Why The 13th Zodiac Sign Is Such A Big Deal

by Eliza Castile

If you've spent the last week wondering why the 13th zodiac sign is so controversial, you're not alone. Over the course of a few short days, everything people thought they knew about astrology crumbled into (star)dust as the rumor spread that NASA updated astrological signs for the first time since the era of the ancient Babylonians several thousand years ago. With the supposed update came a "new" astrological sign, Ophiuchus, squeezed between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

As you can imagine, many people who take astrology seriously — not to mention all the people who refer to the zodiac for funsies — did not take the news well. Controversy erupted on all sides: Newly-christened Ophiuchuses (Ophiuchans?) beat their chests and wailed, NASA desperately tried to remind everyone that astrology isn't based in science, the stars themselves fell from the heavens in protest, and so on. (OK, stars didn't actually fall from the skies, but you get the idea.) At least some of the outcry surrounding Ophiuchus stems from the idea of major change to the Tropical Zodiac; as a rule, people aren't big fans of shake-ups, especially considering the zodiac has existed in some form for thousands of years.

But that's not the only reason people are freaking out over the 13th sign. Let's take a closer look at the controversy below.

Aside from resistance to change, much of the problem people have with Ophiuchus is that NASA didn't actually rewrite the zodiac. Gizmodo traced the recent rise of Ophiuchus back to an article published last Thursday in Cosmopolitan UK. The article linked to a (real) NASA page meant to explain the constellations and their history to children. "Since the Babylonians already had a 12-month calendar (based on the phases of the Moon), each month got a slice of the zodiac all to itself. But even according to the Babylonians' own ancient stories, there were 13 constellations in the zodiac," the NASA page reads. "So the Babylonians picked one, Ophiuchus, to leave out."

Taken out of context, it totally seems like NASA is calling for a change to the zodiac. But that's just a tiny portion of the article; most of it is spent explaining how ancient astronomers used the zodiac to make sense of the stars. Most tellingly, the page literally opens with the differences between astronomy and astrology, along with a reminder that astrology isn't based in science. (Which isn't to say that astrologers don't also know astronomy — but it's important to note that the two things aren't the same.) "We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math," a NASA spokesperson told Gizmodo. But the damage was already done, and parts of the internet were railing against the addition of Ophiuchus to the zodiac calendar.

It's also worth noting that even if NASA had decided to dabble in astrology, parts of the astrological community remain unconvinced. According to some, the Tropical Zodiac is based on seasons rather than constellations. "Constellations are not the same as signs. The Tropical Zodiac is not meant to be aligned with the constellations, therefore the astrologers never had it wrong," wrote Carmen di Luccio, a professional astrologer, in response to the current controversy.

Finally, the concept of a 13th astrological sign isn't actually new. Back in 2011, an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune ignited a similar media firestorm when astronomer Parke Kunkle, who is on the board of directors of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, pointed out that the Earth has changed position in relation to the sun since the ancient Babylons were around. Because astrology is based on the position of celestial bodies, logic dictates that the Tropical Zodiac should be recalculated. As an iO9 article at the time pointed out, Kunkle didn't actually say anything about adding a 13th sign to the zodiac, but he did mention that astronomers use 13 constellations in their calculations — that constellation being Ophiuchus. As the story spread, however, his comments were framed as a call to add Ophiuchus to the zodiac. Sound familiar?

But like all things astrological, it's fun if you don't take it seriously. Besides, Ophiuchus could be a huge help to anyone who felt like their zodiac sign never reflected their personality. Now, you can go with your original sign or the sign you get under the "new" calendar — whatever floats your astrological boat. Or spaceship.

Images: Giphy (2)