In 2006 Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet. I wrote then that it said something about our relation to the Underworld that we would do such a thing. I am, however, now feeling more forgiving of the astronomers, because in the last few weeks they have named 2 more Moons of Pluto on the principle that the names, like the previous 3, had to be mythologically related to Pluto. So now there are 5 known Moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx.
So while on the one hand we seem to have given the Underworld less significance, on the other hand we are now giving it more complexity, deliberately so. It feels like it is being honoured.
There was an online poll for the new names called Pluto Rocks!, and the winning submission was Vulcan, sponsored by William Shattner (Star Trek). It was, however, rejected by the committee on the grounds of not being related to the mythology of Pluto. And, of course, a Vulcan in Star Trek mythology is a purely logical being, and the whole point about Pluto is that he disrupts our idealisation of reason, which can make us think we are masters of the universe; he insists that our loyalty should be to life itself rather than to our theories about it. So the astronomers, whether they knew it or not, made a powerful archetypal statement.
Shortly after Pluto was demoted we experienced the biggest economic crash any of us remember – by some measures, like over-borrowing by banks and the time taken for the economy to start to recover, it has been bigger than the thirties. Pluto as a god of riches is associated with the economy. (Uranus in hard aspect to Pluto usually creates recessions.) After 5 years of this deep recession we now seem to be honouring the underworld again, that place that brings us down to earth by destroying hubris, and the western economy seems at last to be starting to recover.
This connection of the demotion of Pluto to the Great Recession may seem whimsical, stretching it, but I’d say as an astrologer that it is a matter of how seriously we take these powers. For a Greek Tragedian, it might seem a simple matter of cause and effect.
So what is this Underworld that Pluto rules? For the ancient Greeks, it was the place you went to after you died. For us astrologers, it is a psychological place or state.
Hades is the Greek for Pluto, as well as the name for the Underworld itself, Pluto’s realm: so I shall be using the terms Hades, Pluto and the Underworld somewhat interchangeably.
For the ancient Greeks, the Underworld was literally out there, invisible to us living humans, and located at the ends of the oceans or beneath the depths of the earth. I suspect it wasn’t a belief held as rigidly, say, as the medieval Christian heaven and hell. Or as rigidly, say, as a modern who might say it is ‘only’ a psychological state and of course the underworld doesn’t exist ‘out there’.
I think the sense of ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ is a construct of the brain, and therefore not to be treated as a rigid distinction. When I die, I want a coin put in my mouth to pay the ferryman (Charon) to carry me across the Styx – or is it the Acheron - into Hades. As an astrologer, it makes perfect sense for me to feel like that, given that the Greek Lord of the Underworld is a major part of my cosmology.
For me, the Underworld is both within and without, in the same way that the gods/planets are both. I think that an ancient Greek would have experienced the gods with their demands as ‘out there’, while not at the same time experiencing any loss of personal freedom and choice. (Unlike the Christian experience at its worst with its rigid god.) It is like Jung said, that free will is the freedom to do what I have to do. That sums it up nicely for a modern.
When the planet known as Pluto was discovered and named after the Greek Lord of the Underworld – or, strictly speaking, the Roman god - I think that legitimised for astrologers the internalisation of the Underworld. It meant we could use the Underworld to describe that place we go to when we undergo a psychological death. And that would include anything that threatens the security of the personality we have built up, such as taboo areas. Things we feel we are not ‘allowed’ to be.
In the same way that the Underworld is deep below the earth, so is our personal Underworld deep within – and it is not just personal, it is collective. The Underworld is what we encounter when it is time to change, and it is life itself that brings that about. It is fundamental to life that it keeps changing, unfolding, moving on to the next stage. We see that in the natural world, and it is the same for human consciousness. When we resist it, illness often results.
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So another word for the Underworld, in a way, is life. The life force deep within that is beyond our personal planning and control, and that does not belong to us, we belong to it, and it is in this sense that the Underworld is collective.
I think that the discovery of Pluto has changed the metaphysics of astrology, which is itself a part of the Western Esoteric Tradition that can be traced back to the Hellenistic culture of late antiquity, with its mixture of Greek philosophy and indigenous religious traditions. Here we find Platonism, which “focused on the attainment of a salvational gnosis (‘knowledge’) by which the human soul could be liberated from its material entanglement and regain its unity with the divine Mind.” (Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Actually, what's starting to look like a better read is The Elixir and the Stone by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. It's a history of the western magical tradition, learned yet readable.)
There you have it: ‘liberation from material entanglement.’ The worldview implied by Pluto is the opposite of this. Pluto takes us deep within to a place where the body and all aspects of the psyche are sacred. Where the psyche and the body are both the expression of the same life-force, which is the same force that powers the universe.
Our task is not to free ourselves from material entanglement – with all the renunciation and suppression of desire that go with that – but to honour the life that flows through us and to experience the beauty and the sweetness of life. The Underworld is not just a dark place: it contains, for example, the Elysian fields, but more on that later.
Pluto and his Underworld are there to return us, after 1000 years of a relegation, even demonization, of the body and materiality, whether through mainstream or esoteric religion, to a more balanced, natural humanity.
Indigenous spirituality doesn’t have this renunciative flavour at all, wherever you look. And that says to me that this deeper experience of life through the body and nature is what is natural to people, and that the ideal of freedom from material entanglement is a corruption.
And this is exactly where Pluto takes us. The Underworld is a place of authenticity, of wholeness, where we are asked to acknowledge and honour the whole of ourselves. Maybe collectively as astrologers we have not asked ourselves rigorously enough what our philosophy is. Are we fully a part of the western esoteric tradition, or do we need to reject a central plank of that tradition? In a way Pluto makes astrology ‘shamanic’: a religion of ‘this world’ inhabited by spirits, by gods such as Pluto and Mercury for whom we are the mediators.