You may have heard, dear readers, about the astronomer who went on NBC and made a pronouncement that has led astro-philes everywhere to worry that their Sun signs were misdiagnosed.
Setting off the ruckus was a timeworn objection to modern astrology that turns up like a bad penny now and again (the last time I heard it was 35 years ago). In this latest reiteration, it was declared by Dr Kunkle (after whom I hope they name the next new planet, or maybe a trendy new search engine) that “The 12 signs were designated to different periods of the year almost 3,000 years ago, when astrology began, and since then the Earth’s position in relation to the Sun has changed.”
Well, yes, that’s true. That’s why we have both a sidereal zodiac and a tropical zodiac. Both zodiacs (the word means wheel of animals) are in wide use, and have been for a long time — as all astrologers are aware. You’d think scientists, too, would be aware of it; at least those who presume to speak publicly as experts on astrology. In fact, the idea that an astronomer could be ignorant of the difference between the sidereal and the tropical zodiacs seems so implausible that it makes me wonder whether this whole kerfluffle isn’t a deliberate faux-scoop: an example of somebody trying to make a splash on a slow news day.
Sidereal astrology is used by Vedic astrologers; tropical astrology is used mostly by Western astrologers. If you had your chart done by a sidereal astrologer, you may indeed end up with a different Sun sign than if you had it done by a tropical astrologer. That’s because they’re different systems — not because you’ve been living a lie all this time and you’re really a Capricorn instead of a Sagittarius. Astrologers normally specialize in one or the other system. Now that we have computers, it’s just a matter of clicking on either the sidereal or the tropical option on our chart-erecting programs.
The sidereal zodiac derives from the apparent movement of planets through the constellations, which provide a fixed frame of reference (relatively speaking) against which to map a planet’s wanderings. Thus the sidereal zodiac is based on space. The tropical zodiac, on the other hand — the one most Western astrologers use — is based on time: It begins when the Equator intersects the Ecliptic (zero degrees of Aries is when the Sun is overhead at the Equator, midway between its extreme north and south declinations).
It has always seemed fitting to me that the Vedic system, which is based on the idea of predestination and uses the sidereal zodiac, continues to be used in India — a culture whose ties to the ancient world’s fatalism are far closer than in the West. By contrast, the tropical zodiac — in use in the more psychologically-oriented cultures of the world — gets its meaning from pure symbolism: that of the four seasons, whence the signs are understood to get their character.
It’s not about one being true and the other false, any more than we’d say that the tarot was true and the runes false, or that the I Ching is true whereas the Enneagram is false.
The slow backward movement of the equinoctial point that the good doctor mentions is called the precession of the equinoxes. This is an astronomical anomaly that happens because the Earth, not being a perfect sphere, has a wobble to its orbit; which causes its rotations around the Sun to end up just a hair behind the [Vernal] point at which it began its orbit the year before. Add up all those tiny little fragments of a degree, and after a couple dozen thousands of years you get a Great Year: twelve World Ages of about 2,000 years each. The World Age we’re on the threshold of now is the Age of Aquarius, which has gotten a lot of press; even Dr Kunkle has probably heard of it. If he has, I don’t know how he imagines astrologers could have come up with the World Ages without knowing about the precession of the Equinoxes.
So yes, astrologers who use the tropical zodiac are fully aware that the Equinoxes have diverged over time from their celestial reference points. We realize that it has resulted in the sidereal signs being 24 degrees behind their seasonal counterparts. The crux of the matter is that most modern astrologers use the zodiac as a symbolic construct, not a literal one. If we depended on literal astronomy to measure planetary placements, consider the difficulties that would arise. Trying to determine the exact beginning of a sign by looking at when the Sun seemed to be entering a specific cluster of stars? Pretty much a crap shoot.
As for the professor’s advocacy of Ophiuchus, that constellation does not fall on the ecliptic (the narrow band of sky that the planets seem to travel through, from Earth’s point of view), so it isn’t included within either the sidereal or tropical schema. Goddess knows there are oodles of star-pictures up there, beyond those included in the ancient twelve. I guess anybody who has nothing better to do is free to lobby for their favorite constellation to become a thirteenth sign. But approaching astrology as a parlor game in this way would reveal the person’s fundamental ignorance of what it’s all about.
It would indicate that the person sees astrology’s twelve houses and twelve signs (which are composed of 3 modes times 4 elements: 12) not as essential components in a holistically structured system, but as a collection of random ingredients, arbitrarily assembled… which is the way a mechanistic thinker tends to see everything. It would betray a blindness to the signs’ spiritual and numerological interconnectedness. Astrology is a complex holographic language with a very precise geometrical logic. It works not because of Western scientific principles but because of an underlying matrix of numinous meaning.
In the end, one either takes the leap of faith or one does not. One either sees archetypal significance in this system of orbiting rocks and stellar dust, or one does not. To those who do see the planets and stars as something more than accidental outgrowths of astrophysical material, it will be obvious that the zodiac can’t be added to and subtracted from without violating the system’s integrity. To imagine, as Dr Kunkle does, that all there is to astrology is what’s physically up in the sky is to get it all wrong; which is what happens when scientists expect mechanistic materialism to explain esoteric truths.