Sidereal and tropical astrology

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Sidereal and tropical are astrological terms used to describe two different definitions of a "year". They are also used as terms for two systems of ecliptic coordinates used in astrology. Both divide the ecliptic into a number of "signs" named after constellations, but while the sidereal system defines the signs based on the fixed stars, the tropical system defines it based on the position of vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere (i.e., the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator). Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the two systems do not remain fixed relative to each other but drift apart by about 1.4 arc degrees per century. The tropical system was adopted during the Hellenistic period and remains prevalent in Western astrology. A sidereal system is used in Hindu astrology, and in some 20th century systems of Western astrology.

While classical tropical astrology is based on the orientation of the Earth relative to the Sun and planets of the solar system, sidereal astrology deals with the position of the Earth relative to both of these as well as the stars of the celestial sphere. The actual positions of certain fixed stars as well as their constellations is an additional consideration in the horoscope.


Changing position of the vernal equinox. The red line is a section of the apparent path traced by the Sun through the Earth's year. The red/green line is a projection of the Earth's equator onto the celestial sphere. The crossing point of these two lines is the spring equinox. In 1500 BCE it was near the end of the constellation of Aries, in 500 BCE it was near the beginning of the constellation of Aries, and in 150 CE (the time of Ptolemy) it was in the center of the constellation of Pisces.

The classical zodiac was introduced in the neo-Babylonian period (around the seventh to the sixth century BCE). At the time, the precession of the equinoxes had not been discovered. Classical Hellenistic astrology consequently developed without consideration of the effects of precession. The discovery of the precession of the equinoxes is attributed to Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer active in the later Hellenistic period (ca. 130 BCE).

Ptolemy, writing some 250 years after Hipparchus, was thus aware of the effects of precession. He opted for a definition of the zodiac based on the point of the vernal equinox, i.e., the tropical system. While Ptolemy noted that Ophiuchus is in contact with the ecliptic, he was aware that the 12 signs were just conventional names for 30-degree segments.

The Hindu Jyotisha system opted for defining the zodiac based on the fixed stars, i.e., directly tied to the eponymous zodiacal constellations, unlike Western astrological systems.

Sidereal traditions

Hindu astrology

Traditional Hindu astrology is based on the sidereal or visible zodiac, accounting for the shift of the equinoxes by a correction called ayanamsa. The difference between the Vedic and the Western zodiacs is currently around 24 degrees. This corresponds to a separation of about 1,700 years, when the vernal equinox was approximately at the center of the constellation Aries ("First Point of Aries"), and the tropical and sidereal zodiacs coincided (around AD 290, or at 23.86° as of 2000). The separation is believed to have taken place in the centuries following Ptolemy (second century AD), apparently going back to Indo-Greek transmission of the system. But earlier Greek astronomers like Eudoxus spoke of a vernal equinox at 15° in Aries, while later Greeks spoke of a vernal equinox at 8° and then 0° in Aries (cf. p. 16, S. Jim Tester in ref.), which suggests the use of a sidereal zodiac in Greece before Ptolemy and Hipparchus.

Sidereal western astrology

Some western astrologists have shown interest in the sidereal system during the 20th century.

Shifted zodiac

Cyril Fagan assumed the origin of the zodiac in 786 BC, when the vernal equinox lay somewhere in mid-Aries, based on a major conjunction that occurred that year,[1] corresponding to a difference of some 39 degrees or days.

Most sidereal astrologers simply divide the ecliptic into 12 equal signs of 30 degrees but approximately aligned to the 12 zodiac constellations. Assuming an origin of the system in 786 BC, this results in a system identical to that of the classical tropical zodiac, shifted by 25.5 days, i.e., if in tropical astrology Aries is taken to begin at March 21, sidereal Aries will begin on April 15.

Astronomic zodiac

A small number of sidereal astrologers do not take the astrological signs as an equal division of the ecliptic, but define their signs based on the actual width of the individual constellations. They also include constellations that are disregarded by the traditional zodiac, but are still in contact with the ecliptic.

Stephen Schmidt in 1970 introduced Astrology 14, a system with additional signs based on the constellations of Ophiuchus and Cetus.

In 1995, Walter Berg introduced his 13-sign zodiac, which has the additional sign of Ophiuchus. Berg's system was well received in Japan after having his book translated by radio host Mizui Kumi (水井久美) in 1996.

For the purpose of determining the constellations in contact with the ecliptic, the constellation boundaries as defined by the International Astronomical Union in 1930 are used. For example, the Sun enters the IAU boundary of Aries on April 19 at the lower right corner, a position that is still rather closer to the "body" of Pisces than of Aries. The IAU defined the constellation boundaries without consideration of astrological purposes.

The dates the Sun passes through the 13 astronomical constellations of the ecliptic are listed below, accurate to the year 2011. The dates will progress by an increment of one day every 70.5 years. The corresponding tropical and sidereal dates are given as well.

Constellation Sidereal Date
Cyril Fagan
Tropical date Based on IAU boundaries
Walter Berg[2]
Aries.svg Aries April 15 – May 15 March 21 – April 20 April 18 – May 13
Taurus.svg Taurus May 16 – June 15 April 21 – May 21 May 13 – June 21
Gemini.svg Gemini June 16 – July 15 May 22 – June 21 June 21 – July 20
Cancer.svg Cancer July 16 – August 15 June 22 – July 22 July 20 – August 10
Leo.svg Leo August 16 – September 15 July 23 – August 22 August 10 – September 16
Virgo.svg Virgo September 16 – October 15 August 23 – September 22 September 16 – October 30
Libra.svg Libra October 16 – November 15 September 23 – October 22 October 30 – November 23
Scorpio.svg Scorpio November 16 – December 15 October 23 – November 21 November 23 – November 29
Ophiuchus zodiac.svg Ophiuchus N/A November 29 – December 17
Sagittarius.svg Sagittarius December 16 – January 14 November 22 – December 21 December 17 – January 20
Capricorn.svg Capricorn January 15 – February 14 December 22 – January 20 January 20 – February 16
Aquarius.svg Aquarius February 15 – March 14 January 21 – February 19 February 16 – March 11
Pisces.svg Pisces March 15 – April 14 February 19 – March 20 March 11 – April 18

See also


  • "The Real Constellations of the Zodiac." Dr. Lee T. Shapiro, Planetarian, Vol 6, #1, Spring (1977). [1]
  • "The Real, Real Constellations of the Zodiac." John Mosley, Planetarian, Vol. 28, # 4, December (1999).[2]
  • "The Primer of Sidereal Astrology," Cyril Fagin and Brigadier R. C. Firebrace, American Federation of Astrologers, Inc., (1971) ISBN 0-86690-427-1
  • A History of Western Astrology, by S. Jim Tester, 1987, republished by Boydell Press (January 1999),ISBN 0-85115-255-4, ISBN 978-0-85115-255-4
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