clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Brief, Infinite History of Saturn Return

The astrological turning point affects all late 20-somethings. But what does it mean, and why has it become a powerful guide for so many young people?

Ringer illustration

For a few years in the late 1990s, Gwen Stefani was uncharacteristically sad for reasons she did not understand. Though she was the frontwoman of one of the most successful rock bands in the world, she found herself in a deep funk around her 29th birthday, obsessively reading Sylvia Plath’s journals and musing on such existential quandaries as Which of the Gwens is the real Gwen? She dyed her hair Barbie-shoe pink and, for some reason, got adult braces. Her boyfriend at the time told her that she must be going through her Saturn return, the ominous moment in life—roughly between ages 27 and 30—when the planet completes its three-decade orbit around the sun and comes back to the exact place it was in the sky when you were born. This is, celestially speaking, a supposed time of great tumult, challenge, and change—astrologers have called it one’s “cosmic bar mitzvah.” After Stefani read up on the Saturn return, everything suddenly made sense. She started reveling in her own questions rather than fearing them: “Assessing my life,” she sang on one of her new songs, “second-guessing.” She titled No Doubt’s introspective, platinum fourth album Return of Saturn.

I was 13 when this album came out and, like many people who had braces in the spring of 2000, I firmly believed that Gwen Stefani was the coolest person alive. I lived and died by what she said in interviews, and, in interviews around this time, she talked a lot about Saturn. I stared at the CD’s liner notes and wondered: Would I someday go through my own Return of Saturn? Back then it sounded hallowed and exciting, but also far off. And yet, life comes at you fast. My orthodonture is now in order, Saturn has moved through several different signs of the astrological zodiac, and Gwen Stefani, who once claimed that all she wanted was “a simple kind of life,” is now a judge on a televised singing competition and dating a man who became famous in part for singing an innuendo-laden ditty called “Hillbilly Bone.” Maybe the Saturn return does not work out all of life’s kinks. Still, like anyone born between roughly November 1985 and November 1988, when the ringed planet finally moves into Capricorn this week, on December 19, I will have officially survived mine.

For reasons both personal and political, the past several years have often made me feel very small—and so, more than ever, I have found myself looking to the stars. I am not alone in this. We are living through a time when astrology is becoming more and more accepted in the popular culture, and the change is happening rapidly. As a 2014 report from the National Science Foundation noted, “In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was ‘not at all scientific,’ whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.” According to a recent article in the Independent, only 42 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds don’t believe in astrology. The piece was headlined “Why do so many millennials believe in horoscopes?” and illustrated with a stock photo of a Lana Del Rey lookalike dressed in a Coachella-ready blouse, arms stretched toward the understanding sky.

The internet seems at least partially responsible for this. “One-hundred percent, there has been a sea change,” the astrologer Stefanie Iris Weiss tells me, “because people have a lot more access to the information.” Jenna Wortham, the New York Times writer and cohost of the podcast Still Processing, agrees. “I’m always grateful for the ways in which the internet makes strange stuff seem less strange,” she tells me. “I want more people to be in tune with celestial patterns, I want more people to feel like they should understand how the time of year they were born impacts them, or how they should understand where they were born impacts them. I’m very here for that type of knowledge being distributed.”

And yet, like many skeptics, Weiss sees a downside to astrology’s digital boom. “A lot of people are concerned that there are some hucksters on the internet who are just putting up a shingle and have read one book and are like, ‘Oh, I’m an astrologer now!’” she says. “We have different groups and associations, but we don’t have one body that maintains really scrupulous standards about who can call themselves an astrologer. It’s not like with a psychotherapist, [where] you can’t really call yourself one by law unless you’re credentialed. So it can be a little bit dangerous ...”

Astrology is trendy right now, and yet part of its allure is that it pushes against the hypercapitalist idea of the Trend: Anything that dates back several millennia is, by definition, a little more enduring than a fad. Perhaps this is what I find so comforting, fascinating, and ultimately equalizing about the idea of the Saturn return: Since time immemorial, every human being who’s lived past 27 has gone through one. Cleopatra, you, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Rihanna, my mom, Gwen Stefani, me. Maybe all that connects us is the simple astro-geographical fact that we lived long enough for Saturn to return to the same place it was in the solar system when we were born. Maybe nothing matters. But, as Saturn spent its waning days in Sagittarius, where it was when I was born, I also felt like I owed it to my brace-faced, starry-eyed 13-year-old self to at least try to figure out if there was anything more to it than that.

A horrifying painting hangs in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, depicting the Greek mythological figure Titan Cronus eating his own child. Francisco Goya titled it Saturn Devouring His Son, opting for Cronus’s Roman name, shared with the sixth planet from the sun. After learning that he was destined to be overthrown by one of his offspring, Cronus became so fearful that he ate five of his babies right after they were born. (Zeus survived because his mother gave birth to him in secret and hid him until he came of age.) Given this grave mythology, it’s not hard to see why Saturn was, for many years, considered a “malefic planet”—a celestial body thought to bring nothing but doom and bad luck. It’s also the farthest planet that can be seen with the naked eye from Earth, so in ancient astrology Saturn was thought to be the “coldest” planet in every sense of the word.

That was the story, at least, until 1976, when the influential astrologer Liz Greene published Saturn: A New Look at an Old Devil. Greene was a key figure in modernizing astrology for the era of neurosis and psychoanalysis: According to the astrologer Robert Hand, Greene’s book on Saturn helped develop the now popular idea “that astrology is not a map of one’s fixed destiny, but a potential map of the unfolding of the authentic, higher self.” Greene took issue with the idea of “good” and “bad” planets—she believed that the placement of a “malefic” was not a fateful bout of doom, but rather an opportunity for a particular area of personal growth. It might seem like a conveniently modern idea, but Greene sought to connect it to a pre-Judeo-Christian paradigm of morality. “Carl Jung once wrote that before Christianity, evil was not quite so evil,” she notes, “and it might be said that in Christianizing astrology, we have lost many of the subtle paradoxes which this rich symbolic system contains.”

Many modern ideas about the Saturn return stem from Greene’s work. Hers is a comfortably democratizing view of the Greater Malefic: “There is no chart which does not contain Saturn,” she writes, “however dignified and admirably aspected he may be, and there is no life without struggle.” And yet, the Saturn on the cover of her book is a little kinder and gentler than Goya’s. The first edition depicted him as “The Hermit” from the Rider-Waite tarot deck; on the 35th anniversary edition, he looks a bit like Rodin’s Thinker. He’s not eating any babies—just staring, circumspectly, at a token in his hand. His scythe rests peacefully at his side, though always at the ready.

“Loving the synchronicity that you write for a site called The Ringer—and you’re doing a story about Saturn!” the astrologer Stefanie Iris Weiss writes me via email. I tell her, with full transparency, that I had never thought of it like that before.

When I get her on the phone, Weiss—who along with her friend Sherene Schostak coauthored the 2003 book Surviving Saturn’s Return: Overcoming the Most Tumultuous Time of Your Life—breaks down the crucial difference between the macro and micro experiences of one’s Saturn return. “Saturn takes 29 1/2 years to move around the zodiac,” she explains, “so all of the people who are born approximately between 1988 and 1991 are people who have Saturn in the sign of Capricorn. Saturn remains in each sign for two and a half years, and that’s why it takes a full 29 1/2 years to get back to where it was when you were born.” On a larger scale, anyone who was born when Saturn was in Capricorn will be experiencing his or her Saturn return for the next two and a half years, with all of the “Capricorn energy” that stirs up.

Even if you’re an astrology skeptic, it’s hard to deny that there is something profoundly transformative happening in our culture right now, given the seismic impact of the #MeToo movement and the near-constant toppling of abusive men in power. Each of the astrologers I interviewed for this piece believed that the timing of the revived interest, just as Saturn moves into Capricorn, is telling. As Weiss and Schostak note in their book, Capricorn is the ruler of the realm of “the world,” and it is the sign generally associated with tradition and structure—which means that those are the very concepts that will be challenged while Saturn sits in that sign. (A somewhat unrelated aside: Every astrologer I interviewed for this piece told me, unprompted, that she believes the fall of American capitalism is imminent. Much to look forward to.)

So Saturn’s position is something of a mass experience. But if you look at your own birth chart (a map of how the sky looked at the exact moment you were born, which you can easily generate online if you know the location and time of your birth), you can figure out which of the 12 houses Saturn was in when you were born, and thus figure out more about the particular timing, themes, and circumstances of your individual Saturn return. “This is an even more specific view of the part of your life in which you will feel all those Saturn lessons,” Weiss says. “So the place where you feel the most fear and insecurity and the most ambition—alternating back and forth between those two things—will be the house in which Saturn lives.”

She lists some quick examples. “If you have Saturn in the second house, it will be around money. If you have it in the eighth house it can be around sex and death and karma. If you have it in the 10th house, it will be around your career. If you have it in the sixth it could be around health. If you have it in the seventh”—

I stop her, and laugh nervously. “That’s where mine is.”

“Oh!” Weiss says, perhaps a little too cheerily. “That’s the house of relationships. So you understand that for you, you learn all of your lessons about fear and insecurity and putting all of your effort—everything, your whole life—into your relationships. But also, there’s a fear of even being in a relationship. You go back and forth from being consumed by it or completely afraid and frozen out of it.”

My eyes dart around to make sure that the office door is firmly closed. I turn the volume on the speakerphone down a few notches. After a pause, I respond with practiced calm. “Iiiiinteresting.”

In the quiet comfort of my own home, I flip through A New Look at an Old Devil to see what Liz Greene has to say about Saturn in the seventh house. Ever the Saturn devotee, her perspective contains what I would characterize as “tough love.” Greene writes:

The most basic interpretation of Saturn in the seventh house is sorrow, difficulty, or constriction in marriage or other close relationships. Generally these sorrows appear to be the hand of external fate and often do not seem to be connected with any fault in the individual himself. Saturn in this house is frequently in his most elaborate disguise because his action is so completely externalized. It always seems to be the other person’s fault. … We are accustomed to interpreting this house as a symbol of the effects of others upon us without considering that these effects are the direct result of our own inner needs and conflicts projected outward upon others. It is not wholly the partner’s shortcomings that are responsible when Saturn in the seventh house does not foster a union of unmitigated bliss.

Often, while reading Greene, I hear the compassionately no-nonsense voice of my therapist. In this particular instance, though, she sounds to me more like the growl of Cronus as he ravenously devours his son’s flesh.

In April, in an episode of Still Processing, Wortham laid out one of the most interesting interpretations of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. that I’d heard all year: It was his Saturn return album. When I listen to Damn. now, I can’t unhear it. “It was always me vs. the world, until I found it’s me vs. me,” Kendrick (then 29) raps on “Duckworth.,” a song in which he muses on some of the fragile circumstances of his father’s life that resulted in his own existence. “Just remember,” Kid Capri shouts toward the heavens, like Meryl Streep in an award show audience, “WHAT HAPPENS ON EARTH STAYS ON EARTH!”

Kendrick doesn’t mention the Saturn return in the explicit way that Gwen Stefani did, but other artists have been more direct. There’s a 2001 R.E.M. song called “Saturn Return” (“harder to look yourself square in the eye ... easy to take off”), a Katy Perry ballad that name-checks it as a prelude to suicidal thoughts, and even a Tool song called “The Grudge,” on which the prog-metal god Maynard James Keenan growls, “Saturn comes back around to show you everything!”

Although it’s easy to laugh at the notion of, say, Kendrick Lamar’s natal chart (which for the purposes of my research I can tell you has Saturn in the second house), anything that points us in the direction of self-knowledge has value. After all, my gateway to the lessons of Saturn was, of all people, Gwen Stefani. “Celebrities and pop culture in some ways fill in the space that the gods and goddesses used to for us,” Weiss says. “We look to Hollywood and the music world for these representations of who we’re supposed to be. When we pay less attention to the gossipy parts of it and more attention to what does this person represent, I think it can be really useful to us.”

To some extent, Wortham agrees. “I think anyone that has to produce and innovate and is trying to express themselves, they have learned to tap into something very precious and honest. So someone like Kendrick or Rihanna, they do have a pop culture outer-facing persona, but I also think they’re genuinely creative artists who are capable of producing outstanding art. There’s something about being an artist where you do tune out the world in a lot of ways, and you’re listening to something else.”

Saturn return feelings are the basis of so many enduring novels and films (to name just a few: The Sun Also Rises, Frances Ha, and that evocative space between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), but over the past few months I’ve found myself thinking most about my favorite Saturn return albums. There is perhaps no better depiction of the cosmic restlessness of one’s late 20s than Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which came out just before her 28th birthday. Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak was released at the tail end of his Saturn return; it’s a record born of intense personal pain that also took his sound in a radically new direction. As Saturn moves from Sagittarius to Capricorn, Drake’s Saturn return is ending (that explains Views) and Taylor Swift’s is just beginning (help us). But Wortham and I agree that one of the most triumphant Saturn return albums in recent pop-cultural memory has to be Rihanna’s 2016 declaration of independence Anti. As she’s moved through her late 20s (she’ll turn 30 in February), Rihanna has cut a figure of someone truly owning her Saturn return, shedding old skin like an ill-fitting coat and, as she establishes herself as a formidable beauty mogul, moving into a new realm of professional power.

Still, as fun as it can be to read into pop culture, the greatest lessons offered by Saturn and the other planets have more to do with our connections to antiquity and the natural world—especially in a time when our surface reality feels particularly unstable. “We’re realizing [that] Trump’s our president, things are not necessarily going to improve in our lifetime,” Wortham says. “At least for me, that’s been the reckoning for my year, and I do find a lot of comfort in looking towards the natural order of the world, which has existed long before any political infrastructure existed, and it does give me comfort as much as possible to tune into that rhythm and understand how it’s changed and how it’s changing, and how my actions affect that.”

“It does establish order where there is none,” she adds. “It offers a framework for chaos … and that does make me feel better about the shitstorm all around me.”

Two winters ago, the astrologist Sandy Sitron and the life coach Dana Balicki—friends since they were just “rowdy college students,” they tell me—hosted a Saturn return workshop at Brooklyn’s Maha Rose Center for Healing. “It was a handful of years in the making,” Balicki says, Skyping from Joshua Tree, where she sits in front of a small shelf of books organized by color. “Our conversations started as what was happening for us in our own Saturn returns and then as we settled into our work it became like, Oh, we should do something.” When they designed the program, they weren’t sure who would come, but that Tuesday evening in February, their 40-person workshop sold out.

Sitron and Balicki have since expanded their teachings on the Saturn return to a 45-day online course called, “The Saturn Return Workshop: Your Cosmic Rite of Passage.” When I talk to them in early December, as Saturn is spending its final days in Sagittarius, the first installment of the course just wrapped; they’re prepping another run in the spring. The Saturn return online course includes several different “modules,” a weekly Q&A with the instructors, “7 weeks of guided coaching in the Facebook Group,” and, for those who spring for a higher-priced VIP package, several installments of one-on-one coaching. Although they offer a free live webinar for people who want to learn the basics, registration range for the full course ranges from $398 to $598. This initially strikes me as absurdly high—until I do a mental tally of how much I and many people I know will have spent on therapy over a comparable period of time.

Indulgent? Maybe. But it’s too easy for skeptics to dismiss this sudden cultural turn inward as simply classic millennial “narcissism”—go see what your natal chart has to say about it, snowflake. I tend to think that this inward-glancing search for alternative forms of wisdom and knowledge is just a survival tool in a world that, for a lot of young people today, comes without a reliable map of the future. We have to learn how to rely on our own wisdom when that of our elders taught them how to navigate an entirely different society. “It’s a pioneering time,” Balicki says. “We’re not our parents. Both my parents had a job that they had for like 40 years and then they retired. That’s not the culture we’re creating. That’s not the one that exists anymore. So I think in order to be in this new world, we have to be asking these really deep questions. We have to be having a more spiritual experience, whether we think of it as that or not.”

Perhaps part of the renewed fascination with the Saturn return comes from how well it maps onto the ways we’ve begun to talk about developmental stages for the millennial generation. In 2000, the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett coined the phrase “emerging adulthood” to describe the in-between years after adolescence but before one becomes a “real” mature adult. (Thus the ironic and infantilizing focus on “adulting.”) And yet, given the recent media fascination with the malaise of 20-somethings, it strikes me as at least somewhat remarkable that, even when life expectancies were much shorter and long before the idea of the “teenager” became something that was analyzed, astrologers had still seen this phase between 27 and 30 as cosmically significant.

“In the past, maybe you had a family when you were 18 or 19,” Sitron says. “I still don’t know if you had gained wisdom or had moved into a mature adulthood before 29. What you’re gaining through your Saturn return is actually a source of inner wisdom that is your guiding light. I don’t know if it has to do with, ‘Do you know what your job is?’ or your place in the world. I think it’s more of an internal process.”

In ancient times, Weiss and Schostak note on their website, the Saturn return had an air of finality. “Considering that most humans back then were lucky to live past 30, it’s understandable that he would come to embody the archetype of the Grim Reaper with his scythe. And when Saturn returns to the spot he was at upon your birth, you’d be hard pressed not to feel a tingle of mortality and the anxiety of being an adult. With his symbolic hourglass, he’s literally reminding us that our time here on earth is running out.”

Increased life expectancies have less impact on the first Saturn return than on our access to subsequent ones. The second Saturn return occurs between around 56-59, although Sitron says, “What’s changed most now is more people have access to the third Saturn return, the one that happens when you’re in your 80s. That second Saturn return may have previously been your last checkpoint, whereas now, we’re marking it as an entry point to a new stage.”

As Saturn spent its waning days in Sagittarius, I made a list of all the things that had happened to me over the past three years, and tried to rearrange them into a story that spoke to Saturn in the seventh house. I got a new job and shortly afterward moved into an apartment by myself. I learned that, while all I wanted when I lived with other people was to live alone, when I finally got my way I did not really know how to live alone. I started going to therapy. I went through a wrenching breakup with a close friend. The teacher who first inspired me to become a writer died. My best friend had a baby. I developed an easy knack for getting out of bed in the morning and then, for a period, I just lost it. I went on antidepressants. I developed crushes on emotionally unavailable men, the kind who even if we got together always seemed to be looking a little past me, as though at some concept off in the middle distance. I joined a gym. I went on my first vacation by myself. I won an award. I got another new job. I bought a projector and started inviting people over to watch movies. I made new friends. I wrote, a lot. I stopped pining for what was lost. I started once again to enjoy solitude, or at least learned to differentiate it from loneliness. I reminded myself through repetition that the cure for the latter is simply to get out into the world. And that the former needs no cure, because it is not a sickness at all.

People always talk about that inner well of strength you find within yourself in times of disaster. A dirty secret of my teens and then my 20s was that I always worried that disaster would come and I would find that I was missing this. Like people who are born with one kidney—a doctor would perform a chest X-ray and call me solemnly into his office to tell me that I’d been born without an Inner Well of Strength. But no, I found. I have one.

My mom got very sick this year, a few months before her 60th birthday and a little while after my 30th. I could not bring myself to tell her until she was almost completely better about the Saturn return, and how there is a second one that begins around the age of 59. One in which you go through hell but afterward enter a new, wise stage of life. I did not want her to think that I was overwriting the other, scientific story of her illness, which is perhaps why I waited so long to tell her. But when I did, she really liked the sound of this—she found that the story fit. “Saturn return?” she asked. “I will Google it.”

Last December, a few days before I turned 30, a friend sent me an email. “Being 30 is great,” he wrote. “I distinctly remember the morning I woke up 30. All the bizarre ideas you have about the things you need to accomplish before then … poof. It’s just a huge weight off the shoulders.” I could see why this was patently absurd. I hummed a song I like by Frankie Cosmos called “Birthday Song,” which goes, “Just because I am a certain age / Doesn’t mean that I am any older / Than I was yesterday.” And yet, a few days later, on a Monday morning when I woke up 30, I found this friend to be right. I moved through the air with a kind of lightness, having instantly shed old concerns and outdated shame. I felt, paradoxically, closer to death but also in less of a hurry. Would I have felt this way had this friend not sent the email? Who knows. All I know is that he did, and I did, and this is the story I now tell myself. I move through the chaos more elegantly when I tell myself this story.

Every Single Album: Taylor Swift

The Taylor Swift Take Purge

The Midnight Boys

A Midnight Boys Time-Travel Draft

60 Songs That Explain the '90s

‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: ‘If It Makes You Happy,’ Sheryl Crow

View all stories in Pop Culture