Zodiac (Greek: zoidion, an image of an animal)
The Zodiac is derived from the visible part of the night sky, divided into 12 equal portions (each 30° of celestial longitude based on the ecliptic). It contains the 12 major constellations associated with the 12 major signs of astrology, as well as the 12 major stages of transubstantiation as outlined in medieval alchemical lore.
The zodiac was in use by the Roman era, based on concepts inherited by Hellenistic astronomy from Babylonian astronomy of the Chaldean period (mid-1st millennium BC), which, in turn, derived from an earlier system of lists of stars along the ecliptic. The construction of the zodiac is described in Ptolemy‘s vast 2nd century AD work, the Almagest.
The term zodiac derives from Latin zōdiacus, which in its turn comes from the Greek ζῳδιακὸς κύκλος (zōdiakos kyklos), meaning “circle of animals”, derived from ζῴδιον (zōdion), the diminutive of ζῷον (zōon) “animal”. The name is motivated by the fact that half of the signs of the classical Greek zodiac are represented as animals (besides two mythological hybrids).
Although the zodiac remains the basis of the ecliptic coordinate system in use in astronomy besides the equatorial one, the term and the names of the twelve signs are today mostly associated with horoscopic astrology.
Astrology has been variously championed, questioned and lampooned, but in India commercially obtained horoscopes are frequently used to determine suitable marriages, a practice stemming back for decades.
As Calcutta grew in size and the social composition of the city became more mobile and diverse, matrimonial advertisements and marriage bureaus that served the function of matchmaking as well as various other types of marriage-related services such as matching horoscopes seemed better suited to the needs of the urban householder. In fact, many matrimonial bureaus combined the task of brokering marriages with astrological functions. Advertisements such as the following littered contemporary newspapers and journals: “Undertake marriage negotiations of respectable families-Jyotirbid Pundit K. Samajpati B. A. (Medical Astrologer)-Residence, 4 Guruprasad Chaudhury Lane, Calcutta” (Amrita Bazar Patrika, November 14, 1929, n.p.). Others were even more precise, stating, “if you send your date, year, and place of birth to the address below, you will be provided with your horoscope at the lowest possible price-Sri Motiranjan Kabyatirtha, P.O. Sarutiya, Jessore” (Bijali, February 18:6).²
² Rochona Majumdar, “Looking for Brides and Grooms: Ghataks, Matrimonials, and the Marriage Market in Colonial Calcutta, circa 1875-1940,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 63, No. 4, (Nov., 2004: 911-935), p. 920.