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The Beginner's Guide to Zodiac Signs

Every year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to learn the constellations and, therefore, more about astrology. But, like so many resolutions, it never seems to come to fruition. While I know my sign — Aquarius (and rising moon? Libra? Maybe?) — I can never remember when the zodiac starts or ends, or even the notable traits about my own sign. I know the symbol looks like waves, but for some reason it's an air sign, and, uhhhh, yeah. That’s about it. 

Although there are discrepancies between what’s real and what’s just a coincidence when it comes to astrology and horoscopes, I still admire people who know a lot about their own sign, and about others’ as well. So if you’re anything like me and a bit overwhelmed by the zodiac experience, here’s a quick recap of the signs, plus easy ways to remember them.

  1. 1. 12 zodiac signs make up the year

    Zodiac signs on building

    The zodiac is divided into 12 30-degree signs, which are the 12 zodiac signs that we’re familiar with. They're split up based on the path of the sun — each sign is derived from a constellation in a different area of the sky that the sun passes through over the course of a year. So if the sun was passing through the Gemini constellation on the day you were born, for example, your sun sign would be Gemini.

    In more modern astrology, these 12 signs are known to have certain traits, and many of your personal qualities could be attributed to your sign, which is based on your birth date. The standard zodiac is 30 days long, but because Earth orbits on an elliptical shape and not a perfect circle, some signs vary in start date. Overall, the dates begin and end between the 19th and 23rd of each month.

  2. 2. How to remember the zodiac order

    Honestly, I found it overwhelming to try and memorize 12 different signs. Luckily, the internet already did the hard work for me. You can use this phrase to remember the names of the signs in the order of the zodiacal calendar, which starts in March: All The Great Constellations Live Very Long Since Stars Can't Alter Physics (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces).

  3. 3. The difference between sun, moon, and rising signs

    silhouette  of person looking at colorful sky

    In astrology, your sun sign guides your inner personality, or soul. Your sun sign is one of the 12 zodiac signs that you’re familiar with, which are dictated by where the sun is in the sky when you’re born, as explained earlier.

    Your moon sign, on the other hand, rules your emotions, or heart, and it’s calculated based on the date, time, and place of your birth.

    And finally, your rising sign guides your outer personality and how you are perceived in public. It’s determined by the planet that was on the eastern horizon when you were born. It also defines your planetary ruler, as every sign is given a planet that is said to have more influence over a sign when in position (more on that later).

  4. 4. Each sign has a natural element association

    Each zodiac sign is associated with one of the four classic elements — earth, water, fire and air. Each element has three signs. Although modern science has discovered over 100 elements, ancient science practices believed there to be only these four. They are associated with the seasons and the weather, and they represent personality traits and tendencies.

    Cafe Astrology has a simple and effective explanation of how the signs relate to the elements. According to the site, the fire signs, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, are known to be spontaneous, reactive, and assertive. Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn are earth signs, said to be reliable, practical, and sensual. Intellectual, detached, and fair-minded are common traits among air signs, or Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. Finally, water signs are fluid, emotional, and intuitive, much like Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.

    (I’ve always wondered why my sun sign, Aquarius, isn’t a water sign. Thank you to Molly’s Astrology for the answer!) 

  5. 5. The planets matter, too

    Remember when I said each sign has a planetary ruler?

    Each planet, in addition to the sun and moon, “rules” a different sign. The outer planets and their significance are seen throughout 12 houses, or segments of the zodiac, and each house is ruled by a zodiac sign. It can get confusing, but know that the 12 houses are different from the 12 signs that determine your sun sign: your first house is determined by the time of day you were born, not the month or day. The houses rotate with Earth's rotation around its axis, as explained by Allure.

    Even though multiple signs can be in one house, it is the first sign, or the “house cusp” that truly dictates. The Modern Astrologer does a great job explaining the nuances of each house. Where planets are in the houses show our strengths and weaknesses, and what house they fall into is important in knowing how planets play into your life. I found this explanation from Allure extremely useful to learn more about the planet that rules my sign! 

  6. 6. Why does everyone keep talking about Mercury in retrograde, then?

    I feel like my Twitter feed is freaking about Mercury in retrograde so often. I’ve just now learned that since Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, its orbit is much shorter, so the retrograde motion happens several times a year.

    Time explains it beautifully: “Retrograde motion is when a planet appears, when observed from Earth, to reverse direction. This happens due to an optical illusion caused by differences in orbit."

    So what does this mean for astrology? Well, it's not great. Mercury is the ruling planet of communication, so when it looks like it's moving backwards, you can expect communication to go a bit sideways, too. Think more arguments, miscommunication, and other general nuisances.

    No need to worry, though, as Mercury in retrograde can take many forms for all types of people. Although you may run into an ex-flame or have random car problems, others say to align with the energy instead and work on being an open communicator.

  7. 7. Where you can learn more about your sun sign

    Since there are so many different resources out there for learning more about one of the 12 traditional signs it’s easy for you to do your own research about your sign! Use your newfound knowledge of common terms and learn more about your sign at sites like Astrology Zone, Allure, Astrology.com, and Horoscope.com.

Like anything with thousands of years of history, there have been hundreds of iterations, cultural and religious influences, and criticisms. With so many offshoots of astrology, one article couldn’t encompass the plethora of information I found with just a few searches. I encourage you to dive deeper into your individual sign and its planets, houses, elements, rising, birth charts, and other parts of astrology.