One of the most common arguments skeptics make against astrology (this generally comes after the stages of shock, grief, and denial when i admit to one of my skeptic friends my interest – “belief” is the wrong word – in astrology) is the concept of precession. The signs aren’t what they really are, they argue; we all are actually one sign ahead of our “real” sign, and plus, it doesn’t matter anyway because ASTROLOGY ISNT REAL. Then, assuming they have won the debate, they generally fold their arms smugly and sip a drink, or loudly change the subject.
Precession of the equinoxes is a result of the Earth’s slight wobble on her axis. Every 26,000 years, the line drawn by the axis of the earth traces out a circle. Over the course of this cycle, on the dates in which the equinoxes and solstices fall, the sun’s position in the sky “precedes” through the constellations in the sky for which the zodiac signs are named. The equinoxes precede 30 degrees every 2160 years, or about one degree every 72 years. Slow, but not imperceptible. This means that on March 20, the day of the Spring Equinox, the sun is actually found entering the constellation of Pisces, not Aries, like the astrology zodiac says. It’s true: The day you were born, the sun was almost certainly not in the same sign as your “sun sign”.
So, HA, say the skeptics – Aries is really Pisces, Capricorn is really Sagittarius, and it’s all made up anyway so therefore it is all bullshit. Oh, you’re right, skeptics, no one has ever considered it before! You’re so clever.
In order to get the concept of precession, you have to recognize the difference between the astrological zodiac and the constellations of stars for which they are named. The astrological zodiac is a series of nice neat 30 degree divisions of the sky, starting at the Sun’s position at the vernal equinox. These divisions are named after the constellations in which they fell during the heyday of ancient astrology – starting with the first sign, Aries. The 30 degree sky slices relative to the earth-bound observer are what we are referring to in astrology – not the pictures the ancients drew in the fixed stars beyond them. We know now how much further away the stars are, compared to the planets – and there’s plenty of healthy debate in the astrological community over whether stars influence events on earth (many of us believe that the planets are much, much more influential) – and anyway, the time scale of precession is so much larger than that of any of our individual lives, and therefore can’t really be comprehended by any one person in a firsthand matter. What persists is our characterizations and stereotypes of spring babies vs. winter babies, and of the positions of planets relative to the sun, and the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes. Astrology doesn’t claim that the picture in the sky traced by the stars of your zodiacal sign is somehow controlling your mind. Astrology is an ancient body of knowledge that documents a persistent correlation between the time of year (and time of day, and phase in the cycles of the other planets) that a person is born and their identity as a human and role in society at large.
And I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times. Astrology is NOT science. It is an ancient belief system backed up by a body of written knowledge. It shares with science the principles of observation, correlation and hypothesis-building, but provides no means by which to perform controlled experiments, and will defy all but the most thorough statistical analysis. Since we are only observing a small fraction of a precessional cycle, and have written history from less than one-sixth of a cycle, our ability to understand its influence on the individual is very limited.
Short version: Yes, precession exists, yes, astrologers are aware of it, and no, it doesn’t change your birth sign in the way skeptics claim.
So, is this really, like, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?
This current planet-storm* No. This is a clustering of a bunch of planets in a single sign, much as we saw toward the beginning of the year in Capricorn – and it will dissipate over the coming days, weeks, and years, but the Age of Aquarius – defined by the Sun’s presence in the actual constellation of Aquarius – will take centuries to unfold. We can get into this more at a later date because it’s late and I’m tired. What’s going on right now, with the planet-storm in Aquarius, is more likely a collective awakening (perhaps in the form of “oh SHIT”), a realization that the well-being of the many is essential for the well-being of the few, and a shift towards compassionate self-sacrifice. What’s happening right now, of course, is also inextricably linked to the face-off between Saturn and Uranus, the struggle for change in the face of rigid resistance by the status quo. By 2010, we’ll be on the way out of this quagmire, and the Aquarian cluster we’re experiencing right now will be a thing of the past – but we still won’t be more than a smidge closer to the “Age of Aquarius.”
*missing from Astrolabe’s widget are Chiron and Nessus, the centaur planets, as well as the asteroids Juno, Icarus, and Diana, all in Aquarius right now.