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Published January 15 2011

Relax, astrology buffs ... you are who you thought you were

Calm down, star-crossed stargazers – and don’t get that Scorpio tattoo replaced just yet. Despite the stir raised this week about shifting signs and heavenly misalignment, astrologers say the signs most Westerners rely on are on solid footing.

The zodiac furor flared up last weekend after a Minneapolis Star Tribune story quoted astronomer Parke Kunkle (think planetarium, not horoscopes), who made a few comments on how precession – the gradual and ongoing change in the orientation of the Earth’s axis – has thrown the alignment of the zodiac out of whack.

In the millennia since the signs of the zodiac were established, the article said, precession has gradually bumped the corresponding birthdates off by a month.

The result: Pisces becomes Aquarius. Taurus becomes Aries. Cats and dogs living together – mass hysteria.

Bluntly put, the Internet freaked out. News outlets published stories about “your real horoscope.” Facebook status updates became a running diary of identity crises. Kunkle, who says he was simply explaining a well-known phenomenon and puts little stock in astrology himself, fell under siege from inquiring journalists around the world. Ophiuchus, the so-called “13th sign” discarded by the ancient Babylonians (the sort of detail that seems ripped straight from a Dan Brown novel) dominated Google searches and Twitter feeds.

But while the popular sentiment was that we’d labored for centuries under misguided prognostication, the explanation from astrologers was considerably less alarming: There are two different systems of zodiac signs. In one, sidereal astrology, signs are tied to the position of constellations and shift over time; in the other, tropical astrology – used by most Western astrologers – signs are tied to the seasons and do not.

“It won’t change the daily horoscope,” said Jacqueline Bigar, an astrologist who writes a daily horoscope for The Forum and a number of other publications.

She said the current controversy has more to do with labels than with substance. “It makes no difference what you call it – I’m talking about the same section of the sky,” she said. “We’re all fighting over technicalities.”

Bigar said she’s received 150 letters this week from readers, ranging from those concerned over “losing” their sign to those who accused her of being a fraud.

“The public gets attached to the image rather than the essence,” she said. “You’re still the same person, and I’m still looking at the same degrees.”

Of course, the consternation over a sign switcheroo might be understandable for those who took their attachment to a more permanent level.

Elijah Larson, who works at 46 and 2 Tattoo in Fargo, said customers frequently request zodiac tattoos.

“It’s fairly common,” Larson said. He said most of those are small – perhaps the size of a 50-cent piece – and relatively simple.

He’s heard some chatter regarding customers who are now wondering if they inked the wrong sign, he said, but hasn’t had any do-over requests so far, or requests for Ophiuchus designs.

David Weinrich, director of Minnesota State University Moorhead’s planetarium, said it’s a bit amusing to watch the public uproar over something that’s taught in basic astronomy courses.

“It is interesting how people’s attention suddenly gets caught by something that’s nothing new,” Weinrich said Friday.

While Weinrich doesn’t follow astrology, he said it’s easy to see why people take interest in the sky and stars, which have lent themselves to everything from harvest cycles to our basic units of time.

“It’s part of our cultural heritage,” he said. “Since people first looked up, people have looked up at the sky and made stories about the sky and wondered.”

Zodiac signs as commonly used

Zodiac signs based on current star alignment

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502