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Friday, January 14, 2011

Ophiuchus is a Constellation, not a Sign

Misunderstanding Ophiuchus vel Serpentarius

Ophiuchus is a Constellation, not a Sign
Ophiuchus holding the serpent, Serpens, as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825.
I thought it would be easy to link my December 2010 comments on Ophiuchus from Gather to Facebook but no.  So I am putting them together into this blog post to have them handy.

Ophiuchus silliness has been getting attention periodically for goodness knows how long.  My first dealing with it was in the Nineteen Eighties, so long ago that my articles on the subject predate computer files.  I am not going to try to find those.

About a month ago a Gather.com user posted “the Zodiac is wrong” hoax believing it to be true.  I wrote two or three comments to clarify the facts and a couple of those I linked to my Facebook wall.  This was several weeks before the latest mid-January 2011 flap that I understand was ignited by one or more of the corporate conglomerates (NBC?).

I will start here with something that I collected from the wonderful, recently departed, Jack Horkheimer. 

“In Greek mythology, Ophiuchus, known to the Greeks as Asclepius, the son of Apollo was a great healer.  He even learned how to restore the dead to life.  According to the tale Ophiuchus was contemplating the tragic death of the young son of King Minos when a snake crawled toward the body.  Ophiuchus killed the snake but another appeared.  This one carrying an herb in its mouth which it placed in the mouth of the dead serpent.  The snake revived and Ophiuchus snatched the herb and placed it on the body of Minos' son.  He too revived.  Incidentally, that's why the modern day symbol for physicians is two snakes entwined around a staff.

“Ophiuchus used the secret herb to resurrect hundreds of people.  Pluto, god of the Underworld complained to Jupiter who sent Aquila, the Eagle, to kill Ophiuchus with one of his thunderbolts.  But that enraged Apollo so Jupiter made Ophiuchus immortal and placed him in the stars.”

[Transcribed from "Star Date" radio spot for May 7, 1993.]
Kepler's drawing of the fellow
The hoax, myth, error, or what have you:

“The 13th Zodiac constellation [sic] is Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. The sun moves through Ophiuchus in late November and early December.”

The constellation Ophiuchus does intersect the ecliptic* where we find the constellations of the Zodiac.  The key word here is constellation.  A Tropical Zodiac Sign is not a constellation.

Wikipedia gives us “Ophiuchus is a large constellation located around the celestial equator [plane of Earth’s equator extended into space]. Its name is Greek (Ὀφιοῦχος) for 'serpent-bearer', and it is commonly represented as a man grasping the snake that is represented by the constellation Serpens. Ophiuchus was one of the 48 constellations listed by the second-century astronomer Ptolemy, and it remains one of the 88 modern constellations.”

The Zodiac that most of us know and love is not based on constellations but on the seasons.  Twelfths of the circle, 30 degree segments of the 360 degrees the earth makes around the Sun, are named the 12 Zodiac Signs.

The segments are based on the solstices and equinoxes. The Spring Equinox marks zero Aries, the Summer Solstice, zero Cancer, the Autumn Equinox, zero Libra and the Winter Solstice, zero Capricorn. Those four mark 90 degree segments that are divided in thirds, each 30 degrees named for a Sign.

That system uses the names of near ecliptic constellations for the twelfths, the Signs. Those were in close alignment with the seasonal based Signs about 2100 years ago.
 Today the Tropical Signs are about 24 degrees out of alignment to the constellations which names they bear. The Zodiac is based though, not on those constellations, but on Solstices and Equinoxes (the seasons).

The Zodiac of Siderealists and Vedic astrologers is linked to constellations.  Talk to them about what to do with Ophiuchus.

The question is shall we plug a constellation into sun-sign astrology? That is the most recognized and popular astrology and the way most astrologers find their way to astrology. There are many who go with the notion that there are twelve types of people and give them different interpretations. Linda Goodman is the most famous of who I call “Signologists”. In order to reach wide audiences, to give something to the general populace via media, Signology is probably necessary. I've written columns for "Signs" myself, I do not mean to dismiss the effort or the art, but in-depth horoscope analysis is far superior to what can be gleaned from Sun Signs.

If one is going to utilize Signs based on the Tropical Zodiac, plugging in a constellation is a very iffy exercise. To repeat what I pointed out earlier, the Zodiac of Signs that most people refer to (whether they understand its astronomical foundation or not), that we learn by calendar dates that our birth occurred with the Sun in this or that Sign, is established by solstices and equinoxes, NOT by constellations.


The Zodiac of constellations is not popularly used in Western Astrology but is the basis for Hindu (Vedic) astrology and is a legitimate astrology. There are active schools of modern sidereal (constellational) astrology in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. It is just not the astrology that is commonly used and understood by the general populace as astrology.


I don’t think it matters so much WHICH astrology one uses, as long as one is well schooled and skilled in its use.
  Cosmos' message via the stars is too awesome for just one approach.  In terms of astrology, it's the singer, not the song.  However, it does make sense, if one is after consistent results, not to mix Signs with constellations.

Maybe what happens when a particular date range gets focus as from a “look how this constellation overlaps this Sign” is that it draws attention to a zone of the Sign and what is achieved is a deeper understanding of the Sign rather than something separate and different.

Post comments or questions here or send them via email.

*The Ecliptic is a great circle of the Earth's path around the Sun (apparently, the path of the Sun around the Earth).  Astrologers use the Ecliptic as the center of the belt of the Zodiac that is like a measuring tape marked with 12 signs of 30 degrees each.

Astrologers use a birth chart (horoscope) calculated for an individual.  By using the exact time and place of birth, the horoscope shows distinctions between the thousands of people born on the same day.  The astrologer interprets the chart by translating a symbolic language.

There are millions of people born with the same Sign.  People are not Signs ... that sort of idea leads to stereotyping and prejudice. There is no such thing as an absolute . . .  whatever Sign you want to name.

Astrology has been in use for thousands of years.  The practice of connecting people with Signs was begun by the "media astrologer," R. H. Naylor in the first part of the Twentieth Century; a rather new development.  It caught on and now you can find so-called astrology columns in newspapers, magazines, and on websites worldwide.

Original text copyright © Tim Rubald 2011

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