Posted by: Donna Cunningham | February 11, 2010

Why Two Zodiacs? One Possible Explanation

©2-11-10 by Donna Cunningham, MSW

In the last week, I’ve heard from two earnest astrology students who needed an explanation of why the most commonly used zodiac signs (the tropical zodiac) do not match the positions of the constellations in the sky (the sidereal zodiac). It was causing them to doubt their belief in astrology.

I wrestled with that question early in my own studies, and perhaps you did too. And I came up with an answer that satisfied me and might help students like these as well. Drum roll, please. ….

My answer is this: IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THE CONSTELLATIONS DON’T REPRESENT ANYTHING REAL. They’re just ancient attempts at drawing a map of the belt of space that surrounds our solar system—and rather primitive attempts at that.

All an astrology chart really is is a crude map of planets in our solar system at birth, displayed against the background of distant stars.  In Brazil, the term for your astrology chart is a mapa. defines a map as:

 “a representation, usually on a flat surface, of the features of an area of the earth or a portion of the heavens, showing them in their respective forms, sizes, and relationships.”

Maps change when our concepts change. In the past 30 years, we’ve seen many examples of dramatic changes in maps due to political upheavals. The features of the actual area of the earth cartographers are trying to portray don’t change just because the before and after maps look different.

Look at these before and after maps of the former Soviet Union. The national boundaries are very different, but the land masses themselves are exactly the same. The maps are just man-made attempts to represent that area of the globe. Above is what it looked like before and below is what the maps show today.

Do we cease to believe in the existence of geographic features like the Ural Mountains or the Steppes just because the two maps look different? Is this land mass that takes up the majority of the Asian continent any less real because two generations of cartographers portrayed it differently?

 Cave Man Constellations—Why on Earth Do We Care?

 One past life reader told me about a lifetime during the caveman era when I was an astrologer.

The night a child was born, we’d hold a ceremony and create a big map of the heavens in our camp grounds with poles arranged in a circle. The map would be transferred to an animal hide and given to the parents as a keepsake and for reference throughout life.

I have zero idea whether that’s true or not, though I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve been an astrologer.  Right from the start, it all seemed so familiar, like I was finally coming home.

But it’s plausible that early man—as soon as dinosaurs no longer represented a threat—would venture out of the caves at night , be stunned by the heavens above, and try to make sense of them.

Native peoples all over the globe throughout history have created zodiacs of their own. They were trying to map out the same belt of space around the solar system, but they came up with different interpretations of what the starry constellations represent.

One tribe might see a particular group of stars as representing a lion, one living on another continent might view it as a bear. Both are trying to describe ferocious qualities.  Different map, same qualities. Am I the only one that feels those stars look like nothing at all–that only by a vast stretch of the imagination can you see a lion or a fish or a virgin?

 My Final Answer about the Tropical vs. Sidereal Maps of the Zodiac

 Here’s what I wrote about this question in the chapter, “Questions Newbies Ask” in my ebook, Counseling Principles for Astrologers” available at

“The 0° Aries point is the beginning of the zodiac and the spring equinox. Since ancient times when the astrologer/astronomers first mapped out the zodiac, this point has very slowly moved backwards in the sky through the constellations. It is currently some 23° behind where Aries begins in the traditional or “tropical” zodiac and actually falls near the beginning of the constellation Pisces now. This rather glaring discrepancy is only one of the reasons science considers us morons, but it is a major one.

“Why are most astrologers undisturbed by the mismatch between the tropical and the sidereal zodiac? I can only say for myself that the tropical signs consistently fit the psychology of the individual. In my earliest days as a student, I had my chart interpreted by a sidereal astrologer and found that tropical and sidereal Cancer were very different, as were other signs important in my chart. I decided to stick with the tropical zodiac, and I, my students, clients and readers for the past 40 years seem to find it very accurate.

 “Every astrological author is entitled to go gaga in print at least once, so here’s my theory on the tropical/sidereal problem.

I believe that there are twelve distinct regions in space–electromagnetic fields or whatever–in the planets’ orbit around the sun and that the “climate” of those regions is equivalent to the tropical signs. The constellations that were a backdrop to those twelve regions became named for the qualities of the signs.

“So, for instance, the old astrologer/astronomers noticed that when the Sun and other planets were passing through the region now called Leo, they took on lion-like qualities. They looked at the bunch of stars there and claimed it looked like a lion.

“At any rate, the constellations changed position as the equinox precessed, but the regions in that belt around the solar system did not, and the regions are what determine the qualities of planets passing through them. That’s my theory, and I’d be much obliged if you didn’t confuse me with the facts!”

What about you, readers?  How have you resolved the differences between the tropical and sidereal zodiacs in your own mind?  Tell us in the comment section.

More Posts that Students might enjoy:

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Art Credits: Like most posts on this site, the art here came from I just tweaked it mercilessly to suit my own devious purposes.


  1. Aloha Donna, I have also bent my mind around this question of Tropical vs Sidereal Zodiacs, and I think your theory makes a lot more sense than some of the articles I’ve seen written about this question. There was also a time when I had my chart done in Sidereal, which was very different from what I came to know about myself after 40+ years of studying astrology! So for me, the Tropical works best. Your story about past life experiences in cave man days is very funny and gave me a good bit of jolly thinking about it. Mahalo a nui loa (thanks so much) Meleanna

  2. My take on it is from fractal geometry. There is an underlying patterning to the universe and this is reflected over diffierent scales. Zoom in on one part of a fractal pattern eg Mandelbrot set and as I zoom more the first pattern appears. So different zodiacs are slices of the same pie to me.

    I got born into a hard science focussed family this time round and anything like astrology was nonsense of course. I thought I’d learn how to draw up a chart as a mathematical party trick. It was spooky but it *was* like coming home and instantly familiar. I pretty much didn’t do anything else other than go to work and absorb astrology texts for about a year after. Changed my life path forever 🙂

  3. Ha! Good post and I’m so glad you addressed this.

    I’ve only recently started wondering about the two zodiacs. But I’m more attracted to tropical astrology and content to learn that first.

    But as an Indian, I feel under pressure to also learn sidereal. Later, later…

    One at a time 🙂

  4. Aloha Donna, Just another thought about Tropical vs Sidereal Zodiacs. When I started astrological studies in the early 1960’s, most of my friends and family thought I had gone “completely whacko” and was venturing way too far out of reality. But most of them were always intrigued with the “Horoscope” columns in the newspapers.

    Even though I never considered myself to be in any way a whacko, when the scientists “debunked” astrology, perhaps many good students like myself had second thoughts about whether or not our studies played a legitimate role in our lives. Perhaps this is why the Sidereal zodiac and chartmaking began to become more prominent, because it is more aligned with the scientific view of the heavens, therefore giving Sidereal astrologers more “scientific validity”.
    However, the reality of “what works” for us on Earth and in our psychological/spiritual lives is what counts.

    There is not much interest in astrology as far as Hawai’i goes, but the Polynesians had a very workable system using the Sun, Moon and Planets to navigate their way across the Pacific Ocean, and still use these skills today. Meleanna

  5. Sidereal eternal crisis, thanks Donna ….the pics are very funny
    Zodiac departments are static, like the seasons of the year … is the sidereal zodiac which is really irrexolute….greetins from San Sebastian (Spain)

  6. I once saw Rob Hand do a presentation on this at a Planetarium and it made so much sense then. I seem to have misplaced that part of my memory.

    The way I look at is is a lot like the way I view the afterlife. My late Father planned on going to a Catholic Heaven, I expect to be in the Summerlands. They are both thoughtforms, and both valid.

    I know Vedic Astrologers can be quite accurate and I sometimes envy them their abbreviated system. But in the Vedic system I am a Virgo and this is just Not possible ! My pores ooze Libra.

    So I go with tropical astrology, or try to any way.

    One question though, do you used Fixed Stars in your chart interpretations ? Just curious, they have sort of helped me merge the difference.
    Plus my family lab has quite a few Fixed Star points, though thankfully, no Algol !


    • I haven’t worked with many of the fixed stars, but there are a few I pay attention to. One is Regulus at 29 Leo, a definite super-Leo influence. Donna

  7. well, where to start! astrologer has to be energy based, everything is. i don’t believe “twelve distinct regions in space”. that cannot be the source of energy which gives influence to the planets. the fixed stars are a source of electromagetic energy, we can detect it by sight, radio frequency etc. the fixed stars do have profound influence on us. i use neother tropical or sidereal zodiacs. i agree with Johannes Kepler, in that the zodiac is merely a tool for us to use in order to describe positions and to work out aspects.

  8. (mars on regulus)

  9. Well Donna I’m a bit disapointed. I understand your point of view and logic on this and respect it. I have come accross the same dilema and came to a totally different conclusion. In short, it came to me once as I looked outside my window on a night that “Tropical” told me it was in Cancer and clearly saw the Moon in the constellation of Gemini. If we say that astrology is the symbolic interpretation of the planets placement AS SEEN FROM EARTH…it has to be as seen. To me it’s like saying that because my clock is at Noon, the Sun must be at zenith. We all know this is only true for a short period of time in any given year. Now I can ignore that the Sun is not at zenith, metaphorically, and continue my calculation as such, based on the mechanical clock and get a certain level of info that seem correct. Carry the mistake long enough and it becomes the perceived truth, especially in an art as complex as astrology.
    I don’t think it right to carry the mistake the Church created by separating Astronomy and Astrology. Cultures that did not have the Church imposed dogma, like India, work by the Sidereal system…and that is good enough for me.

    One more thing, to say that constellation represents nothing but a primitive map…? I thought constellation represented archetypal energies, as far as astrology is concerned….. This is an astrology blog right? Because, I’m quite amazed by this interpretation of it, considering that constellations are like the ABC of the topic. To say they mean nothing but arbitrary primitive “mappings” kind of discredit and defeats the whole purpose of Astrolgy.
    Truly, I am disapointed….

  10. I wish we had the option to go back and edit…
    Regardless Donna, I do appologize for the harshness of my comment, especially second part where that was my misreading what you wrote.

    I wanted to mention that for those saying that the tropical Sun sign feels like it fits them better than the Sidereal one, that in my own studies,
    I have found it to be explained by the Progressed Sun. For exemple, I was born in the late degrees of Aquarius, but for most of my life it felt better for me to think of myself as a Pisces. Only a few years ago, as my Sun Progressed into Aries, did I start to feel otherwise.
    Well briefly, that is how I came to decide that Sidereal was the system for me.

  11. Really good post Donna, thank you. I think there is much truth in your theory but just to confound the issue, here is another cosmic riddle. As a gardener using biodynamic methods of growing, I use the sidereal zodiac for the position of the moon, for instance work with leaves is best carried out on a day when the moon occupies a water sign accoding to the sidereal zodiac, fruit prefers a fire sign day and so on. The phases of the moon are also used but that doesn’t invove zodiac positions. However, when I do human or animal astrology I use the tropical zodiac. Both work to my complete satisfaction but I often wonder if the moon/water cycles are much more immediate and important than we realise. Certainly the ‘Old Ones’ thought so as they constructed their lunar observatories (stone circles) over points where water as well as Earth energies are present. Any thoughts ?
    Angi, I look forward to mulling over your fractal theory when work goes on auto later! Thanks to all of you for this. Excellent work Donna!

    • It’s a complex question, for sure, and you’ve all brought up good points. I hope the two people who brought up the sidereal/tropical question found some ideas they can work with. Donna

  12. Hello Somenone, I although I disagree about your thesis. the reviews of progress to the next sign I think one of the best theories I’ve read in defense of the sidereal zodiac but I think it is not comparable the occcidental with the Indian astrology. Why insist on mixing both two views and zodiacs so differents? and with different names, cosmobiology cosmogenetic, when for centuries have been known not reciprocally.

  13. Here’s another link on the same topic:

  14. Good synchronicity Neeti, thanks!

  15. Interesting theory Donna but there is only one problem with it. When you look up at the constellation of Scorpio, you can DEFINITELY see the scorpion’s tail curving. Even though a couple of the ‘fixed’ stars at the bottom of the tail have moved out of alignment a little, you can still clearly see the curve of the stinger. When I look at it, it fills me with wonder. And if you look further, you can see its two ‘feelers’ on top of the main line of stars that form the body of the scorpion (Antares being one of them I think). This leads me to believe that the fish, goat, scorpion etc are universal themes of creation that run through all of creation. Why? Who knows.

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