January 28th, 2013
While looking box of material I stumbled back across some microfilm I had ordered from the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Kraków (If you have any interest in early modern science, this is a great library, which, I am happy to see, has started a digital library). What caught my eye were the stamps on the packages, three of which were artistic depictions of zodiacal signs.
Each sign seems to be on a different denomination. Capricorn adorns the 5 złoty stamp, Sagittarius the 2 złoty:
Cancer is relegated to the 30 groszy:
It would be interesting to know how they chose to assign which zodiacal sign to particular denominations. The full set of stamps are here.
Stamps have often been a mechanism for celebrating a country’s scientific and technological achievements. For a nice exhibition, see “Sci-Philately. A Selective History of Science on Stamps.” Recently, a graphic designer from London put together a set of stamps highlighting British Inventions. We might wonder how he chose these particular inventions.
Stamps, like currency, commemorate and emphasize a country’s achievements. It is no surprise, then, to see Copernicus on a number of Polish stamps or Brahe on Danish stamps or Galileo on Italian stamps.
The signs of the zodiac don’t seem particularly scientific these days. While they have been used to mark calendrical periods and divide the ecliptic, it has been some time since those were the dominate cultural associations between the signs and systems of knowledge. I suspect most people today associate Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, etc. first and foremost with astrology. And while astrology was once an important science, it no longer enjoys that same status and is often dismissed even as a worthy subject of historical study (see Thony’s summary of a typical debate or my previous thoughts). So why are signs of the zodiac on these recent Polish stamps? What message do those stamps convey? Whose interests do they advance and how?