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An Irish Zodiac Preserved in a Library at Basle

In 1992 I was sent a photocopy of an article published in 1925 in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Vol.LV pp130-135). It was entitled Notes on the Irish Zodiac Preserved in the Library at Basel, and was written by Henry S. Crawford, the Vice President of the J.R.S.A.I.. I re-published it as an edited version in Réalta (the Irish Astrological Association journal) in 1994 (vol.1 no.3 pp 20-25). The main editing act was to leave out the Latin transcriptions of the contents in the centre of the zodiac, and only use the English translations.

page 2   page 3

graphic of medieval irish zodiac

The table on page 2 shows the inscriptions associated with each sign graphic. The central writings for each sign are described on page 3.

Notes on the Irish Zodiac Preserved in the Library at Basel
by Henry S. Crawford

Dr. Ferdinand Keller, in his paper on the Irish Manuscripts in Swiss Libraries (1), gives an illustration of the Zodiac contained in the ancient and fragmentary manuscript of the Liber S. Isidori Hispalensis de Natura Rerum, which belongs to public library of Basel and is written in Irish characters (2). He, however, gives no description, nor does he reproduce the astrological predictions written in the central divisions of the Zodiacal circle. A reference to the published editions of De Rerum Natura shows that though they contain astronomical diagrams, the figure of the Zodiac is not part of the original work; the latter does not deal with astrology nor with the signs of the Zodiac. The figure has been introduced by the fancy of some particular scribe or it may be the leaf on which it is drawn has been bound up with the manuscript by mistake. The illustration which accompanies these notes is taken from a photograph, and shows the diagram complete; it seems to be a careless copy from a good original. The scribe has drawn the figures roughly, he has made many mistakes, and has omitted various words. The signs are so placed that Capricornus and Aquarius are at the top of the circle, but it is probable that the original designer intended Aries and Taurus to occupy that position, and they are thus arranged in the plate. Looked at in this way, there is an evident attempt at symmetry in the arrangement of the figures, and none of them appears upside down, as they do from other points of view.

It is worthy of note that the series of signs as numbered does not begin with Aries, but with the opposite sign, Libra, which is seen on the meridian about midnight when the sun is in Aries. This figure, Libra, is the most curious of the set; the Balance is personified as a half-length figure, the arms of which are outstretched perhaps to suggest the swaying of the scales. This figure probably represents St. Michael, to whom was assigned the duty of weighing the good and evil actions of the dead. He is often shown doing so; for instance on the cross of Muiredach, and in later carvings at the Rock of Cashel, in Kildare Cathedral, and over the doorway of Cloontuskert Abbey, near Ballinasloe. The appendages below the Zodiac figure may may be taken represent wings. It is not clear what the object beside the figure is intended for.

[Comment: If Crawford's speculation that Libra is personified by St.Michael in correct, then my guess would be that the object he is referring to is a trumpet. In St. Paul's Epistle to the Thessalonians, it mentions the "voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God" in the context of the waking of the dead on Judgement Day. St.Michael was an archangel, who's iconographic attributes include a sword and a set of scales. St.Michael's Day (Michaelmas) has been celebrated on September 29th since the 6th century, when the Sun is in Libra.]

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