Register Tuesday | December 1 | 2020

In the Stars

My friend Kim has been following astrology for as long as I’ve known him. He strongly identifies his sensitive side to his Cancer sun, and his idealism with his Aquarius moon. During our undergraduate degrees, the only social media he used was Co-Star, a ubiquitous astrology app. That made me download it in turn so I could communicate with him. 

This spring, Kim moved back to his parents’ house. He had intended to guide trips for an outdoor outfitter over the summer, and then teach in Spain in the fall, all plans that were undermined by Covid-19. As soon as the virus struck, he deleted Co-Star. With the enormous uncertainty due to global events, the monthly or daily predictions of astrology were feeling “totally fruitless,” Kim told me. “What would I do with prescriptions when I am living a static life?” he asked.

Astrology has been booming in recent years, especially among millennials. It’s no wonder. For a generation that has been denied the usual sources of security, from economic security to a healthy environment, astrology offers an alternative source of stability. Horoscopes are a form of spirituality, or meaning-making. But instead of suggesting best practices of living for later reward, like most religions, they dictate how you should best live your life for personal gain. That horoscopes offer forecasts for our material lives—our careers, financial health and literal health—makes them appealing for those of us feeling precarious.

But, at least for some, the pandemic and subsequent economic collapse has disrupted this faith.As our world and economy shuttered under shelter-at-home measures, it seemed that cosmic readings fell short. In the New York Times article “Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology?” certain followers reported feeling disillusioned with the promises of good things to come that their pre-pandemic horoscopes forecasted. Just trying to survive week to week, notions of meeting the love of your life or getting a promotion in the month became pipe dreams.

Astrology’s non-believers might say that this is an inevitable outcome: that a belief system founded in predicting future outcomes is bound to collapse when the predictions are revealed to be false. Tenuous forecasting of the pandemic aside, however, the magical deliverances of astrology have, throughout history, been signposts for people navigating difficult times, particularly economic instability. The question, then, isn’t exactly whether astrology can survive times of global economic uncertainty; it already has, time and time again. 

Rather, as life on the ground outpaces planetary predictions—and people’s worries about their health, careers and relationships have grown more pressing—there are new questions to answer: what can astrology do to stay relevant, and how will its followers adapt?

Despite drawing meaning from the stars, astrology has always fulfilled a socioeconomic purpose. Babylonians appear to have invented the method, with their early astrological tablets dating back to 2400 BCE. They used other stars to track the movement of our own star through the sky, envisioning shapes to define these movements. These early astronomers also used astrological signs to mark the movements of their gods in order to predict good or bad omens. Over time, the shapes themselves gained meanings, and people began to believe that we were influenced by the position of the sun and other planets at our birth.

While horoscopes are now accessible in most online lifestyle magazines, early astrology was reserved for the upper echelons of society. During the Hellenistic era, only the wealthiest would consult with astronomers to read their signs and predict how planetary movements might influence their prosperity. By the time of the Enlightenment, astrology lost credibility among the elite scientific population and went out of style. 

In the 1930s, however, horoscopes saw a revival. A little-known astrologer predicted that an important event for the British royal family and nation would occur on Princess Margaret’s seventh birthday. Near her birthday, her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to her father. Interest was suddenly piqued again across the commonwealth. This happened during a period of economic instability and political upheaval, and the remedies for modern life’s stressors, psychoanalysis and indulging in culture, were inaccessible to the average person who couldn’t afford therapy or expect to read their angst in a high-brow novel. This new newspaper-column astrology was a way to receive individualized concrete advice on how to survive in the changed world. 

Belief in horoscopes flourished again in the United States in 1983, shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president and as economic anxiety swept the nation. According to the National Science Board, over half of Americans at the time believed that horoscopes had some kind of scientific, or truthful, basis. At the same time, the economy was in disarray. While Reagan’s austerity measures helped the economy, they also widened the income gap. Industry became increasingly deregulated, and production costs became leaner at the expense of workers. 

As unions disintegrated and labour became more precarious, people were increasingly told they were responsible for their economic and personal wellbeing. Self-help-style books on personal finance and gaming the stock market proliferated. The use of astrology to manage the stock market also exploded. Even the president himself was reported to be consulting the stars before making political moves; in 1988, a chief-of-staff divulged: “Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with this woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in favorable alignment for the enterprise.”

The astrology craze cooled off until the financial crisis of 2008. Just four years after economic collapse, belief in astrology blossomed to similar heights it had reached in the 1980s. In 2012, nearly half of Americans again believed that horoscopes were at least somewhat scientific, with those aged eighteen to twenty-four buying into it more than anyone. By 2017, one study showed 70 percent of university-aged students reported reading horoscopes. The Cut reported that traffic on their astrology site had risen 150% in 2017, compared with the year before. As of last year, the industry itself is worth over 2.1$ billion dollars. 

One reason for this is clear: economic inequality has only grown since the parents of millennials were reading horoscopes and financial self-help books in the 1980s. Forty years later, it’s harder to purchase the assets and secure the positions that protected our parents’ generation financially. In turning away from the magical deliverances of personal finance, we turn towards the magical thinking of astrology. And given our recent history of hard times, it would seem that people should be rushing to read their horoscopes right now. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. 

My friend Hannah, who normally follows astrology closely, says that she, like Kim, has also stopped since the start of the pandemic because it doesn’t seem to be reflecting her reality. Hannah works in medical technology and has elderly parents. While she isn’t one of the many Canadians left unemployed by the pandemic, she tells me that she has turned away from horoscopes because  they don’t seem to answer the anxiety that she has that is specific to the health of her parents. “I usually use astrology to make sense of romantic relationships,” she says. “The things I’m thinking about right now are beyond that”.

The pandemic has brought greater tumult to people’s priorities: be it their health, careers, or relationships. At the same time, outrage and mass protests over injustices like the killing of George Floyd have made many people more aware and concerned about injustices in their own communities. Beyond making forecasts that are mindful of Covid restrictions, astrology—more than ever—needs to reflect these personal and community anxieties. But what is it we’re wanting to hear? 

Susan Miller is the reigning queen of internet astrology. She’s published monthly and daily astrology readings to her site, Astrology Zone, over the past twenty-five years and has a following of 17 million people. While Miller’s online presence is loud, her personal life is more enigmatic, and she reportedly won’t divulge her age. Her personality matches the tone of her forecasts: ebullient and effusive, with a touch of pragmatism. 

In March, as the pandemic began in North America, Miller was receiving a lot of flak for failing to predict it. In response, she published an essay explaining how she had made the oversight. Every thirteen years, Pluto travels in conjunction with Jupiter, she wrote. Jupiter expands whatever is in its path, while Pluto rules financial matters, masses of people, and the overlooked object: viruses. Miller noted that these two planets will remain close to each other until the end of 2020, when they will part ways again. She predicted that this will be the moment that the virus cools off. 

In her essay, Miller urged her readers to seek comfort and connection in relationships, something she repeated in our conversation this the spring. Despite some of her followers’ initial frustrations, Miller told me she hasn’t witnessed much of a change in her readership levels through the pandemic. She believes that astrology remains important for her readers, and tells me that she has shifted her forecasting to reflect what she thinks looms large as a worry for people right now—finances. 

Through her astrological forecasting, Miller predicts a recession that will last two years. She knows, of course, that that recession will lead to fewer jobs, “Everybody will be looking for high ground, and you’ll have to be the first person to find it,” she says. Using the stars to plot career moves will become all the more important, she believes. Miller feels for millennials, her primary audience, who will have endured two recessions right when they are embarking on their careers. “The chances of this happening to a young generation are very small—it’s hard on them and it’s not normal,” she says. And her readership reflects a wide range of people looking for help. She notes that there was an uptick in male viewership after the 2008 recession and attributes it to men looking for advice following job loss. Economic precarity, she concludes, seems to be an equalizer when it comes to seeking guidance.

But it’s not all dire, according to Miller. A development called “The Grand Mutation,” will be arriving on December 21, 2020, when Saturn enters Aquarius. Saturn has been entering different earth signs, which rule materiality, constancy and tradition, every twenty years for the past two centuries, Miller says. It’s unusual that it’s entering Aquarius, an air sign that rules collaboration, humanistic work and technology. Saturn already entered Aquarius one this year, in March, and stayed there until July 1, 2020. Miller tells me this encouraged greater collaborative efforts to deal with social issues, like the global protests after the death of George Floyd, the public’s celebration of medical professionals, and people bringing groceries to the doorsteps of their vulnerable neighbours. “It’s about people helping people,” she says. 

Miller’s forecasting is incredibly precise. But she says that astrology is beneficial because it gives the reader options; the stars might line up a certain way, but in every situation, the reader has the choice to decide how they will act on the information given. She noted in her essay’s conclusion that Jupiter, which is expanding through the fall, rules miracles. Albert Einstein believed that everything is miraculous, she writes, and then urges her readers to have faith. Like most faith practices, though, astrology seems to advocate groundwork to nudge those miracles into being. “Right now, there needs to be kindness between people,” Miller says. 

During the first round of shelter-in-place measures, cut-out rainbows began popping up in windows across the world. These rainbows were crafted to share messages of hope and courage with those passing by. These messages are just one example of how, regardless of belief system, we can all borrow from the thinking of astrology—the idea that material forces  impact our lives—and apply it to our everyday encounters. Noticing and crafting immediate symbols and structures of care may help us navigate the economic aftershocks of the pandemic. 

Miller mentioned that Aquarius will be entering Saturn come December again, which will lead to more collaboration and awareness for social welfare. The idea of entering Aquarius might sound familiar. In 1967, the Californian band, the 5th Dimension, popularized the concept of "the Age of Aquarius" in their song of the same name. The Age of Aquarius is a concept that we are entering, or will soon enter, a new astrological era that will impact all the planets. While the age's official start date is unclear to most astrologers—we could already be in it— the era is said to last 2150 years, and will be characterized by cooperation, humanitarianism and peace. 

When this era was first predicted in the 1960s, the forecasting coincided with progressive social developments. The Great Society programs launched in the mid-to-late 1960s by President Lyndon B. Johnson in America worked to promote social welfare and equity. In Canada, pressure was put on the liberal government’s federalist and multicultural vision of the state by feminists, Marxists, Indigenous peoples and people of colour. Moving forward, whether we get there through listening to our horoscopes, or noticing injustices in our communities, leaning in and reaching out will be important. In many ways, this leaning-in has already been happening, with widespread engagement with the Black Lives Matters uprising and broad support for public health measures that will protect our most vulnerable populations.

There is immense beauty in the impulse of early astronomers who imbued the skies with human creativity to make meaning. This is the salvation of astrology, or any sort of magical thinking, because this imagination can birth a new reality. Astrology suggests that we are vulnerable to material conditions. Expanding the ways in which we allow ourselves to be influenced, beyond planetary movements to everyday interactions, could open our futures to readings that exceed narratives of scarcity. It doesn’t matter if we’re checking-in on our horoscopes, or each other, what matters is that we’re checking in. 

Art: Language of the Astrology by JimmyMac210, Creative Commons.