The Tropical Projection
Western astrologers’ attitude to the sidereal zodiac is quite peculiar. Most 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 even use precession-corrected timing for transits and returns - if only to mix apples and oranges by interpreting the results Tropically. Astrologers of all stripes jump at any technique that sheds new light on a chart ("Have you checked out your converse tertiary progressed Draconic Lilith conjunct Pluto's South Node...?"), but despite the fact it only takes a mouse click to switch, the mood changes the second any contrarian pedant takes sidereal seriously or, much worse, proposes using it as default.
John Addey said that the mere fact that erudite astrologers can disagree over something so fundamental as which zodiac to use shows there is more to the issue than meets the eye. There is a case for the Tropical zodiac: its uniformity, seasonal symbolism (in the northern hemisphere at least) and arguments from authority and experience - or conditioning - though these points all sidestep the objective astronomical measure of zodiacal precession. Tropical astrology is a stopped clock that has parted company with the stars that gave the signs their name and meaning, and plenty of astrologers are bizarrely happy with this: "Yes! Astrology isn't actually about the stars, it's all in the seasons". But, after rehearsing all the technical arguments, “I don’t get sidereal, it doesn’t sing to me” is still the objection most Tropical astrologers rest on. ‘Sign-fit’ appears to be Tropical’s self-evident trump card.
Yet consider this: how often do we subjectively construct a horoscope for somebody only to be confounded when we discover their actual birthday? A trivial Sunsign generality maybe, but watching Hugh Laurie on TV recently I had a strong impression of ‘Capricorn’ (he was playing a particularly Saturnine villain), only to be weirdly astonished to find the actor is born in the middle of June. This mistake is less surprising considering astrologers often can’t pick between rising signs for someone born on a cusp, or even agree whether so-and-so was born at 6am or 6pm. Or when an ‘established’ birth-time for a celebrity proves wrong, we know some astrologers still insist on using their old chart.
‘Cognitive dissonance’ is the jargon for such a clash of expectation and reality. The theory goes that mixed messages play havoc with our minds’ innate need for consistency, and it explains a lot. The adjustment from Hugh Laurie’s anticipated Sun in Capricorn to Gemini is at least explicable within the Tropical framework, whereas to reconcile his birthday on 11th June with Sidereal Sun in Taurus takes a bigger psychic leap. The shift between adjacent signs seems preposterous, but only because we put the system before the person. In the real world the difference is obvious: most people would not blink if they were told, chart unseen, that Laurie had Sun in Taurus, and in interviews and in life his personality is patently Taurus.
Or take an even better-known example, we project on to Mick Jagger the personality of the archetypal grand Sun in Leo rockstar. Even if he is in fact a canny and rather conservative cricket-loving former LSE student with a gentle, feminine manner, whose charisma comes largely from an exalted Jupiter conjunct his Sun in Cancer. Likewise, can you think of anyone less Capricornian and more Sagittarian than Rod Stewart? Or Elvis? Or David Bowie? Technically counterintuitive but symbolically obvious, we find it easier to rationalize completely incongruous tropical sign traits than to interrupt our chosen system’s internal logic.
Zodiacal precession is even more insidious because the rest of tropical astrology’s toolkit: aspects, houses, angles, transits, directions, etc, remains internally consistent and correct. We can construct a detailed picture of an individual’s character and destiny even when one central part of the system - Tropical signs - are 80% wrong. So when you say to an individual with Sun-ascendant in Tropical Gemini “You are clever, curious, witty and versatile” they might agree with you because what you are saying based on planetary aspects and houses is so accurate and insightful - even though they are actually a stubborn, sensual, sceptical, sidereal double Taurus. This point is not an exaggeration.
Siderealists have a somewhat pedantic and otherworldly image and their outlook is viewed as having little to do with astrology as it is actually experienced. It is no mere abstraction, however. The point 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 whose planet shifts back a sign. And it’s easy. Try this experiment with everyone you know and it never fails. You can argue which is which, but the difference is self-evident, and of these, the sidereal sign placement is sharper and more textbook.
Ascendants are tricky, as we must deal with uncertain birth times. However, many famous actresses for instance, have tropical Cancer rising: Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Julie Christie and Cameron Diaz, to name a few. Some of these stars have the watery, translucent Cancerian quality, but who’s the odd one out? 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 moody, emotional, platinum-blonde classically Cancerian persona for Cher’s slim, angular, ever-youthful sidereal Gemini, or Joni’s airy, intellectual Twins 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 one's basic astrology sense yells out.
At this point you might say, okay there’s a difference, but 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, Christine McVie, 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 to 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, bordering on parody, 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.
We are at a point in the Great Year where there is still a twenty percent overlap between zodiacs, but the widening gulf is eating astrology. The Tropical camp, without apparent irony, falls back on their mantra that astrology is not about the stars. Exaltations and falls are disappearing out of use because they only work in 20% of cases, psychological astrology deems prediction dangerous and discriminatory, and says ‘anything can mean anything’, and no wonder, because conventions are growing up that distort the basic nature of the signs. Why else are Aries known as sacrificial lambs, or Taureans for their temper, or Cancerians as gossips, or Virgos as autocrats, or Sagittarians for being highly sexed, or Aquarians as control freaks? Like a hard-to-diagnose wasting disease, many astrologers feel something isn’t quite right but don’t know what the problem is. The answer is clear.