From Taurus to the Totem: What Durkheim’s Social Theory Can Teach Us About Astrology

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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.

Check it out — find your birth chart here!

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.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “From Taurus to the Totem: What Durkheim’s Social Theory Can Teach Us About Astrology

  1. I really don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to identify a system of sacred and profane in astrology even if there is no active astrological church body. Astrology(at least in its newspaper horoscope form) doesn’t provide guidance for every facet of daily life, but it does at least inform you of the kind of people to pursue and to avoid(as you’ve mentioned), and you believe it because other people believe it. After all, it is popular enough to get a regular spot in the newspaper every day. We horoscope readers, of course don’t take the horoscope too seriously, but our repeated readership of the horoscope attests to this system’s power to inspire in us at least a measure of religious fear.
    Also, I know we hadn’t read Mauss until after y’all wrote this blog post, but I think astrology would be easier to discuss in terms of magic rather than religion. Traditionally the astrologist was a kind of magician(Nostradamus for example) who read the star-traced fates of rich people in exchange for money. This performance of an act harnessing belief and spiritual force resembles magic more closely than it does religion.

    -Ted

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  2. I agree with Ted that astrology is more usefully considered under a framework of magic. Setting that aside, I think there are questions to be raised about a system consulted as casually as astrology. The example of the signs as battery percentages clearly trivializes a system taken seriously by some people (as you show, people go so far as to plan pregnancy or try to predict market activity around this stuff). Durkheim studies religion that is always taken seriously (even rejections or departures from it engage with it seriously); participation in the totemic collective is never banal or shallow. It’s a serious undertaking. So, while equating astrological signs with totems is ostensibly a straightforward analogy, it might be worth limiting the group of people considered in concerns like the sacred/profane in astrology to the ‘true believers.’ Maybe this backs up Durkheim’s argument that it’s best to do the case study of religion in its most ‘primitive’ form, because when you get to later cases of enormous or vastly complex religions that have outside influences, primary and secondary elements, and people who buy in to greater and lesser extents, the object of examination becomes really muddied.

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  3. I think drawing the connection between Durkheim and astrology is really interesting and your reasoning is well-grounded. In regard to the presence of the church, the idea of horoscope chat rooms came to mind. While I think we are moving towards a chat-room-free era in technology, I could see the chat rooms functioning as a means of coming together and building a semblance of community.

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  4. This is an interesting post. I think there’s definitely good reason for identifying astrological signs with the Durkheimian concept of the totem: an astrological sign is clearly a symbol with which certain individuals identify, with which represents certain beliefs and prescribes certain behaviors. You are right to recognize that, in general, they differ from most of the Australian societies Durkheim describes in that this totem is not necessarily one that unites the whole group, since it is individualized, and the individual sign does not bring people together. As a side note, I think there are a few cases where this might actually occur. As sphoyt menyioned, there exist horoscope chatrooms that do bring people together (if not in physical space then at least in some sense together enough to communicate). And some of these chatrooms are organized by specific sign. Here is an example of a place on the internet in which people come together around a specific sign: a (now defunct) blog called “I am an Aquarius” where Aquariuses came together to share their stories: http://www.experienceproject.com/groups/Am-An-Aquarius/14464. However, you are right in general that people are not brought together by their specific signs. However, I think there is some discussion in Durkheim’s text about similar phenomena. He discusses certain Native American societies in which totems are individualized (different members of the same clan have different totems). He describes this practice as a derivative form of the totemism which he describes throughout most of thee text, and I think this practice is probably more analogous to this practice of astrology.

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  5. I agree with Ted’s comment about how astrology can have Maussian applications as well. Like magic, astrology translates social need; it’s a process that helps people dissimilate the unexpected in everyday life. I was thinking in terms of comments like “I left my phone at home, and it’s probably because Mercury is in retrograde.” People often attribute their behavior or events that occur in the world around them to the planets instead of in concrete, less illusionary terms. Astrology, in this sense, gives people a sense of control so they can understand things that are difficult to explain otherwise.

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  6. At first I didn’t see the connection between Durkheim’s beliefs and astrology, but as I kept reading I could definitely see how some people who take astrology seriously, use their sign to dictate what is sacred and profane for them. Similarly, the different astrological signs serve as totems, grouping together different sects of people based off of their birthdays. Astrology also serves as a thing that can bring people together as some people feel more ‘compatible’ with people of certain signs.

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  7. I think that thinking of astrology through the lens of Durkheim is surprisingly illuminating. I do agree with Ted that there are more comparisons using Mauss than Durkheim to explain astrology. First of all, the fact that astrology as a way of interpreting the star originated in many different cultures independently points to something universal. This is a Maussian method and drawing comparisons between different systems of meaning and finding trends is always powerful. It seems like a relatively universal way to categorize and rationalize the unknown.

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  8. I think that this comparison is completely justified. I think by allowing some abstract writing to determine choices made on a daily basis is inherently a religious idea. This also made me think of the fact that people wear and sport clothing that says their horoscope on it. I know many people that own at least one piece of jewelry or clothing that says what sign they are. I also think that there is a church like aspect within this community because you can get your star sign and assenting star sign read as well with a prediction of your overall life, and there you go to a ‘clinic’ of sorts and have your future read. I do, however, agree that this conforms more to magic then religion.

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