Dec 14

Here's Your Sign*

(*In the immortal words of Bill Engvall)

Horoscopes: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly...and so forth

I share a lot of links from the Huffington Post, mainly because I subscribe to their Religion news feed. I only provide the one above for the sake of fairness. Lots of people read their horoscope occasionally, many even daily, I dare say fewer actually think it matters, but there are some. Given its the devotion some feel to it and the supernatural nature of the practice I felt like it was fair game for this blog.

I could attack astrology in many ways, not the least of which would be that its practice is condemned by the Abrahamic Faiths and thus should not be near as common as it is in a significant chunk of the world. However, I am going to take another tack, one maybe a little more obscure to some of you.

First, we need to know our terms. The Zodiac signs on which astrology is based on constellations visible along the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the imaginary plane that cuts through the solar system on which most of the planets (except Mercury) orbit, at least within a small deviation. So, if you look along the ecliptic plane the planets will be your foreground object, at least in astronomical terms, and the Zodiac constellations will be the background objects. The Babylonians were the first, that we know of, to develop this system, dividing the ecliptic plane into 12 regions, each 30 degrees of the circle of the sky. In spite of the current names, their designations all relate back to Babylon (where, for example, Cancer was not a crab but a crayfish.) Personally, I suspect the influence of the Sumerians, the first human empire as far as we know, on the Babylonians. After all, we still call our year by the name of their sky god (Annu, as in Annual.) From the Babylonians, the knowledge went to the Persians, then the Greeks (from whom we get the name Zodiac, zodiacos kyklos being "animals in a circle"), to the Romans, and from the Romans into European culture. It went the other way as well, but I am suspecting my audience is mostly Western in culture if not origin.

About a hundred years after Christ's death a man named Claudius Ptolemy wrote a book on astrology based on the Babylonian texts and set up the basics for the system as we know it. Brilliant philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer that he was he still ignored an important discovery: the precession of the equinoxes (discovered around 130 BCE). Basically, they sky is not fixed because Earth has an axial tilt that wabbles a bit over time. Thus the constellations are not in the same places they were a century ago, much less the now 5000+ years ago that the Babylonians were writing this all down.

So we have the first fundamental flaw in the system: the stars are not where astrology says they should be.

Ptolemy's zodiac was mapped onto the Julian calendar in use at the time. It was introduced by Julius Caesar and took effect in 45 BCE. It replaced a calendar that had 12 months of 355 days and a wandering 13th month inserted after February to make up the difference that developed over time. The Julian system had the 12 months and 365 days we are used, with 1 extra day every 4 years to keep the calendar lined up with the seasons. All well and good, but it had its flaws. It was replaced in 1582 by the Gregorian Calendar because the date for Easter had crept to far away from the Spring Equinox (there goes that pesky precession of the equinox again). There are lots of small details here, but the important thing for our current purpose is that every 400 years the difference between the two increases by three days. That means that the Julian and Gregorian calendars are now 14 days apart.

So we now have the second fundamental flaw in the system: we use the wrong dates. For example,if your birthday was December 25th you would be called a Capricorn. But you are not. Because your birth date on the Julian calender, the one used to set the dates for astrology, is actually December 11th, making you a Sagittarius.

Now we have 12 signs, all on the eliptic, but moving apart due the precession of the equinox and cosmic expansion and the like. The system is screwed up, we can see that. We do, however, have one more thing to consider. There are not 12 constellations on the eliptic, there are 13. Yes, 13. The thirteenth one is called Ophichus, the serpent bearer, and has been known since at least c.400 BCE.

Which leads to the third and final flaw: the "signs" have nothing to do with the actual constellations.

How can it be that the stars are influencing your life if the stars are not where the astrologers say they are?

Maybe we want to identify with something larger than ourselves, to find out part in the cosmic balance. After all, if the stars influence us do not we, at least in aggregate, influence them?
I understand that desire, but really, astrology is like the man said. It is "working on mysteries without any clues."

You want a Sign? Pick one. Pick something that represent you, who you think you are and who you want to be. Some people pick animals, like the fierce owl [you know who you are]. Me? Knight of Cups.

If it , believing in the Zodiac that is,helps you have a clearer since of identity, fine, but don't believe it changes your life.

Otherwise you are going to need one of Bill Engvall's signs.

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