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Signs in the Stars

Arts & Culture | April 2, 2018

“The signs as types of fruit.”

“The signs as conspiracy theories.”

“The signs as stock photos.”

A quick Google search of “astrology memes” will yield hundreds of results similar to these examples. It isn’t uncommon to be asked, “What’s your sign?” as an icebreaker, or to catch people reading their daily horoscopes along with their morning cup of coffee. But astrology’s representation in pop culture represents just a small portion of astrology as a cultural phenomenon.

According to Jennifer Eyl, Tufts Professor of Religion, astrology originated in ancient Mediterranean culture. “The word ‘astrology’ comes from the Greek word ‘astrologos,’ meaning ‘examination of the stars,’” Eyl said. Astrology originated with ancient Babylonians, one of whom, Berossus, began to teach astrology to the ancient Greeks in 280 B.C., and it was later embraced by Greek philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, who viewed it as a science. Ancient astrologers interpreted the cosmos as signs that could inform present events or predict future ones. “It’s common in antiquity for people to read the movement of celestial bodies and to tie those movements to the events of human life,” said Eyl.

One of the most well-known religious fables involves astrology: The three “wise men” in Christianity who follow a star to find the newborn Jesus are “actually Babylonian astrologers,” according to Eyl. “They see a star in the sky that indicates the birth of a royal figure,” and that star leads them to baby Jesus. In this way, astrology has had a place in many religions for centuries.

Astrology has come a long way since the birth of Jesus, and its presence in modern popular culture has taken on meanings wholly different from its religious origins. In the 20th century, astrology became prevalent during the New Age movement in the 1960s and 1970s. New Age hippies viewed astrology as a companion to their free love and anti-war ideals, and astrology therefore took on a left-leaning political bent. After the New Age, astrology faded into the background, only to resurge in the last five years. However, astrology in the 2010s has been markedly different from its counterpart in the 1960s and 1970s, transforming thanks to the internet and other modern innovations.

Professional astrologer Joyce Levine, who runs an astrological consulting business in Cambridge, offers an astrological explanation for the phenomenon. “It used to be that people got interested in astrology around 29 or 30, during their Saturn return, but these days the trend is for younger people to become interested,” she said. Part of the reason why so many young adults are interested is because of the “planetary cycles at the time of [their] birth.” In 1999, for example, “Uranus and Neptune were in Aquarius,” which indicate rebellious thinking and spiritual enlightenment. People born under these stars turned to astrology as a way of understanding the world around them.

Another important facet of astrology’s recent popularity is its increased importance in the queer community. Professor Eyl spoke about the relationship between astrology and organized religion for queer people. “People argue that astrology is a kind of queer religiosity,” she said. “If they can’t participate in their church or synagogue life [because of prejudice and bias] they use [astrology] as a form of religion. I think that’s a perfectly valid form of expression.”

In 2013, a group of queer astrologers held the first Queer Astrology conference in San Francisco, during which participants discussed astrology through a queer lens. Topics of discussion at the conference ranged from an astrological perspective on the AIDS epidemic to Bible study. According to the Queer Astrology website, the purpose of the group is to “build community, generate dialogue, and promote queer visibility.” For them and many other queer astrologers, astrology is a starting point that creates deeper connections with other queer people.

The internet, too, has certainly contributed to the rise of astrology—particularly because of memes. “Memes are very much centered around relatability,” said senior Megan Mooney. “A big part of memes is feeling like, ‘Oh, that’s me. That describes me. I have a connection to this.’” Similarly, people like astrology because it allows them to identify with others. Memes and astrology are both ways of feeling connected to other groups, even if those connections may be superficial. In an interview for The Atlantic, astrologer Chani Nicholas added another perspective regarding the relationship between astrology and memes: “Astrologers are always trying to boil down these giant concepts into digestible pieces of knowledge. The kids these days and their memes are like the perfect context for astrology.” Memes and astrology share the same essential goal of explaining complex human behavior in a way that is easily understandable. Astrology achieves this through interpretations of the stars, and memes through humor, but they both make human life more digestible.

Astrology memes focus largely on the sun sign, the most well-known aspect of astrology. Based on their date of birth, each person falls under one of 12 sun signs. Sun signs represent a person’s basic identity, who they are at their core. Leos, for example, are dramatic and energetic, while Capricorns are practical and structured. A common misconception is that astrology revolves around sun signs, when in fact, sun signs are only a fraction of something that is much more complicated—the birth chart. Each individual has a birth chart based on the exact time and location of their birth. A birth chart determines the location in the zodiac of not only based on the sun, but also off of the moon and planets. As Levine described it, “The sun is one portion of the birth chart, but the specifics of the chart are what make you a unique individual.” Levine, whose sun sign is a Scorpio, continued, “All Scorpios share some common characteristics,” but they differ immensely based on the rest of their birth chart.

The three most important parts of the birth chart are the sun, moon, and rising signs. Senior Helen Sibila, who is a Gemini sun, Aries moon, and Capricorn rising, explained how each of them fit into an individual’s personality: “Your sun is just who you are essentially. Your moon is your emotional self and your core self. Your rising is how you come off to people; it’s how you operate in large social situations. People who don’t know me very well probably see me as having more Capricorn qualities than Gemini or Aries.”

However, not every astrology fan subscribes to the idea that it can truly determine people’s personality traits. Mooney, for example, said, “I don’t know how the time and place you were born and the alignment with the stars can dictate your personality. That being said, I’m such a Gemini.” Many young people interested in astrology display this type of seemingly paradoxical thinking; logically, they believe that the position of stars cannot really affect personality, but they still identify with their sign. “I definitely think it makes sense that there’s a duality to being a Gemini,” continued Mooney.

It is clear that the role of astrology in the lives of young people differs widely, but it has certainly become a means of self-definition for a generation whose world is in turmoil. It makes sense that its resurgence occurs at a time when the future of young people is so uncertain. Astrology can help people gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. It is a grounding force, because while everything else is changing, the stars are constant.