My Bumble profile shows my name, my age, a collection of curated Instagrams, and a quippy one-line bio. The dating app gives me the option to answer a series of questions about myself that will appear publicly. There are those I deliberately choose to withold (height, weight, how active I am, what my occupation is). Then there are a select few I do – those that I think say something about me, and help to distil whether someone will truly be a match or not: my politics are liberal, I’m an Atheist, I never drink, and I’m a Virgo. Does this mean I couldn’t fall in love with a hard-drinking conservative Christian who’s a Gemini? No – or at least, not mathematically. But it does make me feel like I have slightly more control over the type of person I’ll match with, and in the gamified quagmire of online dating I’ll hold on to these (non-binding) filters with both hands.
Rafael Nadal has an extreme list of rituals that mark his behaviour every time he steps on to a tennis court. Before play and during breaks he is often seen rotating the water bottles that sit at his feet so that the labels perfectly face the baseline of the end he is playing. His many repetitive movements as he prepares to serve include unpicking the shorts from his bum, tucking his hair behind his left ear and then his right, and wiping his forehead. This routine is followed to the letter, every time he serves. It bears no impact on the ferocity or precision of his serve – or maybe it does. Commentators and fans giggle at Nadal’s superstitions, the rituals he uses to calm his on-court anxieties, but no one can deny that he is one of the best players of his generation.
Neither astrology nor superstition are based on science, but they are often viewed through very different lenses. The former denigrated as frivolous fairytales, while the latter is accepted as part of the package labelled ‘whatever it takes to win’. But why are they seen so differently? Why are they both still as popular as ever? And what can we learn from their similarities?
fuck star signs, what's your netball position
— Alex Bruce-Smith (@alexbrucesmith) March 8, 2019
In the last year or so, publications seem to have cooled slightly on articles detailing why Millennials are killing everything from mayonnaise to diamonds. Instead, publishers are now baffled by what the generation born between 1981 and 1996 have chosen to embrace – and we really seem to love astrology.
Perhaps it began with our parents, many of whom grew up in the New Age counterculture movement of the 1960s. During this decade, the ancient Eastern and Hellenistic traditions of astrology became the watered-down system of horoscopes we know in the West today, one which places the focus almost entirely on a person’s Sun sign – the phrase ‘what sign are you?’ refers almost exclusively to the Sun sign. This Western focus on the sun is in the inverse of the Vedic tradition, which features the moon much more heavily. When we in the West look for our Sun sign and the meaning behind it, we are looking to find an anchor for our identity. But as Tabitha Prado-Richardson writes, ‘like the concept of identity itself, our Sun signs cannot encompass the whole of who we are’.
(Prado-Richardson’s essay takes a much more in-depth look into the West’s coopting and watering down of Eastern religion – the racial and colonial implications of which I do not have the space nor authority to speak on here.)
Astrology can throw many into a tizzy – but in times like these, a way to help make sense of it all is more than enough for me.
To my mind, there is a direct correlation between the timing of the last wave of astrological interest in Western society and that which is taking place currently. In the 60s the West was absorbed in the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1967, while the US was in the depths of the Civil Rights Movement, Australia voted in a referendum to secure Indigenous voting rights; later that year the Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, would disappear off the Victorian coast. It was a time of great change and uncertainty, and people were looking for security.
Writing on astrology’s 21st-century resurgence in The Atlantic, Julie Beck quotes studies showing that Millennials are a highly stressed generation. We are the generation ‘most likely to say that their stress has increased in the past year since 2010’. Beck also points to studies reporting a significant increase in stress due to the political tumult caused by the 2016 presidential election. ‘Fifty-six per cent of people said reading the news stresses them out, and Millennials and Gen Xers were significantly more likely than older people to say so.’
Astrology, then, provides relief, and a firm grounding, despite being based in the sky above us. It gives us an interpretation of what is happening in the planets right now, and what we can expect in the future, based on a defined set of rules and logic. It then distils that down further into how that effects each sign – the newspaper version of astrology many of us grew up with – with the opportunity for a more detailed account via a full Natal Chart, which takes into account the precise time and location of our birth.
I once pulled out my baby album to find the record of the exact time I was born. Entering the details into an online questionnaire, the birth chart it spat out was completely overwhelming. Now, however, it’s all stored on Co-Star – an app that purports to use ‘NASA data, coupled with the methods of professional astrologers, to algorithmically generate insights about your personality and your future.’ It sends me personalised daily ‘day at a glance’ notifications, such as Try not to be a mystery, or Accept the fact that you have responsibilities today. The app allows me to connect with friends, assessing the compatibility of my Virgo with Cancer rising and Leo moon against their Capricorn with Taurus rising and an Aries moon – a kind of Bumble for the Zodiac, perhaps.
In Western culture where we have a desire to put a name to everything, astrology can throw many into a tizzy. It’s not a science, it’s not a superstition, it’s not a religion, it’s something else. Astrology’s ability to anchor us, Beck writes, gives a feeling ‘not unlike alphabetising a library’, by helping us to take ‘life’s random events and emotions and slot them into helpfully managed shelves’. In the depths of chaos of US and Australian politics, racial prejudice and the growth of the far-right, as well as the rapidly increasing presence of climate change, a way to help make sense of it all is more than enough for me.
— AFL Game Day (@7aflgameday) May 8, 2016
If you watch as much sport as I do (let’s say anything from regularly to obsessively) you’ll know that commentators of all codes love to unpick the minds of athletes to understand what makes them great. What does the tennis player who suddenly jumped up the rankings tell herself before facing Serena Williams? How will Magpies Netball new recruit Geva Mentor find her way into the trust and rhythms of her the team in time for the season opener? Unfortunately for broadcasters, questions such as these don’t always have exciting answers.
Baseball and cricket in particular – sports that last for hours and days – see commentators often needing to fill ‘dead air’ while the game slowly moves ahead. It’s here that relatively meaningless statistics and tales of player superstitions are often dragged out. Team X hasn’t won at this ground on a Saturday in November in over ten years. Player Y has never hit a home run against a side with a bird mascot. Ritualised behaviours that are attributed to providing good luck, superstitions are often seen as what separates players from the pack. It helps broadcasters apply labels such as ‘quirky’, ‘studious’, or in the case of someone with as many superstitions as Rafael Nadal, ‘ridiculous’ (though psychologists warn against highlighting and belittling his behaviours).
Sport is filled with anecdotal superstitious behaviours, from team curses and hoodoos, to lucky underpants and putting one sock on before the other, to not walking on lines or cracks of a footpath on the way to a match. Patterns form when players misattribute a cause-and-effect relationship between an action and an outcome – ‘we won when I was wearing these undies, so if I keep wearing them we’ll keep winning’. As sports psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg writes, these patterns are not the same as pre-performance routines ‘that may see an athlete engaging in a repetitive technical action or rehearsing an imagery script’; rather, ‘the key component of a superstitious belief is the element of magic.’
Because sport will always contain elements of both skill and chance, there is always a part of the game beyond what a player can train for – so they will often seek superstitions as a crutch.
Superstitions are, according to Weinberg, ‘a medium through which the brain can regain a sense of control’. Because sport will always contain elements of both skill and chance, there is always a part of the game beyond what a player can train for. Therefore, for a player to go into an encounter with confidence, Weinberg says they will often seek superstitions as a crutch – ‘whatever it takes,’ say players, commentators, and fans.
For a superstition to form there has to be ‘a magical attribution of luck’ placed on an object or ritual. While the term ‘magical thinking’ would raise the eyebrow of most statistics-loving sports commentators worldwide, they should not be so easily dismissed, according to Weinberg – illusions of thought are actually a hallmark of good mental health.
Illusions of optimism help us all to believe that our future will be better than our past, and illusions of our own wellbeing help us to feel we’re happier than most people; illusions of control help us to feel confident and encourage us to persevere to achieve a successful outcome.
How, then, are superstitions in sport different from reading astrology? Both are a form of taking back power amidst chaotic surroundings beyond our control. Why are baseless superstitions forgiven far more than astrology, which is built on ancient tradition and logic? Is it any surprise that the answer comes down (at least partly) to gender?
Boys will literally use real money to play a fictional game of basketball for fictional points and fictional rewards but look at me like I’m crazy when I use my free time to look into astrology.
“Astrology is fake” so is your career on 2K but here we are. At least mine free
— Aerin (@aerincreer) April 9, 2018
In the West, astrology has always found a home in media geared towards women. Despite both using particular forms of logic to predict the future, you’re unlikely to find your weekly horoscope alongside the stock market report. As such many consider astrology to be a gendered pursuit, and a 2017 study showed that almost twice as many women believe in astrology as men.
In an article sure to make any non cis-gendered straight white man want to hurl themselves into the sea, Hannah Ewens tried to get to the bottom of ‘why straight men hate astrology so much’. One of the men Ewens interviewed said he finds the prevalence of online content about astrology to be ‘really fucking irritating, and the memes are all really annoying and I hate the self-aggrandisement of “[Star sign] season, bitches!”’
Dating seemed to really pour salt into the men’s cavernous spiritual wounds, as it forced many of the interview subjects to engage with astrology through their potential future partners’ interest in the subject. Ewens writes that most of the men she spoke to ‘talked about astrology chat ruining dates, or ex-girlfriends who were “too obsessed” with the cosmos.’ I’ve never felt more validated for including my Virgo-alignment on my Bumble profile.
Perhaps it’s easy for the men Ewens interviewed to feel irritated by astrology when the current heterosexual patriarchy is working pretty well in their favour. Even amid the current worldwide political upheaval, cis white men are relatively unlikely to feel real danger any time soon. At the same time, astrology apps and traffic to horoscope sections on websites aimed at women have grown exponentially. Rebecca Nicholson reports that in 2017 at The Cut, which focuses on fashion and is geared towards a Millennial audience, ‘a typical horoscope post got 150 per cent more hits’ than in 2016. Women interviewed by Nicholson argue that ‘the popularity of astrology among women and those who identify as queer’ is partly attributable to the fact that ‘astrology offers an alternative to systems that no longer seem to be working – especially for outsiders.’
Perhaps it’s easy for men to feel irritated by astrology when the current heterosexual patriarchy is working pretty well in their favour.
But while astrology has always been aligned as being ‘for girls and gays’, as astrologer Randon Rosenbohm puts it, sport has unfortunately always been seen as an inherently masculine pursuit.
‘Astrology is a natural, intuitive way of telling time, and women are more in tune with nature,’ Rosenbohm tells Ewens. ‘Men, however, are builders who work with the material world. Unless you give a straight man evidence of astrology being real, they’re less likely to find it remotely interesting.’
Outdated gender-essentialist elements aside, it’s true that men are more likely to dismiss astrology while thinking nothing of an NBA player’s tics before shooting free-throws. Sport offers both tangible and commercial outcomes. A goal is scored, a game is won, a trophy is secured. Practice of astrology, on the other hand, remains largely free from commodification. Athletes will do whatever it takes to win because, if they lose, there are tangible results. Points are not tallied on the ladders that determine post-season outcomes, and poor statistics become analysed and assessed in the selection of next week’s team. This is not just fear of failure: if you’re not playing well, and particularly if you’re not playing at all, you’re not just letting down a team and your supporters, you’re also lowering your earning potential. It’s partly this very reason, however, that outsiders are drawn to astrology more than ever.
The appeal of astrology, Jonno Revanche writes, lies for them ‘in its refusal of modern day “improvement” fixations and competitive one-upmanship encouraged by consumer culture’. Astrology allows Revanche to have ‘five minutes a day to be introspective in the metaphysical world before being launched out into the highly structured material one’.
This sentiment is shared by Prado-Richardson, who takes contemporary self-help to task for promising ‘happiness and fulfilment without questioning oppressive social structures’; the same structures that actively suppress those who are engaging with astrology more than ever before: those who identify as women and LGBTQI+. Prado-Richardson points to neoliberal post-feminism and its ‘lean in’ philosophy where the emphasis is on the individual to break-through barriers using the agency we should be grateful for, rather than recognising the power structures repressing us in the first place. This ‘totalised self-responsibility’, as Prado-Richardson coins it, places the fault entirely with the individual which ‘would be crushing, considering that failure is not something avoidable’.
Astrology is ridiculed by those who never tip against their team, believe in the Kennett Curse, and don’t bat an eyelid at Michael Jordan wearing his college basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform.
The commodification of sport makes it less forgiving. Sporting seasons are cyclical, however the life of an athlete is finite: Australian Rules footballers are for the most part drafted at 18, reach their peak in their mid-twenties, and – depending on injuries – retire around their early-to-mid thirties. They do not have time to repeat mistakes. If adopting a superstition helps them to believe they have ended a run of poor form, it stands to reason that they will cling to the ritualised way they put on their socks to ensure they do not fall again. Their professional lives are structured to within an inch of their lives to get the most out of every training session, every game, every season. Further to this, if sport is their primary skill (and many have been primed for elite competition since puberty), their ability to prepare for life after sport also carries a ticking clock.
What astrology offers are cycles through which to process these inevitable failures, without the expectation of immediate growth that can be charted through consumerist measures. Prado-Richardson writes:
Retrogrades can be opportunities to confront whatever blocks us from moving into the future, whether that be trauma, baggage, old wounds and expired self-concepts. The cyclical nature helps us remember that this work is never truly complete. It is human for the same issues to arise again and again. Rather than a linear progression, growth is expansive and patchy.
well the crotch of my jeans just blew out. is this a blessing or a curse for this afternoon (not that i’m superstitious about footy or anything 👀)
— disabled kristy thomas 🐯💫 (@kyliemaslen) April 13, 2019
For most of my life I’ve been told that splitting my time between working in the arts and my primary hobby of religiously following Aussie Rules football must create a dichotomy. That’s always seemed like bullshit to me, embedded in tired classist principles. The same feels true of astrology being deemed as ridiculous by those who never tip against their team, believe in the Kennett Curse, and don’t bat an eyelid at Michael Jordan wearing his college basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform for years.
Superstition in sport is seen as okay because sport is ‘real’, it carries tangible commercial results and derives from a masculine tradition all the way back to the gladiators. Conversely astrology is seen ‘made up’ because it comes from outside of Western thought and is (mostly) only followed by those who are outside the predominant holders of power; that is, by people who are not cis straight white men. Beyond attributed binaries lies the truth: we’re all just looking to gain some control amidst the chaos and the pressure in our lives.
Whether through astrology or superstition, Nicholson sees a broad societal shift towards ‘magic and mysticism’. Kristen O’Neal attributes this propensity for magical thinking towards our natural instinct towards storytelling. ‘We’re wired to tie everything together – and tie everything to ourselves – in a web of connections, like red string to a corkboard’, she writes. What both astrology and superstitions allow us to do, then, is to unravel the mysteries around us through patterns and by wrestling with ideas. ‘My team lost because I wore black undies instead of my usual red ones,’ or ‘I felt like I was losing my mind because Mercury was in retrograde’.
Rather than debating what’s real and what’s fake, a better use of our time would be spent focusing on the increasing stress that sees Millennials wanting to escape to the stars while they eat their breakfast each morning, while athletes feel their careers are so tenuous they’re terrified of losing a sock in the wash. We’ve built a society based on neoliberal consumerist structures that oppresses women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ folk – and then we turn around and shit on what brings them joy. We’ve created an intensely commodified pressure cooker for sports people providing us entertainment, while often laughing off their need to feel secure. Does it really matter if looking to the stars helps a Millennial struggling to pay rent and medical bills feel better about tomorrow? Or if a pair of lucky undies can help give Tom Lynch the confidence he needs to kick six goals against Melbourne on Anzac Eve?
It’s 2019 and the world is burning, fighting, and imploding: let’s just let everyone have their magical thoughts.