Illustration: George Yarnton
A few years back, if you asked someone on a dating app the exact time and location of their birth within the first ten minutes of initiating contact, you’d probably end up getting blocked for being a weirdo. These days, though, this is normal behaviour – especially among people in their twenties. I personally do it every time. How else are you supposed to know whether your potential relationship has any longevity if you haven’t typed their details into a birth chart calculator, rigorously compared Venus, Mars and moon placements, and weighed up the likelihood of you actually getting on face-to-face? I can't be wasting any time with a Venus Capricorn; they'll only hold me back.
This isn’t the only example of astrology growing into the bedrock of some people's decision-making. In what's only felt like a couple of years, people have come to unquestioningly integrate thoughts of the cosmos into other ways they run their lives. You may have clocked a screenshot doing the rounds last month, where someone in Portland was denied a room on the basis of being 'astrologically incompatible' with potential roommates (“This Virgo / Gemini house is a special place where soft mutable signs get to run free untethered by cardinal authorities”). I know someone who has enacted an entirely serious ‘Gemini ban’ in her love life. And I know someone else who, upon feeling as if she couldn’t make any important life decisions, spent £200 on a brief phone session with an astrologer.So how did we get here? In early 2018, publications like The Guardian, The Atlantic and New York Times started reporting on a millennial obsession with astrology, pointing to 90s nostalgia, a need for reassurance during uncertain times and a desire for alternative systems among women and queer folk. But the astrology boom was already in motion before then. AI-based astrology app Co-Star had launched the year prior, and popular online duo Astro Poets started their account at the tail-end of 2016. Meme accounts like @notallgeminis and @astromemequeen had amassed thousands of followers by 2018, with most online mags already picking up the women's print mag mantle of a horoscope section.
Since then, though, things have gotten… a little murky. This month, Instagram launched a ‘zodiac filter’ in which a neon star sign symbol appears on your cheek. Urban Outfitters comes up with *checks site* 61 results when you search “astrology”. There are no longer a few prominent astro meme accounts, but thousands, some of which are pretty vague. One recent meme, on @astrologyroast, shows Britney surrounded by friends. She’s tagged ‘Libra’ and her friends are tagged things like ‘great hair’ and ‘fucking kind’. It currently has over 55k likes. All of this is fun obviously (I follow and enjoy a lot of these accounts) – but what’s it got to do with the planets?§Sylvia was in her twenties and living in a seaside town in Norfolk when she first became interested in the planets and their powers. That was in the 1970s, and back then, as she tells me, astrology was mainly popular among alternative communities like hers, but considered “psycho-babble” by everyone else. She read old books passed down by friends, and learned how to work out birth charts by consulting an ephemeris, which is basically an extensive grid of celestial coordinates. It wasn’t something people generally dabbled in, because it took energy and dedication. You might read a horoscope in the local newspaper, sure, but if you wanted to know two lovers’ compatibility, that took calculations.“It was the end of the hippy era, and it provided an escape from the drudgery of worrying about money and the fact that my house was falling down,” Sylvia says now, speaking about what drew her to astrology before the current boom. She chose not to practice it in a professional capacity, but she did lean on it during that time. “I was a single mother of two young children, and astrology, tarot and all things esoteric were far preferable to engaging with the benefits system. We went to fairs, and met others who were also living outside of the system. Like me, many of them probably relied on the system for an income… It felt like a heady time, where magical things were possible.”
Sylvia’s love of astrology never shifted, though attitudes around her did. What was once a niche interest among outsiders is now a widely shared internet language, with its own rules and humour. It’s positive that so many people – especially young, often queer people and women – look outside themselves to try and find meaning. And it’s fun consulting the cosmos about the year ahead, or dissecting your mate’s planet placements. But working out how Jupiter in Scorpio will affect you is different to, say, selling piles of ‘Sagittarius’ T-shirts on Boohoo or cutting people out based on their sun sign. Astrology may have become popular, but in doing so, it’s also spawned something else.Annabel Gat, an ISAR-certified astrologer who also writes horoscopes for VICE, believes in differentiating between “pop astrology” and the “millennia-old study wielded by civilisations to find meaning in the world around us”. Both can be fun. But they’re not the same thing. “When I say ‘pop astrology’ I’m referring to astrology that is so digestible that you don’t need to know astrological terminology to understand. That can be horoscopes. I write ‘pop astrology’,” she explains over Skype. “But then there’s one step further, which is basically meme culture… Meme culture is very sun-sign centric, it lacks an understanding of not just nuance but the technical aspects of astrology. The protocols that an astrologer must follow to delineate a chart… none of those are taken into mind in that kind of astrology.”
This is something that Tania O’Donnell – who edited the UK’s most popular astrology title, Prediction, during the early to mid-2000s – is keen to reiterate as well. When we chat over the phone, she tells me that much of ‘pop astrology’ is based around sun signs, which is just a tiny aspect of a person’s planetary make up. “The vast majority of astrologists would argue that’s not even astrology,” she says. “It’s a nice guide, but it’s not an accurate forecast.” In other words, a meme about how an Aries never admits they’re wrong is fun for lols. But if you’re more into astrological forecasts, you’d need to look at your birth chart, and how the planets are affecting each of your placements. In Tania's words, “it's extremely individual".Despite this differentiation – between traditional astrology and the new wave of trashier, more digestible stuff – Annabel is quick to point out that nothing should be taken overly seriously. “I love astrology memes, I make them myself sometimes – as long as they’re made by someone who has some understanding. If you understand shadow and light, you can play with those things and make them look abstract.” She also doesn’t think too much meaning should be placed on the current boom. “Astrology has endured since the Babylonian times,” she points out. “It would have been this popular decades ago if we’d had social media sitting in our pockets on our cell phones.”
§Kelly wasn’t particularly into astrology as a teenager. Her interest didn’t extend much further than a gentle skim over the contours of her sun sign. But as she reached her mid-twenties, she noticed the topic pick up increasing prominence in her social circle. Friends would send astrology memes, and ask to peep her birth chart. She started enjoying what it brought to her life, the lens it offered. “I got into astrology when it was just past the threshold of there being a few meme accounts,” she tells me. “I started to think like… ‘this is something I can apply to how I think about myself and other people’ – in both a fun way, but also in a way that feels like you have a language to speak about things that otherwise might be complicated, or too bitchy?”During the past year or so, though, Kelly has noticed astrology chat reach a new level, especially among her peers. “It was becoming annoying how everything I said would be taken to an astrological analysis. For example I was having a leaving party, and you know that awkward phase where you’re nervous about if anyone’s going to come or not? My two friends were like, ‘this is your Gemini moon.’ And I was like, ‘that’s not helpful!’” she says with a laugh, before continuing. “As with anything, I think it’s a personal responsibility to check yourself when things are getting out of hand rather than moderating culture at large. Otherwise, it’s just like any other ideology.”She’s not the only young person I spoke to who mentioned astrology hitting a sort of “saturation point” within the past year – a subtle shift from people chatting about planet placements and retrogrades, to having vague astrology dominate meme culture, with a wave of high street stores jumping on the trend. “I check my horoscope at least once a day, just to see what’s going on and how it might affect me,” says Charlie. She’s 23, and got into astrology recently while studying at Goldsmiths. “But we’re also probably two steps away from McDonald's bringing out a zodiac meal. And meme culture moves so fast, there are only so many ways you can say ‘Scorpios are intense, Leos are full of themselves’. That side of things might change with trends, but astrology itself won’t get tired.”In essence, astrology is reaching an interesting moment. It's not just experiencing a boom. It's broken off into many factions, and flowered into its own sort of meme culture, which has in turn collided head first into 21st-century mega-consumerism. That doesn't mean there isn't space for meaningful engagement with astrology in media, online, through thoughtfully-devised products. But while some of the current branches of pop astrology might fluctuate with the times – and might even be on the cusp of burning out – the desire for nuanced approaches to planetary movements isn't going anywhere either, for those who belief in it.And as long as the earth keeps rotating the sun, and the moon orbits the earth, and we continue to exist in this strange celestial space, I will still be avoiding Capricorn Venuses. Oh, and Aquarius Mercurys. And Cancer Suns.@daisythejones / @georgeyarnton