LUSANDA FUTSHANE                                          

When was the last time you had your palms read and took the reading seriously, or played the lottery numbers that a fortune cookie suggested? Have you ever actually made an important life decision based on an answer a Magic 8-ball gave you? Most people are likely to say that they don’t believe in these things. So here’s one last question: when was the last time you read your horoscope and beamed at the prospect of finding new love or sighed woefully at a prediction of a turbulent future? Chances are that it wasn’t that long ago – maybe even this morning? Or five minutes ago? This week, Perdeby separates fact from fiction and investigates the ever-persistent popularity of astrology and horoscopes.

Astrology began around the third millennium BCE as a way of making sense of the cosmos. But as our understanding of the universe developed, astrology (along with other former sciences like alchemy) was rejected and replaced with more factual studies like meteorology and mainstream astronomy. Today, western astrology is almost completely limited to the reading of celestial bodies (the sun, the moon, constellations and planets) and using that information to explain human behaviour and predict the future in the form of horoscopes.

Horoscopes have been printed in magazines and newspapers for over eight decades. They are a popular feature in most publications. People even pay to have personalised horoscopes and one-on-one readings with professional astrologers. Why, in a century where even religion is being called into question, is a pseudo-science like astrology still thriving? Dr Chris French, a psychology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London and Editor-in-Chief of British magazine The Skeptic, offers the theory that astrologers prey on people’s insecurities by using vague and generalised predictions that might seem specific to people simply because they needed to hear them. “Take someone in an unhappy relationship: they know they should leave – but hearing they’ve got a difficult few months but will come through gives them courage.” He adds that people are drawn to horoscopes not because they trust the science behind them, but because they might lack control in their own lives and thus desperately rely on any form of guidance.

Jonathan Cainer, a horoscope writer for the Daily Mail, is quick to defend astrology, calling it “a belief system with very rigid dogma”. He explains, “Saturn means restriction and Jupiter expansion. It’s scientific in as much as we have to have accurate planetary positions. But it’s a form of divination, a glorious blending of occult and science.” Cainer has an annual turnover of around £2 million (approximately R26 million) from his horoscope writing.

What are the chances that everyone born between the 20th of April and the 20th of May is stubborn and temperamental? That no matter what sort of upbringing you have, you’re cursed with the personality that you were born with, a personality that you share identically with a twelfth of the world’s population? Are all Tauruses going to “make a new start and reassess a friendship” today? Despite how chancy horoscopes appear, there are still people who have absolute faith in them. Sarah Brightman, a first-year BSc Chemistry student, says that not all horoscopes are true, but some of them certainly are. “It’s the first thing I do every morning. Susan Miller is an excellent [astrologer] and her site always gets my predictions right.”

Astrology is a million-dollar industry. While some do it just for entertainment, there are others who would bet their lives on their horoscope predictions. Doctors, investment bankers and gamblers are reportedly among the most stalwart followers of horoscopes. Tebogo Simelane, a second-year physics student, chides astrology as exploitative and dangerous. “People should be careful what they buy into. It’s very reckless to buy a new house or end a marriage because a zodiac hotline convinced you to do so. The people who come up with horoscopes have nothing to lose, but the rest of us do.”

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck. Everyone is a little superstitious. Whether you avoid walking under ladders or you stay in bed every Friday the thirteenth, we’re all guilty of embarrassing practices that have no science behind them but still make us feel a little bit better about our futures. You could argue that astrology is the same – centuries ago people looked up at the stars and, unable to make any sense of them at the time, they decided to invent their own explanation. Remarkably, the lore survived into modern times. Some people use this lore to shield themselves from the randomness of life, while realists insist on relying on facts and news bulletins to warn them about an asteroid hurtling towards earth or a tidal wave off the coast of Cape Town. Knock on wood.

Photo: Hendro van der Merwe

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