Cancers are sensitive. Virgos are uptight. Leos are passionate. Everyone is uncertain.
Throughout history, humans have placed varying amounts of faith in the unknown. Whether that be the vengeful gods of Ancient Greece or the Catholic saints who still maintain relevance in some cultures, the belief that there is something beyond what we can sense has comforted humanity for thousands of years. Why then are the so-called “astrology girls” degraded and put down for their equally unprovable beliefs? Is astrology less valuable than other religions or forms of spiritualism?
In 2020, the world shut down—but the stars woke up, as astrology and adjacent spiritual beliefs saw a sudden spike. Around the world, young people everywhere filled the now-empty corners of their lives with computer-generated horoscopes and circular birth charts. “In times of uncertainty, people want things that reassure us, that we can look to and say, ‘I know this to be true,’” says astrology columnist Elizabeth Gulino. I’m sure we all remember being locked away through the long months of quarantine, desperately googling some iteration of the question “When will this all end?” For many, especially Millennials and Gen Z, the pseudo-truths of horoscopes allowed us to escape that state of uncertainty, even for just a few precious minutes.
Societal intolerance towards unprovable forms of spiritualism (such as astrology) has coexisted with an unquestioned acceptance of equally baseless religions for quite some time. Yet astrology has existed longer than any Abrahamic religion, dating all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamia. For millennia, astrology has provided an outlet for self-expression and individual understanding, bringing people together over a shared pursuit of cosmic knowledge.
It’s no wonder marginalized communities have gravitated toward the practice in recent years. Women and members of the queer community are some of the most represented enjoyers of modern astrology. With that of course comes consequences, as straight cisgender men have collectively ridiculed astrology as it has become more and more popular among women. The label “astrology girl” has evolved into a genuine dig at a woman’s intelligence. Yet, one must ask if the issue within the label isn’t the word “astrology” but “girl.”
For most of astrology’s history, men have been at the forefront. Prominent believers in horoscopes have even included figures such as Galileo and Paracelsus. Women in American high society set the modern astrology craze into motion when they began practicing in covert circles during the 1890s. By the turn of the century, horoscopes had come to replace palmistry as the pseudo-science of choice. It wasn’t until 1914, however, that astrology began to reach new levels of popularity. World War One began the same year, and astrology’s rise in popularity even led psychologist Carl Jung to develop a method of psychoanalysis based on one’s zodiac sign. The Jungian method took influence from Western astrology, as well as ideas from classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Jung claimed that common themes he observed in his patients’ dreams were the product of a collective unconscious. This collective unconscious apparently inspired the symbolic meanings of the constellations astrology revolves around, thus placing a degree of psychological truth in their meanings. Other popular figures in the world of astrology during this period included figures such as Cheiro, an Irishman who claimed to use astrology to predict major world developments or foresee events in the lives of celebrities. His predictions were widely accepted in the UK and America, and he became a popular occult figure during the 1910s. Spiritualism as a whole saw a decline around 1921, however, as the tense times of the war and subsequent influenza pandemic were replaced with the hubbub of the Jazz Age. Astrology’s use was now almost exclusively recreational, as uncertainty dwindled and the predictions of astrologers seemingly lost importance.
The symbiosis between the popularity of astrology and the events of World War One could be a mere coincidence. However, the rise and fall of astrology correlated with the comings and goings of significant historical events throughout the twentieth century. The next time it saw a rise was during the sixties when America was in the midst of the Cold War. Once again, people were uncertain, and once again they turned to the stars for comfort. Additionally, the rise of the Anti-War movement led to counterculture seeing an increase in relevance. Self-proclaimed hippies vocalized their enjoyment of spiritual practices such as astrology to distance themselves from the establishment that contradicted their political beliefs. Eventually, with the end of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union ceased using other nations as political pawns. With this, the Anti-War movement also died down, and many hippies traded their tie-dye for workwear and preached the validity of astrology less and less. By the 1980s, the rise of women in the workforce and Reagan’s policies leading to an increased influence of capitalism caused many to turn their backs on spiritualism altogether. Astrology had no place in the office. “Reputable” astrology columns were published in newspapers less frequently, with lifestyle magazines taking up the practice and running goofy daily horoscope columns.
In 2020, astrology experienced another notable boom in popularity. According to Google Trends, searches for the term “astrology” were the highest they’d been in five years during quarantine. TikTok greatly influenced this spike, as the app also saw an increase in downloads during quarantine. TikTok astrologers became immensely popular, receiving millions of followers who loyally watched their political and economic predictions. Taking the trends in astrology from the past century into account, its most recent renaissance makes sense. Yet, in spite of an increase in popularity, astrology remains as stigmatized as ever.
In our modern society, something as trendy as astrology is bound to be capitalized and used for profit. This has manifested in horoscopes being primarily marketed toward women, as they are featured in lifestyle magazines, blogs, and cosmetics. The fact that astrology has been so widely discredited has therefore opened the floodgates for it to be used as an outlet for misogyny. The disturbing pattern of men hiding behind astrology’s baselessness in order to unload their sexism only furthers the omnipresent misogyny that plagues our society. Women who ask men their zodiac signs are often met with eye-rolls or accusations of being “toxic.” Refusal by a woman to partake in birth-chart reading and other such activities may very well lead to appraisal from men for being “different”—not like other girls, if you will. Even if astrology lacks considerable proof, the comfort it has provided throughout history makes the ridicule of (usually) straight cisgender men even more upsetting. It is human nature to find solace in things that pander to our innate desire to understand ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with using horoscopes to feed this.
The scientific community has vocalized astrology’s lack of credibility many times. This is of course wholly valid—many people are unlikely to identify with the vague character descriptions based solely on when they were born. Nevertheless, there is value in something so personalized, and many who enjoy reading their horoscopes acknowledge the likelihood that there is little truth behind them. Psychologists attribute the stake we place into astrology to something called the Barnum effect—a psychological phenomenon in which an individual will find themselves strongly relating to a description of traits under the assumption that said description is specific to them when in actuality the language used is vague enough for nearly everyone to relate to on some level. Authors of horoscopes use language that is likely to strike a chord with the majority of readers. Descriptors such as “loyal yet guarded” or “kind yet insecure” are adjectives many of us can relate to, even if they’re supposedly applicable only to those born under a certain sun sign.
But the Barnum effect is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. The psychological value of astrology comes from its ability to provide something called subjective validation. Similar to confirmation bias, subjective validation confirms things we wish to be true. Zodiac signs are often characterized by positive traits—bravery or intelligence or wittiness—that we like to see in ourselves. That’s what keeps us coming back for more. There is nothing inherently harmful about any of the psychological effects of astrology. If anything, its main impact is providing a sense of reassurance and comfort, something especially valuable in the throes of an international war or a catastrophic pandemic.
Astrology is fundamentally unprovable, placing it in the company of any given significant religion. Yet we can prove that placing faith in things others find unbelievable can bring certain individuals tremendous amounts of comfort. Whatever has the capacity to keep even one person’s head up during something as traumatic as what we experienced in 2020 is as valuable as any established religion or philosophy. So next time you’re penning a skeptical comment on an Instagram horoscope or considering poking fun at an “astrology girl,” think about the small things that have brought you comfort during trying times. As author Daniel Cohen wrote in a 1968 publication of the Chicago Tribune: “The core of an astrologer’s popularity is that he can offer something that no astronomer or scientist can give—reassurance.”
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