THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Divine Narration

The ethics and ethos of modern astrology

by Anabelle Johnston

Illustration by Ryn Kang

published February 15, 2020


By no fault but my own, I have retained very little from my sixth-grade science class. Even so, I vaguely remember that tectonic shifts can cause natural disasters, that sound waves refract around buildings, and that because of some combination of distance and the speed of light, staring at the sky is simultaneously staring at the past. On the few occasions that I am able to trek away from civilization to view undisturbed outer space, I marvel at the outstretched arms of the Milky Way populated by stars that operate in their own temporal reality. This experience is adjacent to divine—feeling connected to the universe in the largest sense of the phrase. I consider myself a skeptic and yet, am compelled by the belief that even if the positionality of the stars does not dictate my day-to-day life, the same forces that govern planetary motion have the power to move me, even just a little bit. In the face of modernity, I still yearn for a connection to distant celestial bodies, nostalgic for a spirituality rooted in an ancient world order.

I’m not the only person engaged in this pseudo-scientific pursuit of a (partially manufactured) alignment between celestial bodies and myself. As one of over 5 million registered account holders on Co-Star, a leading astrology app, I have let this practice embed itself in my daily routine through push notifications and webs of alignment with friends. Contemporary practices of astrology offer a version of spirituality that still operates within the technological abyss I seek separation from. It appeals to a generation of youth disillusioned with organized religion and hierarchical structures because it provides us with cosmic connection without demanding any significant changes to our consumerist lifestyles. Defining self meaning through astrology is an act of rebellion reclaimed because the practice reinforces early western ideology of humanity—and more specifically the individual—as the center of the universe.

 

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While astrology as we understand it today may take more technological forms than traditional practices once did, human beings have long arranged their lives under the guidance of the sky. For many, ancient astrological observances had both practical and spiritual functions. Pragmatically, the rising of Sirius in mid-July allowed ancient Egyptians to plan for the annual flooding of the Nile, and centuries of travelers utilized the stars to act as a compass while exploring uncharted territory. These early relationships between humanity and nature contributed to many societies’ spatial understandings of themselves. Early astrological practices were also integrated into concepts of spirituality, defined (within the context of astrology and other non-religious practices) as anything related to the human soul instead of the physical body. The Assyrian Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, for example, provided both observations of planetary motions and their corresponding omens. Similarly, Zodiac signs set by constellations appearing in the sky at a certain time of year existed as early as 1500 B.C. under Babylonian rule. In the Ancient Greek period, the 12 tropical star signs were established and utilized to predict both individual horoscopes and societal destinies.

However, as astrology continued to evolve, the separation between the human spirit and corporeal presence grew fainter, and the physical being has become increasingly relevant to the discussion of people and planetary placement. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, written in the second century, can be considered the standard Western astrological text dictating Earth as the fixed center of the universe encased by the spheres comprising space. Though later scientifically debunked, Ptolemy’s writing defined the Western conception of humanity’s place in the universe for a millenia and continues to hold influence today. The modern language used to discuss astrology parallels this early explanation of space, regarding the individual as the unilateral Center in philosophical disagreement with Copernicus, the Renaissance-era mathematician and philosopher who famously introduced the heliocentric system accepted today.

Perhaps that is what I like best about softly subscribing to this divinity; astrology allows for narrative construction that necessitates belonging to a larger-than-life force. The mundanity of everyday is replaced by broad statements about purpose and potential. Turmoil can be explained away by uncontrollable bodies and success can be teased into fate. In this vein, modern astrology compliments my current view of the world as chaotic while allowing for an escape into the distant collective past. Similar to the cooptation of practices like yoga, tai chi, and crystal healing, astrology centers around the bond between the body and being in the world with an emphasis on nature that is otherwise ignored in the fast-paced digital age. Today, approximately 84 percent of the United States population lives in urban areas, severed from local food systems and surrounded by built environments. These spiritual practices offer a means of reconnecting with the Earth (and other planets) in an otherwise anthropocentric society, providing both relief and a means of resistance against this structure.

Astrology has also grown in popularity in queer and activist spaces, viewed by some as a method of deriving meaning for the individual beyond the confines of the establishment. Perhaps this is because it offers an alternative way of understanding ourselves that prioritizes our connections to each other as opposed to a higher power. Perhaps it is because it acts as a great equalizer of signs, stars, and people. In contrast with the strict impositions of many organized religions, astrology opens avenues for a connection to divinity that is not contingent upon the judgement of a specific deity. For many members of the queer community, the reclamation of labels and Zodiac signs is an act of empowerment that marks the individual as the ultimate determinant of how they are perceived by others.

Complex contemporary astrology separates the self into basic identity, emotions, and the mask I present to others, making it easy to isolate aspects of my being that otherwise feel impossibly intertwined. Practicing astrology necessitates a level of critical self-reflection that I don’t engage in when writing emails, responding to Snapchats, and sending texts. It provides space and resources for introspection that can better inform these outward projections. Simultaneously, each house and planetary motion can be spun to reaffirm how I see myself, allowing for complete autonomy of identity that still exists within a larger structure. The act of placing oneself in a larger context and aligning with a collective has long been integral to spiritual connection, as established value systems have governed individual behavior long before the advent of Signs As… listicles. However, modern astrology pushes this system further, establishing a lateral structure of belonging instead of hierarchical one, supposedly appealing to a different audience that values equality even among difference. Astrology is then a palatable spirituality for a new generation, offering the outline for a communal sense of identity while still allowing the individual to self-apply the attributes that fit best.

 

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Unlike many spiritual practices or cultural superstitions, modern astrology is not generally inherited from previous generations but often a practice stumbled upon by young people today through its ubiquity on social media. Instead of accepting my grandmother’s belief that whistling at night would summon spirits or sharing my mother’s fear of black cats, I sought out my own set of erratic and abstract rules as defined by Mercury’s retrograde and the summer solstice.

Like many complacent followers, I choose what aspects of astrology I let permeate my daily life and to what extent I believe in the marketing madness. Although I don’t feel like the archetypal Scorpio­—my sun sign—I am always amused when a True Believer tells me I live up to the enigmatic and intense stereotypes. This blend of skepticism and spirituality defines modern astrology, as many astrologists approach readings with a self-deprecating sarcasm that has been incorporated into the discipline’s branding and adopted by both those creating and consuming astrological content. On Twitter, accounts like @poetsastrologers affectionately tease each sign with recurring themes of vulnerability in romantic relationships and therapy, utilizing meme-formats that reference pop culture and liberal politics. The methodology works; I chuckled slightly and resonated with a post made on January 16, 2020, reading “Crush: Into? Scorpio: Universal healthcare & side to side burial plots.”

Astrology has been heralded as an internet fad by the New York Times and The Atlantic, while Christine Smallwood of The New Yorker posits that astrology is woven into millennial culture with much more permanence. News organizations theorize why people “believe” in astrology—some pointing to the new-age aesthetics that accompany the practice. Pastels and finely drawn decorations of constellations appeal to an alternative brand of nostalgia that has emerged in the face of the hypermodern digital age. In essence, looking to the stars is not only an act of observing the past but a means of transporting back into it. Astrology satiates a desire to outwardly reject bureaucratization and return to what is perceived as an older (and purer) world order, marketed through planners covered in personal constellations and Zodiac candles. Stores like Urban Outfitters market astrological spirituality as something to be consumed, and my many Zodiac themed catch-all dishes, t-shirts, and posters may be evidence that I’ve bought into the branding. However, the commodified blend of time and space that astrology provides is only accessible to those who can afford it, removing much of the integrity of the original practice and folding it into the current capitalist structure. While the practice is available to all, gift guides tailored to each Zodiac sign and astrologists-for-hire serve as a reminder that astrology is still an industry that, although accessible in some ways, operates for profit.

Buzzfeed quizzes and Instagram posts that flippantly label “face masks and tea” as a Taurus trait and “scented candles for every room” as distinctly Cancer speak to millenials and Gen-Z, and repeat permutations of the same fundamentals of self-care. The value systems outlined by astrological categorization typically serve upper middle class women, providing superficial connections with the intended effect of a light-hearted “that’s so me.” This brand of astrology is not unlike the personality archetypes determined by the Myers-Briggs tests or “tag-yourself” post formats that depend on the consumers’ desire to be seen as they see themselves. Social media presences like the Astro Poets podcast and @astrobebs on Twitter paint each sign in a flattering light without ever delving into specifics, instead aligning signs with celebrities and outfits from the Oscars. My horoscope for the second week of February tells me that I finally know what I want professionally (whatever that may be) and it’s time for real love, baby. That same day, @astrobebs posted, “one thing astrology emphasizes is that people are perpetually going through something, perpetually at some kind of crossroads in their life. it makes salient the fact that we are all in this together, all need to catch a break, and would benefit from a smile/hug NOT judgement.” This recognition is read by thousands as a sigh of relief and is written to allow an ambiguous Everyone to sit behind a screen and feel understood.

Some psychologists theorize that the extensive personalization of technology-based astrology speaks to a newly compressed generation that emphasizes individuality, while standing out becomes increasingly challenging. Old-school newspaper horoscopes have been replaced by readings that delve deeply into the Zodiac associations for every planet (including Pluto) for each consumer, calculated by birth date down to the minute. In the face of increased anonymity and mass-everything, it is comforting to think that eleven celestial bodies have aligned in a way that is entirely unique to me.

Regardless of its longevity and the exact rationale behind its resurgence, astrology has become an act of spectacle in both my personal life and in the public domain, as apps like Co-Star and The Pattern make it easy to share this form of external validation and categorization. As I read through my daily horoscope, I am directed to the alignment between myself and every interpersonal relationship in my life. Often, the predictions fulfill themselves, not because they are exact but because they are a filter through which the world can be viewed and narrated, a guiding set of storyboard principles instead of plot points. While a contradiction between my basic identity (Scorpio) and the basic identity of someone I met (Leo) may not have been the direct cause for the gradual deterioration of our relationship, the fact that she believed it would inhibit our friendship did exactly that. This was not my first or last experience with blind adherence to randomness, and I have come to understand the consistency with which these online platforms have predicted the success of my relationships not as a reflection of divine intervention but of my own internalization of a haphazard narrative. Technology and modern astrology are not forces in conflict, but ones that work with each other to cater to our generation, as the window it provides to the past plants us firmly in the present.

 

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For me, a large part of astrological appeal is the funneling of the divine through mundane channels. Like tarot cards and palm readings, astrology presents fate as simultaneously prescribed and malleable. Instead of placing limitations on the future or writing the present as a vehicle towards a definite end, astrology offers a spirituality set in the moment. It allows its supporters to navigate the world with divine assistance as opposed to rigid theological principles, and provides structural comfort in the face of unpredictability. I like when Co-Star tells me that I love and am loved or that money isn’t real, enjoying the nonsensical affirmations stated with the same authority usually reserved for fact. These 140-character-or-fewer horoscopes help mediate how I move through the world, on my terms.

I don’t view astrology as a scientific tool or even a roadmap towards my future when Uranus orients opposite from where Venus was located when I was born. Although I spend hours scrolling through Co-Star, absentmindedly watching the pages reload and fill with more information about how the angles between planets impact my impulsivity, I am consciously searching for resonance in the present. Some psychologists explain the apparent success of astrology as “active manifesting”—the belief in impending good fortune wills many to prepare for it and work harder—but I find the most compelling truth to lie in what is, not what will be. Although my initial affection for astrology stems from a desire for spiritual connection to space, nature, and effectively, the past, the role it plays in my life is much more rooted in the present. Astrology reflects the modern ethos of understandable chaos and a desire to explain the uncontrollable and impossible. So often have we been forced to choose between extremes of secularism and belief that astrology provides a much needed relief by allowing both. My understanding of constellations and planetary motions is deliberately loose, as my understanding of myself relies on the negative capability of personhood and the space between the stars.

 

ANABELLE JOHNSTON B'23 is still waiting for the stars to align.