"God fixed the fire of the Sun in the seat of the heart"
The "symbolic animals" by definition are those that populate the zodiac, a word that comes from the Greek "zodiakos", i.e. "zoon diakos", "wheel or circle of animals".
Since the dawn of time men who looked at the sky saw (or rather projected) mythological animals and events on the celestial constellations.
In actual fact almost all constellations are represented by animal figures; the crab for Cancer, the goat-fish for Capricorn, an hybrid between man and horse for Sagittarius, the mythological Bull of Taurus, the lion of Leo, Scorpio is a scorpion, Aries is a Ram that brings spring (and sometimes symbolizes the philosophical gold), and the two fishes in Pisces, often depicted in the act of taking opposite directions. Here we intend to show how each of these symbolic animals embodies, in the alchemic imagination, an important stage of the transformation that awaits the First Matter. Even the remaining four signs of the zodiac which are not represented by animals (Gemini, Virgo, Libra and Aquarius) represent, as we will see, important stages of the Opus alchemicum.
The "card of the sky" of a man, the (apparent) disposition of the stars in the Zodiac at the moment of his birth is still considered by many people as a kind of mandala of his destiny. Much ink has been spilled to refute the foreseeing powers of astrology, since Cicero’s time (the great rhetorician wrote a tract on the topic where he examines the different destinies of two twins). The most decisive argument, just after that of the impossibility of action from a distance of the planets and constellations on the destinies of men, in "competition" with Newton’s universal gravitational law, is that of precession of equinoxes, the movement from the vernal point that marks the beginning of spring and the rising of the sun on the horizon at dawn together with the constellation of Aries, on the 21st March. The precession of equinoxes, determined by the cone described in around 26,000 years by the rotation axis of the earth, causes in actual fact a movement backward along the band of constellations of the vernal point and so at present on the 21st March the sun aligns at dawn with the constellation of Pisces, which will soon give this honor/onus to the constellation of Aquarius.
Alchemists considered the 12 signs of the Zodiac, the myths connected to them and the 12 mythological Labors of Hercules as metaphors of the various stages of the alchemic Work.
Some alchemic treaties (such as The 12 doors of alchemy by George Ripley or The 12 keys of alchemy by Basil Valentine) seem to establish a concurrence between the 12 signs of the zodiac and the 12 alchemic stages. The whole cycle is often divided into three parts, each made of conjunction, putrefaction, sublimation and fixation of the first matter that turns into the Vase, obviously connected to the 4 elements: air, water, fire and earth. In classical ancient times there wasn’t a clear distinction between astrology, astronomy, mythology and alchemy; in the most ancient treaties that have reached us (such as the Treaty on the Heavens by Eratosthenes, the Tetrabiblos by Tolomeo or the Astronomicon by Manilius) these disciplines appear strictly connected among each other, at least in the mind of the writer. Kepler, the undisputed genius that together with Galileo and Newton discovered the laws that rule the motion of planets and stars, earned his living by writing horoscopes. Before adding anything further on the relation between astrology and alchemy, let’s ask ourselves how we can look at astrology nowadays. If astrology, mocking science, claimed rights of technological exactness, maintaining the existence of influence from a distance between the constellations visible in the sky and human destinies, scientists would easily demonstrate that, because of the precession of equinoxes, the alignments with planets and constellations, at the time of solstices and equinoxes, are not what they used to be and therefore, when an astrologist says that ‘the Sun is in Capricorn’ the sun might in actual fact be aligned with the constellation of Sagittarius, etc.
Instead, since astrology has magic origins, we will have to move within the coordinates of magic thought; astrology’s planets and constellations nowadays must be considered as inner entities of man and they draw their meaning and symbolism from an association between the seasons of tempered climates and celestial constellations that goes back to a time when the sun arose on the horizon with the constellation of Capricorn during the winter solstice, with the constellation of Aries during the spring equinox and so on. Knowing which constellation is in actual fact on our heads at dawn on 21st March doesn’t have the slightest importance for the purpose of a magic debate, because the constellations of astrologists are nothing but inner images projected on the sky, whilst the astronomers’ constellations are the sensitive supports that thousands of years ago helped men to associate the 12 parts in which they divided the apparent cycle of the sky around the earth to the transformations that Nature undergoes during a year.
Therefore the 21st March can only be associated with the 0° of Aries because the sky that has been divided in 360° and in 12 parts of 30° each is not the visible sky, but a symbolic sky associated to it.
Therefore if astrologists should reformulate their doctrine to adapt it to the changes of the sky and the terrestrial axis, they should not modify their symbols but, if anything, they should learn to ‘see’ an Aries in the group of stars that we now call Pisces…
Basically our thesis is that the sky where the eyes of the alchemist rest is not the sky that we perceive when we look up and that the planets that plough that sky ‘are and are not’ the planets of the "vulgar sky". This doctrine, that there is a sky within man and that there are planets and stars whose orbits follow a route synchronic with that of the planets of the sky that we can perceive through our senses is, in actual fact, as ancient as the Western Tradition and it was recalled in more modern times by Marsilio Ficino. 
If what we are saying is true, when we read times and seasons indicated in the alchemic books we need to refer to this mysterious interior time, establishing its solstices and equinoxes, rather than look at "vulgar" seasons. Therefore the gathering of the first matter and the celestial dew, represented in the Mutus Liber by Altus as an event that must take place between the signs of Aries and Taurus, is in actual fact a gathering that can be successful only if Aries and Taurus belong to an inner constellation. The Opus Alchemicum at the same time intended to imitate Nature; nevertheless it was also called Opus contra Naturam.
On this topic we need to remind the reader that on the front of the temple of Apollo in Delphi, as its priest Plutarch tells us, two writings stood out. The first, which is universally known, even to psycho-analysts, said: "Know thyself".
The second sentence has often been mistakenly intended as moralistic: "Nothing in excess". Of these two aphorisms, the second is in actual fact more connected to the deep meaning of the ancient Mysteries. Indeed, "Nothing in excess" is nothing but the statement of what Jung called the "law of enantiodromia", the esoteric secret of the symbol of the cross and the celestial symbol given to us by solstices and equinoxes. When the Light (or Darkness) touches the maximum limit allowed to it during solstices, it is destined to decrease and the opposite principle will grow. When the hours of light exceed the hours of darkness (or vice versa) during equinoxes the light slows down its growth (and vice versa). It is not difficult (as Jung did) to extend the same universal law to the opposite principles that dominate man. Only the man who truly knows himself can understand which kind of cross he’s been crucified on and which are the limits placed at the growth and decrease of the qualities that animate him. Only he can hope to build a telescope pointed towards the inside to observe planets and constellations of the twelve signs of the inner zodiac, or if we prefer, what alchemists called the "Mirror of the Art". "Nothing in excess" is a saying that also hides the secret of immortality; the monthly cycles of the moon, the solar cycle of the four seasons and the daily cycle marked by the apparent movement of the sun in the sky show us that when a cycle reaches its acme it starts to decline; that when the shadow disappears swallowed by light, it is destined to grow again up to immersing the world of darkness. The man who truly knows himself can also identify the acme of any cyclic process connected to the soul; the point when the shadow starts growing again; and he learns to control this natural process. This same secret is enunciated in the hexagram 55 of the ancient book I Ching: referring to a time of acme and abundance its advice to face the inevitable decline is: "You must be like the sun at midday".
It is not our intention here to deal with the 12 signs of the zodiac in a classic way, as it happens in many astrology books. On the contrary, what we are interested in is to connect the various transformations undergone by the Earth during the annual cycle of the sun with the human microcosm and the alchemic Work.
In undertaking this journey through the 12 signs of the zodiac, we should start by describing the traveler… in solar alchemy, when we talk about the First Matter on which to carry out the Work, we say that we need to capture and "freeze" a sunray, to give body to the Universal Spirit meant as a spirit imprisoned in things, as an "igneous ray enclosed into matter". In solar alchemy it is also stated that next to the visible sun there is an invisible one  and that the property of the visible sun’s rays to give life, light and heat are the sensitive equivalent of other characteristic properties of the invisible sun. Thanks to the energy of this second sun imprisoned in living beings, they can keep their identity and exist for the time allowed to them, before freeing this energy again at the moment of death. Fulcanelli writes in his "Philosophical abodes": "This fire, or this burning water, is the vital spark transmitted by the Creator to inert matter, it is the spirit enclosed into things, the igneous everlasting ray closed at the bottom of the obscure, shapeless and frigid substance...". Well, our traveler, the man who will cross with us the 12 signs of the zodiac and the seasons connected to them, he is that igneous ray that travels the solar year accompanying the transformation that characterizes it, an immortal and incorruptible ray, yet mysteriously imprisoned into matter, unchangeable in its essence, yet subdued to the periodic climaxing and decreasing that characterize any earthly thing. We will see how the 12 signs of the zodiac draw their traditional meanings from the changes of relation between this Unchangeable Traveler and the matter that hosts him.
The agent used by alchemists is a substance that is purified and re-animated by this subtle energy up to being able to work miraculous transformations. In order for this to be possible, the subtle energy must be freed from its prison and connected to a body purer than the body that it imprisoned previously . Furthermore we always need to keep in mind the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm according to which the sun is likened to the human heart. But what rays can be emanated by the human heart, even if we mean it in a subtle way? The system of symbolical meanings connected to the cycle of the zodiac was born at a time when the magic thought was prevailing and the scientific thought wasn’t even born yet. An effective image to understand the way astrologers and alchemists of ancient times could conceive an ‘action from a distance’ caused by the human heart can be drawn by the following passage by Al Kindi, a Persian philosopher who lived in the 9th century A.D.
"When man conceives a material thing through his imagination, such thing acquires a real existence depending on the specie of the fantastic spirit (spiritus imaginarius). Such spirit emits rays that move exterior things exactly like the thing that it is an image of" .
Of course we must not confuse active imagination and fantasy, heart’s impulses and imaginal spirits, but this passage tells us that at the time of Al Kindi and up until at least the 17th century an action of the heart from a distance was conceivable and it was possible to believe that human imagination could create entities gifted with an existence independent from their creator, something similar to what we call today ‘thought-forms’ or, if they are produced by a collective activity, "eggregore".
After these premises, we will now embark on a journey in the zodiac and in the "inner sky" of man, a journey during which, because of time and space limits, we will have to neglect many important elements (such as the meaning and value of the planets and the sun in this "inner sky"). Here we will only examine the zodiacal signs, establishing to which period of the "inner sky" each sign refers, to which alchemic operation, trying to grasp its operative aspects, to which season of the soul and which is the value of the symbolic animal or the human figure that represents that sign of the zodiac.
1. See Thomas Moore, The Planets within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino, Lindisfarne Books, 1990. We also find this view of the cosmos in the Tractatus Aristotelis (Theatrum Chemicum), an alchemic treaty attributed to Aristotle, where it is stated: "Spheres, planets and elements work in man in a more real and powerful way through the revolution of their zodiac than the extraneous bodies or the higher corporeal signs.". We need to highlight that the speech which this passage has been extracted from teaches to activate these planets within man with the purpose of healing diseases. Origen of Alexandria, founder of a Christian school in the 3rd Century A.D. wrote in the Homilies on Leviticus: ‘Be aware that you are a miniature second world and that you have the sun, the moon and the stars within.’ But the man who divulged this teaching the most was Paracelsus, considered as the founder of modern medicine. Paracelsus, in the Paragranum stated that the ‘Sky is man and man is the sky’ and that "the true father of everyone is his inner sky". "The planets that are within us are the true man’, he claimed, ‘and they wish to lead us to a great wisdom". (^ back to the main article)
2. Or at midnight. (^ back to the main article)
3. This and other quotations are taken from the beautiful book Divo Sole (Divine Sun, Note of the Translator) dedicated to the solar theurgy of alchemy, by Alessandro Boella and Antonella Galli, Edizioni Mediterranee, Rome, 2011. (^ back to the main article)
4. See Alessandro Boella and Antonella Galli, ibid. for the "doctrine of the three suns". (^ back to the main article)
5. Stephen of Alexandria, who lived between the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., wrote that alchemic operations have the purpose of directing celestial natures, detaching them from certain bodies and leading them on others. (^ back to the main article)
6. Cit. from I. P. Coulianu, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987. (^ back to the main article)