It seemed like a good idea at the time.
On a trip to Florida a few years back, Lorinda Gevry had her zodiac sign, Gemini, tattooed on her ankle. She’d always taken an interest in the cosmos, and the personality traits said to be associated with Gemini -- artistic, fun, multifaceted -- seemed to fit Gevry perfectly.
So when news broke recently that NASA had retabulated the astrological calendar — leaving more than 80 percent of the population under a new sign, while adding another, Ophiuchus, to the mix — she was confounded.
“Oh, my God,” the 34-year-old hairdresser said upon being informed that she was now a Taurus. “No way.”
Yes way. Sort of.
The kerfuffle began in September, when Cosmopolitan cited a NASA Web post about the origins of the Western zodiac. In the 3,000 years since the Babylonians drew up the zodiac, the post noted, the Earth’s axis has shifted slightly, and thus, so have the astrological signs.
For those who check their horoscopes alongside their morning e-mails — and avoid making big decisions when Mercury is in retrograde — this was no small thing. Those born in, say, late February through mid-March went to bed thinking they were a gentle, compassionate Pisces only to awake the next day a temperamental, uncompromising Aquarius. Perhaps more disconcerting, those born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17 learned they were no longer Sagittarius, but the strange and little-known Ophiuchus, “the Serpent Bearer.”
To be sure, the news comes with a fairly sizable caveat: Astrology isn’t science. NASA’s original post — which, by the way, appears on its kid-centric Space Place website — likens following your horoscope to “reading fantasy stories.”
“First things first,” the post begins. “Astrology is not Astronomy!”
So what, exactly, precipitated the change? A shift in the Earth’s axis over the past few thousand years.
To illustrate, NASA suggests people imagine a straight line stretching from Earth through the sun and beyond. This line rotates as the Earth orbits the sun and points to the different constellations; the dozen closest constellations to the sun are considered to be a part of the zodiac. (Initially, there were 13 signs, but the Babylonians decided to leave one out, the better to reflect their 12-month calendar.)
The basic premise of astrology is that your sign corresponds with the constellation the sun passes through on your date of birth. But according to the post, because the axis has shifted, the constellations don’t line up the same as they did back then.
|Capricorn||Jan. 20 to Feb. 16|
|Aquarius||Feb. 16 to March 11|
|Pisces||March 11 to April 18|
|Aries||April 18 to May 13|
|Taurus||May 13 to June 21|
NASA explains: “When the Babylonians first invented the signs of the zodiac, a birthday between about July 23 and Aug. 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo. Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction.”
So someone born on Aug. 4, for example, is now “born under the sign” of Cancer, instead.
Scientists, in other words, did not recalculate the zodiac or add a new sign on a whim. NASA just did the math.
What’s more, none of this is new. The same story line arose in 2011, when a Minnesotan astronomy teacher, Parke Kunkle, brought Ophiuchus into the spotlight and gently reminded people that, when viewed from Earth, the stars are in a different position than they were all those years ago.
“This has been completely known for centuries,” says Alan MacRobert, senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine in Cambridge. “It’s in any astronomy book; you can look it up anywhere.”
However, the recent cosmic maelstrom, which has left disgruntled horoscope-readers directing much of their anger at NASA, has prompted the agency to clarify. As a follow-up to its Space Place post, it took to Tumblr last week to set the record straight.
“Did you recently hear that NASA changed the zodiac signs?” the headline reads. “Nope, we definitely didn’t.”
Meanwhile, the shift doesn’t figure to make much — if any — impact in the world of popular astrology.
Many fans have simply vowed to ignore it. And Eugenia Last, whose internationally syndicated horoscope column appears in various publications, including the Globe, has no intention of tailoring her work to the new dates outlined by NASA (“Absolutely not,” she writes in an e-mail).
Not to mention those who’ve never taken astrology seriously in the first place.
“Doesn’t [this] sort of just underscore how arbitrary it is?” says Dan Flynn, 25, an executive assistant living in Brookline. “I understand that people are looking to make sense out of the universe, and that the universe is pretty chaotic, but it seems like grasping for straws.”
For some, in fact, the news has actually represented something of a blessing.
For two decades, Boston’s Keri Califano has been stuck with what she deems an unfortunate tattoo of the Aquarius sign — one that is often mistaken, she says, “for either a woman holding a jellyfish, or pouring spaghetti.”
Now that she’s a Capricorn, she’s sort of relieved.
“I’ve been thinking about getting [the tattoo] changed or covered up because it’s so ugly,” Califano said. “So this is actually a good reason to do it.”