What do the Zodiac and Durkheim have in common? More than you might think.
Astrology is the belief that the date and time of your birth can determine fundamental aspects of your personality. In the past hundred years, astrology has become increasingly popular, especially among women, as a way to gain insight on their past, present, and future. According to astrology, the year is split into twelve sections. Each section, or star sign, is ruled by its eponymous constellation, and a celestial body (usually just called a planet) — for example, Cancer (23rd June – 22nd July) is ruled by the constellation of the crab as well as the moon. Astrology dictates that people born under each sign share basic personality traits and values, and that’s only scratching the surface. Depending on your exact time and place of birth, a full birth chart can be drawn, detailing exactly how the stars have destined your life.
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Most view astrology as a fun way to learn about themselves. People read horoscopes to see what their week might have in store for them, or to try to figure out why their crush hasn’t made eye contact with them since last Thursday. On social media platforms, such as Tumblr, astrology is everywhere, matching the star signs to even the most menial things.
Some people, however, take astrology to the extreme. The Daily Express reports that 1 in 20 Brits have rejected a love interest because of their zodiac sign. One woman planned her pregnancy so that her child was a Taurus. A Huffington Post contributor even claimed that he can use astrology to predict elections and financial crises. There is no doubt that some people let their lives become dominated by what they believe the stars have in store for them. Instead of living life as it comes, they turn to the stars first.
But what does this have to do with Durkheim’s study of totemic religion? Astrology and totemism have many similarities. They could both be viewed as aligning yourself with a symbol or totem, such as a person or an animal. The morning reading of horoscopes is itself a ritual, and it groups you together with others, either by them physically being near you when you all read them together or by people being brought into groups together by the signs they share. Perhaps these signs entail a personal, as well as collective, sense of sacred and profane based on the star signs they share.
However, while in totemic religion individuals come together to feel a collective effervescence, nothing of that sort happens in astrology. People who read horoscope are separated by their signs, and those who are connected by them are often extremely separated spatially. So if collective rituals necessitate being in close proximity to another while being connected by their totems, it could be seen that these are not collective rituals at all. There is also often no animal totem that exists that could correspond with, say, a Sagittarius. And the personal separation of sacred and profane is too vague for that personal totem to completely govern one’s actions, making it unclear whether astrology bears any strong similarities with totemic religion.
What does using Durkheim’s explanation of totemic religions tell us about astrology? If we say that astrology is in fact a totemic religion then there are certain things that can be inferred from his explanation. Let’s start with the totem. Astrology has twelve signs — that would be the totems — and the people that are born into those signs would be the clans. The totem’s main job is to identify the collective, secondly represents and indicates shared traits in the collective. People born under the same sign identify each other as similar and that they share traits based on the fact that they were born near to each other.
Durkheim also presents three traits of religion: rites and beliefs, a divide between the sacred and the profane, and a church. If astrology is a religion then it will have these traits. Rites and beliefs could be the religious reading of a daily horoscope, and the belief that the movement of celestial beings predicts and affects one’s life. The divide between the sacred and the profane could come from what is outlined in various horoscopes, such as things that one should or shouldn’t do. Because there is no point at which the collective comes to gather it is hard to say that there is a church. Along with that the rites and beliefs and the divide between sacred and profane are stretches, this shows that for most of the practices of astrology Durkheim doesn’t give an adequate explanation of why or how. Maybe that’s because the practices have changed so much that we can no longer recognise them as a religion, or because it simply isn’t and never was.