“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 6.5 million unique views 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.
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“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 160-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.
Chani Nicholas at home in Los Angeles.
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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 160-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.
Susan Miller working on astrological charts.
Andrew White for BuzzFeed News
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.”
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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.
“I'm very clear that my job is not to heal people; my job is not to fix anybody.”