By Pat Paquette
For two days in January 2011, Ophiuchus made international headlines as the “newly discovered” 13th sign of zodiac. Never mind that the story was pure hype; for the first time, astrology was trending on the Internet — a totally mind-boggling concept. One article alone on a top news site inspired nearly 3,500 comments.
Literally overnight, a new concept grabbed people’s attention and took root in the collective consciousness. And despite the inaccuracies in the media, the story brought astrology out of the closet and demonstrated to believers and debunkers alike that millions of people identify with their astrological sign. And people were excited! Although many were dismayed to think their sign had changed, others embraced the “new order.” The snake is out of the bag, and there’s no use trying to put it back in.
The whole fiasco started on January 9, 2011, with a snarky article in the Minneapolis StarTribune by lifestyle columnist Bill Ward. ¹ (See Chart 1, below right) He reportedly had read an old article on LiveScience.com contending that the zodiac signs used in newspaper horoscopes are wrong due to precession — a tired argument resurrected periodically by critics of astrology. Ward recycled the story, using Parke Kunkle, a board member of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, as his sole source. It’s unclear whether Kunkle said astrologers are ignorant about the “real zodiac signs,” but he clearly intended to disparage astrology.
What happened next was a total mindblower. Through the social media — primarily Twitter and Facebook — a throwaway piece in a lifestyle section of a local newspaper went viral. Suddenly, millions of people believed that an astronomer in Minneapolis had single-handedly revised the zodiac and discovered Ophiuchus, the “13th sign.” CNN, Time magazine, and the major television networks all picked up the story, further reinforcing its veracity. An article in The Huffington Post had received 3,494 comments by September 2011. Even Rachel Maddow got into the fray. Small newspapers all over the United States published columns confidently proclaiming that everyone should start using the new dates. Here are a couple of gems:
The Minnesota Planetarium Society discovered the updated “true” power of the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth. More importantly, they discovered that the horoscope symbols now fall on different dates. Jessica Sinclair, LongIslandPress.com
This addition of Ophiuchus does alter the previous dates of the horoscope; however, since your zodiac sign is determined by the position of the stars on the day you were born, your sign will remain the same. Ophiuchus did not enter the celestial path until 2009, so only babies born from 2009 on will have a new set of zodiac signs! Your baby could, in fact, be an Ophiuchus! This new news simply clears up any question points astrologers may have had when dealing with people who don’t seem to fit their sign, or unexplained happenings during times when the moon should be in another sign. Jennifer Jordan, Examiner.com
In one of many ironies in this story, astrologers were in the unenviable position of trying to persuade a gullible public that the scientists had it wrong. They scrambled to reassure their clients, and some attempted to set the record straight, either by leaving comments on Web sites or by writing directly to the news media. In some cases, astrologers were further ridiculed as defying science and being resentful. Launching a full-frontal assault, a few well-known astrologers were able to get the message across, effectively debunking Kunkle. But the amount of disinformation remaining on the Internet is appalling. (Just Google “Ophiuchus” and see what comes up.) Blogs devoted entirely to the “new sign” authoritatively describe personality traits, list Ophiuchus celebrities, and display a glyph — further confusing people with little or no understanding of astrology.
The debate over the accuracy of Ward’s article predictably devolved into an argument about the validity of astrology itself. Some of the arguments were crazy-making and demonstrated the degree to which many Internet users have lost the ability to discern facts and use logic — another irony, given that one of the main arguments against astrology is that it isn’t logical. The fiasco lends credence to Eckhart Tolle’s theory that we’re all insane. Even some astrologers attempting to correct the story got their facts wrong, attributing the confusion to the difference between the tropical and sidereal zodiacs. That most certainly was not the case. The dates for the “new signs” do not correspond to those used by sidereal astrologers, nor does sidereal astrology include a 13th sign.
What did happen is that people all over the planet began discussing astrology, expressing their opinions in Tweets, texts, blogs, and comments on posts. What a shock! Who would have thought that the precession of the equinoxes would be a hot topic on the Internet or that pop astrology would, in the blink of an eye, move beyond how a Gemini woman can seduce a Scorpio man? Millions of people were moved to write about their attachment to their zodiac signs. The idea that they weren’t who they thought they were was distressing.
Beneath the whole affair was a strange synchronicity, its focal point a little-known constellation whose name people couldn’t even pronounce, which symbolized deep healing. We might think of it as a cosmic Freudian slip.
Medicine in the Stars
For those who aren’t familiar with the history and mythology of Ophiuchus, here’s a brief primer:
The zodiac is a band of 12 constellations that straddle the ecliptic, the path the Sun takes as it appears to move through the sky from our perspective here on Earth. There is, however, a 13th constellation on the ecliptic: Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.
Ophiuchus (pronounced ah-fee-YOO-kəs) is associated with Asclepius, the god of medicine. According to Greek mythology, Asclepius (whose name means “to cut open”) was rescued from his mother’s womb after she died in labor. He was raised by the wise centaur Chiron and learned the art of medicine. Eventually, he became so skilled at his craft that he was able to bring the dead back to life. For this, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt, lest humans become immortal like the gods. Zeus then placed him among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus, next to Sagittarius, who in some versions of the myth is Chiron.
As to how Asclepius acquired this supernatural skill, there are two accounts. In the more well-known tale, he was at the home of a sick patient when a snake entered the room and climbed up his staff. He killed the snake, and soon another appeared, carrying in its mouth an herb that brought its mate back to life. Asclepius tried the herb on humans, with spectacular results. This is the source of the rod of Asclepius, a snake entwined around a staff, widely used as the symbol of the medical profession. The alternative version is that Athena gave him the life-restoring blood of Medusa. (Read more on Theoi.com)
What makes this all so confusing for anyone not well versed in astrology is that the signs in Western tropical astrology aren’t the same as the constellations, even though the former are named after the latter. The two systems were in alignment around the time of the birth of Christ, but since then, they have drifted apart by three quarters of a sign (about 23 degrees), due to precession. Scholars generally attribute the discovery of precession to Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer born in the 2nd century B.C.E. It’s not clear who developed the tropical zodiac and when, but this took place thousands of years ago, and the signs were anchored to the solstices and equinoxes — what we call the four cardinal points — rather than the slow but constantly shifting positions of the constellations.
Ancient astrologers were aware that there were 13 constellations on the ecliptic. Of course, they also knew that a lunar year was 13 months, but this didn’t correspond to the four seasons. A circle is 360 degrees, easily divisible by 12 but not so easy to divide by 13. They divided the sky into 12 equal segments, each one named for the constellation in that part of the sky. Astrologer Robert Hand, in his online journal, notes that the eighth sign was named for Scorpio, because more of its stars were visible in that region of the sky than were the stars of Ophiuchus. Thus, Ophiuchus was incorporated into Scorpio. Incidentally, if all 13 constellations had been translated into signs, Ophiuchus would be the ninth sign, and Pisces would be the 13th.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the boundaries of the constellations used by Kunkle and other astronomers were established rather recently, in 1930. Like geopolitical boundaries, these are formed by human artifice, so it’s silly to be talking about “exact” dates for zodiac signs. Western sidereal and Vedic astrologers use calculations that more closely track the Sun’s actual path through the constellations, but even these aren’t exact. Sidereal astrology measures 12 signs of 30 degrees each, when in fact some constellations, like Cancer, span less than 30 degrees, and others, like Virgo, take up far more. Together, Scorpio and Ophiuchus account for less than 30 degrees on the ecliptic.
To summarize, the tropical zodiac is fixed to the equinoxes and solstices, and Ophiuchus was intentionally folded into Scorpio, which made sense in ancient times and still does. That’s why the Snake Handler has no official glyph, no ruling planet, no personality traits, gemstone, metal, or any of the other correspondences attributed to the signs.
The Broken Snake
No snake handler would be complete without a snake, and Ophiuchus has one in the form of Serpens, the only constellation that is broken into two noncontiguous parts. On one side of Ophiuchus is Serpens Caput, and on the other, Serpens Cauda (the head and tail of the snake).
Volumes have been written — more than I could possibly mention here — about the symbolism of the snake or serpent, one of the oldest images left behind by our ancient ancestors. A common theory is that the snake came to represent death and regeneration due to the cyclical shedding of its skin. It is certainly no coincidence that the serpent is one of the four symbols used for Scorpio, the sign of birth, death, and regeneration. (The other three symbols are the scorpion, the eagle, and the phoenix.) In Eastern traditions, the serpent represents chi or kundalini (literally, “coiled serpent”), a consciousness-awakening energy that flows upward from the base of the spine.
In the seminal work, The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford write that the serpent symbolized the “dynamic power of waters beyond, beneath and around the earth, [which] appears in many different mythologies as the creative source or generator of the universe.” The authors liken the pattern of intertwined snakes to the umbilical cord connecting mother and child. “[T]his universal and evocative image of relationship may lie behind the image of the serpentine meander and labyrinth connecting this world to the one beyond.” This hypothesis raises two questions: How did two serpents entwined around a rod become the symbol we know as the caduceus, while the rod of Asclepius has only one snake? Second, where are all the women in this story?
Just as Ophiuchus is hidden within Scorpio, the real meaning of the Snake Handler is buried in time. A major clue lies in the alternative to the myth that Asclepius learned how to revive the dead by observing snakes. According to an older tradition, his power came from Medusa, a woman with snakes for hair who predated the classical period. Asclepius was able to bring the dead back to life because Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom, gave him Medusa’s blood. The blood from her right side could revive the dead, while the blood from her left side destroyed life. There’s a good possibility that Asclepius belonged to an old bloodline of healer–priests and that he was schooled in an ancient art that, by the classical period, had gone underground. It seems reasonable to conclude that he knew some form of energy healing — the root of “heal” meaning to make whole, holy, or sacred — and that this function was once the domain of women.
In the entry on Ophiuchus in Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars, astrologer Bernadette Brady notes the connection to Medusa: “The serpent was seen as a healing agent because it represented prudence, rejuvenation, wisdom, and rebirth. This is the healing side of the ancient goddess, for just as she had the ability to create life, she also had the wisdom and knowledge of how it could be healed, as well as the knowledge of how it can be destroyed.”
Medusa herself harkens back to the serpent goddess of ancient Crete and even older deities. She is sometimes depicted wearing a belt of entwined serpents, similar to those found on figures of Minoan snake goddesses. Baring and Cashford suggest that these images were remnants of an old European serpent goddess, the giver of life and death. Might the famous Minoan snake goddess, bare-breasted, with a snake in each outstretched hand, be the original Serpent Handler?
Athena’s connection with Medusa tells us that she, too, is an archetype of primal, subconscious knowing. Although we think of Athena as a goddess of war and logic who sprang fully formed from Zeus’s head, Baring and Cashford describe an older image of a “wild and awesome goddess, wreathed in snakes … where snakes wind around her head as hair and crown, their heads fringe the folds of her robe, and she holds a rearing head firmly in her left hand.” Some of this imagery survived in classical mythology as the head of Medusa on Athena’s cloak, also known as the aegis. However, it was revised into a symbol of the supremacy of rational thought; the wild, uncontrollable feminine “monster” who turns men to stone is slain by the Greek hero Perseus, with Athena’s help.
The myth of the hero who slays the serpent goddess didn’t originate in ancient Greece but was among the first stories ever written. In Babylonian myth, Marduk kills the serpent goddess Tiamat, the great mother of creation. According to Baring and Cashford, the story reflects a societal shift from revering women as keepers of ancient wisdom to demonizing them, at a time when patriarchal religions with an all-powerful father god were taking over.
Asclepius was said to have three daughters, all of whom practiced some form of healing. One of his daughters, Hygeia (from which we get the word “hygiene”), is typically seen standing behind her father as his attendant, and she is the one holding the snake. In other words, she is the snake handler! It’s not too farfetched to propose that the “daughter” is really the Great Mother, the real source of Asclepius’s gifts, relegated to the status of an attendant in a culture that by now is completely patriarchal. The ancient wisdom of the serpent goddess became a closely guarded secret passed down from father to son within a cult dedicated to Asclepius. It’s also telling that, as healing temples dedicated to Asclepius sprang up in classical Greece, they included altars to Hygeia, where visitors left offerings to the goddess.
So, how did we get from one snake on the rod of Asclepius to two intertwined snakes on the caduceus? It’s not hard to see how the two could be confused, and apparently that’s what happened in the early 20th century, when the Army Medical Corps mistakenly adopted the caduceus as its insignia. Since then, medical establishments have used both symbols.
Of the two, only the rod of Asclepius was associated with healing. The caduceus, carried by Hermes/Mercury, originally had no snakes and was the wand of heralds and messengers, which he used to awaken mortals from their sleep. In this context, the caduceus can be seen as a symbol of Mercury’s ability to go back and forth between the conscious and the unconscious. Among all the gods, only Mercury could travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But that had nothing to do with snakes, which were added later and were said to symbolize the negotiation of peace between opposing parties.
We do know that both symbols have ancient roots. The snake coiled on a tree is repeated throughout history, the most well-known example being the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. One of the earliest known images of entwined serpents occurs in ancient Sumer and is believed to be Ningishzida, ”Lord of the Good Tree.” This would tend to support the idea that a snake coiled on a tree and two snakes coiled on a rod expressed related concepts — the first being unmanifest energy as the source of everything in the physical world, and the second symbolizing the union of the dual forces in nature. Either one suggests healing. Nevertheless, it’s curious that the symbol of Asclepius has only one snake, when Medusa, the ostensible source of his power, wore entwined snakes.
As for Medusa, she is commemorated with a star — and not just any star, but the most malefic star in the heavens! According to Brady, Algol “embodied everything that men feared in the feminine. She is not the mother-face of the goddess but rather the passionate lover or the whore. She is female kundalini energy … Algol, in other words, is the wild, raw, frightening face of the outraged feminine which has been labeled as demonic or simply evil. This star seems to contain immense female passion and power. It is the power of the feminine or the potential power of Mother Nature, not to be called evil for being strong.”
Signs in the Sky
Why, we may ask, did Ophiuchus burst into public view when it did? What was happening in the sky when Kunkle created such a media sensation?
The original story was published with Jupiter in the 10th house, in conjunction by exact degree with Uranus in Pisces (see chart below‘). Chiron and Neptune were in Aquarius on the Midheaven. The Moon in Pisces was in an applying conjunction with Uranus and Jupiter, while Mercury squared them from the Galactic Center on the Descendant. Uranus and Neptune were in partile semi-sextile, in mutual reception, reinforcing the theme of healing through a shift in the collective consciousness.
Neptune and Chiron were in conjunction from 2009 to 2010 and remain within three degrees through early 2012. Neptune and Chiron in Aquarius represent the collective healing of ancient wounds through unity consciousness — the deepest wound being the split between the divine masculine and feminine. The resulting polarization has had grave consequences for life on Earth. Uranus is the Awakener, as well as the planet of sudden change. In Pisces, Uranus mirrors Neptune in Aquarius. Jupiter represents expansion, and his involvement ensures that events happen on a large scale. Mercury rules newspapers. Although he was in his detriment in Sagittarius, he was channeling energy from the Galactic Center, located at the point where Ophiuchus, Scorpio, and Sagittarius meet.
The message couldn’t be clearer, and that’s why it would be a mistake to ignore Ophiuchus. But how should we astrologers incorporate him into our work?
The healing powers ascribed to Asclepius are consistent with traits that we assign to Scorpio, whose modern ruler is Pluto, associated with death and transformation. Asclepius earned the wrath of Zeus precisely because he could revive the dead — a skill, we are told, that he learned through observation and not from his teacher, Chiron. The “Wounded Healer,” meanwhile, is never completely healed. In order to end his pain, Chiron must accept becoming mortal so that he can die. Although it is healing to accept our mortality and the inevitable pain of life, the next step is transformation and a rebirth of the personality.
Astrologer Arielle Guttman, in a post for The Mountain Astrologer’s weekly blog, proposes making Chiron the ruling planet of Ophiuchus. It’s an intriguing concept, and she makes a compelling case. But this is problematic: In order to assign a ruler, we’d have to make Ophiuchus a sign, and we’ve already seen why that’s not a good idea. The question is: Does Ophiuchus have distinct traits, and do they correspond to certain degrees of Scorpio? How should these degrees be determined? Or are degrees irrelevant?
In a post on my old blog, RealAstrologers, I attempted to answer a reader’s question, “How much of Scorpio is Ophiuchus?” Really, none of it is, because Ophiuchus isn’t part of the tropical zodiac. However, this is an interesting hypothetical question and may turn out to be significant in chart interpretation. Bernadette Brady places the Sun in Scorpio for nine days and in Ophiuchus for 21 days. Expressed in degrees, Scorpio theoretically would be dominant up to 9°, and Ophiuchus would have more influence from 10° to 29°.
According to 4th-century astrologer Firmicus Maternus, “[t]hose who are born in Ofiuchus will be daring and be possessed by a god; they will have divine knowledge of the future.” That may be an exaggeration, but those with mid-to-late Scorpio prominent in their charts do seem to have an uncanny sense of knowing. I have a few clients with the Sun or Ascendant in these degrees who are extremely gifted healers. Among other talents, they intuitively understand the source of the illness and therefore can find the right cure.
A good historical example is Sally Tompkins, the only woman officer in the Civil War. The daughter of a country doctor, she ran one of the most successful hospitals in the Confederacy. To allow her hospital to stay open under wartime rationing, President Jefferson Davis commissioned her as a captain in the Confederate Army. Hygeia personified, Tompkins achieved her impressive results through sanitation. In an era before the connection between bacteria and infection was discovered, it wasn’t uncommon for surgeons to wipe their scalpels on their boots, and yet she instinctively understood the vital role of cleanliness. She also read the Bible to her patients, a form of holistic healing appropriate in its day. “Captain Sally,” as she was affectionately known, was a mid-degree Scorpio with a Sun–Mars conjunction (see chart).
It would be all too easy to dismiss the Kunkle fiasco as a social media phenomenon and continue to work with Scorpio in the usual manner. But if we believe that astrology works through symbolism and synchronicity, then we must seek to understand the significance in this event. At the very least, it would be worthwhile to begin collecting empirical data to help us determine whether there is something unique about these “O-Scorpios.” Clients will no doubt want to know of these influences, particularly those with special gifts of insight who are having trouble integrating an ability that can be scary without some understanding of its nature.
And What of the Future?
As we search for the meaning in the Ophiuchus affair, we can’t help drawing a parallel between the discovery of Chiron in 1977 and the subsequent surge in alternative healing. New techniques for energetic medicine emerged under Chiron in Aquarius. With Chiron in Pisces, we can expect to see new techniques incorporating spiritual healing — or, perhaps, a revival of older techniques. These modalities may be along the same lines as those practiced in the temples of Asclepius.²
Advanced healing technologies are emerging into the mainstream that use light and sound to influence the body’s core energies so that it can heal itself. Under the outdated model, the physician retains the power, treats physical symptoms, and “cures” the patient, often by prescribing toxic drugs. Modern healers guide people to tap into their inherent regenerative power, to reconnect with the unmanifest energy of the cosmos, visualized by our ancestors as a great serpent goddess. The result is an awakening consciousness, which eventually will reverberate into every corner of society. It is telling that Ophiuchus borders the Galactic Center. Just as our own healing comes from our core (the Latin root for “heart”), this mysterious Black Hole may be a source of collective healing.
The Ophiuchus affair also portends the possible reintegration of astrology into physical and spiritual wellness and into society in general, via the emerging field of archetypal cosmology. What is the role of the modern astrologer, if not healing? The astrologer may work alone to help clients identify the source of spiritual (energetic) wounds, or in concert with alternative health practitioners, who further guide the healing process with their particular modality. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was trendy to have a shrink. In the ‘90s, it was a life coach. Perhaps in the next decade, having an astrologer will be cool.
We owe a debt to Parke Kunkle and Bill Ward. Thousands of people who didn’t know anything other than their Sun sign now know about Ophiuchus, precession, and the difference between sidereal and tropical astrology. Astrologers couldn’t have educated the general public this fast if we’d tried. We may not have won any converts in the short run — debunkers will not be swayed, no matter what. But for those whose interest in astrology was limited to daily horoscopes, this event provided a wonderful opportunity to learn that there’s a lot more to it.
Humanity is on the threshold of a great awakening, and astrology can be both catalyst and beneficiary. Who knows, perhaps we’ll even live to see the rift healed between astronomers and astrologers.
** The original version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.
References and Notes
1. Bill Ward’s original article was removed from the StarTribune’s online edition four days later and replaced with an “update” that never acknowledged the first story was wrong. The first version was preserved on external sites, along with the date and time of the first publication (January 9, 2011 at 3:00 p.m. CST, Minneapolis, MN, USA).
2. Astrologer Arielle Guttman described some of this practice in an excellent article in the February/March 2011 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.
© Pat Paquette, The Aquarius Chronicles, 2015-2018