What’s meant by a sign?


Zodiac constellation for Pisces, not the same as the sign.

Here’s something most folks into their horoscopes or signs don’t know. When you look up in the sky and you somehow have a night sky app like Stellarium or Google Sky Map to make out the constellations, you’re not looking at what we commonly call Zodiac “signs.” For instance, an hour or so after sunset on December 6, 2015, if you could see a constellation rising in the Eastern horizon, you would be looking at the constellation of Taurus rise, not Gemini as most astrology programs would tell you.

Zodiac constellation signs and sign

What gives?!

That’s because there are, at least, two Zodiacs: a sidereal and a tropical zodiac. (There’s a third “constellational” zodiac, but that’s a different post.) The sidereal and tropical zodiacs haven’t been the same in nearly 1800 years. Yeah, I know. They’ve been drifting apart a degree every 72 years. Right now, the difference between the two, called an ayanamsha, is about 24°. For instance, if you weren’t born in the last six or seven days of the Sun traveling through a sign, then your Sun is, sidereally, in the sign before it. You’re an Aries born on March 24? Then, sidereally, you’re a Pisces because the Sun was closer to that constellation at the time. Born August 3? Then you’re a Cancer, not a Leo, for the same reason.

Of course, this is unsettling to people who have only been exposed to the tropical zodiac since it’s used by 90-95% of Western astrologers.

What gives?!

If the Sun or any planet isn’t in the actual constellations that the signs are based on, then why on God’s good earth would Western astrologers use “signs”? Isn’t the tropical zodiac wrong on principle?!

Good questions, and these questions have been enough to stop many astrologers from using the tropical Zodiac altogether to become sidereal astrologers. Not me, however.

My colleague and co-founder of the International Society of Black Astrologers, Dayna Lynn, who is a sidereal Western astrologer has come upon her own take on what the difference between the zodiacs is about here. We had a pleasant and illuminating online chat about the two zodiacs (as indicated toward the bottom of that linked post) awhile back, but I want to share something that’s perhaps unsettling about astrology.

The difference between Zodiacs is comparable to the difference between Romance languages. None of the Romance languages, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Romanian as a sample, is the Latin on which they are based. Yet, no one would call any of them less valid because none of them is Latin. Why?

Zodiac language of astrology, constellations and sign

Astrology is a language, and a difference in Zodiac allows for distinctions in syntax and grammar. (I recently tweeted more about astrology as a language here.) All languages are acts of culture, completely human-made and fabricated. The constellations are symbolic reference points projected into space developed over thousands of years, with different names in various cultures mainly close to the Mediterranean Sea. Humans are those who have endowed them with significance and resonance, not the other way around.

In other words, you can still be an Aries if you’re born on March 24, because there are cultures that believe in a set of fixed time period through which the Sun travels through a sign based on a season. You can also abide by a different set of points because other cultures say that you have a Sun in Pisces on the same day. Or you can examine both Zodiacs and see what resonates most with you.

This is usually the most unsettling for folks, because we feel there should be one Zodiac that should be more right than the other. After all, aren’t the constellations real and fixed points in the sky? Yes and no. There are real stars, of course, up there, separated by millions of light years. However, how they’re organized into shapes of mythological figures is an act of culture and a geocentric perspective. It’s likely that the constellations won’t look the same once we get to Mars, for instance.

Speaking of perspective, it’s funny that I’ve yet to hear a reasonable French-speaking person say his language is more correct than a Spanish speaker. Folks might differ on which languages sound better, are more articulate and descriptive of human emotion and experience. However, “correct” is not the same as those distinctions. Even in Islam, the Arabic of the Qur’an, the putative language of the angels and Adam himself, still differs from the dialects and varieties of Arabic spoken around the world now. We tend to let God speak the language we speak.

I don’t see why we can’t be as liberal-minded with astrology. You can speak the language of the Zodiac that hears you best, that can utter the secrets of your soul best. I find that I’m increasingly conversant in both Zodiacs, actually. However, I choose to keep using the tropical Zodiac because it speaks more to the folks around me. If you’re reading this, then it means I’m still understood. However, that doesn’t make my chosen language any more “right.” That pursuit of “right” is what has to give way and must continue to do so.