There’s a lot of Aquarius energy flying about right now so it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room. The elephant in question has been painted with rainbows and has flowers stuffed behind its ears and is probably feeling uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. In this series we’ll bust a few myths about the Age of Aquarius (and hose the poor elephant down), and explore the nature of the astrological ages, how they come about and what they might mean.
The astrological ages are a way of interpreting history by dividing time into chunks of about 2160 years, each one being associated with a particular sign of the zodiac. By this scheme, we’re currently in the Age of Pisces and soon to enter the Age of Aquarius, although some argue we’re already there.
This disagreement gives us our first clue that the Ages are less than straightforward and not remotely ‘scientific’. However, there is a real phenomenon at work behind the idea.
The Ages come about due to the precession of the equinoxes and the separation of the tropical zodiac from the constellations. There’s often some confusion about this because many people assume the zodiac and the constellations are the same thing, but they’re not.
The zodiac is a band of space that sits either side of the ecliptic – the path the sun appears to take as we orbit around it, and where the moon lines up with the sun causing eclipses (hence the name). Western astrology uses the tropical zodiac which is aligned with the seasons in the northern hemisphere, and starts at 0 Aries marking the vernal point, otherwise known as the spring equinox.
Back when the zodiac was being codified by Greek boffins (building on the work of Mesopotamians and Egyptians), the vernal point was aligned with the stars of the Aries constellation. However, thanks to precession that’s no longer the case and the zodiac has shifted out of sync with the stars.
This state of affairs was supposedly discovered by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 125 BCE. He noticed the stars were drifting out of alignment with the zodiac and that the equinox was heading towards Pisces.
So precession measures the retrograde motion of the spring equinox (or vernal point) as it moves along the ecliptic and backwards through the zodiac. When the vernal point reaches a new sign it marks the start of the next astrological age.
Precession is said to be caused by the wobble of the earth on its axis as it rotates, and this causes the celestial equator to shift in relation to the ecliptic. The earth wobbles because it’s not a perfect sphere and has an equatorial bulge due to the gravitational effect of the sun and moon. The wobble draws a circle in the sky which shifts the position of the pole star as well as the equinoxes.
It takes about 72 years for the equinox to move 1 degree through the zodiac, so each sign of 30 degrees takes 2160 years. The whole cycle is completed in about 25,920 years. However, these numbers are changeable because the rate of precession isn’t fixed and it’s currently speeding up. There are complicated reasons for this involving various astronomical factors that constantly change.
However, there may be another cause of precession that explains the rate of change more elegantly. This involves the hypothesised orbit of the sun around another star with an average orbital period of 24,000 years. In a binary star system like this, the two bodies speed up as they approach their common barycentre, and slow down as they move apart. A bit like this:
You can find out more here: Binary Research Institute
Whatever the cause, the rate of precession is usually stated as 71.6 years giving a total of 2148 years for each age and 25,776 years for the whole cycle. This is often rounded up to 2150 and 25,800 years respectively. Meanwhile, science measures the complete cycle as 25,772 years, giving each age 2147.6667 years and a precessional rate of about 71.58.
This is one of the reasons why nobody can agree when each Age begins or how long they last. Even if you could agree the rate of change, you still have to decide when the spring equinox actually enters a new sign. And this depends on which zodiac you’re using and how you’re measuring that against the constellations, as well as where you think each constellation begins.
The constellations vary in size so they don’t easily fit into 2150 year slots. Some of them are massive, while others are tiny, and some of them overlap, such as Pisces and Aquarius.
Indian astrology deals with this problem by using the Sidereal zodiac which is centred on the stars themselves. It starts at 0 Aries and from there, the rest of the zodiac is divided into equal chunks of 30 degrees each. So even here, the constellations don’t quite line up with the signs, and you’ve also got to define exactly where 0 Aries falls.
This is done using the ayanamsa, which means ‘part of a path’, to determine the distance between 0 tropical Aries (the vernal point) and 0 sidereal Aries. There are multiple ways of doing this, so again, there are no easy answers. One example is given on the Astrology Podcast by Kenneth Miller which gives the start date for the Age of Aquarius as 2,467, give or take 50 years. Listen here to find out more.
The International Astronomical Union tried to resolve this problem by officially defining the boundaries of the constellations in 1930. Under this system the spring equinox entered Pisces in 68 BCE and will enter Aquarius in around 2,600. This is obviously a lot longer than 2150 years because it’s based on the constellations and Pisces is huge.
There are other problems with this system too. The boundaries were drawn using irregular shapes like a jigsaw and they don’t align clearly with the ecliptic. This means the equinox would sometimes move back and forth between signs. It’s all pretty arbitrary.
But even if you could agree on exactly where the boundary of a sign falls, you still need to decide when the sun enters the sign: is it when the sun first touches the border, or when the whole disc has crossed the line? This difference alone would add years to the start date of a new age. More here.
In The Book of World Horoscopes Nicholas Campion collected a huge range of possible dates for the start of the Age of Aquarius, running from 1447 to 3597. Most of the dates are far off into the future, but some believed it started in the 18th century during the revolutionary upheavals of that time, while others have tried to link it to the 2012 phenomenon and the Mayan calendar.
Frankly, it’s a mess!
Our desire to find the exact start of the Age of Aquarius may be connected to our tendency to project a mechanical view onto reality and expect it to conform to our theories. But reality isn’t something that can be pinned down easily – and nor should it be. Reality is fluid and complex, with patterns born out of relationships we barely comprehend.
It may be better to use the astrological ages as a metaphorical or symbolic lens through which to view history and ourselves. Astrology and mythology are methods of storytelling that help us to find our place in the cosmos. This raises questions about how myths relate to reality and how our consciousness shapes the world in which we live.
That’s what we’ll be exploring in the rest of this series, starting with where the idea of the Age of Aquarius came from and some of the misconceptions that have arisen as a result: The Age of Aquarius: History and Misconceptions