About once a year, panic ensues as articles pop up across the internet––from sources as reputable as The Wall Street Journal–– claiming that there is actually a 13th sign of the zodiac called Ophiuchus, which means that everyone has been identifying as the wrong sign. As an astrologer, I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to worry. You don’t need to read a different horoscope. There’s no such thing as the 13th sign. Let’s talk about why.
First, let’s discuss the astronomy of it all. The astrological zodiac was developed when ancient stargazers noticed that the sun, moon and planets travelled a specific path of constellations in the sky (known as the ecliptic). They began to use the positions of the planets within those constellations to interpret omens and make predictions about life on earth. Approximately 2,500 years ago, the zodiac was standardized as astrologers divided the ecliptic into 12 equal parts. Yes, there are 13 constellations along the sun’s path (there are 88 recognized constellations in our sky)––and Ophiuchius, the alleged 13th sign, is one of them––but 12 signs (rather than 13) is what fit into the 12-month lunar calendar. Though the names of the signs have changed since ancient times, Ophiuchus was not and has rarely ever been included.
So, what is Ophiuchus all about anyway?
Ophiuchus (pronounced oh-FEW-kuss) is a constellation located northwest of the center of the Milky Way, somewhere near Scorpio and Sagittarius. Originally called Serpentarius, the ancient Greeks believed this constellation depicted Asclepius––the god of medicine––battling a giant snake.
Why is she left out?
Ophiuchus is located directly opposite the extremely prominent constellation Orion, and because of its location, it is actually usually obscured from view at most times in most parts of the world. This is potentially part of the reason ancient astrologers chose to leave it out of interpretations. Before we could calculate charts with computers or even by hand, astrology was based on what was observable in the night sky—as above, so below.
But it’s also because earth has a wobbly axis, so none of the constellations are observed in the same exact place they were 2,500 years ago. The constellations are only loosely associated with the signs and do not always coincide with them. So, just because this constellation exists in the sun’s path doesn’t make it a sign.
So why does Ophiuchus keep popping up?
Well, first off, people love drama…and they also apparently love announcing there’s suddenly a 13th sign––even though the constellation has been recognized for thousands of years. It’s in our nature to exaggerate, especially when we’re excited.
That said, remember that constellations are not the same as signs. There are two main zodiac systems that astrologers use to define the location of the signs: the tropical zodiac and the sidereal zodiac. The tropical zodiac aligns the signs with the changing of the seasons at the equinoxes and the solstices. Aries season always arrives at the Spring Equinox. In the sidereal zodiac (primarily used by Vedic astrologers, based in India), the location of each sign continually changes based on fixed stars. The sidereal zodiac no longer matches up with the seasons and gives a slightly more accurate picture of where the sun, moon and planets are actually located in the sky. It’s still not completely accurate, though, because the constellations are obviously not exactly the same size and the stars from each bleed into each other. The sidereal zodiac also does not recognize a 13th sign.
But if it’s a real constellation and the constellations don’t line up anyway then...why can’t it be a real sign?
Well, it all comes back to the number 12. Remember how the number 12 was chosen to fit the movement of the sun neatly within the lunar calendar? The number 12 has long carried spiritual, mythological and magical symbolism. There are 12 seminotes in an octave and 12 days of Christmas and 12 full moons in a year. The basic units of time (60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours) are all divisible by 12.
Sam Elliott’s character in A Star Is Born, offers this poetic thought to Lady Gaga: “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave...it’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it...” Like music, astrology works as a whole because of the simplicity of its parts. Horoscopes are like songs: we recognize ourselves in them. Astrology is a tool we can use to understand ourselves and the world better. The 13th sign wasn’t included in the original foundation of astrology and isn’t included now because it throws a wrench in the interpretive system. It makes things more complicated than they need to be. Astrology is about finding ourselves within the stars, correlating our actions to the movement of the planets. There’s no such thing as the 13th sign because we already have all the signs we need.