Precession (continued)

"Oh, You Think the Constellations are Real!"

We are so used to looking up at the sky and "seeing" the pictures up there instead of individual stars, that people unconsciously assume these pictures are real. We point at the sky and say "There's Orion!" without once questioning what we mean by Orion. In fact, if you analyze the precessional arguments between sidereal and tropical astrologers, it seems to boil down to preconceptions about which is "real" and which is "imaginary" (i.e., fictitious), the constellations or the tropical signs. Siderealists are especially rabid about claiming the reality of the constellations.

I recall a particularly vivid precession argument back in August 2002. A woman insisted I give one last astrology talk at the end of a four day workshop, which she quickly commandeered into a private tutorial session. It also appeared she had an agenda. She was a confirmed Vedic astrology buff and basically wanted me to affirm her belief that the sidereal zodiac was real and the tropical zodiac false. Being a tropicalist myself, I kept contradicting her, which only made the discussion very heated. When I started explaining how the constellations were transiting around the zodiac relative to the equinoxes and solstices, she became very confused, since she had never heard such nonsense before. We broke for supper after a few hours and as we were getting our food, I had an "aha!" moment about her point of view. I said, "I think I know what your problem is. You think constellations are real things. Constellations are not real things!" I must have sounded totally unhinged at that moment, because she went ballistic on me and the yelling continued for the next half hour until I finally convinced her I wasn't crazy. The discussion continued an hour or two more after that, more sedately, thank you.

For starters, if constellations were real things, you'd think different people could more or less agree on what these things are and which stars are in them. I'm always amazed in my reading to see how different cultures viewed the constellations. Take the Big Dipper. In some cultures, it's a plough or a wagon or a chariot. A few myths call it a coffin. The Hindus often call it "the seven rishis" (teachers or masters). Egyptians drew the Dipper as the thigh of a bull (perhaps part of Taurus). To the Mayans, it represented a god in the form of a bird called Seven Macaw, who plays a prominent role in their creation stories. And actually, the Dipper is only part of a greater picture called Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The Pleiades are known in the west as the Seven Sisters (even though only 6 stars are visible). Other cultures thought they looked like a tiny dipper, causing the Pleiades and the Big Dipper to become linked in many precessional myths. I know as a kid, I used to call them "the Baby Dipper"; maybe I was onto something without knowing it. For the Mayans, however, the Pleiades were called "Tzab", the tail of a rattlesnake. (Our modern constellation Perseus may have been the body of the rattlesnake for them.) This rattlesnake also appears frequently in religious art, myth, temples and pyramids as part of their precession myth complex and was a central symbol of these people. Orion is the hunter, right? The Mayans thought of this star pattern as a turtle or a group of hearthstones, the Egyptians their great god Osiris. Sagittarius always looks like a teapot to me. Aries doesn't resemble anything in my mind, just a triangle of stars. Pisces is thought (in the West) as two fish tied together by a cord. In the original stories, it was only one fish. In both China and Mesopotamia, Canis Major the Great Dog was a picture of a bow and arrow. Gemini is the twins, though originally it was a married couple (similar enough motif, actually). Except the Mayans thought of Gemini as an owl, with the two bright stars Castor and Pollux being its eyes. And so on. At least Scorpio looks like a scorpion to almost everybody.

People can't even agree which stars belong to which picture. A long time ago, Libra didn't exist and its brightest stars belonged in the claws of Scorpio instead. Old Babylonian pictures show the fish in Pisces extending much farther than modern star charts, one fish reaching into the stars of Andromeda, the other fish appropriating the head of Pegasus. A proud ship called the Argo sailed the southern skys many years ago. Today, our friendly committee of astronomers has broken up this ship into about four separate constellations.

If you really want to challenge these "eternal myths" in the sky, try talking to someone on another planet about them. If you move a few hundred light-years in any direction, the change in perspective is enough to distort and destroy all the pictures we see overhead. Far from being "universal" patterns, constellations are an accident of our terrestrial point of view.

In short, these pictures in the sky are not "cast in concrete" by any means. Rather than being "eternal truths" in the sky, constellations are very culturely dependent creations. They exist only in the imagination, not in the sky.

The Myth of the Fixed Stars

Of course, the stars aren't actually fixed in position against the sky. They exhibit small motions relative to each other known as "proper motion" that have nothing to do with precession. Each star moves with a different speed and direction. These motions aren't visible to the naked eye over a single lifetime, but over long periods of time, they can add up. In fact, the pictures we see in the sky today will not persist indefinitely. What we perceive as "groups of stars" that make up a constellation generally consist of stars that are flying apart in many different directions. Even the stars aren't eternal. I've reproduced two pictures of the Big Dipper, 100000 years apart, from a kid's book on the constellations that I got for Christmas many years ago to illustrate this.


100000 AD

And those Boundary Lines?

I mentioned that our friendly IAU committee drew all the constellation boundary lines due east-west and north-south. East and west are parallel to the equator, north and south point to the celestial poles. But in several centuries, there will be a different equator and different poles. These boundary lines will all be diagonal, no longer aligned with the cardinal directions, and quite a mess. As a few centuries of precession twist and tilt all the constellations, I fear all these boundary lines will have to be redrawn. Over and over. These boundary lines, the territory of a constellation, are no more real than the pictures are.

From Constellations to Sidereal Signs

As the need for greater mathematical precision entered astrology, the zodiac of constellations gave way to a zodiac of 12 equal sized, 30 degree sidereal signs, based on the major constellations that appear around the ecliptic. The intent was to get the signs and constellations to match up, at least at some point in history. There is no way, of course, that you can get a perfect match between the two, given that constellations come in many sizes and shapes, but you can come somewhat close. The big question is where you're going to put the starting point for the sidereal zodiac, the Sidereal First Point of Aries. And I don't mean the equinox of date. This starting point issue leads us to the contentious subject of ayanamsas.

Incidentally, why are there 12 signs in the sidereal zodiac? If you follow the ecliptic around the sky, you'll see that it actually crosses through the territory of 14 or 15 constellations, not 12. A substantial section of the ecliptic between Scorpio and Sagittarius is in a constellation called Ophiuchus. Many people argue it should be a 13th zodiac sign. A small corner of the constellation Sextans is also crossed and the north forty of Orion is barely nicked as well. There must have been good mythic reasons for the ancients when they settled on 12 signs. (Except the Mayans, who had 13 signs, dumping Taurus for Orion and the Pleiades.)

The Ayanamsa Problem

If you don't use the current equinox as your starting point on the ecliptic (the tropicalist solution), you have to come up with some other way of marking the starting point. There are only two main options. The first picks a particular star in the sky as a marker, similar to a navigational buoy in a harbor, and fixes an "equinox point" relative to this star. The other approach is to pick a particular moment in history as the time when constellations and signs matched up, and use the equinox of that moment in the past as "the real equinox". In either case, we'll label such a starting point the historical equinox for our zodiac. Like any star, this historical equinox moves relative to the true equinox (tropical version) due to precession. The distance between the true and historical equinoxes at a given time is the ayanamsa for that zodiac. For the purposes of our discussion, we will use the following Ayanamsa Formula relating the position of an object in the tropical system and the position in the sidereal system:

ayanamsa = tropical position - sidereal position
For instance, if you use an ayamansa of 23 degrees, 51 minutes, you can use this formula to calculate that the true equinox (tropical position = 0Ar00) is located at 6Pi09 in the sidereal zodiac. The historical equinox (sidereal position =0Ar00) is at tropical 23Ar51. In fact, few sidereal astrologers probably even own an ephemeris giving the planets' sidereal positions. They use the tropical ephemeris (that both astronomers and tropicalists agree on) and use the ayanamsa formula to calculate the planetary positions they use.

A problem for siderealists is that no single ayanamsa is accepted by all of them. There are numerous ayanamsas in common usage, each with eager fans that claim to have research to back up their choice, mostly in the range of 20 to 25 degrees (as of 2000). These point to various historical reference dates for the historical equinox in a spread from 200 to 600 AD. I've included a table of several popular ayanamsas, taken from several sources. There may be some slight discrepancies in this table, due to imprecise positions and slight differences in the rate of precession that various people calculate with.

Ayanamsa190019502000 2050Historical Date
Lahiri22:28:0223:09:3423:51:17 24:33:41290 AD
Raman21:00:2821:42:0022:23:43 23:06:07395 AD
Fagan-Bradley23:20:5624:02:2824:44:11 25:26:35221 AD
zeta Pisces18:45:0019:26:3220:08:15 20:50:39560 AD

The "zeta Pisces" ayanamsa is rather interesting, because it has deep historical roots. One of the classic astronomy texts in India is called the Surya Siddhanta. An entire chapter is devoted to defining the nakshatras or lunar mansions, based on a series of reference stars. The First Point of Aries is said to start at the boundary between the nakshatras Revati and Aswini and this boundary is defined to be 10 minutes of arc east of a certain faint star in Pisces that we now call zeta Pisces. The Lahiri is quite popular in India, even having the stamp of approval of the Indian government. The Fagan-Bradley is used by western siderealists.

(As an interesting historical note, although modern lists of the nakshatras start with Aswini, the oldest lists in the Vedas started with Krittika, two lunar mansions down the modern list. The difference between these two starting points is 26 degrees, 40 minutes, corresponding to roughly 1900 years of precessional motion. There is considerable uncertainty about when the Vedas were likely written, but the impression is that the Indian astronomers simply "reset the clock" back two mansions to bring the nakshatras more closely into line with the equinox as it precessed between the time of the Vedas and the Surya Siddhanta.)

When putting the table together, I noticed something peculiar. All the values for the ayanamsa are between 20 and 25 degrees. In order to push the historical equinox across the border from Pisces into Aries territory, you'd need an ayanamsa of at least 30 degrees. Much of the sidereal sign of Aries is "actually" in the constellation of Pisces. The star zeta Pisces is definitely deep in Pisces territory (you only have to look at its name!). So, not meaning to gloat too much, why is the sidereal First Point of Aries "really" in Pisces? Aren't you siderealists 300 to 700 years out of date, at a minimum? (The other constellations match their respective sidereal signs much better than Aries, though not perfectly.)

Which Ecliptic is the Real One?

If you actually read the gory details about precessional motion, you may remember that "precession" consists of several independent motions that are lumped together in our minds. We are so used to thinking of precession as the equinox smoothly sliding along the ecliptic (soli-lunar precession), that we forget about the other ways the Earth wobbles. In particular, the motion called planetary precession describes a rotation in space of the Earth's orbital plane, the ecliptic. Each moment in time has its own unique ecliptic. To be very picky, the equinox doesn't move along the ecliptic at all. The equinox at one time, on an ecliptic for that date, moves at a later time to a "corresponding" point on a subtly different ecliptic. In addition to smoothly sliding, the true equinox has a pinch of a sideways drift as well as it jumps from one ecliptic to the next.

So what, you may rightfully ask? Well, since any ayanamsa based sidereal zodiac is described by fixing a date in the past to create a historical equinox to use for zero Aries, it is also deciding on a fixed historical ecliptic to use, which differs from the true ecliptic of today. That means the path of the Sun in the sky (the true ecliptic) is no longer on the historical ecliptic, our sidereal zodiac. Granted, the difference isn't much, but over the centuries, it adds up to something you could see with the naked eye potentially. (Remember Stonehenge!) Further, curiously enough, it also means the historical equinox is not on the true ecliptic anymore. The Sun never goes thru this point exactly!

If you care for this level of exactitude, it also means the ayanamsa formula is too simple and needs some correction factors added in to account for the rotation of the ecliptic.

I've never heard any astrologer discuss this fine point. I just thought you siderealists would like to know...

Cleaning Up the Symbolism

To be true to its own symbolic background, a good sidereal zodiac would also have to divest all zodiac sign interpretations of any references to the seasons. We're used to thinking of Aries as the first day of spring, so all the "renewal of life" and "new beginnings" associations to springtime have been added onto our understanding of Aries. Similarly, it's a rare astrologer who thinks of Virgo without envisioning the harvest of corn and grain, since Virgo comes in late summer or early fall. In fact, these seasonal meanings apply only to our time, because they are tropical zodiac ideas.

The constellation of Aries is not synonymous with spring. 8000 years ago, the Sun would be "in Aries" in the dead of winter -- so much for new life! 4000 years in the future, Aries will be the beginning of summer. Similarly, the constellation Virgo used to contain the summer solstice around 3000 BCE. It would represent the height of the growing season, not the harvest. A few millennia and it will be an early winter sunsign.

I don't think sidereal astrologers have done this clean up yet. Stick to the mythology of the pictures and leave the seasonal stuff to the tropicalists.

The Bottom Line

Frankly, I've been rather harsh on the sidereal point of view so far, because its advocates tend to be very sanctimonious debate partners who think "reality" is on their side. The astronomers are some of the worst, since they complain that astrological signs don't match the constellations, but then they point their telescopes at the sky using tropical coordinates, just like the astrologers they're criticizing. It's a sidereal criticism from a closet, practicing tropicalist. To be honest, both zodiacs are works of the human imagination (although constellations are not usually thought of in such terms), on a fairly equal footing conceptually. Actually, in terms of ease of use and unambiguous definition, the tropical has a clear advantage, which is not what such critics expected to happen.

And then there's the truly practical question: does sidereal astrology "work"? I haven't devoted enough study to the question to have an opinion yet, but many people have the necessary experience. In their minds, they get excellent results with sidereal charts. Granted, they may use different techniques (Vedic astrology, in particular, is not at all like western astrology in the way it's practiced) and the symbols may be slightly different in their details, but it seems like a workable system. As I pointed out earlier, the Vedic approach is best for predicting events in life and seems to ignore the inner life of the person, a mainstay of the western approach. It appears we have two different astrologies that serve different purposes. I can live with that.

It's interesting, however, that various groups of sidereal astrologers cling to differing ayanamsas. As I said earlier, different ayanamsas lead to different symbolisms and hence interpretations that don't necessarily agree with each other. Yet each ayanamsa has its advocates with reams of data to justify it. It seems as difficult to recognize this multitude of sidereal zodiacs as "real" as it is for a siderealist to recognize the tropical zodiac. I doubt the last word has been written on this controversy.

In short, sidereal astrology is not as "obviously real" as its practitioners like to proclaim and it has some serious ground level problems defining a zodiac coherently, but in the view of its advocates, it also "works".

Towards a Precessional Symbolism

If the precessional problem were only an argument between various definitions of the zodiac, this entire discussion would be rather silly and pointless in my mind. My inclination would be to call the argument a draw with no clear winners and move on. But there's something (actually, a large number of issues) that cause me to want to take this problem to a whole new level that has nothing to do with which zodiac is "right".

For starters, there's the evidence from many ancient cultures around the globe that every group of people with a sufficiently sophisticated astronomy not only knew about precession, but considered it a critical issue, both scientifically and spiritually. Precession peeps through from mythologies all over the world. In many religions, precession was considered one of their most esoteric secrets, a secret that could get you killed if you revealed it to the uninitiated. I get the feeling these people were up to something big and I'd like to know what it was. And yet this secret seems to be largely lost in modern times. If you look at the role of precession in contemporary religion, spiritual practice, even astrology, there's very little to examine. If anything, the violent emotions raised by the precession argument are the only vestige that something important is going on.

Another strand in my thoughts is this old, unpublished essay I wrote back in 1986. I was tracing the roles in astrology of a series of expanding reference frames, starting from the human body, moving into local space, eventually out into the zodiac and beyond. Each one of these frames has its own unique symbolism, guiding our perspectives to consider ever larger "worlds" and horizons, each containing and expanding upon the previous one. As I've been writing these web pages, I've been pondering the question of what's the appropriate symbolism for looking at precession.

A persistent question about mythology and astrological symbolism concerns a psychological issue that could be loosely defined as "the search for the center". A considerable portion of the ancient mythologies can be viewed as defining a "cosmic center" in the sky. Such a center, whether the zenith, the Sun, the north celestial pole or the center of our own galaxy, is often attributed with god-like powers of creation and destruction, a focal point that holds all of the universe together in one piece (at least for awhile). It's frequently symbolized as a giant world tree or axle of the world ("axis mundi"), among other symbols. This axle can sometimes become unhinged (via precession), and when the axle of the world skips a groove, all manner of havoc is unleased upon the world. This search for the center also takes place in the inner world, within our own psyches. Every time we take a leap forward in our understanding of ourselves, we discover a new center within that totally changes our relationship with the psyche. When the center shifts, the world shakes. Practically all of humanity understands that as a spiritual law to be reckoned with. It ushers in a whole new world age, with different gods and myths. And new astrologies.

I believe it's time to reexamine precession in this larger context. Frankly, what I'm saying here is only a beginning that threatens to turn into a book at some point, but I hope I can communicate a few hints that put the precession problem in a whole new light.

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