On the morning of the International Society for Astrological Research’s Certification of Astrological Proficiency (ISAR CAP) exam, which was held at a Marriott in Chicago on a balmy morning in May, the cosmic weather boded well. The moon was in Sagittarius, the most erudite of the signs, and the communication planet Mercury had just entered quick-witted Gemini. There had been a dramatic full moon the night before, but the handful of astrologers who’d signed up to take the test didn’t seem too shaken by it. They were, after all, professionals — or at least, hoping to be, having undergone years of intense preparations for this six-hour “metaphysical SAT,” as one called it. Though technically open book, the ISAR CAP has a reputation for being one of the most grueling exams in the astrological field.
Yes. In 2018 there are multiple rigorous exams that assess one’s ability to read the stars.
And yes, it may seem strange to apply extremely technical standards to this abstract spiritual practice, but doing so isn’t without precedent. Astrology has existed, in some form, since at least ancient Babylonian times and was long considered a completely logical means of making sense of the world. It wasn’t until rationalism became all the rage in the 19th century that astrology was relegated to the realm of the mystical and absurd.
Today, it’s mostly considered the province of women’s magazines and Instagram memes, at best a harmless fiction and at worst a pernicious pseudoscience. But for a rising number of students and specialists, the practice is extremely serious, if admittedly unscientific.Getting certified, Ms. Stapleton said, “would give me the professional confidence moving forward that I’d been evaluated by the elders in my community, by my peers, and that there are these standards.”
The uptick in astrology’s popularity has been attributed to a rise in unconventional spirituality, a playful brand of post-recession nihilism (in which it doesn’t even matter if “astrology is fake,” as the meme goes) and, of course, the internet. (Alternatively, it could be that everyone born from November 1983 to November 1995 has Pluto in Scorpio, which draws them to occult practices and magical thinking.)
There are also more ways than ever to become well-versed in astrology. Star charts can be quickly generated online and delivered by apps, emails and the like, and astrologers can speak to thousands of students using social media. It beats the old-fashioned way: Pre-internet, generating a star chart required a number of byzantine conversions and calculations and at least two separate esoteric reference books.
In other words, to do it by hand, it takes an expert.
For example, in order to calculate a person’s natal chart, which is used to assess personality, psychological patterns and life path, one must first identify the precise placements of planets within the sky at the time of someone’s birth, relative to the exact location at which their birth occurred. That information is then cross-referenced with the 12 astrological houses — fixed, conceptual divisions of the celestial sphere, each of which rules a specific area of life (e.g. the subconscious mind, marriage and partnerships) — and the 12 zodiac signs, which are in constant motion through the houses and correspond to the sky as it appears from the earth, our terrestrial home.
A full astrological natal chart reading accounts for all these variables, as well as the exact angles each celestial body makes to others in the sky, and yields personalized results. This part is as objectively “real” as any other time-related conception of Earth: It involves applying unchanging mathematical formulas to finite historical data. It’s the next part — the interpretation of those results — that plunges astrologers into the realm of what they might call inference or intuition, and what nonbelievers might call memorized random associations.
Interpretation is one of many skills that the ISAR CAP tests. It includes an essay portion and about 600 multiple-choice, true-false and short-answer questions, which cover chart calculations, the history of astrology, basic astronomy as applied to astrology and forecasting skills. Sample questions include: What is the Sun’s greatest distance from the celestial equator? What is the harmonic of a quintile aspect, and how many degrees is it? And how often are Mercury and Venus trine? (Trick question! A trine is a 120-degree angle between two planets, which never occurs between Mercury and Venus!)
“Since astrology tends to be something people perceive as mystical and magical, maybe a bit made-up, I just really thought that having a certification would show due diligence,” said Debbie Stapleton, a hairstylist with bangs and ornate beaded earrings. An industrious Capricorn, she had traveled from Canada to take the test. Getting certified, Ms. Stapleton said, “would give me the professional confidence moving forward that I’d been evaluated by the elders in my community, by my peers, and that there are these standards.”