Philosophical and Conceptual Differences between the Tropical Zodiac and Sidereal Zodiac

Many articles detail the technical differences between the tropical zodiac and the sidereal zodiacs, as well as why astrologers would use one or the other. That is not the purpose of this essay. Here, The Art of Vedic Astrology: Sidereal vs. Tropical, you can read a simple explanation on the technical differences between the two zodiacs. Read here (Martin Gansten Traditional Astrologer: Tropical and sidereal) about the historical divergence of the two zodiacs in western astrology. Here, I intend to touch on the philosophical differences between the Tropical and Sidereal Zodiacs.

The zodiac is primarily a language of symbols. It is the attribution of meaning to clusters of stars, constellations, in the sky. More specifically, the meaning is attributed, in both the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs, to 30 degree divisions of space beginning and ending at a specific point, not the actual constellations which are uneven in size.

From what is the symbolism of the zodiac derived? The answer to that question is complex.

In modern astrology the Tropical zodiac’s symbolism is a mixture of Northern Hemisphere seasonal correlations (Aries = Spring) and loose connections between the names of the planets and Greek and Roman mythology (ie. Mars, god of war). There are also some significations that come from the symbolism of the animals or objects attribute to be revealed in the constellations. So, Taurus the Bull is stubborn and willful.

The meaning attributed to and associated with signs of the Tropical zodiac seems to be more of reverse engineering. The physical experience of the seasons is attributed to the sign and planet. However in the sidereal zodiac, and especially traditionally, the symbolism of the signs comes primarily from the nature of the planets that rule each sign. In Hellenistic terms, this means the system of essential dignities and debilities.

This is not meant to be a conversation about traditional versus modern astrology; however, it is relevant since the sidereal zodiac in modern times is, with rare exception, almost exclusively used by Vedic astrologers who maintain a fairly unbroken history of astrological practice. A major philosophical difference then, is that the Tropical zodiac reflects the earliest homogenization of a western culture, an attempt at normalizing astrological time.

To be clear, one kind of zodiacal symbolism is readily experienced in the physical sense, that being Tropical. And the other, Sidereal, can be observed as a phenomenon of time in space.

The phenomenon of precession – which defines the fundamental difference between how the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs are calculated – reflects the subjective nature of time. Tropical is convenient and orderly in a way the normalizes, or standardizes time, forsaking the shifting nature of time within the context of space for something more subjective to our experience on Earth, something more ‘universal’.

The subjective nature of time is apparent with the Sidereal, but hidden with Tropical. In Sidereal the Aries point, beginning of the zodiac, moves as the stars in our solar system move against the backdrop of the Milky Way Galaxy, thus subtly shifting where the zodiac begins as each hour, day, and year passes. But in Tropical, the Aries point remains fixed, tethered to the intimate relationship between the Earth’s rotation around the sun.

Which one should be used? First and foremost, it’s a personal choice. As with most techniques, I am a proponent of each person using what works for them. Essentially, however, I think the choice between Tropical and Sidereal is a philosophical question, rather than a technique of which one is more mathematically accurate.

The primary function of the zodiac is as a language of symbols. The zodiac is not measuring anything tangible. Words are symbols to represent concepts. They are used in place of actual objects, to communicate their meaning or purpose. But the words are not the objects themselves. And they could never  The same can be said of the signs of the zodiac. The zodiac is not the thing; the zodiac is the symbol that helps to communicate the thing.

Astrologer Samuel Reynolds of, and co-founder of the International Society of Black Astrologers, sees the divergence of the two zodiacs as a cultural issue. Here is an excerpt from a conversation we had on the subject.

To touch on your question, I want to be clear that I look at the divergence of the two Zodiacs a little differently. I think the divergence is more a cultural issue, and I think it’s the divergence in the cultures that has led to the longevity of the distinctions between the sidereal and tropical Zodiacs. I think the Zodiac is largely an invention or mnemonic for the seasons as that link suggests. That’s what has made more sense to me. However, it’s the a posteriori re-reading of the history of different cultures at the point of drifting between the two Zodiacs that make us see an intellectual distinction that, again, came after the fact.

India actually became more of an insular containment field of astrology for centuries after the Greeks left. They ended up merging much of their own indigenous astrology with Hellenistic. The focus on the constellations goes along with a long standing tradition of Indians to be concerned with the whole. The subjective nature of West is on the individual, as that is the prime achievement of the West. There’s no such ultimate intention in Indian history. The individual is part of a collective, a constellation of being.

In this sense, sidereal astrology is situational, starting with the premise that an individual is coalesced into something larger than herself. In the big picture, this is accurate. However, if I’m focused on a more self-contained, isolated sense of self as my identity, then the tropical speaks to me.

So, what zodiac do you use? Is there a philosophical reason that you choose one or the other? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments section.