The 13th Sign 🙄

“Aren’t there really 13 zodiac signs? I just read an article online and some guy at NASA said….”

This is a topic that seems to keep intermittently popping up every now & again – every so many years, some scientist or maybe team of scientists decides it’s that time again; time to put out a press release attempting to refute the basis of astrology cuz SCIENCE! While I understand these individuals probably feel as if they’re somehow doing their civic duty in pointing out the number of constellations along the ecliptic,  there’s an erroneous assumption on their part that it’s the basis of how astrologers make their calculations.  Um… I hate to break it to ya, but that’s not how it works, guys. 🙄😒

No, astrologers do not have it all wrong.  No, nobody’s astrological sign has suddenly changed because (take your pick) either a new constellation has suddenly been discovered or astrologers have ignored a constellation that has been right in front of their noses for thousands of years. Before throwing stones or veering out of their lane, it would be nice if astronomers bothered to research (Hey, I heard you scientists are supposed to be pretty good at that) or even ask an actual astrologer about this *perceived* (keyword) discrepancy.  Because as an astrologer for over 20 years, I can assure you that either premise is quite laughable.

Truly, it is not my intention to bash astronomy or the scientific community – I appreciate the process of scientific inquiry and encourage people to exercise their own critical thinking faculties. However I do get tired of having sand kicked in my face for no good reason at all; as well as in the faces of my colleagues, clients, and the legions of people the world over who are “into” astrology.  So in order to keep the perspective balanced, I think it’s important for people to pause and consider what an actual astrologer might have to say about the matter. I’ve noted that commentary from such professionals always seems was conspicuously absent from any of the pieces I read pertaining to this topic – if the goal is to educate & inform the public, then why not point out these supposed “discrepancies” to a real, live astrologer and ask them to explain? To do otherwise just seems rather one-sided.

It’s unfortunate that astronomers and astrologers have very little in common nowadays; unlike in ancient times when both roles were one and the same. Astronomers typically know very little about the fundamental mechanisms behind astrology these days, which causes problems when one of them decides to talk out of turn & make commentary about subject they typically have very little (if any) knowledge of. Let’s explore this topic a bit and you’ll see what I mean….

You know all those horoscopes you’ve read your whole life that tell you you’re a/an:

Aries if born approximately March 20-April 20, Taurus if born April 20-May 20, Gemini if born May 20-June 20, etc?

This are based on your Sun sign, and it’s important the reader understand these dates are all based on Tropical astrology. Tropical astrology uses time and the seasons (or, more precisely, the Equinoxes and Solstices) to determine the position of the Sun in the “signs” at given parts of the year. The fact the “signs” astrologers use seem to draw their names from physical constellations is what often leads some to jump to erroneous conclusions about how astrologers calculate and track the movement of celestial bodies. In fact, if you were to pick up any beginner’s book on astrology, most authors are quick to make the distinction between the “signs” that astrologers use (which are simple 30 degree divisions of a 360 degree circle) and the physical constellations we see in the night sky in order to avoid confusion. In short, the “signs” we speak of when we look at an astrological chart are not the same as the constellations.

Now, when Tropical astrologers say, “You have the Sun in the sign of Aries.” what we are saying is that on the day of your birth the Sun occupied a segment of time that we call “Aries” – this period begins at the March Equinox and lasts for 30 days, at which point the Sun leaves Aries for Taurus. We are not saying “You have the Sun in the constellation of Aries” – BIG difference! But to the layperson who does not understand the differences between the “signs” and the constellations it’s easy for them to assume the two terms are interchangeable, which they are not.

Why am I talking about this system? Well, because once you understand that the horoscopes you have been reading your entire life for your “sign” in books, newspapers, magazines, and on the internet are almost always based on the Tropical system – and know that this method of calculation is based on time and the seasons – arguments that detractors of astrology try to throw out about the quantity or positions of constellations in the sky become pretty much irrelevant. It’s a non-issue as we’re not measuring by that yardstick, so to speak.

Now, I used the words “almost always” in the paragraph above quite deliberately. There is another system of astrological calculation (used more in Asia) that is called Sidereal astrology. Sidereal astrology didn’t really grab a firm hold in Europe, America, and the majority of the Western world the way that Tropical did, so you can rest assured the horoscopes you’ve read during the course of your lifetime are most likely not based on this this system. But for further elucidation:

What is Sidereal astrology? Sidereal astrology uses space/location to ascertain the position of the Sun in the “signs”. The sky is divided into twelve even “slices” – each of which is 30 degrees in size and is called a “sign”. Like Tropical astrology, the “signs” each have names that correspond to a series of constellations roughly situated along the ecliptic; however, once again this is a case where the “signs” and the constellations are not the same thing. As anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky can tell you, the actual constellations themselves vary considerably in size! Some are diminutive while others are quite huge, so assigning them each a 30 degree “chunk” of real estate in the sky was essentially just a way of creating a standard and uniform system of measurement and nothing more. This branch of astrology uses the positions of certain fixed stars (not whole constellations!) to determine the Sun’s passage from one “sign” (as in 30 degree segment of a 360 degree circle) to the next. These stars are simple reference points that remain relatively constant, and as such it causes the Sidereal “signs” to match up much more closely with the location of their real, live constellational counterparts. Mind you, it’s closer, but still not exact and never has been – remember we’re still treating each segment of the sky as an equal 30 degree division of space when the actual constellations aren’t even remotely uniform in size. Contrast: The constellation of Virgo w/ the constellation of Pisces, for example.

But what of this “13th constellation”?  Usually the one being referenced in these scientific articles is Ophiuchus. And again, this is an important distinction; Ophiuchus is another constellation (astronomy), not another sign (astrology). And if you’ve been paying attention to our lesson so far, it should be clear to you now the signs are merely a unit of measurement that the ancients used for reference and they did not (and do not) correlate directly to the constellations in the sky. Posing this question is a lot like asking “Why aren’t there 13 inches in a foot?” – simply put, it wasn’t the standard of measurement set forth at the time.

But what is a constellation, really? Plainly stated, it’s an arbitrary grouping of stars that is assigned a territory in the sky. There are no real, tangible lines connecting the stars together and forming them into various shapes. The ancients used their imaginations and folklore to group and name them, but what our ancestors recognized as constellations vs. the 88 we know today are likely very different. Why is this so? Because it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the IAU (International Astronomical Union) formed and attempted to uniformly demarcate them. Even now, when new stars are discovered they are simply incorporated into the constellation they are located nearest to. Astrology has been around for much longer than the IAU.

Ptolemy – one of astronomy’s own forefathers – only recorded about 48 constellations in his work circa 140 AD. Astrology first originated in ancient Babylon thousands of years prior to his documentation, and it is difficult to say for sure just how many constellations the ancient Babylonians actually observed in the sky and what it was they looked like. Documentation to this effect is obviously somewhat lacking as this was a time period that relied heavily on oral history and tradition rather than on the written word. Even looking back to Ptolemy’s time, some of the constellations he recorded (for example, Argo the Boat) are no longer recognized by astronomers today and are not counted among the 88 listed by the IAU.

Does this mean that the ancients were wrong? Hardly. It just means that defining a constellation – up until very recent times – was a highly subjective thing; much like you and I looking up at the clouds and one of us sees a bunny while the other sees the face of a woman. It is doubtful the ancient Babylonians looked up into the sky, saw the constellation Ophiuchus, and then arbitrarily decided to “ignore” it as it has been suggested by some. One must then pose the question, “When did this constellation first become recognized by mainstream society?”

Though Ptolemy did document this constellation’s existence in his work around 140 AD, it is unclear exactly when it became such a part of popular culture and folklore as to be included among the stars as a constellation. Some earlier records from Eudoxes and Aratus mention its existence a few hundred years prior, but this information postdates the origin of the 12 zodiacal constellations by a few thousand years. It is likely that this constellation was adopted into existence after the advent of 12 original zodiacal constellations.

Further muddling the picture is the fact that Ophiuchus’ southern territory (i.e. the parts of the constellation that actually cross the ecliptic) was originally assigned to Scorpius. In fact, if you look up at this constellation it is only the feet which cross the ecliptic; one of which is actually located ON Scorpius. So where did one constellation’s territory start and the other’s begin? Essentially, this becomes an issue of how and when the dots were connected so to speak; when the Ophiuchus we know today came into being and what his original territory was vs. the territory we have assigned him today.  We must remember the boundaries of constellations are artificial, and as such are prone to periodic interference from mankind.

So in closing, please do not buy into any hype/hysteria along the lines of “Your zodiac sign has changed!” – I can assure you that according to the standards astrologers have measured by for millennia, it has not.  Thank you for coming to my TED talk. ✌



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