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Interview: Christopher Renstrom on Trash Astrology

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This autumn, Christopher Renstrom reveals Trash Astrology! He recently took some time to chat with me about what that means. In this interview, he shares some of the juicy morsels he’s uncovered so far and makes a great case for pursuing the underbelly of astrological history. Let’s dig in!

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JZ: What is “Trash Astrology”?

CR: “Trash Astrology” is popular astrology. It is astrology that is generated for the masses in publications and venues that are not regarded as “serious” or academic astrology. Always done on the cheap, trash astrology first appeared in America in the almanacs, dream books, and secret books of knowledge that were published in the pre-Revolutionary and Federalist period. It has evolved along with our media so that it is now a mainstay of newspapers, fashion magazines, websites, blogs, apps, and more.

Trash astrology is not written for astrologers or students of astrology. Its target audience is unfamiliar with the intricacies of the practice, likely have never been to an astrologer, and are probably interested in other forms of divination as well – as evidenced by the bundling together of on-line Astrology reports with numerology and tarot card readings. The trash astrology public will read about their zodiac sign (as well as the zodiac signs of others) on an almost daily basis. The formula is pretty much: is this a good day? A bad day? And when will I fall in love? Trash astrology spans the gamut from Sextrology to Petscopes; Kabbalasocopes to The Hindu Zodiac.

The most famous product of trash astrology is the sun sign column, which first appeared in the January 1932 issue of Your Destiny Magazine of Astrology published in New York City.

JZ: How did you come up with that name/term for it?

CR: Actually you were the one who came up with the name, Jenn. We were discussing a lecture that I wanted to do on the history of pop astrology in the United States and you suggested calling it trash astrology.

JZ: Ha! I forgot all about that!

CR: At first I was put off by the name because it sounded so negative, but then I grew to like it quite a bit. Popular astrology is something that’s frowned upon by the astrological community. There really is a hostile reaction to it although many prominent astrologers write sun sign columns.

This same derision is shared by the mainstream newspapers and magazines that publish horoscope columns. These columns are seen as a necessary evil to generate readership and increase traffic to websites. It is something that is offered to the public while the editorial staff holds their noses and looks in the opposite direction.

This split response kind of reminds me of pornography. Pornography and astrology have both been around for centuries and they’re often the first two features that will pop up again whenever media evolves from one format to the next.

Whether it’s transitioning from papyrus to engravings or periodicals to the Internet, porn and astrology have evolved with the times. Both have been accused of corrupting minds and souls and paraded around as evidence of a degenerate society, yet neither has been successfully banned or banished. Everyone says they don’t read it, but they do. This is why I embraced the name Trash Astrology because it really embodies the negative and hostile reaction.

JZ: That’s an excellent analogy. Linda Williams stirred up a whirlwind when she began to examine porn at the UC Berkeley film department. Her argument held water though: there is more filmed footage in the porn category than any other genre of film produced, ever. It makes you wonder about the amount of ink spilled over the stars versus the total sum of writing! When did the “lightbulb” go off for you in your consideration of this topic? What was the impetus to look at astrology this way?

CR: The general public doesn’t know the name Liz Greene, but everyone knows who Linda Goodman is. Evangeline Adams, Wynn, Carroll Righter, Zolar, Sydney Omarr. These are the astrologers responsible for shaping the way that America looked at astrology. These are the people who popularized astrology and made it successful while getting rich. It is thanks to them that astrology is still around. And considering how often it has been demonized by the church, debunked by science, and mocked by society, that is quite an accomplishment.

So were they hacks, fakes, sell-outs, or dangerous? We’ll be taking a look at that in my upcoming lecture in San Francisco this fall. We’ll also be looking at how they talked about astrology, spoke to their public, and the influence they had on American society, which was really quite substantial.

I am deliberately staying away from astrological magazines that were aimed at astrologers and astrological students. I really wanted to focus on how astrology appeared to a completely “cold call” public. In that spirit I will be sharing samples from women’s health pamphlets, magazines and newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These predate the 1920s when Evangeline Adams really became a household name in America and established the marketplace for astrology in this country.

I also want to take a look at the “haters.” There’s the famous 1870s astronomer Richard Proctor, the Catholic League, Hal Lindsay of the “Rapture” fame, and Theodor Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth, where he accuses Carroll Righter’s sun sign column in the Los Angeles Times of sowing the seeds of fascism in America. I even have a Christian pamphlet that outlines how to approach an astrologer at a New Age fair and successfully convert him or her to the message of Christ. It’s like homosexual conversion therapy for astrologers.

In any case I really wanted to see what about pop Astrology gets everyone’s dander up.

JZ: Did anything in your professional career lead you to this line of questioning?

CR: Yes. I am a Trash Astrologer and I’m proud of it! I have written a sun sign column for the San Francisco Chronicle for almost 20 years. I also wrote for ALLURE magazine, LifetimeTV, and my Renstrom’s Horoscopes was carried on Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc. Currently I am the exclusive astrologer for Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker and write two weekly columns for Sheknows.com. I’m pretty familiar with the format and the audience.

JZ: That’s some serious street cred! Would you be willing to share one of the more shocking discoveries you have made in your research?

CR: It was low end print publishers rather than astrologers who kept astrology alive in the public mind from its “decline” with the death of William Lilly in 1681 to its reappearance in 1816 with the publication of James Wilson’s A Complete Dictionary of Astrology. This was the first book since Lilly’s Christian Astrology (published in 1647) that provided all the basic information for the reader to construct and interpret a horoscope. In 1824 Raphael introduces his astrological periodical in England and in 1840 Thomas Hague rolls out his astrological almanac here in the United States.

That means that for 135 years cheaply produced and easily disposable publications like Erra Pater’s “The Book of Knowledge: treating the wisdom of the ancients,” “The Complete Fortune teller: or, An infallible guide to the hidden decrees of fate,” and dream books like “The Oneirocritic: being a treatise on the art of foretelling future events, by dreams, moles, cards and the signs of the zodiac” – along with almanacs published here in the United States by Nathaniel Ames and John Tully held the space for astrology.

JZ: Was there anything you found that ended up surprising you, something you did not expect to find that changed how you think about the topic?

CR: I honestly don’t think astrology would be around if it weren’t for trash astrology. It could have gone the way of Rithmomachia or geomancy. It would have been easy for astrology to turn into a purely academic entertainment or to sink into obscurity because of its complicated nature. Trash astrology sifted out the most basic and appealing aspects of the art and made it accessible to the general public.

Astrology could have become extinct when universities stopped teaching it, and it was eclipsed by its sister science astronomy in the 1600s. A fugitive science, astrology emigrated to America in herbals, almanacs, and books of knowledge. These were cheap publications that were consulted daily in the colonies and tossed out at the end of the year or when they grew threadbare.

Now was the astrology printed in them sophisticated? Hardly. There was no Ptolemy or Firmicus Maternus. However planetary rulerships of the herbs along with the best times to gather them were printed in the herbals, the Man of Signs (a predecessor to today’s sun sign column) with its list of good days and bad days for blood letting according to the zodiac sign that the Moon was in was the most popular feature of the almanacs, and Erra Pater’s Book of Knowledge contained in depth descriptions of people born under each of the signs of the zodiac along with chapters on physiognomy, palmistry, and reading moles. The public may not have known a trine from a square, but they did know what signs ruled what months and what planets ruled which days and hours as demonstrated by this excerpt from The Complete Fortune-Teller and Dream Book by Chloe Russel, a woman of color in the state of Massachusetts published (1827)

 

Queries about Fortunate Days.

  1. On Monday things indifferent are,
    Yet the event bids you beware,
  2. On Tuesday cruel Mars doth reign,
    Beware of strife, lest blows you gain.
  3. On Wednesday witty projects make,
    For Mercury the rule doth take.
  4. Mild Jove rules Thursday, do not fear,
    ‘Tis prosperous throughout the year
  5. Fair Venus Friday doth approve,
    And on that day doth prosper love.
  6. Saturday the next doth rule, beware,
    And take in hand no great affair.
  7. Sol rules, whose golden aspect shews,
    He all things kindly doth approve.
  8. Cupid commands thee now to do it.
    Then prithee make no dispute.

 

Trash astrology performed two vital functions: it made astrology available and it kept astrology relevant. After all, astrology is shaped by the questions that are asked of it. For instance the love questions that Wynn was answering in his magazine in the 1930s are a far cry from today’s questions which might deal with hook-up culture, single moms, stay-at-home dads, and transgender relationships. Yet it’s the same astrology that’s being practiced. That’s the beautiful thing about astrology. It changes as society changes yet somehow remarkably stays the same.

Trash astrology often anticipates social trends and in some cases popularized them. The introduction of psychology into mass culture for instance along with Eastern religions, alternative health therapies, and changing sexual mores were all transmitted through popular horoscope columns and books so that they emigrated unremarkably from the margins to the mainstream.

Trash astrology is responsible for filtering the most accessible aspects of astrology and feeding it to the public.

JZ: Your topic is quite provocative. What has the response to your work been so far?

CR: So far, so good. I will be lecturing on Trash Astrology in San Francisco this September 29 courtesy of Ian Waisler and SFAS. Hopefully this will generate more invites and opportunities. I definitely want to do an article and eventually a book.

JZ: What advice would you give to other people who are considering researching seemingly irreverent things in astrology?

CR: Do it!!! Nothing is too irreverent as far as astrology is concerned. In fact that idea that seems so wacky at the time may provide the key to a wealth of information. You’ll never know unless you embark on that adventure.

Astrology is more than forecasting techniques and predictions coming true. I appreciate the research work that goes into translating previously unavailable texts and the painstaking reconstruction of older methodologies. These are so important, and we are lucky to have so many gifted scholars and astrologers right now who are adding to our literature and skillset. But astrology didn’t get frozen in a block of ice like the comic superhero Captain America at the end of World War II. It’s not some buried secret that lay dormant in the earth waiting to be rediscovered by adepts who could download its esoteric mysteries. Astrology is a living, breathing art form that changes and evolves like people change and evolve. Astrology is made by the people who practice it.

JZ: Wow, “Astrology is made by the people who practice it.” I love that! What do you think the community can learn from the type of work you are doing? Or from the results of your work?

CR: As astrologers we focus so much on the legitimacy and the legitimizing of astrology that we often overlook and discount the people who were transmitting astrology to the general public. We owe an enormous debt to astrologers like Evangeline Adams, Wynn, Carroll Righter, Zolar, Sydney Omarr, and Linda Goodman. We may regard them as “trash astrologers” because they were mainstream, commercially successful, and reader friendly but they also set the bar high for astrologers who follow in their footsteps.

The end of publishing as we knew it in the early 2000s really opened up the field for astrology. It reminds me of the rise of independent film after the demise of the Hollywood Studio system. No longer bound to big house publishers and magazines, astrologers were free to do their own thing. Some continued generating content for established names while others have created their own websites, produced blogs, podcasts, apps, Instagrams, and YouTube videos. We are living through a golden age of astrology – the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.

But we wouldn’t have had this without Trash Astrology. I want the community to remember the footnote astrologers, the also-rans like Alma Crawford Graning, Professor A. F. Seward, Bella Bart, and Lady Beth. These aren’t household names or recognizable figures, but they really did pave the way to how we all write and sell astrology today.

Astrologer Alma

One of the high points of collecting American astrology books and magazines was when I purchased a number of Alma Crawford Graning’s Astro-Digests. She wrote, edited, and bankrolled this (along with her husband) from 1936 to 1940. She’s not a bad Astrologer nor is she a particularly good one. Nevertheless she kept this publication afloat with glamour photographs of herself on the cover looking a lot like Jean Harlow. She was from Texas. In fact her mailing address for subscriptions to Astro-Digest simply says:

ALMA
McAllen, Texas

No street address. No zip code. Nothing. Yet she also had a radio show on Radio, XEAW. I couldn’t help but admire her tenacity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Nowadays we have blogs where we can update our material whenever we want to without any extra cost. But Alma published this 40-page magazine every month on time with worldly predictions, quarterly predictions, a question and answer column, and monthly forecasts for all twelve signs along with occasional love columns or pieces explaining planetary aspects. It’s trashy to be sure – she’s always predicting doom and gloom for the government while being photographed in expensive evening wear – but it’s an extraordinary glimpse into the culture that this astrologer lived in and the audience that she was speaking to.

And how can we not love Professor A.F. Seward? His offices were located on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey, and he evidently traveled in a motor coach specially built by Studebaker to use on his lecture tours. Or so he claimed.

I have an advertisement where he invites patrons to view “the world’s finest Motor Palace in front of theaters or halls before the lectures.” Thirty-two feet long with an all aluminum body and an interior carved and finished in Circassian walnut of Renaissance design. The seats were of the latest Pullman style, overstuffed, and covered in exquisite tapestry. The car had a radio, sound amplifier, and broadcasting equipment of latest construction. Seward promised many other unique features of interest that were marvelous and amazing.

A. F. Seward's car

A photograph of the car accompanies his astrological forecast and review of the planets for 1933. I mean how many astrologers could boast of having a motor palace?

Along with astrology readings, Seward offered lessons in fortune-telling, crystal gazing, palmistry, clairvoyance, private sex advice for women and “14 Lessons in Memory Training: A wonderful course for forgetful people.”

But if you look at Professor Seward’s personalized horoscopes they’re really a thing of beauty. I’m lucky to own a couple of them. He was a marketing genius. 17 type-written pages full of analysis and forecasts for each of the twelve signs and attached to an exotic five color cover page. When you think of the labor and money that went into these things and that the man had been doing it since 1903 – it’s really quite remarkable.

I’m not a scholar nor am I an academic. I have Mercury in Sagittarius so my approach to this kind of work is to shoot an arrow in the air and gallop off in search of it. Sometimes this leads me down blind alleys and sometimes it takes me someplace I could never have imagined. I’m ruled by my enthusiasms.

I want astrologers to know about their own history and culture and how they came to be in the United States of America. Astrological history isn’t the exclusive domain of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper probably have more in common with Dr. L. D. Broughton and Evangeline Adams than they do with those two gentlemen. Astrology is a scrappy history whose legacy was carried on by people who were enterprising, inventive, flamboyant, and more than just a little bit crazed. Nevertheless their commitment to the art form was to democratize it at all costs. Maybe their motives were altruistic – like they really did want people to become their own astrologers – or maybe it just made good marketing sense, but that’s what they did and that’s what we still do to this day.

JZ: You are really bringing a new edge to the study of astrological history, reporting on the street-level reality rather than some lofty ideal of our past. Do you have recommendations for current professional astrologers and how they do what they do, now that you’ve looked at astrology from this angle?

CR: It’s like Evangeline Adams says: “find your place in the Stars” to which I would add “and then stake out your territory.” There are 3500 years of history combined with a lot of cosmic real estate upstairs, so there is plenty of room for different points of view. Unlike the Bible, the Gospel of the Stars is always writing itself like Glenda the Good’s Great Book of Records, which unfailingly records every action that takes place in the world no matter how profound or trivial. Our gospel is not a fixed scripture.

Yes we do have rules and methodologies so you can’t make things up as you please, but that also lends itself to interpretation, exegesis, and flights of inspiration. That’s what I have discovered in these magazines and pamphlets, lives and stories. They record the perspective, beliefs, and mindsets of the astrologers who were practicing astrology in very different times than the one we live in. They shouldn’t be treated like Fortune Cookie fortunes that get tossed out after you’ve read them. There’s a living history there with all of its insights and absurdities just waiting to be read.

JZ: Most definitely! The material you are digging up is fascinating. The folks at SFAS are lucky to be the first to enjoy the fruits of your research! Thank you for taking the time to share your work today!

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To get a front-row seat to Christopher Renstrom’s Trash Astrology,
head over to the SFAS website and clear your calendar for Sept. 29!

Jenn

Jenn

Galvanizer at Revelore Press
Dr. Zahrt is an author, publisher, and historian of astrology. She promotes the awareness of the pluralism of astrology – as astrolog-ies – which recognizes the many forms of astrology emergent across human cultures past and present. She has taught and lectured domestically and internationally in places such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Zahrt publishes cutting-edge scholarship on astrology, esotericism, and more through the Sophia Centre Press and her own publishing house Revelore Press. While she travels frequently, her client practice is based out of Seattle, WA.
Jenn
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