Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

Pluto's Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

Pluto’s Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

For Plutophiles everywhere this has been a remarkable week.  I began writing about Pluto in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and eventually finished a 25,000 word essay on the cultural context, cosmography, and astrological symbolism in 1995*.  I’m not going to write about astrological particulars here, but in that essay I wrote that “astrology occasionally seems to afford us a privileged glimpse into the subtle infrastructure of a living solar system. The fascination, and difficulty, of the discipline, lies in the way in which these glimpses of an apparent cosmic ‘fabric’ are located in relation to the subjectivities of human experience. Whereas astronomy finds the raw material of both curiosity and wonder out there, towards the perimeter of the universe, astrology can work to dissolve the dualism which has, for so long, been part of our Western world view.

Within this framework it is Pluto, as ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery, who guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned …”.  So I’ve long felt ambivalent about NASA’s New Horizon’s mission to Pluto.

Has it been a casual intrusion?  It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge that New Horizons has been a breathtaking technological feat.  When our trains struggle to run on time they’ve managed to send a small spacecraft on a nine year, three billion mile, journey, and arrive in the right place, just 12,472 kilometers from the surface of Pluto, on schedule.  The anatomy of the recently demoted ‘minor planet’ (not all astronomers agreed with Pluto’s 2006 demotion, so one outcome of this mission is likely to be a bid to re-instate Pluto as a full blown planet) -recently described by a B.B.C. reporter as ‘an inscrutable blob in our telescopes’- is in the process of being filmed, photographed, weighed, measured, probed, and ‘explained’.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto's 'Heart'.  Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15.  NASA, C.C.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto’s ‘Heart’. Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15. NASA, Creative Commons.

The resulting astronomical reports might mention the mythology of Pluto for decorative purposes, but astronomy, shorn of astrology, exemplifies Blake’s ‘single vision’ -one dimensionally objective, blind to metaphor, connection, correspondence, and similarity.  NASA’s scientists have apparently seen no connection between the domain of Ploutos, Hades, Persephone, Hekate, Ereshkigal, and all the other underworld deities, and the great cosmic drama of death and rebirth, endlessly enacted, which consititutes the core and heart of their domain, and the extraordinary offering they have just unwittingly made to those gods and goddesses.  Perhaps the fact that their plutonium powered spacecraft carried the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, ‘discoverer’ of Pluto, across the vastness of the outer solar system to the perimeter of their planet, is what saves this project from being just another act of casual intrusion?

In that astrological essay I traced the exteriorisation of Pluto in the history of the nuclear era, and found the planet’s signature etched into the geography of the discovery region, most notably in an extraordinary spatial co-incidence.  Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Percevall Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona.  Ten years later Plutonium was manufactured at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, and five years after that the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site north of Alamagordo in New Mexico.  Curiously these three sites fall in an almost perfect straight line, about a thousand miles long, that maps the connection between the planet and the nuclear project on to the land in the most unexpectedly graphic way.

The terrible wartime story of the nuclear scientists’ ‘mathematical transubstation’, and its apocalyptic outcome, contrasts starkly with the knowledge of indigenous peoples such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Navaho, who have long constructed their cosmology and sacred geography around creation stories in which humanity emerges from an underworld regarded as the body of Mother Earth.  These cosmologies have been described as ‘the way of the seeded earth’, and their portrayal of the earth has been compared, for example, with the Roman Tellus Mater, who, like Demeter, watched over the sowing and fruition of seed.

The discovery of Pluto teemed with many other synchronous events and ‘co-incidences’, so it was fitting that the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest contact with Pluto on a dark Moon**.  I had expected to see events in the world that reflected the well established concerns and manifestations of astrological Pluto.  Over those few days we saw the culmination of negotiations between Western powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme -much of which had been developed in concealed subterranean facilities.  We also saw the lengths to which the neoliberal ‘plutocrats’ of the European Union would go to humiliate Greece, surely in order to destroy the elected democratic socialist Syriza government, as a third ‘bail out’ was acrimoniously accepted.

On a more modest scale, I noticed a sequence of radio programmes on the morning of the fly-by, focussing on Plutonic/Dark Moon themes.  ‘The Life Scientific’ interviewed Carlos Frank, an astronomer who was instrumental in establishing the existence of dark matter.  This was followed by ‘Natural Histories’ on the Nightshade family, including deadly nightshade, and ‘the most magical of plants’, Mandrake.  Then, in ‘One to One’, a British Muslim spiritual healer discussed her experience of Jinns, and allegations of physical and sexual abuse by male religious figures in her community.

I still feel profoundly uncomfortable about the dissonance between the technical exuberance of the scientists, and what I know, from observation and hard won personal experience, about the domain of the underworld, and the negotiation of considerable anguish that seems to be entailed as the cost of meaningful admission to that realm.  As an astrologer I’ve seen several accounts of life changing encounters with underworld deities, from very different and otherwise unrelated traditions, that occured during major transits of Pluto.  As well as posing an interesting question for polytheists -what, or who, then, is ‘Pluto’?- such experiences cast a very different light on events this week, and suggest that a quite different perspective (and tone) might not only be more appropriate to the proceedings, but more fruitful in terms of generating understanding.

For example, there’s been much light-hearted celebration of the discovery of a large pale heart-shaped region on the surface of Pluto, now named ‘Tombaugh Regio’.  But would it not be worth considering whether that huge frozen heart might be an an apt symbol for the pandemic of emotional paralysis -of the kind that undermines compassionate and respectful relationship with anyone (or any being) perceived as ‘other’- that both propells, and is generated by, the absurd but all-too-real terrors of patriarchal/capitalist/monotheist ‘civilization’?  Just a thought.

B.T 18-7-15 (updated 19-7-15)

Notes and Sources:

* My rather over long essay from 1995 can be found in Suzi Harvey, ed Orpheus, Voices in Contemporary Astrology, Consider, 2000.

** The astrology of closest contact made my astrological hair stand on end, for example, the New Moon, two days later, fell one minute of arc square the midheaven of the horoscope for the recorded moment of Pluto’s discovery in 1930.  Extremely close aspects such as this, when they occur, are taken as confirmation of the ‘radicality’ of a chart.

Klara Bonsack Kelly and Harris Francis, Navaho Sacred Places, Indiana University Press, 1994.


5 thoughts on “Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

  1. Yes it will be interesting to observe how the synchronicity of the moment of coming face to face with Pluto plays out in the continued myth of our times. Certainly an event which all astrologers will be closely observing and recording.

  2. An underworld deity who ‘guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned’ resonates very much with me. I must admit to feeling some excitement about viewing the planet of Pluto for the very first time. Yet, admittedly the time of the announcement of ‘the year of Pluto’ occurred at a difficult time. The links with Plutonium and the nuclear era are *very very* haunting considering a dream I had about my underworld deity and nuclear winter…

  3. I was deeply troubled by the nightmare prospect of nuclear winter during the cold war period, now receding into ‘history’, so can see why its recurrence in a dream might be shockingly difficult. When writing about Pluto previously I was grappling with the contradiction between the planet’s signification of the nuclear era, and of abuses of power and wealth in general, on the one hand, and -in the ‘natural world’- of volcanic eruptions, but also compostings, transformations, and metamorphoses, that release new life. Think of the emergence of butterflies and dragonflies! And for we humans, Pluto signifies the risky, messy, intense, often difficult, but deeply magical realities of sex, procreation, and physical birth.

    I wondered, therefore, whether the name (and story of) Pluto was part of the problem. Of course, the work of ‘Pluto’ can be, and is being addressed in many ways, by many names ….

    Getting close to the core of life was never going to be easy …

    Your comments and feedback much appreciated, as ever.

  4. Reblogged this on From Peneverdant and commented:
    Re-blog of an article by Brian Taylor discussing NASA’s Pluto Fly-by and the issues surrounding photographing the underworld. Brian speaks about the perils of the ‘single vision’ of astronomy when it is not paired with the deep grammar of astrology: the connections between Pluto and various underworld deities of different cultures and ‘the great cosmic drama of death and rebirth’.

    He describes Pluto ‘as ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery, who guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned’.

    This description resonates with my experience of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the Brythonic underworld and raises considerations about the dangers of travelling to Annwn / Fairyland in Brythonic tradition and the arts of glamoury its people employ. Pluto was so named because of its capacity, like the underworld god Pluto, to become invisible…

    In terms of experience ‘personally earned’ Brian mentions the ashes of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh were carried on board New Horizons’ spacecraft. Clyde discovered Pluto in 1930. Another of his research interests was UFO’s and thus space travel. 8 years after his death his ashes flew by the planet he discovered 85 years ago.

    The Tombaugh region, Pluto’s frozen heart has now been named after Tombaugh. I recently learnt this has been interpreted to be dog-shaped and Disney have made a brief film about the dog Pluto based on this discovery (!).

    Something that struck me was that in many traditions the underworld is guarded by a dog (ie. Cerberus guards Hades, Gwyn’s dog Dormach may be seen as a guardian of Annwn). This furthers the suggestion there is a link between Clyde’s journey to the underworld (some meeting with its guardian?), the disclosure of Pluto in the photographs, the naming of the Tombaugh region and Cylde’s becoming a kind of guardian spirit himself.

    Cylde’s work provides us not only with new scientific knowledge but a new myth featuring a journey to the underworld for the modern day.

    On a darker note, Brian also maps the synchronicities between the discovery of Pluto by Clyde in 1930, the manufacture of Plutonium (New Horizons’ space craft was powered by Plutonium) and the creation of the first atom bomb. I found this chilling considering I have associated Gwyn’s role as ‘Winter’s King’ with the threat of nuclear winter.

    Several months ago I had a deeply upsetting dream I intuited was of a possible ‘post-apocalyptic’ future in Preston.

    Sarcophagus City

    I dreamt of sarcophagi.
    Grey the city.

    Midnight blue the cloak
    of my god

    who I served with prayers
    tucking offerings

    in plastic wrappers round stony
    bodies of the dead.

    Slowly I forgot my words.
    Doubt unfolded

    me in frail threads on a wind
    that was not a wind

    and did not unfold the city
    as it was too still.

    The wind that never was blasted
    the tower block

    where I made my bed. I could not
    wake from too softness

    too many pillows and dream
    myself home again.

    I took this dream to be a warning about what might happen if fracking was allowed. It was one of many interlocking factors that prompted my involvement in the protests. However I don’t think that was the dream’s full meaning. As Clyde’s story shows, disclosures happen slowly and may not happen in our life-time.

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