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Tyson’s Zodiac: Are There Really 14 Signs?

August 14, 2009

By Diana K Rosenberg   

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, research scientist in astrophysics at Princeton and Curator of Astronomy at the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, has become a familiar face on television; he frequently appears on talk shows, cheerily and with gusto declaiming that astrologers are ignorant of the “fact” that there are fourteen zodiacal constellations, rather than twelve.  He has also authored several books, among them Universe Down to Earth (Columbia University Press, 1994).

In this work, on page 210 he writes:
“[T]he zodiac contains 14 constellations, not 12.  The Sun, after leaving the constellation Scorpius, enters the constellation Ophiuchus.  It then stays in Ophiuchus for a longer (emphasis Tyson’s) period of time than Scorpius, the sign that is advertised to precede Sagittarius.  The confusing conclusion is that most Scorpions are actually Ophiuchans, and all Scorpions and Ophiuchans are currently Librans.  The fourteenth constellation in the set is Cetus.  It is a large constellation that dips into Pisces.  The Sun passes through Cetus briefly as it ambles through Pisces, but you are not normally informed of this in the horoscope pages.”

But we are speaking of astrology, and Dr. Tyson knows that astrologers use celestial longitudes; he knows (or should know) that the Sun enters the longitudes of Scorpius and Ophiuchus at the same time, and remains in them for the same length of time. While it is true that the ecliptic runs through part of Ophiuchus, thus rightly making him part of the zodiac, the span of the Serpent-Bearer, in celestial longitude,1 matches that of the Scorpion, and so he cannot be called a “thirteenth sign!”  In actuality, the 8th zodiacal constellation should be called Scorpius/Ophiuchus –  indeed, the two figures actually contact each other, as the left foot of Ophiuchus treads upon the Scorpion in order (according to tradition) to crush it.  It is this overlap which creates a problem, and makes it seem as though Ophiuchus’ allotment of degrees exceeds the Scorpion’s.

Tyson wrote that the ecliptic stays in Ophiuchus for a longer period of time than in Scorpius, but this holds true only if the artificial demarcation lines imposed by the IAU in 1930 are adhered to;2 the astronomers who determined those lines could not bring themselves to accept overlaps or combinations; the lines, they believed, must keep each figure entirely separate, and the sky figures, like caged animals, must remain within them.3 A quick glance at the lines dividing the Scorpion and the feet of Ophiuchus show that absolutely no allowance was made for the Scorpion’s upper half!  Ophiuchus’ left foot, which is treading upon the Scorpion, is given all; the Scorpion, none. The poor arachnid, already truncated early on in history by losing his claws to form the Scales of Libra, has been further mutilated with the loss of his northern legs!

Here’s the real zodiacal story, based on celestial longitude:

  • The Scorpion’s earliest stars4 are Xi Scorpii in the North Claw, and Delta Scorpii (Dschubba or Isidis) in the forehead, at 1Sag18 and 2Sag34, respectively.
  • Ophiuchus’ earliest star is Yed Prior, Delta Ophiuchi, at the left hand grasping Serpens, the Serpent, at 2Sag18.
  • The Scorpion’s last stars (actually Clusters – the Scorpion’s tail lies in the nebulous Milky Way) are Acumen, M7 Scorpii, near the sting and Globular Cluster NGC 6496 below the sting, at 28Sag43 and 29Sag48.
  • Ophiuchus’ last star is Sinistra, Nu Ophiuchi, at his right hand grasping the Serpent: 29Sag45.

Tyson claims that Ophiuchus is longer than Scorpius, but only if you include its outlying, dim stars; and since we are talking zodiac here, note that the first stars of the Sagittarius Archer precede the longitudes of those faint, outlying Ophiuchus stars, thus seizing the zodiacal baton where Scorpius/Ophiuchus hands it off; so the Serpent-Bearer cannot be considered a longer zodiacal figure than Scorpius. The earliest Sagittarius star is variable X Sagittarii at 27Sag15 – showing that the constellation of the Archer takes its position as the rightful 9th zodiacal figure, precluding any claims of Ophiuchus.

The span of Serpens Cauda (the tail of the Serpent grasped by Ophiuchus) continues into tropical Capricorn – it is this continuance of the Serpent’s stars that may have deluded Dr Tyson into thinking that Ophiuchus himself extends so far (in ancient times they were one figure, called “Serpentarius” or “Ophiuchus vel Serpentarius” – a shamanic figure5 struggling with the darkly powerful Serpent and at the same time attempting to crush the Scorpion-of-death), but the IAU officially declared them separate constellations, ignoring centuries of knowledge and tradition, even dividing Serpens itself into two entirely separate parts!

And as for the statement that “all Scorpions and Ophiuchans are currently Librans,” that’s a howler. Apparently Dr Tyson, in his rush to mix apples and oranges (in this case the sidereal zodiac and the tropical zodiac), has got his head in a twist.  Switching from the star figures to the tropical zodiac, one must go forward one sign; what he (apparently) wanted to say was that all Scorpions and Ophiuchans are currently Sagittarians (tropical Sagittarians, that is).6

As for Cetus “dipping” into Pisces (a strange description, as Cetus is south of, i.e. below, the Fishes), or for the Sun transiting Cetus (which would make him part of the zodiac – Dr. Tyson’s so-called “fourteenth sign”), one look at a star map shows that it just ain’t so.  The ecliptic does come close (below the cord of the West Fish of Pisces) but nonetheless does stay clear of the Sea-Monster’s domain (here the IAU astronomers got it right, taking care to keep the most northerly point of Cetus just below the ecliptic line).7 Given this, it is hard to understand Dr. Tyson’s claim.

Although his purpose is not to enlighten but to mock, we are indebted to the astrophysicist on one important point —  many astrologers, even those who use constellations in their work, are unaware of Ophiuchus’ “membership” in the sacred twelve due to the fact that his feet touch the ecliptic. But he is no “thirteenth sign” — he is part and parcel of the span of the Scorpion, and should be recognized, included and honored as such.  The Scorpion was seen as a death-dealing creature8, and Ophiuchus as a healer – thus combined they represent life-or-death issues and choices.

Nonetheless, if Dr. Tyson is going to attack astrology (one of his very favorite pastimes), a discipline studied and employed by Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Galileo and Kepler, to name a few, it is incumbent upon him, laden with honors and academic credentials as he is, to get it right!

1. Celestial longitude: the distance between the first point of the tropical zodiac (0 Aries) and any celestial body, measured eastward (to the left on map) along ecliptic. The celestial longitudes of stars are determined by projecting their positions perpendicularly onto the ecliptic.
2. Constellation boundaries were set by the IAU in 1928, after reports from committees set up for that purpose.
3. Other distortions forced upon the constellation figures by the IAU include the diminution of
the Great Square of Pegasus – “officially” a square no more – it has lost its northeast corner to Andromeda (the fact is, of course, that Alpheratz (aka Sirrah) is, and always has been, both Delta Pegasi, the Navel of Pegasus and Alpha Andromedae, the Head of Andromeda. Another example if IAU meddling is that of the right foot of Auriga the Charioteer (Gamma Aurigae) and the north horn-tip of Taurus (El Nath, Beta Tauri). They are the same star – but “official” sky maps will only own to its being Beta Tauri.
4. All positions in this article are epoch 2000.0
5. To the Greeks Ophiuchus was Aesculapius, God of Medicine
6. Our tropical zodiac sign of Taurus was originally the sky figure of the Bull; but now, each year, as the Sun moves through the sign of tropical Taurus it is actually traveling through a skyscape of the stars of the Ram; and tropicalists who call themselves “Aries” were actually born when the Sun traversed the original Pisces Fishes. In just this way, each tropical sign now largely overlays the star figure (or morpheme) that originally came before it. Just as tropical Taureans have backed up onto the Ram, tropical Aries dive with the Fishes; tropical Pisceans swim over most of the original figure of the Water-Pourer; tropical Aquarians now brave the stormy waves with the Sea-Goat (one arm of the ancient Water-Pourer stretches over him), tropical Capricorns ride the back of the half-human, half-equine Archer, tropical Sagittarians attempt to tame the menacing Scorpion, tropical Scorpios nest in the Scales of Justice (which were, even very far back, both Scales and the great Scorpion’s extended claws); tropical Librans now find their balance in the midst of the magnificent Virgin-goddess, (feeling right at home, for she was called “Justicia”), tropical Virgoans have taken over the body and tail of the Lion (but still, at the end of the sign, still possess the upper part of the Virgin’s face and head); tropical Leos, while still hanging on to the head and forepaws of the original Lion, have the earlier two-thirds of their sign in the cautious, self-protective Crab; tropical Cancers now envelop the adventurous Twin brothers, tropical Geminis have bravely taken over the thundering, sensual Bull of Heaven, and we are back to where the zodiac started: the Bull, leader of the great cycle of signs from about 4,500 BCE until about 2,300 BCE.
7. See the Uranometria 2000 grid; it shows that the northwest corner of Cetus definitely lies below the ecliptic.
8. Royal-and-war star Antares, Alpha Scorpii, lies just under Ophiuchus’ intruding left foot; since ancient times it has been known to threaten assassination: it culminates on the charts of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln (who also had Neptune at the star), was the Saturn of Pompey the Great and Cicero, and the Uranus-NNode conjunction of Lord Louis Mountbatten, all of whom were assassinated. The Moon and Asc were aligned with Antares when Lincoln was shot, Mercury when John F Kennedy was shot, Neptune at two attempts on Gerald Ford’s life in 1975, Uranus when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, and Mars when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  But, of course, all this is sheer coincidence, or so Neil deGrasse Tyson would have us believe.

Sky Catalogue 2000.0, 2 vols, Edited by Alan Hirshfeld and Roger W Sinnott, Sky Publishing Corp, Cambridge, MA, 1982

Uranometria 2000.0, by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport, George Lovi, Willmann-Bell, Inc, Richmond, VA,  1987-88

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Universe Down to Earth (Columbia University Press, 1994

Transactions of IAU (International Astronomers Union), Vol. 4, Cambridge University Press, 1933

Diana K Rosenberg, Secrets of the Ancient Skies, Fixed Stars and Constellations in Natal and Mundane Astrology (in preparation).  Constellation illustrations are by the author.

Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names, their Lore and Meaning, Dover Publications, Inc. NY 1963

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About the author

Diana has been called "the leading authority on Fixed Stars;" a faculty member of NCGR and ISAR and a lecturer at every UAC, she has devoted herself to the research and recovery of the most ancient roots of sky knowledge, so that they may be restored to astrologers, their rightful heirs. Vice President of NCGR's Uranian Society (Uranian/Cosmobiology SIG) and Copy Editor of the NCGR Journal, she has written articles for the NCGR Journal, Geocosmic Journal, The Mountain Astrologer, Ingress, Heliogram, Astrology Quarterly, The Traditional Astrologer, Memberletter, Urania, Dell Horoscope & American Astrology magazines and is the author of a Fixed Star Workbook and Encyclopaedia of Fixed Stars and Constellations; Llewellyn's The Astrology of the Macrocosm includes her chapter on earthquake prediction, Groundswell Press’s Hindu Astrology Lessons contains her chapter “Fixed Stars and Lunar Mansions,” and NCGR’s Essentials of Intermediate Astrology includes her essay on Fixed Stars. Her book "Secrets of the Ancient Skies: Fixed Stars and Constellations in Natal and Mundane Astrology" is about to be published.

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