Capricorn's Labor:
Mastering The Hound of Hell

By Dana Gerhardt

herculesI feel good about the apocalypse. Because I think people will have to relearn their habits, and I think it's going to be better.[1]
Sandra Tsing Loh, NPR commentator

I have many intuitive clients. Over the years a small tribe of them, each unknown to the other, has confessed to me a special mission, something they didn't dare tell family or friends. Like the characters in the television series Heroes, they're ordinary people with extraordinary powers. I don't mean they fly, time travel, or fall from ten-story buildings without breaking bones. Instead they have vision. They peered across their happy consumer landscapes and saw the dark clouds of unimaginably dire times rolling in - long before this news was featured in Time magazine. As children they knew civilization was crumbling. Steadily they began acquiring facts and back-to-nature skills that would make them the necessary heroes of their future dazed communities. None had a date when the end-times would begin. But now that Pluto has entered Capricorn, I suspect it's coming soon. [Editor's note: in Jan. 2008]

Talk of the apocalypse usually brings me a flutter of fear, but I mostly feel good about the coming years. The zodiac is a knowing wheel, balancing each sign's excesses with the sign that comes next. Following the giddy highs of expansive Pluto-in-Sagittarius, we need the caution and contraction of Capricorn. The sign is ruled by scythe-wielding Saturn who is now marching through the collective with his banners of "less is more" and "the end is near." Last year I got lasik eye surgery in part because of that horrific Twilight Zone episode in which Earth's last man sat down to finally read his treasured books in peace, then his glasses fell and shattered. But I'm ready now. I've got lasiked eyes and a garage full of unread books. If things get really bad, I can burn them for fuel or eat them as carbohydrates.

When the apocalypse comes, I'll simply hold up my piece of the collective tent and do as I've always done: I'll read the signs. Already the world is full of new Capricorn Sabian symbols: A jobless husband and wife lose their recently purchased home. Another undiscovered insect disappears in the Amazon. A gas guzzling car shoved off a cliff. People with graduate degrees eating at soup kitchens. But it's not all grim. When Pluto transits a sign, he just shakes it up, both razing and renewing what it rules. In Capricorn that means the establishment-leadership, structure, government, corporations. Some businesses will fail, but others will thrive-like the firms making reusable shopping bags and the folks at "Despair.com." They market demotivation paraphernalia to chronic cynics and corporate ne'er-do-wells. According to a recent Nightline story, "It's boom times for despair." That's a Capricorn word and the website is having its best year ever, selling posters with inspirational photographs and captions like "Worth: Just because you're necessary doesn't mean you're important" or "Mistakes: It could be your life purpose is just to serve as a warning to others."

capricorn_goatCapricorn's goat is quite a comedian.[2] Sure he's an ambitious mountain climber. He's a realist who'll eat tin cans when he needs to. But he's also got a merry glint in his eye. Capricornus (Latin for "horned goat") is the mythological cousin of Pan and his carousing band of satyrs (half-men, half-goats). Satyrs are wicked, lewd, subversive, and funny. A satyr is the featured star of Capricorn's Tarot card, the Devil, which pictures, in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, a nude woman and man chained to the pedestal of a menacing goat-demon. It seems like an awful situation and nobody likes drawing this card. But if you take a closer look, you'll discover the chains around the prisoners' necks are so loose, the man and woman could just slip them off and walk away. That's the joke. The card implies that the Devil, to paraphrase Pogo, is always us. We are the prisoners of our own desires, fears, and greed.

Under the fertilizing optimism and preachiness of Pluto in Sagittarius, fear and greed have had a field day - from the fear-mongering politicians, to the Enron-styled speculators, real estate boomers, war profiteers, and CEOs who slash jobs and award themselves ridiculously high bonuses. Greed even blossomed in metaphysical quarters with the mass excitement inspired by The Secret and its promise of manifesting bicycles or diamond rings just by thinking them into your hands. My favorite example of Sagittarian excess is the Nero-fiddling-as-Rome-burns MTV series My Super Sweet 16, in which whiny privileged kids are given the budgets of small nations to throw themselves over-the-top birthday parties. In each episode a self-involved brat designs an elaborate invitation ceremony (primarily to humiliate the uninvited), then hires the biggest celebrity daddy can afford, stages a party entrance befitting a tribal queen or king (carried on a litter, surrounded by near-naked dancers, or deposited by helicopter), and always gets the keys to a new luxury car at the end.

"My dad owns his own oil company and he has oil wells all over the world," one MTV sweet sixteener proudly proclaimed. "I love oil. Oil means shoes and cars and purses." Her birthday vehicle was a BMW 325i which, she enthused, "kind of sets me apart from everyone else in this town."[3]

capricornBut Pluto in Capricorn has peeled back the façade on this reality tale. The oil princess' daddy is now under indictment for swindling hundreds of investors with an oil business that didn't actually exist. If the Devil card suggests that people author their own demise, it looks like Pluto in Capricorn has a similar sense of humor. The programmers at MTV must have been checking their ephemerides too, because their latest show is Exiled, in which the same spoiled brats are given a darker dose of reality. Their rich doting parents send them to live with underprivileged people in foreign lands, sharing rooms with chickens and cow dung, where they have to - gasp - do actual chores.

Capricorn's humor is ironic and dry, which is just the sort of thing to get us through hard times. I suspect as the end nears, things will get funnier and funnier. With the zeal of a French peasant watching privileged heads roll, I hope all the greedy bastards get what they deserve. As for you and me, we've got our own work to do.

Learning from Hercules' Labors

In high school I won a few oratory prizes for a speech that began with a festooning hand gesture and the horrified pronouncement that "Conformity is sweeping the nation." Next to the apocalypse, this was my second greatest fear of Pluto entering Capricorn: that it would dial us back to a fifties-style conformity of grey flannel suits and briefcases. Capricorn is a businessman after all, and Capricorn mottos are what our parents and teachers - and society in general - have been preaching since we were toddlers.

Obey the rules. Be responsible. To gain respect you've got to earn it. Work hard and you'll go far. Capricorn is conventional, dependable, practical, and disciplined. It's ambitious too, but prefers climbing the stairs of existing structures. Its success generally follows traditional routes. Being a sixties - hippy at heart, I worried about Cap Pluto's approaching hey-day, never imagining how shiny its virtues would appear in a post-millennium world. I'm now delighted that Capricorn keywords like "respect," "integrity," and "effective leadership" are making a comeback. I'll even become a conservative, if that means being progressive enough to conserve resources rather than using them up. Rebuilding infrastructure and revitalizing government and corporations seem like worthwhile projects, well-suited to Pluto's transformation and renewal of Capricorn themes.

In addition to Pluto's collective projects, he'll surely assign us each personal ones. And if you want to be successful, I suggest sailing along with the collective mood. Use Capricorn as your pole star and become the determined new leader of your life. If the mascot for Pluto-in-Sagittarius was the youthful adventurer ("How can I get ahead quick without working too hard?"), Capricorn gives us the wise old man counseling, "Be more practical, realistic, and patient, going step by step toward your dreams." This is not as bad as it seems. And with Capricorn's penchant for histories and hierarchies, we can inspire ourselves with plenty of good role models. I decided to go back through the centuries and grab a mythological hero - using Hercules and his twelve labors as the touchstone for this new series on zodiac signs.

alice_baileyI've wanted to do this for years, after reading so many intriguing references, like this one from Ernest Busenbark: "As early as the fifth century BC, Pausanius observes that the Twelve Labors of Hercules represented the annual passage of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac. His opinion was supported by the Scholiast of Hesiod which says that 'the zodiac in which the sun accomplishes its annual course is the real career of Hercules.'"[4] Occult teacher Alice Bailey has also linked the signs and the labors as a metaphysical description of the soul's journey toward spiritual mastery.[5]

If we must "do" Capricorn for the next fifteen years, then perhaps Hercules can inspire us. The labor traditionally linked to Capricorn is his final one, in which Hercules goes to hell and back.[6]

The twelfth labor is Hercules' Capricorn challenge. Some believe it's his most difficult one: traveling to the gates of Hell and bringing back its vicious three-headed guard dog, Cerberus, who allows anyone into Hell, but never lets anyone out. Before the mission, Hercules goes to Eleusis where he is purified by initiation into its mysteries. Then through the mouth of a cave in Laconia, he descends to the Underworld, with Hermes as his guide. Surprised spirits run away, except for the terrible Medusa; hissing snakes writhe around her head. Hercules draws his sword, but Hermes says, "Don't waste your time, they're only spirits." The two meet Charon, who initially refuses passage on his barge until the hero attacks him with his own oars; thus cowed, Charon ferries them across the River Styx, where Hercules sees a sight that brings tears to his eyes. His dear friend Theseus is bound in the chains of forgetfulness. He had gone to Hell with Peirithous to rescue Persephone. Cerberus tore Peirithous to pieces and would have done the same to Theseus had not Pluto intervened.

Hercules requests an audience with the formidable Underworld god. He asks for Pluto's permission to take both Theseus and the hell hound back to the land of the living. Pluto consents, but with one condition: Hercules must use only his bare hands - no clubs or arrows - to subdue the beast. The hero then seizes the three-headed dog by the neck and squeezes the base of its three throats. The dog nearly suffocates. The warrior then rips the chains from Hell's gates and makes a leash with three collars for each of the dog's trembling heads. With Theseus at his side, Hercules drags the hound along, onto Charon's barge, then upwards, where the sun's rays become so blindingly intense, Cereberus rears up and runs away, dragging Hercules halfway back to hell. Angry now, the hero yanks the hound back and steps on its throat until the choking dog submits. A foaming spit falls from its mouths and from each drop sprouts Aconite, a plant of deadly poison. As usual (and as you'll see if you follow along with me throughout the rest of this series), the King who assigned this labor is surprised that Hercules succeeds. Hiding behind his chair, King Eurystheus orders Hercules to return Cereberus to the Underworld, after which the hero's labors are complete.

cerberusIn the story there are no goats, no business suits; in fact, there's little that immediately suggests Capricorn. Even so, subduing Hell's watchdog is a perfect metaphor for the central challenge of our Capricorn houses and planets. But first, what can we learn from the surrounding details? Hercules' approach is well planned. He purifies himself by initiation into the Underworld mysteries. Without that protection, his trip to Hell might easily have been his last. Capricorn ambitions likewise demand a strong foundation - an initiation into the tradition of whatever goal you're pursuing. Even if you plan to break the rules - it's important to first learn them. Hercules also takes a guide. In Aries, it's better to be spontaneous and blaze trails; in Cancer, you need to follow intuition and feelings; in Libra, take a partner; but in Capricorn, mentorship is key. Your odds for success increase with strong role models. Follow those who have been where you want to go. A successful publisher I know has Capricorn in his 9th house of publishing. His literary press was actually a gift from his publishing mentor-who not only proposed the idea, but arranged its initial funding.

Hermes tells Hercules not to waste his time fighting spirits. I remember long ago, when my first husband entered the corporate world, one of his mentors advised him not to waste any time in the lunchroom talking to people he labeled as "losers" and "complainers". Fresh from college, my husband and I thought this was insensitive and extreme. But over the years, I've rethought the wisdom of his advice. Keeping focus in Capricorn may mean walking away from others. Those who don't share your goals are only phantoms in the realm where you want to succeed. Hermes does, however, allow Hercules to attack Charon. Mars, the planet of aggression, is exalted in Capricorn. The message here is strategic: Don't fight every battle - just the ones that matter. Charon is an obstacle that must be overcome. To paraphrase a line from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture, "Obstacles arise to keep others out and let you prove just how badly you want your dream." Our Capricorn successes usually mean a lot to us - because at some point we will likely have had to fight for them.

Of course, taken to extremes, this attitude can lead to negative Capricorn behaviors: becoming ruthless, egotistical, domineering, status-seeking, and exploitative. That's the implicit message in Hercules' balancing action of rescuing Theseus. Ambition is tempered by an act of service. Capricorn is the first of the three transpersonal signs-which suggests in its house and with its planets, we must keep our eyes on the greater good, what benefits others and not ourselves alone.

Hercules approaches the leader of the Underworld and requests permission to liberate Theseus and take the dog. Capricorn missions require that we respect the chain of command. Even so, it's surprising that Pluto so quickly acquiesces - particularly to those of us who have seen how badly Pluto can ravage an individual's life by transit. We are reminded here of a natural affinity between Capricorn and Pluto's sign Scorpio: they are in sextile, an aspect of collaboration. The two signs share a similar value: an appreciation for power and recognition of its forms. Recall too that Hercules was well prepared for this moment. Having undergone initiation into the Underworld mysteries, he's essentially on Pluto's team.

Recently two clients of mine received a simultaneous Pluto transit to all four angles of their chart. Given the potential of this transit to over-turn every area of life - home, career, relationship, even physical health-it was a transit we'd had our eye on for years. One got the transit in late degrees of Sag, the other in early Capricorn. Both suffered serious setbacks in their career. But the one who met Pluto in late Sag triumphed. He landed a new and better position. The one whose angles were in early Capricorn didn't fare so well: He got fired, suffered a health crisis, his wife divorced him, and his driver's license was revoked after a DUI. It might be tempting to conclude that Pluto is kinder in Sagittarius than Capricorn. Even more tempting is that awful sort of astrological moralizing that assumes if a transit goes badly it was the individual's fault. Perhaps it's better to study the process each transit evoked. That brings us to the significance of Cereberus.

Battling the Three-Headed Dog

hercules_and_cerberusWhat kicked the supports out of each man's career was not his own doing. Both are salesmen. An economic downturn in their respective businesses jeopardized their careers, sending each into a crisis of depression and insecurity. Their negative inner voices started barking and howling - much like Cerberus, who symbolizes the beast in everyone's underworld, standing at the doorway of loss, failure or death. Alice Bailey suggests that Cerberus' three heads are symbols of sensation, desire, and good intentions - or, needing to feel good; wanting to get ahead and be satisfied; and entertaining ideas that are never performed (as in "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"). Bailey's list is a fine start, but I rather think our Capricorn dogs are more versatile, taking their yips, growls and bites from our personal history and a confluence of the weaknesses in our chart.

The salesman with Pluto's transit in late degrees of Sagittarius neared his Cerberus, but didn't have to battle hard. Instead he hugged his Sagittarian optimism and looked at the opportunities around him, an attitude that rewarded him with a more powerful status (and yes, Pluto transits do mean to empower us in the end). The salesman with Pluto's transit in early Capricorn had a more difficult time. Listening to his struggle, I identified the three heads of his Cerberus as fear, high expectations (and its withering perfectionism), and finally, inertia. With many planets in water, and Neptune rising, he was overwhelmed. He simply gave up his Herculean fight. Inertia is more common for the Capricorn archetype than our cookbooks often say. I've known many Capricorns who, buckling under the weight of this sign's expectations, just lie down instead of climbing their mountains. Without a goal, Capricorns are vulnerable to depression.

Bailey's channeled guide, the Tibetan known as DK, said that Capricorn is one of the most difficult signs to write about because it's the most mysterious. I've come to believe in spiritual circles, when something is considered "mysterious" or "secret," it's because there is no collective canon. For everyone it's different and so our Capricorn struggles - though observed and evaluated by society - are ultimately quite personal. Throughout our Capricorn journey, we're required to exert self-control. Too much leads to grim rigidity. But without it, we could never prepare and plan our ascent, submit to tradition, listen to mentors, and discern when to sheathe or wield our sword. The work is never-ending. For even if we do subdue our Cereberus, its bitter spit can sprout a poisonous attitude - like the Aconite in the story - that brings trouble later.

tropic_of_capricornUltimately we're both the victor and the vanquished - much like the man and woman pictured in the Devil card. Self-mastery is Capricorn's central assignment. This is why Hercules is allowed no weapons, but must grapple naked with the beast. Only by conquering ourselves can we claim the genuine authority that Capricorn promises. Hercules returns to the land of the living, just as the Sun does every year in Capricorn, arriving at winter solstice, when the days reverse their gathering darkness. Individually and collectively, may we also return from darkness in the coming Pluto-in-Capricorn years.


  1. http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2008/08/19/sandra_tsing_loh/index2.html
  2. Capricorn humorists include Steve Allen, Andy Kaufman, Howard Stern, Jim Carrey, Tracey Ullman; David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Lucille Ball have Capricorn Moons. Favorite comedian of the Depression, Charlie Chaplin, had Saturn on his Midheaven.
  3. http://abcnews.go.com/Business/PainAtThePump/story?id=5029836
  4. Busenbark, Symbols, Sex and the Stars, (1997, p. 60). I was unable to verify Busenbark's claims. The origins of the labors are actually murky, as only fragments are available prior to Apollodorus' first full written collection. Some believe there were originally nine or ten tales before they were canonized as twelve, but by Apollodorus' time, references to zodiac constellations do appear in the stories.
  5. Alice Bailey, The Labours of Hercules: An Astrological Interpretation, (Lucis Trust, 1974).
  6. The traditional order of Hercules' labors does not coincide with the order of signs in the zodiac.
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