Quick: how many star signs are there in the zodiac?
If you said ‘twelve’, then as the Catchphrase guy always used to say: it’s good, but it’s not right.
The zodiac we know and love consists of the signs through which the Sun appears to pass through the course of a year (actually it’s Earth moving around the Sun, but the effect is much the same). The path the Sun takes around the sky is called the ecliptic, and it runs neatly through the twelve signs we’re all familiar with; but it also cuts through the feet of a chap called Ophiuchus.
Who Hell He?
Ophiuchus, alternatively known as Serpentarius, the snake-carrier, is a constellation of ten stars which can currently be seen in the early morning, low in the southern sky. He stands between Scorpius and Sagittarius in the zodiac, and he looks like this:
(Click to enlarge the image.) I know, it seems a little ill-defined; but if we can say anything for the ancients, it’s that they had a remarkable way of seeing patterns amongst a load of dots in the night sky. Ophiuchus, admittedly, doesn’t have a very human look to it, but the name seems to come more from the fact that the constellation of Serpens – the snake – sits across Ophiuchus…
… so it makes sense to assume the one is carrying the other.
Because of this reptilian association, Ophiuchus is assumed to be the heavenly representation of Aesculapius, the Graeco-Roman god of healing and medicine. Snakes are associated with medicine in many ancient symbologies, and the Classical cultures used them as a shorthand for doctors and healers. This is the reason we still use the Rod of Aesculapius – a staff with a snake wound around it – as an international medical symbol:
So there’s an extra star sign?
In effect, yes. Ophiuchus wasn’t originally recognised as part of the zodiac. Only relatively recently – since about the 1970s – have astrologers started to pay attention to Ophiuchus, after it was recognised that in fact the Sun spends more time in Ophiuchus than it does in Scorpius*. Admittedly, the stars of Ophiuchus have always been there (for the last few million years or so, anyway – before that the pattern might have been a tad different); the constellation was marked out by Classical-era astronomers a few thousand years back. Ophiuchus likely wasn’t excluded from the zodiac for particularly sinister reasons: it’s just that the boundaries we draw on the sky to delineate one constellation from another…
… are pretty arbitrary. It’s possible that, in ancient times, the boundaries weren’t in the same place – perhaps the outlying ‘foot’ star of Ophiuchus wasn’t recognised as part of the constellation then – and if the Sun spent only a day or two in Ophiuchus it might seem quite reasonable to exclude it from the sequence.
What all this means for ‘Ophiucans’ – people born under the sign of Ophiuchus, between 29 November and 18 December – is a foggy area. Popular astrology – the bit in the daily paper that tells you vaguely that something might possibly happen to you at some undefined time in the future, possibly – likes to attribute certain characteristics to certain people based on when they were born. The twelve well-known signs have had their lore developed over quite a long time, and now experts are having to scurry to outline what the sky says about you if you were born under Ophiuchus. Generally, their descriptions reference the myth of Aesculapius, the healer: you’re probably big on wisdom and knowledge; you empathise well with people; you might have an aptitude for chemistry; and you probably have a natural draw towards healing techniques.
If you’d like to find out more about Ophiuchus the constellation, you might do worse than click HERE. For more thoughts on Ophiuchus the astrological symbol try HERE. And for more about Aesculapius, the god of medicine, you can go HERE or, for those less prone to outrage over the odd blasphemy, there’s the inimitable Godchecker entry for Him HERE.
* In astronomical constellation terms, there is a pattern called Scorpius and one called Capricornus – the names Capricorn and Scorpio are the astrological names for the same.