In Western astrology there are four elements of physical existence – Fire, Earth, Air and Water. Each contains three signs of the zodiac. Traditionally it was thought people of the same element tended to get along well with one another, perhaps because they could see similarities between each other.
On the Southern Hemisphere Wheel of the Year Calendar each of these four elements are represented by images that enable easy identification. Each sign is also bordered by silver or gold, used to represent the feminine or masculine orientation of the sign. This is not related to gender but to yin and yang in Chinese philosophy and reflects personal tendencies in how we approach life.
There are 88 constellations recognised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) but only twelve of them are well known, and these are the modern zodiac signs we observe today. A constellation is simply a collection of stars, imaginatively linked together to represent a person, animal or object in the night sky. Zodiac is derived from the Greek word meaning 'circle of animals' or 'pertaining to animals'.
The origin of what was to become the contemporary zodiacal constellations evolved slowly over time. Surviving records apparently show that the Greeks borrowed and established the zodiac from many cultures that predated their own, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, and Sumer. An observatory in Metsamor, Armenia which predates the Babylonian kingdom by around 2,000 years is claimed to contain the first recorded example of dividing the year into twelve sections.
Each zodiac sign is identified by a constellation of stars which roughly form its symbol and corresponds to the different months of the year. They occupy a sector of the sky which makes up 30° of the ecliptic, starting at the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere or autumn equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.
There are two different zodiac systems. The sidereal zodiac (also known as the fixed zodiac) is where the position of the Sun as it passes in front the constellations is used to measure the flow of time. Hindu or Vedic astrology use the sidereal zodiac. Western astrologers tend to use the tropical zodiac where the position of the Sun is referenced against the Earth’s horizon at a particular location which gives you the seasons as a measure of the flow of time. So, to compile the tropical zodiac no reference is made to any stars. Both zodiacs are divided into twelve and they both use the same names.
The zodiacal signs are an abstraction from the physical constellations as they have been designed to represent exactly one twelfth of the full circle. In addition, the constellation of Ophiuchus, sometimes called the 13th sign, was left out by ancient astrologers even though it is on the plane of the ecliptic between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Western astrology is based on zodiac signs and not the actual constellations. Practitioners of sidereal/Vedic astrology, which is more closely aligned with the constellations, don’t include Ophiuchus either. It is believed that the reason Ophiuchus was not included is that early astrologers wanted to divide the 360° path of the Sun into 12 easy equal parts. This also maintained equilibrium between the seasons.
The tropical zodiac is represented on the Southern Hemisphere Wheel of the Year Calendar, with March equinox at 0° Aries.
1660 celestial map of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere
Image credit: Celestial Atlas