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Sacrobosco's Sphaera Mundi

15th century woodcut from Sacrobosco's Sphaera Mundi showing the zodiac as a belt extending 8°- 9° either side of the ecliptic. This is the belt within which (as seen from the Earth) all visible planetary movement occurs.

"The zodiac does something that the constellational groupings cannot do; it divides the Sun's apparent annual circuit into twelve exact and equal divisions which align precisely to the equinoxes and solstices, whilst roughly correlating to the synodic lunations that underpin the calendar."

Ophiuchus puts his foot in it, but its Cox who sticks the boot in

ophiuchus (203K)

17th century image of Ophiuchus, showing his feet on the ecliptic between Scorpio and Sagittarius - from Hevelius' Firmamentum, 1690

According to the 'big news' in America, astrologers are uninformed about the basis of their subject. NBC News advises the public to discover their "real horoscope" by following the report of astronomer Parke Kunkle, board-member of the Minnesota Planetarium Society. Kunkle is supposed to have made the startling suggestion that there are actually 13 signs of the zodiac, not 12 as astrologers maintain, prompting a flurry of newscasters to advise the public that they need to rethink their sun-sign. Quoting Kunkle, the Star Tribune reports:

The ancient Babylonians based zodiac signs on the constellation the sun was 'in' on the day a person was born. During the ensuing millenniums, the moon's gravitational pull has made the Earth 'wobble' around its axis, creating about a one-month bump in the stars' alignment.

ABC news also refers to this "new report from the Minnesota Planetarium Society" to explain the problem as follows:

The shifting of the earth's axis has supposedly reintroduced a sign discarded by the ancient Babylonians when they first determined the dates of the zodiac. That sign is Ophiuchus, the serpent tamer, and it falls between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

The idea of a zodiac sign (or constellation) disappearing and reappearing according to the shifting of the Earth's axis (termed precession) is simply ridiculous; and of course there is nothing new in this story about Ophiuchus - Kunkle has merely repeated the fallacious report which filled the headlines of the British press in 1995. Then, the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society's Dr Jaqueline Mitton sensationally took credit for the 'discovery' that the Sun passes through part of the constellation Ophiuchus in December, suggesting that if astrologers really knew what they were talking about they would be using 13 signs instead of 12.

Both of these reports deliberately obfuscate the difference between ecliptic constellations and the zodiacal signs. Over the course of history there have been a various number of constellations attributed to the stars that surround the ecliptic, and in fact the early Babylonians recognised 18 of them, with the number being reduced as constellational boundaries developed over time. Some constellations disappeared as they were subsumed into others, but Ophiuchus was not one of these. It is well reported by astronomers and astrologers of classical, medieval and current times.

All informed astrologers recognise the definition of the constellational groupings of stars, and draw meaning from planetary relationships to the prominent fixed stars. All informed astrologers also know that the Sun does not cross the equator at exactly the same point of the ecliptic year after year, but that the phenomenon of precession brings a 50 second shift between the first point of the tropical zodiac and the background constellations, which accrues a disparity of about 1 degree every 72 years (see here for explanation). However, of the zodiac signs of which Kunkle is supposed to be speaking, there has only ever been 12, there are still only 12, and there only ever will be 12. A zodiacal sign is essentially defined as a 12-fold mathematical division of the ecliptic circle, which (as all circles do) measures 360°. To put it simply, for as long as 360 divided by 12 continues to total 30 - there will always be exactly 12 zodiac signs, each measuring exactly 30° of ecliptic longitude.

Why must there be 12 divisions and not 13? Because the zodiac was purposefully created as a precise astronomical measuring device, to allow mathematical definition of the annual circuit of the Sun, and easy calculation of the movement of the planets, which - as viewed from Earth - all remain close to its apparent path (the ecliptic). This was done in the era when astronomers understood the purpose of astrology, and realised how the apparent movement of what happens up there in the sky, dictates the seasons and sets the calendar down here on Earth. The zodiac does something that the constellational groupings cannot do; it divides the Sun's annual apparent circuit into twelve exact and equal divisions which align precisely to the equinoxes and solstices, whilst roughly correlating to the synodic lunations that underpin the calendar. This great astronomical advancement, which lies behind the development of many subsequent mathematical principles, started to become the dominant form of astronomical definition from around the 6th century BC. Not coincidentally, this was about the time that Pythagoras was teaching how the mathematical principles built into the division of the circle presents wisdom which is both mystical and practical in its application.

The great astronomers of the past, who made genuine breakthroughs in scientific and astronomical knowledge, took this approach towards spiritual and materialistic unification for granted. Kepler, for example, developed his Laws of Planetary Motion by following the ancient conviction that numbers are more than mere quantities, and that mathematical relationships act as an unyielding code by which the Universe is generated, and by which it becomes intelligently understood. This is why the mathematical and calendrical division of the Sun's path is important to astrologers, despite the fact that the tropical zodiac signs now only retain a symbolic memory of the constellations they were close to at the time of their creation. Traditionally, both astronomers and astrologers understood that the zodiac is a mathematical and idealised division of the Sun's ecliptic circle, whose exact proportions cannot be precisely divided by the visual groupings of the background stars.

You would expect all reputable modern astronomers to understand this. It's a fairly basic point that the ecliptic constellations are determined observationally and rest on different principles from those which generate the zodiacal signs. Could Professor Kunkle really be so astronomically naive? Of course not. Although a more recent statement now claims that he was only talking about how astronomers define the constellations, what possible motive would prompt the release of this "new report" except to promote an anti-astrology message using an argument that has no foundation but is guaranteed to imply that the astrological sun-signs are wrong? The upshot has been unprecedented media coverage about how astrologers have it all wrong, with the web now ablaze with sensationalist headlines of astrology needing to update itself, including instructions on how to recalculate sun-signs to use this '13th-sign zodiac' instead (just one of the typically uninformed examples can be found here: "New Zodiac sign Ophiuchus may change the future of astrologers too").

Consider this, how many of us had heard of Kunkle last month? This is exactly how the previous media non-identity Dr Jaqueline Mitton made a big name for herself in Britain in 1995, filling up the headlines of the papers and appearing on as many radio and news-slots as would publicise her claims, all of which raised her profile as a media-friendly astronomer, and guaranteed wide publicity for the new TV series on astronomy that followed shortly afterwards. The whole thing was nothing more than a calculated publicity stunt to serve her promotional ends.

We don't see so much of Jaqueline Mitton on British TV nowadays; currently the position of 'supposed expert knowing more about astrology than astrologers' is held by Brian Cox, who seems to have learned from Mitton's example. Last year I made light of Cox's unnecessary and insulting comments about astrology, believing that the criticism they provoked only made them more significant than they were. I felt no discomfort when he used his BBC2 TV programme Wonders of the Solar System to make the declaration that "Astrology is a load of rubbish". Astrologers who were more astute recognised that it wasn't just his gratuitous statements which gave cause for concern; but the principle that the BBC, which is funded by the taxpayer and obliged to produce balanced programs and avoid derogatory remarks, had allowed the image of Cox's academic qualifications to present a sense of absolute truth in his declaration, without allowing any balancing opinion from suitably qualified academics who could speak from an informed position (such as Dr Nicholas Campion, Vice President of the British Astrological Association, who has far more qualification to speak about the nature of astrology on the BBC than Brian Cox does). But worse was yet to come.

Even though the Astrological Association of Great Britain have an ongoing complaint about the BBC's breach of policy in the Cox programs, the British Broadcasting Corporation seems to have gone out of its way to ensure that even more smugly mocking and fallacious comments about astrology appear in the astronomy programs that Cox presents. The day after the airing of the BBC 2 program 'Stargazers Live' I received a cc-d copy of the following email, sent to the officers of the AA and APAE, from respected astrologer Angela Cornish, who felt outraged at the way that her intelligence had been insulted (reproduced with permission):

I don't know if any of you saw the BBC 2 programme last night entitled 'Stargazers Live'. If you didn't happen to see it, there were two presenters, Professor Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain. All was going well until they got to a part where they had models of the planets in our solar system on a table and Dara was explaining that all of the planets orbit at different speeds and distances away from the Sun. He said only the earth orbits the Sun in 365 days and returns to its own place, showing that horoscopes are nonsense. He then went on to add "Let's get this straight once and for all, Astrology is rubbish" The other presenter, Brian Cox, then agreed and said "in the interests of balance on the BBC, yes astrology is nonsense".

I was furious with indignation, firstly that they had the audacity, on prime time TV, to try and discredit a subject they clearly know nothing about; and secondly to imply that Astrologers do not know their basic astronomy and that the planets all orbit at different speeds - what an insult to our intelligence. I have already made a complaint to the BBC but the reason for my writing to you was to bring it to your attention and to ask whether the AA or APA still has a Press spokesperson. It would be good if the AA could make a statement in astrology's defence about this. I, personally, shall email as many astrologers as I have on my database and ask as many of them as possible to complain to the BBC. United, we might be a voice that is heard.

Why does the BBC allow (evidently encourage) this disgraceful misrepresentation; and why does the news media fall for the con-trick of precession, again and again and again? The answer is that they too are part of the desperate chase for promotion, seeking to profit from the exaggerated public attention that simplified horoscopic astrology attracts at this time of year - when the theme of New Year, New Beginnings, What do the stars foretell for us this year? reaches its annual hype. It is no mere coincidence that NBC news featured the Kunkle report when it did; nor that Brian Cox made his outrageous and inflammatory remarks in a program which aired on the 3rd January. The media knows that at this time of year astrology is popular and attracts the public's attention, and even the news-companies want to tap into the market of that. Unfortunately some institutions (such as the supposedly reputable news companies and the BBC) don't want to acknowledge astrological interest with sincerity, so they do it disingenuously: Shock horror - did you know that your sun-sign is actually wrong?! (Of course, the whole subject is a load of rubbish anyway, but even worse - it's wrong!! - and let's get this straight, it has to be rubbish because, look, the planets all move at different speeds …).

Media companies are shrewd enough to know that the public don't understand the history of the zodiac and the principle of precession (or 'precision' as NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams calls it); and they also realise that the only lasting impression will be that someone who ought to know what they are talking about, has assured the rest of the world that astrologers don't.

But this will all be forgotten come February and March. The lesson to be learned is that the New Year media-frenzy on astrology compromises all of us. Just as astrologers who feed into that market and reduce astrology to its most simplistic application compromise their reputations as serious, committed astrologers who can express its deeper philosophy, so do the academics and astronomical experts who feed upon that market compromise their reputations for being informed, educated and deserving of academic respect. I have little respect for the likes of Jaqueline Mitton, Parke Kunkle or Brian Cox; even less for the BBC producers of 'Stargazers Live' who don't have intelligence enough to realise that the popularity of astrology helps to ensure the success of their productions.

Just to demonstrate how this nonsense goes around and around and around…

In 1995 and 1996 the Traditional Astrologer Magazine ran two editorials which countered the misinformation of Jaqueline Mitton, and others who jumped on the bandwagon of self-promotion through 'rubbish designed to rubbish astrology'. Dr Mitton was made the recipient of one of three 'New Years Honours' raspberry awards, which were given for the most ludicrous anti-astrology comments of the year. She and the others were sent a certificate of the award, along with the copy of our editorial. The links below go to copies of those original articles, the contents of which are as relevant as ever (only the names have changed). I have less time to waste sending out such certificates nowadays, but in keeping to the spirit of those earlier editorials, as I upload this comment I shall blow a raspberry in the air to Kunkle and Cox, and an especially long one to the BBC.

view pdf - (800 KB)

view pdf - (400 KB)

About the author:

Deborah Houlding Deborah Houlding
is the host of Skyscript and a practising astrologer. Like many of her colleagues, has spent decades exploring the historical, astronomical and symbolic basis of her subject.

© Deborah Houlding, 15 January 2011.

See also:
Star Lore of the Constellations: Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer
by Deborah Houlding
Heavenly Imprints: Development of the Zodiac and the early origins of Aries & Taurus
by Deborah Houlding