It reeks of a campy noir flick: THE SIGN THAT ROSE FROM THE DEAD! Can’t you just see the movie poster? Dripping-blood font emblazoned across the night sky. Star-crossed lovers gazing into each other’s eyes, murmuring, “What’s your sign now?” A zodiac zombie creeping forth from the northwest center of the Milky Way, snakes oozing from its eye sockets.
Aside from the star-crossed lovers bit, it’s, well…not too far off from that.
Unless you were way, way into astrology, Ophiuchus, the thirteenth sign of the zodiac, was buried in the history books until last January, when a dude in Minneapolis said, “Hey, the earth is tilting and there are a ton of constellations out there? And so maybe we aren’t the horoscope sign we thought we were?”* And the Internet imploded.
But here’s what wasn’t clear: OPHIUCHUS? Who is this guy and where has he been all my life? And how in the world do you pronounce it?
As it turns out, old Ophiuchus (oh-PHEW-cuss) the Healer, symbol: the snake, whose name in Greek means “serpent-bearer,” has been hanging out in the heavens since stardust was. He is one of the thirteen constellations that intersect the ecliptic, along with the Other Twelve that get so much more P.R. The Babylonians noticed him. They were the first to develop a zodiac calendar, around the second millennium B.C., and they included him into the mix: a half-man with serpents for legs.
Civilizations rise and fall, and they leave scraps of themselves to the conquerors. By the time the Greeks got a hold of these zodiac theories, Ophiuchus had mysteriously disappeared. Most theorists agree that those symmetry-loving Greeks simply took the 360-degree path our Earth makes around the sun, divided it by the almost-perfect number 12, and gave us 30 lovely degrees per horoscope sign. Ta-da! You can just picture them dusting off their hands on their togas on that one.
The conspiracy theorists wondered. And without them, perhaps no one would have asked: why Ophiuchus? What did he ever do to you?
Because as it turns out, our buddy O has quite the shady past. Ophiuchus wasn’t just a healer, he was the healer. The father of medicine, some say. A surgeon also known for mixing potions and medicines from plants and snake venom. When he roamed the earth—code name Asclepius (or Imhotep, depending on which account you’re reading)—he studied serpents and became so skilled at his profession that he learned to bring people back from the dead. He unlocked the secret of death, folks. He created zombies.
Zeus, as you might imagine, would have none of it. Humans, immortal? And so he struck Asclepius dead with a thunderbolt. But out of respect for what Asclepius had achieved (or perhaps out of remorse), Zeus immortalized Asclepius in the stars. He became the constellation Ophiuchus, a healer and his snake. He is sandwiched between Scorpio and Sagittarius, with barely a toe touching the ecliptic.
But touch it he does, and should therefore be granted his rightful place among the Other Twelve. Perhaps Ophiuchus all but disappeared because his gift was so powerful. Perhaps Ophiuchus was buried so that his powers would be buried, too.
The snake Ophiuchus holds is the constellation Serpens. Snakes have since been associated with healing, and the rod of Asclepius—a wand entwined with a single snake—has long been the symbol of healers. The rod of Asclepius is now the official symbol of the American Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and dozens of other medical associations around the world.
In my fantasy debut The 13th Sign, Ophiuchus takes the form of a female healer—female because it seemed fitting for its interactions with Jalen, the 13-year-old girl main character. Fitting because females get robbed in a lot mythology, often portrayed as petty things with a penchant for revenge. Fitting because 12 million women work in health care in the United States, the largest employer of women of any industry, including education. To me, the face of Ophiuchus is the face of a female.
There is no doubt that mystery shrouds this particular constellation. Why has its name changed from Serpentarius to Ophiuchus? Why is it located in such a place in the heavens that it is invisible to large parts of earth? Why is it the only constellation in the ecliptic linked to a real human? Why don’t we include him in the zodiac, for crying out loud?
We may never know how Ophiuchus evolved from creating zombies to becoming one himself, poor fella. Although I imagine from his vantage point, high above us and shining down, that he rather enjoys his relative obscurity. After all, if he didn’t—if he returned (and surely someone with his mad skills could)—we might need to keep a few hundred miles of barbed wire handy.
Traditional 12-Sign Zodiac
Aries: March 21- April 19
Taurus: April 20—May 20
Gemini: May 21—June 20
Cancer: June 21—July 22
Leo: July 23—August 22
Virgo: August 23—September 22
Libra: September 23—October 22
Scorpio: October 23—November 21
Sagittarius: November 22—December 21
Capricorn: December 22—January 19
Aquarius: January 20—February 18
Pisces: February 19—March 20
The 13-Sign Zodiac
Aries: April 19—May 13
Taurus: May 14—June 19
Gemini: June 20—July 20
Cancer: July 21—August 9
Leo: August 10—September 15
Virgo: September 16—October 30
Libra: October 31—November 22
Scorpio: November 23—November 29
Ophiuchus: November 30—December 17
Sagittarius: December 18—January 18
Capricorn: January 19—February 15
Aquarius: February 16—March 11
Pisces: March 12—April 18
Kristin O’Donnell Tubb is the author of The 13th Sign (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan January 2013) and Selling Hope. She can be found far too often on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and she has a website, too: www.kristintubb.com.