A Tale of Two Zodiacs: Breaking Through A Conceptual Boundary

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The sidereal and tropical zodiacs have intrigued me for years, although like many of us, I did not completely understand what exactly the difference was beyond the obvious planet in sign surprise. I distinctly remember picking up my first sidereal ephemeris and going to my date of birth seeing that all of the planets were one sign back and in different degrees. I said to myself, “well, I’m not a Scorpio Sun.” I just sort of filed it away in the recesses of my brain for possible later discovery, and that was that. So for the next 12 years, I really never gave it a second look. The tropical zodiac seemed sufficient for what I was doing, and in many ways it still is, but the curiosity bug got me again about a year ago, and here I am again—attempting to discern differences in meaning between what the SZ (sidereal zodiac) and TZ (tropical zodiac) in a chart. Through all of this mental wrangling recently, I’ve even considered abandoning the zodiacs all together out of pure frustration. However, that will not be the case. (at least not yet anyway!) This article will do a few things: briefly explain what is different between the SZ and TZ and give a possible explanation on why the two are what they are in a chart and why they both seem to work. There are those who contend that only one zodiac works and that is fine. This article will pull from sources who are either/or in their view on the zodiacs. This is intended for anyone interested in the subject of the zodiacs, astrologers and non-astrologers alike, to give the subject another look.


One of the first things that a student of astrological history should know is that the zodiac as we know it—twelve signs, Aries through Pisces–came out of ancient Babylon. The zodiac at that time was used for timing: planting crops, religious ceremonies, going to battle, installing royalty such as a king, etc. Some of us use astrology to plant, and I would guess that many more people and nations in the ancient world used the Moon and planets for planting than they do today. From what I have read over the years one thing seems clear. The ancient world followed the movements of the stars to time and coordinate events for just about everything. In the northern hemisphere, somewhere around the beginning of the constellation of Taurus, the Sun rose against this background of stars during the first day of spring (also known as the Vernal Point). The days and nights were nearly equal during the spring as usual. Astrologers and astronomers agree that in the years around 212 A.D. the first day of spring in the TZ (which is always 0 degrees and 0 minutes of tropical Aries) roughly coincided with SZ Aries within a degree. So we moved backward from Taurus to Aries. The famous astrologer/astronomer Ptolemy noticed this and strongly advocated the TZ view, noticing its simplicity and ease of calculation. Clearly, he was unaware of the precession of the equinoxes, and we arrive at another important point of information. Precession gives an explanation for the differences in the zodiacs and could offer us a possible starting point as to what the different zodiacs mean.
Precession does not need to be as complicated as it sounds, but we have to understand it to see the SZ and TZ clearly. It simply means that the position of the Sun on the first day of spring is moving backward against the background of fixed stars and constellations, very slowly, through the SZ. This is caused by Earth slowly wobbling around its poles as we go through space around the Sun. Imagine for a moment that you are standing on the top of a mountain and the air is extremely clear. It is the first day of spring, and the Sun is just about to come over the horizon—you can see the Sun’s light increasing as the Earth slowly rotates eastward but you can still see all of the stars as well. Depending on what year it is will show you where the Sun is in the SZ, how far back it has moved. But the Sun will always be at 0 degrees of Aries at this time in the TZ. And for this to make one complete revolution through the SZ takes approximately 25,920 years. This is known as a Great Age. Today, 0 degrees Aries in the SZ (depending on which ayanamsa (Hindu for “falling back portion”) you use, which is the value of the difference between TZ 0 degrees Aries and SZ 0 degrees Aries, used to calculate SZ points and charts) is roughly 24 degrees Aries in the TZ. Of course, this will change until 0 degrees Aries in the TZ reaches 0 degrees Libra in the SZ. After this, the precession will begin to move the Vernal Point back to SZ Aries. The one wrench that I do have to throw out there before we move on is this: By the time the Autumnal Equinox (180 degrees opposite the Vernal Point) makes it to 0 degrees Aries in the SZ, in the southern hemisphere spring will align with Aries. This is a little known tidbit that often times gets left out in the conversation among astrologers.
So how are the two zodiacs used in the everyday life of an astrologer? We could say that they are really just second nature to the majority of us, literally falling into the background of the chart at times. Depending on how one interprets, the signs may take more of a secondary importance with aspects, houses, and other factors taking more precedence. And while all Vedic astrologers, sometimes known as Jyotishi’s, use a SZ for their charts, some use a tropical system in their work just as many TZ astrologers in the West who practice an Eastern method such as Vedic astrology use a SZ for their work. James Braha is a well known Jyotishi and Vedic astrologer who uses both zodiacs. In his How To Predict Your Future: Secrets Of Eastern & Western Astrology, writes that, “[f]or thousands of years there has been confusion and disagreement as to whether both zodiacs are legitimate, and if so, which one is preferable and produces the most accurate results. Astrologers who have studied and practiced both systems, USING THE TROPICAL ZODIAC FOR WESTERN ASTROLOGY AND THE SIDEREAL FOR HINDU ASTROLOGY, almost always conclude that both work because they have experienced accurate results from both. (it is possible that the information gained from tropical or seasonally-based astrology may relate somewhat more to a person’s psychology and behavior than events and circumstances.) Unfortunately, most astrologers are not expert[s] in both Hindu and western astrology and have therefore confronted the question of the two zodiacs from a theoretical perspective.” Braha goes on to say that there is still much confusion out there regarding the zodiacs, and that one zodiac, to many of us, “must be correct.” In How To Predict Your Future, Braha treats both Western tropical and Hindu sidereal basic predictive methods (western transits through the houses and western aspects as well as Hindu dasas respectively). I highly recommend this valuable book for anyone interested in integrating both systems.

To further expand on the difference in the zodiacs with regard to side by side comparisons, we can look at a recent article in the June/July 2007 issue of The Mountain Astrologer magazine, The Vedic Signs, by Hank Friedman. Friedman expands on the basic premise of Braha; he writes, “But in fact, those who use the tropical zodiac do so in ways that differ from those who employ the sidereal zodiac. It is vitally important to emphasize here that, in the hands of a talented practitioner, all methods of astrology using either zodiac can offer accurate and profound delineations…[n]evertheless, each zodiac has exceptional value within the astrological system in which it is used.” Here are some examples of rising signs and the physical attributes associated with them: “Aries has round eyes, weak knees, poor appetite, concealing facts, sexy, and Cancer is henpecked, many friends, walks fast, few sons, owns many houses, wealthy.” Friedman goes on to note that in Vedic astrology, astrologers look at the relative strength of the planet using specific rules within that system that correspond with the SZ, with a planet in the opposite sign of its natural rulership not necessarily debilitated or weak The very conception of the signs are different between the two systems. Planets also have friends, enemies, and “neutrals” just as many of us may or may not have in our lives. Planets seem to be sensitive, or fierce, and they tend to take on a more personal dimension with the Vedic delineations, however, the results of their tyranny and/or blessings may or may not offer any consolation as to what to think about what is happening in our lives. For this, a “TZ depersonalization” may be in order, a step back, in order to view the planets from afar as to give a bit or respite and perspective as to what is taking place in a particular person’s life.
But what does it mean, on a deeper level, perhaps spiritual, to use two completely different zodiacs in astrological work? In The Progressed Horoscope, 19th century London astrologer Alan Leo hypothesized that the tropical zodiac was an actual “aura” of the earth while realizing that the tropics actually reverse in the southern hemisphere, noting that the vast majority of human civilization lived north of the equator. Astrologer and astrology book seller David Roell commented in the July, 14 2009 edition of his AstroAmerica.com Newsletter, Tropical versus Sidereal, that the, “[s]igns of the Tropical zodiac are symbolic, not actual. They represent the annual, on-going relationship between the Earth & Sun. The Sidereal zodiac is entirely different. Therese Hamilton says there’s some things that Sidereal just does better, and I think she has a point. Give each their due!” Another astrologer, Robert Powell, in his Hermetic Astrology Volume I, gives the precession of the equinoxes the task of determining the spiritual evolution of man throughout the ages (by precession meaning the growing difference between the SZ and the TZ). He writes that, “A new spiritual impulse begins to take effect whenever the vernal point enters a new sign of the zodiac, and lasts for the length of time taken for the vernal point to regress through 30 degrees ( = one sign of the zodiac), which is 30 X 72 = 2,160 years, as the vernal point takes 72 years to regress through 1 degree…[and] [t]o begin with, a new zodiacal impulse takes effect in the subconscious depths. For Powell, a complete cycle of the Venus pentagram (1,199 years) must pass for the complete age to take effect, of course within the framework of the SZ. In Elias and Theanna Lonsdale’s Inside Star Vision: Planetary Awakening and Self-Transformation, man has earned the TZ in a sense, and that their “[t]welve life streams articulate a free zone that has been won in modern times; in fact, is the primary attainment that redeems our otherwise destructive record. Desperate to spring ourselves from our starry ancestors, we activate precisely the region of potential we could never locate while still under the spell of the venerable cosmic ordering. Here the authors refer to the SZ as “constellational star wisdom, or predictive astrology.” I get the sense that what the Lonsdale’s are trying to convey is that both systems are ancient and are at play, and that with the awareness of both the TZ and SZ as having potential in our lives. With the TZ, we are breaking free from the ancestors, allowing ourselves a perfect 12-sided figure for expression.
There is meaning in precession, and by extension meaning inherent within the two zodiacs, but to come to a greater understanding, we must practice, practice, and get into the game so to speak. The tropical zodiac could represent the special relationship with the Earth and our Sun, the life giver. The vital exchange between the two manifesting as the seasons, reflecting the cosmic seasons as shown to us by the stellar forces in the constellations, where we derive the essential meaning of the star lores. The zodiacs are the filter through which the sky speaks to us, and the seasons reflect the seasons of our lives, and of course, the naturally varied cycles of all living things on the planet. Whether we choose to integrate the two in whatever way we are compelled, or simply practice astrology the way that we were taught, unquestioning, we have been made aware. The stars and all cycles, terrestrial or otherwise are speaking to us. But are we listening?
by Thadd, SignsInLife.com