Astrology Signs and Symbols
by Michael Star

an Astrology article ©1999
in STAR SIGNS Astrology Zine.

Signs and Symbols - what's the difference?

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A Sign says one thing, and says it clearly and without ambiguity. If you are driving across an intersection which has a STOP sign for the oncoming cross-traffic, wouldn't you want them to see a sign that said "Stop!" - and not one that said "Stop, but maybe not?"

That's what the great psychologist Dr. Carl Jung defined as a "sign" - something with a single meaning and no other (to paraphrase Jung).

"The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning."
- Dr. Carl G. Jung, "Man and His Symbols", Part 1, (1964), p.41

image of constellation of Aquarius The "sign" word used in astrology refers to a sector of the sky, and its interpretation could have many possibilites. However, now that I consider it more closely, I see that the definition of a "sign" includes it being exactly 30 degrees or arc - no more, and no less. No ambiguiuty there!

"Just gimme a little sign, girl, oh baby!"
- sung by Brenton Wood

This other kind of "sign" is something like the "signs" referred to in Genesis I:14 of the Bible, which says the sun and moon and stars were made by God "for signs". We look for a "sign" of rain in the sky. We can look for a "sign" of a coming highest ocean tide by watching the phases of the Moon. This kind of "sign" may be intended to have a single meaning, but often we have trouble in discerning, or agreeing, just what that single meaning is.

In astrology, a Sign is really more of a symbol because it has many levels of meaning beyond the unambiguous name which indicates a particular sector of the sky. After all, astrology is a symbolic language!

I should mention that there exists some ambiguity in the exact definition of the zodiac Signs, due to two different systems of astrology being used in North America.

The Sidereal System still associates the Signs with their ancient star-patterns, known as constellations, and regards the Signs as the same as the constellations. The Tropical System takes into account that the Earth has a wobble in its axis which makes it slowly rotate (i.e. to "precess") and point to a different pole star, which has the effect of making the constellation which appears to rise at dawn on the first day of Spring (at the Spring Equinox) slowly shift backwards (a little each year) from Aries to Pisces, and soon to Aquarius. This system, used by the majority of western astrologers, is more concerned with the position of planets and stars relative to Earth than trying to stick to the ancient star patterns (which are imaginary, anyway); so it names and measures the Sign sectors from an Earth-based reference point and continually adjusts for the shift in the direction the Earth's axis is pointing. (This phenomenom is called "precession of the equinoxes" in astronomical terms.)

Thus a Sign in the Tropical System is just a sector of the sky, and not the same as the constellation of the same name. The Sign of Aries is now spanning most of the constellation of Pisces, and will soon touch the constellation of Aquarius - which is when the "Age of Aquarius" (the constellation Aquarius) will officially begin. This is not just because the Tropical Sign of Aries coincides with the constellation of Aquarius; but because the constellation of Aquarius will be rising with the Sun on the the day of the "Vernal Equinox", which we call the first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere (in the Southern Hemisphere that would be the first day of Winter).

In Tropical Astrology, the first degree of the Sign of Aries is DEFINED as the point which is rising exactly at sunrise on the day of the Vernal Equinox - so really we are talking about the same thing when we say the Sign of Aries will be touching the constellation of Aquarius, because in Tropical Astrology the constellation rising on the day of the Vernal Equinox is always known as the Sign of Aries.

If this sounds a little confusing, just think of star patterns as constellations, and Signs in the Tropical Zodiac as sectors of the sky, regardless of what star patterns may be seen in them. Remember, whether you can see a Ram or a Bull in those star patterns called "constellations" is really a product of your imagination and has no real bearing on scientific reality or on how Astrology works. They were imagined by some ancient star-gazer and used as visual reference points by astrologers who did not have the use of telescopes, tables of planetary motion (emphemerides), or computers which can calculate the positions of the Sun and Moon and Planets without looking at the sky.

A Sign is a 30-degree wide span of the band of constellations we call the Zodiac, in which the Sun, Moon, and all the Planets always appear. We don't need to use the constellations to determine the Sign sectors - all we need to know is where to start counting at 0 degrees of Aries, and that is defined by the Vernal Equinox as mentioned above. The symbolism of the original constellations is still relevant, but the star patterns are not needed now as markers for the beginning and ending of the Signs, for they have all shifted, anyway, in the past 5000 years, due to precession of the equinoxes. The Earth is now aligned differently to the stars, and Tropical Astrologers have chosen to base their Astrology system on the present alignment of the Earth, since that is the time and place where we exist.

The Earth is still precessing, but the Tropical System re-aligns itself every year to coincide with the Earth's slight shift in alignment by using the Vernal Equinox as the reference. The Sidereal System, referenced to the stars and used by a minority of Western astrologers, is still based on the alignment of the Earth about 5000 years ago, so their Signs still match the original constellations, and are not in the same locations as the Signs of the Tropical System. Don't worry about mixing up the two systems - almost everything you read about Astrology in popular books and magazines and newspapers in North America and Europe and Australia is based on the Tropical System ...unless you live in India or other Eastern countries which use the Vedic system or the Sidereal System.

The Age of Aquarius

When the leading edge of the constellation of Aquarius is just rising up from the Eastern Horizon exactly at daybreak on that day in Spring when the hours of daylight and darkness are the same in the Northern Hemisphere, that will be the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. In the Tropical System, the Sign and degree that is rising at that exact moment on the day of the Spring Equinox (around March 21) will be arbitrarily defined as zero degrees of Aries, as it is every year; but for the first time in man's recorded history, the actual star pattern which appears there will be the one known as the constellation of Aquarius, the Water Bearer.

At the time of the birth of Christ, the constellation of Pisces would have been rising on the day of the Spring Equinox, near the beginning of the Age of Pisces. An Age lasts for about 2160 years, and a Great Year is twelve Ages, the time it takes for the wobble in the Earth's axis to move (precess) the poles once around in a very slow circle - about 26,000 years - and make each of the twelve zodiac constellations appear to be rising at dawn on the day of the Spring Equinox, in a reverse sequence from Pisces back to Aquarius, and eventually back to Aries.


A symbol must, according to Carl Jung, not have any definition at all. It has many levels of meaning, not just one obvious one, and should represent a concept which is initially difficult to grasp intellectually in the full scope of its meaning - like a work of art which defies any simple description of all its nuances. If you can define it, it has changed from a symbol to a sign.

The cross was a symbol in many ancient religions; but when the Catholic Church took the "crucifix" form of the cross as their symbol for the crucifixion of Jesus, and started wearing metal crosses on necklaces, it started to become more of a sign that said one thing: "I am a Roman Catholic". The original cross symbol meant many different things, according to how the beholder chose to interpret its meaning.

Today, a cross might be regarded as a mathematical "plus sign", which means "add this to that" or "more than" or just "and" or "plus". In ancient times a cross might mean "the cross of Matter", which is basically what it represents in astrology, where it appears as "the Cardinal Cross". The vertical bar symbolizes Spirit which interpenetrates the horizontal bar representing Matter, or the Earth plane (horizon line). The symbol of a cross within a circle is used to represent the Part of Fortune in astrology, but it can also represent the Earth itself.

Dr. Carl Jung collected and studied many "mandalas" (or patterns) which one can meditate or gaze upon to discover insights on various things. A mandala is a complex kind of symbol which may be a composite of many other symbols arranged in a circular repetitive pattern. The horoscope chart wheel itself is a kind of mandala, and you can meditate upon your own or someone else's horoscope chart to gain insights into things.

Symbols are fascinating, because they stir your imagination and intuition to help you discover new meanings and insights. They invite you to explore the possibilities, and force you to go beyond limited definitions and literal thinking if you want to understand the concepts they represent. If they were like signs, with only one meaning, they would be no fun at all...

When we define something and label that concept with a word to make communicating concepts easier and unambiguous, the continuous use of that word often limits our thinking to the most common definition and keeps us from thinking about the other aspects of the concept it represents. Words are like Signs that have one, or a few, defined meanings; but the concepts which words describe are really symbols that have many nuances of meaning. Think of the word "woman", and then think of all the aspects of "woman" that go beyond the mere definition of "female person". You might be surprised to learn that your own brain does not think in words or language, but in symbols or images.
A computer does not process data in English words, but as binary 0 or 1, which are really just states of "on" or "off" in a transistor's circuitry. When it finishes processing (its form of "thinking") it then translates the results into text symbols so that its output can be read and understood by humans. Our own brains work in a similar way, with our actual thinking being done in symbols and then the results translated into our language of choice so we can communicate it to other humans. If we were telepathic and thought of some image, another telepathic human could just receive the image directly, and we would not have to describe (translate) it into words which the other person would then translate into his or her own interpretation of that image. People who are "psychic" can sense another person's feelings directly, and do not need them to try to translate the feeling into words which could never completely and clearly define that feeling. Often, words get in the way of clear communication, and can also get in the way of clear thinking when we limit our perceptions to an arbitrarily definition of a concept which is actually larger than the definition can encompass. It is the imaginative poet or artist who sees beyond the mere definition and uses metaphors to explore the wider nuances of a concept which would be limited by dictionary definitions.

The astrological Signs are really symbols, and as such, the meanings of the twelve Signs defy definition in simple terms. There are some key meanings for each Sign which you can start with, but there are also many nuances of meaning which can be discovered by applying your imagination and intuition to the symbolic animal or human figure. To see an example of this "symbolic thinking", see my article called Taurus Teaching Tips 2.

Some Christians might be surprised to see what "their" symbols really mean, and how many of the Bible's symbols and Christianity's symbols come from what they would call "the occult" - which is their word for the ancient wisdom which had to be "hidden" (i.e. "occulted") from those who would profane it or persecute its practitioners - or were not ready, willing, or intellectually able to grasp its significance.

Glyph for Aquarius We see symbols representing things the masses do not understand, even in these "enlightened" times in this "scientific age" and the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius". That phrase was included in a popular song, and is referred to in the media; but how many people grasp the actual symbolic meanings of The Age of Aquarius? (You may find some of the meanings of the Sign of Aquarius in my article titled Aquarius and the Internet.)

For more information on Signs and Symbols used in Astrology, see my article Planets, Signs, Houses and Astrology FAQ 1.

- Michael Star ©1999

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Published 21 JUN 1999. Updated May 11 2000 02:00 EST

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