each constellation is shown together with the planet belonging to its house. The sign of Gemini is the house of Mercury, but as well as this planet, the three others are shown on a small scale below. One of these represents the fall of the sign, the second its rise, and the third its decline in power. When the influence of the house of a sign and its rising planet is strongest, that of the falling and declining planets is weakest. Each of the seven planets represents one of the principal professions: Zuhal (Saturn) is the treasurer, Musteri (Jupiter) the judge, Merih (Mars) the general, Sems (the Sun) the sultan of the world, Zuhre (Venus) the musician and composer, Utarid (Mercury) the scribe, and Kamer (the Moon) the vizir or viceroy.
These are depicted by small miniatures in both the Bibliothèque Nationale and Pierpont Morgan Library copies, and it was believed that all other trades and arts were derived from them.