© 2004 East-West Publishing

Signs of the Zodiac: What Are They?

There are so many misconceptions about the Sidereal signs that a good question to ask at the beginning is, “What is a sign of the Zodiac? Tropical astrologers measure the signs from the spring equinox, which marks the point each year where the ecliptic intersects the equator, but what is the source of the influences that supposedly make up the traits of the Tropical signs?

The Sidereal zodiac is measured in relation to the fixed stars. A primary difficulty with this zodiac is that astrologers throughout the world don't agree on which stars define the Sidereal zodiac. The government of India has finally settled on Spica as the 180° point of the zodiac—the boundary point between Virgo and Libra. The Fagan-Bradley school of astrology uses Aldebaran and Antares to mark 15 degrees of Taurus–Scorpio. The debate concerning the exact boundaries of the Sidereal signs is on-going, and finding a final answer isn't necessary to grasp the focus of this article.

A common misconception is that the sidereal signs are the same as the constellations. Anyone who studies a sky map knows this isn't so. Like the Tropical signs, the sidereal signs are all 30° in length, while the actual constellations vary a great deal. The first part of sidereal Aries, for example, actually contains the stars of the constellation of Pisces, including the brightest star, Al Risha (the knot of Pisces) and the Northern Fish.

The Zodiac: A Brief Historical Perspective

We know that the twelve sign zodiac first appeared in Mesopotamia. In the Neo-Assyrian period the positions of the planets and the moon were referred to in relation to 17 constellations. Not all of these were in the ecliptic. These constellations were described as gods standing in path of the moon. It was understood that the Sun and planets also moved through these 17 constellations. Some of these constellations were:

Stars (The Pleiades)
The Bull of Heaven (Taurus)
True Shepherd of Anu (Orion)
Scales (Libra)
Tails (Pisces)

The 7th century B.C.E. saw the introduction of mathematics into astrology and astronomy. The catalyst for the development of mathematical astrology was the invasion of Babylon by the Persians. Sometime between 630 and 450 B.C.E. the planets became established in zodiacal signs rather than constellations. The ecliptic was divided into twelve equal signs which replaced the older series of 17 constellations. The twelve zodiacal signs were:

The Hireling A ram The Scales Scales (?)
Bull of An
(The Stars)
A humpbacked bull The Scorpion A scorpion
The Great Twins Two figures with
pa.bil.sag (pa) A hippo-centaur
The Crab A crab The Goat Fish A goat fish
The Lion A Lion The Great Figure with streams of water flowing over his shoulder
The Furrow A maiden holding a
stalk of grain
The Tails
(the Field)
Swallow and fish

The twelve signs were further divided into dodekatemoria, or 12 sections of 2 ½ degrees each. The zodiac at this period in history was plainly sidereal, and the exaltations and triangles (four groups of three signs each now associated with the four elements) were in place. The places of the exalted planets were general areas of the constellations.

Astrology as we know it today was born from a fusion of Egyptian ideas with Babylonian astronomy. The invading armies of Alexander the Great arrived in Mesopotamia in October of 331. The Hellenistic period which followed saw astrology developing with a scientific emphasis. Hipparchus (c190-120 B.C.E.) discovered the precession of the equinoxes. Ptolemy (100?-170? C.E.) stated flatly that the zodiac began at the vernal equinox.

For several hundred years centered around the B.C.E./C.E. junction the state of the zodiac appears to be a study in confusion as astrologers combined the symbolism of the stars and constellations with zodiac signs that were measured from various points on the ecliptic. Eventually the zodiac confusion (which most astrologers at that time may have been unaware of) settled down. The fixed sidereal zodiac took root in India, and the west adopted the mathematically secure Tropical zodiac measured from the vernal point.

John Addey's Harmonics

Back to our original question: Although we know how the two zodiacs are measured—from the spring equinox or from one or more fixed stars, what are the sources of sign characteristics? In other words, What is a sign of the Zodiac?

Early astrological writers treated signs and constellations in different ways. Signs were treated in terms of patterns and were grouped into trigons (triangles) or squares. They were divided alternately into masculine and feminine categories. Sometimes these divisions were termed nocturnal or diurnal. Constellations and stars were treated individually; their attributes were not noted as being direct influences of the signs.

For many centuries it has been comfortable for astrologers to think of signs as boxes or static blocks of space that begin and end at exactly 30 degree intervals from each other; each sign was assumed to have a constant influence within its boundaries. The late English astrologer, John Addey, has forced us to re-think this belief. He reminds us that static blocks of space don't exist in the universe; rather, we live in an environment of constant motion and change. Everything and every being in the universe responds to cyclic influence. The universe is pulsating, rhythmic, moving. Why then should not the ecliptic or zodiacal path of the earth/sun also respond to the pulse of the universe?

According to Addey, rather than being seen as fixed blocks of space, the zodiacal signs may be more accurately described as a continuing series of waves that culminate and wane at regular intervals. Various sign influences would ebb and flow in intensity. Addey termed this wave principle harmonics, and believed that any observed sign regularities could be explained in terms of the harmonic concept.

The work of Michel and Françoise Gauquelin has given us evidence that diurnal harmonics exist in the individual horoscope. Why then cannot zodiacal harmonics also exist, culminating and waning at specific points within a 12-fold pattern? In Addey’s thought, the nearest we can come to describing the traditional twelve signs in terms of harmonics is the sixth harmonic (six waves) within the zodiacal circle. The peaks would correspond to the odd signs and the troughs to the even signs. (Addey, p. 57)

However, other harmonic patterns, such as the elements, have been observed by astrologers. This means that sign polarity can more accurately be defined by two 6th harmonic waves, each wave having its own beginning and culmination points. This idea explains the Indian concept of the division of signs into solar and lunar halves (Hora): the first (rising-to-a peak) half of male signs comes under the Sun while the second (falling) half is ruled by the Moon. The reverse is true for female signs.

What we call a “sign” may be in part the culmination area of basic harmonic waves which divide evenly into the number twelve: Twelve is the lowest common multiple of 2, 3, 4 and 6, and so embraces the symbolism of these numbers. Dividing four into twelve gives us the three modes of four signs each (cardinal, fixed and mutable), and dividing three into twelve gives us four sets of three elements each.

Addey noted that the characteristic timber of different musical instruments arises from the ways in which the sub-harmonics of their notes combine. (Addey, p. 21) Figure 1 below shows how the primary harmonics peak and join each other to form the zodiacal sign of Leo. Note that the element of fire reaches its nadir in Gemini (and other air signs), while the fixed quality becomes nil between mutable and cardinal signs.

Hindu astrology implicitly recognizes a wave action in the zodiac in its use of harmonic charts as well as in the doctrine that a planet positioned near the junction of two signs is critically placed and unstable in its action. Planets near the beginnings of signs are said to be in their infancy and weak. Planets near the ends of signs are said to be in a state of old age with little power to do good.

Virginia Beach clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce, spoke of sign cusps as indicating “the rising of one influence and the submerging...of another...” (801-1) He said that people having cuspal emphasis would find themselves under two sets of influences, resulting in a pull in different directions. Although the term cusp technically refers to a culmination point, the term has been used in astrological literature to mean the junction point between two signs or houses. Cayce particularly emphasized the cusp at the spring equinox. Hindu sidereal astrology recognizes the importance of the equinox and solstice points, but they are not used in measuring signs of the zodiac. In the Tropical zodiac, the equinox points mark the beginnings of zodiac signs.

Since static signs cannot exist in the theoretical sense, we can partly define an area of the zodiac that seems to produce a specific effect as the culmination area of primary harmonics. This concept explains polarity, the four elements, and the three qualities. Harmonics aside, we are still left with the possible (or probable) influence of the actual constellations and individual stars. We can also ask by what process the symbolism of planetary lords and exaltations relate to signs of the zodiac.

The Question of Phase

If the astrological zodiac is indeed a construct based on harmonics, the question still facing us is, “Do sign waves correlate with the solstices and equinoxes, or do they flow in relation to one or more critical stars? As Addey states:

The great zodiac problem is: What determines the phase? How are we to decide at what points in the circle the maximum effect occurs in any particular case?” (Addey, p. 176)

“The important issue is not one of the zodiac as such, but of the significant focus or foci in the ecliptic from which effects, as represented by the harmonics of the circle, are generated.” (Addey, p. 197)

The Tropical zodiac has a precise starting point at the northern hemisphere spring and southern hemisphere fall equinox. But what about the sidereal zodiac? A zodiac requires a fiducial point on the circle from which measurements are made. Various measurements from specific stars were used in Mesopotamia to designate the initial points of zodiac signs. However, these stars were not exactly 30 degrees and zero minutes from each other, which leaves us with a zodiac with hazy sign boundaries.

Of the bright stars that lie close to the ecliptic, Spica is virtually the only candidate for a fiducial star that is located near a sign junction, and this junction happens to be just at the center of the sidereal zodiac between Virgo and Libra. Perhaps of greater interest is that Spica is only minutes in longitude from bright Arcturus to the north. Edgar Cayce gave great importance to Arcturus as evidenced from these quotes from his readings:

“For Arcturus is the way, the door out of this system.” (2454-3)

“Not that the Sun as the center of the solar system is all there is. For the entity has attained to that realm even of Arcturus, or that center from which there may be the entrance into other realms of consciousness.” (2823-1)

“Arcturus is that which may be called the center of the universe, through which individuals pass and at which period there comes a choice of the individual as to whether it is to return [to earth] or to pass on to [other systems]. (5749-14)

“Arcturus is that junction between spheres of activity as related to cosmic force, and is that about which this particular sphere of activity rotates...” (263-15)

So, at least according to Edgar Cayce, the degree of Arcturus (and Spica) is of critical importance for the evolution of mankind. Does the longitudinal degree of Spica–Arcturus—the junction point between Virgo and Libra— mark a critical wave emanation point for the Sidereal zodiac? Just opposite this point is zero degrees of Aries.

Finding the Point of Wave Emanantions

Since it is the peaks and troughs of waves that may define signs, how do we know exactly where high and low points occur in the zodiacal circle? The exact phasing of zodiacal waves, if they exist, cannot be easily observed. The key areas in question are the current areas of overlap between the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs. (See figure 2 below) These areas are approximately five to seven degrees in length depending on the ayanamsa (the difference between the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs) and the modern year in question.

If the final degrees of a Tropical sign behave more like the following Tropical sign in relation to polarity, the modes and elements, then this is evidence for a sidereal zodiac of wave influences. If the early degrees of Sidereal signs resemble the preceding sign, then this points to harmonic waves linked to the equinox points.

Because the area of overlap between the zodiacs at present is only 1/5 of a sign, and harmonic effects would diminish toward the ends of signs, it is very difficult to judge which zodiac might be the most accurate when only personal opinion and observation are used for measurement. It may be that the characteristics of polarity, the modes and trigons cannot be observed at all for the first five degrees and final five or six degrees of a sign. This is precisely the current overlap of the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs.

In summary a sign of the zodiac may be made up of:

(1) Harmonics which correlate with polarity, trigons and qualities. (Note: Other harmonics may exist such as the 27 Indian nakshatras or the 28 medieval lunar mansions.)

(2) Influences which relate directly to the domicile lords and exalted planets in signs via a cosmic connection whose operation we don't understand at present.

(2) Individual stars which may affect variable degrees depending on how bright the star is. A bright star such as Spica may influence a two degree area whereas the effect of a small dim star may be limited to less than a degree.

(3) The possible overall effect of the actual constellations. This would cause a blending across signs. For example Virgo extends into two thirds of sidereal Libra. The actual constellation of the scales falls in the last ten degrees of Libra. Are the first two thirds of Libra different than the last third? (Or is there a noticeable difference between early and later Tropical Scorpio—the current constellational boundary of Virgo and Libra?)

If effects come from the actual stars and/or constellations, then the meanings of Tropical signs will shift over the centuries, whereas sidereal signs will remain stable. Another possibility is that harmonics correlate with signs measured from the equinox, but the effects of planetary domiciles belong to the sidereal zodiac. This would mean that over the centuries the effects of polarity, trigons and qualities would phase in and out of the sidereal signs while the sign effects which correlate with the planets would remain stable.

The easiest solution would be if harmonics were tied to a particular fiducial star such as Spica; then the effects of the stars and constellations would remain stable over the centuries in a sidereal zodiac. In the Tropical zodiac the stars and constellations will always shift over time in relation to the signs. It is still an unknown how the domicile lords operate in the zodiac, though I've found the correlation much easier to make in the sidereal zodiac. A few Tropical astrologers have actually told me that they don't believe there is any correlation at all between planets and zodiac signs!

At this time we are still faced with centuries of unanswered questions about the zodiac. Until research supports a particular zodiac, individual astrologers will remain attached to their favored zodiac, and controversy will continue in the astrological world with some astrologers claiming that all the zodiacs work. In my opinion this isn't a tenable solution to the zodiac question.

Therese Hamilton
May 20, 2004


Addey, John. (1976) Harmonics in Astrology. Greenbay, WI: Cambridge Circle, Ltd.

Baigent, Michael. (1994) From the Omens of Babylon: Astrology and Ancient Mesoptamia. Arkana, Penguin Books.

Ballard, Juliet Brooke. (1979) The Hidden Laws of the Earth. Virginia Beach, VA: A.R.E. Press

The Edgar Cayce Readings, Volume 18. (1985) Astrology - Part 1. Virginia Beach, VA: Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE).

Gauquelin, Michel. (1978) Cosmic Influences on Human Behavior. New York: ASI Publishers, Inc.

Hand, Robert, Compiler. (1995?) Chronology of the Astrology of the Middle East and the West by Period. Arhat Publications

Hand, Robert. The History of Astrology - Another View. Arhat Publications (Internet)

Hand, Robert. On the Invariance of the Tropical Zodiac. Project Hindsight, 1997 (Internet)

Ulla Koch-Westenholz. (1995) Mesopotamian Astrology. Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press

© 2004 East-West Publishing, Therese Hamilton

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