The Novice

Smithsonian Institution

How to Do Astrology

Those who can’t do, learn. In this installment of our series in which the clueless apprentice with the experts, we divine meaning from the heavenly bodies.

“I’m not at all psychic. Any astrologer who says they’re psychic you must run away from, because it means they don’t want to do the math.”

This is one of the first things astrologer and writer Susan Miller says to me, and I find it simultaneously hopeful and disheartening. I gave up wishing for psychic powers at 13, around the time I stopped collecting X-Men comics. Ever since, I’ve secretly hoped astrology would be my way into the world of mystics, that if I studied hard enough I could enroll at Hogwarts without any innate ability. But no one told me there’d be math on the entrance exam.

Miller is one of the world’s foremost astrologers. Millions of followers eagerly anticipate her monthly horoscope readings—on June 1, 10 million people visited her website,, in a single hour. Her column is carried not just by Vogue Japan, but by Japan’s three biggest cell phone companies: a much surer sign of her domination of the astrology market in Asia.

The roots of my understanding of astrology lie in the many tie-dyed T-shirts and handmade Guatemalan wool sweaters I once owned. In my late twenties, I feared my Saturn returns. (That dreaded moment when… Saturn… returns?) I have always assumed all Virgos were like my ex-boyfriend, who alphabetized not only his books, but also his spice rack. But I can’t tell you what the constellation Virgo looks like, let alone why it makes you OCD. I’m not alone. When it comes to astrology, many believers (from my brother on up to Nancy Reagan) combine interest with ignorance—a true definition of blind faith. And there are lots of us out there. According to a 2009 Pew poll, 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology, and 71 percent don’t. That other 4 percent? They’re Pisces, who can never make up their damn minds about anything.

All this adds up to opportunity. The next best thing to being psychic is simply knowing more than someone else, which is why, last August, Miller and I crammed ourselves into a small café, between a shrieking espresso machine and a power-suited businesswoman on her lunch hour.

Hogwarts, this isn’t.

Step One: Plot the Stars

Performing a reading begins with the basics: figuring out your sign—or, really, your signs. There are 12 signs to the zodiac, which correspond to 12 constellations. But those 12 weren’t chosen randomly.

“I used to think the constellations were all over the place until I studied astrology,” Miller says. “They’re at a 23-degree angle. They go around like a belt, like Earth has an ornate belt.”

Miller explains that this belt, called “the ecliptic,” is the apparent path of the sun over the course of a year. The zodiac only deals with constellations inside this orbit, which is why no one is a Southern Cross or an Orion. It takes about a month for the sun to go through each constellation, hence your sun sign: the sign the sun was in on the date of your birth. This is what people mean when they wink at you in a bar and say, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?”

But it’s just one of your signs.

Miller asks me when and where I was born. She wants precision, down to the minute. I came prepared for this.

In simple terms, your sun sign is your outward persona; your rising is the characteristics you use to cope with life. To get a good prediction from a general horoscope, Miller recommends reading both signs, and meshing the two. “Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.,” I tell her. “3:15 a.m.”

“We want to know the exact minute so we can convert everyone to Greenwich Mean Time, England,” she explains. “So it was fair, my mother would always say.” (Miller learned astrology from her mother, while bedridden as a teen due to a congenital illness.)

This information allows us to reconstruct the position of the stars at the exact moment of my birth. Basically, we are redesigning the belt Earth was wearing at the moment I was born. Your sun sign is the one that would be hanging over Earth’s junk, while your rising sign is on the horizon, or approximately Earth’s left hip. The difference between rising and sun? In simple terms, your sun sign is your outward persona; your rising is your inner self. To get a good prediction from a general horoscope, Miller recommends reading both signs, and meshing the two. If you’re born at the beginning or the end of your sign, you may also have strong influences from the sign before or after, so look at those, also.

Miller pulls out a battered-looking paperback, the kind without a real binding. It’s called The Ephemeris, a title that feels mystical enough to send a tingle down my spine. Now we’re getting somewhere.

She opens it up to reveal pages upon pages of tables: numbers, dates, esoteric symbols. Back in the day, this text is how they recreated the belt. (In this case, “back in the day” means from about 2000 B.C. until the mid-’80s.) It’s this data that ensured each astrologer did not have to do their own astronomical observations, and that they were all working from the same baseline information. Miller lets me look at it long enough for my eyes to glaze over while she talks about logarithms. Then she pulls out her laptop. Nowadays, we have software that handles all the astrological calculations. Miller downloads her astronomical data from N.A.S.A. and plugs it into her laptop. I type in my birth information, the spinning ball of death appears for a moment, and the computer spits out its result: My sun sign is Cancer, my rising is Gemini.

“Oh little Cancer, wonderful. You’re ruled by the moon.”

I bristle when she says this, because I know what’s coming. Sure enough, she goes on to tell me I’m moody, but also perceptive. Gemini is the scribe. It makes me a writer. Gemini is an important sign in Miller’s life too—we have that in common.

Step Two: Make a Chart

Locating the stars is only the beginning of an astrological reading. Most of astrology is based on the position of the planets relative to your sign. It’s nearly impossible to keep it all straight in your head, so astrologers make charts: circles that are divided into the 12 houses. Each house corresponds to a portion of the ecliptic, and has a number, an associated sign, and characteristics. Because the stars move all the time, every day is unique.

When Miller got her start, she used The Ephemeris to make each day’s chart. Every planet would be laboriously looked up, and its coordinates plotted. To complete her monthly column meant charting a month’s worth of points and assessing what they meant as a whole, as well as what the progression over time meant. Miller adapted quickly to both computers and the internet, starting her first website in the early ‘90s, while simultaneously providing astrological content for Time Warner.

“If I write about the future, I should be about the future,” she says.

If you had a rough August, this is why: because four planets ended up sitting in the houses of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn, in a 90-degree face-off. She continues plugging away on her laptop, then turns her laptop to show me my chart for the day. It looks like a simplified roulette wheel with a handful of Lucky Charms tossed on it. These symbols represent the planets and constellations, and you’ve probably seen them tattooed on nouveau-hippie frat boys. We begin looking for geometric shapes.

“Squares are obstacles,” Miller says, pointing to a place where the lines between the planets form 90-degree angles. This means problems. The worst possible formation is known as a Cardinal Cross: four planets, each at 90 degrees from another, one in each element, all out to fuck you. If you had a rough August, this is why: because four planets ended up sitting in the houses of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn, in a 90-degree face-off.

Why is this so bad? Because those four signs are all cardinal. Miller explains that we can divide the 12 signs of the zodiac in two ways: by element (Cancer is water, etc.) or by modality (cardinal, fixed, or mutable). If you put the zodiac in order, and clump them in threes, the first of each clump is a cardinal sign, the second is fixed, the third is mutable. Cardinal signs, as befits starting points, are all about action. Fixed signs, being in the middle, are the most persistent or stubborn. And mutables, at the end, are changeable and resourceful. So a Cardinal Cross means all of the active signs are in the shit at the same time. This is probably why in August, I could count my bank balance on my fingers and toes.

Miller taps two planets that are directly opposite one another, forming a straight line that cuts through the center of the chart. “Opposition can be a tug of war, or it can be a chance for two halves of the apple to come together. But it always involves some kind of compromise, a blending of energies.”

She takes my hand and traces a triangle between three of the Lucky Charms. “A trion, the little triangles? They’re good. That’s perfect harmony, 120 degrees.” These are planets working together in your favor.

Finally, she maps out something like an asterisk. “Sextiles—those are the little star things—those are 60 degrees, and that’s an opportunity, but you have to do something.”

All right, I think. I’m getting this. Sure, there was a moment where I forgot if the planets moved into signs or the signs moved past the planets, or both, but this seems easy. Just look for shapes! How hard can it be?

That’s when Miller clicks a few more buttons on her laptop. Suddenly, there are dozens of other symbols on the chart: asteroids, comets, midpoints, moons. Everything, she tells me, has meaning.

Step Three: Find the Story

What makes a good astrologer—and what makes Miller one of the best—is the ability to explain what it all means. So Mercury, planet of intelligence, is in opposition to Venus, planet of fertility. And one is the First House, the House of the Self, while the other is in the Seventh House, the House of Cooperation and Opposition. Great to know, but should I schedule a job interview that day or not?

Experience is key. A good astrologer keeps track of the skies, and of the world, and of the people they know. Long before they ever begin to make predictions, they learn what tends to happen when planets or houses or stars are in certain arrangements. They are like meteorologists, forecasting the weather based on accumulated data. Some might quibble that their data is equal parts bullshit and credulity, but from within, this is how the work of an astrologer is understood.

“Astrology is the study of cycles,” Miller tells me, right before we part ways. You have to look backwards to understand the current moment. And to explain it to someone else, you have to be able to make it a cohesive narrative.

For Miller, everything is alive. All her stories are in the present tense, and she performs them, performs herself, continually. Throughout our four-hour date, Miller marshals everything within reach to act out her stories, morphing books into hospital beds, fingers into people, and a distant vase into an unreachable telephone. She takes the same approach to astrology.

“When I sit down to write a column, I have these unruly little schoolchildren,” Miller says. “Like ‘Venus, stop kissing Mars! Uranus, stop running around the room. Pluto, stop trying to get out the window.’”

This is when I realize: I could do this. Yes, math is hard. (For me. My chart backs me up on this.) But astrologers are a lot like writers. Each takes a smattering of archetypes, a circumstance or two, and spits out a story—though the elements of Miller’s stories have been written light years away in the ink of nuclear fusion. This is why we read our horoscopes every month: Each one is a story written not just for you, but about you. And the best astrologers, like the best writers, are those whose stories make you want to believe.

Hugh Ryan is a freelance writer and full-time wanderer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, The Daily Beast, and other places. He is a nonfiction reader for the literary journal A Public Space, and he received his MFA in Nonfiction from The Bennington Writing Seminars. More by Hugh Ryan