Ophiuchus: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac?

Dang. I meant to post this in November and forgot. I’ll blame it on Brexit. Why not.

Is there a missing thirteenth sign in the astrological zodiac? NASA, astronomers and mainstream media suggest there is, trotting out this story every few years, to the frustration of Tropical western astrology scholars and practitioners. Sidereal (eastern) astrologers may agree with NASA, but Tropical (western) astrologers absolutely do not.

So what’s all this about?

It hinges on the confusing of zodiac signs with the constellations after which they were named, treated them as mutually interchangeable which they are not.

There are 12 signs in astrology. Modern astronomy records 88 constellations covering the southern and northern hemispheres of Earth’s sky.

Thirteen of these constellations cross or touch the ecliptic – the trajectory of the Sun’s apparent path across the sky as seen from Earth.

Public Domain: the Plane of the ecliptic

These include the 12 constellations that inspired the names of the 12 zodiac signs plus a thirteenth constellation– Ophiuchus (Oaf-ih-YOU-kus)

Astronomers and NASA have presented this thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus, as the thirteenth sign of the zodiac, while also pointing out that the zodiac itself…the section of sky directly overhead as viewed from Earth- has changed from when the ancient Babylonian astrologers first viewed it, so that, claims NASA, the generally accepted dates for the zodiac signs as supplied in horoscopes are now a month out of alignment.

This change in the skies has been the result of an effect called precession. The gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun causes the Earth to ‘wobble’ and as the Earth orbits around the sun; a different constellation appears behind it each month.

So while the zodiac signs have remained in a fixed position, and their dates have remained the same, varying only by a day or two here and there, the constellations have drifted.

Based on this, astronomers have suggested the new astrological zodiac should more correctly look like this, with these new dates:

•Capricorn: 20 Jan – 16 Feb
•Aquarius: 16 Feb – 11 March
•Pisces: 11 March – 18 April
•Aries: 18 April – 13 May
•Taurus: 13 May – 21 June
•Gemini: 21 June – 20 July
•Cancer: 20 July – 10 Aug
•Leo: 10 Aug – 16 Sept
•Virgo: 16 Sept – 30 Oct
•Libra: 30 Oct – 23 Nov
•Scorpio: 23 – 29 Nov
•Ophiuchus: 29 Nov – 17 Dec
•Sagittarius: 17 Dec – 20 Jan

So you thought you were a Taurus sun sign, says NASA. No, actually, you are an Aries subject. So you thought you were an Aries sun sign? No, you are Pisces. So you thought you were a Sagittarius? No, you are Ophiuchus, and so on.

Whoa. But let’s not get too excited. As astronomers are quick to point out, astronomy is not astrology. And that works both ways.

First let’s take a brief look at the astronomy.

The Astronomy and the Constellation of Ophiuchus


Ophiuchus ([Oaf-ih-YOU-kus)  is one of the largest constellations but in general the least well known,  straddling the celestial equator northwest of the centre of the Milky Way, near the constellations Aquila, Serpens, and Hercules, and opposite Orion, the southern section lying between Scorpius to the west and Sagittarius to the east. Below Ophiuchus, down to the right, look out for a bright reddish star, Antares in Scorpio, for help in confirming that you have found it.

Right now -July- is the best time to see it in the northern hemisphere, mid-winter in the southern hemisphere.  Hence this story is in the news again right now.

Its name comes from the Greek Ὀφιοῦχος Ophioukhos; “serpent-bearer,” and it is commonly represented as a man grasping a snake.  In medieval Islamic astronomy the constellation was known as ‘Al-Ḥawwa,’ “the snake-charmer.” It used to be called Serpentius, when the constellation counted more stars, including the constellation of Serpens, representing the snake itself. Marking the head of Ophiuchus, Alpha Ophiuchi has an older, Arabic name: Rasalhague, the “Head of the Snake Charmer”.

Ophiuchus contains notable features and objects, including Kepler’s Supernova, or Kepler’s Star, named for German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

It was by far the brightest star in the sky for over 3 weeks during 1604 and actually Kepler wasn’t the first to note the supernova, due to cloudy conditions, but he made observations over the course of an entire year and wrote about the “new star in the foot of Ophiuchus”.

Kepler’s Supernova continued visible for 18 months, and its remnants are still studied today, still the most recent supernova to be observed with the naked eye.


To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented the god Apollo struggling with a huge snake that guarded the Oracle of Delphi.

Later myths identified Ophiuchus with Laocoon, the tragic Trojan priest of Poseidon, who warned his fellow Trojans about the Greek’s wooden horse, and together with his sons, was killed by a pair of sea-serpents sent by Poseidon to shut him up, because clearly, Poseidon was on the side of the Greeks, or else under orders from Zeus, or else Laocoon had already annoyed him in some other way, and you know, nothing less than death by giant sea-snake would do.

Public Domain

Pluto (Hades) complained to Jupiter (Zeus) that Asclepius was interfering with death, an act of hubris which upset the natural order, and meant the end of the circle of life, with no room for new life.

Immortality would be a terrible evil. Life itself would die, stagnated, and Jupiter (Zeus) duly put a stop to it by killing Asclepius, hurling a lightning thunderbolt straight at his head, giving him an instant perm.  

Apollo was, rather understandably, we may agree, furiously upset, “you zapped my son you b*stard!” Jupiter tried to comfort him by placing Asclepius in the heavens to honour his good works, and the rod of Asclepius remains the symbol of western medicine to this day.

The rod of Asclepius is not be confused with the Cadeuceus, a symbol of medicine, but also of trade. The cadeuceus is assciated with Mercury, and has not one but two snakes twined round the staff, and it has wings.

rod of asclepius.png
Public Domain

So, is Ophiuchus the thirteenth zodiac sign? Or does your zodiac sign stay the same?

Image: Public Domain: The Snake-Wrangler in Urania’s Mirror, 1825. Above the tail of the serpent is a now ‘obsolete’ constellation, Taurus Poniatovii

If you are born between 29th November and 17th December, NASA, other astronomers and Sidereal astrologers may argue that your zodiac sun sign is technically Ophiuchus.

Key personality traits:

Humanitarian* Poetic* Hungry for knowledge* Intuitive* Psychic*Intense *Likes bright colours *High achievers *Prone to harbouring enemies without realizing *Lucky (so long as the enemies don’t succeed, obviously)

These are, not surprisingly, a mix of classic Scorpio and Sagittarius attributes in this profile.

But- there is a But here. And it is a blooming big BUT.

What astronomy is failing to recognize is the logic of the system which is the very basis of western (Tropical) astrology, and which makes a key distinction between the positions at any given time of the constellations themselves, and the zodiac signs named after them.

The signs of the zodiac as we know them today are based on Ptolemy’s twelve-fold division of the ecliptic, designed so that each sign spans 30° of celestial longitude, or roughly the distance the Sun travels in a month. 12 was a cleaner, tidier number to work with than was 13.

Ptolemy aligned these divisions with the seasons so that the March equinox always falls on the boundary between Pisces and Aries, whereas Sidereal (Vedic) astrology is based on the constellations themselves, as was western astrology way back at the time of the Babylonians, whose data Ptolemy worked with.

Tropical western astrology, with its 12 associated zodiac signs is a static, modelled system based NOT on the constellations themselves, but on the wheel of the seasons which also accord the signs of the zodiac their personalities, but the idea of the ‘missing’ thirteenth sign is nothing new.

It was developed by Hipparchus in 130 BC,” says astrologer, Susan Miller, “but you don’t get your characteristics from the constellations. You get them from the planets, from the sun and moon. We measure everything by the degree to which the earth is rotated around the sun. So if you’re born at the beginning of the zodiac, which corresponds to the spring equinox and typically falls on March 20, you’re at the 0º point—or the point at which the sun is crossing directly over the earth’s Equator. If we didn’t have names like Virgo or Gemini we’d have to walk around saying, `Hi, I’m a 136º,’ and I’d say, `Oh, really? Well I’m a 352º and so on.”

In Summary

NASA’s supposed debunking may be logical in strictly astronomical terms. But that’s astronomy. It has nothing to do with western Tropical astrology as practiced today, and would only matter if the timing of the signs relied upon being tied to the actual positions of the constellations.

But they do not, and your zodiac sign, also known as your sun sign still stands, both as it is and where it is, based on the principle and according to the system on which it was first described.

Author: Katie-Ellen

Intuitive Tarot reader, consultant and writer.

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