Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos – 2 Cosmos.

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.”

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.


For the Pythagoreans kósmos expressed a sense that the world as a whole was pervaded by intelligent order, beauty, and structural perfection.  Robert Fludd’s seventeenth century illustration of the Great Chain of Being (above, and discussed here) in which a prominent female figure representing Nature wears a small Sun and Moon on her breasts, is held on a chain by a celestial God, and holds an ape representing ‘art’, or perhaps the alchemist, on a chain below her, should suffice to remind us that images of totality emanate from a particular perspective.  The power dynamics inherent in such unifying visions have been much discussed, of course.

In Cosmos and Psyche (2006) Richard Tarnas responded to postmodern sensibilities by envisioning ‘a cosmic ordering principle whose combination of participatory co-creativity, multivalent complexity, and dynamic indeterminacy’ would not have been comprehensible to Plato.  Because the world now appears more responsive to human intention and consciousness our conception of cosmos needs to incorporate a correspondingly fluid, complex, and unpredictable relationship with ‘a dynamic archetypal order’.(1)  We might wonder whether postmodernity renders the term cosmos redundant, but my own experience of astrology inclines me to agree that the sense of pattern, order, and structure implied by the term is at least as fundamental to the unfolding of lives (the microcosm) within the matrix of chaosmic Nature (the macrocosm), as contingency, complexity, sponteneity, humour, randomness, and surprise.

Tarnas argued for a post-Jungian archetypal astrology by amassing evidence in the form of correlations between planetary cycles and cultural and historical developments in the history of the West.  Despite his description of archetypes as multidimensional (having a formal coherence and consistency that can give rise to many manifestations and meanings) and multivalent (we may relate to them actively or passively) I’m still not comfortable with an essentialising and universalising impetus, and depersonalising tone (c.f. powers or deities) inherent in the concept however.*

Tarnas’ discussion of the cultural importance of the Copernican revolution illuminates the genealogy of how ‘we’ in the late modern West have come to think about cosmos: ‘To have it suddenly dawn on one that the great Earth itself, the most obviously stationary and immovable entity in the cosmos, upon which one had lived in changeless solidity all one’s life, was in fact at that moment moving freely through space […] no longer the absolute fixed centre […] but rather a planet, a wanderer, an exalted celestial body in a new cosmos whose dimensions and structure and meaning were now utterly transfigured; such a revelation must have filled the mind and spirit with an awe seldom known in human history’.(p5)

This most radical of discoveries ’emancipated the modern self from a cosmos of pregiven meanings’ and affirmed confidence in human rationality whilst simultaneously disrupting a longstanding illusion that the cosmos revolved around the earth, and the needs of humankind in particular.  The subsequent Cartesian revolution that radically separated soul from body, and subject from object, and the ‘Copernican revolutions’ of Kant, who attributed the apparent temporal, spatial, and causal order of the world to the interpretive structure of the perceiving mind, and Darwin, who located humans within an evolutionary framework, along with Freud’s diminishment of the rational ego, further decentred the human in a cosmic context.  Western modernity responded by relocating intelligence, soul, spirit, meaning, and purpose, exclusively in the human self, thereby progressively disenchanting the world.(2)

While reading this it occured to me that Freud wasn’t the first to link Copernicus with transformations in the ‘inner cosmos’.(p44)  Nietzsche, whose writings prefigured depth psychology, dramatised the significance of the new cosmology in the voice of a madman confronting the death of God and the onset of nihilism, and in his Genealogy of Morals wrote: “Ever since Copernicus man has been rolling down an incline, faster and faster, away from the centre-whither?  Into the void? Into the ‘piercing sense of his emptiness’?(3).

Tarnas identified the modernist assumption that any ‘apparent’ meaning or purpose in the universe must have been constructed and projected on to it by the human mind as ‘hubris of cosmic proportions’.  In an epilogue, however, he ventured the hardly less anthropocentric suggestion that the creative, unpredictable, and fallible ‘self-reflective human being’ may be ‘a unique vessel and embodiment of the cosmos’.(p492)

Although Cosmos and Psyche was the fruit of extensive collaboration Tarnas has been taken to task for making only a brief passing reference to the work of other astrologers.  Having defended astrology against the prejudice of modernity he no doubt felt that citing actual astrological texts would jeapordise the chance of his work being taken seriously by the mainstream.  He also, perhaps again understandably, overlooked scholars who have taken ‘cosmos’ in a naturalistic direction -notably Alexander von Humboldt, who is widely acknowledged as having bought the term into the modern world- and Carl Sagan, both of whom also attempted the kind of comprehensive and integrative account that a cosmic perspective has long seemed to demand.

And therein lies a familiar problem, namely the privileging of a lone commentator’s apparently impartial panoramic viewpoint.  My feeling is that Tarnas could have said a bit more about the difficulties associated with the uses and misuses of astrology, and about the situated, partial, provisional, and contestable, nature of astrological interpretations.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Towards the end of his life Alexander von Humboldt wrote Cosmos, A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, a five volume account of Nature encompassing phenomena from aurorae, through climatic and vegetation zones on earth, to algae, landscape painting, and poetry, whose index alone makes Richard Tarnas’s 569 page opus look like a slim pamphlet.  In October 1834 he declared “the mad frenzy has seized me of representing in a single work the whole material world.”  The result was a massive collaborative synthesising project.

Though Humboldt made no mention of God or spirituality, his sense of wonder, and the importance of aesthetic and emotional engagement, meant that he was taken up by the American transcendalists and English romantics as well as by scientists such as Darwin.  Interestingly, his faith in the stability of nature was shaken by an earthquake in South America.  No longer could he assume that water rather than earth was the element of motion.  Unlike most scientists of his time who focussed on taxonomic classification, Humboldt sought to integrate detailed empirical measurement with a holistic vision of nature as an interconnected web and global force.  As well as undertaking meticulous surveys, he acknowledged that ‘what speaks to the soul escapes our measurement’ and found that ‘nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul’.(4)

Not least because Humboldt wrote prescient accounts of the effects of deforestation and human induced climate change in South America two hundred years ago, he is now celebrated as a proto-ecologist.  His sense of reciprocity between the human mind and nature informs contemporary definitions of cosmos and cosmopolitics that emphasise communal, participatory, and collective aspects, and relations between human communities and an agentic nonhuman world.  In a move that would no doubt surprise some of Plato’s feminist critics Laura Dassow Walls has reclaimed cosmos as ‘humanity’s oldest ecological vision of our planet’.(5)  Whereas Plato’s cosmos privileged God and Reason and signified an over-arching ordering vision inspired by a Divine Intellect, recent understandings interpret cosmology from a human perspective in terms of stories about our individual and collective place in the universe.

Humboldt’s encounter with indigenous people’s cosmovisions is said to have shaped anthropology, ethnography, and environmentalism (not least through the cosmography of Franz Boas).  For Bruno Latour cosmos is synonymous with “the common good world” -a world in which ‘cosmopolitics’ brings together a pluriverse of peoples and natures living in ‘a commons resilient enough to embrace the future.’  Cosmopolitics of this kind is exemplified by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia in 2010, where representatives from the Global South and many Indigenous groups presented a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME, 2010).  Their decalaration stated that “indigenous peoples, nations, and organizations ancestral ‘cosmovisions’—thousands of years in the making […] conceive of Earth as a ‘person’ or ‘living being with whom [all persons] have an indivisible and interdependent relationship”.  A working Group on Indigenous Peoples identifiedaggression toward Mother Earthas ‘an assault on us’ -meaning all human groups and all other ‘persons,’ including the ‘soils, air, forests, rivers, [and] lakes’ (‘Final Conclusions’ 2010, parag. 2).(Monani and Adamson, 2016:4, citing Latour 2014).

Megalithic astronomy confirms that the human impulse to orient ourselves in relation to cosmic nature is both ancient and widespread.  Across the over developed world this powerful impulse lives on in folk dance, communal rites, and the quiet alchemy of contemplative practice, that may honour the cardinal directions, visible stars, or phases of the Moon, and affirm our interdependence with the living land and a teeming diversity of other-than human life.  Ronald Grimes writes that ‘ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat).  In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor”.(6).

B.T. 10th January 2017.


*ref ‘archetype’, I prefer to think in terms of story and relationship, but if an astrological equivalent were needed planetary principle should suffice (see Mike Harding, Hymns to the Ancient Gods).


(1) Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, Intimations of a New World View, Plume, 2007 pp73 and 489.

(2) Richard Tarnas, A New Synthesis, Resurgence, 199 March-April 2000, and see here.

(3) Frederick Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals, Anchor/Doubleday, 1887/1956:291-2.  See also Frederick Nietzsche The Gay Science, New York, Vintage Books 1882/1974:181-2

(4) Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt the Lost Hero of Science, John Murray, 2015 pp54,72,235.

(5) Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos; Alexander von Humbolt and the Shaping of America, University of Chicago Press 2009.

(6) Ronald Grimes, Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy, in Graham Harvey ed.  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

Bruno Latour, 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–62.

Salma Monani and Joni Adamson, Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies, Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, Routledge, 2016.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2009) The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and
the Shaping of America, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2015) “Cosmos.” In Keywords for Environmental Studies, eds. Joni Adamson,
William A. Gleason, and David N. Pellow, 47–50. New York: New York University Press.

Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos. 1- Chaos.

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)


Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’.  The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths.  They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)

Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility.  Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’.  She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings.  ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3)  On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)

Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture.  It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)

I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought.  She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos.  In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum.  Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.

Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.

In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)

The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology.  Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere.  Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born?  I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition 'Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family." IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition ‘Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family.” IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties.  Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems.  At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws.  Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions.  Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.

Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship.  Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62).  I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.

This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7).  Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul.  Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings.  Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here).  The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.

The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world.  Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term.  It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species.  Harmonia!

B.T. 6th December 2016.

Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.


(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.

(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.

(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.

(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.

(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.

(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.

(7) Simon Crook, 2015.  A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.



Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.


(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.

Click to access Revaluing%20Body,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

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.

Protest in Context; a (non-technical) astrological note in the wake of the 2015 U.K. election. .


In the wake of a troubling general election I wanted to see what the astrological ‘weather forecast’ for the U.K. looked like over the next few years.  We don’t need astrological help to see difficulties ahead, of course, but astrology can deepen our appreciation of the cyclic nature of time, and might just enable us to ‘collaborate with the divine’ a bit more effectively as we resist injustice and ecological destruction, and try to create ‘more interesting, ingenious, and loving’ worlds.(1)

In order to illustrate this claim I want to focus on one major upcoming transit* -the passage of Pluto, ‘Lord of the Underworld’, opposite the U.K’s Moon (both circled yellow below), in a commonly used chart for the date of legal union between Great Britain and Ireland (2).  This transit will gradually build, augmented during 2016 by Uranus squaring the U.K. Moon, suggesting a continuation of the visceral impulse towards independence already seen in Scotland, and more worryingly, in the success of UKIP, and the planned referendum on E.U. membership.  It will be at its most intense during 2017-2018, and will then fade.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (shown outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

How might this work in a person’s life?

In The Astrology of Fate Liz Greene wrote that ‘the primordial chaos from which life emerges and to which it returns belonged in the beginning to the Great Mother.  The male figure of Hades was a relatively late formulation … whenever myth portrays [his] entry into the upper world, he is shown persistently acting out one scenario: rape’.  The intrusion of Pluto into consciousness ‘feels like a violation, and we, like Persephone, the maiden of the myth, are powerless to resist’.  Her discussion considers the purposefulness of fate, but also evokes the sometimes un-bearable nature of ‘plutonic’ experience.(3)

Since 1984 we’ve hopefully become more aware that allegories of abduction and rape might be inappropriate in relation to cathartic experience and (not least when taken to imply cosmic purposefullness) crises caused by oppression and abuse.  We also have more access to other readings/versions of the story, in which Persephone-Kore, as the original and primary goddess, enters freely into a sacred marriage with Hades. (e.g Sara Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate).  That said, we still need to acknowledge the intensity of pain and struggle involved in both personal and communal crises, and the toxic ancestral inheritance that often impels such eruptions.

'Slum clearance', Manchester, 1972. Photo B.T.

‘Slum clearance’, a Personal Moon-Pluto Period in Manchester, 1972.

With the benefit of hindsight my own experience of this transit, in my early to mid-20’s was interesting and briefly turbulent, but ultimately constructive.  I left the parental home (natal Moon) for the last time and went to live in a wood where I meditated amongst the trees while three friends enacted a tense sexual triangle (a classic Pluto theme).  Moving to inner city Manchester I then got involved in housing action and crisis support.  During the following year a personal crisis culminated in an unforgettable visionary experience.

Astrology of the Collective

Parallels between individual stories and the life of nations are of limited value however.  The social is not an individual writ large, and history shows that on the collective level we are far from ‘powerless to resist’.

Mundane (‘of the world’) astrology should perhaps be approached with even more caution than natal astrology.  Its not necessarily obvious how the charts of nations work, and its all too easy to be seduced into making casual claims about history and politics.  What follows is intended as an exploratory excercise, but it does, I think, raise some quite profound existential questions.

The Moon in a nation’s chart is said to represent the people (the masses), and might be expected to reflect conditions for women, and for children.  The U.K’s Moon, at the top of the chart, in the public tenth house, has been linked to our tradition of parliamentary democracy, but could also be read as an image of a people uprooted from the land (far removed from the base of the chart, the ‘Earth Point’/4th house cusp, of roots, the home, inheritance, family origins, ‘property’, land, gardens, fields, orchards, ‘the tillage of the earth’***, and ecological foundations).  Pluto’s major transits signify (and perhaps unleash) periods of turbulence, power struggles, death (symbolic or physical) and destruction, and if conditions are favourable and things go well, transformation and renewal.  They may also indicate material interventions such as mining, or demolition and rebuilding.  A good way of illuminating the upcoming transit of Pluto opposite the U.K. Moon is to look at previous comparable transits.**

Margaret Thatcher Elected

When Pluto squared the U.K Moon in 1979-80, Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister inaugurated a period of manufacturing meltdown, with the loss of some two million jobs.  Inflation was brought down at the cost of steeply rising unemployment (by August 1980 to 2 million, for the first time since the 1930’s).  Many communities were subsequently devastated by multi-generational unemployment.  With the Pluto transit forming (in 1978) the Ridley Plan, a strategic document outlining the new government’s preparations for taking on the miners (who had defeated a Conservative government in the 1970’s), had been leaked to the press.  ‘Power’ is a keyword for astrological Pluto, and revenge is a Pluto/Scorpio theme.

Thatcher’s victory followed what the right wing media successfully mythologised as ‘the winter of discontent’.  In response to wage restraint and spending cuts (amounting to 20% of public spending) imposed by a Labour government at the behest of the neo-liberal I.M.F, some 2,000 strikes were organised by low paid public sector workers during an unusually severe winter.  Since much is still made of the supposed profligacy and ineptitude of ‘retro socialism’ effective counter-narratives are needed about the causes of these disputes (such as here).  The period was, nevertheless, ‘a positive and transformative time’ for many female activists.(4)  During the early 1980’s there were large scale trade union demonstrations, and inner city riots.

Ther Great Depression

Moving back through history we find Pluto crossing the U.K. Moon during 1929-30, which was, of course, the period of the Great Depression.  At this time unemployment rose steeply (to 2.9 million by the summer of 1932).  The ‘co-incidence’ of finding another period of mass unemployment under this transit cycle is, well, striking.  In 1931 unemployment benefits were cut by 10% and the means test introduced.  Attendance at work camps (‘slave camps’) was made compulsory for the long term unemployed, in the face of opposition from socialists and anarchists (see here and here).  The National Union of Unemployed Workers organised National Hunger Marches against the means test.

My granparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

My grandparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

The photograph above shows my mother (sitting on a farm gate) with her parents, on a trip to Herne Bay.  On a much less happy occasion, when my grandfather was made redundant (I don’t have an exact date), he walked about twenty five miles, from Charlton out into the Kent countryside, on the strength of a rumour that there were jobs to be had at an engineering works in Edenbridge.  By the time he got there the jobs had gone.  He would then have had to walk home.  This, apparently, was the only time my gran saw him cry.

Chartism and the Plug Riots

The next comparable transit occured in 1840-42, long before Pluto was discovered.  This was during the period of chartist agitation for universal male suffage, the repeal of the hated 1934 Poor Law that was forcing unemployed people into workhouses, and the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland.  During the transit several massive petitions (and see here) were taken to parliament.  In the words of the 1838 petition, presented to parliament by a progressive M.P. from my home town:

“The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.  For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering …

We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.  We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.  Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.

The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon”.

Atfer both this, and an even larger petition in 1842, had been rejected by parliament, the Chartists organised a massive wave of strikes that came to be known as the Plug Riots (see here, here, and here).  This ‘first general strike’ involved some half a million workers, and was the biggest excercise of working class strength in the nineteenth century.

The Factory System

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, in 1771, during a previous passage of undiscovered Pluto across 19 degrees Capricorn (where it will be once again in 2017-18), opposing the Moon in the chart of a yet-to-be-inaugurated United Kingdom, we find Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame and ‘father of the factory system’, establishing the first successful water powered cotton spinning mill.  Arkwright, who had moved from Preston to Nottingham to escape the militancy of Lancashire cotton spinners, started with 200 workers, mostly women and children.  Dr Andrew Ure, in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) wrote: “To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory dilligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright”.  In a chapter on the moral economy of the factory system Ure extolled the ‘sublime spectacle’ of Sunday schools as ‘quiet fortresses’ at times of ‘political excitement'(5). ‘The great transformation’ had been unleashed.(6)

It would be interesting to make a fuller study of this cycle, looking at other possible significations of the Moon and Pluto, other aspects, and other transits (particularly the Uranus square).  But if we accept that the above demonstrates a cyclic pattern, we must surely also conclude that our lives, and the lives of the collectives we are part of, are to some extent ‘fated’ -choreographed by the cyclic dance of more-than-material bodies, planetary powers, some say gods, moving through the vastness of space; and that we live within an intimately communicative, sentient and/or ensouled cosmos.  Unfortunately ‘the foolishness of our leaders [still too often] makes the goodness of [those gods] of none effect …’.

B.T 2/7/15.


* In astrology ‘transit’ refers to the passage of a planet either directly across, or making a signficant angular aspect to, a given point in a horoscope.  Both the transiting body and horoscope point are charged with symbolic meaning that will manifest in various ways during the period of the transit. ** I’ve restricted this discussion to the 4th harmonic ‘hard’ aspects -conjunctions, oppositions, and squares.  Each transit would be close for two or three years, and would fade in and out for several years before and after exactitude. I’ve mostly looked at events that occured while the transits were within a 2 degrees orb. ***Willilam Lilly Christian Astrology

Sources:  (1) adapted from ‘democratic animist’ astrologer Caroline Casey’s Making the Gods Work for You, Harmony Books, 1998.  (2) Michael Baigent, Nicholas Campion, and Charles Harvey, Mundane Astrology, Aquarian, 1984, pp533-439.  (3) Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984. pp38-40. (4) Tara Martin-Lopez and Sheila Rowbotham, The Winter of Discontent; Myth, Memory, and History, Palgrave MacMillan 2013. (5) E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963 pp395-7. (6) Karl Polanyi, via Molly Scott Cato The Bioregional Economy.

A Crescent Sun, Time for Some Citizen Astrology?

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Yesterday’s partial solar eclipse felt powerful.  After a night of vivid dreams I came downstairs feeling bleary, and under-prepared.  My other half was already busy with an impressive array of pinholes, and our trusty colander, last pressed into astronomical service for the memorable eclipse of 1999.  I felt a bit like the boy at the back of the class who hadn’t done his homework properly.  I did have a piece of cardboard with a hole in it though, and guess whose pinole worked best!

We had some Moony fun comparing results and got quite excited as Luna’s round form appeared, gradually protruding across more and more of our small solar images.  The first appearance of ‘her’ shadow brought a slight shudder of realisation -that these are physical bodies, moving round, out there in space.

Then I realised I could get a better picture on the LCD screen of my camera (by manually focussing and being careful not to look up!).

\pinhole images of partial solar eclipse

Pinhole images of partial solar eclipse.

Most people had wanted a clear sky, but I was glad when a continuous veil of cloud covered the spectacle sufficiently for us to be able to watch the shimmering molten crescent directly -that was the best bit- and take photos without a special filter.  I’ve never seen a total eclipse, but this was extremely beautiful.

So, of course, is the astronomical ‘co-incidence’ that the respective difference in size, and distance from earth, of the Sun and Moon (x400 in each case), means that their discs appear exactly the same size when viewed from earth (at least until some point in the inconceivably distant future).

For me, though, the real work of the eclipse was going on already.  In a piece of writing I’ve been busy with (its personal and deals with bereavement and end-of-life experiences), in bodily phenomena (some more comfortable than others), feelings, and dreams.

As an astrologer I’ve once again felt frustrated by the domination of mainstream coverage by scientists.  The Guardian, for example, did a predictable ‘science v superstition’ piece.  The front page of our local paper, which publishes a sarcastic ‘horoscope’ column every week, had a banner headline that read: ‘Town in Shock Pays Tribute …’.   A well loved local butcher had been run over by two vehicles on the previous Sunday night.  Although serious astrologers are careful to distance themselves from fearful beliefs about eclipses, the symbolism of a great light being extinguished does quite often seem to co-incide with the death of a popular figure around the time of a solar eclipse.  The link wasn’t considered in this case, of course.

Strangely, perhaps, the symbolism can refer to events either before, or five or six (or more) months after a solar eclipse.  In either case the timing would be indicated when a point in the horoscope ‘sensitised’ by an eclipse is transited by other planets.  There are various interpretive schema, but for instance, R.C. Davidson, in his 1950’s manual The Technique of Prediction writes: “lunations and eclipses falling on sensitive points of the horoscope are nothing more than a double transit of the Sun and Moon”.  Just as an alignment of these bodies causes higher tides, “their influence is simlarly potent when applied to the sea of human experience”.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Nowadays we tend to emphasise that astrology is about signs, symbols, and metaphors; about discerning a good course of action, rather than predicting deterministic effects.  In the case of solar eclipses the symbolism is about the lunar principle -emotion, intuition, imagination, embodiment, dreams, unconscious processes, flow, memory, childhood, ‘mothering’- temporarily occluding the solar -rationality, purposiveness, clarity, individuality, conscious awareness, leadership, mentoring, ‘heroism’, and so forth.

Events associated with an eclipse can, of course, be positive.  Before the 1999 solar eclipse, which was total, though as it turned out invisible, in Cornwall, I was (despite the above caveats) concerned about what it might signify for a friend who was living there at the time.  The eclipse was due to fall within a degree and a half of her natal Sun in Leo.  In Western astrological tradition the Sun rules the heart, and she’d been having palpitations, intermittently, for some time.

She tells me that she’d felt quite positive about the eclipse on a personal level, seeing it as an opportunity for change.  When I wrote to her after the event she replied (at the end of September 1999) saying that she’d felt very emotional for quite a long time afterwards, that this may have been an unblocking, and that ‘things were flowing well now’.

If we had approached that eclipse looking for celestial causes of earthly events we might have concluded that astrology didn’t work because nothing had happened, or that even if something had happened there would be nothing we could have done about it.  Approaching astrology as a way of working with natural/cosmic symbolism and timing, on the other hand, we might argue that a temporary occlusion of a person’s solar nature by an upwelling of emotion is just what the symbolism suggested, and would seem to have recommended.  For astrologers, meaning is written into the fabric of nature.

B.T 21/3/15.


We are Stardust – A Quick Look at Paracelsus.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from 'L'Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1998. "a medieval missionary claims to have found the point where heaven and earth meet'.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from ‘L’Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1898. “a medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and earth meet”.

Following an alchemical thread, I’ve been having a quick look at the writings of Philippus Aureolas Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a Paracelsus.  Born in a Swiss village in the year after Columbus reached America, he’s variously celebrated as a pioneering theorist of modern medicine who founded antisepsis and wound surgery, or as an early exponent of holism.  Rejecting the classical canon of his day (Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna) Paracelsus preferred to put his trust in a combination of devout, if unconventional, Christian faith, a cosmological system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm (as opposed to the theory of humours and temperaments), personal experience – including as an army surgeon, and medical lore gleaned from ‘herb-women, bath attendants, peasants, gypsies and magicians’.(1)  His writings, therefore, give us a vivid sense of the thickets of European thought at the dawn of modernity.

Little is known about the early life of Paracelsus, except that his mother is thought to have taken her own life when he was about nine years old.  His father, a respected local doctor, ‘gave him herbs and stones, water and metal, as friends’.(2) As a young man he embarked on extensive travels that took him right across Europe, to renaissance Italy, then as far as Algiers, Constantinople, Russia, and Ireland.

Paracelsus regarded the human spirit as a divine spark, and believed in free will to the extent of thinking we could act upon the stars (of which more later).  Because he saw divine potential in humanity, he often took a stand against social convention, vested interests, or political structures.  This was usually done with a flourish, as when he staged a public burning of Avicenna’s authoritative textbook, or when he promised the be-robed doctors and academics of Basel that he would reveal the greatest secret of medicine, before presenting them with a dish of steaming human excrement. “If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians!”(3).

Though his motto was ‘… that man no other man shall own, who to himself belongs alone’, he drew upon medieval ideas of Christian community life.  He was a pacifist, sided with the rebellious peasants against the feudal lords of Salzburg in 1525, and was in contact with Anabaptist groups.  His religious views embraced the popular pantheism that influenced mystical anarchist and millenarian movements of the late middle ages -his concept of yliaster (probably from hyla matter, and astrum the stars) revived Avicebron’s doctrine of prime matter -a primal divine being originating, sustaining, and existing within the material substrate of all thingsFor Paracelsus it was this spiritual force that justified human freedom and moral agency.(4)

His charitable medical work involved risks to his own health and life.  He wrote the first  treatise of occupational medicine, on the miners’ disease, as well as advocating the therapeutic value of music, chants, magical seals, and amulets.  Like the alchemists he sought invisible virtues within substances, and believed that “decay is the beginning of all birth”. Paracelsus regarded base metals as analogous to disease, and based his remedies upon the homoeopathic principle of sympathies between diseases and the arcana (mysteries, secerets).  Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke argues that his predominant contribution was the foundation of an alternative science and medicine, ‘the science of the symbol’.(3)

Nicholas Campion, however, points out that whilst Paracelsus made conventional assumptions about astrological correspondences, he argued that, from the moment of birth, the physician should respect individual autonomy by examining a patient’s physical processes on their own terms, rather than imposing a univeral astrological model for each disease.  For Paracelsus, the Kaballah impelled empirical observation.  Campion goes on to argue that ‘Paracelsus’s emphasis on the functional separation of nature and spirit, even if they were theoretically entwined in the Kabbalistic cosmos, presages the mind-body split written into Western thought by Rene Descartes in the next century ….’.  In Paracelsus’s work ‘magic was a stepping stone to modern science’.(6)

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555.  Anon.  Creative Commons.

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555. Anon. Creative Commons.

Although there is much of interest, and much to like, in Paracelsus’s prolific writings, Goodrick-Clarke’s account erases some major contradictions and difficulties.  According to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus believed the relationship between humanity and the stars to be particularly close in relation to ‘mental illness’ (I prefer ‘distress’, and ‘madness’).  For Paracelsus, madness resulted from “the subjugation of man (sic) and his divine spirit by his low animal instincts, notably lust, covetousness, and the passions of the soul in general … each star corresponds to an animal with its characteristic emotional behaviour, also to a single passion in man.  When he falls prey to these passions, the star awakens in him the one that corresponds to its own animal nature”.  Moreover, “He who is prone to meanness has chosen Saturn as his wife, for each star is a woman.  Hence in this case, the cure must be directed against Saturn.  The patient must be talked to, admonished, and encouraged to confess in church.  His disease must be explained to him.  If he is not accessible to advice he must be taken into custody ‘lest he lead astray with his animal spirits (vichgiestern) the whole town, his house, and the country.”

Whilst some of Paracelsus’s reccomendations sound like a relatively ‘modern’ and progressive, albeit paternalistic, response to the complex and difficult realities of crisis support, his markedly gendered -and anthropocentric- understanding of the underlying causes clearly express the dominant Christian/neo-Platonist assumptions of his day.  Unfortunately, according to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus was also ‘deeply immersed in the contemporary belief in witches and demoniacal and devilish posession as causes of insanity’ and ‘in some treatises recommended the burning of the patient lest they become an instrument of the devil’. (7)  He was hardly progressive in this respect then!  But let’s not forget that he also wrote that “Every cure should proceed from the power of the heart; for only thereby can all diseases be expelled”.

Or that he talked about the ‘light of nature’ -which Jolande Jacobi gives as- ‘intuitive knowledge gained by experience of nature and implicit in all beings at birth’; about ‘magnalia (Dei)’ -remedies and works whose special efficacy derives from the divine power inherent in them; and about the matrix -‘the primal womb or mother, the formless receptacle of form’.  Interestingly, Paracelsus used the term anima (soul), mainly when referring to the notion of a sidereal body (an inner heaven) -but also for anything resembling breath, or for ‘the specifically effective part of medicine’.  Another interesting term he used was the astrum (or sidereal body) -‘an impression engraved in man at the hour of his birth by the external heaven’, consituting an inner heaven, and giving us our innate disposition.(8)  As Joni Mitchell (in Woodstock) put it more recently: “We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden …”.

 B.T 28/11/14.


Some Paracelsus quotes:

“Every land is a leaf of the codex of nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet”

“Decay is the midwife of very great things!”

“Dreams must be heeded and accepted, for a great many of them come true”.

“The art of astronomy helps us to discover the secrets of the innate disposition of the heart..”

“How can a man say ‘I am certain’ when he is so far from any certainty?”.

“I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum, monarch of the physicians”, and I can prove to you what you cannot prove”.


1) Nicholas Goodricke Clarke, ed. Paracelsus, North Atlantic Books, 1999.

2 and 8) Jolande Jacobi, ed. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Bollingen series XXVIII, 1958.  (this book has a useful glossary).

3) Philip Bell, The Devil’s Doctor, Heinemann, 2006.

4 and 5) Goodricke Clarke, Op Cit.

6) Nicholas Campion, A History of Western Astrology, Vol 2, The Medieval and Modern Worlds, Continuum 2009 pp117-8.

7) Walter Pagel, Paracelsus; an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 2nd ed. 1982 S. Karger. A.G. Basel.

As Summer Fades (Memory, Image, and Symbol).

Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.

Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.


There’s been a definite chill in the air recently.  A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other.  The juvenile birds (I presume, though no-one has been able to confirm this) hurtle up to a parent, then both birds momentarily jam on the brakes and the youngster gets fed in mid air.  I love it when they race past at head height.  Such energy, and all powered by tiny insects.  At this time of year they gather in larger flocks, getting ready to leave for Africa, while we humans stoop to pick blackberries (and soon bilberries) hopefully leaving some for the birds that feed at ground level.

One of my recent walks brought me along a soft peaty path across a heather moor.  Wading through the deep heather, the scented air was charged with the warm electric buzzing music of hundreds, probably thousands, of bumble bees, collecting pollen.  Best of all, for me, the place was alive with peacock, and some red admiral, butterflies.  Their quite big dark shapes flapped up from the path, and from nearby bushes as we passed.  This was very pleasing as I’d seen very few on garden buddleias this year.  Clearly this was a nectaring hotspot!  In 1634, Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to King Charles 1, commented that the ‘eyes’ on the wings of the Peacock butterfly “shine curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the colours of the Rainbow”.(1)  They lay their eggs on the underside of nettle leaves.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

As the lived moment fades into memory, I find myself revisiting it in various ways.  A rational voice might say something like ‘in the U.K we have about 75 per cent of the world’s remaining heather moorland, so this is an internationally important habitat, and its under considerable threat …..’.  I value this voice for its ability investigate the complexity of ecosystems, cultural forces, and political realites, but another voice  wants to stay with the hypnotic beauty of the eyes on a butterflies wings (voice 1 immediately cuts in “from a human perspective! -they’re there to frighten predators!).  I often find myself in one or other mode, but hope to encourage amicable dialogue between these (and other) voices.

In ancient Greek mythology the Titaness Mnemosyne, daughter of Uranus and Gaia (sky and earth), was the custodian of memory, and in turn gave birth to the seven muses.  She emerged from an oral culture that communicated by means of narrative, image, metaphor, and poetry, and “reminds us that our soul story is revealed through dreams, oracles, feelings, reveries, synchronicities, or sudden images ..” (2).

Re-membering is, of course, fundamental to creativity, and to any hope of biographical integrity.  So, memories of that path through the heather will be braided into my ever deepening mental map of the place in which I live, and next time I meet a peacock I might well recall the profusion of butterflies on that wonderful summer afternoon.


Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.  Note the tasteful inclusion of the author’s left arm.

Carl Jung emphasised the distinction between a ‘real symbol’ and a ‘mere sign’, and (in 1948) postulated that symbols arise from the unconscious by way of intuition, revelation, or in dreams, as a psychological mechanism that transforms energy. I’ve resorted to italics here to highlight his psychologising and interiorising language.  He argued that because of the ‘extermination of polytheism’, and the historical hegemony of Christianity, individual symbol formation has long been suppressed in the West, but presciently sensed its re-emergence.(3)  Fortunately his announcement of the extinction of polytheism was premature.

In the same volume Jung quotes extensively from Paracelsus, for whom the corner-stone of all truth was astronomia, and for whom the lumen naturae, the light of nature, was the ‘star’, astrum,  sidus, or firmament, within us.  The psyche was a night sky whose planets and constellations ‘represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity’.  Jung inserts the distancing notion of representation here, when, for Paracelsus, the star was the light of nature.

From the vast storehouse of Solar lore a fragment comes to hand from the renaissance neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino. “Our soul, besides maintaining the particular powers of its members, promotes the common power of life all through us, but especially through the heart, source of the intimate fire of the soul.  Similarly the World Soul flourishes everywhere, but especially through the sun, as it indiscriminately unfolds its common power of life”. (4)  Ficino gave a lengthy list of solar objects that are mostly recognisably sun-coloured and/or aromatic.  Thomas Moore comments ‘as if by sympathetic magic, these metaphorical objects can in fact bring us the spirit they represent … it is the image that effectively communicates the spirit’.  Ficino’s natural magic ‘is really a school of imagination’.  There’s that word ‘represent’ again; and that word ‘spirit’.

Geoffrey Cornelius (an influential exponent of divinatory astrology)  describes astrological interpretation as ‘an excercise in analogy’.  By metaphor, or transposition of meaning, the world is disclosed.  He gives an example in which the Sun is taken to represent the C.E.O of a company.  ‘We know these poetic transpositions or metaphors by the name of the law of correspondences, fulfilling the Hermetic axiom of ‘as above, so below’.(5)

Paul Ricouer quotes Mircea Eliade’s view that ‘the force of cosmic symbolism lies in the non-arbitrary relationship between the visible sky and the invisible order which it manifests.  The sky speaks of wisdom and justice, of immensity, by virtue of the analogical power of its primary signification.  Such is the fullness of the symbol as opposed to the emptiness of the sign’. (6)  I remember being quite excited when I first found this, but I’m sorry to say I now think the middle section is subjective (and ‘arbitrary’) nonsense.  As an astrologer, however, I’m bound to agree with the proposition that the (night) sky does have some sort of non-arbitrary relationship with an invisible order.

So, what to make of the symbol, from an ‘other-than neo-Platonist’ animist perspective?  For some contemporary animists, all this talk of an ‘invisible order’, ‘spirit’, and ‘the light of nature’, will reek of dualism, transcendence, and hyperseparation.  I’d like to urge caution however.  It so happens that I went up into my neighbour’s garden (we were feeding her cat) and took some pictures of her sunflowers on a day when Mercury (planet of communication and writing) was within one degree of the Sun, and at the very time of day when this Mercury-Sun conjunction was ‘on the midheaven’.  I had not been thinking about astrology, and had no plans to write about the images.  So the flower, named from the Sun, showed for me at the very time when the physical sun was showing prominently, but invisibly, according to astrological tradition, by its angular position.

This suggests to me, that what is being disclosed at such times is a pattern of affinity, co-ocurrance, and relationship, between beings or people (in Irving Hallowell’s sense, where people also refers to all  manner of other-than-human beings).  It is this affinity, this relationship -between, in this case, ‘solar objects’ and the Sun- that an astrologer, or practitioner of natural magic can work with. Perhaps we need not privilege ‘image’, ‘idea’, or ‘spirit’ then, since these are expressions of ‘real’ (material or subtle) connections -as are sounds, scents, and textures.

It also occurs to me that we should be careful not to assume we have access to a universal meaning of an analogous image.  For the human observer, those eyes on the butterfly’s wings might invoke curiosity, wonder, delicate beauty, the ‘stars’ and ‘sparks’ (scintillae) of alchemy.  For an approaching blue tit they effectively signify an animal much larger than the insect flashing them as a protective gesture.  So, are they ‘just’ a product of relationship, and not really ‘about us’ (humans) at all?  Or might we, as passers-by, with our symbolising minds, be included in these conversations too?

There’s been a definite chill in the air recently.  A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other …

B.T 28/8/14.

(as you may have guessed these are very much thoughts-in-progress, so this might be continued soon!).


Heather Moorland

(1) On the Peacock Butterfly.

Raptors Alive website, for some political realities of heather moorland politics.

(2) Brian Clark, Muses of Heaven, Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2104.

(3) C.J. Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics/Bollingen Foundation, 1960.

(4) Marsilio Ficino, The Planets, quoted by Thomas Moore, in The Planets Within, the Astrological Psychology of Marsilio, Ficino, Lindisfarne Books, 1982.

(5) Geoffrey Cornelius, Astrology, Imagination, and the Imaginal, the Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2014.

(6) Paul Ricouer, The Conflict of Interpretations, Northwestern University Press, 1974.




Reconnecting Astrology with its Animist Roots.

The Constellations with Astrological Signs of the Zodiac, Atlas Coelestic, 1660.  Andreas Cellarius.  British Museum, Creative Commons.

The Constellations with Astrological Signs of the Zodiac, Atlas Coelestis, 1660. Andreas Cellarius. British Museum, Creative Commons.

The belt of sky along which the planets wander has long been known as the zodiac, from the ancient Greek zodiakos – ‘circle of animals’ or ‘sculpted animal figures’.  Western (and many other) astrologies are, therefore, woven around stories about celestial powers or presences -perhaps we might call them the Wanderers -also from their ancient Greek name planetes-  moving in a cyclic dance, through a succession of animal (including human, centaur, and other-than-human hybrid) figures and forms.  A vivid depiction of the zodiac from Andreas Cellarius’s Atlas Coelestis of 1660 (above) reminds us of astrology’s deep animist roots.

In the first volume of his cultural history of Western astrology, Nick Campion finds, for example, remarkable similarities between stories about the Pleiades from North America, Europe, and Australia, and comments on the antiquity of bear mythology and shamanistic practice linked to the constellation of the Great Bear or Big Dipper in both northern Europe and North America.  In the first millenium B.C.E. Babylonian astrologers had already established an astronomical framework for divination, effectively comprising an 18 constellation lunar zodiac that included most of our current zodiacal signs.(1)  But, of course, ancient astronomer/astrologers were watching the colour and brightness of stars and planets, and observing them rise and set in the sky, rather than gazing into a computer monitor.  Without the frisson of direct obervation, contemporary astrology can all too easily feel divorced from the fabric nature.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry’s 2004 book, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, opens with a summary of Edward Tylor’s Victorian conception of animism as an ‘illusory’ belief in spirits or souls inhabiting and influencing people, animals, and ‘things’, that would in time be eradicated by scientific rationality.  Willis recalls his younger self, in the 1960’s, agreeing that belief in ‘all these imaginary and unnecessary entities clogging up the works of what was, as Descartes and Newton had shown, no more than a vast machine’, was self-evidently absurd.  Willis and Curry’s recent writing presents an extended riposte to Tylor and develops an alternative paradigm to the logic of modernity, and its recent expression in scientism (c.f. postmodern animist friendly science).

In Astrology, Science, and Culture they make a philosophical case for an animist astrology influenced by Max Weber and David Abram amongst others, and by feminist accounts of a progressive patriarchal takeover in prehistoric times.  According to Curry “an effectively unlimited number of local cthonic and animistic deities […which…] insofar as they were gendered were almost certainly predominantly feminine […were…] supplanted by a pantheon of predominantly male Indo-Europoean sky gods”.(2)  Although Marija Gimbutas’s work has been critiqued by a subsequent generation of feminist archaeologists(3), the authors’ attention to gender is certainly welcome given the well documented masculinist bias of Enlightenment era science.  Their historical account makes it clear that constructions of the divine have often been deeply implicated in power relations, and that divination is, therefore, not  necessarily unproblematic.

Roy Willis refers to the human as a ‘dialogical animal’.  ‘We earthpeople (the root meaning of ‘human’) are designed to communicate’.  We have an ‘innate impulsion to dialogue with a multiverse of intelligent beings, starting with fellow humans and including every animal and plant, every rock and river and ocean; also the clouds in the sky, winds and storm and rain, and all the luminous inhabitants of the starry vault. For this animal, all that is, is in some sense alive’.  Although some aspects of their argument might have looked a bit different had Astrology, Science, and Culture not preceeded Graham Harvey’s Animism, this statement beautifully encapsulates Nurit Bird Davis’s now widely accepted understanding of animism as relational ontology.

Patrick Curry has developed his perspective in subsequent discussions of divination, always referring back to Moment of Astrology, Geoffrey Cornelius’s influential exposition of (most) astrology as divination -a way of entering into dialogue with the divine- as a key text.  Astrology comes to life, especially when considered not simply as an abstract theory ‘but as a physically embodied, socially embedded, and ecologically earthed practice’ …’what astrology offers is the wonder of being part of an intrinsically meaningful place and moment on earth that specifically includes the cosmos, especially insofar as it can be directly experienced […] it is thus an experience at once cthonic, cosmic, and intimately personal’.(4)  I would want to re-insert social or cultural here too, but if I were looking for a concise summary of the value of astrological experience, I would be more than happy with the proposition that it helps us understand that  ‘Our home (ecos) includes a cosmic dimension.

Zodiac symbols, painted relief on the terrace of Gorpuram at Kanipakam.  Lord Shiva temple.  Adityamadhav83.  Creative Commons.

Zodiac symbols, painted relief on the terrace of a Gorpuram at Kanipakam. Lord Shiva temple. Adityamadhav83. Creative Commons.

The recent reframing of astrology as cultural astronomy has encouraged astrologers to look beyond Western perspectives on the heavens.  Sky and Pysche, a collection of Sophia Centre conference lectures, for example, includes chapters on Siberian shamanic ‘spirit of place’, and Sun Gods and Moon Deities in Africa.(5)  Although Patrick Curry’s theorising makes an important contribution towards reconnecting astrology with its animist roots, he seems most at home in the realms of high theory, and, somewhat frustratingly for this double Capricorn, reluctant to write about his own experience, or indeed any concrete experience that might show how animist astrology works.

For this we have to turn to many other (local) voices, such as the American astrologer Caroline Casey, who calls for a democratic animism, and hosts a series of radio shows on visionary activism that are available as podcasts here.  Her interviews are linked to current astrological configurations, and often feature people engaged in social or ecological struggles.  This focus on social as well as ecological issues is quite unusual amongst astrologers, and very much needed (my involvements have been on the periphery of  U.K astrological communities).  Caroline Casey’s enthusiastic style and particular eclectic mix may not appeal to everyone -that would be impossible!- but I’m looking forward to hearing and reading more of her work to see how she blends post-Jungian and neo-Pagan concepts and practices.  Her website, for example, addresses ‘the Trickster Redeemer within us all’.  Hmmm.  I’m not too sure about that, but we’re on the same ‘side’, so if it work for you, perhaps ….

My home page lists other posts discussing particular astrological experiences and the relationship between animism and astrology, and see Divination an Animist Art – 1.
(1) Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology: The Ancient and Classical Worlds. Continuum, 2008.
(2) Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.
(3) Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, why an invented past won’t give women a future, Beacon Press (2000).
(4) Patrick Curry, Grounding the Stars; towards an Ecological Astrology, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, Vol 1:2, 2007, pp210-219.
(5) Nicholas Campion and Patrick Curry, Sky and Pysche, the Relationship between Cosmos and Consciousness, Floris Books, 2006.
Caroline Casey’s Visionary Activist radio shows, website.  and Yout Tube talk on shamanic astrology.

Appropriating Sedna.

Artist's Conception of Sedna, NASA/JPL - Caltech, R.Hurt.

Artist’s Conception of Sedna, NASA/JPL – Caltech, R.Hurt.

The following notes ponder the difficulty, perhaps my difficulty, in coming to terms with our fast evolving map of the solar system.  Although this is the first in a series of posts on astrology and animism, you don’t need to be an astrologer to read it.  There’s no technical stuff here, and its not just about astrological appropriations of Sedna.  Some neo-Pagans have also been incorporating her into their practice as a goddess, or manifestation of the Goddess.  As an astrologer I’ve felt  uncomfortable about this, partly because of a sense that my 20th century perspective is about to be unravelled, and partly out of political concern about whose stories are now being written into our lives.

There’s a recurrent astrological tradition that (i) because the discovery and naming of planets is fated, the official names are ‘right’, and that (ii) new ‘planets’ (including asteroids, planetoids, KBO’s, TNO’s etc) show themselves for a spiritual-evolutionary purpose, the nature of which is suggested by concurrent events on earth.  I’ve long been interested in this in relation to Pluto, but for some reason have been avoiding the other Transneptunians who have been making themselves known to us in recent years, so I suppose I owe them an apology!

The Transneptunians.

The Transneptunians, as of September 2008.

So, back to Sedna.

In a much quoted interview conducted in 1921, Naalungiaq, an Inuit elder, reportedly described Sedna as “the most feared of all spirits, the most powerful, and the one who more than any other controls the destinies of men”. Various stories depict her as a watery being who can change the Sila -a fluid term evoking not just ‘air’, but, amongst other things, the breath or substance of life- increase winds, unleash a blizzard, and when offended by improper human conduct, make animals disappear so that people go hungry. When hunters were unable to catch sufficient food, an angakkuq -the term is loosely, and according to some Inuit commentators inappropriately, rendered as ‘shaman’- would make a perilous descent in order to placate her, and then facilitate a communal ‘confession’ of any breaches of her rules and cultural prohibitions, not least those proscribing disrespect towards the ‘spirits’ of sea creatures killed in the hunt, and those requiring that food be shared. In a chapter entitled Making Carbon Confessions to Sedna, Timothy Leduc reviews the apocalyptic changes threatening Arctic ecosystems.  Having been urged by his Inuit interlocutor to approach ‘the environment’ and ‘wildlife’ as sentient beings deserving of his respect, he argues that Westerners urgently need to adopt a similar orientation towards the rest of nature.

The co-existence of widely differing stories about Sedna attests to a responsive tradition reflecting changing local circumstances. Leduc relates a version in which a young woman called Nuliajuk angered her father by refusing all suitors, and having sex with a handsome man who turned into a dog.  She then gave birth to hybrid children.  Her father, tiring of the dog-husband’s continual requests for food, arranged an accident in order to drown him. When he next brought food to his daughter, she set her dog-children on him, and he was killed.  With starvation looming, she sent her children away, and was then tricked into marrying another handsome man, who promised her a life of comfort, but turned out to be a sea-bird who lived on a desolate rocky cliff and only ate fish.  Hearing Nuliajuk’s cries of anguish, the father returned to life, and set out to sea to rescue her.  He managed to get her on to his kayak, but the furious sea-bird kept diving at them, and caused the Sila to become stormy and the sea turbulent.  This was so terrifying that the father pushed Nuliajuk overboard in an attempt to calm the sea-bird and the elements.  She managed to cling to the side of the kayak, so he cut her fingers off at the first knuckle, and pieces of her fingers turned into ringed seals.  Somehow she still managed to hang on, so he cut her hand at the second knuckle joint, and these pieces swam off as bearded seals.  All the other parts of her hands became whales, walruses, fish, and other sea creatures, and she sank to the bottom of the sea where she became ‘both creation and creator’.(1)

In another version, Sedna’s handsome masked suitor was revealed as a spirit in the form of a fulmar who took her off to a wild foreboding land where she soon became unhappy. When her parents set out to rescue her, the angry fulmar raised a ferocious storm.  Her mother, who had shamanistic powers, managed to subdue the monstrous bird spirit, but not before the young men rowing the boat had panicked and threw Sedna into the water. When she hung on, one of them brought his oar crashing down on her knuckles, then the others followed suit as her tormented father watched helplessly.  As she sank to the bottom of the sea, her finger tips became the whales, walruses, fishes, and seals, that would feed her people abundantly.  But if the Inuit failed to propitiate the souls of the seals, Sedna could cause the hunt to fail.  When this happened the shamans of old had to go down to her house of stone and whale bones and appease her by combing her tangled hair.

Other variations have the bird as a Raven or a Petrel, and say that her fingers froze and fell off rather than being cut.  Some versions are very different, but all are said to revolve around conflict between the father and daughter over marriage, and the father sacrificing her to the sea, and in all versions parts of her dismembered fingers metamorphose into sea creatures.(2)


Narwhal, from ‘Life of Animals and Plants’, A.E.Brehm.  Creative Commons.

Sedna first came to my attention in 2004 when her name was given to an extremely distant icy planetoid.  It seems to me that the rush to appropriate her stories (often by people with much less political sensibility than Timothy Leduc), albeit in order to help us address both the ecological crisis precipitated by Western/late capitalist/patriarchal cultures, and the accompanying pandemic of personal alienation and distress, illustrates some key issues for those of us grappling with contemporary animisms, astrologies, and neo/Paganisms.

For Westerners, cultural appropriation, from the latin appopriare –to make one’s own, has long been so much part of our ‘lifeway’ that it still tends to go un-noticed and un-remarked upon.  Although making other people’s stories ‘one’s own’ may sometimes be legitimate where there is careful dialogue, respectful relationship, and reciprocity, my concern here is with the habit of disregarding the cultural context from which stories emerge, and in particular the profound impact of colonialism.

Much as the name of the Sumerian underworld goddess Ereshkigal meant ‘Lady of the Great Place Below’, and the ancient Greek underworld god Hades was obliquely referred to as ‘the unseen one’, or Pluto (‘wealth’ or ‘riches’), the name Sedna -which is apparently related to the Inuktitut sanna, meaning ‘down there’- is a descriptive term used in order to avoid mentioning the proper name of someone feared or respected.  Sedna, who has many other names, is thus often referred to (for instance) as ‘the one down’ in deep waters, or as the Sea-woman, Woman of the Waves, Sea Mother, or Mother of all Sea Mammals.  Inuit traditions are emphatic about the power of naming, and Inuktitut names are notoriously difficult for outsiders to ‘pin down’, both because they vary according to changing attributes and context, and for reasons of protection and concealment. Moreover, the Inuit only began producing visual images of Sedna in colonial times.  A young angakkug who was only persuaded to draw images of her in the 1920’s after being paid a large amount of money, evidently found the experience quite harrowing.  Although tradition demanded great caution and representational humility, those images are still frequently reproduced.(3)

Now, in the wake of the naming of the planetoid, we have astrological websites discussing the ‘Sedna archetype’ and ‘Sedna energy’, listing keywords for the new planet/oid’s significations (‘gold digger’ is one that comes up!), and linking her story with victim blaming nostrums from the psy-disciplines (those who have been victimised should ‘let go attachment to dysfunction’).  A feeling of entitlement is woven into Western astrology’s globalising discourse.  In similar vein, Pagan sites urge us to venerate Sedna by, for example, bringing a comb to an altar draped with a fish-net (on a Monday or Wednesday night), adopting a pet goldfish (I’m not making this up), and embracing our inner selves, especially the difficult bits.  Much of this material seems barely interested in Inuit realities, only vaguely relevant to Sedna, – and all too often reduces a drama about communitarian accountability to the terms of individual psychology.

Most  Westerners can, surely, have little idea about the intended significance of various elements in these stories, particularly if they dramatise questions that are sensitive, private, and/or painful for their communities of origin.  I can, however, see why Westerners might want to embrace such vivid naratives.  They do speak to us, albeit across a cultural/historical chasm, about gender, power, and ecological ethics.  There do seem to be human commonalities that widely differing cultures express in strikingly similar ways -the association of dogs with underworld powers, for example.  In this case the angakkug is confronted by a dog barring his way to Sedna’s underwater abode, who is surely a distant relative of Cerberus.

Sadly, colonisation deprived many Inuit of the stories that used to guide the lives of their communities.  Jay Griffiths writes passionately about her visit to communities in which young people are trapped because they are unable to negotiate the surrounding land.  ‘The whites brought the clock and the Bible, alcohol and drugs, and another thing that has been perniciously dangerous – school … in two generations people lost the knowledge of the land’.  Children are taught to despise their grandparent’s stories.  An Inuit man tells her ‘my mother knew many songs.  She was a keeper of songs for the people … but the missionaries told her to stop.  They thought it was a shaman’s teaching’.  The psychological effects of losing this knowledge have been disastrous. Nunavut has a suicide rate some five times the Canadian national average. ‘The elders and hunters seem by far the happiest people in the communities.  They alone, having knowledge of the land, are not imprisoned’.(4)  It is these people’s stories that are now being used across the former colonial heartland.

A well known historical account, recorded by Knud Rasmussen, describes the angakkuq’s journey, down through the earth, or the sea, past various obstacles, including Takanakapsaluk’s dog, to the house of the Sea Woman whose tangled hair hangs loose down one side of her face, hiding her eyes, and whose body is covered in dirt and impurity from the transgressions of humankind.  The ‘shaman’ must turn her face towards her lamp and calm her by stroking the hair that she has not been able to comb for herself.  He (in this account a man makes the journey) must then return and elicit communal confessions of ‘taboos’ -including hidden miscarriages, and injunctions around menstruation, as well as the mistreatment of animals.(5)  Like most Western astrologers I don’t know to what extent the language of ‘sin’ and ‘confession’ used here was a Christian reframing of an entirely different kind of social ritual.

Michel Foucualt, of course, based his critique of disciplinary power -especially of medicine, psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychiatry- on the power relations encoded in the practice of the Catholic confessional.  When I have a copy of the full text of Timothy Leduc’s book to hand I’ll have another look at his idea of ‘carbon confessions’.  My initial response to this is that the concept of confession is problematic, but that if we are going to learn something from the Inuit stories of Sedna, and associated historical cultural practices, this might be better expressed in terms of an animist communitarian ethic of accountability.  The figure of Sedna is now being read from feminist and ecological perspectives.

It seems clear to me from what we’ve learned about Pluto, that names do have a particular power -a point of agreement between Inuit tradition and Western astrology.  The name chosen for Pluto turned out to be highly appropriate for the planetary theme, though many cultures have other underworld deities, of course, and some have other names for the planet that may be equally ‘right’.  So, whilst we, and some Inuit (again, I don’t know) may welcome the international astronomical decision to name a celestial body after a non-Western indweller, an ancestral being concerned with the fate of a threatened bioregion, we will need to be very careful about how we bring that name into astrological discourse.  Names can, of course, be appropriated for all kinds of ‘secular’ reasons.  One entrepreneur has apparently used Sedna’s name for a mink farm, a food supplement, and now a brand of Vodka.

If, as is being suggested, the transneptunian being now known to us as Sedna has made herself known to humankind -near the point in her 10,500 year orbit around the Sun when she is closest to us- in order to speak to us, or through us, about collective repsonsibility in the face of climate chaos, then, ironically, grappling with the political complexities of local cultural ownership, and the not inconsiderable challenges of personal and collective pain, and reaching some kind of global concensus about her ‘meaning’ would be a necessary and urgent task.  But, again ironically, if our experience of astrological Pluto is anything to go by, it may be a long time before we understand her meanings or intentions.

B.T 5/8/14.

p.s. I hope the above bit of surface scratching might be helpful for those who have already in some way been ‘touched’ by the transneptunian Sedna!  With a 10,500 year orbit my sense is that she won’t be much concerned with the daily affairs of individual humans.  Watch this space.


1) Timothy B. Leduc, Climate, Culture, Change; Iniuit and Western Dialogues with a Warming North, University of Ottowa Press, 2010.

2) Janet Mancini Billson and Kyra Mancini, Inuit Women, Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change, Rowman Littlefield, 2007.

3 and 5) FrédéricLaugrand and Jarich Oosten, The Sea-Woman, Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic, University of Alaska Press, 2008.

4) Jay Griffiths, Wild, An Elemental Journey, Hamish Hamilton, 2006.