Is Ophiuchus Even Real?

If you’re into astrology (or simply mildly interested in checking your weekly horoscope), you’ve probably already seen reports of a 13th sign of the zodiac — called “Ophiuchus” — causing massive upheaval. The biggest question on everyone’s mind (after “How the hell do you pronounce ‘Ophiuchus’?) is simple: “Is Ophiuchus real?” The short answer is… drumroll, please… “Yes” and “No.”


Ophiuchus is real constellation of stars that exists along the same pathway as the zodiac. The constellations that align with the signs of the zodiac (Aquarius, Cancer, etc.) roughly line up along the ecliptic, the trail that the sun appears to travel over the Earth. The sun passes in front of Ophiuchus between November 29 and December 18 (which is why some people are saying that Ophiuchus is a new astrological sign. It’s not, but more on that later).

Ophiuchus is a large, boxy constellation that is traversed by another constellation, Serpens the Serpent, leading Ophiuchus to be known as the “serpent bearer.” You can see Ophiuchus in the summer night sky, though it can be hard to find, despite its size, because the constellation doesn’t contain any particularly bright stars.

Ophiuchus was also a real figure in ancient folklore. In Greek mythology, the constellation is associated with Asclepius, the god of medicine, who learned special knowledge about healing from a snake. (Modern medicine still uses the image of Asclepius’s staff wrapped in a snake as a symbol of healing.)

... And no.

Although Ophiuchus is a real constellation with a real mythological history, it’s not the 13th sign of the zodiac — unless you want it to be. The uproar about a 13th sign started because of a blog post for kids published by NASA back in January that discusses the differences between astrology and astronomy. The post points out that the astrological calendar created by the Babylonians no longer fits with the way the stars are aligned with Earth today, and mentions that there was a 13th constellation (Ophiuchus) that the Babylonians chose not to include in their calendar.

Some media outlets took that to mean that NASA had changed the astrological calendar and added a new sign. Reps from NASA have said that they had no intention of altering the zodiac because NASA does not practice or participate in astrology. (And, come on, NASA does not have the power to do anything to the zodiac anyway. NASA scientists are trying to send people to Mars, not rewrite your weekly horoscope.)

Furthermore, astrologists don’t seem particularly keen on adding Ophiuchus to the zodiac line up. In a recent article, astrologer Carmen Di Luccio explained that most contemporary astrologers use the Tropical Zodiac. Though it finds its origins in the calendar of the ancient Babylonians, who roughly correlated signs with constellations, the Tropical Zodiac is now tied to seasons, not stars. So the existence of Ophiuchus as a constellation doesn’t affect Earth-bound astrological charts.

All of that said, if you love Ophiuchus, nothing’s stopping you from adopting your new favorite sign. If you’re a Scorpio or Sagittarian who’s never felt comfortable with those signs, and the snake bearer is singing your tune, embrace it!

Images: Sidney Hall, Adam Cuerden; Till Credner; Soerfm/Wikimedia