Back in October, a friend was feeling theatrically hot-tempered as we sat down for lunch. She fidgeted in her chair and gesticulated wildly as she recalled a comedy of errors. She kept missing her train, forgetting her keys, arguing with her boyfriend, smashing her phone, and her porridge was never *just* right. “I know why though,” she sighed, pushing aside her predictably stale sandwich, “It’s Mercury, it’s in retrograde.” 

For the readers unfamiliar with the term “Mercury in retrograde”, allow me to point you toward the stars. Astrologers know Mercury as the planet to rule expression and communication. Thus, when a retrograde motion occurs, it has a negative connotation within the astrological field. For this tumultuous three-week period — as luck would have it, the first Mercury Retrograde of 2022 started last week — fans and followers of astrologers will frantically report a series of unfortunate events, from anxiety, extreme fatigue, insomnia, earthquakes, floods, getting busted for having BYOB parties — you name it. 

But the aforementioned angsty friend of mine is far from an outlier; it seems ubiquitous these days to blame a planet moving backwards for any calamitous situation. All over social media, you will find a galaxy of a new vanguard of astrologers on social media who give advice, forecasts, and post-astrology-related memes that garner thousands and thousands of followers and likes at a time. 

On TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, you have people tripping up on the pavement and blaming it on Mercury. In another, you have people denouncing burgeoning relationships because of the lack of cosmic compatibility. And you have people generating memes that liken the zodiac signs to television characters and even Oscar Wilde quotes. The quote “True friends stab you in the front” ? — Cancer, of course.

Astrology ascribes meaning to the placement of the sun, the moon and the planets within the 12 sections of the sky, otherwise known as the signs of the zodiac. Typically, most people know their sun sign such as “Sagittarius” or “Taurus”, but it is also the placement of the moon and each of the other planets at the time and location of your birth that creates your personal “birth chart.”

Now you may denounce this as a whole load of woo-woo mumbo-jumbo, but astrology has a long and rich history. It dates back to the 2nd Millennium BC – with Babylonian astrology being the first organised system – and until the 17th century, astrology was considered a scholarly tradition. These ancient astrologers turned to the sky for clues about why things happened in the material world around them.

“There’s that famous ancient phrase ‘as above, so below’,” explains Sally Kirkman, a renowned UK astrologist who has been practising astrology for 30 years. “That tells you a lot about how the patterns that the planets make is mirrored on our life on earth. Most ancient people followed the stars and sort of followed a “cosmic clock”, worshipping the sun, the moon and Venus as it brought light and vitality and kept the earth moving. They would listen to the earth and look to the universe for signs and coincidences, but then science came along, and people stopped.”

As Kirkman mentions, the tone toward astrology shifted in the 18th century, with the age of the Enlightenment. However, in the late 19th century, the esotericist Alan Leo popularised the notion that your sun sign indicates aspects of your character in England in the 1890s. Leo became part of a group called the Theosophical Society that used spiritual traditions to help advance society to its next stage of development, calling this era the “New Age.” When the New Age movement of the 70’s broke into the mainstream, it reignited astrological practices and the sun-sign approach to astrology also began to grow in popularity through newspaper columns and magazines.

But if the New Agers were the ones to fan the flames of the astrology craze, the Millennial and Gen Z and X quotient have added fuel to the fire. According to Pew Research Centre, millennials are less religious than other age groups, but 60 per cent of them believe in New Age spirituality. And the psychic services industry which includes astrologers is worth around $2 billion and is projected to keep growing. You only need to stop by your nearest Urban Outfitters, to see a shop full of products from zodiac phone cases, tapestry, necklaces, t-shirts and woven throws to see just how lucrative capitalising on the astrology industry is. 

So what is behind the latest “revival” in astrology?

Astrology can help people identify relationship compatibility, understand friendship dynamics and help them make the right decisions. “It can be a great tool for relationships,” says Kirkman. “Knowing someone else’s sign can help improve empathy and understand better why it is people are the way they are. For example, I have a daughter who is a Libra, and I am a Scorpio. As a result, I am quite structured and organised and she is quite floaty. With this knowledge in mind, I ask myself: how do I help her make choices? How do I help her work things out?”

Predictably, the turbulence of the pandemic and uncertainty about the future has seen many – notably millennial and Gen Z women – turning to astrology to seek answers. According to Google Trends, searches for “birth chart” and “astrology” both hit five-year peaks in 2020, and many professional astrologers like Kirkman reported an “acceleration” of interest during lockdown. 

 “We are drawn to the stars because life feels harder than ever after the pandemic,” says Annabelle, 26. “The pressure of forging relationships, making money, establishing a family whilst thriving in a career can feel too much when we feel we have been robbed of time. Social media exacerbates the idea that we should have it all.”

She continues, “In a way, we are going through our own pandemic of just trying to survive the pressure; my friends and I use astrology because we want guidance and reassurance that ultimately, everything will be okay.” 

A small 1982 study by the psychologist Graham Tyson found that people who “consult astrologers” did so in response to stressors in their lives, primarily “linked to the individual’s social roles and to his or her relationships.” He wrote: “Under conditions of high stress, the individual is prepared to use astrology as a coping device even though under low-stress conditions they do not believe in it.” This complements prior studies which have found a link between personal turmoil and a belief in astrology. The authors suggest that current “stressors” which might explain the increase in popularity include climate change and the pandemic. 

 “I was a cynic,” says Charlotte, aged 24. “But my flatmate showed me this app called Co-Star after I told her how disheartened I was feeling about the future. You enter your place of birth, the time and the date, and it builds up a character profile on the traits you have according to the planets. When I read mine, I was gobsmacked. It was so precise and ever since using it, has helped me make important decisions.” 

Co-Star is one of the most popular astrology apps for iPhone and Android, and it has over 7.5 million users. It’s no wonder, the app is sleek, modern and aesthetic – the holy triptych for any tech-savvy millennial. Using data extracted from NASA, Co-Star is an artificial intelligence-driven app that generates your astrological chart based on the exact time, date, and place of birth, providing its users with daily horoscopes and letting them compare their charts with friends. 

On the surface, it all seems like harmless fun, but is it all harmless? 

Astronomer Phil Plait believes it can give rise to uncritical thinking. “The more we teach people to simply accept anecdotal stories, hearsay, cherry-picked data, and frankly, out-and-out lies, the harder it gets for people to think clearly […] Uncritical thinking is tearing the world to pieces, and while astrology may not be the heart of that, it has its role.” 

What’s more, a new study has shown that narcissism is the strongest predictor of people who believe in astrology. As the researchers of the study write, the link between astrology and narcissism is “possibly due to the self-centred worldview uniting them”, and they suggest that the positive astrological predictions and horoscopes might reinforce grandiose feelings, and “thus might appeal even more to narcissists.” Interestingly, the study also found that narcissistic traits correlated with the belief that astrology is supported by science, which suggests the possibility, as Phil Plait touched on, that they could be more “fact resistant.”

“There’s always going to be attacks on astrology by scientists and religious people,” Kirkman retaliates. “Very often, these people don’t know much about it. It’s not a religious or scientific belief, it is based on scientific principles yes, but it is an individual tool to work with.”

She adds, “There is a laziness in these criticisms against astrology. It is a complex, and in-depth tradition that covers integrates history, culture, spirituality and mythology. The critics just see it as the horoscopes in the papers but that just acts as a channel [just like TikTok and Instagram] into astrology.”

Banu Guler, the founder of the app Co-Star, once pertained: “The question isn’t whether astrology is real or not. It’s whether the effects are real.” In the midst of physical, political, and emotional turmoil, believing in this thousands-year-old divination practice can provide a tool for introspection and a way to contextualise feelings for those who crave a spiritual aid. “Believing in astrology offers an alternative perspective that connects you to something bigger beyond yourself,” says Kirkman, “and really, what’s the harm in that?”