The great debate
Like any school of thought that disrupts the status quo, astrology isn’t a stranger to controversy. And we at CHANI would like to address the elephant — or serpent-bearer — in the room: Ophiuchus.
Aside from providing a powerful tool for self-discovery, astrology is a numbers game. There are 12 zodiac signs, which divide evenly into four elements (fire, earth, air, and water), and three modalities (cardinal, fixed, and mutable). However, you may have heard of a “13th sign,” which could have sent your astrological identity into a tailspin.
It happens every year, like clockwork. There’s a lull in the news cycle and the media outlets scrape the barrel for stories to drive clicks. Tucked within their bag of tricks, the contentious “13th sign” article is a classic. This “breaking news” item claims that your Sun sign may actually be fake because there’s a new cosmic baddie on the block: Ophiuchus. (Aka the serpent bearer.) Might as well book that zodiac tattoo removal appointment now.
Spoiler alert: We at CHANI do not work with 13 signs. But we understand how easy it is for such articles to plant seeds of doubt — and confusion. According to popular news outlets, Ophiuchus is the long-lost part of the zodiac wedged between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Because of this hitherto unnoted slice of cosmic pie, it calls the rest of the Sun sign dates into question. Under this reasoning, Cancers born in the middle of July might really be Geminis. Mid-May Tauruses are actually Aries. And if you’re born between November 29th and December 17th, a new existential crisis enters the fray. You’re now a sign you didn’t even know existed: Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, whose “passionate” nature and “hunger for knowledge” (according to dictionary.com) make it sound as if it were the love child of Scorpio and Sagittarius. This snake charmer has supposedly been left to languish in the lands of rejected star signs. Exiled. Written out of the system. Its very existence posing an inconvenient truth for astrologers the world over.
Or so these debunkers would have us believe.
Introducing… the ecliptic
Before we break down what these articles got wrong (as well as right), let’s lay down some Astro 101. To understand why a sign like Ophiuchus is gatecrashing the zodiac, we need to talk about the 360° band of sky known as the ecliptic.
The ecliptic is what we call the Sun’s path in the sky from our perspective on Earth. We have constellations all over the night sky — from the Big Dipper to Casseopoeia to Orion. But what makes the zodiac signs the zodiac signs is that they’re situated along the track that the Sun travels from our view on Earth. Traditional astrology focuses only on the constellations that span this path of the heavens, like the strip of images that spin in a zoetrope.
Something that these articles misunderstand is that the signs were never precisely mapped onto the constellations that span the ecliptic. The constellations — e.g., Capricornus, Scorpius, Libra, etc. — are arrangements of stars that consist of varying sizes. The signs are symbolic representations of those constellations, and each one comprises 30 degrees of the celestial longitude of the ecliptic. What’s more, the zodiac signs don’t adhere to the placement of the constellations in the sky anymore — at least not in the tropical zodiac, which many of us use in North America. That’s because of the astronomical phenomenon of precession, where the so-called “fixed” stars drift one degree every 72 years. Just to make matters more confusing.
Ancient astrologers knew about precession — that’s why they began the zodiac on a day when the hours of night always equal the hours of day. (That way, regardless of where in the world and when in history you are, you have a starting point that never changes.) This day is known as the equinox. There are technically two equinoxes each year, but Babylonian astrologers started the zodiac at the one that follows winter in the Northern Hemisphere: the spring equinox, which corresponds to the beginning of Aries season.
The earliest astrologers knew about Ophiuchus too. They simply made the decision not to incorporate this constellation into their system. Why? Because while the serpent’s tail does touch the ecliptic, the majority of the constellation looms outside of this stretch of sky.
A symbolic order
Astrology is an exquisitely ordered system. The astrologers of ancient Babylon chose to work with 12 rather than 13 signs because it aligned with the 12-month calendar in their solar year. Twelve is also a potent number to work with conceptually, since it divides easily into other numbers, such as the four sign elements and three sign modalities we mentioned earlier. The number 12 also works seamlessly with the traditional planets — as the luminaries (the Sun and Moon) each rule one sign, while Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn each rule two. The symmetry and elegance of this system are part of what set the foundations of Hellenistic astrology, which we still use today.
It must be noted that traditions of astrology still exist that use a sidereal, rather than tropical, zodiac. For example, Vedic astrology, which originated in India, bases its system on the stars that span the ecliptic and takes the slow drift of the fixed stars into account. But it doesn’t include Ophiuchus either.
Just as there are multiple house systems in astrology, no tradition is better or worse than another. They’re simply different lenses for organizing our world into patterns, stories, and archetypes.
The Ophiuchus debate will likely drag on as long as there are clicks to drive. But now you can stage your informed rebuttal to the 13th-sign truthers and reassure your friends that their Sun sign is safe. And their centaur tattoo too.
Looking for more intel? Read your daily horoscope:
Aries | Taurus | Gemini | Cancer | Leo | Virgo | Libra
Scorpio | Sagittarius | Capricorn | Aquarius | Pisces
Then download the CHANI app on iOS or Android for additional horoscopes, meditations, affirmations, readings for the current Moon phase and sign, and more.