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The Zodiac Signs...

Foreground or Background?

By John Townley, February 2011

The recent media kerfuffle about the Zodiac constellations no longer coninciding with the precessing tropical signs of the same names put a public habituated to knowing their Sun-signs into an uproar of insecurity. Astrology-haters (and there are lots) trumpeted ignorantly that this proved there was nothing to astrology, and Sun-sign fans wondered if perhaps they were right. Tropical astrologers hunkered down defensively, while siderealists and Vedic astrologers took it as a backhanded confirmation of their own system, albeit by those who would inclusively debunk them, too. As a cultural phenomenon, it demonstrated a) that astrology is more popular than ever, as practically everybody knows their tropical Sun-sign and identifies with it enough to care if it might be wrong, and b) that very few (including many woefully uniformed journalists) really know much more than that. End of story.

But it does highlight the differences, mainly between India and the West, between astrologers who use the tropical Zodiac (based on 30-degree divisions of the Earth's orbit starting with the vernal equinox) vs. those who use the varying-size background constellations through which our orbit passes. Outside of the universal justification of “it works” (which anything seems to if you properly manipulate it), what are the real reasons for choosing one system over another, and what are the physical implications of each?

All agree that the forces involved in astrology come from the sky, in the form of the planets themselves (whether the nature of that force be gravitational, electromagnetic, or spiritual) and that those forces can be additive (as with the conjunction), supportive (as with trines and sextiles), or conflicting (as with squares and the opposition). All also agree that where the planets fall by house is strictly a local matter here on earth, arising from your point of view on the ground from this planet. There is even general agreement on which each house means. The disagreement arises when you have to decide where the qualitative filter of the signs comes from. Is it the variable background behind the planets, the multi-directional, shifting backdrop of the universe, or is it an in-between artifact of the Earth’s own precise motion around the Sun, measured from the direction of our own tilt, and which also determines our seasons? Basically, does it come down from up there, and behind the planets, or up from down here, in front of them? Essentially, are they background or foreground? Let’s look at the implications of each.

Constellations: the view from the East

If our choice for signs is the constellation background, then they aren’t a filter at all, because the planetary energies don’t pass through them on the way here. Representing the universe at large, of a much longer-lasting nature than anything in the life of this much-briefer solar system, they should totally trump the planets in their importance. But, in actual application, we know they don’t, but rather the planets are where the primary strength, meaning, and action is. Not a good argument for the sidereal/Vedic point of view. Further, although the sky background is eternal, the constellations themselves are temporary – including those that lie along the ecliptic. Over the millennia, constellations change their shape, width, and height, and depth, so that the ones we recognize today don’t much resemble what was in that patch of the sky only 50-100,000 years ago, nor will they be what they are now only 50-100,000 years hence. The widely-divergent “proper motion” of individual stars that make up the constellations cause their apparent shapes to become virtually unrecognizable over a relatively short period, even when compared to how long life has been here on Earth. Constellations actually change vastly more in a few hundred thousand years than do the still-settling orbits of our local planetary system.

Constellations are relatively short-lived, morphing out of shape through their stars' diverging proper motion in a few hundred thousand years, whereas tropical signs are forever. To see an illustrative animated example click here!

Another problem with constellations is that they vary in size, from fairly large to quite small, meaning the Sun takes much longer to pass through some than others, and in some cases it may actually leave and then reenter the boundaries of the same constellation within a few days, because the ecliptic doesn’t pass through the middle of all the Zodiac constellations but only grazes some. Not a very precise set of affairs, and one that morphs considerably over a couple of hundred thousand years, positively fickle compared to the planets themselves. If they represent a truly overarching cosmic background, then where that background begins and ends, or is demarcated throughout, is very uncertain and not as footsure as the motions of our local planets themselves.

A third problem with a constellation-driven Zodiac is that the shapes and meanings of the constellations are determined by a fertile imagination projecting images onto sets of points determined by stars which generally aren’t in the least related to each other in real space. And, those projected images vary from culture to culture, along with their implied meanings. For instance, nobody thought the constellation Gemini looked like twins before the Gemini myth arose, and that goes for all constellations named after relatively-recent Greco-Roman myths. Others, named after animals, are often interpreted as being different animals by different cultures. The largest, which are off the ecliptic (as most are) vary from zoological to anthropomorphic, to physical objects – that big, Northern hooked constellation with two stars that point toward the current pole star is alternately called the Great Bear, the Big Dipper, the Seven Sages, the Plough, Helike (the Turning), Otava (salmon weir), Pucwan (crustacean), and more, depending on culture and time period. Any central meaning among these, for this or any other constellation, is difficult to resolve.

Limited Uses...

This doesn’t mean constellations can’t have symbolic and even predictive meaning, at least within the lifetimes of multiple generations of local astrologers. For example, the Hyades star cluster, named for a weeping sisterhood of nymphs, was associated by the ancient Greeks with rain, as their heliacal setting presaged the rainy season. Changing weather patterns and the precession of the equinoxes make that no longer the case, but they were a reliable source of rain prediction for astrologers for hundreds of years, and those starcasters cannot be faulted for noticing and using the fact. Indeed, the way Indian (Vedic, sidereal) astrology is used owes much to local traditions such as this, used with much success over generations of practitioners. It speaks not to any enduring qualities these constellations might have, but to briefly-consistent, though passing, event series that move on and change, albeit gradually within the context of a single human’s lifetime. If there is any one reason Indian astrology works so well, it may be because it is so closely rooted in tightly-held and monitored local and cultural tradition, rather than in more general astronomical principles. This makes it a mix of planetary, seasonal, cultural, and historical lore that is stronger in transient specifics than it is in enduring generalities, quite the opposite of the Western astrological tradition. Does it “work”? You bet it does, not for broad structural reasons, but by reasons of intense local and situational observations and traditions. When arbitrarily applied to a different culture and another time, however, it fares less well, as might be expected.

Indian astrologers favor constellations as sky background, whereas Western practitioners see signs as inner, orbital filters

Tropical signs: the view from the West

Tropical Zodiac signs, as opposed to their constellation cousins, are more precisely-defined creatures. Beginning at the vernal point, where the Sun is at the beginning of spring, they are twelve exactly equal thirty degree demarcations of the ecliptic circle (the Earth's orbit). They are, by definition, invariable, since well before the year had 365 days in it and well after -- they last, unchanged, as long as the Earth remains in the solar system. They are a simple extension of the Earth-Sun axis, oriented by where the tilt of the Earth points. They are single-dimensional, segments along a line, not pictures taking up space in the sky. Although they are named after the constellations they roughly coincided with when written historical astrology began in early Classical times, their meanings don’t always quite fit the names they have, still retained by tradition but increasingly inconvenient. Why, for instance, would a cold, dry air sign like Aquarius be named after a water bearer? What has a virgin (Virgo) to do with the full ripeness of late summer and an obsession with detailed experience? Virgins are, if anything, quite the opposite. And are horrid, scuttling scorpions noted for their deep sexuality, simmering passion, and ability to construct and lay plots, with an elephant’s memory for past wrongs? Hardly. And so on. The tropical signs, ultimately, might be more easily understood without their doubtful mythological and zoological imagery and better labelled as what they actually are, with only classifications for names: early, middle, and late (cardinal, fixed, and mutable) divisions of spring, summer, fall, or winter, based on the northern hemisphere view. 

If signs are considered a filter of planetary energy, the tropical Zodiac fits the bill, as it is the outward projection from the Earth to the planets, so their energies pass through it on their way down to inhabiting the houses. And there is nothing ambiguous about it, tropical signs being precisely measured and equal. They are totally a structural projection, however, so their local effects can and do vary across time and cultures, to which often-contradictory passages in Classical, medieval, and modern astrology texts attest. The contemporary experience of the practitioner and the culture still profoundly affect the specifics of both interpretation and prediction. Also of note, tropical signs are so Earth-centered that they have no meaning once you leave this planet. In fact, every planet has its own tropical Zodiac, none convergent with ours, depending on the direction of its tilt. But, in theory, that’s as it should be, if signs are qualitative filters for the energy of other planets from the view of just one. Also, in theory, a planet with no tilt, whose axis was perpendicular to its orbit, would have no tropical Zodiac at all. So it's possible that the degree of tilt is a determining factor in the intensity and importance of a tropical Zodiac, and that a sidereal background Zodiac (however changeable) is another affair entirely.

The earliest astrology/astronomy, in Neolithic times, was primarily concerned with the divisions of the tropical seasons

A maturing, inclusive view...

With this perspective, it’s easy to see why both Zodiac systems have been in use for as long as they have, even though one tends to be highly local in effectiveness and the other more broadly structural, easy to use, and export-friendly. They both have something to offer, but they're not either interchangeable or mutually exclusive. Planetary positions in relation to the cosmic background tell you one thing, and in relation to the Earth's seasonal structure quite another. They are apples and oranges -- like the cultures that favor each, one yearns toward eternal, fated destiny, and the other is about the colors of now. The fact that we are fighting for control over names based on outdated cultural images of mythological figures and animals is simply clouding the issue. The fusion of the best of both systems, background and foreground, has already been underway in international astrology, as the cosmic background message has increasingly been given over to the individual fixed stars (whose attributes tend to be more similar cross-culturally and pan-historically) while the definitions of signs themselves have been increasingly coopted by the foreground tropical Zodiac system. In a way, this may be a unifying throwback to Neolithic astronomy/astrology, where megalithic monuments were primarily constructed to track the divisions of the tropical seasons, while also monitoring individual, transiently important fixed stars. Hopefully, we may be getting back to earlier, more fundamental threads that splintered, Babel-like, when Babylonian astrology diverged Westward to Greece and Rome and Eastward to Persia and India.

One nagging question about tropical signs still remains, which is: why should the meanings of Northern Hemisphere seasonal signs be consistent with times when it’s the opposite season down under? Australian astrologers swear from personal experience that this is indeed the case, and that they don’t reverse, so is there a physical explanation? Gaia hypothesis fans might suggest that the greater biomass of the planet is, in fact, in the Northern hemisphere, which might call the shots for the whole world organism. Maybe so, maybe no. But that's the making of a later article, unto itself…


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