The Secrets of the Twelve

When I was younger, there was a Japanese anime I was in love with. It was called Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac, and it followed the eponymous character as he battled his way through various representations of the constellations, including — you guessed it — the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The story was fairly flimsy, but allowed for spectacular duels between our plucky hero and golden-armoured personifications of Cancer, Sagittarius, and many others, peppered with more twists and heel-turns than a full season of wrestling.

Years later, when researching another story I wanted to tell, one about the unreliability of history, I came across the zodiac again, this time in an essay on how astrology has evolved over the centuries, and consequently how the celestial system developed in Babylonia some 2,500 years ago has not only changed, but splintered, shaping astrology in other parts of the world. That was how I first learnt of Vedic astrology.

Vedic astrology, also referred to as Jyotisha (“light”), or simply Hindu astrology comes from the word “Vedas”, India’s ancient system of knowledge. It is much older than western astrology, possibly dating back as far as 5000 BC, and uses the sideral zodiac, which puts the planet’s position against a backdrop of stars, rather than the tropical zodiac, which is based on the seasons and Earth’s relationship to the Sun.

Despite these differences, Vedic astrology has twelve Rāśi, or zodiacal signs, the first of them being Mesa (Aries). The First of the Twelve. And so, the pieces clicked together in my head and I knew I had my Twelve Knightly Orders. Well … almost. Below is some further insight as to how I merged both western and eastern descriptions to finally create the characters you have read about over the last four novels. I also tried to subtly integrate aspects of the signs into the mannerisms or traditions of the corresponding Knightly Orders, little easter eggs that may have given you a few hints without breaking immersion.  

Kriari, First of the Twelve — The Ram

Ram in Greek is zygouri or … kriari, and I liked the hard sounding “k” from the second translation. The Order of Kriari wear fur pelts (not sheep pelts of course, that would have been too on the nose), and Vohanen carries a ram’s horn which he uses to raise Kriari from his fugue state. Rams are flock animals and strongly gregarious, which is why the Order of Kriari is based on a philosophy of brotherhood, unity, and mutual protection; ideas that naturally spawned the creation of the shield wall.

Guanna, Second of the Twelve — The Bull

From the Sumero-Babylonian name “” meaning “Divine Bull of Heaven”. We unfortunately do not get to see a lot of the Knights of Guanna or their patron, but I wanted to try and convey some of the sheer power and fear these large, muscular bovines can inspire. And so they became the siege-breakers, using their strength to pummel the enemy into submission.

Mithuna, Third of the Twelve — The Twins

From the Sanskrit name “Mithuna”. One of the most interesting signs, its mythology encompasses everything from the stars Pollux and Castor, to the less well-known Babylonian god of plague and pestilence, Nergal. A charming, if somewhat unpredictable deity, his tales often involve him using a combination of guile and violence to achieve his goals. Nergal was a good starting point for the Order of Mithuna, to which I added the gift of metamorphosis drawing from myths about the duplicity and interchangeability of identical twins.

Brachyura, Fourth of the Twelve — The Tower

Without a doubt the hardest of the Twelve to develop, as he is not only the first we encounter, but also patron to Aldarin, one of the main characters. The Latin “Cancer” was out of the question, and the Sanskrit “Karka” sounded too familiar to Makara. In the end, I went with Brachyura, the infraorder for decapod crustaceans, from the Greek brachys (short) and oura (tail).

The Order of Brachyura is the one that has the most references to the original zodiac sign. The knights are encased in a hard “shell” of plate armour (in fact, Jelaïa tells Aldarin to come out of his shell at one point), the horns on Aldarin’s helm are shaped like a crab’s pincer, and even their double-bladed axes look slightly pincer-like.

They are, like crabs, usually defensive, but can be aggressive towards one another when fighting over females or hiding holes (as is the case with the power struggle between Caddox and Aldarin). In a final little etymological nod, I named one of the nights Ka’arka, going back to the original Sanskrit.

Simha, Fifth of the Twelve — The Lion

The exact transliteration of the original Sanskrit “Simha”. Again, we do not see much of Simha in the novels, but hopefully the little glimpse we did get was enough to get a rough idea of his alpha-male-like character. Good-natured, brave, but impatient and reckless.

Shala, Sixth of the Twelve — The Ear of Wheat

Shala was an ancient Mesopotamian goddess of grain, sometimes represented as the sixth sign of the zodiac through the Sumero-Babylonian Ab.sin “Furrow”. Additionally, in Greek and Roman mythology, Virgo is heavily associated with wheat, Demeter, the goddess of harvest, and her daughter, Persephone.

The idea of harvest and growth morphed into the idea of her being able to “sing to the earth” and shape it to her will, leading to her eventual terrible alliance with the weaver. From Persephone came her connection to the Underworld, or rather the place on the border of the Underworld, and her many unfortunate dealings with the dead. 

Zygos, Seventh of the Twelve — The Scales

From the Greek “Zygos”. Obviously, the scales lead naturally to themes of balance and order. The seventh astrological sign also has ties to the goddess Themis, the personification of law. Other connotations include rationality and detachment. I was especially interested in the latter, and wanted to explore how emotionless logic can have disastrous consequences when used incorrectly.   

Luridae, Eighth of the Twelve — The Dagger

Much like Brachyura, I didn’t want it to be immediately obvious the Eighth of the Twelve was the sign of the Scorpion. Iuridae is a family of scorpions in the order of Scorpiones, which I changed slightly to Luridae. The scorpion’s “stinger” became the glaives the Knights of Luridae use, a dagger-like single blade on the edge of a long pole.

I also wanted to incorporate the geographical distribution into the story. Scorpions are primarily xerocoles, hence the Knights of Luridae living in the hot Da’arran desert.

Dhanusa, Ninth of the Twelve — The short bow

From the Sanskrit name “Dhanusa”. Sagittarius is interesting, often represented as a bow-wielding centaur, though certain illustrations show him as a human archer. In both cases, the bow and arrow are always present. This sign is linked to prophecies (the flight of the arrow compared to the passage of time), something that was never explored in the War of the Twelve.

Makara, Tenth of the Twelve — The book

Another literal transcription of the Sanskrit name “Makara”. The horned goat, or sea goat. Also the crocodile in Hindu astrology. The sea goat aspect appears to come from the Sumerian god of wisdom and waters, Enki, which gave me the idea of using the Book as the sign of his Order and making Makara himself one of the more erudite members of the Twelve. Unfortunately, after the deaths of his siblings, he becomes fervently devoted to preserving their memory, at the cost of sharing his knowledge.

Indians still celebrate the sign of Makara with the Makara Sankranti festival (also known as Maghe Sankranti), held every January to mark the transition from one period to the next. During Makara Sankranti, believers bathe in holy rivers in the hopes to be absolved of their past sins.

Kumbha, Eleventh of the Twelve — The Amphora

From the Sanskrit name “Kumbha”, “The Water Bearer”. Traditionally the water carrier is a young man or boy, but I ended up swapping genders to counterbalance the two antagonistic female members of the Twelve, Mithuna and Mina. There is no real documented link between Aquarius and medicine, though water carriers — who collected drinkable water from a natural source and transported it all the way to people’s homes — must have been seen by some as healers. In fact, as centralised water supply systems became more prevalent, water carriers diversified their profession and became unofficial house-nurses, helping the elderly and the sick.

Mina, Last of the Twelve — The two fishes

From the Sanskrit name “Mina”. I worried about the similarities with Mithuna, but I ended up sticking with it. Pisces is the twelfth and final astrological sign. From my rough outline, I knew the second book in the series would take place at least partly at sea, so Mina was the obvious choice. An element that has been lost from more recent representations of Pisces is the cord or string joining the two fish together, either by the mouth or tail. The fish are often portrayed swimming away from each other, in opposite directions, leading to a certain unpredictable duality that I tried to convey both in Mina and her Knights.