The Zodiacs (or- why western astrologers do not use Ophiuchus)

by Heather Roan Robbins

Western astrology has never followed the constellations, we are earth-centric. We see the zodiac as a projection of the earth, aura-like, radiating out from her body, and divided the sky through our equinox and solstices. The Zodiac describes the band of the sky the Sun passes through on its yearly journey, from its summer solstice point 9 degrees north of the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun  as seen from the earth’s center) to the winter solstice point 9 degrees south of the ecliptic. We then divide this band into 12 signs or sections to describe the backdrop behind the Sun’s path.

Of course, the Sun is barely moving, it is our earth that rotates around the Sun; but from our rotating position, the Sun’s backdrop of signs change, and the symbols imbued in those signs neatly describes the energetic quality of that time of year. We measure the position of any planet by a perpendicular line to the ecliptic.

Several thousand years ago, on the first day of spring in the Northern hemisphere, the Sun was visible against a collection of stars that we humans named Aries, the Ram. Aries was named so not because the stars painted so clear a picture of a male sheep (what do the stars know of sheep anyway?) but because the energy of this time of year, the first month after the spring equinox, felt so brash and fresh, as boisterous and pushy as a ram. And so on through the 12 signs; we saw in them a design or pattern that’s hard to see today- an archetype of the energy that section of the sky imparted.

Here lies a key question. Which came first—did we name the sections of the sky after the constellations behind them, or did we name the constellations for feeling and qualities inherent in that time of the Sun’s cycle?

Western astrologers still feel the difference as the Sun enters Aries on the first day of spring (or the first day of fall if you’re Australian- I’ve been told). We mark the 12 divisions with 3 signs for each season, and each season defined by the relationship of the Sun and the Earth. Each season begins with a cardinal energy, feels fixed and solid on the cross quarter months between (ex: Leo is the fixed fire sign- the hearthfire- smack dab in the middle of the summer) and becomes mutable as the season begins to translate into the next season.

Slowly, over the last few thousand years, the Sun itself has traveled through the galaxy, and the spring equinox no longer occurs while the Sun is directly in front of this Aries constellation. The equinox has wobbled and moved about a half-constellation forward. Since Western astrology (used in Europe and the Americas) follows the relations of Earth and Sun, we anchored our view of the zodiac so that the first day of the spring equinox still begins the sign Aries, the first day of summer, the longest day, still begins the sign Cancer, the fall equinox initiates Libra, and the longest night heralds Capricorn. We then divide each season in three signs.

Because Western astrology divided the Sun’s path in 12 sections through its relationship to earth’s orbit  rather than follow the constellations, we are not worried about the 13th constellation Ophiuchus, which is a constellation nestled between Scorpio and Sagittarius (and has always been there) but which barely has a toe on the ecliptic.

Our solar system travels in relationship to the galactic center in a constant even process. Yes astrologers have been watching it and taking it into consideration, but it is just part of a flow of grand cycles, and not a sudden event, a sudden wobble that demands a new sign because we no longer fit in the old system. It has been several decades since a new zodiac with Ophiuchus was first proposed, many astrologers have tested it, but it just doesn’t seem to hold.

The fact that we are becoming aware of a new archetype in Ophiuchus—(seen as a snake or the snake-wrestling  healer Aesclepius) is interesting. Healing is always a good thing. But most western astrologers do not define the zodiac in a way that makes it valid or necessary to change the zodiac itself.

Ophiuchus and some of the fixed stars in it have traditionally been used by astrologers as extra-zodiacal indicators, astrologically significant celestial phenomena that lie outside of the 12-sign zodiac proper, along with other fixed stars, black holes, and anything else we can find when we want to get really fancy. The Universe is vast. One of the skills of a seasoned astrologer is similar to that of a seasoned artist– it takes experience to know foreground from background, to sketch the bones and form first, the skeleton of the situation, and build out with flesh, grace, color, beauty marks and highlights. Ophiuchus is, to my mind, valid, but a highlight, not a part of the skeleton structure.

Eastern astrology (Vedic astrology used mainly in India, and Tibet, but also with a growing following here in America) and western sidereal astrology follow the constellations themselves. Both systems keep the same names for the signs, but mean different things by the same terms. This can be very confusing if you’re a Libra in the west, but a Virgo in the eastern system. There is a movement amongst a small section of siderealists to add a 13th sign. Both eastern and western systems seem to work as long as the practitioners are internally consistent within their chosen approach. I see it like cutting the orange in different directions; it looks different each way, but is the same orange, and together the differing views may give us the clearest picture.