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Unfolding the sensitive powers of Cancer

By Dana Gerhardt

illustration"You can go around me,"
said the Goddess,
twirling on her heels like a bird
darting away,
but just a little away,
"or you can come after me.
This is my forest too,
you can't pretend I'm not here."

- The Very Short Sutra on the Meeting of the
Buddha and the Goddess [1]

You can't pretend the Goddess isn't here. That's especially true in your Cancer house and it's what Hercules learns on his Cancer journey. In the hero's third labor, King Eurystheus directs him to capture (without harming) the Ceryneian hind, a red doe sacred to Artemis, Goddess of the Moon. The bronze-footed doe is faster than an arrow. She's as elusive as the security we usually seek with our Cancer planets and as agile and unpredictable as our feelings.

The Ceryneian hind is feminine, but has a stag's antlers, golden ones, symbolizing divine power and receptivity. The antlers are like cosmic antennae into which the Moon Goddess pours her Cancer gifts of intuition and inspiration. (Not surprisingly, Moon-ruled Cancer is often strong in the charts of successful creatives like artists and businessmen, who like mothers and gardeners, have rich imaginations and enjoy making things grow.) The doe is a formidable quarry - but also sensitive and vulnerable (as are we in our Cancer house). One critic has suggested the hind is reminiscent of Sibyls and ancient priestesses who were incapable of issuing prophecies in anything less than a harmonious environment.[2] Their delicate sensibilities required seclusion, being protected from anything unpleasant, harsh or upsetting.

To unfold the sensitive powers of Cancer is what Hercules' mission is all about. It's not easy. If the doe were a monster, he could grab his club and kill it, but to capture the deer without injury is more challenging. The focused masculine is disadvantaged in the feminine realm. Hercules sees the hind's antlers sparkling in the sun and starts his chase in high spirits. A year later he is still in pursuit, traveling across Greece, Thrace, Istria and the land of the Hyperboreans. The doe keeps eluding him. When finally he sights her at a nearby stream, he is both elated and exasperated. Hercules draws his bow and shoots. "Just a little wound," he tells himself. He throws the injured doe over his shoulder, relieved at his victory. His joy is short-lived. Just beyond the next grove of trees, he meets the Goddess. Artemis is furious. The hero wilts under her gaze.

deerWe can't pretend the Moon Goddess isn't watching - especially if we seek her Cancer blessings. Whether we desire more affection, a safe haven, or creative inspiration, we must play by her rules. Ignoring her guarantees her wrath. Case in point: the tale of a modern-day Hercules who hoped to capture her goodies. Jay Chiat was one of the top advertising executives in the last quarter century. When his agency's reputation began slipping, he hoped to regain its creative edge by radically redesigning its offices (a Cancer domain). This was long before the lean Pluto-in-Capricorn years of downsizing and pragmatism. It was the early nineties, when Pluto was approaching Sagittarius. Chiat dreamed of an office that ran wild with Sagittarian freedom.

There would be no cubicles, no walls, not even a desk. His gypsy employees would have only a laptop, a portable phone, and their portable imaginations. They would improvise their workspace wherever inspiration took them, joining with co-workers in an inspired ebb and flow of productive community. The liberated employees got minimalist lockers and a new morning ritual, lining up at the equipment cubby to get their daily laptop and phone. After that they were free to roam among the futuristic artwork and clusters of couches, or brainstorm with coworkers in the wacky "Tilt-a-Whirl" cars salvaged from amusement park rides. And if the mood struck, they could carry their work outside, to the park or the beach. With bodies thus freed, Chiat enthused, what creative marvels their unfettered minds might produce!

Chiat claims he did listen to employee input, but according to one insider, he listened only to himself. When workers complained they needed more privacy, Chiat replied, "You will have private space, it just won't be personal space."[3] A critical miscalculation. Private spaces don't satisfy emotional needs nearly so well as personal ones do. People want to nest. They need desks, places for family photos. They crave the comfort of familiar things. They have a natural terror of too much exposure. In the ocean of life, everyone wants a shell of safety, a protected place we can call our own. Because of this universal need that astrologers call "Cancer," Chiat's bold experiment was doomed.

Still, Chiat fought hard. He roamed his building on the lookout for "nesters." If he found someone sitting in the same spot for two days, he'd tell them to move. He wanted no paper in his virtual office. But employees gradually began sneaking their hard copies out to the parking lot, loading the trunks of their cars like file cabinets. At least one worker wheeled her belongings around in a little red wagon. Soon people stopped returning their laptops and phones at the end of the day, hiding them in corners and behind plants. Nasty signs started to appear in the client meeting rooms: "Keep out! This is mine!" Knee deep in squabbles and grumbling, Chiat's wide open spaces were eventually carved up by turf wars as bitter as any fought in ancient Greece.

Offices are Cancer-ruled. So are nests, warrens and cubbies; cradles, wombs, wells, and boats; parking spaces too, also skyscrapers and cities. We judge these Cancer spaces by how they feel to us. Humans are territorial because we like feeling nestled in the arms of the Mother, nourished, comforted, and safe. Sure as Hercules collided with Artemis, so did Chiat run afoul of the Moon Goddess. She reacted with fury, raising an army of self-centered whiners. She soured the workers and turned them into a retaliating, manipulative mob. Creativity suffered. Chiat surrendered. He sold his company and, like Elvis, left the building. Its new owners partitioned the open floor into workstations (called "nests"). Cave-like offices were installed along the wall ("cliff dwellings"). Lessons were learned. The Goddess returned to her heaven. Everyone got a personal space of some kind.

Sternzeichen KrebsIn the sky, Cancer's constellation includes a faint smudge of stars called "Praesepe" (meaning "manger"); the ancient Greeks pictured in Cancer a manger from which two neighboring (donkey) stars were feeding. "Beehive" is another traditional name for this cluster, as its round, fuzzy appearance can also look like a swarm of bees. Both images are similarly Cancerian. Neither heroic nor dazzling, they describe simple holding places, for bees and livestock feed, containing the Goddess' goods, honey and grain. Today we view this constellation as a crab. The Babylonians saw a tortoise, the Egyptians a scarab beetle. How similar are these creatures! Each carries its hard-shelled home around it, and with it, the Goddess' values, concern for lowly, vulnerable (even creepy) things.

Astronomers are quick to point out that Cancer is an inconspicuous constellation. This news is generally delivered with an air of triumph-as though its dim stars were proof of astrology's ignorance, confirming that its practitioners don't know much about the real sky. Cancer may not be a spectacular-looking constellation. But that this little collection of stars should keep evoking similar perceptions in us is perhaps itself spectacular-how again and again, this piece of the sky reminds us of the Goddess and her values.

The Cancer tactics

I know what I'd like to experience in my Cancer house - something like the womb-dreamy feeling I get at the local hot springs on Mondays (the Moon's day), when it's ladies night, and the outdoor pool is filled with naked breasts and babies and laughter and cooing and encouragement, all under the knowing gaze of the Moon. If doctors could write prescriptions for this feeling, they'd give us oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone." Naturally produced by nursing mothers, it's also the active ingredient in romantic bonding for both sexes. Oxytocin is what transforms sex into love. Emotional support - caring, compassion, soothing touch, appreciation - all increase oxytocin levels. This in turn decreases stress, depression and illness. Open-heartedness is the best way to bring this goodness into your Cancer house and planets. So why is the symbol for Cancer a hard-shelled, pincer-bearing crab?

First, the obvious: its defensive shell signals how Cancer planets can be inward turning, secretive and self-protective. Mercury in Cancer is an excellent listener and has a fine intuition, but it can also be shy about expressing what it knows. Gentle Venus in Cancer may trade passion for security, then pout or issue the silent treatment to draw the love she craves. An angry Cancer in Mars might pretend nothing is wrong as he inwardly broods and steams. What else does the crab suggest? Its branched limbs give it remarkable mobility on rocks and in tide pools. But on straight sand, its scuttling sideways walk looks strange. Likewise Cancer planets may scuttle around, approaching destinations obliquely rather than head on. I once worked with two women who both had Mars in Cancer. They were often huddled and whispering together, plotting, I presumed. And they were forever surprising me by tacking in new directions, yet never staying with a particular course very long. Jupiter in Cancer can get easily side-tracked too, expanding its sentimentality and self-indulgence rather then the good fortune this exalted placement can bring. If provoked, however, Cancer planets can be quite focused. When a crab raises its pincers in attack, it is pointed and persistent. Likewise, if a Cancer Moon senses a threat to herself or a loved one, she'll go at it with a vengeance.

Crabs are scavengers. They pick among the seaweed and whatever else washes up on shore, looking for fish and shellfish carcasses to tear apart with their strong claws. Their work creates food for smaller creatures, which is in tune with the Mother's business of nurture. I don't typically think of Cancer planets as scavengers. But they do chew on the past. (And we might wonder what food gets dispersed for the rest of us with their nibbled memories.) Cancer's crab of course was a favorite of the Goddess Hera. She was a break-down artist. Consider the way she worked to bring down Zeus. How audacious to go after the God of all gods! Yet she didn't meet him as a hero would, eye to eye, in a fair fight. She tore at him from the sidelines, till he cringed, cowered, and hid.

14th Dalai LamaCancer planets may likewise take on bigger foes, wielding power through nagging or manipulation. Passive aggression and resistance are other common Cancer tactics. Two figures most revered for their passive resistance, the 14th Dalai Lama and Ghandi, have Cancer on the Ascendant and Midheaven, respectively. The persona and global reputations of these men certify them as Cancer icons, embodiments of the Mother's compassion and protection. Their careers have broadcast Cancer's great and patient strength: holding one's position until the surrounding world yields.

But perhaps the most telling fact about crabs is where they choose to live. Crabs dwell on the shoreline, a transitional space, between the swirling ocean and solid earth. It is turbulent and variable there, among the rocks and sand, with the tides rushing in and out. Why didn't crabs evolve to forever swim in the endless, formless water, like an octopus or fish? Why not run on hard land like lions? Crabs must have a love - or need - for both form and formlessness. With the vast ocean at their back, they are still in touch with the rhythms of creation's great womb, while their body is suited to clutch and maneuver on the anchoring presence of solid ground. Shuttling between sea and land, they manage to thrive in this tumultuous meeting place. It's the habitat that most explains the protected shell, the sideways walk, and the grabbing pincers. Cancer's crabs seek security because, fundamentally, the world they know is constantly shifting.

This is useful information for your Cancer house. Whether it rules your 7th house of partnership, the 2nd of money and resources, or the 11th of friends and future dreams, think of this territory as a symbolic shoreline, a transitional space between two receptive elements, earth and water. Water is the Mother's nurturing medium, everyone's first home. It bonds the psyche to invisible forces, things felt but not seen: intuition, memory, emotion. You bring a special sensitivity to whatever area of your life is Cancer-ruled, an awareness of more than meets the eye. There is an action of cycles too, a rhythm beyond your conscious control. You must tune in and flow along-or you'll struggle against the tide. You also need solid ground in this house, the feeling that you're anchored and safe. Your Cancer planets crave security, the sensuality of form, the pleasures of shelter, and the intricate beauty of varied terrains. Cancer brings the comfort of familiar possessions-as well as collisions with whatever is hard and resistant. Given the shifting pulls of water and earth, it's easy to understand the deep anxiety this house can hold. At times your Cancer house may be an uneasy, unsteady world.

How well you do in this house may depend on the rest of your chart. With an afflicted Moon and many placements in water, the chaotic swirl of emotions within and around you can make you confused, unable to ground your efforts, vainly clutching for security and form. Too little water and you may deny your sensitivity, keeping emotional secrets from yourself. Denial is a way of making the visible invisible and reality formless. Not-knowing is turning the Goddess' gift of intuition inside out. Losing touch with the action of cycles, you may express them unconsciously as moodiness; you're helpless against the changing circumstances you find yourself in. (The one who drives these tides is often your own Moon.).

At best your Cancer house can be an area of tremendous creativity. With patience and skill, you can tease the invisible into form in countless ways. You may feel the trembling, fluttering movement of spirit and capture it in a poem that stands forever. You might simply sense another's need for comforting and offer it. You may intuit a social ideal and hold it so strongly that like Ghandi or the Dalai Lama, the world gradually adjusts to it. Whatever your vision or call, you have the capacity to cultivate and feed the very processes of life. You are the bird who knows life is coming and so builds a nest for it, you are the mother who makes space in her womb.

The real Cancer treasure

mourning doveA friend recently sent me an email that inspired such sadness, I lost an hour of work. It was a sequence of photographs showing a red-rumped swallow that had been hit by a car as it flew across the road. Its mate tried to rouse it, then rescue it; finally it became aware that its partner was dead. The bird grieved. As Pluto in Capricorn opposes Cancer planets in the coming years (editor's note: 2008 - 2024), not only will we see bizarre Cancer tales about Octomoms and 13-year-old fathers, we will see many more heart-wrenching stories about loss, homelessness, child abuse, and hunger. We will have many opportunities to grieve.

The United States is a Cancer Sun nation. We like to think of ourselves as being compassionate protectors of the world (we'll forget about Iraq). We are sensitive and sentimental. Hollywood knows this about us and considers carefully before giving us an unhappy ending. They know we hate to throw our hearts into characters and see bad things happen to them. We like to exit the theater in an upbeat, victorious mood. Poet Robert Bly declared that America has achieved the dubious honor of being "the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world." Denial, he says, "is the naive person's inability to face the harsh facts of life."[4]

It would be denial to study Cancer without wondering what happens to the inevitable pain we experience with our sensitivity. Not all our conceptions result in a glorious birth. No matter how great our love, we cannot protect everything we cherish. Even what thrives under our care will at some point outgrow us. And we ourselves may have painful memories of being young and defenseless, under the care of parents who should have loved us more expertly (or so the therapists say). Bad things can happen and sometimes it is we ourselves who do bad things. Nests can be full of bad dreams. Nightmares are the inexorable flip side of Cancer's dependencies, of being mothered and mothering. It's the pain summed up by the poet Andrei Voznesensky as darkmotherscream. "Darkmotherscream is... /a cry from prison or a yell for help... / Darkmotherscream is ... /the original mother of languages... /Don't forget - Rome fell/ not having grasped the phrase: darkmotherscream."[5]

Cancer's sensitivity is heart-breaking - or more precisely, it breaks our hearts open. The gift of our dark scream is a compassion that can change the world. This is Cancer's ultimate destination and task. It requires a new partnership between the masculine and feminine - or intellect and feeling. Hercules' labor with the Ceryneian Hind provides a roadmap for this process. (That Hercules must labor at all is the result of his own darkmotherscream. Hera had driven him mad enough to kill his wife and children; the 12 labors are his atonement for that crime.) Hercules, as intellect, must learn to listen. The year he spends following the hind is a training in receptivity. We too must train our minds to follow the inner emotional life, to track the varied movements of our heart without interference, going wherever it takes us.

Herakles VasenbildBut the mind chasing after feelings isn't enough. At a certain point intellect is hijacked. It circles around the same stories, trapped in old fears and resentments. To break the spell, the doe must let herself be caught. She must stand in her vulnerability and be pierced. We often avoid our own wounding with secondary feelings like anger and self-pity. But opening to our source pain is a critical step in emotional mastery. As psychologist John Welwood writes:

When we first open to our pain, it often feels as though we are bleeding. Yet this kind of emotional bleeding helps awaken the heart, allowing vital energies in us that have become coagulated to circulate again. To let our pain move in this healing way requires awareness, courage, and gentleness - being present with the pain instead of believing scare stories in our mind about where it might take us.[6]

We must join our pain with our warrior spirit; this is reflected in the image of Hercules carrying the wounded doe on his shoulders. Of course he quickly runs into Artemis. Something divine is about to happen. He stammers an explanation. He tells the angry goddess about his madness, his wife and children, the labors of King Eurytheus. Artemis is moved. Her heart breaks open with sympathy and compassion. She heals the doe and lets the hero complete his labor. She models empathy - which is the divine potency we unleash when we awaken to our pain. Empathy is the real treasure in our Cancer house. During difficult and transformative years ahead, I suspect we will need a lot of it.

  1. by Rick Fields; see http://www.dzogchen.org/teachings/www/20000606.htm
  2. Harriett Augusta Curtiss, "The Twelve Labors of Hercules According To Occultism," excerpted from Key of Destiny (Kessinger Publishing's Rare Reprints).
  3. Warren Berger, "Lost in Space," Wired, February 1999, pp. 76 - 81.
  4. Robert Bly, in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, A Poetry Anthology, Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade, editors, HarperPerennial 1993, pp. 195
  5. Andrei Voznesensky, "Darkmotherscream," translated by Robert Bly and Vera Dunham, in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, A Poetry Anthology, p. 208.
  6. John Welwood, Journey of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1990), p. 82.

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