Ophiuchus

Imagine celebrating your birthday on Nov. 29. On that day, the sun lies nowhere near Sagittarius; instead, it appears against the stars of a constellation that’s not even part of the zodiac: Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. (Creators.com illustration)

Anyone frequenting singles bars back in the 1970s or ’80s has surely heard the question: “What’s your sign?” And while most of us can recite the answer quickly, the truth is that few people know what it means.

It’s really quite simple.

The Earth orbits the sun once a year and causes the sun to travel along a thin band of star groupings that forms what we call the zodiac.

If we could see the sun and stars together, we’d find that the sun appears against the stars of certain zodiacal constellations at different times of the year. Thus, we know of such “sun signs” as Aries, Taurus and Sagittarius, each of which corresponds to a star grouping along the zodiac.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that since astrology’s origins millennia ago it has failed to keep up with our increasing knowledge of the cosmos.

For example, modern scientists know that the Earth undergoes a 25,800-year wobble called axial precession. This alters the general positions of all we see in the heavens and, more particularly, how solar system bodies appear relative to the much more distant stars and the imaginary forms we call constellations.

So what, you ask?

Well, this means that the “sign” to which you think you belong is probably not the constellation against which the sun lay at the time of your birth — unless, of course, you were born thousands of years ago.

Suppose, for example, your birthday occurs on Nov. 16. You’ve lived your entire life believing your “sign” to be Scorpio. What a shock it must be to discover that, when you were born, the sun really lay in front of the stars of the constellation Libra.

Yikes!

You might also be surprised to learn that, despite your horoscope indicating that each sign is of equal duration, it takes only six days for the sun to cross the constellation of Scorpius (Nov. 23-28), but 44 days to cross the constellation of Virgo (Sept. 17-Oct. 30).

And, if this isn’t disturbing enough, imagine celebrating your birthday on Nov. 29. On that day, the sun lies nowhere near Sagittarius; instead, it appears against the stars of a constellation that’s not even part of the zodiac: Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.

Now, lest you think that this is some kind of cosmic fluke, keep in mind that the sun actually spends three times as many days in front of the stars of Ophiuchus (from Nov. 29 through Dec. 17) than it does in front of the constellation Scorpius, so one might think that Ophiuchus would be a sign in the horoscope tables. But where is it?

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence — or perhaps not — but my mother, younger daughter, nephew and several good friends were born under this “sign.” I still haven’t mustered the courage to tell any of them that they’re Ophiuchans.

I can only imagine the words of Lt. Uhuru announcing to Capt. Kirk on the starship Enterprise that some three-eyed, slimy-skinned aliens want to talk with him: “Captain, the Ophiuchans are on the hailing frequency.”

No, I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut and hope that the subject never comes up.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at dennis@mammana.com and connect with him on Facebook: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Dennis Mammana

Dennis Mammana

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at dennis@mammana.com and connect with him on Facebook: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.