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Spirituality What hating horoscopes says about Western cultural values

Apr. 5, 2019
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Cover image by Richelle Chen.

When I find myself in times of trouble the universe comes to me, speaking words of water sign wisdom. Social media tells me that Mercury retrograde is causing all of my problems, which I love—then I have the universe to blame instead of myself. But then there are the people on Twitter that list ways the signs can take of themselves, and embrace the energy of their respective “szn” as a means of explaining spiritual energy. It’s hard to know where to draw the line when horoscopes seem to be becoming a basis for a mystical form of identity politics. This, of course, makes horoscopes sound ridiculous, but maybe there’s some merit to the spiritual poetics of reading the sky.

Astrology was hugely popular in Ancient Egypt, and the sky was used as a universal time-teller. Constellations like Sirius forecasted the weather and when the Nile was going to flood. (There was no better flood warning system then good old Sirius the dog.) But now we have meteorologists and clocks, so what’s up with the spirituality of the cosmos? It turns out a lot of ancient cultures adopted astrology to predict their fortune and watch out for bad omens. Ancient Greeks decided on the twelve signs and their durations, which are based on the distance and interaction between the constellations, sky, and sun. As I was thinking about the twelve signs, my mind landed on a similar sort of nature-embodying entity. 

If you’ve ever read a Percy Jackson book, you know that Greek gods and goddesses are responsible for different aspects of human life and nature. There’s Poseidon, god of water, Apollo, god of the sun, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. These personifications of the natural world seems to me like ways of rationalizing a complex human experience. The water, the sun, the fields—those are not people. They’re pieces of nature that we can never truly understand. So maybe all of this characterization is a way of bringing us closer to the universe. Through applying different personalities to zodiac signs, maybe we’re trying to reconcile the fact that we are so small in such a big universe—or maybe it’s just super fun to compare charts with your friends and dissect your astrological love life.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of flak directed at astrology: people ridiculing it and questioning millennials and younger folks about its merit. The main argument I’ve heard is that astrology can be likened to pseudoscience and is therefore a frivolous knowledge base. So what? In a world of flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and people who still believe there are only two genders, maybe science is the best weapon we’ve got. But wait a sec, everyone I just mentioned also uses “science” to make their case. 

So let’s pause for a moment and dissect what science really is to the Western world—it’s everything. Done, dissected. The Western world is adamant about the values of science, the scientific method, and academia. When I talk about science here, I’m actually talking about scholarship, like sociologist Max Weber did in his German post-war lecture “Science as Vocation.” The value we place on school is paramount over all other forms of knowledge. Weber talks about the world’s disenchantment in the mid-20th century, when science was becoming more accessible and depended on. Modernity, he posits, was sucking the magic out of the world; the trend had become to move away from the supernatural or the religious to explain phenomena that we face every day. On the whole, Weber actually thinks that science cannot tell us anything about how to live. He completely disagrees with good old Plato, who says that science is the roadmap to understanding our true selves. Sorry, Plato, but I have to agree with Weber on this one. (Not that you’ll ever read what Weber or I said about you, since you’ve been dead for many, many decades and you probably can’t read German anyway.) Learning about our true, inner selves can’t come from a standardized, methodological study of humans. We can turn to psychology and sociology to study the mind and our social imagination, but what happens when we need to look inwards at ourselves? Not everyone can be studied with the same formula; science can’t tell us who we are or what our “purpose” is.

It’s pretty clear to me that horoscopes are riding the same wave of popularity as celestial healing and meditation practices. Thinking about our connection to the Earth, to the universal consciousness we all share, is becoming an increasingly popular way to cope with the digitalization of the world. But it’s also become a digitalized practice itself. Consuming and producing content about astrology, meditation, and celestial healing has become a niche market in various zines, art communities, and social media pages. I think today we are seeing the melding of new and ancient sciences to form a collective consciousness that is both aware of the natural world and willing to move forward, taking this knowledge and reforming, redefining, resisting, and creating. Art that takes its inspiration from astrology or a cosmic sensibility is pleasing to us because we feel we are connecting to an internal, mystical somethingness; brands taking part in astrology are bridging a gap between traditional Western sensibilities and millennials’ hunger for modernity. 

In the Information Age, astrology has become a polarizing issue. The influx of Gen Z and millennial populations turning to the mystic forces for guidance and answers probably has a lot to do with our need to escape. When your life is haywire, what else could it be but Mercury in retrograde? Our generation’s ability to half-believe and toy with things which are unreal or surreal is miraculous and sometimes life-saving. I’m an Aquarius, and in this past year I have embraced horoscope-meme culture because I actually find some merit in looking up at the stars. We don’t really need evidence to feel like our horoscopes align with our personalities. In our hearts, I think most of us know that newspapers and magazines purposefully write broad horoscopes so that we are able to relate to them. Either way, it’s a whole lot of fun and it’s easier than blaming God for our fortunes, because most of us don’t know if the Big Guy is real. 

I don’t think that this form of pseudoscience causes any danger unless we fail to recognize other forms of science. And I think that appreciating astrology comes with an appreciation for knowledge beyond the Western world. There’s definitely something to be said for that.