One frequently asked question is a variation on the following theme. "My husband/brother/teacher says astrology is rubbish because the earth has moved since the time of the ancient Greeks. So when you astrologers say Jupiter is in Aries, it's actually in the constellation of Pisces... as you can see if you look at the sky." I always reply that the signs are deliberately different to the constellations. Today, in the light of all this nonsense about a new zodiac sign, I'd like to say a lot more.
There has, indeed, been a 'heavenly shift' since the time of the ancient Greeks. It is due to a phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes. This is also the reason why every few thousand years, we get a new pole star. We astrologers have known all about this for ages. That's precisely why we decided, long ago, not to use constellations for our predictive work. They're unreliable and unequal. There are arguments over where they each begin and end. Plus, over time, they change. We needed some different way to measure the sky so we created twelve, exactly equal, mathematical divisions of the ecliptic. As the ecliptic is the path that the sun seems to follow through the sky, with the constellations behind it, we named each of our signs after one of those constellations.
Are you with me so far? I do hope so. I really need you to follow me... because I'm desperate to explain something important. So desperate that I don't entirely trust my own ability to speak calmly.
Every so often, I spend my weekend fielding phone calls from journalists who have been fed a cock and bull story about a 13th Zodiac Sign. It was given to them by a bunch of astronomers with a mission to make mischief. Rather than doubt a word of it, my fellow professionals (or at least some of them) immediately deferred to the 'scientific authority' of those stargazers. They then passed on the news through a million newspaper articles, blogs, tweets and even Youtube videos.
The result, for me, has been an endless stream of ridiculous questions. "So Mr Cainer, what will you tell your readers now that scientists have proved that there's a new zodiac sign and that the other signs now have different dates?"
When I tell them that I won't be saying anything different because nothing has changed, they sound a bit disappointed. Some even suspect I may be hiding my head in the sand. But I'm honestly not in a state of denial. I'm in a state of despairing disbelief!
The worst of it is, I've been here before. Twice. Back in the mid nineties, a different astronomer tried exactly the same trick to get themselves some fame and discredit astrology. And quite early in my professional career, when I was so young, I still had hair, I had to help put out yet another Ophiuchus fire. I cannot tell you how ancient it makes me feel to be dealing with the re-emergence of this old chestnut.
Anyway, let's return to the explanation. Several paragraphs ago, I explained that my predecessors named their twelve zodiac signs after the twelve constellations. This was entirely deliberate. They always knew, full well, that the signs and constellations would drift ever further apart over time. But they were happy enough to have set up a self-calibrating, permanently accurate set of zodiac signs, aligned to the equinoxes. And, for all their powers of prophecy, they never foresaw that one day, this would produce a whole new set of problems for a whole new generation of astrologers.
To the ancient Greeks, and the Babylonians before them, there was no separation between astronomy and astrology. The two subjects were one. In studying the sky, you would automatically read symbolic meaning into it. You needed to study the sky to a high standard because you needed to make the best possible predictions. Actually, this didn't change until surprisingly recently; the latter half of the 18th century, in fact. The great names in modern astronomy, like Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus and even Newton were just as interested in mystic interpretations as in measuring planetary orbits.
These great astronomers knew perfectly well about the 'two different zodiacs'. They fully understood that you did your astrology with the mathematically equal divisions and that the constellations were for decorative purposes only. They also knew, perfectly well, that those constellations didn't match up with the equal zodiac signs. The 'drift' had begun to happen long before.
This begs a very big question. If Newton 'got it' and Galileo knew all about it, why was it such news to the Minnesota astronomers who planted the story in the papers late last week? What compelled them to declare a thirteenth sign called Ophiuchus and then issue fresh dates for the twelve zodiac signs as a result of their "research?"
Could they really be so ignorant? Or were they, perhaps, determined to stir up as much publicity for themselves as possible no matter how many unfair aspersions this might cast on traditional astrology?
The sad, sorry answer is that their agenda was entirely aggressive. The schism between astrology and astronomy has grown in the last couple of hundred years, from a skirmish to an all out battle. Although so far, all the attacks have come from one side.
The astronomers have declared war on the astrologers. The astrologers, they feel, deserve it, purely by their very existence. How dare they believe what they believe? What right have astrologers to infer meaning into the movements of the planets when astronomers see no such mystic information and must content themselves only with measurements of orbit, rotation and chemical formation?
Ironically, the astronomers' justification for their anger with astrologers sounds much like an accusation of heresy. The astronomers believe one thing. The astrologers believe another. And while the astrologers are happy to respect the astronomers' right to believe what they want to believe, the astronomers will seemingly not be happy till every last astrologer has been unceremoniously debunked.
Fuelling this attitude is, of course, one very earthly factor. There's not much money in astronomy. You're likely, if you're studying space for a living, to be on a meagre academic grant. But some astrologers (only some, we must stress) make a good living from their practice. It must be galling for the astronomers to feel that their astrological cousins know far less yet are rewarded far more highly. Galling it may be. But then, they are perfectly free to return home to the realm of mysticism, aren't they? Well, oddly enough, they're not. We astrologers would welcome them into our communities with open arms. But peer pressure amongst astronomers is a formidable force. Across the scientific community there's a loathing and detestation of astrology, along with all other forms of semi-mystical activity, from telepathy to homeopathy.
This shocking culture of bigotry means that if any researcher, no matter how respectable, at any university, no matter how progressive were to conduct a study of any esoteric activity... and was to conclude that there might be 'something in it after all', no matter how small, they would not be met with the applause of their contemporaries. Instead, they could expect to be rubbished in public, subjected to ridicule and put at the very bottom of the pile when it came to dividing up next year's grant money.
So the astronomers don't like astrologers. And in fairness, astrologers are not always their own best friends, either. Each time, for example, you visit a horoscope website and see a picture of a zodiac sign made out of a kind of 'join the dots' image of heavenly stars, you're entering the territory of someone who is being, at best, a bit unthinking. Either they genuinely don't know that the constellations are not the same as the zodiac signs they work with... or they do but they're letting their art department get the better of them. Just to complicate the matter a bit more, there are some Indian astrologers, practising what they call Vedic astrology... and some genuine, knowledgeable people who have chosen to work as 'Sidereal astrologers', using visual astronomy... and these astrologers actually DO use the constellations. Which means they do use different dates. And, of course, they read the sky a little differently in much the same way, perhaps, as a musician might play a sitar differently to a guitar. Even they though, don't use an extra zodiac sign called Ophiuchus, or anything else.
The astronomers from Minnesota, who planted this mish mash of malicious misinformation into the press late last week, must now be rubbing their hands together with glee. But they've done their cause no real favours and they've done astrology no great harm.
The fact remains that the zodiac is right, exactly the way it is. There is no new sign, there are no new dates... and sadly I predict that in 15 years or so, just when everyone has forgotten all this, some other smart alec astronomer will set out to cause the same trouble, all over again.