Precession (continued)

What is the "Problem of Precession"?

I think we are finally in a position to spell out what the big issues are for astrology concerning precession. The Earth's precession is indeed a problem area for astrology (as are a number of other technical issues), but not for the reasons that critics often assume. The positions of the critics are much shakier than they can imagine.

As I sketched out earlier, the zodiac evolved over a long period of time across many cultures. Early astrology was based on observation, making the actual constellations and the mythology behind them of central importance. Eventually, as prediction became a vital job description of court astrologer-priests, there was a shift from observation to calculation. Constellations are messy, because they come in all sorts of sizes and have irregular boundaries (not that the ancients actually thought of boundaries between the pictures). It became much easier to calculate planetary positions, house cusps, etc. when 30 degree, equal sized signs became the norm. These signs were designed to match up with the equinoxes and solstices of that time. All these major conceptual advances came together around 500 to 300 BCE, when the modern zodiac was cast in stone.

What nobody counted on is that this stone moves!

The "discovery" of precession is usually attributed to the Greek astronomer Hipparchus in 128 BCE, but it was undoubtedly a closely kept esoteric secret prior to his time. Egyptian sources are considered to be the original inspiration for his work and the Babylonians were probably in the know as well. The religion of Mithraism, one of Christianity's biggest rivals in the Roman Empire, has temple art drenched in astronomical symbolism describing precession. It was considered one of their highest spiritual teachings. In central America, the Mayans were undoubtedly the masters of a fairly advanced astronomy, including the ability to track and predict precession. Many old monuments and temples from these cultures bear unmistakable imprints of precessional knowledge. In fact, many of them had to be rebuilt with different alignments over the centuries, because precession changed the star positions their floor plans were based upon. It's not as though the creators of the zodiac were unaware of precession, yet somehow they failed to notice that it causes big problems for the zodiac.

From strictly a measurement point of view, this means the stars and constellations move relative to the equinox. The numbers come out differently when you measure positions of stars and planets, depending upon which point of view you adopt. It creates a mismatch between signs and constellations, the two main ways we give names to parts of the sky. Each section of the zodiac has two distinct names which change over time. Even worse, we use the same names for signs and constellations, creating endless opportunity for confusion and misguided one upmanship. Just straightening out these messes is enough to rile opposing factions.

There's one other critical issue to the distinction between signs and constellations. If we have two (or more) separate zodiacs, then we also have two (or more) symbolisms. In effect, we get distinct astrologies. There's a lot of sniping going back and forth as to which astrology is the better one. After all, in good old fashioned logic (with the emphasis on "old fashioned"), somebody's got to be right and somebody wrong -- right? In fact, that's not the way of relativity. It's a matter of right for what purpose.

Unfortunately, the symbolism of the zodiac is a muddled mess. Some of the meaning of a sign comes from the geometry of the zodiac and equinoxes, some comes from the mythic stories attached to the star patterns. We think of Aries as a cardinal fire sign and Taurus as a fixed earth sign in the first point of view; in the mythic realm we imagine Aries as an impetuous ram and Taurus as a stubborn bull. These two kinds of symbolism are complementary, but they should never be considered identical. When you mix the two together indiscriminately, you can sometimes get some absurd results, especially in a few thousand years from now. I suggest that astrology not only needs to cleanly split the signs and constellations apart, but that this split is long overdue.

As I've mulled over these issues, it also occurs to me that we need to develop a symbolism that is uniquely precessional in nature. There are some pioneers who have been moving in this direction for several decades already. I think we need to get busy here.


For every good battle, there is a strategy involved. To understand an opponent's strategy is to understand his mind somehow. Such insight can provide the necessary keys to end the battle decisively.

In these arguments about precession, there are certainly some basic strategies at work, many of them plainly full of holes when examined closely. People start with preconceived points of view and try to prove them with "reason", often with ridiculous results. But you have to look closely to see the cracks in their argument.

Ultimately, the preconceived notion boils down to some form of "I'm right and you're wrong!" It's usually said more subtly, such as "How come you say Aries when it's really Pisces?" Dead giveaways for this kind of argument are hot-button terms like "true", "really" or "actually", and the infamous "merely", words that say I know what's going on in the "real world" and you don't. I hope you will start seeing these terms for the red flags they are.

Another common mistake of logic is being very selective about how you judge different subject areas. If you ask the astrologers about "Why Aries vs. Pisces?", then it's totally fair to ask the astronomers the same question. Trying to embarass the other side is perfectly fine, but embarassing yourself is not. Many of the arguments we'll examine are little more than quick hit-and-run operations, where the accuser leaves the scene before anyone can fire back.

Many mistaken arguments are based on confusing signs and constellations, either intentionally or through ignorance. Usually there's a subtext that the constellations are "real" and the signs are "merely imaginary", that mythic pictures are more "objective" than mere "subjective" mathematics. (It really sounds odd said that way, but I've heard it often!) Or maybe you believe that signs are more "real". However, if you look at the issue closely enough, you might see they are both the product of imagination. As is much of our so-called knowledge.

But the most insidious fallacy is the argument based on total ignorance. I'm amazed that the most vociferous critics of astrology are usually the people who have never studied it. They don't even know what they're arguing against. They already know astrology is "false", so why even look at it. Unfortunately, this is the total antithesis of good science and intellectual honesty. Do the experiment, see if astrology works for you. Give it a minimum of five years to try it out. Then you're qualified to join the argument. I'd say that most people who seriously try out astrology are at least partially convinced it has value.

Let's turn to the two major zodiacs and examine them in turn. We'll look at the major strengths and weaknesses of them, their pro's and con's. And then we'll look at a sytem that is more of a synthesis of the two.

The Tropical Zodiac

(In the interest of full disclosure, I use the tropical zodiac in my work and am generally quite pleased with the results. I haven't studied the Vedic or sidereal systems to anywhere the same depth, so I'm undoubtedly a bit biased here.)

The word "tropical" refers to the seasons. It comes from a Latin root "tropicus" that means "of the solstice". This word is also used to refer to the circles on the globe where the Sun stands overhead on the solstices, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; the lands between these circles are commonly called "the tropics".

The tropical zodiac is the zodiac of the Earth's seasons. It starts with the ecliptic of date, the current (though changing) orbital path of the Earth. This ecliptic intersects the equator of date at the equinoxes; the solstices are the points on the ecliptic that are farthest north and south of the equator, 90 degrees away from the equinoxes. These four points are of critical importance to the inhabitants of Earth, because they mark the start of the four seasons. Positions on the tropical zodiac can be measured in degrees from the equinox (360 degrees to a full circle). In astrology, the full circle is sub-divided into 12 "tropical signs" of 30 degrees each, the first sign (Aries) starting right at the equinox.

Notice first of all that the tropical zodiac is defined in very precise mathematical terms that correspond to physically observable motions of the Earth. There is no ambiguity in this definition, right down to an incredible number of decimal places. The only uncertainty here is due to the physical theories of the Earth's motions developed by scientists not capturing some of the minutest details of those motions. This precision in one of the greatest strengths of the tropical point of view, in my opinion.

And if you recall the "fundamental definition of the equinox" I quoted earlier, you'll see that the tropical zodiac is the same measuring system that astronomers themselves use. It corresponds to the celestial longitude (distance along the ecliptic from the equinox) and celestial latitude (distance north and south of the ecliptic towards the ecliptic poles) that is used for measuring planetary motions and describing the solar system. A second system based on right ascension (distance along the equator) and declination (north-south distance from the equator) is also based on the equinox. Except for the use of the tropical signs, astronomers and astrologers speak the same language.

Finally, since this zodiac is tied to the seasons, the sign Aries is always the start of spring, Cancer is always the start of summer, etc. The seasons and the cycles of living things are very crucial phenomena for the beings of planet Earth. Our lives depend on these patterns. The entrance of the Sun into Aries, the first day of spring, is always near March 21st, at least once we developed a calendar that works well enough. Our calendar is designed to track the solar year, not the sidereal year. In this regard, the tropical zodiac is independent of precession.

The Moving Equinox?

There's a curious inconsistency in the way people measure motion when it comes to precession. Since we live on the Earth's surface, we always measure motions relative to where we live. We define the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which are based on the Earth's rotation, and consider them a fixed framework. We say objects rise and set, because we view our horizon as fixed. It's simply our point of view and we're perfectly welcome to use it, even if it's "simpler" to think of the stars as fixed and the Earth rotating.

When talking about the motions of planets in the solar system, we measure their positions on the ecliptic from the true equinox of date (that's the astronomer's "fundamental definition" once again). We say the Sun and the planets move around the zodiac. However, the Earth orbits the Sun, so we should "really" say the Earth moves along the zodiac. Again, astronomers live on the Earth's surface. They actually measure the Sun's position on the ecliptic, using the equinox as a starting point, because down here on Earth, we "see" the Sun move. It's only in their minds that they think of a moving Earth.

In all contexts, astronomers use the equinox as the fixed zero point. All their measurements are based on that rock bottom assumption. Except when precession comes up. Then all of a sudden, people start talking about the equinox moving against the stars! To their credit, the actual measurements are of the star positions relative to the equinox (they precess star positions in order to observe them with a telescope). But for some reason, they are loath to think of the stars as moving against our local, terrestrial frame of reference. I've always been disturbed by this inconsistency.

There is absolutely no harm in viewing the stars as moving via precession through the zodiac. We talk about the planets as "transiting" the zodiac signs, so why shouldn't we think of the stars as transiting through the zodiac as well. Considering that we talk of pole star changes, it's no stranger to talk of the stars around the equinoxes and solstices as changing, too. When a star or group of stars changes signs (for instance, the Pleiades are moving from Taurus into Gemini these days), I wouldn't be surprised if that produced changes on the Earth plane. At the very least, it makes for a more consistent way of doing astrology.

Yes, the equinox moves, relative to the stars. But in the tropical zodiac, the equinox is absolutely stationary and the stars move instead. It's just an issue of measurement.

"But the Equinox is Really in Pisces!"

Let's take the first critical question of the precession problem:

How come astrologers say the Sun is in Aries on the first day of spring when it's really in Pisces? Aren't you guys 2000 years out of date?
The implication (snicker, snicker) is that astrologers use the wrong zodiac and hence astrology must be false.

In the spirit of what's good for the goose is good for the gander, let's ask the astronomers the same question:

How come astronomers call the equinox the first point of Aries when it's really in Pisces? Aren't you guys 2000 years out of date?
I refer you to the the astronomer's "fundamental definition" once more. Maybe the term is just a holdover from an earlier historical era, but isn't that a symptom that astronomy is somehow "false"? Could it be that astronomers don't know where the "real" First Point of Aries is, that their measurements are all wrong? Or ask the map makers:
How come those lines on your maps are called the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn when they should really be the Tropics of Gemini and Sagittarius? That's where the solstices are these days! Aren't you guys 2000 years out of date?
By the standards used to judge astrology, it could be said that every map ever printed is equally "false", yet nobody has ever suggested we change the names of the tropics.

This entire fallatious argument is based on comparing apples and oranges, namely a confusion of signs and constellations. Yes, the Sun on the first day of spring is "in" the constellation (star group) of Pisces, at least for now. And yes, it is also in the tropical sign of Aries, by definition. They are two entirely distinct systems of measurement, each completely internally consistent. They disagree in the name they use for the equinox. They are both correct.

Beware the word "really". For some reason, many people consider the constellations more "real" than the signs. Which brings us to...

"But aren't the Signs Imaginary?"

"OK, but isn't the equinox really in Pisces? After all, I can look up in the sky and see the stars of Pisces (well, not in the city). But I can't look up and see the sign of Aries, because signs are just in the imagination."

In one sense, zodiac signs are imaginary. It requires some careful measurement to "see" the equator and the ecliptic in the sky. You need a theory of the Earth's motions in hand before you can define this frame of reference. However, the tropical zodiac is also based on some very real, common sense notions. We can follow the Sun's path across the sky and experience the parade of star patterns over the seasons. We can feel the heat of summer and the cold of winter. If you see a number of planets in the sky at one time, you can very vividly "draw a line" between them and "see" the ecliptic. The precise framework that the astronomers use is only a refinement of these basic ideas, but you could discover these ideas (as did our ancestors) with very crude implements indeed. As a way to understand our solar system, the tropical zodiac makes a lot of sense.

As for star patterns, I'll have a lot to say about the "reality" (or lack of it) of the constellations in the next section on sidereal zodiacs. We see stars in the sky, not constellations. It's only in our imaginations that we "connect the dots" and see star patterns; constellations have no reality of their own. Astronomers don't even use them for any practical usage except naming stars. They do use equinox-based measurement systems on a daily, or should I say nightly, basis. As a global community, we set our clocks, define our calendars, celebrate our holidays, plant our crops, fly our planes, etc., by the equinox, not the constellations. If this is a fiction, it's a fiction that dominates our entire culture. The same can't be said for star patterns.

It's part of the scientific creed that if you can't measure something, it isn't "real". While that is an extremely limited worldview, it is incredibly useful at times. Seeing is not more "truthful" than measurement, it's just another kind of measurement. Signs are no less real than constellations and they are much more useful. And useful, as they say, is priceless.

The Bottom Line

Finally, astrologers in the western world have used the tropical zodiac for centuries with good results. Curiously, this style of astrology seems to work best for describing a person's psychological and spiritual growth processes through life. It's somewhat less useful at predicting the outer events of a person's life, something that Vedic astrology is said to excel at. It's a language of the inner world, seemingly based on the person's point of view on the surface of planet Earth. (Vedic astology looks at a person from the outside, from the point of view of the rest of the universe, so to speak.)

Many astrologers predict world events based on "ingress charts", horoscope charts set up for when the Sun crosses the equinoxes or the solstices. These charts seem to work well. I haven't heard of anyone using "sidereal ingress charts", though conceivably they may have value as well.

I've had the chance to attend very consciously to when some of the slower, outer planets have moved from one tropical sign to the next. There is often a marked change in "the energies" as I experience them right at the time of passage. The change in mood is often very striking. I can't say that I've had similar experiences with the constellations.

In short, tropical signs "work".

The Sidereal Zodiac(s)

"Sidereal" means related to the stars. In contrast to the crisp, clean geometric definition of the tropical zodiac, there is no precise way to define a sidereal zodiac unambiguously. It's based on ancient, pre-scientific ideas that just can't be nailed down well. Perhaps this is why there are several widely accepted sidereal zodiacs, not just one.

That ambiguity may be a consequence of the fact that this isn't a zodiac of the scientific mind, but a way of looking at the sky based on the mythic, imaginative mind. There's something very seductive about the nighttime sky. It's been the movie screen where people have envisioned the myths that shape their world for endless generations. And it's not all just stories of heros and wild animals that you find in the sky. Mythology was also the science of their day, a way of passing on important understandings of the world, including such advanced teachings as precession itself. It's only as astrology shifts from the observational to the computational that astrology loses its connection with the night sky. And with that shift, the sky needed to be reenvisioned for the sake of mathematics.

The sidereal zodiac is an attempt to reconcile the constellations with the ecliptic. Because the constellations drift past the equinox over the centuries, this immediately implies that these star patterns can't be equated to the tropical signs of the same name. In fact, there is no recognition of the current equinox at all in this kind of zodiac, except for the matter of the ayanamsa. The earliest sidereal zodiacs were just the constellations themselves. But with the need for greater mathematical precision, these original star patterns were replaced by 30 degree segments of the ecliptic that I will refer to as sidereal signs. Please note that sidereal signs do not coincide with the tropical signs of the same name!

Things will be getting rather confusing here for awhile. When we use a name like Aries or Pisces, it could connote any one of four possible meanings, so let's settle on some names to make these distinctions obvious. The oldest idea was of the picture of the constellation. These are the stars in the sky plus the mental connecting lines that group them into some kind of image like a person or a dipper or a scorpion. When ancient people talked about the stars in a constellation, they were refering to the stars in the picture. When astronomers tried to formalize the idea of constellation, dividing up the entire sky into 88 star patterns, they were faced with many stars that are not in the picture per se, but still "in" the constellation. They set up a committee to draw boundary lines between the constellations (something the ancients had no inclination to do) to make it unambiguous where each star lives. This is very similar to the activity of dividing the earth's land masses into countries and states, with arbitrary, but well defined boundary lines telling us whether you're in Minnesota or Wisconsin. I will call this concept the territory of the constellation. Then, when the constellations along the zodiac are abstracted into 30 degree segments, these are the sidereal signs of the sidereal zodiac. And finally, there are the tropical signs of the tropical zodiac, which are tied to the equinox and are shifted precessionally from the pictures, territories and sidereal signs. None of these four usages of a name like Aries are going to describe exactly the same part of the sky.

So, let's start by looking at the notion of constellations more closely, followed by the sidereal signs and the ayanamsa issue. Only then will we be in a position to talk intelligibly about a sidereal zodiac.

What are Constellations?

When ancient people studied the sky, they saw the stars appearing in fixed patterns night after night, season after season. This apparent constancy in an otherwise ephemeral world must have been very comforting, because the stars and constellations have always been considered divine in nature. By connecting up stars into imaginary images, they projected their mythic understanding of the world onto the sky for all to see. These images are the pictures I discussed earlier.

Since this was a work of imagination, the group of pictures lacks some qualities that the rational mind would prefer. For starters, not every star is part of a picture. There are lots of gaps in this map, parts of the sky with no name and no story, stars that don't belong. It's like there could be parts of the USA that aren't in any state because they fall in the gaps -- not likely! Secondly, sometimes individual stars could be parts of two separate pictures. For instance, the star Sirrah or Alpheratz is traditionally thought to be part of the Great Square of Pegasus, but it also represents the head of Andromeda; modern astronomers give this star to Andromeda. Curiously, I read about a Greek myth that tells how Pegasus was born from the neck of the Medusa when Perseus chopped off her head. (Perseus is a constellation next to Andromeda; the head of Medusa is represented by the variable star Algol in Perseus' hand. Algol is considered one of the most "evil" stars in the sky by astrologers.) It seems this myth mirrors the modern confusion over where to place Sirrah. Third, not all cultures even agree on what the basic pictures are. Fourth, there were parts of the sky near the south pole that are never seen in the northern lands and hence weren't mapped by the ancients. Much of this territory wasn't split up into constellations until the 16th century or later. Many of these newer constellations represent very mundane objects, not heroic mythic figures.

Enter the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the modern governing body for all things astronomical. When faced with a mess like the mythic pictures, they did what all governing bodies do: they formed a committee. The final report, issued around 1928, took these informal pictures and drew formal boundaries between them, settling on 88 constellations that fill up the entire sky. These boundary lines are by definition nice east-west (parallel to the celestial equator) and north-south lines (running straight to the celestial poles), no curves or diagonal lines. There is also an incredible amount of gerrymandering going on, since some of the pictures (especially the snakes, sea monsters and sacred rivers) do a lot of squirming around in the sky. It's not a pretty picture, it's highly arbitrary, but at least it fills in all the gaps. We now know where the boundary lines lie. We know "where" each star is by name.

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