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The zodiac

The zodiac is the line on the celestial sphere (the term for the full pattern of stars as seen in the night sky) along which the sun seems to move during a full year. The position of the sun on any day can be discovered by observing which stars are just above the horizon at the point where the sun is about to rise or has recently set. They will be the same group of stars at the beginning or end of the same day, even though appearing in the east at dawn and in the west at dusk - for the sun's position in relation to the stars, as seen from earth, hardly changes within a day.

The exact line of the sun's course is the ecliptic. In a rather broader band, to include the various named constellations, it is known as the zodiac.

Babylonian astronomers, followed by the Greeks, give names to the twelve constellations in the zodiac. These constellations are the recognizable patterns of stars which form monthly staging posts in the sun's annual progress through the heavens. In succession they are Aries (the Ram), Taurus (Bull), Gemini (Twins), Cancer (Crab), Leo (Lion), Virgo (Virgin), Libra (Scales), Scorpio (Scorpion), Sagittarius (Archer), Capricornus (Goat), Aquarius (Water Carrier), Pisces (Fishes).

It is hard to imagine how the sun passes along the zodiac, or how its position in relation to any one sign gives the precise time of year. But an analogy can help.

A circular room has a circular table at the centre of it, with a circular lamp hanging low above the table. Around the table are twelve chairs. If the circular wall of the room is blank, there is no way of knowing which chair one is sitting in. But if there are pictures on the wall, each chair has a different view beyond the circular lamp.

In terms of astronomy the wall is the night sky, the lamp is the sun, a person sitting in a chair is an observer on earth, and the pictures are the constellations of the zodiac. To sit in each chair in succession is to orbit the sun in a full year. In each chair a different constellation is facing one - and, in astrology, influencing one's fate at the time of birth.

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