SIGNS OF THE TIMES
“So...what’s your sign?” It’s the mating call of all time, a question designed to evoke a visceral reaction, which it almost certainly does. So popular was the pickup line in its heyday, that it now serves as a warning sign for those looking to escape the bar without having to dodge sleazy, lazy come-ons. Astrology, the word and its practice, has been in the cultural lexicon for centuries. It has infiltrated our lives in more ways than we realize, on television and social media, the back pages of the grocery store magazines and casual conversations at the bar. So much so one might think that Mercury was perpetually in retrograde. But how could the positioning of stars and planets millions of light years away have any affect on us whatsoever? Let alone guide us through dating, careers, and betting on the ponies. But there is a guarantee that any number of people you know have turned to those stars and planets for a little help now and then, easily ditching science for pseudoscience when times get tough. Like right now.
As Alexa Santory asks in her new piece, “Why do so many ordinarily practical people throw common sense out the window and put their trust in these impossible to prove systems and definitions of the world? When it comes to astrology, the signs of the zodiac, and what people find so appealing about it all, two words come to mind: ambiguity and positivity. It gives people the ability to apply the purposefully ambiguous descriptions to any facet of their life they see fit, and to conveniently leave behind the things that don’t. How often have you seen an astrology meme or read a horoscope and felt it was so much like you? People see themselves easily in horoscopes because they want to see themselves in them." Often it’s because they begin to lose faith in our social and political institutions, leaving them looking for something else to believe in. As these institutions of government, economy, education, religion, and infrastructure begin to crumble, whether from war, civil unrest, or the work of a few brave individuals, society begins to ask for answers elsewhere. We are desperate for the universality of shared belief systems, without the hierarchy or limitations of religion or politics. We all want to understand how the world works, how our own worlds work, and how we can at least hold onto an illusion of agency over our lives. We want to peek into the future and have insider information on what comes next. Essentially, when the institutions designed to keep us safe break down, we turn to the stars.
There’s no scientific evidence backing many of the ideas behind astrology, even though it is based on astronomy, a scientific discipline. But things don’t have to be real or based in fact to have real effects. When large numbers of the population are making important financial and relationship decisions based on the tea leaves, who are we to question the motivation? Over and over again, people everywhere, from every walk of life, tap back into the centuries old study of astrology seemingly en masse. What is it about this divinatory art, and its roots in spirituality, that has had so many believers flocking to astrologers and tarot readers and empaths for guidance? Maybe what was good enough for the Mesopotamians can be good enough for the modern era. With all of our newfound scientific knowledge comes newfound existential questioning of where we fit into all this. READ AMBIGUOUS POSITIVITY.
Why seek alternative universal answers in the early decades of the 20th and 21st centuries? They have been times of war and periods of great societal change in the roles and rights of women and minorities; all contributing to the breaking apart of classic social orders. They are also periods when we have been suffering the consequences of disruptive growth in invention, communication, and transportation. It's no surprise then that the 1930’s gave us a somewhat revolutionary addition to newspapers: the daily horoscope, which introduced this superstitious ritual to the everyday masses. They have been published everyday since. If for no other reason, victims of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 were desperate for hope and during the Depression that followed, well, the name says it all. A barometer for periods of cultural and social change, astrology would enter the mainstream again in the late 1960s, a.k.a “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” —another boom of popularity for the ancient practice. It was marked by the publication of Linda Goodman’s bestselling book, Sun Signs, which laid the foundation for the sun sign personality traits as we know them today and was the first book on astrology to make the New York Times’ Best Sellers list. READ AMBIGUOUS POSITIVITY.
In the 21st century, we turn to our apps. Co-Star and The Pattern are gaining in popularity because they are more than just identifying and comparing personality traits in service of finding potential mates, but more so, to judge all the different kinds of people in our lives. Friends, friends of friends, cousins of friends, co-workers, potential bosses, the guy at the deli. They allow you to compare and contrast compatibility with everyone and anyone, because, you guessed it, everyone is at one-time born, so everyone, whether they believe in it or not, has a star sign. They work to embrace the universality of, well, the universe, and they provide a little more tongue in cheek reading of the stars than we may be accustomed to. Different media, same basic need for human connection, universal understanding, and the knowledge that there are answers to the difficult questions somewhere in the universe. Astrology has always been divisive. Whether people choose to believe in it or not, there’s no denying its endurance. In times of trouble, in times of change, in times of evolution, and progress, and turbulence, the stars tend to speak a little bit louder and we, as a society, tend to listen a little bit more closely. Trying times always give people a reason to search for purpose.
THE AGE OF AQUARIUS
Perhaps there is no show, movie, or book more associated with modern horoscope readings, crystal bedecked bedrooms, or the peace, love, and yoga movements often associated with seeking guidance from the stars than Hair, the 1967 rock musical that first hit the stage in the time it was about, a late Sixties anthem to counterculture and anti-war movements, sex, drugs, civil rights, and the complicated nature of man.
And yet, the hippies of the Sixties were not, despite the iconic line Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the first to connect counterculture and youth movements to Mercury’s journey into retrograde or the role of rising Taurus. While nearly every era that has come before has worked to make sense of the stars—or, in most cases, have the stars work to make sense of them, the most common theme appears to be that every generation also thinks they are the very first to do so. But what was unique to that era was a previously unheard of movement against the drafting of young men to fight the Vietnam War. What would have been considered a treasonous and certainly unpatriotic stance in any other time of war, this war, the first one that appeared on TV in real time, was painfully open to question. It was murky, far away, had no simple cause or understandable enemy, and was dragging on during a time of institutional breakdown and civil unrest right here on the home front. That was where the war was. It was culturally already at home.
But it’s also fair to say that Hair was revolutionary in using theater to break the fourth wall and question societal norms as well as the war as it happened in real time to a very real, and not so hippie audience. Whether you were lucky enough to see the play live or are a fan of the film—the synergy of message, the aesthetics, and the music still translates loudly. After premiering and playing Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater on April 29, 1968. The show, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, follows Claude, a young man on the verge of being drafted and his young, hippie counterculture sexually free “tribe” of friends.
The play is popularly credited with changing Broadway. It featured nude scenes, draft-dodgers, sex and interracial relationships—fully one-third of the cast was black and it was the first-time black actors were cast as equals to their white counterparts (the other shows on Broadway the same year were Fiddler On The Roof and Hello, Dolly!). It was performed on Broadway for four years. As the Vietnam War raged on, so did the play’s antiwar themes to the thousands who saw the show.
So using the language of astrology made a lot of sense to express this want of freedom from greed, freedom from war, and freedom in general. They celebrated the dawning of The Age of Aquarius, they sang Good Morning Starshine, and of course, prayed for us all to Let The Sun Shine In. Words of wisdom from the universe par excellence. We are far from the first ones to ever think of this, to think of astrology, to think of standing up and fighting against the man, and though our access to the stars is right in the palm of our hand, available with space age technology that brings us ever closer to life among them, we are yet another era of marchers, and picketers, and counterculture fighters that want to claim that the universe is on our side.
Not only is it important to recall that the modern day is not the first day, that easier access does not mean pioneering, but it's fundamental that we embrace each of the wild movements that have come before. Yes, we are still in the Age of Aquarius, (at least for the next 2000 years actually) just as they were, progress built on progress, and inching forward for humanity compounded by each society to follow.
We are in a new dawning of the Age of Aquarius, as were the hippies of the 1960s and 70s, as were those depression era housewives, as were the ruthless pirates, defying their own social rules. It is not radical to embrace the stars, but rather, a sign post of radical movements, of change on the horizon, of a reevaluation of social values and what we will stand for. The cultural embracing of the horoscope serves merely as a barometer, and the sooner we recall all those who embraced it before us, the most successfully we will be in creating our own dawning of the age of Aquarius.