Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Defence of the 13th Sign

In the late 70s, someone mentioned to me that there used to be a 13th sign of the zodiac and that it had something to do with a spider. I was intrigued. I had a strong feeling for astrology, but I knew nothing about it (which is probably why I was better then at guessing people’s star signs than I am now.)

I never followed up on the 13th sign, but I did hear it mentioned from time to time. It was only a couple of days ago, when I saw a piece on Facebook protesting (quite rightly) at the BBC’s inaccurate presentation of astrology that I found about properly about this mysterious sign, Ophiuchus.

From the point of view of traditional astrology, the 13th sign is a piece of nonsense, invented in about 1970. What happened was that in 1930 the astronomers redefined the boundaries of the constellations so that Ophiuchus was now behind the Sun from Dec 1 to Dec 18 each year.

From there it was a short step to someone saying, well in that case it is a zodiac sign, because that is how zodiac signs are defined: they are the constellations on the Sun’s path through the sky (the ecliptic).

Except that the signs aren’t defined that way, not any more. Originally, the signs would have been based around the constellations on the ecliptic. But then they got tidied up into 30 degrees each (which of course they aren’t) and since that time, due to precession, they have drifted 23 degrees off that original alignment.

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So the signs are a fiction, as they have nothing to do with the stars anymore (though I don't think the public is usually aware of that!) They are simply a way we have of dividing space into 12 segments, based around the seasons instead of the stars. So that Aries always begins at the spring equinox. Whereas in India, where they take precession into account, Aries now begins in mid April.

The 12 signs and the corresponding constellations: note the constellations are of unequal size and do not line up exactly with the signs
So from this point of view, claiming the constellation Ophiuchus as a sign makes no sense, because the constellations are not the signs.

This is incorrectly called The Zodiac. It is in fact the 13 constellations on the ecliptic.
And if we were to incorporate it, it would make a mess of all the symmetry and symbolism that comes with having 12 signs.

And yet…. The 13th sign clearly has popular appeal, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to go away, especially with the BBC promoting it! One of the myths surrounding it is that 2000 years ago it was a sign, and the astrologers of the time excluded it (another piece of nonsense). That adds to its mystery, so when modern astrologers also shut it out, that almost adds to the mystique. An excluded, hidden part of the psyche.

I would argue that a tradition needs to respond to popular appeal if it wants to stay alive. Much as the Church did in the 10th century, when the Pope began canonising saints, which up till then had just been a local, popular practice.
There’s nothing about canonising saints in the Bible, and no doubt some theologians dismissed it as doctrinal nonsense, and they would have been right. But if something has popular appeal, you can always adjust the doctrine.

And maybe astrologers also need to look at their criteria for incorporating change. When a new planet is discovered by astronomers, we accept it, and we accept the mythology around the name of the planet, even though the name is decided upon by astronomers. And astronomers are not people we generally think of as sympathetic to astrology. Yet when people who ARE sympathetic to astrology – a large section of the public – run with a new piece of mythology that has no basis in doctrine, we are quick to dismiss it. Our instinct seems to be not to adapt. Maybe we are too intellectual, so that astronomers get taken seriously where popular feeling does not?

But does the 13th sign really have no basis in astrological theory? Do we, in other words, over-egg the difference between signs and constellations? Because the origin of the signs was indeed the constellations, before the systematisers came along and tidied it all up. 

Geometrically/astronomically, the signs and constellations are not the same. But mythologically, they are closely related. Of course they are. The signs are fundamentally mythological, they tell us ancient stories about ourselves, that is part of their deep appeal, and they are the same myths as the constellations associated with them.

So if a constellation is reconfigured so that it is, to some extent, on the ecliptic - as in the case of Ophiuchus -  then I think it is mythologically true to say that it becomes part of the zodiac, because the zodiac’s mythological foundations are those constellations on the ecliptic.

And when you are thinking mythologically, you’re not thinking about systems. You are feeling and imagining and divining, and this was the original basis of astrology: that raw relationship with the sky that Bernadette Brady has done so much to unearth and invoke through her visual astrology.

That, if you like, is my theoretical case for the 13th sign. And my practical case is that it has popular appeal – in other words, it has found its way in, at least to some extent, whether we like it or not, and however much we may huff and puff about doctrinal incorrectness. Much as the outer planets and their  mythologies have found their way in through astronomy, so has the 13th sign found its way in through its popular appeal. Not only do we need our public, but there can be a wisdom in that popular feeling, even if it's based on what we see as muddled thinking, that I think needs paying attention to.

So what are we going to do with it? Astrology is a flexible tradition, and in its modern form we find room for extra planets, asteroids and the Galactic Centre along with imaginary bodies such as Vulcan and the Dark Moon.

Black Moon
But I don’t think we can just pat Ophiuchus on the head and give him a new category and then quietly ignore him, while congratulating ourselves on being broad-minded. He has come in as a sign of the zodiac, and therefore needs to be treated as such. The way he has come in is part of the sign’s divinatory qualities, along with the mythology behind Ophiuchus.

I don’t say we have to change the zodiac to incorporate him (though maybe we could?). No, we can keep the same zodiac, but then – if we want - add in to our reading any planets in that sign, which extends from about 8 to 26 Sagittarius (yes, the Galactic Centre at 26 Sag harbours the dark secret of Ophiuchus!) and which is now also 0 to 18 Ophiuchus.

18th century star map illustrating how the feet of Ophiuchus cross the ecliptic
Ophiuchus is a man grappling with a serpent, the only sign to contain both man and beast. The mid-point of early Aquarius and early Scorpio is in Ophiuchus – the man and the serpent, he resolves these 2 signs.

The 1st century Roman poet Manilius describes the constellation thus:

“Ophiuchus holds apart the serpent which with its mighty spirals and twisted body encircles his own, so that he may untie its knots and back that winds in loops. But, bending its supple neck, the serpent looks back and returns: and the other's hands slide over the loosened coils. The struggle will last forever, since they wage it on level terms with equal powers.”

It is powerful imagery. Man grappling with his demons, but they are equals, he does not slay them like St George, but meets them with a respect which is mutual. Aquarius meets Scorpio.

And it seems that in modern times, this principle is having to force its way in, if the response of the astrological world to Ophiuchus is anything to go by. We live in an age of ideas, of scientific and technological progress (Aquarius) and the dark side of that (Scorpio) is all around us in environmental degradation, terrible weapons and an alienation from the rhythms of nature. Aquarius here is also the astrologers with their beautiful, human-made systems; and Scorpio is the popular feeling that doesn't always have much regard for such systems, that just likes a good story, even if it’s not true.

So it’s as if through Ophiuchus, that principle of integration of man and beast, human consciousness and its origins, is wanting to make a new synthesis between technological man and nature.

Later in his poem, Manilius describes the astrological influence of Ophiuchus, when the constellation is in its rising phase, as one which offers affinity with snakes and protection from poisons, saying "he renders the forms of snakes innocuous to those born under him. They will receive snakes into the folds of their flowing robes, and will exchange kisses with these poisonous monsters and suffer no harm" (Wiki)

This seems to suggest a healing quality. For the Romans, the figure in Ophiuchus was Asclepius, the Healer.

And again:

To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented the god Apollo struggling with a huge snake that guarded the Oracle of Delphi.

This brings us back to astrology: the use of reason to create a system (Apollo) and the divinatory power that system was built to serve (the Oracle); the tension, hopefully creative, that you get between the two, that one seems to get in any spiritual tradition: the direct experience of the mystic, and the wisdom of the book.

Jim Morrison
But what about some divination? After all, the above is no use if Ophiuchus does not have divinatory validity. And I thought the quality I want to look for is a struggle with demons as characterising the life of someone with Sun in Ophiuchus, and that I’d see who I had on my personal list of famous people. There were just 2 of them, Jim Morrison (of the Doors) and the painter Edvard Munch.

Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison is well known for his losing battle with his own demons, resulting in his death aged 27 of a heroin overdose. And Munch is known to all of us as the painter of The Scream, portraying the existential anxieties of modern people.

And that was enough for me. This thing works. I don’t test divination with statistics, because it doesn’t work that way. I test it with what immediately presents itself to me, and that was a double hit.

So if you have substantial personal placements in Ophiuchus, your life is likely to be characterised more than most by a struggle with demons, which you may at times be losing, or which you may turn into art for the collective; and whose wider context is the archetypal struggle (leading hopefully to synthesis) between humans and nature, a struggle that is particularly pressing right now as Ophiuchus pushes himself into view from the left field.

And the fact that Ophiuchus as a sign of the zodiac has popular appeal, but is ridiculed by many astrologers, maybe suggests an imbalance between the intricate and beautiful astrological system that has developed over 2 millennia, and the raw divinatory power that system was built to serve.


Rab Wilkie said...

Love your thoughts, although based on what seems an assumption -- actually various assumptions -- about astrology. A certain kind of popular or consensus astrology that draws much from only certain streams of the Western version -- in itself a rather large can of wiggly serpens.

Fortunately, or not, astrology has no IAU equivalent to lay down conventions, but it would be useful to know what its various schools teach with regard to signs & constellations. Otherwise, the conversation quickly becomes Sagittarian. (He jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions).

Speaking of which, the bounds of Ophiuchus include neither Aquarius nor the galactic centre, so facts first before we see if myth is inclined to twine happily & fruitfully around them.

clarelhdm said...

I really enjoyed this article and i agree with you...looks like on previous criteria no 13 would have made the cut. Bit like the Gospel according to St Thomas et begs the question as to why it wasn't included, and what that says about the orthodoxy of the time. And makes for interesting study

Gilly said...

Thank you for such a fascinating post. I'd never thought about Ophiuchus much. I'd always thought of it as one of those made up things we should dismiss, I didn't even know where he was supposed to be - but your thoughts have got me musing - the more so as this is a packed part of my chart. So I have Juno, Venus, Jupiter and Pallas there. Fighting demons *feels* spot on. But I need to give it a great deal ore thought...

Like I need to spend even more of my time musing on astrology. Curse you Dara O Briain. ;)