Unlucky Thirteen

by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Annika Finne

It was bitterly cold in Minnesota that day. The fateful Monday in January when astronomy professor Parker Kunkle made the statement that would forever change the response to the classic pick-up “What’s your sign?” The day that, after thousands of years of rejection and neglect by astrologers from Ptolemy to Mother Mystic, Ophiuchus was put back on the star map.
The internet exploded with reports of a new sign and sudden personality changes. People that had always identified as Aries were suddenly faced with the prospect of being Pisces. Twitter and blogs found themselves inundated with varied responses:
Rage: “Bullllll**** come on, they’re meaning to tell me I’ve been living 20 years as a Sagittarius and all of the sudden I’m a freaking serpant bearer? Hell no.”
Apathy: “itzz…whatevzz”
Quiet acceptance: “i guess my tattoos dont matter anymore......”
Reluctant helplessness in the face of fate: “I’m having a hard time letting go cuz I fit more as a Gemini then I do a Cancer {sigh} oh well =P”
Prejudice: “Has anyone actually SEEN the symbol for the new zodiac Ophiuchus? Gayest sign I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Unbridled enthusiasm: I embrace this new zodiac with open arms!! I AM doubt about it!!
It seems, however, that bloggers’ passionate loyalty to a symbol (based on a pseudoscience that many of them don’t even believe) won’t have to be tested after all.

Indy’s Guide to the Galaxy
For those among you whose knowledge of astrology doesn’t extend past checking the back pages of newspapers to find out if this month is a good time for financial transactions (or if there’s some steamy sex in your future), astrology is actually a bit more complex. This form of divination centers on the location of the Earth in relation to other celestial bodies at a specific moment. By charting the position of the stars and planets at an exact time of birth, astrologers maintain that they can to determine certain personality traits, tendencies, and possible future life paths.

In his most influential career move to date, Kunkle, an astronomy professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, brought Ophiuchus back into the picture. In an article that first appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kunkle affirmed that the dates assigned to each zodiac sign were factually inaccurate. This declaration is based on the tilt in the Earth’s axis, causing the Earth to spin on its axis once every 26,000 years. The axis essentially traces out two cones joined at their apices, much like an extremely slow-going top. Thus, in the thousands of years since astrological signs were first created, the dates assigned to certain signs have shifted from their original designations. Not only are all the signs about a month off target, the constellation Ophiuchus, located in the sky in between Sagittarius and Aries, could also be counted among the constellations as a thirteenth zodiac sign. Though his claim is astronomically accurate, it’s unclear why Kunkle should have focused his attentions on Ophiuchus (aside from the Greek healer’s allegedly rugged good looks) over another constellation, Cetus, which also falls within the twelve houses of the zodiac.
The question raised by Kunkle is not a new or revolutionary concept. Due to Earth’s slight wobble on its axis, a phenomenon called axial precession, Earth’s location to the stars has been drifting for millennia. Astrologists claim to have been aware of this since the time of Ptolemy. Forms of sidereal astrology, some including 13 or 14 sign zodiacs, have come into existence in the past century. Most notable was the suggestion in 1995 of prominent astrologer Walter Berg, who proposed the addition of Ophiuchus to the zodiac, even producing a design for the potential thirteenth sign. Apparently he did not foresee potential responses from bloggers to his oddly phallic sign.

New Sign on the Block
The setting: the ecliptic—the perceived path traced by the Sun in the sky over the course of a year, within which are located the houses of the zodiac, what we know as the twelve familiar star signs.
Enter Ophiuchus (Oh–Fee–You– Cuss). With an unpronounceable name derived from the Greek for serpent holder, the constellation is based on Asclepius, a great healer in Greek mythology who could reputedly bring people back from the dead with his medicinal powers. He is a natural choice for addition to the zodiac: the personality traits allegedly associated with the sign include charisma, drive to succeed, and impulse—not to mention the fact that he has a ferocious pet snake.
Cut to Cetus, the sea-monster, not so affectionately dubbed “the whale.” His moment of glory, after wreaking havoc on behalf of Poseidon in Greek mythology, passed in the seventies, when astrologer Stephen Schmidt proposed his inclusion in a 14-sign zodiac. Judging from the fact that no one has a Cetus tattoo, the plan was largely unsuccessful, and Cetus remains the long-forgotten constellation in the corner.
What’s in the stars for Ophiuchus?
The confusion of the new sign centers around two fundamental differences in the occult world. One is the divide between western and eastern astrology. Western astrology is solar-based, determined by the position of the Earth in relation to fixed points in the sun’s perceived path across the Earth (remember the ecliptic?). Aside from the fact that a thirteenth sign brings up questions of superstition and misfortune, astrologers in the west maintain that since the system is based on the Earth’s relation to predetermined points in the sky—not the relative positions of the constellations—any rotational shift would have no effect on the division of the zodiac as it currently stands. Eastern astrology, on the other hand, is concerned with the location of the Earth at a specific moment in time in relation to the constellations, taking into account any change in relative positioning. This requires acknowledgment of the other constellations present in the ecliptic, namely Ophiuchus and Cetus, and the effect of Earth’s wobble on the actual zodiac dates.
Kunkle also brings up the not-so-fine line between astronomy and astrology, a difference affirmed with pride on the side of the astrologers, and unmasked derision by astronomers. Astrology, with little agreed-upon scientific proof, has long been denounced as a pseudoscience with no credibility or verifiability, yet remains one of the most widespread of the occult arts.
Whether or not you believe in the divine power of the stars, there is no need to freak out. Your personality is not suddenly different. A Sagittarius will not have to give up his natural predilection for hiking to become a flamboyantly dressed builder who makes people jealous (proposed personality traits for the ‘new sign’). If you’re into Ophiuchus, go for it. After all, Taylor Swift and Brad Pitt are now Ophiuchus too. If not, don’t worry. According to mainstream astrologers, the presence of these additional constellations has no effect on the distribution of the signs. Kunkle’s remark on a well-known planetary phenomenon was unintentionally transformed from a simple observation of the skies to the fuel for an internet-wide identity crisis—a misunderstanding of astronomical proportions.

Belle Cushing ’13 is a proud Leo.