Why do I use the tropical zodiac? The short, honest answer is that it’s the first one I learned about. Being an astrologer in the western tradition has meant receiving the tropical zodiac as the default from the very beginning of my studies. The longer, honest answer is that the tropical zodiac is a product of the relationship between the Sun and the Earth, which ties it to the fundamental astrological concepts of light and darkness, which in turn ties the tropical zodiac to the rhythms of Earth’s seasons and is stable over long periods of time. This is not to say that the tropical zodiac is perfect, because it does have some problems. In particular, it has a
hemorrhoids hemisphere problem. I believe I have a solution, and it’s not Preparation H.
What is the Tropical Zodiac?
The equinoxes and solstices mark the cardinal points of the tropical zodiac. The equinoxes are where the Sun crosses the celestial equator, briefly marking two times in the year where day and night are basically equal. The solstices are where the Sun’s apparent distance from the celestial equator is greatest. The March equinox marks the beginning of Aries. The June solstice marks the beginning of Cancer. The September equinox marks the beginning of Libra. The December solstice marks the beginning of Capricorn. You can see this crappily depicted in the image above. So what’s great about the tropical zodiac is that there is little ambiguity about where the signs actually begin and end. So what’s the problem with the tropical zodiac?
Problem #1. The tropical zodiac’s alignment with the seasons only works on an interpretive level in the northern hemisphere.
Astrologers since Ptolemy have made associations between the signs and the seasons like this: The forceful initiating energy of Spring is likened to the fiery sign of Aries, the balmy storms of Summer are likened to the watery sign of Cancer, the cooling balance of Autumn is likened to the airy sign of Libra, and the bleak cold of Winter is likened to the Saturn-ruled earthy sign of Capricorn. To anyone who lives in the Southern hemisphere this makes no sense at all because their seasons are the exact opposite of the Northern hemisphere!
Solution #1: Flip the tropical zodiac for each hemisphere.
That would become quickly complicated AF. If you were born in the southern hemisphere and moved to the northern hemisphere, would your chart be responding to transits from the northern or southern zodiac? What about people born at the equator? Also, tropical astrologers from the southern hemisphere don’t flip a flipping thing. I’m gonna give this a hard pass.
Solution #2: Reconceptualize the tropical zodiac so that it applies equally for both hemispheres. Decouple signs from specific seasons, reframe them in terms of of light.
Seasons are created by the Earth’s tilted axis, not by the equinoxes and solstices. Only certain parts of the world even get four seasons anyway. In some other places they merely have “wet” and “dry” seasons. Seasons and signs may not be linked to each other, but they are both linked in different ways to the notion of light and dark. Luckily there is a way to reframe the tropical zodiac in terms of light. Here’s what I mean:
The March equinox would still be the Sun’s entrance into Aries for whatever hemisphere you’re on, it just has some percentage more or less light as it heads towards its summer/winter solstice depending on the latitude of your location. A different “wattage” so to speak. This is a way of making the tropical zodiac uniform for both hemispheres while taking their seasonal variation into account as another layer of interpretation. It could provide a whole new way of thinking about your Sun sign.
This would suggest that people born in the northern hemisphere with the Sun in Cancer or in the southern hemisphere with the Sun in Capricorn have “high wattage” Suns, especially if they’re born during the day. For example, maybe in the future we might say, “My Sun is at 15 Sagittarius at 82%”. We need some sort of language for earth-solar phases that matches how we talk about natal Moons, where we understand it both in terms of its zodiacal sign as well as its phase.
I first heard about this idea from astrologer Michael Ofek when he talked with Chris Brennan in a wonderful podcast about the role of light in astrology.
Problem #2. The tropical zodiac has not been interpretively distinguished from the sidereal zodiac.
The historical reason Aries is associated with the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox is because 2000 years ago, it occurred in the sidereal sign of Aries, which is roughly based on the constellation of Aries. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the northern vernal equinox now occurs in the sidereal sign of Pisces and the constellation of Pisces. Over 26,000 years, the vernal equinox will have gone through each constellation and returned back to the constellation of Aries. While skeptics of astrology tend to ignorantly conflate the sidereal, tropical and constellational zodiacs, it is still problematic that many tropical astrologers still derive some characteristics of the signs from the constellation they were originally associated with. For example, Astrological Ages are inherently sidereal, so tropical astrologers probably shouldn’t talk about them in a tropical context. The fact that the tropical zodiac uses the same names as the sidereal zodiac and constellations contributes to the confusion, both among skeptics and to some degree, astrologers. A truly tropical zodiac needs to be independent of the constellations. How do we do that?
Solution: The characteristics of the signs do not have to be dependent on the constellations.
Honestly there’s a lot you can still say about each sign without referring to its constellation. For example, we hardly need the image of a charging ram to make sense of Aries when we know it’s a diurnal/masculine cardinal fire sign ruled by Mars, the planet of conflict and aggression. If anything, the image of a charging ram is produced by this collection of attributes rather than the other way around. All you need to know are a sign’s sect, mode, element and the natures of the planets to be able to deduce most of the major characteristics of the signs.
First, the reason we have 12 signs is the same reason we have 12 months in a year. We get the word “month” from the word “Moon”. The Moon conjoins the Sun 12 times in 1 year, and the year itself is defined by the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun. This confluence of the Sun-Earth-Moon cycles traces out a great circle with 12 repeating divisions annually. It was a time-marker turned time-teller. And so we have 12 signs. But the Sun-Moon cycles don’t always start at the same degree, so we still needed an annual marker that would remain fairly constant each year, and the only clear markers in the Sun-Earth cycle are the equinoxes and solstices.
A sign’s sect (its diurnal/nocturnal classification, formerly known as its gender) can be deduced from the equinoxes and solstices. The imbalance of the solstices mirrors the imbalances of the Moon’s phases and appearances, whereas the balance of the equinoxes mirrors the more constant nature of the Sun, so the equinoctial signs of Aries and Libra are diurnal signs, whereas the solstitial signs of Cancer and Capricorn are nocturnal signs. Because day leads to night, each diurnal sign is followed by a nocturnal sign, and each nocturnal sign is followed by a diurnal sign.
A sign’s mode is directly deduced from its relationship to the equinoxes and solstices. The equinoxes and solstices are the 4 turning points of the Earth’s cycle with the Sun, so the signs associated with those turning points are cardinal (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn). The signs following the equinoxes and solstices are when the season is at its peak and most stable, so these are the fixed signs (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius). The signs preceding the equinoxes and solstices are when the seasons are in transition leading up to the next turning point, so these are the mutable signs (Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, Pisces).
However, we can only go up to a certain point with the four elements. Fire is considered to be more diurnal, because fire is hot and bright like the Sun, it can allow you to see in the dark. Air is considered to be more diurnal because you can see right through it and it feeds fire. Meanwhile water is considered to be nocturnal, because water is cooling, it’s hard to see through, it reflects light, the Moon gives us tides and water can put fires out. Earth is considered to be more nocturnal because it’s cooling, it obscures what’s buried beneath it and earth can put fires out. This is why the diurnal signs are either fire or air signs and why the nocturnal signs are either earth or water signs.
From this we can figure out that the equinoxes are either fire or air signs, and the solstices are either earth or water signs. But to actually figure out which one is which, we have to make an inference about which equinox is more fiery or airy. To make matters worse, it’s only once the elements are established that we can generate the planetary rulerships scheme, since the sign of the Moon and Sun depend on which signs are most Moon-like and Sun-like (cardinal watery Cancer and fixed fiery Leo). Traditionally Aries has been fiery because in the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox is when the days finally begin to overtake the nights and the season grows warmer – like fire. Unfortunately this invokes a northern hemisphere-centric perspective, so this brings us back to the hemisphere problem.
Problem #3: The beginning of the tropical zodiac is biased towards the northern hemisphere
The tropical zodiac is still very northern-hemisphere-centric. Even if we know the zodiac should begin with one of the balanced equinoxes instead of the extremes of the solstices, how do we know which one to start with? Why should the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox in March be the starting point of Aries? Why not the southern hemisphere’s vernal equinox in September? Why are we enshrining the northern hemisphere as the arbiter of the “proper” order of the zodiac when it’s more or less a historical accident that north and south are what we think they are? It’s arbitrary, so what makes the northern hemisphere special?
Solution #1: Use the sidereal zodiac.
Solution #2: Something about the northern hemisphere is special.
What Might Make the Northern Hemisphere Special?
If we were to take away all the historical baggage of astrology and tried to start it from the ground up again without any prior knowledge, how would or how could we come to the conclusion that the northern hemisphere vernal equinox should be the start of the zodiac? So far, no one has been able to come up with a particularly good reason that I’ve heard of. Then I realized that directions are only arbitrary if they’re not in relation to something else. Luckily, our solar system is far from alone in our galactic neighborhood, and we are all collectively orbiting the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, a supermassive black hole. Our solar system’s own motion around our galaxy provides a frame of reference that has interesting implications for our ideas about north and south on Earth.
Using our solar system’s movement around the Milky Way galaxy as our point of reference, what we consider Earth’s “North” is really the Solar System’s “Front”, and Earth’s “South” is really the Solar System’s “Behind”. Our solar apex (the direction the sun is heading through the galaxy) is currently just southwest of the northern star Vega. So Earth’s northern hemisphere is generally the front seat of our voyage around the Milky Way.
What’s important about this is it means our idea of North isn’t totally arbitrary. The concepts of “above” and “front” are distinct but closely related, far more closely connected to each other than either are to the concepts of “below” or “behind”. If our solar system were actually moving in the direction that our southern hemisphere was facing, then I think it would be fair to say that we’ve got it all completely backwards. In that case we’d be saying what’s “North” or “up” is the opposite direction of where our solar system is moving. Instead, what we’ve collectively decided North is also just happens to be the direction our whole solar system is heading toward. Even if you flipped the galaxy upside down, our solar system would still be moving in the direction we recognize as “North” on our planet. I think that’s significant.
This lends an astronomical basis for the vernal equinox in March to be considered the start of the zodiac, as the northern hemisphere is pointing in the direction the solar system as a whole is facing and moving. Viewing the equinoxes and solstices relative to the galactic plane globalizes the interpretation of the equinoxes so that they equally apply to both hemispheres. Seasonal variations between the hemispheres can add another layer of interpretation to the signs without changing their sects, modes, elements or rulerships. I mean, that’s pretty good news right?
So if the tropical zodiac is to be completely separate from the sidereal zodiac and constellations, what relationship should they have between each other, and what names should we give the tropical signs?
While the tropical zodiac shifts back a degree relative to the stars every 72 years, it maintains its consistency with the rhythms of Earth’s seasons, technically indefinitely. That means millions of years from now, presuming nothing terrible happens to the Earth, you could calculate the tropical zodiac, and its accompanying attributes would still be consistent. Over millions of years, or even hundreds of thousands of years, the constellations change shape, sometimes drastically. That’s because the fixed stars of the sidereal zodiac are anything but fixed. They sure are slow from our perspective, but they’re not fixed. When the the motion of the stars in our galaxy are sped up, it almost looks like an aquarium.
The images we’ve projected onto the constellations are unique for our time in history. That’s why we’ve projected animals, people and inanimate objects onto the stars. Lions haven’t always existed, but nor did the constellation of Leo. The constellations were pretty different during the millions of years dinosaurs roamed the earth. I imagine if a Tyrannosaurus Rex momentarily lifted its head from gorging on its midnight snack of an Edmontosaurus carcass, it might have outlined a Triceratops constellation in the cretaceous sky before tucking back in to that sweet Edmontosaurus ass.
If you use the tropical zodiac, it means that in subtle ways the signs change. Even though tropical Leo is always a diurnal fixed fire sign ruled by the Sun, it was a slightly different kind of tropical Leo hundreds of thousands of years ago, and will be a slightly different kind of tropical Leo in the future. Old star lore of constellations could provide more specificity to each era that stars are within each tropical sign.
If you use the sidereal zodiac, I imagine the equinoxes and solstices would have to be considered somewhere in between lunar and planetary nodes. The March equinox would be like the North Node, the September equinox would be like the South Node, and the solstices would be like the Bendings. In the long term though, the constellations will shift, and even the best guess of the start of Aries won’t be enough to overcome the fact that there may not even really be a constellation of Aries in the distant future
As far as new names for the tropical zodiac, I have an idea for this which totally blows. Since the planetary ruler of each sign is what informs a lot of each sign’s character, but they are primarily distinguished from each other based on their diurnal or nocturnal status, what if we combined the names of the planets in a way that suggests whether they belong to the day or night?
Aries = Dars (Day+Mars)
Taurus = Nenus (Night+Venus)
Gemini = Dercury (Day+Mercury)
Cancer = Noon (Night+Moon)
Leo = Dun (Day+Sun)
Virgo = Nercury (Night+Mercury)
Libra = Denus (Day+Venus)
Scorpio = Nars (Night+Mars)
Sagittarius = Dupiter (Day+Jupiter)
Capricorn = Naturn (Night+Saturn)
Aquarius = Daturn (Day+Saturn)
Pisces = Nupiter (Night+Jupiter)
These are ugly, terrible names. And every time you talk about a planet in it’s own sign it rhymes in a way that makes you sound like you’re herpderping in a Dr. Seuss book. “I have my Venus in Nenus and my Jupiter’s in Dupiter”. No one would even study astrology if this is the way it sounded.
We could also go super-formal and just refer directly to their sect, modes and elements, but it blows as well.
Aries = Sector DFC
Taurus = Sector NEF
Gemini = Sector DAM
Cancer = Sector NWC
Leo = Sector DFF
Virgo = Sector NEM
Libra = Sector DAC
Scorpio = Sector NWF
Sagittarius = Sector DFM
Capricorn = Sector NEC
Aquarius = Sector DAF
Pisces = Sector NWM
We could also go with something ultra-current and go with something which might only last another 5 years, and basically amount to a meme like “Zodiac Signs As Douchey Hipster Restaurant Names“:
Aries = The Smackdown
Taurus = The Deluxe
Gemini = Half the Portion Double the Price
Cancer = Better Than Your Mom’s Cooking
Leo = Inedible Instagrammables
Virgo = Vegan AF
Libra = The Sweet Spot
Scorpio = BDSM & Pitas
Sagittarius = Double the Portion Half the Quality
Capricorn = Cold, Hard and Pointy
Aquarius = Artisanal Water Bar
Pisces = Fish Sticks In Your Mouth
Just awful. Nearly as bad as the first time I had a go-around with imagining what millennials would have done if they’d invented astrology. I have an idea which blows less but comes off like I’m trying too hard:
Taurus=Luxuria or Delicia
Cancer=Natura or Lunaria
Leo=Solara or Lumina
Virgo=Technica or Mathematica or Practica
Scorpio=Pericula or Sicaria
Capricorn=Austeria or Melancholia
Pisces= Somnia or Fantasia
Essentially I just came up with something Latin related to the connotations of the sign and its ruling planet. And everyone knows something seems more legit and timeless if it’s in Latin and ends with an “a”. Also you could add an “n” to the end of most of them to turn them into adjectives, such as “I have an Austerian Mars” or “My Median Mercury is trine my Equilibrian Jupiter”.
Thus concludes my thoughts on the tropical zodiac and my solution to the problem of hemispheres. You’ve sat here long enough reading this! Any longer and you’re gonna need Preparation H. Go on, get up, go!