Your star sign's wrong! Or, so say certain astronomers. But are they right?
Astronomer Parke Kunkle made the announcement that the star signs of the zodiac are all wrong and that they are, in fact, a month out of sync – dramatic news for horoscope devotees. He backed up his assertion by explaining how, thanks to a slight wobble in the Earth's rotation (precession) the zodiac constellations are now in a different place as viewed from the Earth to the positions they appeared to occupy thousands of years ago, when the zodiac system was born. Kunkle claims that because of this, everyone who wishes their sign to match up to the one they would have been in ancient times needs to go back a month in the zodiac. This would make the adrenaline-junkie Sagittarius an ambitious, discerning Scorpio, while sexy Scorpios would become civilised Libras – and so on.
All in all, this makes for disappointing reading for those of us who are convinced our star sign accurately describes our personality and who have marvelled at our horoscope's ability to predict certain trends in our lives. But, has Kunkle got it right? In fact, according to many astronomy experts, he's missed a very important point.
The science bit
To start with, let's look at what precession exactly is. Can it affect the tropical zodiac, which is the system we use for western horoscopes? Precession is caused by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth, which causes Earth to wobble slightly on its axis as it rotates, in a similar way to a spinning top which tilts as it spins. This causes the Earth to 'point' in different directions out to space. The motion is almost imperceptible to us; all in all, it takes around 26,000 years for the Earth to complete a full circle of movement. From our perspective, this means that the constellations appear to shift position by around one degree every 72 years. It's this perceived movement of the stars that has led some astronomers, such as Kunkle, to claim that our star signs are now incorrect, because the constellations have seemingly shifted across the sky since the zodiac was born many millennia ago. But, does this affect out star signs?
A red herring
Precession is, of course, not a new discovery. Indeed, as Kunkle himself points out: “Astronomers have known about this since about 130BC. This is not new news.” So unsurprisingly, astrologers are also aware of the Earth's wobble – and they say that it is irrelevant to the tropical zodiac, which is what western horoscopes are based upon. The constellations of Aries, Cancer etc. merely give their names to our star signs; their actual physical position in the heavens is totally irrelevant. This is because the tropical zodiac does not use the constellations as reference points, but instead uses the Earth's equinoxes. It uses the Vernal (spring) equinox as the starting point; this represents 0 degrees. So, when the Sun is at this 0 degree point, it is said to be in Aries. When it reaches 30 degrees it goes into Taurus, then into Gemini for the next 30 degrees, and so on through each star sign until the Sun has covered a full 360 degrees. It is within these portions of sky that the Sun, the Moon and the planets are tracked. Therefore, in the case of the tropical zodiac, the Earth's precession is immaterial. As celebrity astrologer Russell Grant explains: “The tropical zodiac is fixed and immovable; it is static, whatever happens to the Earth's axis.”
So, if you’re a follower of the tropical zodiac, you'll be please to know you don’t need to swap your Virgo mug for Leo one. But what if you follow a different zodiac system? Those that use the sidereal zodiac, such as the Indian Vedic system, can in theory be affected. The sidereal zodiac is based on the actual position of the constellations in the heavens as viewed from Earth – but, as stargazers have been aware of precession for centuries, this has been adjusted over the past two millennia to compensate.
The belief in a divine connection between the Earth and the heavens is one that has existed for many thousands of years. And, although it is very hard to trace the history of the zodiac back with complete accuracy, it is generally agreed that the 12 signs we use today are at least 3,000 years old. Western astrology developed and spread to other cultures from the beliefs of the Ancient Babylonians – a civilisation that occupied the region of Mesopotamia, now Iraq, some 4,000 years ago. At around this time, astrologers knew about five of the eight planets in the Solar System: Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Mars, and each was believed to represent a god. It was the observation of their movement across the sky, along with that of the Sun and the Earth – all of which would eventually be measured against the constellations, too – that formed the basis of western astrology.
A divine link
At its earliest origins, astrology was used to discover the will of the gods, who were thought to reside in the heavens. It was believed to be they who controlled the seasons and affected the outcome of battles and wars. Charting the gods' movements through the heavens and linking this with other phenomena, such as heavy rain following a successful battle, allowed astrologers to predict future events on the basis of good or bad omens, and helped rulers make important decisions. Indeed, at this time astrological predictions only ever referred to matters of state and would not have been put to use forecasting the future of ordinary people's lives.
Centuries later, around 332BC, Greek leader Alexander the Great conquered parts of Mesopotamia and founded Alexandria in Egypt. This new Hellenistic culture absorbed much of the astrological lore of the region. It was during this period that predictions for individuals were made according to the person’s date of birth and the position of the planets and stars at that point. Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer who lived in Alexandria until his death in AD 168, was particularly influential on the western zodiac. It was he who devised a system that did not rely on the positions of the stars, but instead took the Earth's equinoxes as a point of reference.
Paths of prediction
There are different branches of astrology in use today, and which one you use depends on what you want to find out:
- Financial astrology looks at the movement of the planets in relation to the stock markets
- Horary astrology is used when you want the answer to a specific question
- Medical astrology associates various parts of the body to each zodiac sign, and looks at the probability or prognosis of disease or illness.
- Mundane astrology relates to governments and world events
- Natal astrology uses the birth chart to provide information to individuals
Astrologer Parke Kunkle claims our star signs have moved back one month, due to a wobble in our planet's rotation. So, what would that make you?
Date of birth: 21st March – 20th April
New sign: Pieces
Traits: Imaginative, intuitive, selfless
Date of birth: 21st April – 20th May
Traits: Pioneering, confident, quick-tempered
Date of birth: 21st May – 20th June
New sign: Taurus
Traits: Reliable, determined, loving
Date of birth: 21st June – 20th July
New sign: Gemini
Traits: Versatile, eloquent, inquisitive
Date of birth: 21st July – 21st August
New sign: Cancer
Traits: Emotional, loving, sometimes moody
Date of birth: 22nd August – 22nd September
New sign: Leo
Traits:Generous, faithful, bossy
Date of birth: 23rd September – 22nd October
New sign: Virgo
Traits: Intelligent, diligent, perfectionist
Date of birth: 23rd October – 21st November
New sign: Libra
Traits: Peaceful, sociable, flirtatious
Date of birth: 22nd November – 21st December
New sign: Scorpio
Traits: Determined, passionate, secretive
Date of birth: 22nd December – 19th January
New sign: Sagittarius
Traits: Highly optimistic, straight talking, a thrill-seeker
Date of birth: 20th January – 18th February
New sign: Capricorn
Traits: Practical, ambitious and self-disciplined
Date of birth:19th February – 20th March
New sign: Aquarius
Traits: Personable, intellectual, humanitarian
Spot your sign
The zodiac signs wrap around the Earth like belt. This is handy when you're trying to find a certain constellation, as you can trace a line either west or east to locate the next one along. They're all visible from Earth, so you should be able to spot them on a clear night; all you need is a basic knowledge of astrology, for example, being able to spot Orion's Belt, and a pair of binoculars if you have one. Your star sign is whichever zodiac constellation was behind the Sun on the day you were born, hence the reason why you won't be able to spot it in the sky around that time each year. However, on most nights you should be able to identify around five constellations. So, why not wrap up warm and see if you can spot your sign...
Taurus (the bull): Shaped like a 'V'. First find Orion's belt, then follow the three stars to the right until you see a bright red star called Aldebaran. This is the eye of the bull; you should be able to spot the 'V' constellation from here.
Gemini (the twins): Find Orion's Belt. Locate the bottom right star (Rigel) which forms one of his feet, and the top left star (the red giant Betelgeuse) which forms one of his shoulders. From Rigel, trace a line through the belt of three stars in the middle up to Betelgeuse and continue on this line until you spot two bright stars. These two celestial bodies are called Castor and Pollux, and form part of Gemini's constellation.
Cancer (the crab): Cancer's constellation looks like an inverted 'Y'. You'll probably struggle to see this one unless the night sky is very dark; the stars are dim, so your best bet could simply be to locate its position, which may appear as a blank space. The easiest way to spot it is to find Taurus and Gemini, then trace a line straight through them to the west until you come to an empty patch of sky; this is where Cancer sits.
Leo (the lion): Leo lies between Cancer and Virgo. You can use the method above to find Leo; just keep tracing the line from Taurus, Gemini and Cancer west until you see a group of stars that look like a backwards question mark, followed by a triangle. The question mark forms the lion's head while the triangle makes up his haunches. Another way to spot Leo is to find the Big Dipper, also called The Plough, and then using the two stars that form the 'bowl', trace a line down until you spot Leo.
Virgo (the maiden): You can use the Big Dipper to find Virgo, too. Following the line of the handle, trace an arch through the sky until you hit a bright star, called Arcturas. From here, continue tracing the arch until you reach a brilliant star named Spica, which forms the bottom of Virgo. This constellation resembles an 'A' lying on its side. Although invisible to the naked eye, Virgo contains a number of beautiful deep-sky objects, including several galaxies.
Libra (the scales): This is another constellation that requires a pitch-black night sky to spot. The easiest way is to first find Scorpio, then look to the left – this is where Libra is located. Try to spot a triangle of stars, slightly on its side; this forms the upper part of Libra. The scales hang down from the triangle at an angle, although these stars are very faint and you'll be lucky to see them.
Scorpio (the Scorpion): Using the constellations you've already located, draw a line straight through them to the west until you see a group of stars that form the shape of a fishing hook, with a bright red star, Antares, in the middle. This constellation is Scorpio.
Sagittarius (the archer): Like Virgo, Sagittarius contains lots of deep-sky objects. It resembles a teapot, and sits beside Scorpio. Try to trace its shape in the sky; the spout 'tips' out into the Milky Way, through to the centre of our galaxy.
Capricorn (goat): Keep drawing a westerly line through the constellations until you spot stars that form the shape of a big smile; this is Capricorn.
Aquarius (water bearer): Another very tricky constellation to locate. From Capricorn, trace a line west until you see stars forming the shape of two parenthesis, like this: ) (. This is the top of Aquarius.
Pisces (fish): Keep tracing your line past Aquarius until you see a very large square of stars. Along the outside of this shape run stars that come to meet at one of the square's corners. Each of these lines of stars has a group of stars forming a round shape; this makes Pisces. Again, this constellation can be hard to identify.
Aries (ram): You can find Aries by either drawing a line east from Taurus, or, if you can find it, west from Aquarius. It looks like a triangle; there are two such star groupings in that area, and Aries is the one that does not sit beside our fuzzy-looking neighbouring spiral galaxy, Andromeda.