Z is for zodiac

Having started the Pagan Blog Project with “A is for astrology,” I finish it off with a post on the zodiac. Really, what else could be more appropriate?

Along with the planets and the houses, the twelve signs of the zodiac are a basic component of Western astrology. The word “zodiac” comes from the Greek ζῳδιακός (zōidiakos), meaning “circle of animals.” Only eight* of the twelve signs are animals, though: Aries (ram), Taurus (bull), Cancer (crab), Leo (lion), Scorpio (scorpion), Sagittarius (centaur), Capricorn (goat or sea-goat), and Pisces (fishes). That leaves three human signs (Gemini, Virgo, Aquarius) and an inanimate object (Libra: scales). Unlike the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac (Chinese: 生肖, Shēngxiào) is composed of twelve animals. Calling it the Chinese “zodiac” is a translation of convenience for us Westerners, though. Shēngxiào comes from words meaning “year of birth” and “appearance,” and has nothing to do with either circles or animals.

Zodiac Clock
The clockface on the Torre dell’Orologio in the Piazza San Marco, Venice.

You’ll note, by the way, that I’ve been talking about the signs of the zodiac, not the constellations. It’s easy to think they mean the same thing since they have the same names. The constellations are what we’ve been taught they were: groupings of stars. The twelve zodiacal constellations are the ones that lie on the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sun through the sky. As we’ve just seen, most of the twelve represent animals, the ecliptic is a circle: voila! A circle of animals. Since the constellations vary in size, the amount of the ecliptic each constellation takes up varies as well. The signs are more of an abstract concept: the division of the ecliptic into twelve equal segments.

Just to complicate things further, even excluding the Chinese zodiac, there are still two zodiacs: the tropical and the sidereal. The starting point for both is 0º Aries; the difference is in where that point is said to be.  In the tropical zodiac, 0º Aries is the sun’s position at the moment of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. In the sidereal zodiac, 0º Aries is the beginning of the constellation of Aries. The two systems coordinated about 1,700 years ago, but since the tropical zodiac moves slightly each year in relationship to the constellations via the precession of the equinoxes, they’re now about 24º off. While many people think that their Sun sign is the constellation the sun was in when they were born, most Western astrologers use the tropical zodiac. As a rough approximation, unless you were born in the last week that the sun was in your Sun sign, your sidereal Sun sign is probably the one before the one you’re used to. Most people born in tropical Aries are sidereal Pisces. Two-thirds of tropical Virgos are sidereal Leos. Vedic astrologers use the sidereal zodiac, but my understanding is that Vedic astrology is different enough from Western astrology that this doesn’t change things as much as it sounds like it would.

Every few years, someone realizes that the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer crosses the ecliptic as well and announces that there’s a thirteenth sign of the zodiac. The media goes wild: Oh, here are all these astrologers claiming that the stars and planets determine your fate, but they don’t even know how many signs there are, and hey baby, are you an Ophiuchus? Yes, using the constellation boundaries set by the International Astronomical Union in 1930, Ophiuchus crosses the ecliptic. But since the signs of the zodiac are twelve equal sections of 30º each, which do have the names of twelve constellations but are not constellations themselves, Ophiuchus is irrelevant.

Yes, but what do the signs actually do in astrology? Like adjectives and adverbs in language, signs modify the planets and houses. For instance, by itself, Mars shows how you get angry. Mars in talkative, communicative Gemini expresses anger with cutting words, a verbal slice-n-dice. Mars in Scorpio, a quieter, emotional sign, holds grudges and may not act for a long time. A more involved astrological interpretation will use the signs to determine where in a chart the planets have the most influence. Without the planets and houses, the signs are simply a coordinate system and a collection of personality traits. With them, they are astrology.

(Done! Made it all the way through the Pagan Blog Project! Yay!)


*A centaur is half human though, so we may be down to 7½ animals.

Photo: Marcelo Teson [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons