Once upon a time, the zodiac signs roughly lined up with their namesakes, 12 of the 88 visible constellations. It was great idea to name the zodiac signs after the constellations as the sun appeared to move through them. Over time, it appeared from our earth-bound vantage point that things had gone a little wonky. For example, at the end of March, when the sun is supposedly in the sign of Aries, it is clearly having a sojourn in Pisces. So what has gone wrong? Are astrologers confused? What happened was something called precession. So what is precession in astrology?
Dieter Koch explains in an article for Astrodienst that both things are true: the Sun is in the fixed sign of Aries but appears to us to be traveling through the constellation of Pisces.
What Is a ‘Fixed Sign’?
The fixed signs are assigned to each 30 degree portion of the ecliptic, which is the relatively stable orbit of the Earth and the other planets of the solar system around the Sun. Or, if in ancient Babylon, the apparent orbit of the Sun around the Earth. If you can visualize each of these portions as labels, Pisces, Aries, etcetera, you can see them moving through space as though attached in place to Earth.
All well and good if you were an ancient Babylonian. You could look up and see the constellations exactly where you expect them to be, providing a backdrop for the Sun’s perceived path through the sky.
What’s This Precession Thing?
Although our ancient Babylonian astronomers (who were also astrologers – it was all one and the same back then), were convinced that they had devised a system based on immutable principles, over time, a problem arose.
Someone noticed that the accepted annual markers, the Equinoxes, were no longer lined up where they were supposed to. Panic stations.
It was all to do with gravity and the pull of the planets, the Sun and Moon on the Earth’s orbit. And not only the Earth’s orbit, all the other planets are affected too, in one way or another.
It was all going horribly wrong due to the Earth’s wobble around its own axis, called ‘Axial precession’, and it’s ever-changing pattern of orbit. In truth the path of the Earth’s orbit looks like the petals of a flower with the Sun at the center. This is called ‘Apical precession’ (see image below). So today, the fixed labels, the Zodiac signs, no longer line up with their constellations. There has been a constant shift backward, so that on the 30th March, the Sun is moving against the constellation of Pisces instead of Aries. A complete rotation of precession takes 26,000 years.
Cool, fun fact: this constant shifting means that Polaris wasn’t always the North Star, and neither will it remain so. Prior to Polaris,the North Star was a star called Thuban (also known as Alpha Draconis. In 13,000 years or so from now, Vega will be our new North Star. Polaris will return as our designated North Star after another 26,000 years. By the way, does anyone know the name of the South Star? No? That’s because there isn’t one. Not currently anyway. The South Pole is roughly pointed at the constellation called “The Southern Cross”, which stands in for our missing South Star.
So is Western Astrology Incorrect?
No. Western astrology has hung its hat on the relative stability of the ecliptic and no longer relies on the background of fixed constellations. The confusion among non-astrologers mainly lies in the fact that the zodiac signs share the same names as the constellations. If the signs were renamed, the confusion would disappear. That seems unlikely to happen though.
What About the Age of Aquarius?
These periods or ‘ages’ are called Epochs and, in astrological terms, are calculated by dividing the 26,000 year long precession by 12 (the number of zodiac signs/divisions of the ecliptic). Therefore an astrological epoch lasts 2,160 years.
However, this is one time that astrologers do take into account the actual constellations. So 2,160 years is the time it takes for the point of the Vernal Equinox to appear to travel from one constellation to the next. The problem is that astrologers can’t agree on the exact date, or even an approximate one, when the current Age of Pisces will change to the Age of Aquarius. Some say it has already happened whereas others calculate it will be in the year AD 3597.
In 1929, Astronomical Union decided to get together and define the edges of the constellations. The imaginary border between Pisces and Aquarius means that we will officially enter the Age of Aquarius in the year, AD 2060.
In regard to day-to-day astrology, the Age of Pisces or Aquarius is usually ignored.
Does Precession Mean There is an Extra Sign?
Minneapolis astronomy instructor, Parke Kunkle, announced that, if astrology is to come into line with astronomy, there should be a 13th zodiac sign. He named it Ophiuchus. If he is right, it means that every one’s sign, under the Western system would shift back one, and Ophiuchus would be inserted between Scorpio and Sagittarius.
Western astrologers do not agree with Kunkle, saying that his declaration is not based on sound theory and that, frankly, 12 signs are enough for anyone to deal with. Dividing up the ecliptic into 13 sections plays havoc with mental arithmetic.
There is a bit of an odd disparity here, in that astronomers think there are 13 astrological signs, yet astrologists base their calculations on 12. They think it’s nice that astronomers take such an interest in a discipline they generally dismiss as nonsense.
Does All This Precession Stuff Matter?
Not really. Western astrologers will continue to use the fixed signs and the planets as their references. Their calculations and interpretations don’t take into account the actual constellations. It could be argued that Western astrology is wholly based on the Earth’s position in space and that the other planets and heavenly bodies simply provide reference points to establish that position.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the great party we’re all going to have in 2060… or will it be 3597?