In the West, we are taught that the zodiac is a collection of constellations that form the ecliptic, the apparent Path of the Sun from the position of the Earth. In Traditional Wisdom, however, the physical constellations are not the True Zodiac, but only its physical reflection. As can be seen in the Traditional Model of the Cosmos, the Zodiac is above the level of the fixed stars.
The True Zodiac in the Western Tradition consists of the 12 Pure Types of the Axial Being. The constellations in the ecliptic are reflections of these Pure Types in the night sky.
Western Astrology does not use the actual physical constellations for the zodiac. Instead it uses a zodiac based on the seasons, which is called the Tropical Zodiac. Vedic Astrology does use the actual physical constellations, and this is known as the Sidereal Zodiac.* While astrology has always been practiced in one form or another, the first records of the casting of individual horoscopes are about 2,500 years old in the Middle East, and horoscopic astrology as we know it today has its origins in the Classical period in the Mediterranean. At that time, the Sidereal Zodiac and the Tropical Zodiac were closely aligned. Now, they are misaligned by about a sign. In the Tropical Zodiac at the Vernal Equinox, the Sun rises at 0 Aries. Now, depending on the calculations one uses, the constellation of Pisces is on the horizon at Sunrise at the Vernal Equinox. Hence, this is the “Age of Pisces.”
There is a physical reason for the misalignment and a metaphysical reason. The physical reason is that due to a slight wobble in the Earth’s orbit, the fixed stars and constellations appear to move a very, very slight amount every year. This is known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. The metaphysical reason is that physical manifestation is in constant flux and change, and the movement of time is a movement away from the Center and Perfection.
Modern Western scholarship would have us believe that the Ancients did not know and understand about the Precession of the Equinoxes, and this often used as a criticism of the practice of astrology. From a Traditionalist perspective, this is highly unlikely. Our forebears kept very close watch on the night sky and were able to record and predict complicated phenomena such as Eclipses. Furthermore, the religious symbolism from each Age (the Sign that rises at the Vernal Equinox) is consistent with the Age. An example of this is the symbol of the Fish used in Christianity during the Age of Pisces. Even in the unlikely case that the Ancients were unaware of the physical movement, they were most certainly aware of the metaphysical principles involved.
Western Astrology made a conscious decision to use the Tropical Zodiac, and within its own economy, this was the correct, and likely the only choice. The economy of Western astrology, particularly as passed down from Hellenistic Astrology, is quite dependent on the humors, which are tied to the seasons. Spring is hot and wet, Summer is hot and dry, Autumn is cold and dry, and Winter is cold and wet. The signs have qualities of both their element and their Season. For this system to work properly, the signs must be measured by the Seasons. The proper place for Aries is the first sign of Spring. Pisces, the least material and the coldest and wettest of the signs (cold and wet by both element and season), can not represent the start of Spring, even if the constellation is the rising Sign at the Spring Equinox.** It is interesting, but not surprising, that horoscopic astrology as we know it today seems to have begun when the Tropical Zodiac and the Sidereal Zodiac were more closely aligned.
In my Japanese studies, I read a Western Astrology primer in Japanese in order to develop my astrological vocabulary. The name of the primer was 基本の「き」目からウロコの西洋占星術入門, From the Foundational Perspective, UROKO’s Western Astrology Primer, by いけだ笑み, Emi Ikeda. In this book, Ikeda-san wrote:
Here is my humble and rather amateur attempt at translation:
Currently, in what is known as Western Astrology, the Tropical Astrology is generally chosen, but other forms of astrology, including Indian Astrology, seem to use a zodiac in which 0° Aries is in accordance with the Precession of the Equinoxes, which is known as “the Sidereal method.” It is possible to hypothesize that Tropical Astrology is better suited to reading earthly human activity because the signs match the seasons, whereas Sidereal Astrology is better suited to reading destiny at a spiritual and soul level because the signs match the circumstances in space.
To the extent that I understood and translated this passage correctly, I think that it contains an interesting hypothesis. Certainly, Vedic Astrology has maintained a close connection with matters on the spiritual and soul level, while Western Astrology tends to operate primarily on the practical and earthly level. For practical matters, such as farming and medicine, a zodiac aligned with the seasons would be more useful than one aligned with the physical stars, particularly in a climate with four distinct seasons, such as can be found in Northern Europe.
In any case, both the Tropical and Sidereal Zodiacs have deep historical traditions and are tied to various branches of astrology. They can be seen as different dialects of the same language, rather as than different languages. In my own practice, I use the Tropical Zodiac, as I have been trained in Western Astrology.
*There are some Western astrologers who also use a Sidereal Zodiac, but the vast majority use the Tropical Zodiac, which was also used in Medieval and Renaissance Astrology.
**This raises the question as to the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. I find it interesting that the position of the Moon during the waxing and waning Moon Phases is also reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.