24 Degrees of Separation
Western astrologers’ attitude to the sidereal zodiac is quite peculiar. We think of ourselves as part of a progressive Uranian movement, one that will jump at any technique that sheds new light on a chart. We are aware of sidereal issues like the Great Year, have opinions on the Aquarian Age and the symbolism of Aries and Taurus in the ancient world, and some of us even use precession-corrected timing for transits and returns. Yet our curiosity stops the second any contrarian pedant suggests using sidereal sign placements for the planets.
In truth, the reluctance is understandable: astrology is intuitive, and like a computer operating system requires deep familiarity before we connect with it. It is an especially big leap to identify with adjacent sign placements that are so different to their neighbours. Even more so as we have been branded on the soul by Sunsign columns that shaped our experience of astrology - an indoctrination that has permeated so deeply that even some siderealists are lulled into believing tropical is ‘better’ for sign traits. Despite well-known technical arguments for both zodiacs, in reality Westerners do not embrace sidereal because it is too symbolically unsettling: “I don’t get it, it doesn’t sing to me”, is the stock response. Yet instead of rehashing the familiar astronomical issues, for a change I would like to argue for sidereal against precisely this sign-fit claim, tropical’s astrology’s supposed trump-card.
I am not convinced tropical sign-identification is a slam-dunk. Who has never constructed a mental image of an individual’s chart, only to be astonished when we discover their actual birthday? Or how often do we rely on a timed chart for a celebrity which we find out years later is wrong? And when this is discovered, there are still astrologers who will insist on using the old chart. Truly, this mentality is impossible to argue with, but it is rather like the attitude of tropical astrologers to sidereal: “I liked it how it was”. Likewise astrologers often can’t pick between two signs for someone born on a cusp, or even whether X was born at 6am or 6pm, so sign qualities cannot be wholly definitive. It is highly subjective, particularly when we don’t actually know the person, and extra particularly when looking through the window of a celebrity’s public persona.
This much at least is not subjective: zodiacal precession is an astronomical fact that nobody disputes but tropical astrology chooses to ignore. And because the rest of tropical astrology’s toolkit: aspects, houses, angles, transits, directions, etc, remains internally consistent, we can still construct a sophisticated picture of an individual’s life using the wrong signs eighty percent of the time. So when you say to a Sun-ascendant in Tropical Gemini “You are clever, curious, witty and versatile” they might agree with you because rest of what you are saying is accurate and insightful - even though they are actually a stubborn, sensual, sceptical, sidereal double Taurus. The difference is clear, but we don’t think to question our trusty technique.
Ascendants are tricky for a start, as we must deal with uncertain birth times. Anyway, here goes. Many famous actresses have tropical Cancer rising: Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Julie Christie and Cameron Diaz, to name just a few. I can see some these stars as having the watery, translucent Cancerian quality, but who’s the odd one out? For me, Cameron Diaz has a lighter, bubblier, more comedic style – because unlike the others she has sidereal Gemini rising. Or take singers of the same generation, Cher, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, all of whom are tropical Cancer ascendant. Of these, who would really mistake Emmylou’s classically moody, emotional, platinum-blonde sidereal Cancerian persona for Cher’s slim, angular, ever-youthful sidereal Gemini, or Joni’s airy, intellectual style? They could hardly be more different. Or again, spot the sidereal Taurus rising between tropical Gemini ascendants Michael Caine and Tommy Lee Jones. Why it’s dour, earthy Tommy, as I suspect most astrologers would pick.
When I was first learning astrology, I was puzzled why Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Jackson all had Mars in tropical Taurus, which according to Western astrology is a planet in ‘detriment’. However, give all these great movers Mars in sidereal Aries and you understand why their energy is not only not retarded but highly charged and dynamic. They don’t have Mars in its worst sign, but its best, and if we don’t accept this, we are forced to search elsewhere for their vigour and agility. (Incidentally, if as many do, you insist that Muhammad ‘I am the greatest’ Ali is obviously Leo rising, then you are also saying he has Mars in Taurus, rather than Mars in Aries - which in his 10th house is plenty brash and arrogant).
We also see action heroes Bruce Willis, Henry Cavill, Christian Bale and Chuck Norris (not to mention Adolf Hitler) have Mars in slow, passive, tropical Taurus. Yet each of these guys’ Mars shifts back into sidereal Aries, which to the extent that their lives follow their art, is more purely astrological. Or to look at it from the other side; does Clint Eastwood’s Mars in tropical Aries then move back into Pisces? No, he has Mars in Aries in both zodiacs - it’s intuitive and quite hard to mistake. We can add macho men like Kanye West, 50 Cent and Lenny Kravitz to the Mars in sidereal Aries camp, and macho women too like Keira Knightley and Lucy ‘Xena’ Lawless.
Yet in the same Mars in Taurus data we also find Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Bertrand Russell, Liberace, Brian Jones and Dean Martin, none of whom fits the Mars in Aries profile. This is because they all have Mars in softer, artistic Taurus in both zodiacs, obviously (was anyone ever more Mars in Taurus than Dean Martin?). There are athletes and action-men with sidereal Mars in Taurus of course, but they have a more deliberate, slow-fuse kind of energy, like for instance Robert De Niro and James Caan who are both Mars in Taurus both ways.
The point, and basis for a bigger study is: You can tell the difference between two people, one of whom has a planet or placement in the same sign in both zodiacs versus the other who shifts back a sign. You can argue which is which, but the difference is usually plain, and of these, the sidereal placement is more textbook, which means you can more reliably use it to predict. This lies at the heart of apparent confusion in Sunsign qualities, where we unwittingly combine sidereal and tropical. So here’s a Sunsign riddle: why are Aries often known as sacrificial lambs, or Taureans known for their temper, or why do Cancerians love gossip, or why are Virgos such autocrats, or Sagittarians so highly sexed, or Aquarians so authoritarian?
At this point you might be generous and say, okay there’s a difference, but why change - what makes sidereal better? So try this: what intrinsic quality does Mars in Taurus have that makes Carole King, Loreena McKennit, Carly Simon, Belinda Carlisle, ‘Sporty Spice’, Laurie Anderson, Julie London, Susannah Hoffs, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Debbie Harry, and Kate Bush all succeed in a male dominated world? Their drive and assertiveness all say sidereal Mars in Aries, but how would we explain their story from tropical? Something like: ‘These women’s stubborn, uncompromising Taurus attitude singles them out and in a sensual Venus-ruled sign their earthy energy is expressed through the arts’. That interpretation is not wrong, but it’s reaching - and typically adjective-laden - especially given that Western Mars in Taurus is debilitated. How could you predict this roll-call of female success on the basis of a bad placement? The sidereal reading: ‘These women all have a powerful Mars’, is at once simpler and more profound.
This example illustrates the difference between the two zodiacs. With tropical, we construct a symbolic story around each placement, whereas sidereal is concerned chiefly with whether a planet will deliver (or some would say, with sidereal you get both). Tropical is the style, sidereal is the substance, to the extent of having a tin with a label saying one thing, but with a different property inside. I believe sidereal is the correct system, but the interpretation and attitude behind it is different, namely we are looking for innate capacity over a notional personality trait which is often pure projection. For me, the sidereal zodiac comes into its own when used within the Jyotish paradigm and Whole-Sign-Houses, though its sign placements stand up perfectly in a Western-style chart. (Incidentally, if I implied sidereal astrology lacks poetry, just look at the rich mythology of India, especially in relation to the Nakshatras or lunar zodiac).
Many Western astrologers deplore the encroachment of a free-association psychological approach that increasingly justifies anything, while the purpose of academic research into astrology’s history has been to see what, if anything, has been lost in translation. Modern astrology doesn’t really interpret planets in their own sign as being anything but vaguely ‘nice’, whereas exaltations and falls have practically fallen off the map. To be clear, I do not reject tropical out of hand, but believe it leads to an increasingly vague and symbolically muddled astrology that is long on description and short on prediction, and whose continued use has brought us to a situation today where some astrology schools actually condemn prediction as being tantamount to malpractice. Astrology is eating itself.
We are at a point approximately 1800 years into the present cycle of The Great Year, where signs are slipping out of alignment though still with a twenty percent overlap. Astrology is still in touch with its sidereal origins, but gradually losing its gravity and potency, and like a hard-to-diagnose wasting disease, astrologers are aware something isn’t quite right but can't put their finger on it. The remedy is simple, however. At the click of a mouse, sidereal represents a radical, symbolically apt and self-evident shift that reinvigorates astrology, puts dignities, exaltations and falls in their clear and correct light, and gives insight into charts that would otherwise remain hidden.