by Oraia Helene
The zodiac is a band of constellations centered on the ecliptic, which is the apparent path that the sun takes across the sky – though since in reality the earth is the one orbiting the sun, the plane of the ecliptic is actually the average path that the earth takes in that orbit. But the sun’s apparent motion through the band of the zodiac is why it is said by astrologers to be “in” each sign in turn, and the same goes for the other planets in our solar system, as well as the moon.
Before I go into more detail, the primary thing to remember when considering the zodiac from both an astronomical and an astrological perspective is that the astrological signs of the zodiac are not the same as the constellations for which they are named. When the signs were named, they coincided roughly with their respective constellations, but even then the match was not exact. The constellations, after all, consist of varying numbers of stars and take up different amounts of space. The signs, on the other hand, are equal divisions of thirty degrees each. (30 degrees x 12 signs = 360 degrees of the circle of the ecliptic.)
So for astrologers, the band of the zodiac is broken up into twelve equal stations, whereas to astronomers, each constellation takes up a different amount of real estate. In addition to this difference in definitions, the precession of the equinoxes throws things further out of whack. Basically, because the earth wobbles on its axis, the position of the constellations relative to earth slowly changes – so after thousands of years, the constellations have drifted completely out of sync with the signs named for them. The position of a planet in a given sign no longer means that it appears against the backdrop of the constellation of the same name.
I’ll get into more detail about astrology in general, and the precession of the equinoxes, in other articles on this site, but for now I just want to talk about the zodiac by itself. I’ll start with a look at the constellations themselves.
Because constellations are groupings of stars as seen by people from a particular culture, there are actually many different zodiacs. The division of the zodiac into twelve signs has been traced back to ancient Babylonian astrology, though they didn’t see the constellations in the same configuration we do. Babylonian star lore was a major influence on ancient Greek astronomy and astrology, and it is the Greeks who gave us the zodiac best known to us in the West today. In fact, it was primarily the work of Ptolemy in ancient Greece that gave us the system of astrological interpretation that dominated Western astrology for centuries.
Very different systems of astrology predominate in other parts of the world, however, most notably Indian astrology and Chinese astrology. Neither of these is a subject I know much about, so I won’t be addressing them here, but I think it’s important to be aware that there is nothing privileged about our particular definitions of the constellations and their meanings. These definitions arise not simply from the stars themselves, but from each culture’s imaginative interaction with the stars as they appear from our perspective on earth.
Even within Western culture there are differences regarding which constellations are included in the zodiac. In fact, when astronomers mapped out and decided on what would be the “official” boundaries of the constellations in 1930, the constellation Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer) was added to the band of the zodiac. So Ophiuchus bears the interesting distinction of being considered a zodiacal constellation but not an astrological sign (though there are some astrologers who have worked the constellation into their charts.) The constellations itself dates back to Ptolemy, at least; modern astronomers didn’t just invent the constellation and stick it into the lineup. It was just not traditionally included as one of the twelve signs of the zodiac.
So what are these twelve signs, as understood by astrology? In order, the signs of the Western zodiac are Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo the Lion, Virgo the Virgin, Libra the Scales, Scorpio the Scorpion, Sagittarius the Archer, Capricorn the Goat, Aquarius the Water-bearer, and Pisces the Fish. (Ophiuchus falls between Scorpio and Sagittarius, though again, it’s generally treated as a constellation without a corresponding sign.)
Astrologically speaking, the twelve signs of the zodiac are broken up according to the four classical elements. Thus we have three fire signs, three air signs, three water signs, and three earth signs. And as we move through the year, we go through a repeated progression of Fire, then Earth, then Air, then Water.
In addition to the elemental divisions, the signs are also broken up into three modalities: cardinal, fixed, and mutable. This grouping overlaps that of the elements, so that for each element you have one of each of the three modalities.
The cardinal signs mark the beginnings of the seasons – so these are the signs into which the sun moves at the Solstices and Equinoxes. Cardinal signs are associated with beginnings, creativity, and initiation. They are considered forceful and dynamic, which in their less ideal forms can manifest as arrogance, stubbornness, and selfishness.
The fixed signs represent the height of power of their element, and also mark the height of each season. Fixed signs are associated with strength and perseverance, which can also manifest as inflexibility and a tendency to get stuck in ruts.
Lastly, the mutable signs occupy positions that overlap two seasons, giving them a measure of ambiguity and duality. They are associated with change and versatility, and can impart adaptability, resourcefulness, and communicativeness. This can also manifest as inconsistency, nervousness, and over-attentiveness to small details.
So that’s a brief introduction to the zodiac, and you can find articles looking at each of the individual signs and their corresponding constellations elsewhere on this site, as well as within the Astra segments of the first year of the Media Astra Ac Terra podcast. This article was adapted from the Astra segment of Media Astra Ac Terra Episode 3.