What’s Your Sign? OR How The Zodiac Came To Be

On January 13, 2011, Minneapolis Community and Technical College astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle caused a stir by announcing that horoscopes are wrong because the zodiac has shifted. Not only do most people ‘belong’ to the sign immediately before the one they are traditionally assigned to, but there is a 13th ‘sign,’ Ophiuchus.

This then, is an ideal time to tell the story of what the zodiac is and how it came to be.

The Story of the Solar System
The Earth orbits the sun once a year.  This orbit defines a plane in space.  That plane, projected against the background stars, is a line in our sky which astronomers call the ecliptic.  The plane of Earth’s orbit contains the sun, so the Sun always appears on the ecliptic in our sky.

The solar system itself formed from a spinning disk of dust that flattened out as it spun.  As a result, the solar system today is so flat that all planets orbit almost (although not exactly) in the same plane.  The planet with the greatest inclination (deviation from the plane of Earth’s orbit) is Mercury, and it’s off by just seven degrees.  All planets, therefore, always appear near the ecliptic in our sky.

The best theory for the moon’s formation posits that shortly after Earth had formed, a Mars-sized body dubbed Theia crashed into Earth, throwing off debris which formed the moon.  Theia, like most everything else in the solar system, had been orbiting near Earth’s orbital plane.  As a result, our moon orbits within about five degrees of Earth’s orbital plane.  In our sky, then, the moon always appears within about five degrees of the ecliptic.

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With our sun, moon, and all planets near the same plane, only a small set of stars–those aligned with the ecliptic–can ever appear near them in the sky.

The First Astrologers
Patterns formed from these stars were therefore of great importance to observers of antiquity.   Those that we use today go back to Mesopotamia, particularly Babylonia, in about 1370 BCE.  It was about that time that Babylonians created a text called MUL.APIN, which lists all of their constellations as well as the times of year when each constellation rose with the sun. (MUL.APIN, meaning ‘The Plough,’ is the name of the first constellation listed.)

Tablet 1 of MUL.APIN also includes a list of all constellations near the path of the moon in the sky–a forerunner of our zodiac.  The 18 (or 17) star patterns on that path are:

1)  The Star Cluster                                      (The Pleiades)

2) The Bull of Heaven                                 (Taurus)

3) The Loyal Shepherd of Heaven        (Orion)

4) The Old Man                                             (Perseus)

5) The Scimitar                                             (Auriga)

6) The Great Twins                                      (Gemini)

7) The Crayfish                                             (Cancer)

8) The Lion                                                     (Leo)

9) The Seed Furrow                                    (Virgo)

10) The Scales of Heaven                         (Libra)

11) The Scorpion                                         (Scorpius)

12) Pabilsag (a Babylonian god)           (Sagittarius)

13) The Goat-Fish                                       (Capricornus)

14) The Great One                                       (Aquarius)

15) The Tails                                                 (Pisces–one of its fish)

16) The Great Swallow                              (part of Andromeda and Pisces–the other fish)

17) Anutitum (a goddess)                        (part of Andromeda)

18) The Hired Man                                       (Aries)

There is some disagreement as to whether patterns 15 and 16 represent one or two constellations, hence the uncertainty as to whether the list has 17 or 18 members.

The Ancient Greeks, by about the sixth century BCE, had modified that list and produced a zodiac more like the one we use today.  They did so by leaving out stars in Orion, Perseus, Auriga, and Andromeda, which are a bit off the ecliptic itself (although the moon, which deviates by up to 5 degrees, can pass through them).

The Greeks also treated the Pleiades and Taurus as one constellation.  Virgo, the Virgin, is nearly always depicted with a stalk of wheat in her left hand, revealing her association with agriculture, like the furrow.  Babylonians had depicted Pabilsag as a composite creature armed with a bow and arrow; the Greek centaur shooting an arrow which we call Sagittarius is a simplification of this.

Babylonians often associated the Hired Man with Dumuzi, a legendary shepherd.  This may have influenced the change from ‘Hired Man’ into Aries, the Ram. The Ancient Greeks made the Babylonian ‘Scales’ constellation into the claws of Scorpius, the Scorpion, but the Romans reintroduced the Scales, putting the zodiac in its current form.


Of all the objects to appear only in the zodiac, by far the most important was the sun.  By noting which zodiacal constellations rose just before the sun and set just after the sun, early observers could use the changing position of the Sun against the background stars as a guide to the seasons.

Early lists of Babylonian patterns listed in MUL.APIN, possibly reflecting incipient stages in its formation, typically include the Bull, possibly indicating plowing season, the Lion, perhaps a symbol of the oppressive summer sun, since the sun rose with these stars in summer, the Scorpion, an emblem of death representing autumn, and the Water Bearer, representing the rains of winter.  Also often appearing on these early partial lists are the farrow and the goat/fish.  The former could represent the harvest season which follows the oppressive heat represented by the lion.  The latter is likely to represent Ea, Babylonian god of the waters, as the goat and the fish are animals associated with him.

When astrologers began using the positions of the planets, sun, and moon to describe people’s personalities, they focused on the sun.  The zodiac sign behind the sun (and thus not visible at night) on someone’s birthday was supposed to be most influential in determining that person’s character and destiny.  Although no evidence has established any connection between the apparent position of the sun and personality, belief in ‘sun signs’ continues to this day.

However, the stars’ positions in the 21st century are not the same as in antiquity.
As Earth orbits the sun, it wobbles.  After all, Earth could spin without wobbling only if no other forces whatsoever were acting on it, which is not the case.  However, Earth’s wobble is not as chaotic as it might be because we have a Moon relatively large for a planet as small as Earth.

With the Moon as a ‘counterweight,’ the Earth’s wobble becomes a more orderly precession in which the Earth’s axis describes an apparent circle on the sky once every 26,000 years.  This same precession causes the position of the sun on a given date to shift slightly–by about one degree every 72 years.  Since millennia have passed since Babylonians created the zodiac (about 1370 BCE) and since Romans finalized it (about 1 CE), the sun no longer aligns with the same patterns during the same seasons.

This brings us back to Kunkle’s announcement a few weeks ago.
It turns out that the dates traditionally associated with the ‘sun Signs’ are valid only for about the year 1 CE.  In general, the constellation actually behind the sun on your birthday is the one immediately before your traditional ‘sign.’  For example, astrologers would call me a Gemini, but the sun was in fact aligned with the stars of Taurus, the Bull, on my birthday.  You can compare the traditional dates and the actual constellations here. (The table is towards the bottom of the page).

Under the Milky Way
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

This is not a new discovery.
The ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus noted that the stars Spica and Regulus were in slightly different positions in his time than on his predecessors’ star maps.  From this, he was able to deduce in the second century BCE that precession was occurring.  Astronomers have thus known of this effect for over two millennia.

So have astrologers, who maintain that they can still cast horoscopes because their ‘signs’ refer to fixed sectors of the sky and not to constellations.  As it happens, the traditional dates do roughly reflect when the sun would have aligned with the constellations about 2000 years ago.  Astrologers fail to explain why the constellations’ positions of 2,000 years ago might be magically relevant, however.

In 1930, astronomer Eugène Delporte helped fix the official constellation boundaries used by the International Astronomical Union.  These boundaries place a sizable chunk of the ecliptic in the constellation of Ophiuchus, a legendary healer who holds a large snake (Serpens) and stands on top of Scorpius, the Scorpion.  His stars are not on the Path of the Moon in MUL.APIN, although stars at some distance from the ecliptic, such as those in Orion or Perseus, are.  However, Ptolemy included this pattern in his list of 48 constellation in the Almagest.  Traditional skymaps of antiquity usually show the ecliptic passing through the Scorpion’s upper claw and legs, with Ophiuchus superimposed on Scorpius and standing on the ecliptic as if balancing on a high wire.  This is what may have influenced Delporte to assign most of that section of the ecliptic to Ophiuchus.

The idea of Ophiuchus as the ’13th sign’ is not new either.
Astronomers have been using Ophiuchus to point out the arbitrariness of astrology for at least 40 years.  Ophiuchus has been standing on the ecliptic for millennia, his right foot much closer to the planets than Scorpius’ stinger.  If the band of the ecliptic has powers over us, why doesn’t Ophiuchus partake of that power?  Several other constellations come near (but are not on) the ecliptic, including Cetus the Whale and Sextans, the Sextant.  The Moon and planets, which deviate by a few degrees from the ecliptic, can appear in them.  Should we factor them in as well?

Astrology vs. Astronomy
The ‘new’ dates for the zodiac signs and the ’13th sign’ Ophiuchus serve to underscore the difference between astrology and astronomy.

Astronomy is a science.  Astronomers study real planets, stars, and galaxies to learn about the real universe around us.

Astrology is myth-making.  The real positions of the stars do not matter to astrologers because astrology has more to do with mankind’s psychological needs. These include the need to see patterns and impose meaning and order onto the world and the need to feel in control of our surroundings.  Astrology thus offers the comfort of feeling that apparently random events might be predictable and controllable.

But since the astrologer’s predictions are ‘..not in our stars, but in ourselves,” as Shakespeare might say, astrology offers none of the wonder and excitement that comes from seeing the celestial bodies as they actually are, apart from our needs and desires for influence.  For that, I recommend astronomy. 

Happy New (Chinese) Year!

On Sunday, Feb. 14, while we were observing Valentine’s Day, a much bigger celebration got underway in the Far East.  That was the  Chinese New Year, the day when the Year of the Ox ended and the Year of the Tiger began.  And the celebration is still ongoing, as it lasts until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the month (this year, Feb. 28).

Lanterns
Creative Commons License photo credit: ken2754@Yokohama

Like most Americans, I learned the sky as imagined by westerners around the Mediterranean basin, with images from Babylon, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, and star names preserved during the Middle Ages by Arabs. So I find it fascinating to think of an entirely different culture and how they imagined the night sky. The Chinese New Year celebration is a perfectly appropriate time to do this, especially since objects in the sky, in particular the moon and Jupiter, serve as the basis of the ancient Chinese calendar.

The date of Chinese New Year varies; it can occur as early as Jan. 21 or as late as Feb. 19. However, anyone familiar with the lunar cycle can easily predict the date for a given year. That’s because China’s New Year always begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

Our Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, based on the apparent position of the sun (and thus, on the Earth’s orbit around the sun).  However, the apparent position of the sun compared to the stars is difficult to observe.  Much more readily observable are the phases of the moon.  Thus the Chinese, like many ancient cultures, adopted a lunar calendar, measuring months from new moon to new moon.  Unlike the Islamic or ancient Roman calendars, the Chinese calendar begins months with the dark of the moon–the day the moon is invisible, not the first slender crescent seen at dusk.

Full Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Andréia

It would be convenient if one year equaled an even number of phase cycles. In fact, however, the moon takes about 29.5 days to go through one phase cycle, so 12 such cycles is 354 days.  This is significantly less than the solar year of 365.25 days, so a purely lunar calendar quickly becomes disconnected from the seasons and useless as a guide for when to plant or harvest.   To keep their lunar months connected with the seasons, the Chinese added a rule: the second-to-last lunar month must contain the winter solstice.  If the old crescent moon of the eleventh lunar month is waning towards new and the winter solstice has not yet happened, that month is repeated.  Similar rules exist for the second lunar month (which must contain the spring equinox), the fifth lunar month (which must contain the summer solstice), and the eighth lunar month (which must contain the fall equinox).  Accordingly, the first new moon after the winter solstice always begins the last month in the Chinese year, and the second new moon after the solstice begins the next year.

Chinese astronomers noticed that every twelve years, Jupiter reappears next to the same stars.   (This is because Jupiter takes 11.86 years to orbit the Sun.)  There were twelve months in a typical Chinese year (although occasionally one was doubled, as explained above).  Also, the Chinese divided the day into twelve double-hours.  They used a system of twelve ‘Earthly Branches’ to designate the months of the year and the double-hours in a day.  Jupiter’s motion in the sky established a cycle of years analogous to the cycles of months and double-hours.  Thus Jupiter became the ‘Year Star’ (Suixing) and years, too, were designated with the Earthly Branches.

Lion Dance
Creative Commons License photo credit: geoftheref

Later, as a mnemonic device, the Chinese began to associate the Earthly branches with animals.  (Sources disagree as to exactly when.)  Legends tell that Buddha (or the Jade Emperor) summoned all of the animals to him; each of the first twelve to appear became associated with an Earthly Branch.  The twelve animals are:

1) Rat  2) Ox  3) Tiger  4) Rabbit  5)Dragon  6)Snake  7)Horse  8)Sheep  9)Monkey  10)Rooster  11)Dog  12)Pig

The signs of the Chinese zodiac, then, unlike those of the western zodiac, are not constellations in the sky.  The most well known of the Chinese constellations are the 28 ‘lunar mansions.’  These are small groups of stars very roughly arrayed along the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sun, moon and planets across the sky.  As you’ll see in the links below, the Chinese used some stars, such as those in Orion, that are too far from the ecliptic for the moon to pass through them.  The 28 mansions were subdivided into four groups of seven; each group of seven represented one of four Chinese animals associated with the directions and the seasons:

1) The Blue/Green Dragon (Qing Long) of the East, associated with spring.  Note that the ancient Chinese color word qing was quite broad in meaning.  Blue and green were considered different shades of this broadly defined color.

2) The Red Bird (Zhu Que) of the South, associated with summer.   This mythical bird, with red and orange plumage, is distinct from the feng huang, also called the Chinese phoenix.

3) The White Tiger (Bai Hu) of the West, associated with autumn.

4) The Black Tortoise (literally Dark Warrior, Xuan Wu) of the North, associated with winter.  Xuan Wu was always shown as a tortoise with a snake wrapped around it, reflecting the folkloric belief that all tortoises were female and needed to copulate with snakes to reproduce.

Of the stars in tonight’s evening sky, those in Orion and Taurus form part of the White Tiger, while Gemini and the dimmer stars south and east of it belong to the Red Bird.

Along with the four large animals, Chinese astronomers defined three large constellations known as the three enclosures.  The largest of these is the ‘Purple Forbidden Enclosure‘ (Zi Wei Yuan) which includes all those stars near the North Pole of the sky which never set as seen from mid-northern latitudes.  The enclosure is ‘forbidden’ because it includes the North Star, which was the Emperor of Heaven because it always remains in one spot while other stars seem to go in circles around it, as if paying court.

The ‘Supreme Palace Enclosure‘ (Tai Wei Yuan) actually rises in the late evening in February.  Look east about 9 tonight for a set of stars in the shape of a backwards question mark.  We see this as the head of Leo, the Lion.  Rising under the backwards question mark is a right triangle of similar brightness.  For us, this is Leo’s hindquarters, but in China, it’s the northwest corner of the Supreme Palace enclosure.  The other side of this enclosure is a semi-circle of stars westerners recognize as part of Virgo, the Virgin.

The final enclosure, the ‘Heavenly Market Enclosure‘ (Tian Shi Yuan), won’t rise until very early in the morning in February, and isn’t in the evening sky until late May.  It centers on our constellations Ophiuchus and Serpens (Caput and Cauda), just north of the bright summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius.

So, I wish everyone a happy Year of the Tiger.  I’ll celebrate it by looking at the stars in a way I ‘m not accustomed to seeing them.