Astrology Skeptic: The tropical and sidereal zodiacs have drifted about 24 degrees apart. How can modern astrologers using the sidereal zodiac and the tropical zodiac both be right?
We need a good answer to this question. Most astrologers, even if they’re exclusively tropical or sidereal, don’t want to write off the other as just “wrong”. To this end, I think many astrologers are in denial of even acknowledging the widening gap between the tropical and sidereal zodiacs. We hear the phrase “They both work” but without a real explanation of how two conflicting zodiacs can work. This is really just a different spin on the all-time least convincing justification in astrology “It works for me”, even though very few astrologers are actively using both zodiacs. It’s a cop-out. What’s worse is that if it does work for everyone regardless of what zodiac you use, then it helps the astrology skeptic’s point that astrology isn’t a real phenomenon and isn’t based on accurate or consistent measurements.
Others try to sidestep this entire question by basically giving up on the entire idea that astrology has objective correlations, chalking astrology up to being purely divinatory. This makes accurate measurements meaningless and arbitrary, because meaning can be derived from any chart regardless of if it’s the right one or not, as long as its the one you saw “in that moment”. So it doesn’t matter if you use the sidereal or tropical zodiac because you might as well be divining the skidmarks in a toilet bowl and it would be equally valid as a divinatory tool. What’s the point of getting accurate birth times then? If you didn’t hear this kind of talk coming from astrologers, you’d think it was coming from skeptical trolls mocking astrology.
The exclusively divinatory view of astrology is problematic for the technical aspects and real world application of astrology, and it pisses on the legacy of ancient skywatchers who toiled to make sense of cosmic mechanics and who first noticed the phases of the wandering stars correlating with events on Earth. Y’know, Zuthuusu from 7th century BCE Babylon didn’t stay up all hours of the night on top of a ziggurat studiously etching the movements of planets onto cuneiform tablets, just so he could do it wrong and his astrological interpretation would still be a pArtIciPatorY mOmeNt. It’s “As Above/So Below” not “As Above for a Time and Place/So Below for a Different Time and Place “. How do you think mundane studies of planetary cycles through history works if not linking the right celestial event with the right earthly event?
Another response is to render the question irrelevant by foregoing the cultural constructs of zodiacs altogether, focusing instead just on planetary geometry. Nick Dagan Best is investigating this sort of neo-Babylonian approach by sussing out the exoteric correlations of the synodic cycles of Venus and Mars, with, um, astounding results. Richard Tarnas also sidesteps the zodiac question by only focusing on the hard aspects between the outer planets in his investigation of thematically recurring historical trends in his book Cosmos and Psyche.
If you accept there are objective astrological correlations but you don’t want to abandon the notion of a zodiac, we have these remaining options:
- One of the zodiacs is right, the other is wrong
- This option is tempting but the stakes are high. The cost of one zodiac’s triumph would be the invalidation of a lot of the work that half of all astrologers have done with one of the zodiacs for hundreds or even thousands of years, which still doesn’t really help the case for astrology.
- The zodiacs have different meanings
- This is tricky because it would mean that on a theoretical basis they would have to be formally severed, and it may mean past results with each zodiac might be put into a different context, but it wouldn’t necessarily make either wrong and would be far less disruptive than invalidating either zodiac. This is clearly the better option.
But then comes an arguably trickier question: If the zodiacs have different meanings, what could they be? I think the answer to this question is inherent to the astronomical properties of the tropical and sidereal zodiac. The fundamental differences between them speak to the unique perspectives derived from them, rather than representing the same thing.
Ancient philosophers such as Ptolemy developed the idea of a cosmic hierarchy. Earth represents a baseline of base physicality and flawed humanity. Objects further away from Earth reflect more divine and perfect states. The stars (and the constellations) are furthest away and so represent the highest or purest ideals, but our Sun is also a star and is also the one most intimately acquainted with our planet on a geophysical and metaphysical level. The Sun’s path also defines which stars are considered to be part of the constellational zodiac. Even though we know our solar system is heliocentric, the geocentric model is still meaningful insofar as it reflects the sky as we see it from Earth. But over time the Sun’s axes with Earth began to drift away from the constellations associated with those parts of the year. From this perspective, the friction between the tropical and the sidereal zodiacs comes from a disagreement about the Sun’s place in the hierarchy relative to other stars. Is the Sun more important, or are the stars? In order to get some more perspective on this question, we’re going to have to zoom out in time and space to go beyond the Ptolemaic universe to see what’s really going on.
The tropical zodiac is fundamentally based on the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. The March equinox is 0 Aries. The June solstice is 0 Cancer. The September equinox is 0 Libra. The December solstice is 0 Capricorn. This correlates with the major seasonal changes on Earth. This never changes, except that due to axial precession, each equinox and solstice appears to shift backward 1 degree every 72 years, relative to the stars. This means in 25,920 years, the tropical zodiac will have made a full rotation against a given fixed point in space.
The sidereal zodiac is a 12-fold division of the ecliptic roughly based on the constellations which intersect the ecliptic, so it is fundamentally based on the positions of stars. This is not to confuse the sidereal zodiac with the constellational zodiac, it’s a rough approximation of the constellations. The beginning of the constellation of Aries is what defines 0 Aries, although because they’re unequally sized, not everyone is sure exactly where the constellation of Aries begins. There are different anayamsa which measure the difference between the beginning of the tropical and sidereal zodiacs. The most common one is Lahiri.
Roughly 2000 years ago, tropical Aries aligned with sidereal Aries, and while ancient astrologers were to some degree aware of precession, they didn’t concern themselves with their differences since they were still small in their own time. In their astrological interpretation, they used both sidereal and tropical reasoning, according to Robert Hand’s “On the Invariance of the Tropical Zodiac”. Now that they’re almost a sign apart, the differences are more pronounced.
One common perception of tropical vs sidereal is that tropical changes, because it shifts relative to the stars, while sidereal is a fixed frame of reference because it’s based on the fixed stars. This reminds me in some ways of the debate in music over fixed do and movable do. Sight-singing with a movable do allows you to sing in different keys by always associating do with the fundamental tone. Sight-singing with a fixed do allows you to use your voice more like a keyboard, with each note corresponding to a particular syllable regardless of the key. Tropical is more akin to a movable do, in that the order stays the same even though the starting point can change. Sidereal is more like fixed do, in that the order and starting point never change, regardless of the key.
From what we can see, the sidereal zodiac is considered fixed because the sky today looks remarkably similar to the one from 2000 years ago. But it’s an illusion. Here’s how the constellation of Leo has changed/will change over 200,000 years, from 50,000 BCE to 150,000 CE:
“Fixed” stars? More like “Exceedingly Slow” Stars. The stars that make up our constellations are moving around the galaxy, so stars in one constellation are all at different distances and levels of brightness. You can see how the stars nearer to us can appear to travel faster than those further away. When taken together over a period of 5 million years (a cosmic blip) it looks completely chaotic, more like an aquarium.
And guess what, 5 million years from now, 0 Aries in the tropical zodiac will still be aligned with the March equinox. In the sidereal zodiac, the constellation of Aries won’t even exist. Who’s “fixed” now, bitch?!?
On smaller time scales, the tropical zodiac drifts backward against the backdrop of the stars which appear to stay fixed. However, on longer time scales, the tropical zodiac is stable and it’s the constellations which vary wildly, destabilizing the sidereal zodiac. While the Earth’s axial precession occurs at a rate of 1°/72 years, the movement of stars around the center of the galaxy from our perspective is seemingly chaotic, albeit glacial.
Now there are some who’ve responded to this idea by saying that considering time scales this vast is meaningless because stellar motion is so gradual as to be imperceptible over a human lifetime and even several generations of people. Humans in our modern form have been around the past 200,000 years. But if you reference the GIF above, 200,000 years was enough time for Leo to transform from a regal lion into a demented trapezoidal giraffe. If we think the astrological phenomenon is real and has at least some exoteric correlations, then we have to be able to account for its operation in other times.
In truth, neither frame of reference is truly fixed, so the real difference between them is that tropical has a regular and quicker rate of change which allows it to be stable in the long-term and permanently tied to Earth’s seasons, whereas the constellations have an irregular and slower rate of change which could affect where the sidereal zodiac begins in the long-term. In some sense, one is eternal and regularly recurring, the other is incidental and ephemeral. What does this say about what they could mean?
So here’s my proposal. Since the Earth-Sun relationship is very stable, leading to a tropical zodiac with definitive beginnings and endings that can remain constant for as long as the Earth spins, so too does it represent things which are archetypally unchanging or eternal about life on Earth.
Since the stars in constellations are unstable, indeterminate and changing in the long term from our perspective, so too do they and sidereal zodiacs attached to them, represent what is incidental and specific to an era in time.
This is true in a literal sense, because the constellations we currently see will only be arranged in this way for a brief time on a cosmic scale, and the images projected onto the stars reflect animals that only existed contemporaneously with human beings in the evolutionary timeline. From this perspective, when we look at the stars through the tropical zodiac, we’re looking at how what’s incidental and specific to an era in time relates to what’s unchanging and archetypal.
Imagine the Earth is like a ship in an ocean. Life on the ship would unfold according to a schedule or template, of waking, working, playing, eating, resting, being born, living and dying. Outside the ship is the unpredictability of the ocean, the capriciousness of the weather, the glacially shifting climate.
This is what I think the relationship is like between the tropical and sidereal zodiac. Just as the Earth-Sun relationship is stable and unchanging, so would the tropical zodiac reflect the regularity of life on the ship. Just as the stars are irregularly scattered about, so would the sidereal zodiac reflect the irregularity of the ocean/weather/climate. Neither would be wrong because it’s true that we are in a ship in the ocean and that there is an ocean with a ship in it.
This would not invalidate astrological practice of tropical astrology because the findings made with it relate to what’s archetypally eternal. It wouldn’t invalidate practice of sidereal astrology because the findings made with it would relate to what’s archetypally incidental.
However for this distinction to really work, it would be helpful for the zodiacs to be formally distinguished. They’re like a couple that got married and at first it was amazing. After a long period of axial precession, they’ve tried to make it work, they’ve gone to counseling, they’ve tried reigniting that old spark, but it’s undeniable that they’ve drifted apart. In order to honor their new paths, we need to set the terms of divorce, including name changes, division of assets and a custody agreement. In general the principle I’m following is that sidereal reasoning should be used for the sidereal zodiac and tropical reasoning should be used for the tropical zodiac. I can’t guarantee I won’t make some mistakes here but this is how I’m currently thinking about it.
The tropical zodiac would need new names for its signs to properly differentiate itself from constellations and the sidereal zodiac.
This has been a long time coming. They have the same names as sidereal signs because they used to coincide, but to be properly distinguished they should have different names. It should be envisioned and understood as a solar zodiac, a construct explicitly derived from the Earth-Sun relationship and distinct from stars. All the qualities of the tropical signs can be derived from their tropical fundamentals without reference to their constellations, instead based on their rulership, gender/sect, element, mode, etc. From this point of view, Aries is not the home of Mars because the ram is its constellational image, but rather the ram was chosen as the constellational image of Aries because it is the home of Mars and the ram embodies some qualities of Mars. Here are my suggestions:
- Tropical Aries=Arena (the diurnal place of Mars)
- Arenas are places of competition, sports, races and fights, so it’s a place of Mars. Plus, there might be an etymological connection there to the Greek god of Ares, Mars. So just as Mars is at home in the arena, so is Mars at home in Arena.
- Tropical Taurus=Copia (the nocturnal place of Venus)
- Copia is Latin for “supply”, “store” or “plenty”, as in “cornucopia”. A store contains material value, money, possessions, food, which contains many of the earthy connotations of this Venusian sign.
- Tropical Gemini=Media (the diurnal place of Mercury)
- Mercury is the planet of language, and “Media” has the airy connotation of the speed and breathlessness of communication. “Media” is the plural form of “medium” meaning an intermediary or go-between, which is exactly what Mercury is as a messenger planet, so naturally Mercury is at home in the realm of the media.
- Tropical Cancer=Lunatura (the nocturnal place of the Moon)
- A portmanteau of “luna” meaning “moon” and “natura” meaning “nature”. Since the Moon is associated with physicality, and its sign associated with that which supports life and bios, it seems appropriate to name the sign not just after its ruling celestial body but where it’s most at home, the state of nature itself.
- Tropical Leo=Solanima (the diurnal place of the Sun)
- A portmanteau of “sol” meaning “sun and “anima” meaning “soul”. Since the Sun’s sign is associated with the realm of leaders, luminaries and those whose names are in lights, it seems appropriate that like with Lunatura, that Solanima would be named after its ruling celestial body and where it is most at home, in lights. As a counterpoint to Lunatura being a place of nature, physicality and reflection, Solanima is a place of spirit, mind and action.
- Tropical Virgo=Labora (the nocturnal place of Mercury)
- “Labora” means “work” and “toil”. Mercury’s nocturnal sign is associated with skills, trades, industriousness, measurements and exactitudes. We even celebrate Labor Day when the Sun is in this sign, so Mercury’s nocturnal earthy home is in Labora.
- Tropical Libra=Equilibria (the diurnal place of Venus)
- “Equilibria” means “balance” which can both stand in for the airy diurnal social and aesthetic harmony Venus promotes in this sign, as well as for the balance of day and night at the September equinox.
- Tropical Scorpio=Mortalia (the nocturnal place of Mars)
- “Mortalia” essentially means “mortality”. The Sun is in this sign as we celebrate Samhain, Halloween, All Souls Day, Dias de los Muertos and other celebrations that observe the liminal space between the living and the dead. Whereas the diurnal sign of Mars is a place of war and competition for glory, the nocturnal sign of Mars is a dark place of danger, depth and survival.
- Tropical Sagittarius=Revelia (the diurnal place of Jupiter)
- “Revelia” sounds close to the world “revelry” in English, which is related to Jupiterian significations of bacchanalian celebration, enjoyment and excess. At the same time, “Reveles” in Latin means to “Discover” and “Revela” in Latin means “Show”, which both contain the diurnal Jupiterian notions of discovery, wisdom, insight.
- Tropical Capricorn=Austeria (the nocturnal place of Saturn)
- “Austeria” literally means “bleak” and the basis of the Saturnian keyword “austerity”. Capricorn is a serious sign where only the strong and determined thrive (Exaltation of Mars, Domicile of Saturn), and isn’t a place for wusses and wimps (Fall of Jupiter, Exile of Moon). More like a fortress or prison for Saturn than a home. So “Austeria” fits the mood.
- Tropical Aquarius=Seculara (the diurnal place of Saturn)
- “Seculara” comes from “secular” meaning worldly, ungodly, denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. It’s ruled by Saturn so it is still a bleak sign, but instead of being a grounded physical earth sign it’s diffuse and decentralized as an intellectual air sign. It’s a place where the coldness of logic, reason and self-reliance rule over passions of the heart and the enthusiasm of hope and belief. So “Seculara” fits the bill.
- Tropical Pisces=Somnia (the nocturnal place of Jupiter)
- Somnia means “dream”, which gives us the nocturnal connotations of this sign, along with the visions and imagination Jupiter inspires in this sign. It is also nicely complementary with Jupiter’s diurnal sign which revolves around being awakened to discovery.
- Tropical Aries=Arena (the diurnal place of Mars)
Everyone knows things sound more legit if they sound Latin, and ending all the signs with an “a” allows them to be used as adjectives. e.g. “My Equilibrian Sun is making an out-of-sign conjunction to my Mortalian Moon by 3 degrees”.
The sidereal zodiac needs an unambiguous anchor.
I know there are some divisions within the community of sidereal astrologers on this topic, and I am not a siderealist, but as an outsider there seems to be a pretty clear solution to all the different anayamsas out there. All the stars revolve around the galactic center, which is currently around 3° sidereal Sagittarius (Lahiri)/27° tropical Sagittarius. Amazingly, the galactic center is located in the nakshatra called “Mula” which means “root”, a near implausibly appropriate name for the galactic center, considering that it comes from a Vedic construct from thousands of years before the discovery of the galactic center. So maybe it would make sense to consider the galactic center 0° of sidereal Sagittarius. Then the sidereal zodiac could be rooted to a more truly fixed point which honors the sidereal tradition of nakshatras.
In the long term however, the consequence of aligning the sidereal zodiac to a single point is that the sidereal zodiac would no longer be anchored to the stars in constellations but more properly to the galactic axis. This would work long into the future but eventually, over long periods of time as the stars shift position, they could conceivably move into a new sidereal/galactic sign. So, similar to the tropical zodiac which derives its sign characteristics from abstractions about the Earth-Sun relationship, each sign of a galactically-aligned zodiac would have to have abstract natures independent of the incidental appearance of constellations within them, and I’m not sure what that would look like.
The tropical zodiac needs to solve its hemisphere problem.
I propose that the reason the northern hemisphere is not arbitrary and instead the proper orientation for our planet insofar as seasonal correlations with the equinoxes and solstices is that the northern hemisphere faces in the direction of the solar system’s movement through the galaxy. Our north is the “front” of our solar system. I explain my whole theory in depth here: A Solution To The Tropical Zodiac’s H̶e̶m̶o̶r̶r̶h̶o̶i̶d̶s̶ Hemisphere Problem
Planetary rulerships belong to the tropical zodiac.
This is going to be controversial. I contend that planetary rulerships have a distinct connection to the tropical zodiac in the northern hemisphere. The Moon and Sun rule the signs where the Sun is in the hottest part of the year, Saturn rules the signs where the Sun is in the coldest part of the year, etc. There is not, as far as I am aware, a compelling sidereal rationale for planetary rulerships.
The constellational images alone do not provide much justification for a sidereal sign to be ruled by a particular planet. Not only do the constellational images seem to be informed by a planetary ruler rather than the other way around, but the constellational images themselves reference tropical events such as the Scales for Libra, where day and night are balanced at the September equinox.
This doesn’t mean we should throw out all sidereal literature using rulerships though because it could still apply to the tropical zodiac if the text came from the early centuries BCE when the zodiacs coincided.
Characteristics of signs based on their constellational images belong to the sidereal zodiac.
As tempting as it is for tropical astrologers to reference constellational images, it’s problematic on a conceptual level. Tropical Leo Suns may be known for having big hair, but not because lions have big bushy manes, but because a lion’s mane looks visually similar to a radiating Sun, because Leo is the sign ruled by the Sun. If you’re a sidereal astrologer, then go right ahead with the lion analogies, but just keep in mind that the constellation has an expiration date. It’s the planet ruling the sign which is the basis for the image, not the other way around.
In Hellenistic astrology there are many associations made with the stars in a constellation and weather patterns, as well as associations made with the nature of a sign that tie directly to characteristics of its constellational image, so these could remain intact in sidereal contexts.
Characteristics of signs based on their seasonal features belong to the tropical zodiac.
For example, cardinal, fixed and mutable signs only make sense in a tropical framework, the signs where the Sun is when a season begins, continues and transitions. The only way these could logically be integrated with the sidereal zodiac is if sidereal Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces assumed more cardinal characteristics since that is where the Sun is at the beginning of the seasons sidereally.
Tropical astrologers might have to rethink the meaning of fixed stars.
A lot of the lore surrounding particular stars revolves around their position within a constellation. In such cases a tropical astrologer would have to think about how the appearance of the star itself might inform its benefic or malefic nature, somewhat divorced in a sense from its position within that constellation.
We may have to revisit our view of constellations period.
When considering that different cultures have had the same instinct to find patterns and fashion myths out of the stars, we could come away with the notion that there is something about the stars which represent something eternal. On the other hand, when we see that different cultures find very different images among the stars from each other, we may come away with the notion that the constellations are ephemeral, simply arbitrary cultural projections.
This may also bring us to question whether the constellational images established long ago by Babylonians and later featured figures of Greek and Roman mythology still apply to our modern global society of today (they still do), or if we could project our own myths and images onto the stars? What if there was a way to project our culture onto the stars in a way that was meaningful today?
From the tropical perspective, this could be done by simply considering which stars are present in each tropical sign, and forming an image with the stars that matches the nature of the planet ruling that sign. Each time a star enters or leaves a tropical sign, the zodiacal image would be updated. In the same way that astronomers decide the names of new planets and how meteorologists decide the names of new hurricanes, astrologers could decide on the new cultural image reflected in those stars. Then the cultural projection would not be arbitrary but meaningful for the era they’re formed in and for the culture they come from. This would reflect their incidental importance to a particular time and place rather than bearing eternal significance.
From the sidereal perspective, this could be done in a similar way but the rate of change would be much, much slower, and it would only work if the galactic center were used as the anchor point. The constellations would gradually distort even without crossing any sign boundaries, so it would be less clear when a constellational image truly changes into something else.
How can sidereal and tropical exist alongside each other today?
Plato offers an unwitting alternative explanation to the tension between the sidereal and tropical zodiacs. In the Timaeus, he gives an extensive account of his ideas about how the universe is shaped and constructed. He talks about two intersecting circles, one with the motion of the Same and one with the motion of the Other. The circle of the Same he equated with diurnal motion, the Earth’s turn which gives us a regular day and night cycle, always the same. The circle of the Other was the direction the planets traveled. Zodiacal motion runs opposite of diurnal motion. The tension between diurnal motion and zodiacal motion provides a compelling astronomical basis for the meanings of houses, and suggests that the friction between them is generative rather than destructive.
What if we took this a step further? If the Earth’s rotation and the consequent regularity of day and night is the circle of the Same, and the Earth-Sun relationship is the basis for the tropical zodiac, then perhaps the tropical zodiac could be considered a grander circle of the Same. This would dovetail with my theory of the tropical zodiac representing the regularities of life on Earth, what’s archetypally eternal and recurring. This would make the sidereal zodiac the grander circle of the Other, since the stars are irregularly scattered with chaotic trajectories, making sense with my theory of the sidereal zodiac representing what’s archetypally incidental and ephemeral for a particular time and place.
The intersection of the circles of the Same and the Other shows the intersection of what is archetypally incidental and recurring. Tropical shows us what’s always going to be true, sidereal shows us what’s true in this era.
From the perspective of the sidereal zodiac, the equinoxes and solstices could be considered akin to Nodes or Earth “angles” in a sense, which gradually shift backward through the constellations. Perhaps like the lunar Nodes, these could be seen as access points to the Earthly sphere. These events would be concurrent with when tropical astrologers attach significance to cardinal ingresses.
From the perspective of the tropical zodiac, the stars gradually advance through the solar-derived signs. Tropical Leo would still be ruled by the Sun in any age, but depending on what stars are in tropical Leo in a given age would change one’s experience of certain degrees in the sign, and consequently the overall impression we might have of the sign in a given era. Perhaps tropical Leo in previous eras was a more gentle solar sign, perhaps in another era it will be seen as a more domineering and intimidating solar sign.
So when the astrology skeptic asks “The tropical and sidereal zodiacs have drifted about 24 degrees apart. How can modern astrologers using the sidereal zodiac and the tropical zodiac both be right?” We can respond with “The tropical zodiac is based on the Earth going around the Sun, reflecting the archetypally recurring nature of daily life. The sidereal zodiac is based on the Earth going around the galaxy, reflecting the archetypally incidental cultural context of eras of life. They can both be right because they are about different things.”