by Olya Makarova
Astrology is a millennial controversy, like Huel or socks with sandals. But unlike followers of other trends, today’s lovers of astrology are not entirely indoctrinated. Though many will check their daily horoscope religiously, there is rarely a totalising belief in the influence of the planets on one’s love life or finances. Rather, an ironic posture is assumed – one that distances itself from the irrationality of astrology, keen to mock the ‘scientific’ elements of the influence of the cosmos yet ready to embrace a wholly arbitrary paragraph of divination based on the zodiac. It is a strange state of semi-belief, wherein most millennials and Generation Z know their star sign and consume astrology with astounding regularity, yet cannot truly accept that the sun and planets have any significant influence upon their day- to-day lives.
This was far from the case in Renaissance England, where most believed in the ‘fixed firmament’ as an oracle of the times. Conjunctions between the sun, moon and planets were thought to signal cataclysmic political events (which were often self- fulfilling); stars were ruled by demons and angels and consequently had moral value. Even a system of medicine was based on astrology. The twelve signs of the zodiac were divided into the four categories that represent the elements (earth, air, fire, water) and their corresponding four temperaments (melancholic, sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic), an early method of categorising personalities developed by Hippocrates. Early modern medicine believed that health could be attributed to weather (the air being dry and hot, or wet and cold and so on) and developed a vast taxonomy for how the stars and planets influenced the earthly climate.
This ‘medicinal’ element is at the core of how astrology functioned on a day to day basis in the Renaissance. In theory, it was a highly sophisticated system of divination through mathematical evaluation of the heavens’ influence. In reality, astrologers were proto-therapists who listened to their clients’ problems and then give common sense advice. The most common concerns of clients were ‘personal relationships, business and journey prospects, sickness, lost property, and missing persons accounts,’ in that order.
If we account for police and doctors having eliminated the need for astrology to answer the latter few concerns, the function of astrology in the Renaissance is strikingly similar to that of the modern day. The form of astrology that is now familiar to us – the daily/weekly/monthly horoscope – also existed: almanacs targeting various demographics (differing by location, profession, and so on) were sold on the cheap to attract business for individual astrologers. These were frequently satirised with side-by- side comparisons of overlapping almanacs by different astrologers, which, of course, never truly mapped. In this sense, astrology was considered a swindle even in the Renaissance period.
But Renaissance ontologies gave far more credence to astrology as a scientific system than anything we believe, or even want to believe, in the modern day. The idea of the heavens as immutable, fixed around the earth, derives from a system of belief wherein the earth is a corruptible plane of decay, whereas the heavenly realm is perfect and unchanging due to the cyclical nature of its movements. The division comes from mapping Plato’s belief in the two worlds – an ideal world of ‘ideas’ and the earthly world in which we live, which is a poor imitation of the ideal world – onto the Christian division between earth and the heavens. And so, the stars became signifiers of the terrestrial plane, writing the destiny of the world in an astral language which man might squintingly discern. These beliefs were heightened by a general acceptance of the universe functioning through micro- macrocosmic relationships, where large systems contained smaller replicas within, ad infinitum. Though doubts arose about man’s ability to interpret the stars – aided by the discovery of new stars with improved astronomical technologies – a faith in the supremacy and influence of the stars persisted.
Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella (literally translating to ‘Star-lover and Star’) illustrates the metaphorical power of the stars, especially in Sonnet 26, in which Stella’s influence upon the poet is likened to that of the heavens:
Though dusty wits dare scorn astrology, And fools can think those lamps of purest light,
Whose numbers, ways, greatness, eternity,
Promising wonders, wonder do invite, To have for no cause birthright in the sky, But for to spangle the black weeds of night; Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
They should still dance, to please a gazer’s sight:
For me, I do Nature unidle know, And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those bodies high reign on the low.
And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race, By only those two stars in Stella’s face.
Today we do not believe in the divine influence of the stars enough to summon up the amount of scorn Sidney offers to those who would construe the heavens as arbitrary. Nor do we think of the night sky as having any inarguable influence (clear or opaque) upon ourselves. But the traces of these ideas persist in dead metaphors: the idea of star-crossed lovers, or to be ‘starstruck’.
Much like the silent and immaculate love object of Sidney’s poems, the appeal of the stars seems to lie in their distance. We are reaching out to reclaim some old faith which feels right. But there is a further appeal to the distance of the stars. It is comforting to think that there is some celestial body responsible for, maybe even representing, us. The stars are like an iteration of the Christian God, wiped clean of consciousness and righteous anger. We may gaze up at the stars for guidance without any creeping Catholic guilt at being watched. It is, however, difficult truly to see the stars as distant when even the moon becomes a pawn in nationalistic power play and billionaires like Elon Musk consider Mars to be marketable as a luxury space cruise stop. Our metaphors have been hollowed out, drained of their spiritual and poetic value by being assigned a monetary value.
Is it really any wonder, then, that our stance towards astrology, as towards many other things, is ironic? Genuine desire and emotion are being undermined by the threat of being sold that which we love, as we see it bastardised into advertisement and intended to flatter us into consumerism. This phenomenon is already painfully plain in the case of astrology. As one image from scorpioquotes.com reads: ‘SCORPIO BE LIKE I Wear All Black To Remind You Not To Mess With Me, Because I’m Already Dressed For Your Funeral.’ No doubt there is a plethora of t-shirts with similarly badass Scorpio quotes sitting in a Chinese sweatshop, awaiting shipment.
But there are elements of modern astrology consumption which are ritualistic, the most prominent of which is the daily horoscope. The daily horoscope offers a guide for how to view and live one’s life at any given day, relayed with varying degrees of technical jargon and basis in lore to readers around the world. Apps, websites and magazine columns have all sprung up like weeds to cater to our returned attention heavenwards, drawing our eyes instead to the artificial light of our screens. The Cosmopolitan magazine website has an astrology section right next to its sections on ‘style’, ‘beauty’, ‘sex’, and ‘politics’. An app called ‘Astrology & Palmistry Coach’ ranks fourth for Lifestyle apps, nestled in between The National Lottery app and ‘When Will I Die?’ a ‘death calculator’ app, making it clear that the anxieties of the modern day demand clairvoyance, or at least sheer dumb, random answers; astrology is an increasingly popular source. But what is the significance of these rituals?
Writing in the late 1950s, the German philosopher Theodore Adorno thought that astrology represented an authoritarian influence. Of course, living under Nazi Germany would make one quick to find authoritarian impulses, but Adorno’s position, while extreme, is not baseless. In ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, Adorno analyses an astrology column from the LA Times, identifying the socialising and pacifying influence of its advice. Adorno pinpoints a staple of the daily advice, which is the ‘bi-phasic approach’ – telling its readers some variation of ‘work hard in the morning, and then give yourself the evening to relax’. This represents the crude machine of society which baits its workers into ceaseless output by reinforcing the mechanised workday routine. Adorno denounces astrology and all other forms of mysticism, seeing them as an illusion used to distract the populace from the real ills of society. He writes, ‘The asocial twilight phenomenon in the margins of the system, the pathetic attempts to squint through the chinks in its walls, while revealing nothing of what is outside, illuminate all the more clearly the forces of decay within. The bent little fortune tellers, terrorizing their clients with crystal balls, are toy models of the great ones who hold the fate of mankind in their hands.’
Though our sources for astrology have become more numerous, the construction of astrology has not changed much from the 1950s. The perverse inclination of astrology to shift blame for real social ills onto planetary movements is visible in Cosmopolitan’s monthly Leo horoscope for October: ‘The daily grind is beginning to beat you down – and Pluto is definitely to blame.’ Though Cosmopolitan is hardly receiving orders from shadowy government agencies demanding they keep the public complacent, there is an authoritarian bent in its output. The desire of the populace dictates that there is a scapegoat for their ills and blaming Pluto is far easier than untangling the vast web of modern politics – especially when the end result is impotence either way. It is certainly far more enticing to be subject to the egalitarian vicissitudes of planetary movements than the injustices of human corruption and greed.
In light of this, the notion of astrology as a swindle may seem like a constancy from the Renaissance period – a swindle that has regained popularity. However, it is a swindle with very different stakes. Consider the early modern satire of astrological almanacs, their side-by- side comparison, and the comic glee at their inconsistency. Imagine a Renaissance citizen’s reaction to uniform astrological predictions. There would be wonderment, probably, and renewed faith. Contrast this with how you would feel had you discovered a uniformity of astrological predictions across digital media. There would be no faith, only fear and a sense of a great and horrible conspiracy. We would suspect that big data was gaining supremacy, that our digital movements were increasingly being watched and logged. The stars would be gazing down, feeding off our viewership.
In his essay ‘Psychopolitics’, the modern German philosopher Byung-Chul Han develops our conception of state authority. Building on the thoughts of Foucault and Deleuze, Han sees the modern state as characterised by an excess of freedom which seeks to coax its citizens to its will through their desires. Rather than the state which is authoritarian in its restrictiveness, the modern state is characterised by its flexibility. It is the difference between being starved in a cage and drowning. Han writes that we have been sold a rhetoric of self-optimisation which encourages productivity and consumerism, shaping our interior lives to market demands. This, in turn, poses a serious threat to interiority itself, as it is consumed by the exterior and by imposed desires. For Han, the threat of big data lies in its possibility to anticipate our desires, to move ‘faster than free will’, and it achieves this through absorption of larger and larger masses of data.
What more convenient tool for data collection can there be than a service which requires birthdays, including location and often gender and relationship status? The fourth most popular lifestyle app, ‘Astrology and Palmistry Coach’ collects all of these while charging a thrifty fee of £7.50/week or £11/month for its services – not to mention fingerprints if you are into palmistry.
Olya Makarova reads English at Pembroke College. She is definitely not a Russian sleeper agent.
Art by Abigail Hodges and Ellena Murray