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Ysana Perez for BuzzFeed News

In 2017, We Have Questions. Does Astrology Have The Answers?

The ancient art of astrology feels fresher than ever in these turbulent times, as its practitioners find new platforms and new audiences in search of answers.

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“We don't know why it works, I'll put it right out there right now,” Susan Miller, arguably the most famous astrologer currently working, tells me over the phone from her home in New York. Miller’s website, Astrology Zone, receives upward of 10 million visitors a year. She’s been profiled by New York magazine; she’s “the only astrologer the internet trusts.” And her devotees are obsessive: In 2014, when illness prevented her from posting her June horoscopes at the beginning of the month, a minor war erupted on the internet, with enraged readers even forming a private Facebook group that they called Abandoned By Susan Miller.

Miller has been writing horoscopes professionally since the late ’80s. She does her own charts and calculations, hundreds of them every year, and then turns that astronomical information about what the stars and planets are up to into thousands of words of astrological advice — on everything from romance to real estate — based on your sun sign. Miller’s horoscopes are beloved for many reasons, among them her writing style, which is chatty, intimate, idiosyncratic — and always, ultimately, reassuring.

This month, for instance, she warns Capricorns like me that we have a lot of money coming in, so we should be extra wary about identity theft; that August’s pair of eclipses, lunar and solar, might not be “entirely supportive,” but “the relationship[s] the planets are having with other planets … are outstandingly positive.” She notes that “Saturn in Sagittarius will be beaming ... from your twelfth house of health and all confidential matters, completing a perfect golden triangle of harmony.”

What I want to know, I tell Miller, is how all of this stuff happens. Why do you predict that when Mars moves to a certain position in the sky, for instance, people’s lives will start bubbling up with irrepressible anger? How does the harmony travel from the golden triangle to me?

“We don't know,” Miller repeats.

It’s honestly kind of a relief.

Miller isn't selling astrology to nonbelievers, because, as far as she’s concerned, astrology doesn’t need to be sold.

Astrology tends to get lumped in with the diverse practices that constitute the current wellness craze, which emphasizes a “natural” lifestyle replete with yoga, green juices, and energetic healing practices. Wellness seems to look back as often as it looks forward; it combines a vogue for old-school crystals and tarot with the mandate to consume a diet of superfoods and probiotics gently dusted with activated charcoal.

The result is a pseudoscience-encrusted version of New Age thinking, or perhaps a spiritualized version of body- and life-hacking, which suggests that a physically, psychically, and sexually optimized version of life is available to you — but only if you’re willing to do the (often expensive and exhausting) work to optimize it. If you’re not, well, you have no one to blame for your suffering but yourself.

Western ideas around proof and truth as far as wellness is concerned can be limited, and limiting, but eschewing them means putting yourself and your health in the hands of individuals, rather than governmental bodies or governing boards. In an age where doctors have had to declare war on Goop, deciding who to trust can become an exhausting exercise. And so there’s something compelling about Miller’s disinterest in justifying her profession, or urging anyone who doesn’t take it seriously to jump on board or else. She sells her expertise in the practice, certainly, but she’s not invested in styling herself as the guru who can save your life — for a price. Miller isn't selling astrology to nonbelievers, because, as far as she’s concerned, astrology doesn’t need to be sold.

“Astrology is not a belief!” Miller writes in an email the day after our initial phone call. (She is as charmingly voluble in interviews as she is in her writing.) “That would be like saying you believe in your computer! That’s absurd!” For her, and for many who work with it, astrology is a fact the same way the very existence of the planets is. They’re there; they’re moving; those movements are affecting us. Whether or not you believe that, or understand it, is irrelevant.

“I think of myself as a philosopher who uses astrology as a tool to get at life’s mysteries,” Miller says. In other words, astrology is more like an advice column than it is a crystal ball. It can help you get a clearer vision of who you are; it can suggest that certain circumstances might be coming your way, and what you’ll need to call on to handle them. But you’ll be you, and those circumstances will be coming, no matter what. It’s up to you whether you want to use astrology as a framework to deal with your life or not.

Astrology has been repeatedly debunked by scientific studies. But that truly doesn’t matter to Miller — and why should it, when traffic to her website grows monthly? Astrology — which has been dated back as far as the second millennium BCE — has survived more than one sea change in humanity’s conception of “nature” or “truth.”

In recent years, astrology has found a natural home online, where it’s easy to see sign alignments as memes in the making, and Etsy’s army of crafters can sell clothing, jewelry, and phone cases emblazoned with star charts. And as it turns out, an aesthetic update (like the major overhaul Miller gave her website in 2016) matters: Just as crystals became cool in part when we realized just how Instagrammable they are, the marriage of astrology and design has helped it shed its woo-woo, New Age, Nag Champa vibes and transform into a hip, shareable form of self-knowledge and self-assessment.

Astrology is a tool, and that tool itself is neutral. It’s how we choose to use it that matters. 

The internet also offers space for diverse engagements with the practice: Writers like the Astro Poets have made a home for themselves writing irreverent 140-character astrological missives on Twitter (as well as lifestyle-minded horoscopes for Bon Appetit and W Magazine), while astrologer Chani Nicholas has grown a weekly horoscope email newsletter into a full-time job. The Onion recently started posting surrealist horoscopes on its Snapchat. No matter what science has to say about it, astrology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Of all the schema for explaining things, why does astrology remain relevant? It’s tempting to chalk all this up to narcissism and uncertainty — to say that of course people want to read certain-sounding descriptions of themselves and their futures, to feel affirmed in their best qualities, and then blame whatever troubles come on the sky. And after the failure of our best mathematical models to predict the 2016 presidential election, why wouldn’t we throw up our hands and trust stars over statistics?

But as Miller says, astrology is a tool, and that tool itself is neutral. It’s how we choose to use it that matters. Whether or not horoscopes precisely predict the future, they can offer opportunities for self-reflection. Astrology may not always be able to give us answers, but it can tell us a great deal about what we’re looking for and what we want to believe about ourselves.

Though it can sometimes feel like astrology’s recent rise was sudden and precipitous, in fact, the practice has been steadily getting more popular throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. With the internet and meme culture, astrology is finding new avenues of communication, new niches and modes of expression, and new ways to make itself relevant to our conversations and lives.

This is in part possible because we’ve spent those centuries coming up with ways to make astrology more accessible — and digestible. Your sun sign (Aries, Virgo, etc.) is what that tired pickup line refers to; even people who don’t believe in astrology can usually identify theirs. But the focus on sun signs both as determinants of personality and as the organizing rubric for horoscopes didn’t come into fashion until the early 20th century, spurred in part by French astrologer Dane Rudhyar’s 1936 book The Astrology of Personality. It also didn’t hurt that this was around the same time that horoscopes started being published regularly in daily newspapers, along with sports scores and the weather.

Digestibility helps make astrology marketable, and being marketable has helped it survive and thrive.

That digestibility helps make astrology marketable, and being marketable has helped it survive and thrive. Insofar as astrology is as a categorization mechanism, a sorting of types, it functions naturally as a kind of commercial compass. A star sign can give buyers a sense of being personally suited — perhaps magnetically drawn — toward something, instead of overwhelmed by the pressure of choice. Presently in Los Angeles you can get a manicure based on your astrological profile; in Brooklyn, you can use it to guide your cocktail choice for the evening. You can buy a sweatshirt printed with your sign from Khloé Kardashian’s Good American line, or nab an identifying T-shirt from J. Crew.

Astrology has also proven adept at jumping between mediums: These days, instead of having to pick up a physical newspaper or magazine to find out what the stars have in store, mini-’scopes are available to us in the form of tweets. “The Taurus in your group text doesn't read all the texts,” declares a recent post from the account @poetastrologers, which has amassed nearly 180,000 followers and a book deal since its creation last November.

Astro Poets, as it’s come to be known, was born in the days just after the election, which, for much of the country, were terrifying, unsettled, and surreal. The tweets are written by two actual poets named Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov, and the feed — by turns rude, sexy, sly, and sincere — often reads like a distillation of the modern moment into 140-character takes.

There are descriptions of how and why each sign sends nudes, gets involved with fuckboys, and ranks flavors of La Croix; quotes from poets and songwriters with a note of their sun sign; and political messages, like a recent assertion that “health care should be in everyone’s horoscope.” When they do write more traditional horoscopes, the Poets tend to be koan-y, suggestively poetic, and only cheekily predictive.

If a horoscope’s power comes in part from making everyone who reads it feel individually spoken to and seen, the Astro Poets’ particular appeal lies in their ability to make readers feel like we understand not just ourselves but our specific cultural moment. The stars have just as much to say, apparently, about our favorite Lana Del Rey lyrics and use of the eggplant emoji as they do about the best time to do things millennials are beginning to see as rituals of a bygone era: fall in love, sign a contract, or buy a house.

The Astro Poets are not alone in refiguring the ways in which astrology might function in our lives beyond the traditional weekly horoscope model. The Hairpin’s Astrology Is Fake column, written by Rosa Lyster, describes the threats posed by the particular types of crazy exhibited by each sun sign. (Astrology Is Fake, But Brad Pitt Got Owned by A Gemini; Astrology Is Fake, But Aries Can’t Stop.)

Lyster also writes “existentialist horoscopes” for the website Between 10 and 5. These don’t include any information on the movement of the planets, opting instead for decontextualized pieces of advice like, for instance, for Sagittarius during the week of June 30: “You will find yourself at a loss for words this month. Your usual endless supply of sassy remarks will desert you for the time being. This is going to be very hard for you so I suggest that you find other ways to express yourself. For example, if you are in a terrible mood but lack the words to say so, you could go to work dressed as a spider.”

At what point does this kind of writing stop being astrology and start being, well, something else? There’s nothing wrong with a reminder that it matters how we spend our time and attention, or that our feelings are irrational and still valid, but without explicit grounding in star charts, these pieces do not necessarily qualify as horoscopes in the traditional sense.

Claire Comstock-Gay, who writes similarly brief, poetic horoscopes as Madame Clairevoyant for The Cut, has trouble identifying as “a real astrologer,” despite the fact that she’s been writing horoscopes for sites like The Rumpus and The Toast since 2013. She’s conflicted about where she belongs in that world, she says: “As someone who loves and respects and believes in [astrology], it's a weird place to be.”

Comstock-Gay’s relationship to astrology has evolved and deepened over the course of the last few years; now she sees astrology as, among other things, a less fraught alternative to traditional forms of spiritual seeking: “I think [astrology offers] permission to feel whatever you're feeling,” she says, “which you can get from going to church. You can get it from reading poetry. You just never know what's going to hit that resonant note.”

For Comstock-Gay, the decentralized, nonhierarchical astrological community offers opportunities for connection that people might not be able to find through more traditional religious practices. This is especially true, she notes, for minorities or otherwise oppressed people, like women or the queer community, who have traditionally been excluded from the pulpit and the church. With astrology, there are no churches to visit, no synagogues to join, and no people standing in as deities or acting as clergy. Instead, there are the stars, and the people who are trying to tell us about what they might mean.

“That’s one of the things I love about astrology,” Comstock-Gay says. “There's so much space to do so many different things with it, in part because there's no high-up organizing body. Everyone's kind of figuring out how they want to use this.”

Chani Nicholas, for instance, uses astrology to encourage people to seek healing — their own, and the world’s. “People read things how they want to read them — but I never want to be a source of quote-unquote inspiration for uncritical, unchecked, narcissistic privilege,” Nicholas says of her writing. For her, astrology is less about prediction, and more useful as a system for understanding your own talents and limitations, and how they might best be put to use in service of a larger goal.

Nicholas has been studying astrology since she was 12 years old, but she didn’t start publicly writing and sharing horoscopes until six years ago, when she began sending out weekly updates to a list of friends and family. Ever since then, her audience has been growing; for the last three years, Nicholas has supported herself through her work as an astrologer.

Despite having been written up everywhere from the LA Times to Nylon and The Cut, Nicholas still feels like something of a personal secret to her devotees; a recent Lenny Letter profile referred to her as a “cult favorite.” Her horoscopes, which are still delivered to inboxes once a week (and more often when significant astrological events like full moons come up) are affirmational without being saccharine or self-help-y; they’re explicitly political and engaged with the realities of systemic oppression. Nicholas is interested in encouraging readers not just to heal themselves, but to see that work as inextricable from a more communal kind of repair.

Ahead of the recent solar eclipse, for instance, Nicholas wrote, “These are complex days. Dense with the personal homework assigned to us. ... We cannot control what happens, but every time we choose our integrity over our fear, we choose what is life-affirming over what is life-constricting.”

Astrology has long been considered a feminine pursuit, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that producing it involves tons of often-unacknowledged emotional labor. Nicholas’s writing tends to make people emotional, and the internet makes her accessible, so she has to be firm about the limits of what she is and isn’t responsible for.

“I'm very clear that my job is not to heal people; my job is not to fix anybody,” she says. “My job is to give you the tools that I have, and to create a container wherein you might experience the parts of yourself that know and/or can find the answer.”

That suggestive power, and the emotional response it provokes, is something that all astrologers have to learn to be careful with. When Miller’s mother started teaching her astrology, “she didn't just teach me the encyclopedic part of astrology, you know, the technical,” Miller explains. “She also taught me the philosophical. We talked about the power of suggestion, and how critical it was that I be careful in the way I write, and not overemphasize.”

For Miller, as with Nicholas, the goal is to give readers not just the astrological weather, but also a sense of perspective and direction. “I don't want to lead people to the ledge,” Miller says. “You can't just give people difficult news; you have to give them options, to help them get out of the briar patch. It's not enough to say what's coming.”

Now, Miller modulates her horoscopes with the help of Twitter: “You have to constantly go back for feedback,” she says. “Twitter is my favorite. Last year there was a full moon that was a bit of a witch. Afterwards I was wondering, did I overemphasize the difficulty of that full moon? So I asked Courtney [Miller’s assistant] to keep an eye on what was going on. And after an hour she said, ‘You've got to come back in here. You have 2,000 people responding.’ With passion! I mean, they were in car wrecks, they lost a kitten, they were in a fight with their boyfriend and broke up. It was a litany. Some people had it good, but only about 4%. And I said, ‘Okay, see, this really typifies what’s going on.’”

Nicholas, on the other hand, is less interested this type of engagement. “I don't want people to need me, honestly,” she says. “I don't think it's healthy to be obsessed with what's happening in the sky every day. Just go live your life. It's fine!”

Both women agree that astrology’s job is not to help you live a peaceful, stress-free life, but to help guide you through the turmoil you will inevitably experience. “We don't get out of here without feeling pain,” Nicholas says. “I’m definitely going to promise you that.” No matter how you engage with astrology, it’s not a panacea; all it can offer is the assurance that hard times inevitably cede to easier ones, and that, having lived through a hard time once, you have developed strategies that will help you do it again.

Here, for instance, is Comstock-Gay writing to Scorpios in the days after Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic landfall: “Sometimes you can practically feel the whole world shaking, and sometimes the air just feels heavy and still, and either way, you’re going to make it through,” she says. “This isn’t empty optimism, it’s just a quiet true thing.”

As fun as IsMercuryInRetrograde.com and “the signs as” memes are, they can also decontextualize astrology, making it seem particularly inconsequential, just another rubric along which to look inward and refine our understanding of present self. The best horoscope writers, however, remind us that it’s also about peering outward, understanding ourselves in relation to a planet we don’t understand and can’t control. Astrology reminds us that our lives are shaped by the influences — both seen and unseen, rationally explicable and scientifically untenable — that surround us.

For Comstock-Gay, astrology’s outsider status in the scientific and spiritual worlds is valuable. “I hope more people continue finding meaning in astrology, but I also hope it never becomes too respectable,” she says of its future. “I hope it gets to hold on to its weirdness, and never gets conscripted into any kind of professionalism.”

Miller, however, is concerned that “The boom of the internet has brought out many home-styled astrologers online who never took the time to study in depth for years… With ‘bad’ astrologers out there, mixed in with very skilled, experienced ones, the entire field can suffer.”

Nicholas falls somewhere in the middle. “My hope is that astrology is respected as a historically significant wisdom tradition to most every culture on the planet,” she says when I ask her about what’s next for the practice. “You don't have to believe in astrology, but I think it's important to understand its historic significance to people the world over.”

All three, however, are excited about the changes that technology — and even the potential for future space travel into the realms they write about — might bring to astrology. Nicholas envisions 3-D charts that depict the state of the sky at the moment you were born, which would allow for a much more dynamic interaction with the totality of the chart (and might shift people’s focus from the position of the sun in their charts).

Comstock-Gay wonders, “What would a birth chart look like for a baby born on the moon? How would astrology adapt and change if humans lived lives outside of Earth?” Miller is also already thinking extraterrestrially: “When we start to populate Mars, we will have to work with astrophysicists to help us construct the mathematics for charts of those who are colonizing there,” she says.

Despite the historical rift between hard science and astrology, Miller is hopeful about future collaborations. “It’s a brave new world ahead, and astrologers will need scientists to cooperate and work together, not be adversaries,” she says.

Astrology is, fundamentally, about making sense of that brave new world: wading into the wide, distant sky and using its motions to predict how things will move down here on Earth. And so even when the moment on Earth is dire, as it is now, with Nazis marching in the streets and a major US city recently submerged by record-setting rainfall, there is a framework we can look toward to make sense of it: one that is natural, and enormous, and that, at least according to Miller, will work even if we’ll never understand exactly how. This feels like perhaps the most timely thing we could ask for in this fractious, fractured moment. It unites us as Geminis and Cancers and Tauruses, as people born on a planet, under a sun, trying to figure out why we’re here and where we’re going next. ●


Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER. She lives and works in Los Angeles.