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Hercules' Twelve Labors: Aquarius

By Dana Gerhardt

Aquarius You could tell that Augeas was the son of the Sun. His arresting eyes sparkled with his dad's divine audacity. As a curly-headed prince, Augeas had big plans. Starting with a modest herd of cows he planned a future rich beyond any mortal's imagining. By his middle years, now a King, he'd amassed so many cattle, horses, goats and sheep that no one could count them all. When King Augeas looked in the mirror, he saw a great man looking back. Even so, there were a few details he'd overlooked. For one, he neglected to have the dung cleared from the royal stables. After decades the stench of manure had grown so thick, it drenched the entire peninsula. The kingdom became so fully dunged that crops refused to grow. Hunger and pestilence swept the land. In the winter of his years, the King watched helplessly as his legacy withered away.

If the zodiac stopped at Capricorn and never reached Aquarius, this is how civilization would crumble. Capricorn kings dream big. They achieve important goals and create impressive structures. They make the rules, direct the flow of commerce, and preserve the status quo. But even master builders have their blind spots. Oblivious to the unintended consequences of their life's work, they may fail to see the waste and consumption of resources, the dark inertia of their ambition or greed. Capricorn kings inevitably get stuck in their own ideas and can't relinquish their own authority. Creativity is stymied. Problems pile up. Fortunately, the limitations of every sign always take us to the next one's gifts; so Capricorn leads us to the genius in Aquarius. Altruistic, progressive and unconventional, Aquarius brings the leap in consciousness that keeps our world from getting hopelessly mired in old dung.

For each of his twelve labors, Hercules adopts the method and virtues of the necessary zodiac sign. For his Aquarius labor, he presents himself to King Augeas as an outsider, a bold and unusual stranger eager to save the kingdom. "I'll clean up your stables in just one day," he promises. "For what price?" the King asks warily. "No fee. It stinks around here," our hero says, "and I'm the kind of guy who likes to make the world a better place." The King is suspicious. "Nobody works for free. Still I welcome anyone who can do the job. Here's the deal: If you succeed, I'll give you one-tenth of all my wealth. If you fail, your life and fortune are mine."

Hercules tours the stables that afternoon. Their immensity and filth are worse than he imagined. A cart piled high with corpses clatters by; the mix of noxious odors makes his head spin. He climbs to a nearby waterfall and drops his face into the fresh water for relief. "It would take a year and a thousand men to remove that shit!" Hercules studies the sky, the stables below, the two great rivers bordering the valley—and suddenly—he smiles. "Aha!" He will drive those rivers straight into the stables. The next morning he works hard to wrest the rivers from their centuries-old course, rolling boulders, digging trenches, cutting holes in stable walls. By afternoon, fresh water is thundering through the fetid murk. Within a single day, the stinking crap is cleared.

Greek: Augeas Staples"You cheated!" the King complains that night. "The rivers deserve the prize." It's true. Hercules had labored, but the rivers had done the work. This is instructive. Aquarian genius is opportunistic that way. It steals from the field of possibilities, rearranges the old laws, and shifts the current paradigm. In an intuitive flash it sees a new way to solve an old problem. The Aquarian attitude is one of daring—a thumb-of-the-nose to prevailing powers and structures. Its gifts are heavenly—for it seems to grant greater-than-human abilities to those like Hercules who complete the Aquarius mission properly.

The sign of the Water Bearer has a long association with gifts from higher powers. Ancient Egyptians noted that the Nile always flooded during the weeks that Aquarius rose at sunset. They believed Osiris was making love to Isis then; it was the god's way of fertilizing the life below. The Greeks told a different story, yet also identified this sign with life-renewing potency. Their Water Bearer was a handsome youth named Ganymede; Zeus enlisted him to keep the gods' ambrosia flowing. Today we're more inclined to see air waves or electricity in Aquarius' glyph of wavy lines. The sign's life-renewing waters have yielded to its air sign status. Aquarius is now the lightening bolt of inspiration that allows mankind—temporarily at least-to see and think like gods.

Since Uranus was discovered and designated the modern ruler of Aquarius (Saturn is its traditional ruler), this sign has become progressively identified with invention, innovation, and technology. How impoverished our world would be without its Aquarian innovators! Pluck Thomas Edison from our collective past and thousands of modern conveniences would disappear. Eliminate Franklin Roosevelt from the US presidency and significant social programs would be lost. Likely it was an Aquarian Sun or Moon who first suggested, "Maybe that tomato isn't poisonous" or "Leather around the foot might make walking easier." In how many places and times did Aquarians radically change their communities, befriending the town outcast, speaking out against inequity, or simply challenging the usual way a thing was done?

Aquarius is the sign of humanitarian forward-thinking, which makes the mythology of its two rulers puzzling. Both Saturn and Uranus (or Kronos and Ouranos) were stodgy sky gods who ate their children to preserve the status quo and obstruct all chance of change. This is hardly Aquarian! Richard Tarnas argues convincingly that Uranus at least was incorrectly named. The planet should have been called "Prometheus," after the wily Titan who crafted mankind from clay, then stole the gods' own fire for us, bringing life, culture, and science to humankind.[1] Prometheus does seem a better deity to appeal to for Aquarian inspiration—for the independent thought, the rebellious act, and most of all, the passion to keep evolving our world into a better place.

WaterTo bring a Promethean spirit to your Aquarius house and planets, follow Hercules' formula at the Augean stables. Enter the scene as an outsider. Survey the territory and climb above its problems; be willing to see things fresh. Once inspired, go with the confidence of water thundering through the stables, clearing the old by doing what never before was done. Aquarius offers an especially good style for tackling the kind of overwhelming problems that face us today. Indeed, when the cities were flooded with horse dung at the previous turn of the century, only new thinking and new technology saved the day, as automobiles replaced horses on city streets. Today's streets and institutions are overwhelmed with a more insidious kind of dung. There's widespread poverty, ecological ignorance, and the sewage of corporate greed. Our planet is poised on the brink of so many disasters, the only happy news is that we're entering an Aquarian Age. May it bring the great Promethean leap our troubled world needs!

Hot, cold, and Aquarian

As a beginning astrologer, when I made my first tentative offers to read charts for friends, Aquarians were the first to step forward. Aquarius Risings, Aquarius Suns, Aquarius Moons—they were all intrigued by astrology. They didn't need my profuse and nervous disclaimers that I couldn't predict their futures. Whatever it was I could tell them, they found fascinating. Those early sessions were so affirming. I'd say "You're a unique individual—not like the rest of your family." They'd nod their heads. I'd say "People, especially friends, are important to you," and they'd say "Yes, that's true." When I said, "You're creative and a bit rebellious," not one disagreed! Their sheer friendliness allowed me to think I was becoming a good astrologer.

Aquarius is one of the most likeable signs of the zodiac. If you walk into a roomful of strangers, feeling awkward and shy, an Aquarian will likely break ranks and welcome you, as happy to see someone new as greet an old friend. This sign has a genuinely curious and unpretentious manner. No wonder its natives seem to know everyone in the room. And when their eyes turn on you, you can suddenly feel so interesting. Think of Oprah Winfrey—the Aquarian talk show host—whose effervescent rapport with guests and audience allows millions of viewers to feel like she's a dear friend.

Yet as welcoming as Aquarius can be, at some point you'll find its warmth is unstable. Without warning, its goodwill can vanish. You walk up to your Aquarian friend and there's no returning smile as her eyes look right through you. This sharp contrast to her previous behavior makes it hurt even more. Did you do or say something wrong? Grimly, you recall what's sometimes said about Aquarians: "They love humanity; it's just people they can't stand." Among the many paradoxes of this friendly sign is how unfriendly it can seem.

Aquarians can be both colorful and cold, as one of my friends used to grumble about her Aquarian boss: "He's always making impossible demands without any idea that he's putting us through hell. He's brilliant but he's living on a different planet from the rest of us." Once in the lunchroom, her boss and co-workers were having fun with a magazine personality test. When the Aquarian was asked to name his best feature, he quite sincerely replied, "It's my sensitivity." The lunchroom girls did spit takes. My friend's boss was often out of touch with his crew, but his company was enormously successful because of the wide social network he'd cultivated around the country. In every city he visited, there was a client, colleague or friend who was delighted to meet him for dinner.

A Scorpio client once complained, "I have the hardest time with Aquarians. Like my daughter-in-law… she's so detached, always doing for everybody else. My grandson got hurt on a gate at daycare. I was furious. I wanted to drive down and yank him out if they didn't fix it immediately. But instead my daughter-in-law gets a toolbox and the whole family heads to the school to fix the gate themselves. ‘That way,' she tells my grandson, ‘no one else will get hurt.' Can you imagine?" She shook her head. Water sign Scorpio is so intensely emotional, that the cool efficiency of Aquarius can be derailing.

Yoko OnoYoko Ono is another example of a misunderstood Aquarian. Picture her at twelve years old, crouched with her mother and two younger siblings in a Tokyo bomb shelter, as thousands of American B29's rained down destruction in the largest WW II air strike against a Japanese city. Eighty-three thousand people died. Yoko fled the burning rubble on foot with her family; for weeks they foraged for food in the country. Yoko is an eccentric artist (some would say awful and others brilliant), yet she's dedicated her life to promoting peace around the world. Still, she's most known for being the Dragon Lady who broke up the Beatles, an accusation that insiders say is unfair. Even Paul McCartney has remarked, "I thought she was a cold woman. I think that's wrong. She's just the opposite. I think she's just more determined than most people to be herself." [2]

"You're insensitive and indifferent" isn't something we'll say to Aquarians during their readings, but it's how we may describe them to everyone else. Over the years I've trained myself not to take their coolness personally. When my Aquarian friends have seemed distant or aloof, I've checked in and found they're generally clueless about how they're coming across. As socially savvy as this sign can be, it can also be socially obtuse. Perhaps "innocence" is a better word than "indifference." They're often innocent to their friends' needs for intimacy; innocent to the hurt they may be causing; innocent even to those oddball moments when they slip out of synch with social norms. They may be keenly in tune with the larger community, seeing opportunities and shifts that others might miss, but they're often blind to the subtleties of inter-personal needs.

It's easy to see the evolutionary advantage of this detachment. To remain so available to new possibilities, Aquarians must be able to shut doors with the same ease they open them. It helps that their feet aren't mired in the sticky glue of other people's expectations. And it's easier to be unconventional when you're unaware that this is so. Branden, my Aquarian son, was the only second grader to dye his hair green—not because he wanted to be "different," but because he thought everybody would think this was cool.

But detachment does not provide protection. Aquarians do bleed from their social wounds. I first learned this from my good friend Molly. With her Aquarius Moon, she's a citizen of the world. Wherever we go, restaurant, concert, meeting, or hike in the woods, we run into someone she knows. True to the eccentric and egalitarian nature of Aquarius, her eclectic interests connect her with a wide variety of people. Molly knows bikers, classical musicians, drug addicts, and recovering alcoholics; also, equestrians, born-again Christians, native American traditionalists, holistic health practitioners, dog breeders and more. Yet social rejection has been her recurring theme.

Being the youngest and only girl in a family of boys, Molly was often left out or left behind; at school, she was dressed in a way that set her apart from everyone else. It's hard for me to believe this popular, outgoing woman when she claims she was a pariah for most of her life—but I do believe, given her heightened Aquarian sensitivity to belonging, she's felt that way many times. One of her earliest and most painful memories is of standing in her playpen, crying non-stop, while the rest of the family played at a game on the floor and thoroughly ignored her. As children, many of us experienced "tribal" rejections; what we make of these early experiences defines (or is defined by) our natures. Some decide the world is hostile and untrustworthy; others, "I'm not important." Yet the imprint on Aquarius almost seems to deepen its bond with the tribe—as though the pain of rejection hollows out a space, which fills with an ever-lasting attachment and love for the group.

Reading for Aquarians over the years, I've learned to ask this standard Aquarius question: "Have there been times when you felt like an outcast?" The answer is always yes. The experience is usually more painful because they didn't see it coming. It's not surprising that the term "inferiority complex" was invented by an Aquarian. The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler knew what it was like to be excluded and misjudged. A teacher wanted to keep him out of school because he wasn't smart enough, recommending he apprentice to a shoe cobbler instead. That hurt. But it was also motivating. Adler applied himself and eventually rose to the top of his class. Later he became the father of self-help therapy. A typically independent Aquarian, he broke away from the dominant Freudian school, and asserted that people could benefit from psychological insights without relying on a therapist. He was the first to say what is now widely accepted, that social pressures—how others view us—can deeply wound us with feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.

My friendly Aquarian son has a heightened sense of what it takes to belong. At times he's widely popular, other times he holds himself apart. He's also sensitive and kind to the ones that others ostracize. In grammar and middle school he'd sometimes come home with a heart full of sorrow, remembering the kids who didn't play with him that day. Nothing I ever said really soothed him. But one day he discovered his own remedy, a line he picked up from a cheery oddball on TV: "If somebody doesn't like me, I don't mind, ‘cause I know there's always somebody else out there who will." Indeed, now in high school, when he goes for stretches without calling local friends, he's online, texting or playing video games with people he's met around the world.

Being ostracized is an Aquarian experience that's ultimately a human one. We've all been on the outside at times. Perhaps we can learn from Aquarius and respond in an upbeat way that strengthens, rather than harden our hearts. The capacity to be hurt and remain open, to have sympathy for outsiders, is no doubt why Aquarius, even more than compassionate Pisces or service-oriented Virgo, is identified with tolerant, altruistic, and humanitarian aims.

The Tao of the Different

The world needs so much healing today, it's no surprise there are so many people moved to call themselves "shamans." But originally this term had to be earned. You were a shaman because the community desired your healing power. Aquarius must also listen for what the collective needs from it. That's one description of altruism—though on this point, one of my Aquarian clients rebelled. "The way astrology books are written, it's like I'm supposed to give up my life to save the whales or feed starving children in Africa. But I don't want to do those things." Saving whales or feeding the hungry are conventional pictures of humanitarianism. And while Aquarians are often activists and great supporters of causes, they are anything but conventional. Their first responsibility is to listen to their dreams and follow their own peculiar trail of passions.

When Robert Darwin looked at his Aquarian son Charles, he saw a boy who was lazy in school and a troublemaker at home. He was sure this slow learner would become the family disgrace. Young Charles loved to play and hike in the wild. He was fascinated with flowers and birds. But as a young man, he found medical school so tedious, he skipped most of his classes. Darwin preferred spending long hours with the school's taxidermist, whose tales of South American rain forests seeped brightly into his dreams. Darwin dropped out of medical school. He took up the ministry, but soon got bored with that too. Then he was consumed with a new hobby, collecting beetles. Who would have predicted this trail of hot and cold interests would eventually lead to the Galapagos Islands and Darwin's theory of evolution? Only when looking back on a life does its trail of genius become clear.

This is especially true of Aquarians. Their moods and development can be so different from their peers. My partner's Aquarian son is now delighting audiences in high school musicals, but at twelve he was a loner and nearly jailed for threatening to bomb the school. One friend's Aquarian son was a devil-worshipping high school dropout before he became a Buddhist therapist. There are no rules for Aquarians, except one: Stay out of the box. Aquarians need the space to follow their different rhythms. They may, like Yoko Ono, be so avant-garde and controversial that few understand them. Or like Charles Darwin, their work could provoke arguments a hundred years after their death. Perhaps, like James Joyce, their work will be banned in their own country. But the world will eventually catch up. In the most seductive sentence in the history of the novel—Molly Bloom's soliloquy yielding to her lover—Joyce suggests how we might all surrender to peculiar path of Aquarian genius in our charts: yes I said yes I will Yes.

  1. Richard Tarnas, Prometheus the Awakener (Spring Publications, 1995)
  2. Biography for Paul McCartney

Current Planets
19-Apr-2018, 16:05 UT/GMT
Moon1641' 8"18n41
Pluto2117' 6"21s28
Explanations of the symbols
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