Don’t sweat the star stuff

Understanding the science behind your horoscope

Illustration by Kait Evinger

Daily horoscopes are easy to find and based on birth dates, so anybody can participate. But what is a zodiac sign anyway, and are pragmatic Capricorns less likely to be found reading this article?

Shannon Jennissen, who has studied astrology for 15 years, says many people are likely to oversimplify their astrological charts. 

“There is a whole chart comprised of the sun, moon and planetary positions, the mathematical angles between them and their orientation to the horizon at the moment of your birth,” she says. “All this information taken together tells the story of who you are and how you navigate the world.”

Those who develop a fascination with astrology are often considered a bit flaky, says Dominique, owner of Elemental Book and Curiosity Shop. 

“Astrology was originally a science,” says Dominique. “It’s the science of observation, causation and experience.”

Because of the offhand treatment astrology often gets as a science, certain cosmic terms tend to be thrown around in pop culture. She says we can thank social media for that.

“Everybody is all ‘brace yourself, it’s Mercury retrograde,’” she says. “It happens about three or four times a year where the planet appears to be moving backward.” 

Dominique says Mercury is said to govern communication and technology, so many people believe they experience issues with those areas of their life when the planet changes direction in the night sky.

Those with a deep understanding of the stars may be mindful of Mercury retrograde, but they don’t get caught up in the hype, Jennissen says.

“Mercury retrograde has a bad rap and is also overplayed in my opinion,” she says. “Mercury relates to the thinking function and during retrograde periods, there is an opportunity to rethink, reorganize and rework your ideas.”

An aspiring astrologist needn’t worry about being born under a bad sign, because that isn’t how astrology functions as a science, Dominique says.

“This isn’t about fate,” she says. “Just because the planets are aligned in a certain way doesn’t equate to causation … You absolutely can change it. This is not set in stone.”

Dominique warns having a shallow understanding of your sign may lead to spiritual laziness.

“No no no, Becky. You’re not a jerk because you’re a Virgo,” she says. “You’re a jerk because you’re a jerk.”

Jennissen says while astrology is an incredible tool for self understanding and growth, the average newspaper horoscope is just not personalized enough to be useful for more than entertainment.

“Your sun sign describes who you are when you peel back all the layers and get to the heart of things,” she says. 

Jennissen points out it would be impossible to fit everyone on earth into 12 neat categories, and there’s more to take into account both astrologically and environmentally.

Dominique suggests those curious about astrology invest in a full chart reading by a professional and a little self-exploration and improvement beyond what a Pinterest quote may tell you about who you are.

Published in Volume 71, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 29, 2016)

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