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Am I Still My Sun Sign?

A few days ago (mid January 2011) Minneapolis astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle broke the old news that the Earth's "wobble" has shifted the zodiac signs. The implication here was that astrologers are wrong but astronomers are knowing. Kunkle says he just wants to get people talking about astronomy, though it turns out people are talking about astrology.

Every few years an astronomer makes this very same statement and then, predictably, the media propagates the information and a buzz is created. Maybe more ads are sold too. Ultimately, the subject matter is bad news for astrology, on the surface at least. And further, the subject is not so easy for the layperson or the media to understand, so all of the buzz amounts to confusion. Thanks, Kunkle.

Here's the ten cent explanation. The signs of the zodiac are as they have been -- no change to take into account. The operative word here is SIGNS. On the other hand, and all astrologers know this, the constellations shift over time relative to the signs. The operative word here is CONSTELLATIONS. Signs and constellations, though they share the same names, are two very different things. The signs of the zodiac, anchored at the equinoxes and solstices, are based on the seasons. Each season is divided into thirds. The zodiac constellations are groups of stars with boundaries originally based on ancient myths but now established by astronomers. This zodiac is actually used in Hindu (Vedic) astrology, but more as a reference grid and not really a designator of personality. This confusion wouldn't come up if the names of the signs and constellations weren't the same, but they are because they once were coincident -- 2,000 years ago.

So astrology is unchanged, you are still your Sun-sign and we should probably regard Mr. Kunkle as a naive mischief maker. Hopefully, the media will learn something about astrology this time.

- Bruce Scofield

Background Information: Signs vs. Constellations

Astrology divides the ecliptic into 12 idealized, equal sections of space. This was first done by the Babylonians, who used several starting points for dividing the ecliptic, one of which measured from zero degrees of Aries (the vernal equinox). (Astronomically, the vernal equinox is defined by the intersection of the earth's equator with the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun in the sky.)

The Greeks inherited this system, and were the first to formalize naming of the 12 signs of the zodiac for the constellations that lie near the ecliptic. However, the Greeks obviously recognized that while each of the signs was 30 degrees in length, the corresponding constellations were of unequal length. For example, the constellation Virgo is about five times larger (in terms of degrees on the the ecliptic) than the constellation Scorpio. In Essays on Astrology, Robert Hand describes the difference between the Greek concept of the zodia noeta, the idealized twelve 30 degree signs, and the morphomata, the irregular constellations creating the pictures of forms in the heavens.

The Greeks knew the difference between the signs and constellations. Apparently, some modern astronomers don't.

The Greeks are credited with discovering the phenomenon of precession (although there are those who argue that earlier cultures were also aware of this). Precession is caused by the gradual shift in the orientation of the Earth's axis of rotation, which, like a wobbling top, traces out a conical shape in a cycle of approximately 25,800 years. Precession causes the vernal point (zero Aries) to move clockwise (westward) along the ecliptic, i.e., backwards through the constellations. This happens at about a rate of one degree every 72 years. Around 500 BC the vernal point was near the beginning of the constellation Aries, and in AD 150 (the time of Ptolemy), it was in the center of the constellation Pisces.

Ptolemy was aware of precession and came to advocate the use of what we now call the tropical zodiac, that is, a division of the ecliptic based on the vernal equinox, not the constellations. This clearly anchored the signs to the seasons on earth, not to the constellations. Thus, the sun's crossing of the so-called cardinal points (zero degrees of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn) coincide with the first day of spring, summer, fall, and winter (respectively) in the northern hemisphere. Each season neatly consists of three signs.

The use of the tropical zodiac defines “tropical” astrology, the predominant system used in the West. However, many astrologers in the world, most notably those in India, use a system that is anchored to the constellations and is not in sync with the seasons. This is called sidereal astrology. The difference (in degrees) between the starting points of the tropical and sidereal zodiacs is called the ayanamsha. There are several ayanamshas in use, but the value currently averages about 24 degrees. Like tropical astrologers, sidereal astrologers use 12 signs of 30 degrees each – the only difference is in the selection of starting points.

So, astrologers have been aware of precession since the time of the Greeks, and precessional effects have long been considered in astrological practice and included in all modern astrological software. Efforts to discredit astrology by claiming astrologers to be ignorant of precession are disingenuous, at best. And the use of the 13th sign (Ophiuchus) seems to be purely a 20th century gimmick – there is no precedent for it in any astrological tradition.

- Barry Orr