On Understanding Astrology—Dr Jenn Zahrt

Homage to Rosalind Franklin by Cheron Tomkins.

Astrology has a huge PR problem, and this stems from a grave misunderstanding of what it is. When astrology is mentioned, the horoscope columns that permeate modern media come to mind, followed by critiques of accuracy and quick verdicts about astrology’s veracity.

What most people do not know is that this form of astrology is less than a hundred years old, whereas astrology has been present in some form in nearly every human culture that has ever left a trace of its existence. Furthermore, this vast cultural diversity also means that there are multiple forms of astrological practice, so it is more accurate to conceive of astrology as a collection of practices—practices that do not need to be condensed into a single system.

The next critiques center on astrology’s claims to truth and accuracy. Astrology is frequently tested as a science. It is sized up for its inability to pass muster, but this begs a deeper question: why does astrology need to pass the requirements of “science” to be considered real? Nearly every culture has practiced some form of astrology. How much more real does it get? Countering the obsessions of the comparison to science, Patrick Curry, a leading historian of astrology, has asserted, “Astrology … is not a flawed or failed version of something else, but fully itself.” Even the horoscope column, which many professional astrologers love to claim, isn’t “real” astrology, are real. Horoscope columns exist, that cannot be denied, so to exclude them from astrology is also a mistake.

So how can we understand astrology better?

In my doctoral research, I investigated the resurgence of interest in astrology in early twentieth century Germany, but I did so not from the discipline of history or even anthropology, but from the discipline of German literature. From the vantage point of literary studies, the question of astrology being “true” immediately gets thrown aside, and richer research questions emerge. Astrology goes from being stunted pseudo-science to being a set of storytelling practices rooted in techniques of observation of the celestial world.

I call what I do “comparative astrologies.” I investigate astrologies from various periods and unpack what cultural information was important enough to be encoded in delineations and predictions. In this way, astrology provides a potent subject area for reverse engineering what cultures found important, and by way of the translation history, what other cultures ended up finding important about those cultures in turn. We find ourselves navigating a fabulous nesting doll of cultural critique and discovery. Worrying about scientific truth claims obscures the more fascinating research opportunities offered by “comparative astrologies.”

The interdisciplinary nexus of literary studies helps clarify the coexistence of the modern horoscope column with the professional reading and the scholarly study of the ancient and not-so-ancient texts. Each type of astrology that has developed is worth investigating on its own terms, as much for the stories we may discover in its history as for the stories it can create for us today.


About Dr Zahrt


High-octane Germanistin par excellence, Dr Zahrt delivered a veritable Blitzkrieg upon the academic world with her resounding 2012 doctoral debut, The Astrological Imaginary in Early Twentieth Century Germany (University of California, Berkeley). Zahrt’s turbo-charged tour de force takes you on a heart-rending rollercoaster ride through the sinister cinematic and literary worlds of Weimar, Germany. Drawn into a deadly race against time, Zahrt honed her razor sharp editorial skills on the relentless interdisciplinary journal, Representations (2007–2010), the cutthroat literary arts quarterly, Threepenny Review (2011–2013), and an onslaught of lurid releases from the Sophia Centre Press. Audacious Deputy Editor of Culture and Cosmos, sultry Series Editor for Sophia Centre Master Monographs, and emerging Board Member for Kepler College—Zahrt wields her arsenal of professional superpowers with consummate sophistication. While often seized with inveterate Wanderlust, Zahrt presently resides in Seattle, where she is affectionately known as the “Imperial Editrix” to the esoteric publishing world. 

Dr Zahrt's portfolio is available here.