By Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo
This summer, my two best friends told me that they liked me because of my astrological sign; one confessed that everyone she’s ever loved has been a Cancer. My roommate recently mentioned that she hooks up with a lot of Virgos. When I asked her how she knows that, she informed me that she makes sure to find out the birthday of every guy she engages with sexually because she needs to know his star sign. It seems ridiculous to me that my friends think about others in these categories, determined only by date of birth, and use them to formulate ideas about personality and compatibility. But these are all women whose opinions I respect, with whom I generally see eye to eye. I must be missing something.
“An authority figure in your life could create some friction within your group—they aren’t exactly known for their management skills, and are engaging in some dastardly in-fighting. You are probably going to escape any real conflict with another person, but the day’s energy will have some stress in it. To combat this, keep in contact with your friends throughout the day—start an email conversation so you’ll have something to go back to when you need a touchstone.”
I read this on astrology.com as I sit in the library on a rainy Saturday, planning on a solitary day of homework and possibly a low-risk venture across the street to get some coffee. I don’t worry too much about the potential stress of my “day’s energy.”
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“If you don’t relate to your sign, you won’t be into astrology,” my friend Heather tells me over the phone, as I lie in my bed staring up at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers a previous inhabitant left stuck to my ceiling. She must be right; part of the reason I have never identified with my horoscope is that Cancers are consistently described as overly emotional and sensitive—things I don’t see myself as, or at least don’t like to. Heather is quick to inform me that I am not really a Cancer, but a Cancer/Leo cusp—a completely different sign altogether. The next day, she sends me “potentially the best list of other Leo/Cancer cuspians: Ernest Hemingway; Alexander the Great; Amelia Earhart,” along with a suggestion about why I like to write: “It is no surprise that many Cancer signs turn out to be great writers because they can really dig deep and focus on the dissatisfaction, the sadness and the depression of life and come up with great art.” I wonder if she remembers which friend she’s talking to.
I talked to my three close friends—Heather, over a rambling three-hour phone call to Minnesota, Emilie, in a spluttery Skype call to Denmark, and Xandra, on the floor of the room adjacent to mine in Connecticut—to try and understand, first and foremost, what astrology meant to them, and what they meant by “astrology.” I received a variety of responses, ranging from astrology as a “perspective,” to a loosely defined “religion,” to habitual interest. But for all of my friends, the definitive boundaries of what they believed in seemed hard to pin down. Firm, however, were their arguments as for why they should not be ridiculed for their interest in this system of belief. These cases rested mostly on issues of feminism and religion, issues that have in fact been bound up with the discussion of astrology for centuries.
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Astrology emerged with the Babylonians in around 3000 BC, coming to light simultaneously with the development of modern-day science; astronomy and astrology were intimately linked. Ptolemy, while developing his inaccurate but revolutionary astronomic model of geocentricity, wrote the Tetrabiblos in the 2nd Century AD, which became what has been termed the “bible of astrology.” Chapters in this four-part work include “General Division of the Subject,” which claims to take care “to confine the whole doctrine within the limits of natural reason”; “Proem,” which is concerned with the significance of the origin of the individual, or the “science of Nativities”; and “Masculine and Feminine,” which designates different planetary bodies a gender (Venus and the moon are “feminine, since their qualities are principally moist”). Though the work is presented through a scientific lens, religious or spiritual ideas are implicitly, if not directly, addressed. Sectors categorized as good or evil, as well as references to Greek mythology, are used to characterize different planets.
The title of chapter two of book one of Ptolemy’s comprehensive work, originally written in Greek, has been translated into English numerous times, alternately labeled “Knowledge May Be Acquired By Astronomy To A Certain Extent,” and “That Knowledge by Astronomical Means is Attainable, and How Far.” In this foundational chapter, the author concludes that since it is clear the Sun and the Moon play a role in predicting seasons, there “seems no impediment to the formation of similar prognostication concerning the destiny and disposition of every human being.” Perhaps that seemed an easy jump for Ptolemy, at a time when the idea that weather patterns could be predicted by looking at the sky was an earth-shattering concept, but can this leap still be made today when so much more about the heavenly bodies is known? Like the fact that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe? Ptolemy must have had some idea that this was going to be a hard sell because though his argument is, on the whole, based on observational knowledge of the planets, he includes a caveat acknowledging the system is “liable to frequent error,” not only because there are those frauds who pretend to be “professors of this science,” but also due to the fact that “every science that deals with the quality of its subject-matter is conjectural and not to be absolutely affirmed.” “Don’t blame me,” he seems to be saying, “if your horoscope isn’t accurate. It’s scientific, but what science is absolute anyhow?” His argument isn’t as convincing today in the face of countless departments devoted to astrophysics, from state-sponsored programs like NASA to elite universities around the world, but even for its time it’s a pretty quavering claim. From the beginning, astrology’s relationship with science has been a tenuous one, and one fraught with opposition.
In Greece, astrology developed from the Babylonian tradition of naming the stars and making predictions, based on astral observations, that applied to matters of the state: “On the 14th day the moon will make an eclipse. It (predicts) evil for Elam and the Westland, good for the king my lord.” Quickly, these predictions developed to apply to the individual scope as well, using person-specific temporal and geographic details to calculate one’s future.
In Western culture today, horoscopes have become largely commoditized, are chiefly targeted toward women, and are no longer representative of traditional astrology and its goal of explaining the individual. Many Westerners know their sun signs, but very few know their moon sign, their rising sign, their Venus sign, or any number of other signs that play into astrology in its truest form. In fact, the use of sun signs in order to designate a person’s horoscope is arbitrary—the original horoscopes were based upon exact time of birth and exact location of birth, as well as month and day. If a person has their birth chart read, these individual details are taken into account and are what those who consider themselves truly into astrology take seriously.
“Horoscopes are not real astrology and are not made by real astrologists,” Xandra tells me, adding, somewhat dryly, “as opposed to the other stuff, which is real.” Last Thanksgiving, her family went to a resort where one of the amenities offered was a birth chart reading—not wanting a manicure, Xandra opted to learn about her future. She was surprised by how formulaic the process was, “It was almost scientific, if you can call it that,” she remembers. The woman reading her birth chart conveyed traits that Xandra recognized in herself—she takes her schoolwork seriously and is a hard worker—and gave her specific things to look forward to: May 2016 is going to be the best time of her life, if the reading is to be trusted.
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Today, astrology is still prevalent in India, where arranged marriages rest on the endorsement of the stars. This is a practice that an article written for Economic and Political Weekly argues is “part of the idea of inter-generational continuity of privilege, status and ritually defined purity,” in which women “are prevented from being included and even benefiting from the world of divinely ordained destiny.” That astrology holds such a privileged, patriarchal position in Hindu culture stands in opposition to its modern status in Western culture, where it is largely viewed as part of a woman’s sector, worthy of a mockery linked to female irrationality. Surprisingly, astrology became part of the female region in Western culture fairly early on; in the 17th century a series of almanacs were published by a woman named Sarah Jinner, specifically for consumption by women. These almanacs were intended as guides for the best times for women, astrologically, to “seek sexual release,” and were part of a tradition of astrological governance of ideal times for conception. This reasoning was outside the realm of medicine, focusing solely on the positioning of the planets, but was startlingly radical in its acknowledgment of female sexual appetite. Sarah Jinner tells her readers that on the night of September 12, 1658, “Venus being in Scorpio, I fear me that the naughty wantons of our sex as well as the other sex, will be peppered with the pox, and if so, wo be to your Noses; it is malignant to catch it at this time.” Though infiltrated into feminine sectors, astrology was not scorned within this context, but rather gave women’s sexuality some early credibility.
Though Heather, Emilie, and Xandra have slightly different outlooks on astrology, they all tell me the same thing, almost word for word: “I’ve mastered asking people casually when their birthday is.” Particularly, men. Last year, while walking the Camino, a Christian pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain, Heather met a man whom she immediately fell for, very strongly and very quickly. She has felt the same way once before, about her ex-boyfriend. This summer, on July 15th, her phone buzzed, notifying her of her Facebook friends’ birthdays. When she opened the page, the two men’s names were there, aligned one right under the other. “You can be drawn toward certain numbers and days,” she tells me. “I’m just looking for those little coincidences.” Xandra only really thinks about astrology in the context of romantic relationships. She says she doesn’t think about it when making decisions, or for anything “important,” but that it’s interesting to notice patterns between people she’s romantically involved with. “I hook up with a lot of Virgos,” she reminds me, “though I’m not technically compatible with them because they’re Earth signs.” She laughs, “Maybe that’s why I’m never in anything serious.” However, at this point, Xandra tells me, it’s mostly habitual interest, like how some people like to know middle names or some other trivial detail about the people they hook up with. Emilie mostly keeps her interest in astrology a secret from people she dates. She’s found that men in particular are less likely to believe in it because, she feels, it’s a supernatural thing and anything that is mystical is looked at as weak and associated with females. She is apprehensive when telling others about her interest because she feels there is a sense of stupidity that comes with believing in something supernatural or superstitious, but she thinks it can help give a perspective on relationships. “I’m not going to be like, ‘I don’t want to sleep with that guy, he’s an Aries,” Emilie chuckles. “I’m laughing, and I shouldn’t be because it’s so serious to me, but it also feels so taboo and silly.”
* * *
Arguments against astrology mainly hinge on the fact that it is non-scientific, a distinction that many feel the need to make, but which is largely beside the point. Though some that are proponents of astrology defend its basis in science, for many in Western culture the two are unrelated. In modern-day India, however, the line is not so firmly drawn, and astrology falls somewhere in between the realms of science and religion. It is used for everyday purposes ranging from naming babies to making decisions about marriage, or even simply buying a motorcycle. National leaders are known to trust in their astrologers’ advice when making decisions; the more successful one is, the more likely they are to seek astrological guidance. Though originally linked with the Brahmin Priests, astrology has become secular, and there has been a recent movement to legitimize astrology as a full science and for it to be taught in universities. Astrology’s coexistence with religion in Hindu culture is not completely alien from its Western interaction with religion, though the Catholic Church did reject it initially as a “pagan superstition.” However, in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, belief in astrology was quite pervasive and was linked with Christianity; helping to explain God’s will, the heavens acted an intermediary between the Earth and God.
Going into this astrological investigation, I felt pretty sure that my lack of understanding of the whole thing was closely related to my atheist upbringing. Not that I think astrology is, or is not, equivalent to religion, but the idea of believing in something higher—in this case literally—for guiding and perhaps comforting purposes, seemed to be at least a related mindset. I receive mixed responses to this suggestion. Xandra completely agrees. Raised culturally Jewish, though not necessarily spiritually, she says it frustrates her when her extremely Jewish friend, who happens to be into Meyers-Briggs personality tests, is exceedingly critical of astrology. “You wouldn’t tell someone their religion is stupid, what makes your god any different from the idea that planets control people’s behavior?” Emilie, the one who is arguably the largest proponent of astrology, completely disagrees. Raised largely without religion, despite a brief, unprompted religious stint at age ten after watching The Prince of Egypt, she sees no correlation and tells me that spirituality is a thing to lean on and to use to guide one’s life, whereas astrology is a perspective to be used for understanding the self and traits of others one is drawn toward. Of my three friends, Emilie’s interest in astrology is the hardest for me to rationalize, and I realize that I want astrology to equate with religion so that I can understand why I don’t understand it. Emilie holds that astrology has been scientifically proven—she is unable to find the article during our video chat but tells me I can find it if I Google it. I try but am unable to find anything.
As I struggle to come to terms with the fact that I, on a basic level, disagree with what Emilie is telling me, I realize that it’s pointless—I don’t have to agree with my friends about everything. In third grade, my class took a trip to a museum where there was an exhibit featuring stuffed gorillas behind a pane of glass. I excitedly pointed them out to my heavily Evangelist best friend, eager to share my likely newfound knowledge that humans evolved from those mammals. “No we didn’t,” she retorted, seeming stubbornly ready for a fight. “Ok, so how did we get here?” I asked, ready to back up my claims that I knew were right, because science proved it. “God created us,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “Oh.” We didn’t speak of it again.
* * *
The part of astrology that does make sense to me is something that my three friends all touched upon as central to astrology, though they each had different beliefs surrounding it: it’s an opportunity for insight into who you are. We all have internalized self-images, senses of certain traits and ideas that we associate with or want others to appreciate about us. I like when people give me compliments that relate to ideas I already have about myself, but when someone tells me something I disagree with, even if it’s positive, I am less likely to appreciate the sentiment. I think that when we read horoscopes we are searching, on some level, to see if we agree with this view of ourselves. If we disagree with something, we will likely reject it and forget about it, but if it resonates with an idea about ourselves, it just enforces an idea we already have.
But no matter how much I find myself empathizing with astrology, I still cannot bring myself to actually sympathize with my friends, to be a part of this system of thought. And every time I discuss astrology with someone who does not associate with it, I find myself defending any minute level of credence I have given it. Is it, like Heather suggests, that I simply don’t relate to my sun sign? Is it, as I first thought, that it is too close to religion? Maybe it is both of these reasons, to some degree, but I think there is more to it. Part of it, I think, is the incongruity of this serious system of belief that verges on the spiritual with the highly commercialized, reductive aspect that is aimed at the emotional woman. And that these two facets of astrology seem to be two sides of the same coin, irrevocably fused; one cannot simply worship without paying the price of personal repute. And while this profit-earning side does have its merits, that it is tied up with the serious, spiritual side sanctions an outsider’s belief that these daily tabloid horoscopes, too, are asking to be taken seriously, or scientifically.
I take Emilie’s advice and check out my monthly horoscope on Vice’s women’s site, Broadly. October is almost over, but my horoscope tells me that “the month ends with you doing a lot of thinking and talking, which makes sense, because Venus, Mars and Jupiter are all in smartypants Virgo. Your mind is sharp as hell, and you’re eager to share your thoughts and ideas. Your foundations will be firm (home and fam all good), so I think you can take a risk and say what you think!”
So, what I think is that astrology is not logical in its generalist, diminutive manifestation. I think I feel uncomfortable with astrology because of the sense I have that it is a mechanism used to make women seem foolish. I think that in rejecting it, or scorning it, I am somehow upholding this line of thinking, but I don’t think that my endorsing astrology would do anything to change the stigma it holds. I think it is a system of belief and it does bear some similarities with religion, possibly in the same way that science does, possibly not. And I think that while I cannot say that I agree with it, I’m not completely dismissive of it. Ultimately I think, like my date of birth ordained, I’m still somewhere in middle of this debate, stuck on the cusp.