You may have an idea of what your Zodiac sign is based on your birthday. Maybe you’ve even read your daily horoscope a few times.

Where do these things come from, though, and how can you get the most out of them?

What’s Your Zodiac and Horoscope Sign?

When you read a set of daily horoscopes, it usually contains, for easy reference, the range of birthdays that applies to each Zodiac sign. Each year is broken up into 12 Zodiac signs of equal length, usually starting late in one calendar month and ending midway through the next, so you share your Zodiac sign with about one twelfth of the world’s population. Note sure what your sign is? Check out our zodiac greeting card collection, in partnership with Horoscope.com.

Each Zodiac sign is named after a constellation. A constellation is a group of stars that appear to connect in a way that forms a distinctive picture.

Some of the 12 constellations that came to make up the Zodiac are named after animals, like Leo (the lion) and Scorpio (the scorpion). Others are more abstract, like Libra (the scales).

These simple images can pack a lot of personality. Though some of them may seem goofy, they actually serve as a useful shorthand for the characteristics that are associated with the Zodiac signs. Once you know the traits of the different Zodiac signs, you might not be able to avoid them in the people in your life.

You may know a Leo who is loud like a roaring lion, or a Scorpio whose vindictive tendencies can sting like a scorpion, or a Libra who takes forever to decide on anything because they are always weighing different options as though on a scale. It might seem strange that you can tell this much about a person based on what time of year they were born, but sometimes the correspondences are just too dramatic to ignore.

You don’t need astrology to see that the world has different kinds of people in it, but astrology can help you understand why people are different from each other. Someone you butt heads with may not be wrong – they might just be seeing things from another perspective that makes more sense when you know the traits of their Zodiac sign.

The symbolism of all 12 signs also comes together to tell a story much bigger than any one year that the Sun cycles through them all. Whatever your Zodiac sign may be, it can give a clue as to how the purpose of your own life might fit into this great cosmic story.

The Zodiac of Western Astrology

While the Earth does revolve around the Sun, it looks from Earth’s vantage like the Sun is moving through the constellations that surround us. When the 12-sign Zodiac was first developed, you could look at the sky during the date ranges for each sign and see the Sun appearing to be in that constellation. This is why your Zodiac sign is also known as your Sun sign.

The correspondence between horoscope date ranges and the constellations in the sky is now not as exact as it used to be. This is because positions have drifted over time through a process called the precession of the equinoxes. For more of the technical details, check out Horoscope.com’s Astrology FAQs.

What hasn’t changed, though, is that there is a spring equinox each year, when there is equal length of night and day. In Western astrology, the astrological year therefore begins at the Northern Hemisphere’s spring equinox, which is the Southern Hemisphere’s fall equinox. The Sun enters Aries at this point, and the rest of the year is then divided into 12 equal chunks from there, one for each sign.

While this way of viewing the Zodiac is still connected to nature, the connection is not quite as obvious as looking up in the sky and seeing what constellation is above you. You don’t have to be an astrologer to know what a season is, though, and this approach ties your Zodiac sign to your place in the rhythm of the seasons.

What is now known as Western astrology began in Egypt and Greece, though some earlier development happened in Babylon, which is now Iraq. This was in the Northern Hemisphere, so the most obvious symbolism of the Zodiac signs tends to map easily onto Northern Hemisphere seasons.

For example, Aries is associated with a burst of new energy, which makes a lot of sense for the beginning of spring. If you are an Aries, you might use that imagery of growth to understand your tendency to take action a bit impulsively.

However, it is always a great reminder to hear members of the astrology community in the Southern Hemisphere mention things like their winter solstice in June. In that example, the Sun going into Cancer could refer to nurturing your plants at the beginning of Northern Hemisphere summer, but it could also refer to getting cozy at home in Southern Hemisphere winter.

Conversely, the Sun goes into Capricorn at the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, and the serious mood of Capricorn makes sense for the darkness of winter. On the other hand, the hardworking attitude of Capricorn could be useful for summer’s agricultural tasks if Capricorn marks your summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. The opposite signs are often dealing with similar issues, if not two sides of the same coin, so this works out pretty well.

How Can Your Horoscope Help You?

Finding your place in the Zodiac can help you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. The cycles of nature are predictable, which may be comforting when the world seems chaotic.

Knowing your Sun sign can tell you some things about your basic personality, and it might be comforting to have the validation that some of your quirks are there for a reason. Where astrology can really shine, though, is showing you how you fit into the larger world. Reading your Sun sign horoscope for a particular day can tell you how that day’s planetary energies might mix with the personality that you bring to the equation.

For example, if Mercury and Mars are positioned in a difficult relationship with each other that day, conflict might be in the air, but where Mercury and Mars are hanging out in relation to your Sun sign could determine whether you are likely to be an active participant in the fight or merely a bystander. Better yet, if you know in advance from reading your horoscope that conflict is a possibility, you may be able to think ahead about how you could become a peacemaker.

Your Birth Chart and Beyond

Of course, each person is more complex than just their Sun sign. You may benefit further from looking at your birth chart, which is a snapshot of where all of the planets and other celestial bodies were in relation to Earth at the moment you were born. This can help you see how you differ from the many other people who share your Sun sign.

The Moon and the planets cycle through the same 12 Zodiac signs that the Sun does, though each object goes at its own pace. For example, the Moon moves through all 12 signs in less than a month, while Jupiter takes almost 12 years to move through all 12 signs.

The signs of the Moon and the planets in your birth chart may be different from your Sun sign. This could explain situations where you feel like your Sun sign does not represent you very well. For example, if you are a Gemini but feel like Cancer horoscopes sometimes describe you better, you might learn from looking at your birth chart that you have the Sun in Gemini but several planets in Cancer.

The possibilities for using your birth chart include understanding your psychological dynamics, clarifying your relationships, and determining what career suits you.

Also, looking at the ongoing cycles of the planets in relation to your whole birth chart instead of just your Sun sign can give you the insight of a horoscope on a much larger scale. In times of upheaval, this may give you validation that it really is your time to go through a major transition. Whatever suffering is involved might be more bearable if you have a sense that the suffering has a larger meaning and purpose.

In more pleasant times, looking at how the cycles are interacting with your chart, which is also called looking at your transits, can alert you to an opportunity to move forward with confidence. The energy might be there, but you have to use your free will to do something with it.

Check out the full zodiac greeting card collection