When Did We Start Taking Our Horoscopes So Seriously?

photographed by Megan Madden.
photographed by Megan Madden.

When did you last read your horoscope? This week? This month? Perhaps you have an app on your phone – the most popular across Android and iOS, the Daily Horoscope, has over 10 million users – so you can check in every morning over your cornflakes. If that is indeed the case, then congratulations; you're part of a trend. While it remains difficult to put an exact figure on the number of people who believe in astrology – writing for The Conversation earlier this year, Nicholas Campion, associate professor in cosmology and culture at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, suggested that it could be anything between 22% and 73% of the population – it's clear which way the wind is blowing. Research carried out in 2012 indicated that Americans are increasingly receptive to astrology, with slightly more than half of those surveyed agreeing that it is "not at all scientific", down from nearly two-thirds in 2010. According to the report, this is the lowest comparable percentage for decades.

Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't horoscopes used to be a bit naff? The sort of thing you'd cast an eye over in a copy of Take a Break at the dentist's surgery but never, under any circumstances, admit to having read – let alone taken seriously. Mystic Meg's gloriously eccentric slot on the National Lottery each week may have been a masterclass in mugging to the camera but it did nothing to dispel the fact that, back in the 1990s, astrology had a serious image problem. Yet here we are, in the dying days of 2017, and horoscopes are big news. Eminent publications run features with headlines like How Your Rising Sign Shapes Your Wardrobe; Melissa Broder, the writer behind the existential Twitter account @sosadtoday is publishing her first novel, entitled The Pisces; and at London Fashion Week in September, Ashish, the politically vocal designer whose 'Immigrant' shirt was a fist-pump of defiance amid the mire of Brexit, brought the house down with his starry, celestial show. How to explain this wholesale reversal of fortune?

Religion is a good place to start. At the last census, in 2011, 59% of the UK population identified as Christian, which is still more than half of the country, true – but at the previous census, 10 years earlier, that figure was 72%. During the same period, the number of people declaring themselves as having no religion jumped by six million to 14 million, or 25% of the population. What's more, Christians had the oldest age profile of all religious groups – 22% were aged 65 or above – and were most prevalent in the northeast and -west of England. In London, they were comparatively thin on the ground. Let's extrapolate, then, and say that young, city-dwelling folk are moving away from organised religion. Which means something must be taking its place.

The expression "nature abhors a vacuum" conveys the idea that empty space is unnatural; that the universe will always seek to fill a void. The same is true of human nature. We are hardwired to form communities. For our Stone Age ancestors, it was a matter of life and death – getting booted out of the group was a surefire way to meet your doom – but in these headier days of central heating and Deliveroo, the imperative is not so much corporeal as psychological. It's no accident that health experts describe the burgeoning tendency towards social isolation as a loneliness 'epidemic', the medical terminology highlighting its impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. Gathering around a shared interest or common cause is as much an attempt to stave off that loneliness as it is an expression of identity and when something as unifying as, say, religion loses its appeal, we cast around for a replacement. Astrology, as a belief system bearing many of the hallmarks of religion – recurring motifs, faith in an external body, a quest for meaning – fits the bill rather nicely.

As an added boon, astrology lacks the tedious conservatism that turns so many young people off organised religion, which is a bit of a laugh, really, given that it dates back to the second millennium BCE – long before the little baby Jesus was even a twinkle in his old man's eye. Consider these: "Monday's new moon in Sagittarius awakens your wanderlust" and "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain." The former is hopeful and exciting, the latter sombre and prescriptive. It's like plumping for a Twix over a handful of almonds for elevenses – you can't blame a girl for picking the one that makes her feel good.

"They genuinely make me feel excited," says Lucy, 25, when I ask her to describe the effect that reading her horoscope has on her mood, "especially if it's a good one with a promise of 'big moments'. I get a great feeling when I read something that relates to my life or makes perfect sense. For instance, I was making plans to do up my house a few months ago and there was a whole bit in one of them about making home changes. It essentially affirmed that decision and made me even more compelled to do up my house (spoiler: I did up my house)."

This sense of optimism is clearly a major draw for millennials and no wonder – hardly a day goes by without another gloomy report about house prices, stagnating wages or restrictions on our freedoms. And then there's the news. 2017 towers above all the awful years in recent memory as a particularly nasty motherfucker: Trump, North Korea, the devastation of Grenfell Tower, terror attacks too numerous to mention, Weinstein... It's one hell of a roll call. The negative impact of the relentlessly grim news cycle on our mental health has been widely documented so it makes sense to seek respite in the reassuring space of astrology. Upbeat by design (no one wants to read that they're in for a rough ride), horoscopes have become a tonic for the evils of modern society; a little something to help us through the day.

photographed by Megan Madden.

Hang on a minute, though. Escapism is all well and good but aren't we supposed to be the woke generation? The generation that doesn't turn its face away but bears witness? The generation that challenges wrongdoing? That calls out fake news? If we're so concerned with truth and transparency, our readiness to put faith in a system as nebulous as astrology – which has been dismissed, time and again, as 'pseudoscience' – feels like a contradiction of sorts. But then I asked Lucy why she thinks so many young women are reading their horoscopes now. Her reply is illuminating:

"On a basic level, I genuinely think the quality of horoscopes has improved. That sounds a strange thing to say, as how can you assess the quality of something we don't know is true? But when I was younger there was Mystic Meg and the star pages in the News of the World. Nowadays you can read your horoscope from your favourite, intelligent, female-targeted website. If this is where you're sourcing your news and clever think pieces, then it doesn't seem so silly to read your horoscope after. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense."

And actually, it does make sense. I've been trying to get my head around astrology's great comeback from a sociological perspective, all the while failing to acknowledge my scepticism of the whole thing. The women who are reading their horoscopes – and not just reading them but wearing them, gifting them, even using them as a travel guide – are smart, engaged, empowered. Yes, there's an element of spirituality, and certainly more than a little escapism, but there's also a vibrant, supportive community. For Fatima, 24, astrology is a passion shared with her closest friends: "My best friend and I love them. We always attempt to predict people's horoscopes in the first 10 minutes of meeting them. I must say, we're pretty good at it!" She's not alone. "My female friends copy and paste each other's [horoscopes] into WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger and dissect their meaning. Horoscopes are more fun when you share them with others," says Lucy. Perhaps, in these increasingly dark times, that's exactly what we need – a place to come together, joyfully; a refuge from those who would seek to divide us. When you look at it like that, astrology doesn't seem so mad after all.

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