Slowly Slipping Zodiac

As someone with almost literally a life-long love of astronomy (my first word was “star”), I’ve always been vaguely intrigued by astrology. I’m fascinated by that which endures through many ages and cultures of humanity. At the very least, such things reflect an aspect of human consciousness. They’re also a shared idea, so they form community in the like-minded.

Is there magic in the stars? No, not in the astrological sense. Any “magic” is in us, in our consciousness, not in the stars. (Worldwide, on average, almost 12 million babies are born each month. That an astrological sign applies to them all is a bit of a stretch.)

And the thing is, most of us aren’t the sign we think we are!

Of course, as always, it depends on what sign you think you are. It turns out, in Western astrology (let alone, in that of other cultures) there are at least two possibilities.

Most of us (in the West) are familiar with the Tropical Zodiac. It’s the one usually printed in newspapers or on restaurant placemats. It’s the one most of us use to answer the question, “What sign are you?”

Unfortunately, it’s the one that’s wrong. Here it is:

  • Aries: March 21—April 20
  • Taurus: April 21—May 20
  • Gemini: May 21—June 21
  • Cancer: June 22—July 22
  • Leo: July 23—August 23
  • Virgo: August 24—September 22
  • Libra: September 23—October 23
  • Scorpio: October 24—November 22
  • Sagittarius: November 23—December 22
  • Capricorn: December 23—January 20
  • Aquarius: January 21—February 18
  • Pisces: February 19—March 20

These are the Sun signs — they are determined by where the Sun is in the sky. In particular, in which constellation of the Zodiac (“house”) is it. For example, someone born today, per the above, will be a Virgo.

The reason most don’t realize it’s wrong is that we can’t see the stars during the day, so we generally don’t know in what house the Sun is. But if we could see the stars at noon today, we’d see something like this:

The Sun is in the house of Leo on 2020-09-14. [click for big]

That Sun is definitely not in the house of Virgo! It was supposed to cross the boundary back on August 24th. Instead, it won’t be fully inside Virgo’s boundary until four more days (it’ll be right on it in two).

I remember my surprise, long ago (late 1980s, maybe), when I got my first astronomy software package and checked out what the sky looked like way back when I was born. The Sun wasn’t in my sign, but in the next one over!

That’s true for nearly all of us. In the Tropical Zodiac, our Sun signs are off by a house. Our celestial clock is running way slow.

§

The problem is that the Solar System’s equinox has processed in the thousands of years since the Zodiac signs were created. While the paths of the Sun, Moon, and planets, all work according to clockwork, that clock has sifted relative to the background of stars.

If we could look back one-thousand years — and with astronomy software we can look back — the sky, on September 14, 1020, looked like this:

And now the Sun is in the house of Virgo, where it belongs.

In fact, considering that, per the Tropical Zodiac, it’s supposed to cross into Libra in only eight days (on Sept 22), even one-thousand years (the limit of my app) shows the shift. Our notions of astrology are generally prehistoric, so we need to go back several thousand years to see the Sun signs as they were first visualized.

By 2500 AD, the Tropical Zodiac will be off by two houses.

§

The other option in Western astrology is the Sidereal Zodiac (see the Wiki article for details), which is a lot more accurate:

  • Aries: April 15—May 15
  • Taurus: May 16—June 15
  • Gemini: June 16—July 16
  • Cancer: July 17—August 16
  • Leo: August 17—September 16
  • Virgo: September 17—October 17
  • Libra: October 18—November 16
  • Scorpio: November 17—December 16
  • Ophiuchus: November 29—December 17
  • Sagittarius: December 17—January 15
  • Capricorn: January 16—February 14
  • Aquarius: February 15—March 15
  • Pisces: March 16—April 14

It’s apparently due to Cyril Fagan (1896–1970), an Irish astrologer who was instrumental in the “20th Century’s scientific re-awakening of Astrology.” Note that this one includes the interloper, Ophiuchus.

Under this version, someone born today is a Leo, as the actual stars show. Note, too, that here the Sun is close to crossing into Virgo, which is also what the actual stars show.

So at least Fagan got that straightened out.

§ §

I am not sanguine about the “re-awakening of Astrology” in the last century — and it seems pretty wide awake in this one (and I don’t capitalize the word, but then I don’t capitalize “astronomy” either).

I see it as a complexly evolved inkblot — suggestive, symbolic, structured — a form against which our own minds find patterns and connections. It’s an interesting exercise to consider what the other signs say; one always finds fits.

It reminds me a bit of when we tried that thing about watching Wizard of Oz while playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We were blown away by how much parts of it really did match. Then we changed the channel to some other content, but let the music play. We were blown away by how much parts of it really did match. (No I didn’t just accidentally repeat a sentence.)

The mind is awesomely powerful at pattern matching, which is why we see things in clouds or burnt toast. Astrology is plenty rich and ambiguous enough to act as a fascinating inkblot for seeing ourselves.

Some get it from poetry or paintings; some from math or science. Some from nature; others from spirit or a higher power. One way or another we find our own patterns and make our own meaning.

§

That all said, my actual astrological birth chart is slightly interesting from an astronomical point of view.

As I mentioned, back in the day, when I got my hands on some good astronomy software (RedShift — an awesome product; check out their website), I was surprised to find I’m a whole other Sun sign.

That was interesting enough, but when I looked at all ten bodies (I included Pluto), my eyebrows rose a little:

  • Leo: 5
  • Virgo: 3
  • Libra: 1
  • Cancer: 1

(I won’t say in which houses my Sun or Moon actually are. A guy has to have some secrets!)

What’s weird is that, in the sky, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, are consecutive signs. My Sun, my Moon, and all my planets, are in four adjacent signs, with eight of the ten bodies in the center two. The whole Solar System concentrated in an arc of only one-third of the sky, with most of the bodies in just one-sixth.

Here’s a look at the inner planets at the time:

The Moon isn’t visible at this range, of course, but it’s aligned pretty closely with the sight lines to the inner planets and Sun. (Mercury, arguably, isn’t on the other side of the Sun, but it’s not exactly on this side, either.)

Zooming back to show the outer planets (making the whole inner system not visible at this range) shows them lined up in the same general line of sight:

Honestly, I’m more impressed by the inner planets, plus Jupiter, since those line up so tightly. (Kinda cute how Pluto lines up with the Sun and Jupiter. Might be why I’ve always been fond of it. You’ll always be a planet to be, baby!)

[Uranus is at one end of the range. Which seems right. 😉 ]

It’s not nearly a conjunction, so I’m not Chosen or Wizardly, but it’s kinda cool. It’s a bit more than a 90° spread, which is why it fits in four Zodiac signs.

Given the singular arc of my life, the Earth alone on one side of the Sun when I was born seems… weird? prophetic? just coincidental? (The actual star signs involved certainly are.)

§ §

In any event, with the fall equinox approaching (and bumming me out a little), it seemed a good excuse to throw this out there — I’ve been meaning to post about the Zodiac “slip” for years. It wasn’t until this summer that events put astrology back in mind again and reminded me about the topic.

One less note in the file!

(2020: Lima X-ray Victor. How about that. Unexpected.)

Stay star-eyed, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “Slowly Slipping Zodiac

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Interesting on the zodiac shift. I wonder if the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar didn’t also exacerbate that situation. Or was it already accounted for?

    I’m actually a Virgo under both systems. So I’ve always known my true sign! (For whatever that’s worth.)

    For millenia, astronomy was actually the mathematical branch of astrology. Astronomers were often just referred to as “mathematicians”. It’s purpose was to facilitate better astrological calculations. It’s often hard to remember that early modern astronomers were also astrologers, a respected profession at the time. But I think astrology was cracking by the early 17th century, and the Copernican revolution took whatever wind was left in its sails.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I have no idea. The Zodiac is tied to the equinox, so maybe the astrologers at the time would have compensated? My guess is the official dates for the signs were different under the Julian. One might wonder why they haven’t adjusted them to account for precession of the equinoxes, but that’s what that Fagan guy did. It just didn’t catch on. I suppose the whole thing has become decoupled from the physical reality and is just a human meme now.

      Which is the part I find fascinating — what it says about people!

      If you’re a Virgo under both systems, you have a birthday coming up now, so happy birthday!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Now that I think of it, the Gregorian calendar was introduced when astrology was still considered a valid practice, so I imagine the dates would have been updated.

        On the decoupling, yeah, I think that’s a fairly common thing. A lot of beliefs start out grounded in some understanding of the world, but continue long after that understanding has passed, with the belief reinterpreted as necessary to reconcile with the current understanding. I’m not versed in astrology, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they have some sort of reconciliation.

        On the birthday, thanks! I was born 11 days after ST:TOS first aired!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! Whereas I was already a dedicated little science fiction fan and was glued to the set, eyes wide. (Lotta water over the dam since then, so I’m dam old. 😉 )

        I think even the current government wouldn’t get behind a move to “officially” update the astrological sign dates, although I could be wrong. Just one more sign of the times that, for centuries, as you said before, Western culture wouldn’t have taken that seriously, but in this post-fact age, who knows!

        And there’s that thing about how large a fraction of people believe in the physical reality of angels. Or ghosts.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ghosts are an interesting example. The ancient word for “soul” meant breath, which to them, appeared to be the main difference between living things (at least animal things) and non-living ones. Homer’s conception of a ghost seems to have been the breath without the body. So he saw the soul as immaterial, but not in the way we mean today, but more as insubstantial, the way a breath of air would be.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Makes sense. Cultures visualize things in the contexts they understand. Today a lot of people look for spiritual stuff in quantum physics.

        There is something somehow plausible to me about ghosts, at least as a story device. Monster stories never impressed me; I don’t find monsters plausible story devices. But a good ghost story can raise hairs! They’re the only kind that can.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Monsters seem like they’re a primordial fear we all have. Young children are the ones always worried about monsters under the bed or in their closet. Interestingly, if you think about it, this innate primordial fear makes sense. For most animals, there are most definitely monsters in the world, in the form of predators.

        But I think we’ve talked before how the idea of a monster always seemed more scary than any specific creature. It’s why most movies (at least ones that are scary to any degree) keep the monster out of sight until as late in the story as possible. In that sense, they end up being ghostly.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Monsters do seem a common archetype, which is why I commented that they never did anything for me. Another place I’m way off the bell curve peak. One of my favorite Terry Pratchett Discworld quotes is a major character (Death’s grand-daughter, Susan) saying that fairy tales don’t teach children about monsters. Children know there are monsters. Fairy tales teach children monsters can be killed!

        Very much agree about implying over showing — it’s one thing that makes movies like Ju-on so effective. I think our concepts of ghosts and monsters come from different places. Monsters, like predators, are external threats — things that go bump in the night. Godzilla is, perhaps, a canonical example in representing the atomic bomb.

        Ghosts, I think, come more from within. Ghosts were people, our “dear departed,” and a lot of ghost mythology involves people with perceived, if not downright legitimate, grievances. (Come to think of it, some of the better monster stories involve generating sympathy for the monster by showing it has some legitimate grievance. The Star Trek episode with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark” I think?) is a good example.)

        Maybe it’s just that ghost stories are quintessentially human whereas monster stories are, almost by definition, inhuman. And as much as I’m a raging misanthrope, people do fascinate me. Definite love/hate relationship! Monsters just aren’t complex enough to be interesting, especially as usually implemented (as mindless and raving, or even clever and raving, but definitely raving, and that just isn’t that interesting to me).

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Whatever…I’m definitely not an Aries.

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