How They Are Constructed and What They Mean
by Joelle Steele
The symbols used in astrology — some originating back 2,000 years — don't always resemble the constellations or the gods for which they were originally named. The symbols were created to resemble the gods and the planets, but they have evolved in design over many years. With regard to the constellations, it is often hard to see what the ancients did when they looked at the stars so many years ago. This actually has a lot to do with how you connect the dots (the stars). Connect them correctly, and you'll see the picture in most constellations. With the planets, it is a little hard to see the gods, but the imagery is there if you know what to look for.
The zodiac symbols are listed below, followed by a list of the planetary symbols.
ARIES is the sign of the ram, and its symbol is the horns and face of a ram, but it does not resemble the constellation for which it is named, that of an entire ram lying down.
TAURUS is the sign of the bull, and its symbol is the head and horns of a bull, while the constellation is the head and forelegs of a bull.
GEMINI is the sign of the twins (stars Castor and Pollux), representing duality, and the symbol is a very simplified representation of the constellation, which looks like two stick-figure humans side-by-side or holding hands.
CANCER is the sign of the crab, but in ancient times it was also known as a scarab beetle and a donkey, among other things, and its symbol doesn't look much like the constellation at all, but its symbol does resemble the elongated eyes on some species of crabs, and it has also been likened to human breasts or ovaries.
LEO is the sign of the lion, and its symbol bears no resemblance to the walking lion in the constellation of the same name, but some experts say the symbol is the head and mane of a lion.
VIRGO is the sign of the virgin, and the constellation can look like either a woman lying down or an M with a long oval-shaped figure to the side of it, and the latter is probably where the symbol came from.
LIBRA is the sign of the scales, and that is what the constellation looks like (scales — held by another constellation, Virgo or Astraea), the symbol being a stylized representation of a weighing scale.
SCORPIO is the sign of the scorpion, and the constellation looks like an upside-down question mark (the stinger) attached to three prongs (in recent years five), probably representing the head and claws of a scorpion, and if the stars in the prongs are connected differently, you get an M with a point, the probable origin for this symbol.
SAGITTARIUS is the sign of the archer, and the constellation is the centaur-archer drawing his bow, so this symbol represents only the arrow itself.
CAPRICORN is the sign of the goat, or more correctly, the sea goat (half-goat and half-fish), and the constellation looks like a goat (no fish parts), but the symbol is supposed to represent the goat's head on top (the horns) and the fish's tail below it.
AQUARIUS is the sign of the water bearer, and the water waves are clearly visible in the symbol and the constellation, but astrologically this is an air sign, and so the waves are usually considered to be those that move through the air, like electricity or radio waves.
PISCES is the sign of the two fishes, and like the constellation by the same name, the fishes are joined together, in the symbol by a horizontal line, but the symbol does not look like the constellation.
The astrological symbols for the planets are the same as those used up until recently by astronomers. They are based on very ancient 2nd century Greek images of the various gods.
SUN. In its original form, this symbol was a circle with rays radiating from it, but over the years, the dot in the middle took the place of the rays.
MOON. In its original form, this symbol was a headdress that had a crescent shape attached to it, and what remains today is the crescent or first quarter moon.
MERCURY. In its original form, this symbol was a caduceus, the "wand of Hermes," and the shape of the symbol resembles both the winged helmet and the wings at the orb at the top of the rod (wand).
VENUS. In its original form, this symbol was of the goddess Venus wearing a necklace to which a cord was connected to another necklace, but the more common attribution was that of Venus' mirror, and that is more obvious in the symbol.
EARTH. This symbol is not ancient in origin, and it represents the earth's sphere with a meridian and equator line running through or across it, sometimes said to represent the four cardinal points. Do not confuse this with the Part of Fortune symbol, which is not a tilted cross, but rather a more narrow letter "x."
MARS. In its original form, this symbol was a shield and spear, which is still evident with the arrow (spear) sticking out from the round shield.
SATURN. In its original form, this symbol was the god Saturn holding a scythe or sickle, which is still evident in the modern symbol.
JUPITER. In its original form, this symbol was the god Jupiter holding a staff or a thunderbolt, and that is still somewhat evident in our modern version of that symbol. Jupiter has also been represented by the Greek letter "zeta" for Jupiter's Greek counterpart, Zeus.
URANUS. This symbol has no ancient counterpart, and was created when the planet was discovered by William Herschel in 1781, and the letter H is still obvious in the symbol.
NEPTUNE. This symbol also has no ancient counterpart, and was created after the discovery of Neptune by Johann Galle in 1846, but it was still given the god Neptune's trident as its symbol.
PLUTO. This symbol is one that is used by astrologers only, and is described as being composed of the crescent (representing the mind) transcending matter (represented by the cross) in search of the divine (represented by the circle or the spirit). The other symbol for Pluto is the PL symbol which is said to stand for either Pluto itself or its discoverer, Percival Lowell, and was first used after its discovery in 1930.
This last information about Pluto brings up the astrological interpretation of the construction of the symbols for the planets and signs of the zodiac. There are commonly-held beliefs by some in the astrological community that the symbols are composed of five different shapes — circle, crescent, vertical and horizontal lines, and a cross — and that each of these represents, respectively, spirit, soul, mind, body, and matter. This approach is simplistic and it works, but it is merely attributing symbolism to symbols that were created for other reasons, so it is questionable but harmless at best.
For more information about symbols, please read my article A Brief Introduction to Symbols.
This article last updated: 03/24/2014.