Life

Where once religious faith was used as a guide with which to navigate life’s bleak realities, astrology and tarot are today filling a void for many minority groups who feel marginalised by more traditional spirituality. By Clem Bastow.

Astrology and tarot cards

The iPhone app Co–Star Personalised Astrology produced by the Co–Star Astrology Society.
Credit: Andy Hazel

At the age of 19, I auditioned for a local production of the musical Hair. I spent more time preparing a witty “bit” about my star sign than I did learning the lyrics of my audition piece. After all, this was the show that gave us the “(Age of) Aquarius”, and I hadn’t spent the past five years of my young life marinating in 1960s and ’70s zodiac ephemera just to walk into an audition for Hair and not mention astrology. Of course, I didn’t get the part. Was it cosmic payback when the show later tanked during rehearsals? You be the judge – but it didn’t dampen my belief in the esoteric.

If that 19-year-old were around today, she would likely follow at least a dozen “astrology memes” accounts on Instagram, have a stick-and-poke star sign tattoo, and think nothing of filling her bedroom with crystals. (Actually, the last item is true of her 36-year-old self.)

In 2019, astrology is a common language that unites a diverse spread of communities. People who have not yet reached their Saturn return, and plenty who sailed past it years ago, commune over their shared “just Taurus things”, do daily tarot spreads via Instagram Stories, and type “SAME” when a celebrity discusses traits specific to their star chart.

The ever-present nature of astrology in the social media age appeals to Kate Iselin, 30, a Melbourne writer and sex worker, for whom the proliferation of astrology accounts on Instagram and Twitter means “a little guidance” is always close by during stressful moments or periods of existential tension. “In some way my attraction to astrology is rooted in my being a very anxious person who will tend to stress about the amount of control I have over situations,” she says. “Thinking, or being reminded, that there’s a secret cosmic path and purpose behind everything is actually very soothing to me.”

And those reminders are easy to find online. With more than 400,000 followers, the hugely popular Instagram account @notallgeminis, run by Los Angeles-based writer Courtney Perkins, dishes out alarmingly insightful memes that speak to the hearts of its passionate fans. Astrologers such as Chani Nicholas, Dru Ish and Annabel Gat provide gentle and encouraging forecasts, peppered with feminist thought and queer activism, that are sprinkled across the digital media landscape like so many “sparkle” emojis.

In some ways, this seems like business as usual; Instagram simply takes the place of women’s magazines, university clubs or consciousness-raising groups where astrology interests might have been stoked three or four decades ago. But there’s a sociopolitical edge to this mainstreaming of the astrological, as though foregrounding one’s star sign or interest in the tarot is a way of unapologetically reclaiming practices long dismissed as silly or feminised, all while white men made money by commercialising them.

Alice Sparkly Kat is a queer, person of colour astrologer based in Brooklyn, New York, whose practice is grounded in decolonisation. “Astrology, like other types of mysticism, has a very convoluted history,” she explains. “The way it exists as an ideological institution has always been complicit in patriarchy, in colonialism, and capitalism. Decolonising means asserting a new relationship to that history. To me, decolonising is not about trying to find a return to what was prior to colonialism but about creating a future. Like, what could decolonising something that is a series of projections of cultural appropriation mean?”

Astrology meme culture and tarot readings via Venmo donation extracts astrology from a milieu that has often been aggressively white, straight and middle class. Freed from the patriarchal implications of traditional decks, now tarot readers can crowdfund feminist and queer cards via Instagram.

“New Age interests are connected to the wellness industry, dominated by white women with disposable incomes,” says Dr Hannah McCann, a lecturer in cultural studies at University of Melbourne. “However, astrology meme pages have become increasingly popular on platforms like Instagram in the past few years, and as a result anyone can access them.”

The accessibility of astrology and tarot, then, in a climate of rising costs of living (and, thus, healthcare) is not only central to its popularity but gives it a genuinely subversive quality.

Rosalind Lewis, 28, works as a registrar at a small art college in Portland, Oregon. She tells me that her current practice grew from a lifelong interest in the esoteric. “Astrology is a component of a wider belief system that I’m still sorting out, of which left-wing politics are another component,” she says. “I finally started reading [tarot] cards for myself in the wake of a bad break-up when I was too broke to see a therapist.”

Ariadne MacGillivray, 36, works in Montreal, Canada, as an associate producer in the entertainment industry and also relishes the space astrology and tarot opens up for self-care. “It’s hard in this day and age to just do things for your mental health without feeling guilty about it,” she tells me. “The stars give me reasons to take care of myself and that’s extremely powerful for me right now.”

This position – that spiritual practice is interlinked with mental health care – is key to the astrological landscape in 2019. While there are still plenty of magazine horoscopes geared towards the big promotion or how to have mind-blowing sex with Ted from accounting, online and on social media apps astrology has carved out a niche where the stars and cards are used  instead to help people navigate the bleak realities of modern life. 

In his essay, “The Stars Down to Earth”, critical theorist and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno dissected the Los Angeles Times horoscopes of late 1952 and early 1953. His reading of the right-leaning, capitalist nature of the columns – with their constant talk of “important persons” – called for an interpretation of astrology as “an ideology for dependence, as an attempt to strengthen and somehow justify painful conditions which seem to be more tolerable if an affirmative attitude is taken towards them”.

What, then, would Adorno make of the nature of modern astrological practice, removed from the capitalist context of mainstream media and delivered via donation to marginalised practitioners? Would he, too, write “SAME” under the latest @notallgeminis post?

The reclaiming and democratisation of astrology by marginalised communities could indeed be seen as a reaction against the “painful conditions” of late capitalism and neoliberalism. For Alice, who grew up in post-9/11 America, astrological practice is a way of critiquing and dismantling neoliberal thought where organised religion has failed to do so.

“Spirituality is supposed to be highly critical because it is supposed to be the conscience of a society,” Alice says. “Christianity, in this millennium, hasn’t offered that, so people are creating new spiritualities that do.”

And that, crucially, seems key to the rise and rise of astrological practices this decade. For queer people, people of colour and women – so often marginalised, if not explicitly abused, by religious organisations – spiritual practice can also offer the sense of community, insight and salve for the soul that many have turned to the church to provide.

“It is possible that queer communities are drawn to astrology and the esoteric due to historical exclusion from religious spaces,” says Hannah McCann. “Alternative spiritual realms provide greater meaning without institutionalised homophobia.”

This is a position echoed by Sydney-based tarot reader Kitty Jones, who through Big Reveal Tarot offers readings at Sydney Vegan Market and queer-focused events. “It’s a space where we can talk about our hopes, our fears, our triumphs and our stumbles in a thoughtful and structured way, removed from the dogma of patriarchal spirituality or pathologisation of traditional mental health practitioners, who might not be able to look beyond our queerness,” Kitty says. “I see tarot as a democratisation of what we once may have called religion.”

All of the people I spoke to for this essay, both practitioners and enthusiasts, agreed that astrology and spiritual practice is an aspect of their daily life and belief structure, but not a filter through which they view the world. It’s just one “language”, as Alice puts it, that can be employed to discuss myriad issues. It is, as the old Hair medley by The 5th Dimension puts it, a salve for “when you feel like you’ve been mistreated/ And your friends turn away”. In this age of digital isolation and political unrest, what could be more groovy?

Oh, and by the way, Adorno was a Virgo rising – very good at finding the flaw in every circumstance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Harmony and understanding". Subscribe here.

Clem Bastow
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.