My first interaction with astrology came when I was eight. It began with a neon pop-up which flitted onto my virus-infected MSN homepage one fateful day. The ad was neat and gaudy, a relic of Windows XP programming. ‘Discover who you really are here,’ it flashed in glittery rainbow text. Bored and left unsupervised, I clicked into the pop-up, unbeknownst to the fact that I had just downloaded a Trojan Horse onto my computer. I was too preoccupied to notice, confronted instead by an invitation into a cosmic universe of answers dating back to Ancient Babylonian practices in 2000BC.
That rainy afternoon took me down a rabbit hole. I discovered I was an Aquarius, which meant I was compatible with Leos. My young mind reasoned that this was an astrological destiny, a sign from above that my August-born crush would be destined to fall for my cool and calm air element. In a panicked ecstasy to learn more, the teachings from the zodiac began to govern my life. After school, my train journeys were occupied with the consumption of daily horoscopes in the mX. I clung to abstract reaffirmations. I embraced labels which had been bestowed by the stars, wilfully blind to their contradictions: extroverted yet shy, temperamental yet emotionally stable. This was me.
Horoscopes became my guilty pleasure, exerting a unique explanatory power on my life as they have done for so many others. Depending on who you ask, astrology ranges from ‘pseudoscientific’, ‘misguided’ and a ‘mass cultural delusion’, to a “meaningful connection between mankind and the wider cosmos”. To astrologists and horoscope readers, the claim of astrology is simple and uncontroversial: there is a meaningful impact on the substratum of human affairs by celestial events. According to Gallup polls undertaken in Britain, Canada and the US until 1996, up to a quarter of people believed in horoscopes. Nicholas Campion’s recent book ‘Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West’ alleges 90% of the British population know their zodiac signs and 50% believe them to be accurate descriptions of their identities. The scale of astrology’s impact on human thinking and social norms cannot be understated, even if it is all mere bullshit.
Through it all, dedicated horoscope sections have secured their place as a familiar feature of national and global tabloids. According to research undertaken by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 21 read a horoscope column once a month. This is surprising because it subverts the established archetype of the increasingly secular and rational millennial.
If you have ever read a horoscope, you will likely have come across the renowned work of the late Jonathan Cainer. A high school dropout, Jonathan worked odd jobs as a petrol pump attendant and at a school nursery, before enrolling at the now nearly 70-year old sandstone institution, the Faculty of Astrological Studies (FAS). The college currently enrols more than 10,000 students from 90 countries and awards certificates, diplomas and even Ph.D.s in Astrology. Testimonials on the FAS website depict a range of reasons for studying astrology but each is joined by a golden thread: an interest in the metaphysical, mystical and human liberation. Jonathan’s reasons for enrolling were likely a blend of necessity and curiosity. He was without qualifications and undoubtedly bored of working in his most recent job in a factory. Jonathan was also interested in introspectivity, so when he was shown a birth chart which accurately summarised his personality, he was hooked.
After his world-class education, Jonathan ultimately came to accrue an astrological fortune and created an empire in his name. His byline rapidly appeared in the daily astrological forecasts of Hello, Sunday News, Daily Mail, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Japan’s Misty Magazine, the Herald Sun and the Sunday Times. According to the Observer, more than 12 million people have read Jonathan’s predictions. The scale of this audience demanded that when Jonathan passed away in 2016, the enormous and prodigal weight of interpreting the stars be inherited. Jonathan’s charismatic nephew, Oscar Cainer, donned the trademark velvet suit and became an heir overnight, continuing the legacy of the characteristic Cainer horoscope, identifiable by its discursive, almost irrelevant imagery. Last week, the Daily Telegraph’s Cainer horoscope reminded me of the apparent aphorism ‘metal and custard have more in common than I think’. I interpreted it as a subtle allusion to the rigidity in my life. After all, here I was, in the third year of a five year degree, still feeling post-break blues. My imagination was ignited by the thought of leaving the timetable-grind behind and pursuing some romantic odyssey in Europe, away from Taste baguettes and Campos coffee. The horoscope prompted that this sensation of an unwanted stasis could simply be cured with excitement and desire. I filled the blanks mentally and reminded myself to approach the day with more excitement. I asked many overenthusiastic questions in my first tutorial of the semester. Possibly too many. As with much of Cainer’s work, the forecast concluded with a well-timed call to action ‘you can do it!’ What ‘it’ necessarily entails, however, still escapes me.
I often wonder what a life of interpreting and relating the stars to human behaviour does to a person’s thinking patterns. Certainly, the underlying causation is dubious and to work in a field constantly criticised by sceptics must grind you down until you too begin to doubt the stars and question the value of their signs. It’s not too much of a leap to assume that what keeps horoscope writers in the business is at least partially attributable to the multi-billion-dollar industry. However, what might also underlie the production of these horoscopes are the personal struggles and experiences driving the astrologist’s work. They learn to compress these into a creative output, perhaps powered by an enduring belief in the interpretive value of their own craft. After all, the astrologist’s first reader is themself.
Daily horoscope writers are not struggling for work. In addition to managing phone support lines, monetising horoscope readings through exclusive access packages like the Daily Telegraph’s ‘premium horoscopes’ and working to short deadlines, astrologists are creative agents continuously pressured by a line of work to move at planetary speeds.
The industry is balanced precariously on people’s continued faith in this belief system, and whether astrology can maintain its longevity through this pandemonic century is still undecided. So far, it seems written in the stars that horoscopes are here to stay.