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Sidereal and tropical are astrological terms used to describe two different definitions of a year. They are also used as terms for two systems of ecliptic coordinates used in astrology. Both divide the ecliptic into a number of "signs" named after constellations, but while the sidereal system defines the signs based on the fixed stars, the tropical system defines it based on the position of vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere (i.e., the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator). Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the two systems do not remain fixed relative to each other but drift apart by about 1.4 arc degrees per century. The tropical system was adopted during the Hellenistic period and remains prevalent in Western astrology. A sidereal system is adopted in Hindu astrology, and in some 20th century systems of Western astrology.
While classical tropical astrology is based on the orientation of the Earth relative to the Sun and planets of the Solar System, sidereal astrology deals with the position of the Earth relative to both of these as well as the stars of the celestial sphere. The actual positions of certain fixed stars as well as their constellations is an additional consideration in the horoscope.
The classical zodiac was introduced in the neo-Babylonian period (around the seventh to the sixth century BCE). At the time, the precession of the equinoxes had not been discovered. Classical Hellenistic astrology consequently developed without consideration of the effects of precession. The discovery of the precession of the equinoxes is attributed to Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer active in the later Hellenistic period (ca. 130 BCE).
Ptolemy, writing some 250 years after Hipparchus, was thus aware of the effects of precession. He opted for a definition of the zodiac based on the point of the vernal equinox, i.e., the tropical system. While Ptolemy noted that Ophiuchus is in contact with the ecliptic, he was aware that the 12 signs were just conventional names for 30-degree segments.
The Hindu Jyotisha system opted for defining the zodiac based on the fixed stars, i.e., directly tied to the eponymous zodiacal constellations, unlike Western astrological systems.
Traditional Hindu astrology is based on the sidereal or visible zodiac, not accounting for the shift of the equinoxes but uses a correction called ayanamsa to somewhat link it to the astronomical constellations that are actually irregular in size (Example: Scorpio astronomically is only a 6.5 degree constellation in size but as per sidereal astrology Scorpio's size is the fixed value of 30 degrees which is mathematically inaccurate). The difference between the Indian and the Western zodiacs is currently around 24 degrees. This corresponds to a separation of about 1,700 years, when the vernal equinox was approximately at the center of the constellation Aries ("First Point of Aries"), and the tropical and sidereal zodiacs coincided (around CE 290, or at 23.86° as of 2000). The separation is believed to have taken place in the centuries following Ptolemy (second century CE), apparently going back to Indo-Greek transmission of the system. But earlier Greek astronomers like Eudoxus spoke of a vernal equinox at 15° in Aries, while later Greeks spoke of a vernal equinox at 8° and then 0° in Aries (cf. p. 16, S. Jim Tester in ref.), which suggests the use of a sidereal zodiac in Greece before Ptolemy and Hipparchus.
Sidereal western astrology
Some western astrologists have shown interest in the sidereal system during the 20th century.
Cyril Fagan assumed the origin of the zodiac to be based on a major conjunction that occurred in 786 BC, when the vernal equinox lay somewhere in mid-Aries corresponding to a difference of some 39 degrees or days.
Most sidereal astrologers simply divide the ecliptic into 12 equal signs of 30 degrees but approximately aligned to the 12 zodiac constellations. Assuming an origin of the system in 786 BC, this results in a system identical to that of the classical tropical zodiac, shifted by 25.5 days, i.e., if in tropical astrology Aries is taken to begin at March 21, sidereal Aries will begin on April 15.
A small number of sidereal astrologers do not take the astrological signs as an equal division of the ecliptic, but define their signs based on the actual width of the individual constellations. They also include constellations that are disregarded by the traditional zodiac, but are still in contact with the ecliptic.
In 1995, Walter Berg introduced his 13-sign zodiac, which has the additional sign of Ophiuchus. Berg's system was well received in Japan after his book was translated by radio host Mizui Kumi (水井久美) in 1996.
For the purpose of determining the constellations in contact with the ecliptic, the constellation boundaries as defined by the International Astronomical Union in 1930 are used. For example, the Sun enters the IAU boundary of Aries on April 19 at the lower right corner, a position that is still rather closer to the "body" of Pisces than of Aries. The IAU defined the constellation boundaries without consideration of astrological purposes.
The dates the Sun passes through the 13 astronomical constellations of the ecliptic are listed below, accurate to the year 2011. The dates will progress by an increment of one day every 70.5 years. The corresponding tropical and sidereal dates are given as well.
|Constellation||Tropical date||Sidereal Date
|Based on IAU boundaries|
|Aries||March 21 – April 20||April 15 – May 15||April 18 – May 13|
|Taurus||April 21 – May 20||May 16 – June 15||May 13 – June 21|
|Gemini||May 21 – June 21||June 16 – July 16||June 21 – July 20|
|Cancer||June 22 – July 22||July 17 – August 16||July 20 – August 10|
|Leo||July 23 – August 23||August 17 – September 16||August 10 – September 16|
|Virgo||August 24 – September 22||September 17 – October 17||September 16 – October 30|
|Libra||September 23 – October 23||October 18 – November 16||October 30 – November 23|
|Scorpio||October 24 – November 22||November 17 – December 16||November 23 – November 29|
|Ophiuchus||N/A||November 29 – December 17|
|Sagittarius||November 23 – December 22||December 17 – January 15||December 17 – January 21|
|Capricorn||December 23 – January 20||January 16 – February 14||January 20 – February 16|
|Aquarius||January 21 – February 18||February 15 – March 15||February 16 – March 11|
|Pisces||February 19 – March 20||March 16 – April 14||March 11 – April 18|
- "Modern Living: The Revised Zodiac". Time. 23 November 1970. ISSN 0040-781X.
- Schmidt, Steven (1970). Astrology 14. Bobbs-Merrill Company. pp. 6–8.
- New astrological sign: Professor finds horoscopes may be a little off kilter a January 14, 2011 article from the Los Angeles Times
- "The Real Constellations of the Zodiac." Dr. Lee T. Shapiro, Planetarian, Vol 6, #1, Spring (1977). 
- "The Real, Real Constellations of the Zodiac." John Mosley, Planetarian, Vol. 28, # 4, December (1999).
- "The Primer of Sidereal Astrology," Cyril Fagin and Brigadier R. C. Firebrace, American Federation of Astrologers, Inc., (1971) ISBN 0-86690-427-1
- A History of Western Astrology, by S. Jim Tester, 1987, republished by Boydell Press (January 1999),ISBN 0-85115-255-4, ISBN 978-0-85115-255-4
- Raymond, Andrew (1995). Secrets of the Sphinx Mysteries of the Ages Revealed. Hawaii: U N I Productions. ISBN 0-9646954-6-4.