Introduction: After Pluto
On August 26, 2006, members of the International Astronomical Union filed into a hall in Prague for the last session of the organization’s triennial meeting. Normally there’s nothing duller in the world of astronomy. After two weeks of papers, panels, informal discussions, and social events, the final afternoon session of the IAU meeting typically attracts only a handful of attendees, most of them elected officers of the organization, who take care of necessary business voting in new members, passing resolutions, rubberstamping decisions already made by consensus within the field and then head for the hotel bar or the next flight home.
That day was different. There were still nine hundred new members to be voted in, and four uncontroversial resolutions to pass, covering such edge of the seat issues as how to define the ecliptic and whether or not the IAU would officially endorse the Washington Charter for Communicating Astronomy with the Public. The last two resolutions on the agenda, though, addressed what had suddenly become one of the hottest topics in astronomy: what counted as a planet, and above all, whether Pluto made the cut.
Behind the controversy lay one of the most dramatic bursts of astronomical discovery since the invention of the telescope. Starting in 2002, using revolutionary new data processing technologies, astronomers had located a series of planet like objects orbiting the Sun in the distant, frozen outer reaches of the solar system, far beyond the orbit of Pluto: Eris, Quaoar, Sedna, Haumea, and Makemake. One of them, Eris, was bigger than Pluto, and all of the new planetoids had a lot in common with Pluto----much more, arguably, than Pluto had in common with the other eight planets of the solar system.
That last was the detail that mattered to the astronomers gathered in Prague. As a planet, Pluto had always been the odd duck. The other planets have orbits around the Sun that are nearly circular, and nearly in the same plane, while Pluto’s is much more elliptical, and canted at an angle of almost twenty degrees from the others. The other planets have gravitational fields that dominate the nearby regions of space, clearing away smaller bodies or locking them into orbital relationships dominated by their gravity, while Pluto’s weak gravitational field has no such effect. At only 1/400th the mass of Earth, Pluto is much smaller than any of the other planets; in fact, it’s smaller than some moons, including ours. In terms of its structure and composition, it has very little in common with the four rocky planets close in to the Sun, and even less with the four big gas giants further out. Until the new discoveries, it had been lumped together with the planets simply because there was nothing else quite like it. The recent burst of discoveries in the outer solar system had changed that decisively.
In 1943, when astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth first predicted the existence of a belt of small icy planetoids out at the distant rim of the solar system, the technology to detect anything at that distance didn’t yet exist. Advances in astronomy took a long time to catch up to Edgeworth’s prediction, but catch up they did. In 1992, the first object in what had by then been named (after another astronomer) the Kuiper Belt was spotted, and hundreds more followed it into the textbooks as astronomers turned their attention to the frozen suburbs of the solar system. Until 2002, the largest known was about a third the size of Pluto.
The new discoveries from 2002 on made it clear that Pluto was just one more Kuiper Belt object, and its apparent uniqueness was the result of the bit of randomness that made it both large enough and close enough to the Sun to be detected much sooner than the others. That’s the way the astronomers voted, too. By a substantial majority, they adopted a new definition of the word “planet” that put Pluto where it belonged, in a new class of “dwarf planets” with the former asteroid Ceres and certain other bodies, and left the solar system with eight planets, an as yet uncounted collection of dwarf planets, and two belts of smaller objects, the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt.
The public reaction to this change was dramatic and almost entirely negative. Schoolchildren in particular rallied to the former planet’s cause, and deluged astronomers with indignant letters demanding that poor little Pluto be restored to his former place on the roster of planets. The media proceeded to have a field day, and more often than not presented the situation as though the IAU had ganged up on Pluto in a back alley and robbed it of planetary status at gunpoint. By the time the controversy finally died down, scientists, pundits, and media personalities had talked over the fate of Pluto from every imaginable angle but one.
The omission, of course, was the astrological angle. This lapse was hardly an accident. As Richard Tarnas slyly pointed out in his pathbreaking book Cosmos and Psyche, astrology has exactly the same status in contemporary industrial society that Copernican astronomy had in European societies around 1600: even though it makes sense of plenty of things that the conventional wisdom can’t explain, it is so unpopular as a way of understanding the universe, and so sharply at odds with the unquestioned beliefs of the age, that most educated people reject it out of hand without giving it the serious consideration it deserves.
Just as a significant number of people in Europe in 1600 ignored the conventional wisdom of their time and made the leap to the Copernican vision of a sun--centered cosmology, however, a significant number of people in the industrial world today have made a comparable leap to the astrological vision of a meaningful universe: a vision in which the placements, motions, and relationships of the solar system’s major bodies have subtle linkages that connect them to everything in this corner of the cosmos, including the lives of human beings. The modern astrological community is much larger, better educated, and better funded than most people outside it realize. Like the Copernican underground in late Renaissance Europe, it pursues and develops its distinctive vision of the cosmos in the face of the disapproval of the conventionally minded.
The vision of astrology is holistic: that is, it recognizes the mutual connections that bind everything in the cosmos together in a common unity. It’s also noetic: that is, it recognizes the presence of consciousness and meaning in all things, not just in those anomalous lumps of meat we’re pleased to call human brains. It has close connections to the great spiritual, mystical, and occult traditions of the world: not surprisingly, as astrology has long had an important role in many of these traditions and a central role in some. To the astrologer, furthermore, the holistic and noetic vision of the cosmos communicated by astrology isn’t merely a set of abstract notions. Those who study and practice astrology know from personal experience that the movements of the planets relative to one another and the surface of the Earth do in fact correlate closely with the subtle tides that shape individual and collective consciousness----tides that can reveal glimpses of future events before they happen, and can also bring happiness and success to those who know how to move in harmony with them.
In modern astrology, Pluto has earned an important place. It is the planet of deep transformations, of secret and subterranean influences, of sex, death, destruction, and renewal. The sign and house it occupies in the birth chart shows where secrets are kept and where drastic changes can be expected. Its aspects by transit and progression are challenging, gruelling experiences with high stakes and high risks. In its personal and collective expressions, Pluto is a bear. It’s also a peculiarly modern planet: a great many of its most characteristic expressions, from nuclear power to modern art, are phenomena that either did not exist or did not have their current importance until relatively recent times.
From the astrological perspective, this is no accident. Many contemporary astrologers consider the year of a planet’s discovery to mark the emergence of that planet’s energies into human consciousness. The discoveries of Uranus in 1781, of Neptune in 1846, and of Pluto in 1930 each marked, as this book will show, a significant shift in the collective consciousness of humanity. For that matter, there’s very good reason to think that the discovery of the five classical planets in late prehistory marked an even more dramatic cascade of transformations in human consciousness and culture----the process that gave rise to history as we know it. That doesn’t mean that the discovery of a planet causes the energies expressed by that planet to come into play. It means that as the influences expressed by the planet come into play, those influences affect astronomers too, and the discovery of the planet follows promptly.
This way of thinking about planetary discovery follows from the core conceptions of astrology itself. To the astrologer, human life and thought don’t take place in isolation from the rest of the cosmos. Discoveries of all kinds, along with all other events of importance, do not happen at random. Rather, they reflect the great cycles of time and change that are also shown by the movements of the heavens. According to the astrological vision, in other words, the timing of Pluto’s discovery----like those of the other planets before it----was written in the stars.
This implies in turn that the time of its demotion from the list of planets was equally determined by cosmic factors. According to the philosophy of astrology, as already noted, every event that takes place on earth mirrors and is mirrored by changes in the heavens. The decisions of an astronomical organization are not exempt from that law.
The decision that assigned Pluto a new status, the meeting at which it took place, and the actions of each of the astronomers present in Prague that day, were all part of the fabric of the universe, shaped by intersecting patterns of influence that can also be read in the heavens by those who know how to do so. The decision of the IAU was thus as much a part of the natural unfolding of the cosmos as the discovery of Pluto had been, and it reflects a comparable watershed in the collective consciousness of our species. If this is true, as astrologers believe, then the astrological influence of Pluto----that peculiarly modern planet----was a temporary phenomenon, not a permanent one, and a great many of the characteristic expressions of Pluto’s influence can be expected to lose much of their importance as the influence of the former planet fades out. As that happens, a great many of the certainties of the present time are likely to dissolve around us.
It’s crucial, to make sense of what follows, not to misunderstand the core thesis of this book. I am not suggesting that Pluto never was a planet, and that astrologers were wrong to take it into account in their work. Quite the contrary, I’m suggesting that from 1930 to 2006, Pluto was a planet, in every sense that is meaningful to astrologers. Its influence in the horoscopes and other astrological charts that were cast and interpreted during those years was just as important as astrologers thought it was, as important as that of any of the other planets. What’s more, as we’ll see, the influence of Pluto began to be felt in human society for roughly thirty years before it was discovered----approximately one Saturn cycle----and will continue to have an effect disproportionate to its size, though gradually declining in power, for about thirty years after its relegation to the status of dwarf planet.
After that, it will have roughly the same influence on horoscopes and other astrological charts as the other members of the category of dwarf planets: as significant, say, as Ceres, the largest of the asteroids. There will still be a place for it in astrology, in other words, just as there’s a place for the larger asteroids, Kuiper Belt objects, and other small bodies. The only difference is that it will no longer be the potent force that it was during the Plutonian Era, the period when it functioned astrologically as a planet.
It’s also crucial in this context to recall that Pluto’s case is not unique. The planets Uranus and Neptune, which were discovered in modern times, show how planetary influences can emerge from the celestial backdrop, but there are other bodies that traced out both ends of Pluto’s trajectory through time. Ceres, the dwarf planet just mentioned, had a similar career as a planet between 1801 and the 1850s. While astrology was at a relatively low ebb just then, and astrologers at that time apparently didn’t get around to putting Ceres in the horoscopes they cast, the collective consciousness of the Cerean Era----the period beginning roughly thirty years before Ceres was discovered, and ending about thirty years after its demotion----showed the same sort of influence by a distinct celestial factor that the history of the Plutonian Era shows so clearly.
A parallel process, though it never quite reached the intensity of the Cerean and Plutonian Eras, can be traced in the rise and fall of astronomical bodies that had a theoretical or notional reality among scientists or astrologers, but never quite managed to make it all the way into physical existence. The nonexistent planet Vulcan, between the orbit of Mercury and the Sun, and the mythical dark moon Lilith, orbiting the Earth out beyond the one moon we’ve actually got, both show the same kind of effects that preceded the discoveries of Ceres and Pluto, and followed their demotion. The difference was that the influences on collective consciousness represented by Vulcan and Lilith never quite managed to constellate themselves fully in the world of human experience. Vulcan had its day, attained the status of a planet for a few years, and then vanished when its existence was disproved. Lilith hovers like a phantom of the heavens, its existence accepted by a few astrologers today and rejected or ignored by everyone else. Both are still studied by some astrologers, but as we’ll see, they correspond to collective dreams of our species that never quite became real.
These examples from the past offer important guidance for the future. As we will see, the core nature of Pluto can be summed up straightforwardly as opposition to cosmos. The ancient Greek concept of cosmos----literally “that which is beautifully ordered”----lies at the heart not only of astrology but of most of the world’s traditions of spiritual philosophy and practice. The vision of the universe as a beautifully ordered whole, in which anything that affects one part affects all parts, in which everything has a place and nothing ever goes “away,” pervades the higher possibilities of human consciousness, and is reflected in a great many mystical, religious, and occult traditions from around the world.
During the Plutonian Era, that vision was in eclipse. Even those who gave it lip service routinely behaved as though their actions had no consequences and their responsibilities to the universe stopped at the boundaries of their own egos. The end of the Plutonian Era, in turn, thus marks the rebirth of cosmos, a shift back toward those ways of approaching the universe that recognize, as the Lakota language beautifully expresses it, mitakuye oyasin----“we are all relations.” The implications of that watershed in human consciousness will occupy the last chapters of this book.