I began this series with the idea that with astronomers naming Pluto’s Moons after different Underworld figures, maybe it is time to take a look at the structure of the Underworld, to understand its complexity.
It is easy to have a vague idea of the Underworld as a slightly dark place where we are dismembered and put back together under Pluto (and other) transits, and leave it at that. And it works. But maybe that’s not enough.
At the same time, the Greek Mythology is only of limited help. The planets are named after Greek/Roman gods, but when you look into the stories behind them, there is not necessarily a lot there to go on. There is virtually nothing in Greek mythology, for example, about the Moon, certainly not in our modern-day astrological understanding of her. Or Neptune – what there is about him bears very little resemblance to the astrological Neptune.
And philosophically, as I said earlier, our notion of Pluto is taking us away from a notion of progress in consciousness that involves a 'liberation' from the body.
So I’m not quite sure where that leaves us. But it does in a way free us from the past. It is important to know the past, but we are not bound by it. At the same time, we need myths – what else is astrology but the intersection between timeless stories and personal lives? – and I think we can feel free to draw on whatever myths, from any part of the world, that illuminate our astrological symbols. We can look, for example, to the Norse tradition in which Odin hung himself upside down from the world tree without food or water for 9 days in order to gain wisdom. That seems to have elements of both Pluto and Neptune transits.
I like to think of astrology as I like I think of all spiritual traditions, as a hodge-podge that has built up over the centuries, containing both gold and dross, even though we may sometimes feel tempted to search for some kind of pure origin or solid foundation.
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So while Greek Mythology may be a good starting point for our modern understanding of the Underworld, I don’t think we should assume it will be sufficient. At the same time, there is some quite good stuff there. The Underworld is structured, it has geography. There are 5 rivers associated with it, as well as Tartarus, the Fields of Punishment, the Asphodel Meadows, the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed.
And there are various figures associated with the Underworld: Pluto/Hades, of course, who is King; his wife Persephone; the Erinyes, Hermes, Minos, Charon and Kerberos. The Hydra guarded an undersea entrance to the Underworld and Nix (the other Moon) is not strictly Underworld either, but she is the mother of Charon, is the goddess of darkness and night and was there near the beginning of creation. So I think we have to give her honorary membership!
I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive correspondence between the Greek Underworld, and what we understand of Pluto/Scorpio astrologically. But we can draw quite a lot from a consideration of the figures and geography.
The Figures in the Underworld
First of all, there is the myth of the abduction of Persephone, which is one of the myths that every astrologer knows, along with the story of Chiron. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, a nature goddess, and Pluto abducted her into his Underworld, raped her (in some accounts) and married her. Demeter spent ages looking for her and in her despair the world turned to winter. Eventually she found her, but Pluto would only let her back for 6 months of the year, which is summer, while the 6 months of winter, when Demeter mourns, is when her daughter is back with her husband.
So there is a big theme here, almost like the Fall from primordial innocence of both Demeter and Persephone, that at the same time allows life to change, to progress. Persephone grows up, she becomes a wife, and it happens by force – life has to move on, and if we don’t want to, well it will happen anyway. It’s not really force, it is just natural progression – it is just experienced as such when we resist it. And through this Fall also comes the seasons – the continual death and renewal that is life, and you can’t have one without the other. Every stage of life, however well-balanced and stable and happy, eventually tips over into a new stage, and for that to happen the old has to go. And there may be a bleak winter stage that is more appearance than reality, for life is continuing in another form: it has withdrawn into the trunk and roots where it is being re-imagined, re-dreamed. And the astrologer’s job when someone is undergoing a major Pluto transit is often to point this out, to encourage them to tune in to the inner alchemy that is occurring outside of conscious control.
People with a strongly Plutonian/Scorpionic chart experience this Underworld continually, for them it is not a separate part of life like a hospital, it is an integral part of things: Plutonians are always tuned in to this more basic, survival, life-as-it-is aspect, they are not persuaded out of it by mere ideas and social norms.
Even then they may have to start off by learning this about themselves. For someone unused to it, a major Pluto transit can be a traumatic experience.
And part of this is the initial death, the loss of home or health or relatives or career – all these can be Pluto’s work. This can be the price we have to pay to enter his transforming world; this is the coin we give to the ferryman Charon. There is always a price.
And Hermes/Mercury may have brought us to the gates of the Underworld in the first place. He is the messenger of the gods: Pluto has called us, and Hermes persuades us to come. He may even trick us into coming. I had a dream in 1996 telling me what to do next with my life, so I did it, and quite quickly it all became successful yet very painful and conflicted and my whole life changed, I started over.
Cerberus or Kerberos is the 3-headed hell hound whose job is to let the dead into the Underworld, but not to let them out again. And it is indeed like this once you’re in your Pluto transit: you try and carry on as before, and it won’t work. In 1994, as Pluto was squaring my Sun, I kept trying to get up and do things, and everything turned to pain and poo. That was Kerberos. It was only when I gave up (to some extent) identifying myself with how much I did that things were able to come right, and then I had the 1996 dream!
The Places in the Underworld.
Tartarus “is described as being as far beneath Hades as the earth is beneath the sky. It is so dark that the "night is poured around it in three rows like a collar round the neck, while above it grow the roots of the earth and of the unharvested sea." (Wiki)
I think Tartarus represents deeply repressed aspects of ourselves. That repression is painful. The usual reaction, which is unconscious, is to find ways to avoid that pain. Alcohol and drugs, victimising others, health issues, keeping busy. A Pluto transit, if we’re prepared to be aware, brings us to the point where all those diverting strategies are gone, they are dead, taken away from us, and we are just left with the pain that we probably don’t understand.
There is no redemption in the Greek Underworld, once you are there that is it, and the other place of suffering, the Fields of Punishment, doesn’t seem any better than Tartarus. (Tartarus, however, with its sheer depth beneath Hades, best symbolises repression.)
So at this point, where we begin to emerge renewed from the Pluto transit, I think we need to leave the Greek mythology behind, though of course the story of Persephone tells us a certain amount, and in a kind of way, the Elysian Fields.
The Underworld is not just a place of suffering. The Elysian Fields are for those who have distinguished themselves. “Usually, those who had proximity to the gods were granted admission, rather than those who were especially righteous or had ethical merit.” (Wiki)
And a Pluto transit is by no means just about dismemberment and suffering (suffering which has often been there all along, but which we have been unconsciously avoiding.) You see some people going from strength to strength under these transits, it is not a deep internal journey. And some seem able to put up with the difficulty and suffering that comes along in the form of external events and then carry on as before.
And you also see that while on the one hand some people are feeling dismembered (Tartarus), they are also experiencing an accession of their gifts and talents (Elysian Fields). The gifts that are central to you, but which maybe you and the world haven’t sufficiently valued, classically come to the fore during a Pluto transit. In a way, that is what the transit is about: a purging of the old personality to make way for a more authentic self, and the gifts that come with it, whose time has come.
The Elysian Fields are for those who have had proximity to the gods, rather than ‘good’ people. This says a lot about the process of life changing and moving on. It happens not by being a ‘good’ person and following the social and religious rules you were born into, though that may get you worldly rewards. It is about sensing what the gods want of you and having the courage to act on that. It is about doing what you ‘have’ to do.
It is about finding that level in yourself, that is often revealed by Pluto transits, that is a new type of identity: not the easy, unconscious one formed by aligning oneself with social norms and expectations, but something that is purely within you – the Self, the Dreambody, whatever you want to call it, perhaps it’s best not to call it anything.
That is what Pluto is really trying to do when he takes us to his Underworld, because that is what Life is trying to do. It is that something, that solid, alive, creative foundation within, that knows how to live, knows the answers, and in a way our only task is to be loyal to that, which is also being loyal to the gods and to Pluto.
This is where distinction and the Elysian Fields lie. For ordinary mortals we have the Asphodel Meadows, whose descriptions vary, but in the Odyssey its inhabitants “flit like shadows” and have lost the power of independent thought – but did they truly have it in life?
There is no redemption or transformation within the Greek Underworld, but there is a kind of parallel to the emergence from a Pluto transit, strengthened and renewed, in that those who enter the Elysian Fields have a choice to either stay there or be reborn. If a soul was re-born 3 times and achieved Elysium each time, then he/she could enter the Isles of the Blessed, and eternal paradise.
So emergence from a Pluto transit is a bit like being re-born from the Elysian Fields, which is for those who have lived close to the gods. You have been touched and changed by a god, and you come back to your life again, but renewed and on a different inner basis.