I’ve had lots of questions since recent newspaper articles reported the sensational claim by Minnesota astronomer, Parke Kunkle that people’s astrological signs have changed. Well, that’s not true, but it does require a bit of technical explanation. Rest easy, your sign has not changed, and your identity is not at risk, but there is a bigger picture to consider.
The astrological signs are based on the seasons, and are divisions of time, beginning with spring equinox, which is the symbolic birth of the year. This is the point when the balance of light and dark achieves momentary equilibrium, before tilting toward increasing light. The opposite point is autumn equinox. Every year the Earth makes a full circle around the Sun, and every year without fail, the sign of Aries begins at spring equinox. Then, every month (or so), in thirty-degree segments of the yearly circle, a new sign begins.
However, what does change is Earth’s position relative to the stars over a very slow passage of time. Scientists believe it’s caused by the Earth’s wobble. Earth wobbles as she spins and is also inclined on her axis of rotation. This tilt creates the seasons, and the wobble creates the phenomenon called Precession of the Equinoxes. This movement goes “backward” through the zodiac instead of the annual direction that is more familiar. This slow motion causes two changes in the sky from our viewing perspective on Earth. Like a slowly spinning top, our planet’s axes trace imaginary circles in the heavens drawn by the Earth’s poles. As the orientation of the North Pole shifts relative to the circumpolar stars, a different North Star slowly moves into position over thousands of years. The same is true of the Earth’s south pole and the southern stars. This imaginary stylus moves at the rate of roughly one degree of arc in seventy-two years.
An additional byproduct of this wobble causes spring equinox sunrise (in the northern hemisphere), to occur due east against a backdrop of stars which slowly shifts. Because this event occurs on the ecliptic, (the apparent path of the sun through the year), the stellar backdrop is formed by the slowly moving starry curtain of the twelve zodiacal constellations. Astronomically, the zodiac constellations are in a circular band of sky, eight degrees above and below the ecliptic. This space contains the familiar star patterns from the Ram to the Fishes, as well as stars and deep sky objects.
Called the Great Year, and composed of twelve cosmic months, which are the astrological ages, this cycle lasts roughly 26,000 years. Because the sky shifts, the astrological signs are no longer aligned with the constellations that gave them their names. About 4,000 years ago the stars of Aries rose at spring equinox. Now it is the last of the stars of Pisces, but it is still the annual onset of spring in the northern hemisphere that heralds the sign of Aries.
In the past, different cultures have imagined the stars as different “pictures” and had different zodiacs, but since 1930 astronomers around the world have agreed on eighty-eight constellations. Zodiacal constellations are twelve of the eighty-eight divisions of space recognized by the International Astronomers Union. Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, also mentioned by Kunkle, is a thirteenth constellation that is also in the zodiac region, but is ordinarily not part of the traditional zodiac. However, the indigenous Maya have thirteen constellations in their zodiac.
For roughly two thousand years, spring equinox sunrise has occurred against the stars of Pisces, The Fishes, which rise in pre-dawn darkness before the Sun. 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. Three to four thousand years ago the stars of Aries provided the backdrop for spring equinox sunrise. Before that the stars of Taurus held the distinction. As the ages changed, sacrifices of bulls shifted when Moses chose the ram as the sacrificial animal of the new age of Aries. At the shift of the ages of Aries into Pisces, Jesus was both Lamb of God and Fisher of Men as the sacrificial symbol for the age of Pisces, the Fishes. Now, due to the gradual movement of precession, Aquarius has advanced to the springtime place in the northern hemisphere, and a new symbol for the Aquarian age will emerge. Perhaps the figure of the Waterbearer will be a galactic human?
Astrologically, the duration of an age is characterized and defined 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 month, possessing a distinct and overarching quality of experience. The ages are like spokes of the cosmic wheel, presenting a phase shift of archetypal energy designed to provide an evolutionary schoolroom for developing humanity. Since the great cycle of the ages is a repeating pattern, perhaps we can learn about our present and future from a better understanding of the past.
As the zodiac presents an annual circle of archetypal experience, so too does the Great Year. The changing of ages has longs cusps or transitional periods, and there are no precise demarcations of the circle where one influence stops and a new one begins. We can only look back in time to sense approximately which archetype held sway and what experience humanity drew from to unfold our emerging pattern.
The signs of the zodiac are a function of the year, while the apparent shifting of the stars is a measure of an age. Like the larger cycle of the ages, the circle of the year also represents successive phases of experience. The zodiac signs have been described like stained glass windows that “color” the solar and planetary influences. Symbolically, the signs of the zodiac form a cycle of experience that provide the template of evolution through which Earth receives the influences of the Sun and planets.
So, while you are definitely still an Aries or Libra, Pisces or Gemini, it’s very worthwhile to go outside on a clear, dark night and contemplate the majesty of the stars and the vastness of the Universe of which we are a part. Humanity’s story is an ancient one, and contrary to apocalyptic notions at the current changing of the ages, the tale is far from over.