Astrology is booming. Why?
How popular is it?
Very, especially among millennials and Gen Zers. In recent years it has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with venture capitalists pumping huge sums into fortune-telling apps and horoscope start-ups. It’s more popular, in fact, than at any time since ecstatic hordes of shoeless hippies proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s. More than 100 million Americans read their horoscopes every day, and six million have paid for a personalised reading. Nine in 10 American adults know their star sign, and at least half of those who know it identify with its purported personality traits.
Is everyone into astrology?
Not at all. Its popularity is highly concentrated among younger women. According to Jessica Pels, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine (who has expanded the magazine’s print coverage of astrology to nine pages every issue), 74% of Cosmo readers say they are “obsessed” with astrology and 72% check their horoscope every day. Co-Star, an astrology app that recently raised $15m from investors, has been downloaded by one in four American women aged 18-25.
What do people see in it?
Astrology satisfies two powerful human tendencies. First, we are obsessed with finding patterns to make sense of our chaotic reality. Second, we are obsessed with ourselves. Astrology helps people find patterns among the stars, invest them with rich meaning and apply that meaning to their own confusing lives. Religion used to serve this purpose, but it is less and less popular among the young. Astrology is perfectly suited to the internet age – it has a low barrier to entry (everyone knows whether they’re a Taurus or a Sagittarius), but nearly endless depths if you feel like falling down a Google rabbit hole. You don’t need to know what “Mars is in retrograde” means to read a horoscope, but if you want to find out, it’s easier than ever.
Has astrology ever been used to make important decisions?
Yes. JP Morgan never made an investment without checking what was in the stars first. “Anyone can be a millionaire,” he once said, “but to become a billionaire you need an astrologer.” Ronald and Nancy Reagan checked with their astrologer before virtually every decision, including when to fly on Air Force One, military action in Grenada and Libya, and disarmament negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Both sides in the English Civil War consulted the “English Merlin”, William Lilly. And Hitler’s well-known fascination with the occult ended up working against him. In 1942 and 1943, the allies distributed a fake astrology magazine, Der Zenit, which, among other things, tried to cover up their ambushes of German U-boats.
Is there any science behind it?
There’s plenty to suggest the motion of celestial bodies affects things on earth. The moon dictates the tides, for example, and various creatures respond to the universe in their daily lives. Some species of dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way; oysters judge their opening times according to their position in the solar system. Scientific experiments have mostly cast doubt on the claim that the positions of stars when we’re born affect our personalities. But there is solid evidence that people born in summer are “luckier” – seen by scientists as a psychological phenomenon made up of optimism, extroversion and open-mindedness – than those born in winter.
What do the sceptics say?
Critics point out that if astrology could really predict the future, there would be no point betting on the Grand National or electing a Pisces to high office. And it’s true that in some experiments astrologers have struggled to pick their own horoscope out of a selection. But that’s not really the point. Most young folk in the astrology renaissance don’t believe it’s based on scientific fact. They see no contradiction between enjoying astrology and believing in science. Instead they see it as a symbolic and spiritual language, a way of looking at the world that helps make sense of a chaotic life. And couching things in the language of astrology can make it easier for people to hear, or admit, unpleasant things about their personalities and to accept those traits in others. Rather than being told you’re “two-faced”, it might be easier to hear that you’re “a classic Gemini”.
How long have people been trying to read the stars?
Nobody knows exactly, but the cosmos has been part of humanity’s understanding of things since we started daubing animals on cave walls and dragging rocks into funny shapes. Stonehenge (arranged circa 3,000BC) aligns with the sunrise at the summer solstice. The Egyptian pyramids are arranged according to the locations of important stars. The Roman emperor Augustus had his zodiac sign, Capricorn, stamped onto silver coins bearing his image. Astrology became a crucial component of his empire’s intelligence apparatus and remained part of the public’s consciousness for centuries. And astrology as we know it today goes back at least to the Babylonians. The earliest known personal horoscope, dating from 410BC, was found near Baghdad.
Why is astrology back now?
Some people see it as a reaction to the hyperquantified world of data-driven everything, which is making people yearn for a sense of mystery. This sort of cultural volte-face has happened before. In the 19th century the Romantic movement arose in response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. We may be at a similar turning point today.
♌️ The first newspaper astrology column was commissioned by the Sunday Express in 1930, in the aftermath of the stock-market crash. The occasion was Princess Margaret’s birth on August 21 (Leo, since you ask). “What the Stars Foretell for the New Princess” was such a hit, newspapers have been running horoscopes ever since.
♎️ A survey of the world’s top 250 billionaires found a strong skew towards Libra (27 billionaires, including Ralph Lauren and the heiresses Liliane Bettencourt and Alice Walton), comfortably ahead of second-place Pisces (22 billionaires, including Rupert Murdoch). Sagittarius and Capricorn came last, with just eight billionaires apiece, but Capricorns may be consoled to learn that Jeff Bezos is one of them. A similar survey of serial killers found a disproportionately high number of Virgos, but not a single Leo.