Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Libra, one of the zodiac constellations, is a pair of weighing scales. Why might there be such a contraption in the sky? What is being weighed?
In Ancient Greece and in Arabic astronomy the constellation Libra was simply an extension of Scorpio: the claws of the scorpion. In Babylonian astronomy, Libra seems to have been both known as the claws of the scorpion, and as MUL Zibanu (the "scales" or "balance").
It is possible that Libra resembles a pair of weighing scales because for a period the sun entered this part of the sky at the time of the autumn equinox, when the days and nights are equal.
This is absolutely the case. Between about 2,400 and 1,100 BCE the sun did rise in Libra on the equinox, the day in autumn when daylight has decreased to such an extent since the summer that day and night are roughly equal. The screen shots below taken from the program Stellarium show the sun rising in Libra when the sun is in the sky for 12 hours a day. The date shown in the bottom left hand corner doesn't correspond to today's equinox dates, what matters is the length of the day. (When the sun rises in a specific part of a constellation it remains within it for the whole day, not just the moment of sunrise so the time of the shot is irrelevant.) You can see below in 2,500 BCE the sun is just about to enter Libra, and in the following screen shot it is about to exit Libra in about 1,100 BCE. Babylon was a major power from about 1,800 to 1,600 BCE. Perhaps the constellation Libra marks this celestial event, but it is much older than the period when Babylon was a great city.
The constellation chart from the temple at Denderah shows Libra quite clearly, though it may only be dated to around the year 50 BCE. José Lull and Juan Antonio Belmonte have written that what we today refer to as the zodiac constellations, and which are quite easily recognisable on the Denderah zodiac, may have been inherited from Greece or Mesopotamia, not from a long Egyptian tradition.
Libra, however, as represented by the Scales is first attested in Egypt, where the autumnal equinoctial point was located in late antiquity. The figure of a child within a disk is located upon these scales. This is represented also within the sign of the horizon akhet in the astronomical ceiling of the later hypostyle hall. (8)
Lull and Belmonte suggest a connection between Libra and Hor-em-akhet, “Horus in the horizon”, deity which represented the dawn and the early morning sun. He was often depicted as a sphinx with the head of a man, a lion or a ram, and could be what the Great Sphinx at Giza represents.
Was this part of the sky, Libra, marked to show not only where the sun rose at the equinox, marking an even balance between night and day, and a transition point in the year, but something else too? Are these the weighing scales that the Archangel Michael and Anubis use to assess the worth of a soul in the afterlife?
The writer Alvin Boyd Kuhn describes life as the period of the soul's trial and testing. This is a concept that unites all religions. Such a trial implies that the soul continues to exist beyond an earthly life, and perhaps, goes on to dwell within another earthly life after that, and so on. What happens to the soul after death, be it a journey to heaven or hell, or a reincarnation, is a question implied by the very presence of weighing scales held by psychopomps such as Anubis or the Archangel Michael, or even the key held by Saint Peter. Upon the death of a person, their soul is said to travel, and this journey is the subject of many fascinating beliefs. The light of the sun, the horizon, mountains: what have they to do with this journey?
Without such a testing she would remain forever ignorant of her own latent capacity, or would never bring it to expression. Here is where she is thrown into the scales of balance, in Libra on the horizon, and here is where she is being weighed. (1)
So what about good, evil, the afterlife, and weighing souls, of judgment day?
The Greek myth of Er, recounted in Plato's Republic, Book X, (recounted in full at the end of this post) describes the journey of souls after death. A man is resuscitated from the dead and tells of his experience through the other world. Together with a group of other souls destined for rebirth, he comes to "a straight shaft of light, like a pillar, stretching from above throughout heaven and earth-and there, at the middle of the light, he sees the extremities of heaven's chains, the light that binds the heavens, holding together all the revolving firmament like the undergirths of a ship of war".
The following description of the shaft of light as 'spindle' is quite surprising, involving the traditional seven 'planets' (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), colour and sound waves. I had to look up what a whorl was, as I had no idea how a spindle actually worked, but it's basically a weight to keep the spin constant.
The shaft and hook of this spindle are made of steel, and the whorl is made partly of steel and also partly of other materials. Now the whorl is in form like the whorl used on earth; and the description of it implied that there is one large hollow whorl which is quite scooped out, and into this is fitted another lesser one, and another, and another, and four others, making eight in all, like vessels which fit into one another; the whorls show their edges on the upper side, and on their lower side all together form one continuous whorl. This is pierced by the spindle, which is driven home through the centre of the eighth.
The first and outermost whorl has the rim broadest, and the seven inner whorls are narrower, in the following proportions—the sixth is next to the first in size, the fourth next to the sixth; then comes the eighth; the seventh is fifth, the fifth is sixth, the third is seventh, last and eighth comes the second. The largest [or fixed stars] is spangled, and the seventh [or sun] is brightest; the eighth [or moon] coloured by the reflected light of the seventh; the second and fifth [Saturn and Mercury] are in colour like one another, and yellower than the preceding; the third [Venus] has the whitest light; the fourth [Mars] is reddish; the sixth [Jupiter] is in whiteness second. Now the whole spindle has the same motion; but, as the whole revolves in one direction, the seven inner circles move slowly in the other, and of these the swiftest is the eighth; next in swiftness are the seventh, sixth, and fifth, which move together; third in swiftness appeared to move according to the law of this reversed motion the fourth; the third appeared fourth and the second fifth. The spindle turns on the knees of Necessity; and on the upper surface of each circle is a siren, who goes round with them, hymning a single tone or note.
Between the extremities of the Spindle of Necessity, all the circles revolve. This is not a single axis but a sort of prototype or generating force for all heavenly cycles. The Spindle of Necessity could govern the axis of the Earth, but also some other axis, perhaps that of the sun's path round the sun, or the axis around which the Milky Way revolves. It could also be the Milky Way itself acting like a band holding everything together, or the ecliptic / zodiac band, the course of the sun through the sky. The journey described by Er is a fascinating account of places and people beyond the world of the living, where the souls of humans and animals choose their future lives. Justice is given to those who have acted wrongly, and this seems to tie in with the mechanical workings of the celestial bodies. Justice, truth and order are intrinsic to the Spindle of Necessity. This idea was very influential in the development of later religious beliefs, and may be very old indeed.
Plotinus was a 3rd century philosopher, probably the most influential thinker in the Christian world after Plato and Aristotle. In fact he was the founder of a school of thought later called neo-platonism, which heavily influenced the formation of Christian theology. Like Plato, Plotinus had a concept of the soul being made up of several parts. He believed that you can't act without being affected by what you do, what you act upon. One part of the soul is constantly affected by existence, all that it goes through. Another part though is not affected at all by the ups and downs of life, and it actually governs the Cosmos. The essence of the soul is one with the Highest Soul. This is how all individual embodied souls eventually return to their true divine state. They return to the Divine Realm. This return is made in three stages: the cultivation of Virtue, which reminds the soul of the divine Beauty; the practice of Dialectic, which tells the soul the true nature of existence; and finally, Contemplation, which is the proper mode of existence of the soul. (Capital letters all Plotinus's)
Against this theoretical background, evil can be said to be something that can affect the lower part of the soul, the part that is embedded in the material world and every day life, but not the higher part. The soul can fall prey to Evil, but Evil is not something that the soul can never get rid of or overcome, and can be remedied by the soul’s experience of Love. A platonist's concept of love is not necessarily what might commonly be understood as love. Plotinus's concept of love involves notions of the soul's higher and lower parts, and how the soul falls into bad ways when it falls in love with images it already contains and mistakes them for realities, so that the soul makes judgements without the influence of its higher part. A fallen soul will be forced to endure a chain of incarnations in various bodies, until it finally remembers its ‘true self,’ and turns its mind back to the contemplation of its higher part, and returns to its natural state.
In the third century, reincarnation was still considered acceptable, and even central to Christian thought.
Plato also believed that souls were made up of the same stuff as the Cosmos, and also believed in reincarnation. For Plato, all souls have wings and can climb upwards, but only the souls of the gods can actually stay up there. The others gradually fall back down to earth again, eventually hitting on a body, and becoming partly mortal. Some human souls can become immortal too, the most godlike ones, the philosophers, and can escape the cycle of rebirth.
Most religions in fact have either reincarnation or an after life as a central part of their beliefs. Either way, it is an almost universal idea that the souls of those who die travel to a spirit world, or to Heaven, or to the Cosmos, and the way that person's life was lived will have a bearing on this journey and the soul's destination. It's worth noting that this belief in a part of the soul living on after the death of the body and travelling to another realm is not dependent on the idea of a god or gods. However, there is usually a gatekeeper, or a guide, or some figure to sort and judge, perhaps weigh these souls. In traditions where the soul is not believed to continue on to a new mortal body, the soul has to dwell permanently in heaven or hell, or somewhere in between, and is not given much of a chance to redeem itself. For Plotinus, evil was simply a lack of goodness, like the holes in a swiss cheese, it certainly didn't define a person or their soul. The soul could gradually over the course of many lifetimes build up more and more good qualities and eventually break free from the cycle of reincarnation. However, this is in sharp contrast with many beliefs whereby the soul only inhabits a body once and is judged completely on its performance during that time. Hell, or the possibility of it, becomes the currency of a controlling deity and ruling class in the earthly world. Christians for a long time were very fond of threatening people of burning in hell for all eternity, a theme that seems to have lost popularity in recent times.
There are many traditions around the world, but one striking thing they have in common is the idea of some souls fairing better than others in the after or next life. So what does this mean for souls travelling to the afterlife after the body's death?
Of course, as everyone knows, the soul of a dead person will go where it deserves to go, depending on how that person has lived their life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there must come a day when the soul of the dead is judged or weighed - and this is where the constellation Libra comes in. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, and Christians for example teach that the souls of the unbaptised cannot go to heaven, be they young children or people from another religion. Catholics believe that evil deeds can be forgiven and even the worst people can go to heaven if they repent, or are forgiven by a priest, possibly in exchange for a donation. In many medieval paintings, the devil may try to catch even a person worthy of heaven. In ancient Egyptian lore, the soul of the dead must follow instructions to the letter so as to get past all the obstacles and get to a good place, as explained in the Book of the Dead. What all these rules and instructions tells us is that the decision of the soul's journey is to a large degree an earthly one: one's deeds, one's creed and allegiance, one