Daily horoscopes are a bit of a joke — the junk food of astrology, if you will. Even so, they’ve endured for the better part of a century. And, at the very least, they’re cost-effective. About two months ago, I started to wonder if I should give the dailies a chance.
See, I’m a proud Sagittarius (curious and open-minded, according to the literature, as well as blunt and exacting, like most reporters). As such, I’m always up for a little otherworldly instruction: I’ve gotten palm readings in dark, European alleys and been taken to task by more than one tarot reader. The thing about bespoke astrology, though, is that it gets pricey. I can’t always throw down $200 for a astrological chart reading. So, in search of a cheaper way to get my astrological fix, I turned to the spiritual succor of the common (wo)man, i.e., daily horoscopes.
Earlier this winter, I committed to reading my horoscope every day for a month, and actually taking the predictions to heart. I cast a wide net, seeking out horoscopes from print newspapers like the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, local tabloids in the San Francisco Bay Area, astrology.com, horoscope.com, and online women’s magazines, such as Elle.com and Cosmopolitan.com.
But, I found I couldn’t subsist on an astrological diet of the dailies. Astrology, as it turns out, is like anything else: You get what you pay for.
The history of horoscopes sheds some light on how they became what they are today — a beloved and much-needed break from the bleak realities of the world, often placed in the comics section (which gives you some idea of how seriously editors take daily astrology).
Horoscopes have their roots in the ancient study of the stars — a practice performed around the globe for millennia. They didn’t become a newspaper fixture, though, until 1937, when Britain’s Sunday Express published the first-ever weekly horoscopes.
A limited number of newspaper astrology blurbs did exist before then, but they mostly made predictions about specific people — often politicians, stars, or royals — based on the date and location of their birth. Or, they’d make astrological predictions about people born on a specific day — a horoscope for everyone born on Dec. 5, printed in the Dec. 5 paper, for example.
Then, a British astrologer named R.H. Naylor came along and “invented” modern horoscopes (a term that combines the greek words for “time” and “observer”). Naylor’s career as a famous astrology columnist for the Sunday Express began when he wrote a horoscope for the baby Princess Margaret. But, soon enough, he devised a system that let him address every reader on every day of the year with something both general and personal (inasmuch as being lumped in with 8.3 percent of the human race feels “personal”). To do this, he grouped readers by their “zodiac signs.” Your zodiac sign, aka your “sun sign,” comes from the name of the constellation through which the sun passed on your birthday.
Naylor’s column became a huge hit, spawning innumerable spin-offs and thousands of cheesy pickup lines. Thus began tabloid astrology, or as the Daily Mail’s astrologer Jonathan Cainer put it, the “vast oversimplification of a noble, ancient art.”
Cainer’s view basically reflects how other professional astrologers feel about the dailies, I learned. “People can write horoscopes with very little experience and tend to get repetitive,” one astrologer told me. “[A daily horoscope] loses, in my opinion, all meaning. It becomes something that people don’t take seriously — and they shouldn’t.”
But I’d set out to do just that — take horoscopes seriously, just like a growing number of Americans are doing. By 2012, one study showed, half of all Americans believed astrology was a kind of science, and the trend indicated that number could increase. In the past two years, tarot has also gained steam as a Millennial pastime; a spiritual tonic for a famously irreligious generation.
As I read my daily Sagittarius horoscopes, I tried to embrace their messages. But even when I attempted to generalize the advice, the stars just didn’t align. At times, it almost seemed as though my horoscope was mocking me. For instance, here’s one from the first week of my experiment:
“You could make a decision that stuns people and causes you to re-think a situation more carefully. The changes you are making come from several years of internal accountability. Let it all happen.”
That day, I set out to make a big change and “let it all happen.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but I knew it would be hard to do, given that I’d been fighting a plague-like flu for seven days. Still, I made an attempt: I changed my clothes and ventured outside. I promptly fell off the curb outside my house, spraining my ankle and tossing my belongings on the pavement like confetti. After lying in the street for 15 minutes, I walked back upstairs and admitted defeat.
In between bouts of horoscope-inspired anxiety, I asked Kerry Ward, a tarot reader and astrologer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, for her opinion on daily horoscopes. While she thinks birth charts are a great way to reflect on your nature and personality, she also expressed reservations about the dailies.
“I think [every single day] is too often to be consulting with an outside source, and there’s little to no time to reflect on the message or see it unfold [with a daily horoscope],” she said. “It creates more tension than clarity.”
Once a week, she added, is probably as often as anyone should glance at their horoscope.
I had to agree with her. My positive experiences with astrology have come from longer-term predictions. For instance, a few years ago, I was informed that Saturn was entering my chart, which meant that things were about to go into hyper-drive change. The next two years delivered: I got divorced and went from an unknown writer to someone with bylines in most of my favorite magazines.
By contrast, the window for daily predictions to bear out seemed too short. When my daily horoscopes weren’t too vague to be meaningful, they were too specific to be useful. For instance, here’s my horoscope from Jan. 10:
“This could be one of those days when you look in the mirror and think you’re seeing Frankenstein’s monster. This is a great day to pamper yourself a little. Go for a haircut and a massage, and take a sauna or Jacuzzi while you’re at it. Treat yourself to a fruit smoothie at the local juice bar. You’ll feel better! Enjoy!”
I wouldn’t have minded taking that advice, but pampering myself wasn’t in the cards. I’d gone to Hawaii over the holidays, gotten sick, and returned home without money or a tan. Winter in San Francisco, with its biting wind and gray skies, generally isn’t a time for fruit smoothies. And since my rent was due in a few days, it also wasn’t the time to splurge on a massage. I did feel a little better after crying alone in my room, though I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it.
For as long as horoscopes have been around, people have tried to disprove them. One study, published in 2003, examined the lives of more than 2,000 people who were all born within five minutes of one another in early March of 1958 in central London. Adhering loosely to the presumptions of astrology, scientists theorized that if astrology “worked,” then all those people — who were tracked over decades — should have similar lives and personalities. Using the data, which was originally part of another study, the scientists looked at marital status, occupation, and “sociability,” among a number of other factors.
In the end, though, they failed to see similarities between them. One of the researchers wrote afterwards that although he doesn’t believe astrology is literally true, he also doesn’t think it needs to be. Critics said the findings exposed astrology as a sham, whereas astrologists claimed the study went about things all wrong; it wasn’t set up with enough understanding about how astrology works, they felt. Just another stalemate between science and spirituality.
I don’t know if the dailies gave me much insight into the inner-workings of the universe. In fact, I know they didn’t. But reading my horoscope every day did remind me that I’m a Sagittarius through and through — open to prophecies, but quick to call bullshit. By the last day of my experiment, I was itching to take control of the cosmic chaos. So I rewrote my horoscope:
Actual horoscope: “Emotional disillusionment will take control if you are naive or have taken someone at his or her word. Instead of being disappointed, get the facts and counteract what’s being said.”
My rewrite: “Emotional disillusionment will take control if you continue reading daily horoscopes. Instead of being disappointed in the obvious lack of depth, specificity, accuracy, compassion, and actual knowledge, go ahead and write your own. Someone might even pay you for it.”