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March 17th, 2011 |

Zodiac sent into orbit


A 13th constellation throws horoscopes into upheaval.


By Amber Williams


Hi. My name is Amber, and I’m a Pisces... or, at least I was.

For centuries people have identified with the cosmic cycles in the night sky — the stellar signs of the zodiac. But a Minnesota astronomy professor’s comments in a January Star Tribune article threw a wrench in the traditional belief that the horoscope is a tool for defining the self and even in predicting the day ahead.

Professor Parke Kunkle, who teaches astronomy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, believes that not only is the zodiac inaccurate according to the current condition of the earth compared to the heavens, but astrologers are just plain wrong.

“I’m not an expert on astrology. I don’t know much about it other than it’s wrong,” he said.

Kunkle pointed out a 13th zodiac character called Ophiucus, “the snake charmer,” which he says throws the entire system into upheaval. However, Jo VonStein, spiritual mentor at Ancient Ways, 1700 Woodland Ave. and 3029 Ingersoll Ave., calls Kunkle’s simplistic viewpoint “the classic disconnecting and misunderstanding between science and symbolic systems.”

VonStein has studied and taught astrology for more than 20 years. She said astrologers have known about the “so-called” 13th zodiac sign since Ptolemy mapped out the sky in 130 B.C.

“One professor in Minnesota in 2011 is not going to change 3,000 years of work in astrology,” VonStein said. “What hubris to think we can make up, in one lifetime, a system to replace 3,000 years of observations.”

VonStein said early astronomers who first developed the zodiac symbols did so simply as a memory aid for studying the movements of planets on the foreground of the stellar backdrop. She explains it as “the real” ticking like a clock against “the symbolic.”

“The stars are the stage setting; the planets are the actors,” she explained.

Astronomers agree, but the cosmic phenomenon, known as the earth’s precession, causes the positions of the stars as measured along the equinox to shift over a 26,000-year cycle, and both astronomers and astrologers have known about it for thousands of years.

“As the earth goes round the sun, it wobbles like a top,” VonStein explained. “That wobble makes the entire star background slightly shift by one degree every 72 years.”

The precession causes our spring equinox to gradually migrate westward to an adjacent constellation, according to Herb Schwartz, Drake University Observatory lecturer and astronomy instructor. While the spring equinox was once in the House of Aries, thousands of years of precession caused it to shift through the House of Pisces and has landed it in the constellation of Aquarius, which astronomers say is why the astrological beliefs now stand in conflict with scientific fact.

“It matters only because the first point of spring will be in some other constellation,” Schwartz said. “If you’re navigating, it’ll put you off course.”

So while astronomers say precession has long stood as one of many astrological debunkers, VonStein not only disregards their apparent skepticism, but says changes to the zodiac as we know it “aren’t happening.” Simply put, she says astrologers have known for years and don’t care, because it just doesn’t matter. Western astrology is based on the seasons, not the stars.

“There are no lines in the sky,” she said. “Any one of us could look up there and draw as many lines as we want to. It’s arbitrary. There’s nothing sacred about any of these numbers except for tradition.”

Traditionally, as we know them in daily horoscopes, the meanings behind the Zodiac symbols (for people in the Western Hemisphere) are derived from the changing seasons, VonStein said. For example, a person who is a Capricorn — born during the winter solstice — tends to be practical, prudent, patient and hardworking. That’s because he was born during the cold, dark days of winter, and thus takes on more traits for survival than his Cancer opposite, born in the summer solstice.

“We know on the winter solstice that the sun will be the farthest south,” VonStein said. “It’s going to be dark in the Northern Hemisphere, and we’re going to have to wear jackets. Certainly during the winter solstice the energy can be described as cold, and it can be described as dark. The preparation and planning energies emerge — concerns for comfort and survival through the winter. It’s the energy of that time of year.

“Astrology is an empirical science.”

However, astronomers cringe at the claim that there is anything scientific about astrology at all.

Believing the bunk

“The whole thing is bunk, basically,” Schwartz said. “People are funny. People believe certain constellations portend certain characteristics, so they identify with those particular constellations… but you wonder what came first, the meaning behind the constellations, or the people’s beliefs in those meanings.”

Schwartz doesn’t entirely disagree with VonStein and the idea that the season in which a person is born can impact that person’s personality. But he says it’s an environmental phenomenon. A coincidence, not divine.

“You think of it as being season-based with regard to cause and effect,” he said. “If you observe a baby born in May — its first months of life are spent outdoors. That affects them… people align themselves to their environments.

“The difference, in my opinion, is they’re still trying to give some type of relevance to what they call their ‘science,’” he said.

He argues the zodiac is inaccurate because the sun moves through more than 12 constellations, yet astrologers only focus on 12 in order to nicely split the year into even proportions. The constellations themselves aren’t equal in size either. For example, the sun literally only spends nine days in the House of Scorpio, yet the zodiac allots an entire month to that constellation.

Such technicalities are beside the point, VonStein said.

“The error is in not understanding that there is an ideal system and a real system,” VonStein argued. “The Greeks dealt with it by acknowledging the ideal and the real don’t always match up. The zodiac — as we know it is — is essentially a Greek and Roman construct, and the Greeks loved balance and symmetry. They divided the 360 degrees of the heavens into 12 because it’s eloquent. It’s balanced.

“It was a projection of mythology into these random dots. It’s just the imagination of someone who connected the dots of the stars as a way of tracking the movements of the heavens. There are a lot of constellations up there; these 12 are just the ones in the sun’s path.”

But Kunkle asserts that asteroids and planets orbiting other stars should be included, too. He also points out that horoscopes don’t take into consideration the distance between planets.

“And their predictions are wrong. Horoscopes don’t do any better with their predictions than just randomness,” Kunkle said.

Like Schwartz, Kunkle will throw astrologers a bone if they base their studies on the seasons and leave the stars out of it. But, even more assertively, he said he appreciates what astrology does for stellar awareness. Anything that gets people thinking about the cosmos is cool with him, he said. However, he thinks believing in the horoscopes is for the simple-minded and gullible.

“Now you have someone (Kunkle) saying what you believe is not true,” Schwartz said. “I think that’s what people are upset about.”

And there’s no question people are upset. Kunkle said even now, two months after his name appeared in the Star Tribune, the phone calls and e-mails have finally started to slow to about two or three a day, some of which included people demanding, “Give me my sign back!”

“There have been a whole variety of responses, but I had no idea it was going to be so viral,” Kunkle said.

“A few irate astrologers called up questioning my sanity as well as my birth,” he laughed. “Apparently, it’s very much like religion to some people, and this really threw the world out of whack. I still have about 300 e-mails from that first week (Jan. 10) that I haven’t had time to get to.”

A world out of whack

So while astronomers and astrologers argue over who is right, who is wrong and who is absolutely nuts, the general public is left wondering what to believe. Whether the thousands of people who read horoscopes every day do so out of faith, habit or simple amusement, some have a decision to make: Stick to tradition, change with the times or adopt two signs as their own.

Every sign on the Western zodiac would be affected by the inclusion of Ophiucus (see “revised” Zodiac chart). Why? Because the snake charmer had to put his big foot in it, basically.

Like the other 88 constellations in the sky, Ophiucus has been there all along, but astrologers didn’t do much in the way of acknowledging his big ankle and foot that interject across the equinox between the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio.

“It’s just a foot,” VonStein said. “Everyone knows that foot has been there. No one cared. It’s just a foot… Moving or adding something means all those meanings have to move, too. It would just be confusing to try and shift. If we added Ophiucus, it would take on part of Sagittarius’ meaning and part of Scorpio’s meaning. Why bother?”

The figure of Ophiucus is a muscular person wrangling with a serpent. From his head to his toes, it stretches from far above the equator to far below it, 50-60 degrees of the sky, VonStein said.

She said astrologers don’t care to recognize the foot of the figure, because it’s such a minimal portion of its whole. And the rest of the constellation spans well beyond the scope of the equinox, which is what gives the 12 houses of the zodiac their seasonal, earthly relevance, she said.

“It’s a red herring,” she continued. “It has no bearing on the symbolic system of astrology. It has not in any way changed the grouping of the stars in the heavens.”

To believe or not to believe

While astrologers arm themselves with history, tradition and spirituality, astronomers are perfectly content with the scientific defense. Both sides admit the other is on to something, and both share an apparent affinity for the stars. Despite that commonality, astronomers like Kunkle call horoscope beliefs primitive and superstitious, and spiritual believers like VonStein argue that it’s better to believe in something than to be left in “a life of shallow despair.”

“Astronomy doesn’t apply any spiritual meaning to what’s in the sky,” VonStein said. “The Age of Enlightenment severed science from any spiritual or meaningful designations. It severed psychology from religion, astronomy from astrology and chemistry from alchemy.

“These huge cycles in the symbolic system have to do with the very creation of religion. There’s some shift in consciousness that happens. We will see a decline of that spiritual system and the emergence of a new spiritual system.”

Hogwash, Kunkle says.

“I worry about critical thinking capabilities,” Kunkle said. “Astrology distracts people from actually going out and looking at the real universe — it’s gorgeous, beautiful, mind-boggling, inspiring. Astrology leads us away from critical thinking, and we need more critical thinking. So, that concerns me.”

Schwartz shares that concern. He warns against people basing too much of their lives on their daily horoscope or zodiac lore.

“I think if people are aligned too much with what somebody else is giving them, it can be dangerous. You may do something against what your gut feels — against your best judgment,” Schwartz said. CV


Check out www.ancientwaysdsm.com online to learn more about VonStein’s teachings and services. Also, the Des Moines Astronomical Society has a lineup of spring lectures scheduled for the Drake Municipal Observatory, which is celebrating its 90th year of public service. The lectures run from March 18 to May 6. Learn more by going online to www.dmasonline.org.

New zodiac signs

With the addition of Ophiucus, the Zodiac signs are changed according to the following dates:

Jan. 20 - Feb. 16 – Capricorn, “The Goat.” Among its alleged attributes, the Capricorn is stubborn, prudent and often unhappy.

Feb. 16 - March 11 – Aquarius, “The Water Bearer.” The Aquarius is believed to be a willful, honest and logical person, among other things.

March 11 - April 18 – Pisces, “The Fish.” The Pisces is said to be typically peaceful, creative and sensitive but often to a fault.

April 18 - May 13 – Aries, “The Ram.” Astrology claims the Aries is intelligent, impulsive and ambitious.

May 13 - June 21 – Taurus, “The Bull.” The Taurus boasts a clever, self-confident and social personality, according to astrology.

June 21 - July 20 – Gemini, “The Twins.” The twins tend to have two contrasting sides in one, but are believed to be polite and curious people.

July 20 - Aug. 10 – Cancer, “The Crab.” The Cancer is believed to be independent, loyal and nurturing.

Aug. 10 - Sept. 16 – Leo, “The Lion.” Astrologers call the Leo stubborn and arrogant but also generous and powerful.

Sept. 16 - Oct. 30 – Virgo, “The Virgin.” The Virgo tends to be artistic, observant and intelligent, astrologers say.

Oct. 30 - Nov. 23 – Libra, “The Scales.” Among its attributes, the Libra is said to be charming and kind but also pompous.

Nov. 23 - Nov. 29 – Scorpio, “The Scorpion.” The Scorpio is adventurous, dexterous and passionate among other things, according to astrology.

Nov. 29 - Dec. 17 – Ophiucus, “The Snake Bearer.” Because it falls between the two, Ophiucus is a blend the Scorpio and the Sagittarius in personality traits, according to astrology.

Dec. 17 - Jan. 20 – Sagittarius, “The Archer.” The Sagittarius is believed to be reliable and idealistic but also short-tempered.

*Astrologers say if you are born “on the cusp,” at the edge of one sign or another, then you tend to share tendencies of both signs.

Caption:Jo VonStein uses a glowing globe to show where the constellations are mapped out in the sky according to the stars and the path of the sun along the equinox. The globe and other astrological and mythical tools are often used and sold at Ancient Ways, 1700 Woodland Ave. and 3029 Ingersoll Ave. Photo by Amber Williams

Caption: Drake astronomy instructor Herb Schwartz gives astronomical lectures at the Drake Municipal Observatory. He believes one good thing about the zodiac is that it piques people’s interest in the stars, although astrological teachings are what he considers “bunk.” Photo by Amber Williams