Signs Language

It’s amazing how what we take for common knowledge isn’t. I was reading the chapter on medicine in The Time Travel’s Guide to Medieval England, and was struck how it briefly described the medieval use of astrology in the treatment of ailments. Not so much that it’s an odd idea to our modern sensibilities, but that the author had to describe it for his readers. I grew up knowing this stuff. Oh, we didn’t call it astrology, and if you call it such people will get upset. They prefer to call it the “signs,” which these days are technically called Moon Signs. This is where the moon is located in the sky on a given date, and also the phase of the moon.

Opinions on the “signs” run from staunch adherents to those who consider it bunk, and everything in between. My father never planted by the “signs,” but paid attention to the phases of the moon when plowing, and consulted the almanac when performing some veterinary procedures on hogs and cow. My mother’s father didn’t believe in them at all. Long story short is he concluded that planting by the signs roughly preserved the window of the best time for planting in respect to the last frost, started planting by the weeks of the year as the weather allowed, since that was tied to the seasons, and had just as good of results.

Being roughly betwixt the two opinions, I wondered if there was something to it. So I tried gardening by the signs and noticed no difference, concluding that Granddaddy had it figured out. I’m aware of it, though, and if someone told me they planted potatoes in the dark of the Moon, I’d know they meant they’d planted them when the moon was waning.

Planting by the Signs is a chapter in The Foxfire Book, which is filled with Moon Sign lore, but, oddly, not what was basically an intercalary month, which Granddaddy remembered the old folks talking about, and which led him to doubt – and test – planting by the signs. This may have been something used in the absence of printed almanac, which might explain why the planets aren’t involved in Moon Signs today. Looking at where the moon is each night is easy, as is observing the phase. While noting the position of the naked-eye planets can be done as casually, it’s harder when the planet can’t be seen, either late at night or in the day. Yes, at one time the planets from Mercury through Saturn were part of the “signs.”

What follows is the gist of the “signs.” I won’t go into detail for two reasons. One, it’s basically astrology. The other is that it doesn’t work. Both are why I abandoned work on a decorative “Signs” chart I intended to sell. This is just for familiarity purposes.

The first thing to know about the signs is that the phase of the moon is a large component. Some things are supposedly best done on the “light” of the moon, when the illumination of the disk is increasing, and some things are supposedly done best on the “dark” of the moon, when the disk illumination is decreasing. This was supposedly to affect more than just planting. Baking, butchering, and the aforementioned medical aspects were supposedly affected as well.

The next thing is the moon’s place in the Zodiac. Here some critics have a field day by pointing out that the constellation the moon is in difference from its “house” or place on the Zodiac. That’s really a bit of underhandedness: These critics are referring to the moon’s place within constellations who’s boundaries were defined in 1922, if they realized that much. The much older, as in thousands of years, Zodiac, are twelve constellations along the elliptic, the path the sun seems to take across the sky during the year. The reason for twelve goes back thousands of years a well, the short answer being it somewhat fits with the number of full lunar cycles in a year. The constellations start with Aries, which is a good artifact for the start of the year coincided with the Spring Equinox, and ends with Pisces, the last “sign” during the year.

Unlike Sun Signs, the Moon Signs correspond to the actual location of the moon in the zodiac. Due to a thing call Precession of the Equinoxes, the point where the Spring Equinox occurs changes a tiny bit each year. Now the Sun Signs are off almost a full month. This gets into a discussion of different types of Astrology, which is a moot point since none of it is valid; just be aware it exists.

The view of the moon signs, and why my father consulted the almanac, was where the moon is in the zodiac affects specific parts of the body. Aries was considered the head, and from there it went on down the body to Pisces, considered the feet. This was supposed to affect the health of man and beast, and why it was a concern of medieval doctors.

So now we have the phases of the moon coupled with where the moon is in the zodiac. That’s usually as far as it goes. Ah, but it get more complicated than this. Remember the ancient theory of all matter composed of four elements? That’s applied to the signs as well. So you have an equal number of water signs and fire signs and air signs and earth signs. You also have fertile signs and barren signs. All of this combined to make an even more complicated set of rules, with finer detail into how it affected all aspects of life.

It can get even more complicated. It could depend on the day of the week. That’s because Just as each body part was supposedly “ruled” by a sign, the days of the week were thought to be ruled by planets. So it was that the Roman days of the week were dies Solis, dies Lunae, dies Martis, dies Mercurii, dies Jovis, dies Veneris, and dies Saturni. This translates to Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Mar’s Day, Mercury’s Day, Jupiter’s Day, Venus’ Day, and Saturn’s Day. You’ll note this is very similar to Spanish days of the week, with the Lord’s Day (Domingo) replacing Sun’s Day, and the Sabbath Day (Sabado) replacing Saturn’s Day. Really, most of the former Roman Empire follows the same pattern because of the influence of Latin. England, though part of the Roman Empire, was influenced by the arrival of the Saxons, and used the pre-Christian mish-mash favored by Germanic peoples : Sunday, for Sun’s Day; Monday for Moon’s Day; Tuesday for Tiw’s Day, a rough equivalent to the god Mars; Wednesday, for Woden’s Day; Thursday for Thor’s Day; Friday for Frige’s Day, Frige the equivalent god for Venus; and Saturday for Saturn’s Day.

Yes, gods. That’s not a slight of hand, and is another artifact lurking in all this. At one time people worshiped the sun, moon, and planets as gods. When they said such and such planet ruled over a day or a sign, they weren’t just talking about a ball of rock and gas way up in the sky; they were also referring to the god or goddess. And that, folks, is how the very first astrologers thought it worked.

It’s worth noting that the Hebrews called the days of the week First Day, Second Day, Third Day, Fourth Day, Fifth Day, Sixth Day, and Rest. When you know the One True God, it shows.

By medieval times, people in the West had long stopped regarding the sun, moon, and visible planets as gods and goddesses, but still believed they had an effect on events on earth. So it was that not only the sun, moon, and planets were thought to have an effect on a day of the week, but on the body as well. And, in case you’re wondering, the planets were grouped by water, fire, earth, and air, too. Since 12 is not divisible by 7, this means it’s uneven, which might explain how when each planet “ruled” was determined by day and night and you even had co-rulers.

But wait: there’s more. When you contracted an illness was thought to have a bearing as well. And don’t forget the humors. The prevalent theory of Western medicine what there were four humors in the body: phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile, and these were also associated with the water, fire, earth, and air. The humor theory went that disease was caused when the humors were out of balance. A doctor was likely to try to correct what he saw as an imbalance.

You just know this had to get more complicated, right? All this extended to medication as well. Herbology was also shaped by astrology and the humor theories and the Rule of Similars. That was the odd theory that how a plant looked was an indication of what it could treat. All of this meant that whether or not your medicine had a positive effect was completely hit or miss.

All of this was a factor in Medieval medicine. A visit to the doctor likely meant he’d cast your horoscope as well as check your pulse and urine. Thank goodness for modern medicine.

Such is the march of time that the author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England had to explain the role of the “signs” in medieval medicine. This is a good thing in that a non-valid theory has become nothing more than a footnote. It gave me an odd feeling, though, that much of it was familiar. Just to be clear, I, as did many others who grew up on farms, learned information that has circulated through the population thousands of years before medieval times, and might be in circulation for thousands of years afterward. I can’t help but to think that if we have farmers hanging out at L5, someone will have an almanac. It’ll probably get interesting if we have farmers on the moon, and especially elsewhere in the Solar System. I still suspect, though, that someone will have an almanac somewhere, and when they read of medieval medicine, some of the concepts will not be all that alien.

A future colonist on a distant world checking a modified almanac before planting his crops is not something we usually see in Science Fiction. It’ll probably still happen.