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: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.
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!