Is there really a 13th sign of the Zodiac? The short answer is “no” and the long answer is “sort of.”
Isn’t this old news? Yes! Ever since its first apparition in January 2011, the story has reappeared regularly, saturating news and social media every time.
The gist of it is that NASA says astrologers/Babylonians/Sagittarians censored or were too dumb to notice the 13th sign of the Zodiac – Ophiuchus. Worse, re-adding the “missing” Zodiac sign changes the dates of every Zodiac sign so you’re (sharp intake of breath) probably not really an X.
It’s insane that during a decade which has seen spectacular discoveries in astrophysics and archeo-astronomy, this is the (recycled) story. The repetition is because it’s easy – nobody is seeking a nuanced perspective from astrological scholars like Deborah Houlding, for example. It guarantees engagement in the comments section of newspaper sites. Miffed Capricorns alone generate millions of page impressions.
Additionally, Ophiuchus is represented as the Serpent Bearer and connected with Asclepius, a God Healing. Of course, that’s a more appealing vibe than most of the news in the Daily Dystopian.
But it’s also a way for self-styled ‘skeptics’ to denounce astrology. They do it with plant medicine too – an adverse reaction featuring echinacea gets way more press than proven herbal efficacy or side effects from prescription drugs.
Anyway, here is my all-you-need-know take on Ophiuchus and the interesting scenarios it evokes.
Thirteen Zodiac Signs? We Could Have Seventeen!
The Zodiac circle is a ring of constellations on nine degrees either side of the Ecliptic, the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. More poetically, the ancients called it Via Solis – the Path of the Sun.
From Earth, the Sun appears against this band of stars over the solar year. Our Moon and all the other planets in the Solar System are on this same orbital plane: Astrologically, it’s where all the action is. Some planets occasionally veer near the edge of it but they don’t suddenly go scooting off to explore – say – the Draco constellation near the North Pole. Their orbital path is known and can be calculated back or forth centuries in advance.
The Southern part of the constellation of Ophiuchus is between Scorpio and Sagittarius, nudging the Zodiac circle. But it’s like a toehold, seriously. And, if we’re going to include Ophiuchus in the Zodiac, it’s arguable we should also include Cetus, Orion, Sextans, and Auriga. The Pleiades? Or, as the Maoris call this cluster, Matariki?
Venus skirted the borders of Orion just recently – and Cetus – the Sea Monster/Mesopotamian Whale – is a constellation bordering Pisces. Could some Leos be Sextans? It could fit. In old Chinese starlore, it was Tiang Xiang, the Celestial Minister. And with a little bit of boundary-blurring, Gemini could incorporate some of Auriga, the Charioteer AKA the Agitator. Thrillingly, it’s the home of the Flaming Nebula and the Galactic Anti-Center.
Geminis Could Be Auriga, the Charioteer
I could talk about constellations for hours but here is an important point. The Sun stays on track – it doesn’t wander off the Ecliptic. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Uranus are more likely to meander to the edge. So a more likely scenario would be ‘you’re still a Sagittarius but when you were born, you could argue that your Mars was in Cetus, not Pisces. Or any variation of this. The Ancient Babylonians did not deliberately skip Ophiuchus; here are the 18 Constellations they did use.
But it’s not super relevant because the constellations don’t have neat borders! This is not like when the local council determines whether your neighbor’s new fenceline impinges the border of your property. The current lines were set in 1928, by the International Astronomical Union, below. They didn’t cruise around the constellations on plasmatic uni-jets, delineating the boundary lines.
But in a move that seems celestially perverse, they’ve approved the name of an asteroid’s Moon that is designated to be the experimental target of a new asteroid deflection mission. They’re calling it Dimorphos – which means ‘two forms’, as it will be split in two if their trial works.
In September 2022, the European Space Agency + NASA will crash into it on purpose, with the goal being to alter its orbit. It’s so they can bump future potentially hazardous asteroids off course. I don’t like it. Messing with even teensy little asteroid orbits seems a bit butterfly effect. And of course, they’re doing it during a Mercury Retrograde.
Anyway, in summary, there is no naturally obvious border between constellations, like a river or a range of mountains. And to complicate it further, there is more than one Zodiac system. The constellation the Sun, Moon, or a planet was or is moving through is not necessarily super important. The Sidereal Zodiac is fixed against the star’s positions and the Tropical (aka classic Western Astrology and what I use) is fixed against the Vernal Equinox and relates to the cycles and rhythms of the Sun et al.
Forget Ophiuchus – Could Southern Capricorn Be More Enki Than Saturn?
The Equinox, like the Poles, has shifted over the millennia so what was once an Equinox in Aries – and before that, Taurus – is now in Pisces. This is what creates the idea of there being an Age of Taurus, Age of Aquarius, and so on. It’s too complex for this particular post but you can learn more here. I love tropical astro and it works. However, this latest reappearance of Ophiuchius inspires me to mention one of my ongoing research projects.
Tropical Astrology is big on the seasons but it, like the Pagan festivals and mythology around what the Cardinal Directions mean is soaked with seasonal symbolism. I don’t think that the Zodiac signs flip when a person is born below the Equator but Southern Aries is less Spring Lamb and more Autumn Ram. And a lot of the concepts around Capricorn pertain to the Northern Winter but in the Southern Hemisphere, Capricorn is Summer, more like Nature God Pan.
There Is Even A Cultural Bias Against The South Pole Stars
The Ancient Babylonians – yes, them again – saw the Southern Hemisphere as being the domain of Enki, a deity with many similarities to Thoth or Mercury but who was often depicted as the Sea-Goat. Expect more from me on the Southern Sun Signs at a later date!
There is even a cultural bias against the South Pole. The word Arctic is from Arcturus – the Bear. The pole stars – Ursa Major in the North – were viewed as magical by multiple cultures. They never rise or set and they give rise to many a beautiful myth. But Antarctic just means ‘opposite the Bear.’
The Southern Pole stars are often dismissed as being of less magnitude. They were discovered relatively late in astronomical history and given names that reflect the quirky tastes of various explorers from the North, rather than history, starlore, and rich stories from the region. But this is changing. An example? The first Maori Cosmology school in the modern era is about to open; Te Whare Tātai Arorangi will be headed by Pouroto Ngaropō and Piripi Lambert.
The magnificent Magellanic Clouds, visible only from the Southern Hemisphere, were named after a Portuguese explorer but known by indigenous Australians and other ancient cultures for centuries. They were also talking in terms of the galactic center – which the Southern Hemisphere faces btw – and our home galaxy as being spiral-shaped centuries before high-tech confirmed it.
So apologies to anyone who has started identifying as Ophiuchus Rising but I don’t see it as a true trend. I’m more excited about astrophysics, the galactic vibe, and re-discovering/re-mapping the ancient star lines of the South.
Images: George Goode
IAU – 1922
Screenshot from my Stellarium