“I know nothing with certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh
Controversy arose in January of 2011 after Parke Kunkle, an astronomy professor at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, published a short article in a local paper, announcing that the astrological signs had changed. He also mentioned a thirteenth zodiac constellation, unfamiliar to most readers, which likewise caused a considerable stir. To everyone’s surprise, including Kunkle, the story reverberated like a shot heard round the world. The tale morphed from a simple piece to mangled disinformation like the Repeat Game at a party. I have received an avalanche of questions and have been called upon to set the record straight on numerous occasions. Contrary to the misinformation that spread like a virus, the astrological signs have not changed. People can rest easy that their astrological identities are not at risk, but there is a bigger picture to consider. Kunkle’s message, while widely misunderstood, does require some technical explanation.
Zodiac comes from a Greek word that means “circle of animals.” The zodiac that astrologers use is a celestial coordinate system that takes the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun, as the origin of latitude, and the position of the Sun at spring equinox as the origin of longitude. The zodiac of astrological signs is a circle of 12, thirty-degree divisions of celestial longitude, which are centered on the ecliptic. The astrological signs are also measures of time that begin each year at spring equinox; and every year, the astrological sign of Aries begins about March 21. Unless something alters Earth’s orbit, the signs won’t change. Of course, a future culture might decide to cast a different set of zodiac characters.
The constellations, on the other hand, are divisions of space, like states, provinces, or countries on a terrestrial map. In the past, different cultures imagined the stars as different “pictures” and had different zodiacs. Over thousands of years the shapes of the constellations have morphed and some stars have changed alliances. For example, the claws of the Scorpion, which still bear the earlier names (Northern and Southern Claws), are now the scales of Libra. Likewise, in times past, Pisces only had one fish. But since 1930 the International Astronomers Union has agreed on 88 constellations. The 12 zodiac constellations (not signs) have been in use since at least Roman times and are essentially Babylonian in origin.
Although the astrological signs do not change, what does shift is Earth’s position relative to the stars over a slow passage of time because of the nature of Earth’s rotation. Astronomers believe that Earth “wobbles” as she spins. This wobble creates the phenomenon called Precession of the Equinoxes, which causes spring equinox sunrise (in the northern hemisphere) to occur due east against a backdrop of stars that slowly shifts. This apparent motion of the sky moves “backward,” or clockwise, through the zodiac constellations instead of the annual counter-clockwise direction in which the Sun appears to move in the sky. This is the slow motion that Kunkle described when he claimed that the astrological signs had changed.
Because this shift occurs on the ecliptic, the slowly moving starry curtain of the 12 zodiacal constellations forms the stellar backdrop. This space contains the familiar star patterns from the Ram to the Fishes as well as other stars and deep sky objects. About 4,000 years ago the constellation of Aries, and the sign of Aries, were aligned at spring equinox dawn. Because the sky “moves,” the astrological signs are no longer aligned with the constellations that gave them their names, and therein lies the problem. For roughly 2,000 years, spring equinox sunrise has occurred against the stars of Pisces, the Fishes, which rise before the Sun in pre-dawn darkness. Soon, the stars of Aquarius will take the stage, heralding the Age of Aquarius.
Assuming that this slow motion is constant, the sky seems to move at the rate of roughly one degree of arc in seventy-two years. This creates a long cycle of 25,920 years called the Precession of the Equinoxes, or the Great Year. If that number is divided by 12, the result is 2,160, which is the approximate length of an astrological age. Each constellation (not sign), of the zodiac slowly moves into position to define an age.
The changing of ages has long cusps or transitional periods, and there are no precise demarcations of the circle where one influence stops and a new one begins. We are currently feeling the energies of Pisces diminish as the new wave of Aquarian energy grows in influence. Soon, as the backward march shifts, the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius” will be heralded as this constellation moves to center stage and defines the new world age. Before the stars of Aries provided the backdrop for spring equinox sunrise, the stars of Taurus held the distinction. As the ages changed, bull cults faded and the ram became the sacrificial animal of the new age of Aries. As the shift of the ages transitioned from Aries into Pisces, both Lamb of God and Fisher of Men were sacrificial symbols for the age of Pisces, the Fishes. In our epoch, the fish is a familiar symbol. Aquarius has advanced to the springtime place in the northern hemisphere, and a new symbol for the Aquarian Age will emerge. Instead of the sacrificial savior of Pisces, perhaps the symbolic icon of the Age of Aquarius, the Water Bearer, will be a fully-awakened human. Aquarius is sometimes called the “energy bearer,” so it could also be a harbinger of a new form of energy.
Earth is also inclined on her axis of rotation 23.45 degrees. This tilt creates the seasons and causes the northern hemisphere to lean toward the Sun in summer and away from the Sun in winter, while the reverse is true in the southern hemisphere. As Earth rotates on its axis the stars appear to rise and set at night just like the Sun moves across the sky during the day. But the stars near to the north and south poles do not rise and set. Instead, they appear to move in a circle around the poles and are therefore called “circumpolar” stars. Like a slowly spinning top, our planet’s north and south axes trace imaginary circles in the heavens as if the earth’s poles draw them. As the axis of the earth changes slowly over time, the North Pole points to a different spot in the circumpolar stars. A new “north star,” or sometimes an empty spot, results.
In our time the pole star is Polaris, Alpha Ursa Minor; but 3,000 years ago it was Thuban, “dragon” in Arabic, the brightest star in the constellation of Draco, the Dragon. In another 4,000 years the pole star will be Errai, “shepherd,” the Gamma star in the constellation of Cepheus, the King. The circumpolar stars also change in a similar manner in the southern hemisphere.
The signs of the zodiac are a function of the cycle of the year, while the apparent shifting of the stars relative to the earth is a measure of an age. The zodiac signs have been compared to stained glass windows that “color” the solar and planetary influences. Symbolically, the zodiac forms a cycle of experience that provides a template of evolution in nested cycles through which Earth receives the influences of the Sun and planets. As the zodiac signs present a yearly circle of archetypal experience, so too does the Great Year. Astrologically, an age is characterized by the archetypal energies of the constellation whose stars rise before the Sun at spring equinox dawn. Each phase of the Great Year is like a cosmic month, possessing a distinct and overarching quality of experience. The ages can be seen like spokes of the cosmic wheel, presenting a phase shift of archetypal energy designed to provide an evolutionary schoolroom for developing humanity.
In his controversial article, Kunkle also introduced the constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, to a wider audience. Ophiuchus is a thirteenth constellation that is also in the zodiac region but is ordinarily not part of the traditional circle of twelve. Ophiuchus is an enormous star group that is actually composed of two constellations, the Serpent and the Serpent Bearer. I wrote an article about this constellation in Atlantis Rising #44. The foot of the Serpent Bearer is well within the bounds of the ecliptic, the parameters of the zodiac constellations. Sagittarius the Archer points his arrow at the foot of Ophiuchus, which in turn, is poised on one claw of the Scorpion. The tail of the snake is near Aquila, the Eagle, and the serpent’s head nearly touches Corona, the Crown. Rasalhague, the alpha star of Ophiuchus, means, “head of the snake charmer.” Mythically, Serpent Bearer represents the Egyptian Imhotep and the Greek Asklepios, famous healers and noteworthy wielders of snake medicine.
Thirteen is often considered unlucky. I believe this could be a safeguard, or decoy, to conceal powerful sacred knowledge from the casual observer. Thirteen appears in interesting groupings: the 12 tribes of Israel and the Levites; 12 disciples and Jesus, and twelve signs and Ophiuchus, to name a few. Twelve circles around a central thirteenth is a key symbol in sacred geometry, hinting at the mysterious relationship of center versus circumference. The Maya have 13 “signs” in their cosmology, and there are thirteen lunations each year: new moons or full moons. There is a sense of crossing from the mundane into the mysterious when we move from 12 to 13.
The famous Greek physician Hippocrates, originator of the Hippocratic oath of medicine, once said, “A physician without a knowledge of astrology has no right to call himself a physician.” I would venture to say that an astronomer who knows nothing of astrology has lost the soul of the discipline he or she has inherited. I think it’s unfortunate that professor Kunkle didn’t consult a professional astrologer before he published his article, but it has certainly generated a lot of lively discussion. It’s been barely a century since the science of astronomy separated from the ancient discipline of astrology. Whatever the philosophical differences between the disciplines, it’s still inspiring and empowering to go outside on a clear, dark night and learn to recognize some of the bright stars that occupy the constellations. I believe we should contemplate the majesty of the stars and the vastness of the Universe of which we are a part, letting the magic infuse our lives with a sense of wonder. Humanity’s story is an ancient one; and contrary to apocalyptic notions expressed at the current changing of the ages, the tale is far from finished, although the outcome may be written in the stars.