Ophiuchus [the '13th sign'] - Dates: 30th November to 17th December



Definition: [Sun Signs - Solar Zodiac] Ophiuchus, the sign of the Serpent Bearer, is the 10th sign of the Real Solar Zodiac.

However, although it lies on the Ecliptic it is not one of the signs of either the Tropical Zodiac of standard Western Astrology, or the Sidereal Zodiac of standard Vedic astrology.

This problem is one of the most contentious issues in modern astrology. I know the subject of Ophiuchus causes us lots of grief as astrologers. But it's up there in the heavens. It exists. We can't ignore it.

The Thirteenth Sign? Ophiuchus is often mistakenly called the 'thirteenth sign of the zodiac' because the sign is thought of as an additional sign to the the twelve Tropical or Sidereal signs.

In fact, Ophiuchus is a Sun-sign in the Real Solar Zodiac, i.e. the Sun can be seen against the stars of Ophiuchus between 30th November and 17th December each year. [The dates of the cusps move a little from one year to the next, so sometimes they are quoted as 1st December to 18th December.] Aquarius, the Water Carrier, is the actual 13th, and last, sign of the Real Solar Zodiac.

Northern celestial hemisphere constellation map showing the sun sign of Ophiuchus between Scorpius and Sagittarius


Ophiuchus the Sun sign. The curved line marked with degree signs is the Ecliptic. The Ecliptic, the Sun's path through the heavens as seen from Earth, runs through Ophiuchus from about 245 to 265° away from the Vernal Equinox. This means that the Sun can be seen against the stars of Ophiuchus from 30th November to 17th December

Ophiuchus in the Planetary Zodiac: As Ophiuchus is a Sun-sign it is also a member of the Planetary Zodiac and the Lunar Zodiac, i.e. as well as the Sun, the planets and the Moon can frequently be seen against the stars of Ophiuchus, from the view point of the Earth.

The planet Pluto could be found in Ophiuchus until the end of 2003, after which it passed into Serpens Cauda, the Serpent's Tail. The Centaur object, the minor planetoid Chiron, was visible against the stars of Ophiuchus until November 2001, after which it passed over the border into Sagittarius. Venus and Mercury can be found in Ophiuchus for a time each year. Shown right is an example of a star chart for Pluto in Ophiuchus in June 1999.

So why isn't Ophiucus in the Commonly-Used Western Zodiac? Ophiuchus is an Ancient Greek constellation. The Serpent Bearer is one of the original Ptolemy constellations, appearing in Al Magest Star Catalogue [c 130 - 170 AD]. He also appears on the Farnese Globe, a Roman copy of a circa 2nd century BC depiction of Atlas holding the Celestial Sphere above his head. So why isn't Ophiuchus a member of the standard astrological zodiac - the Tropical Zodiac?

Good question! Ophiuchus is a Sun-sign. The Moon and planets all are seen against the stars of Ophiuchus. Unfortunately, the answer to the question is that Ophiuchus isn't in the Tropical Zodiac not because there is something wrong with Ophiuchus but because there is something wrong with the Tropical Zodiac.  The Tropical Zodiac  is an inaccurate oversimplification of the heavens dating from a time when we did not have telescopes or computers. Follow the Zodiac Wheels link for a description of the history of the Zodiacs.

The planet Pluto against the Sun-sign of Ophiucus, 21 June 1999.


Pluto in Ophiuchus. Star chart for 21 Jun 99 of the Serpens-Ophiuchus-Serpens area of the night sky. The green lines are the constellation boundaries. The white lines join the stars of each constellation to make the constellation figure. Most of the bulk of Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is visible in the centre of the chart. Pluto [the joined PL symbol in gray] is just occulting the star ζ Ophiuchi.  [Star names and star symbols are marked in red, constellation names are shown in yellow.  The white horizontal line in the center of the star chart is the Celestial Equator.]

Click on the above picture for a larger version 14 kB.

Feet of Clay?: You can read elsewhere on the internet that the problem of Ophiuchus was invented by the Royal Astronomical Society several years ago to bedevil we astrologers. Alas, if it were that simple! The problem of Ophiuchus is very old: at least nineteen hundred years old, if not more. It dates back to at least the time of Claudius Ptolemy, the Classical father of astrology [c 130 - 170 AD].

Ptolemy produced two great works, Al Magest, which charted the heavens, and Tetrabiblos, the seminal work of astrology - a compendium of essentially all the astrological knowledge of the Ancient Greeks. Al Magest contains the earliest Star Catalogue that we still possess.

In Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy treats Ophiuchus as a non-zodiac constellation; he follows the simple, inherited tradition of the twelve part, equal-sign zodiac. However, in Al Magest, Ptolemy actually charts Ophiuchus in the heavens. He looks at the reality of the stars above. He catalogues 29 stars in the constellation. 24 of these he measures to have a latitude above the Ecliptic. But 5 of these he observes have a latitude below the Ecliptic. In other words the figure of Ophiuchus crosses the Ecliptic [the path of the Sun] making it by definition a Sun Sign. The five stars which lie south of the Ecliptic are:

  Ptolemy's Al Magest Star Catalogue c 130 - 170 AD:
Modern Star Name  Number  Ptolemy's Description  Location   Ecliptic Latitude* 
36 Ophiuchi   star 247   Praecedens de quatuor quae sunt in pede dextro   Ophiuchus' right foot   -02 15' 
42 Theta Ophiuchi  star 248  Quae istam sequitur  Ophiuchus' right foot  -01 30' 
44 Ophiuchi  star 249  Quae adhuc istam sequitur  Ophiuchus' right foot  -00 20' 
51 Ophiuchi  star 250   Reliqua de quatuor quae omnes sequitur  Ophiuchus' right foot  -00 15' 
5 Rho Ophiuchi   star 257  Quae tangit plantam sinistri pedis  Ophiuchus' left foot  -00 45' 

*The negative sign indicates that these stars have a position below the Ecliptic. Ecliptic latitudes taken from the on-line version of Al Magest held at: http://cdsweb.u-strasbg.fr/cats/Cats.htx.

Ptolemy never resolved these contradictions between a simple twelve-sign Solar Zodiac description of the skies and the reality of the thirteen sign heavens, and we as astrologers are still struggling with them today. Really though, the heavens have to win in the end...

Historical Star Charts of Ophiuchus - Ophiuchus Backwards and Forwards: The charts below are actually based on up-dated versions of Ptolemy's Al Magest Star Catalogue, though the catalogue was first written some fifteen hundred years before they were drawn. During the Renaissance, Ptolemy's work became freely available once again, which lead to the production of new catalogues and the drawing, for the first time, of accurate maps of the skies. Note the stars in Ophiuchus feet lying below the Ecliptic, just as in the excerpt from Ptolemy's Star Catalogue given above.

Except... that since antiquity the figure on the left has reversed. From the Star Catalogue entries, Ptolemy's Ophiuchus figure was facing towards us with his left leg slightly below the Ecliptic, resting on Scorpius and his right leg further below the Ecliptic. Many Renaissance drawings have him facing away from us, right leg on Scorpius. In this they seem to all follow Johann Bayer's incorrect drawing of 1603. However, as early as 1604, Johannes Kepler [below right] had improved on Bayer's mistake and produced a correct map which shows the figure of Ophiuchus that the Ancient Greeks would have seen in the heavens. After a fifteen hundred year sleep, the Ophiuchus of the Greeks - and his Ecliptic problems - were reborn.

A star chart of Ophiuchus, from Uranometria, Johann Bayer, Augsburg, 1603 AD
A star chart of Ophiuchus, from De stella nova in pede serpentarii, Johann Kepler, Prague, 1606 AD

A star chart of Ophiuchus. From Uranometria, Johann Bayer, Augsburg, 1603 AD. The black and white line passing through the legs of Ophiuchus is the Ecliptic. The hatched area at the bottom of the drawing presents the band above the Ecliptic of the 7° Planetary Zodiac as known at the time. Ophiuchus holds Serpens, the Serpent. Compared to the Classical Greek Ophiuchus two things are wrong with the figure: Ophiuchus has his back to us, and his legs extends too far below the Ecliptic. However it is a beautiful drawing!

Click on the above picture for a larger version 201 kB.

A star chart of Ophiuchus. FromDe stella nova in pede serpentarii, Johann Kepler, Prague, 1606 AD. The dark line two and a half sqaures up from the base is the Ecliptic. Kepler correctly portrays Ophiuchus as facing us. The positions of the legs are also closer to Ptolemy's original than Bayer's drawing, only the feet lying south of the Ecliptic.

Click on the above picture for a larger version 218 kB.

A star chart of Ophiuchus, from Uranographia, John Bevis, London, ca 1750
A star chart of Ophiuchus, from Atlas Coelestis, John Flamsteed, London, 1753

A star chart of Ophiuchus. In Uranographia Britannica, John Bevis, London, ca 1750. The black and white line at the bottom of the drawing is the Ecliptic. The hatched area at the bottom of the drawing presents the band above the Ecliptic of the 7° Planetary Zodiac as known at the time. The figure is essentially copied from Bayer's of 150 years earlier - with the same, somewhat incorrect, position for the figure of Ophiuchus.

A star chart of Ophiuchus. From Atlas Coelestis, John Flamsteed, London, 1753. The curved black and white line at the bottom of the drawing is the Ecliptic. Whilst the figure has a slightly different orientation - notably of the head - in comparison to Kepler's drawing, the star positions of the major limbs are very similar. This figure is very close to what the Ancient and Classical Greeks would have seen when they looked for Ophiuchus in the heavens.

The Astrological Lore of Ophiuchus: Ophiuchus was better known in classical times as Asclepius, [in Latin, Aesculapius] the God of Medicine. He learnt the art from Chiron, the Centaur. On either side of Ophiuchus in the heavens lie the two parts of the sign of the serpent he holds, Serpens Caput, the Serpent's Head and Serpens Cauda, the Serpent's Tail. The twined serpent staff is the badge of the medical profession to this day. [However, the sign of the serpent itself does not form part of the Real Solar Zodiac, though it does from part of the Planetary Zodiac.] It is from the Serpent that Ophiuchus learnt the secret of the Elixir of Life.

Ophiuchus is always shown with his foot resting on Scorpius, the Scorpion [see above]. This is especially apt. In Greek star lore the Earth Goddess Gaia sends Scorpius to kill Orion, the Hunter, who has threatened to hunt down all the animals of the Earth - a tale with resonance for modern times. Scorpius stings Orion, who would have died had it not been for the intervention of Aesculapius (Ophiuchus). Aesculapius gives Orion a sip of the divine Elixir and restores him to health.

The even older Babylonian version is slightly different. Here the serpent is Tiamat, the Monster of the Bitter Ocean. Holding Tiamat is Marduk, the Sun God of the Babylonians. They are doing battle together in the eternal fight of good against evil.

Other Thirteenth and Forteenth Signs: There is some information available on the Internet about another '13th sign', Arachne, the Spider. This sign was first described in James Voghs' book Arachne Rising. However, the book was a hoax. Arachne Rising was science fiction. 'James Vogh' is a pseudonym of the science fiction author John Sladek, now deceased.

There is also some information available on the Internet on Cetus, the Whale, describing it as the '14th sign'. This is a confusion of the Real Solar Zodiac and the Planetary Zodiac. The Ecliptic and hence the Sun, as seen from Earth, do not pass through Cetus. However, most of the planets, and the Moon, can be seen occasionally against the stars of Cetus. But this is also true of another 25 signs in the Ptolemaic Planetary Zodiac.

The Real Solar Zodiac Sun Signs:

  Sun Sign    Meaning   Dates 
01:   Pisces   the Fishes   12 Mar to 18 Apr 
02:   Aries   the Ram   19 Apr to 13 May 
03:   Taurus   the Bull   14 May to 19 Jun 
04:   Gemini   the Twins   20 Jun to 20 Jul 
05:   Cancer   the Crab   21 Jul to 9 Aug
06:  Leo   the Lion   10 Aug to 15 Sep 
07:  Virgo   the Maiden   16 Sep to 30 Oct 
08:  Libra   the Scales   31 Oct to 22 Nov 
09:  Scorpius   the Scorpion   23 Nov to 29 Nov   
10:  Ophiuchus    the Serpent Bearer   30 Nov to 17 Dec 
11  Sagittarius   the Archer   18 Dec to 18 Jan 
12:  Capricornus     the Sea Goat   19 Jan to 15 Feb 
13:  Aquarius   the Water Carrier   16 Feb to 11 Mar 
* The Non-Zodiac Constellations    

© Dr Shepherd Simpson, Astrological Historian


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