Outside/In: Why is Astrology So Popular Right Now?
Depending on who you ask, astrology is a science, an art form, a spirituality, a form of therapy … or, a pseudo-science, a scam, fortune-telling.
But astrology’s recent popularity is only the latest iteration in several millennia of humans looking to the stars for meaning. What does contemporary Western astrology say about this cosmic moment?
This episode was originally published in January 2020.
“There are things in astrology I take seriously and things which really annoy me and which I don’t take seriously. But for about the last 20 years, my sole interest has been in it as a cultural phenomenon. What’s it do? What’s it claim? What’s its nature?” said historian Nick Campion.
Campion is an associate professor of cosmology and culture at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and program director of their master’s degree in cultural astronomy and astrology. He also practiced astrology until the 1980s.
First, there’s more than one kind of astrology. Humans have looked to the stars all over the world and throughout time to create systems of meaning like the Chinese zodiac and Indian, or Vedic, astrology.
Western astrology is based on the tropical zodiac, thanks to foundational texts written by Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century CE. But even so, its use and meaning has changed, over and over and over again, from the Islamic caliphs in the eighth century to its application in medicine and almanacs in medieval Europe.
Astrology was even practiced by astronomers like Galileo and Johannes Kepler.
But around the time of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, at the edge of the Age of Enlightenment, people started to feel a little queasy about astrology and magic in general. In England, laws against witchcraft shifted away from outlawing witchcraft to making it illegal to mislead people by telling their fortunes, for instance.
“Around 1690, you find astrology scarcely exists among educated people. It’s mainly to be laughed at, used an example of how stupid people can be,” said Campion.
The invention of the Sun Sign
In 19th century England, the Industrial Revolution and urbanization led to poor living and working conditions and obvious inequality. Many people tried to explore why, including novelist Charles Dickens, political economist Karl Marx, and theosophist Alan Leo.
Alan Leo is often called the father of modern astrology, and his last name is not a coincidence. He was in fact a Leo - and he invented the idea of being a Leo. He was born William Frederick Allan in England.
“I see the Theosophists as almost an alternative revolutionary tradition to Marxist and socialist movements,” said Campion.
“Marx and the socialists say that society can only be reformed, or revolution can only happen, in the case of Marxists, through altering material circumstances. So, you alter the material conditions of people’s lives, you give them enough money, you give them control over the means of production, and we will end up with a better society.”
“Now the critique of that position is that … if people internally are still the same, then you'll end up reproducing the same problems.”
Leo and other Theosophists like Helena Blavatsky used cosmic ideas to explain why someone might be born into a destitute position, borrowing ideas like karma and reincarnation from Hinduism and Buddhism.
This path led Leo to astrology.
“He really developed the idea of the individual in astrology in a new way, the need to understand oneself spiritually,” said Campion. “He also, as part of the same process, really simplified astrology.”
Leo introduced the sun sign, which had previously been part of that bigger astrological map. But now, it’s the thing that you probably know off the top of your head: that you’re an Aquarius, for instance.
With sun signs, rather than using the stars to read your destiny and perhaps the future, each person becomes a type. Astrology becomes a means to understand the self.
By the 1930s, sun signs had become so popular that the first 12-paragraph horoscope column was printed in a newspaper.
“That would not have happened prior to this time,” said Campion.
This shift in astrology reflected the concurrent development of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others. After all, the 20th century is also dubbed “the Century of the Self.”
In fact, in the 1960s, an astrologer named Dane Rudhyar built on Leo’s work, connecting the archetypes of the zodiac to the archetypes of Carl Jung and giving rise to a new “psychological astrology.”
“The client goes to an astrologer not for a set of predictions but for a counseling session,” said Campion.
Astrology and queerness
By the end of the “Century of the Self,” the internet had made astrology accessible in a whole new way.
If you’re equipped with the time, date, and location of your birth, it is easy to go onto the internet and look up your birth chart, complete with not only your sun sign but also your moon, rising sign, planets and their exaltations and aspects and so on. Before the internet, this level of detail would most likely have required a visit to an astrologer.
Astrology has been meme-ified, and the signs interpreted as characters from The Office, as cocktails, perfumes, Bjork songs, and so on.
It’s also become a shorthand on online dating profiles, according to Kell Rakowski, founder of Lex, a text-based lo-fi dating app for queer and gender-non-binary identifying people. Rakowski guessed that she sees astrology referenced on dating profiles “about half the time.”
“I’ve been saying that really part of the reason why Lex has taken off is because queer people have their own language within a language and I think the language of astrology is also kind of packaged within that idea,” said Rakowski.
Campion explained that there might be a reason that astrology provides a sympathetic framework towards queerness or marginalized identities.
“You may be biologically male or biologically female, but in your birth chart, the planets are gendered… the moon and Venus are female, Mars and Saturn are male, and so on. And so there’s always been an understanding in astrology, going back to earliest times, that there is an internal feminine and internal masculine,” said Campion.
“Astrology does open up this really wonderful space of being a full human person in a world that wants to make it difficult for us to do that… and by us, I mean anyone, but by us I also mean women, and I mean young people, and I mean queer people,” said Claire Comstock-Gay, also known as Madame Clairevoyant. She writes weekly horoscopes for The Cut and is the author of Madame Clairevoyant’s Guide to the Stars.
Obviously, not all queer people are into astrology, but astrologer Samuel Reynolds noted that astrology might be an appealing alternative for those seeking an inclusive system of meaning, particularly if traditional sources of spirituality rejected part of your identity like your sexuality or gender.
“It frees you from the constraints of your tradition. It’s not ladened with traditional baggage. There’s no heaven or hell,” said Reynolds.
In an article titled “Why Do Queers Love Astrology?”, astrologer Chani Nicholas put it this way: “maybe it’s because we need to know that no matter the rejection we face here on Earth, there is a place for us among the stars.”
Cathedrals as Solar Observatories
Christianity’s relationship with astronomy and astrology is long and varied. The zodiac is often depicted inside churches, as in the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral in France.
But the zodiac is just the beginning. Cathedrals sometimes also include a feature called a meridian line, which are essentially basic astronomical instruments literally embedded in the architecture of some cathedrals.
“Well, I tripped over one… that’s the easiest answer,” said John Heilborn, explaining his first encounter with such a line. Heilbron is an emeritus professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories.
The first meridian line was laid in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna.
“You cannot miss it if you look down occasionally, which most people don’t do in churches, and there you find this bizarre thing of a very straight line… snaking its way, in the case of San Petronio, between pillars that hold up the church.”
Cathedrals with meridian lines, like Santa Maria delli Angeli in Rome and Saint Sulpice in Paris, become not only places of worship and history, but also historical records of our changing understanding of astronomy over the centuries.
With a meridian line, the building itself essentially becomes a kind of sundial.
“The installation itself, the church observatory, consisted of what appears to be very rudimentary equipment: namely, a hole in the roof or the wall which emitted the sun’s rays and a line, usually of brass, in the inlay on the floor running due north-south on which the sun’s image stood at precisely local noon,” said Heilbron.
“During the course of the year, the image runs up and down the rod depending on the height of the sun at noon, and so you could find out things about the sun by looking at the rate at which it changes position along the line, or the length of its image on the line as it changed during the year.”
The meridian line helped the Church identify the exact date of the vernal equinox, which was necessary for determining the date of Easter each year. Because of the size and exactness of these cathedral-scale instruments, meridian lines could also provide insight about the changing inclination of the earth’s axis.
“Saint-Sulpice in Paris [was] the last one to do serious astronomical work. But they kept putting them in and kept making them exact in order to serve as noon marks - that is, in order that people can set their clocks by their sun… local noon,” said Heilborn. “So, you see pictures of people standing around these meridian lines around noon awaiting the signal to set them.”