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The Planets: Pluto

by Dana Gerhardt

In August 2006, astronomers demoted Pluto from planet to icy dwarf.
Unlike real planets, said the scientists, Pluto wasn't powerful enough to shove anyone else around.* Yet this is the very reason astrologers will keep using him. Pluto's gravitational force may leave other celestial bodies undisturbed. But his appearance in the chart, by aspect or by transit, definitely shakes up people's lives on planet Earth.

Case in point-a scene from one of my own Pluto transits: On the living room floor of my rented canyon home, I was sobbing, half naked, with my hands around my husband's ankles as he struggled to free himself out the front door, eventually dragging me onto the pavement. He was leaving the marriage. I must have threatened suicide, because in the next scene, my husband had called the fire department. Three shiny red emergency vehicles appeared in the driveway. As neighbors gathered and a line of uniformed men marched in to observe me, I heard my husband explain he had somewhere else to go. I didn't know astrology at the time. Later I discovered that my natal Saturn was in Scorpio, conjunct my husband's Ascendant, and Pluto was transiting that point. My husband was transforming his approach to the world (Pluto crossing his Ascendant). My Saturn tried hard to fasten onto him and hold back the stream of events, but instead, the entire structure of my life was tearing apart (Pluto crossing Saturn).

Pluto went back and forth over my soon-to-be-ex-husband's Ascendant, moving on to square his Midheaven. During that time, he not only got divorced, he found sobriety, relocated with his girlfriend to another state, became a father, and launched a new career. All were powerful transformations of persona and calling. I was changing too. It was hard. Many days I lay on the floor and stared up at the sturdiest ceiling beam. That was how I could end it all. My sister had told me about a woman she knew whose husband had just left her. With her newborn baby in the next room, this woman stood on a chair, threw an extension cord over the ceiling beam, looped the cord around her neck, then rocked the chair out from under her feet. I didn't do that, but in every other sense of the word, I did die. It was the most painful time of my life. And the most rewarding.

For many months I journeyed in the underworld, scooped out, frightened beyond comforting, forced to surrender. I was so profoundly humbled, I had to let go of all the naive and selfish notions that had gotten me there. From that release, I was reborn. In the years since, I've been so grateful for that transit that when I talk about Pluto, I have to watch my words. I worry I'll sound as wacky as transformational psychologist Stan Grof claiming childbirth can be a pleasurable even orgasmic experience (huh?!). But it's true: the life I enjoy today began when Pluto crossed my Saturn. Further journeys to the underworld have brought more gifts. That's why part of me wants to tell people, "A Pluto transit coming up? What a blessing!"

Of course, part of me still quakes in fear. In the past eighteen years, I've gone through several Pluto transits. Pluto has conjoined Mercury, Venus and my Sun; squared my Moon and Ascendant; opposed my Midheaven. These periods brought distress, transformation, and rebirth. Yet none arrived with the deadly intensity of that first Pluto/Saturn experience. Some transits came and went so softly, it's as though Pluto had merely tip-toed through my life. Even so, I never underestimate Pluto's power. The year Pluto was about to conjoin my Sun, I called my favorite psychic. With a nervous laugh I had to ask, "Am I going to die this year? Or is anyone else I love?" "No," she said, "but you will be changing quite a bit!"

I'm not a psychic. When a client calls, I can't predict what event Pluto will bring; nor can I promise whether he'll be mild or fierce. Yet I do know what lies ahead. All Pluto transits follow the same basic plot-a combination of the Sumerian myth of Inanna visiting her dark sister Ereshkigal, and the Greek tale of Pluto, the one where he abducts sweet Persephone and rapes her in the underworld. This combined story is what I often tell my clients:[1] There you are, cavorting innocently enough through the flower field of your life, when Pluto suddenly throws his hands around your ankles and drags you into the underworld. There he strips you naked and hangs you upside-down on a meat hook. When I meet with clients during or after their Pluto transits, most say "Yes, that's exactly how it was."

Pluto stories often begin with an unhappy surprise. The underground middle of the tale can last a few days, a few weeks, or stretch into long months, depending on the choices made. All alone you suffer, until a door opens in your underworld locker and in walks Pluto. "How are you doing?" he asks. "Miserable," you reply. "Would you like to get down from that meat hook?" "Yes!!" "Fantastic," says Pluto. "All I ask is that you give up that which you hold most dear, the thing you're convinced you can't live without." "Not that!" you cry. "Your choice," says Pluto. He exits and you continue to writhe in pain.

Pluto wants us to surrender something. But why does he make us suffer so? Can't a deity give us transformation without the grief? When I was ten, I asked a similar question of the Christian God: "If you're so Almighty and can do anything you want, why did you choose to kill your only son, letting people mock him while driving nails through his hands and feet? Couldn't you imagine a better way?" The motif of the suffering hero also appears in indigenous cultures, where shamanic journeys take initiates through literal or figurative dismemberment, going to the harrowing brink of death (and sometimes beyond) before their shamanic powers are won. In Buddhism too, some of the great masters are initially beaten and humiliated by their teachers, or made to suffer devastating trials and losses before their opening into enlightenment. Why do Pluto transits, along with so many mythic and spiritual traditions, offer the same pain-ridden story of death, transformation and rebirth? 

Here's how it was explained to me years ago, just as Pluto left my Saturn. In an elementary schoolroom holding the Al-Alon meeting that stitched me back together, one of the old-timers said: "It's like this. Let's say you've got a toddler attached to her binkie. If she keeps sucking the damn pacifier, she'll grow buck teeth. Because you want her to be beautiful and confident, because you want her to learn how to soothe herself without the plastic, you take it away. She shrieks in pain. She doesn't understand you're doing it because you love her. If she could understand, you'd explain it; but she doesn't, so you can't. Instead she cries bloody murder until one day she just lets go. She enters the greater freedom of life without her binkie. And ever after that, because of losing that binkie, she'll wear the most beautiful smile."

Pluto operates like a good parent or a wise spiritual master. He doesn't engineer our suffering; our own confusion does that. It's not the transit, but our resistance to it that creates the pain. We're attached to something disempowering; it holds us back. The crucial part of Pluto's interrogation is to identify "that which we hold most dear," so we know what to relinquish. Initially we're frightened it's something external we must lose-a marriage, a child, our standing in the world. These may or may not disappear. But more often the real binkie we're sucking on is some stupid notion that has been holding our limited world in place. That dysfunctional mindset must be shattered if we're going to grow. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, "We can't solve our problems using the same mind that created them."

Exhausted from your suffering, you can't hold on anymore. The next time Pluto appears, you say "Take it. I give up." Immediately his handmaidens appear; they lift you off that gruesome hook. They bathe you with scented oils and dress you in new robes. You look like royalty. "You can now return to the land of the living," says Pluto. "But before you go, accept this small token of my appreciation." It is a small treasure chest containing a jewel that is unspeakably exquisite and rare.

Pluto is the god of wealth. And his transits do enrich us. Despite his rather grim modus operandi, he aims to leave us better off than when he found us. Empowerment, not destruction, is his game. After Pluto opposed my Midheaven, I was blessed with a substantial promotion. But before that I suffered corporate humiliation and came perilously close to being fired. My boss' Gemini Sun was conjunct my Midheaven. He was going through that Pluto transit too. The rumors about his family troubles were pretty wild. At work, he was angry and I became his target. Yet I didn't resist or play the victim. I wanted to learn as much as I could from each of his attacks. What did I give up? The notion that I, the straight A Phi Beta Kappa success girl, should always be loved for what I do. It was difficult, but knowing that Pluto requires surrender greatly reduced my pain. A few months later a new CFO was hired. At my boss' direction, he scrutinized my performance, to fire me perhaps. In the end he concluded that I deserved a raise.

The Pluto Clans

Pluto transits also define generations. Spending approximately ten to twenty years in each sign, Pluto describes the current cultural obsession plus the enduring interest of the group born then. Its sign suggests how that group will transform the world. Pluto was in Cancer from 1913 to 1938. The generation born during these years (which saw the Depression and two World Wars) was fiercely protective, security-conscious, and nationalistic. These are deep Cancer traits, along with its sentimental focus on home and family. Appropriately enough, this group redefined the American Dream as the version we still embrace or reject today-raising the proverbial 2.4 kids in the mortgaged home behind a happy picket fence.

Much has been written about the "look at me" Pluto in Leo group (1937-1958), aka the Baby Boomers or the "Me Generation." Every zodiac sign is a reaction against the excesses of its preceding sign; this is especially true with the differing Pluto generations. If Cancer is the archetypal parent, Leo is the Divine Child. Creative, exhibitionistic, playful, and narcissistic, the Boomers' American Dream was to "find themselves," or at the least, become a rock star. Now in their fifties and sixties, many are still searching and/or playing in rock and roll bands. This group has spent plenty of time in therapy poring over their childhoods, and they've spent plenty of dollars spoiling their children. They're obsessed with staying young.

I remember the discomfort in my corporation when the Pluto in Virgo group (1957-1972) came of age. Dubbed "Gen X" or "Slackers," these flannel-wearing greenies were more down to earth and cynical than their parents, also highly educated and often underemployed. They weren't motivated by the same corporate carrots that enticed us Pluto in Leo managers. We'd reward them with a raise and they'd resign the following week-to pursue a more interesting opportunity, starting at the bottom in an entirely different field. So it goes with mutable signs. Appropriate for earth sign Virgo, this group is ecologically minded, setting new cultural standards for recycling and organic foods. Consistent with Virgo's health orientation, this group has taken alternative medicine mainstream. Hopefully they still have time to save the planet (and fix our broken health care system too).

You won't find the Pluto-in-Libra people (1971-1984) wearing hiking boots and flannel. Tattoos, body piercings, body waxing, sculpted "lady gardens"-this group understands the human body is a work of art. True to their ruling planet Venus, its females pursue sex without apology or shame. Along with their metrosexual males, they've transformed the game of hooking up, giving us speed dating, online match-making, and busy urban pickup scenes. Beauty-loving, idealistic Libra is the relationship sign. It also has difficulty making up its mind. This generation wants it all-exciting dates, a romantic marriage, adorable babies-but many of these twenty-and thirty-somethings can't seem to find the ideal mate with whom they'll settle down. "The Bachelor's" rose ceremonies are designed for this group-as are the slew of other TV reality shows featuring competing Libra professionals-hair stylists, interior designers, top chefs, models and fashion designers. Pink is their new black.

Black will never go out of style with the Pluto in Scorpios (1983-1995). In middle school this group dyed their hair black, donned Goth pants and T-shirts, and draped themselves with chains. Pluto's home sign Scorpio is dark, deep, and attuned to the invisible. Would Harry Potter have been an international sensation without this group lining up at midnight to buy the latest volume? The Scorpio generation isn't troubled by the explicit violence or sexuality of their gangsta music and video games. Unlike their Libra predecessors, they won't be carrying tiny dogs into dance clubs, or bringing brightly colored exercise mats to yoga and Pilates classes. This first wave of this group has just entered college. Some are fighting in Iraq, perhaps to return with a dark new set of issues for the culture to contend with. The deadly school shooters in Jonesboro, Columbine, and Virginia Tech have emerged as the Slytherins of this group. We'll see how Scorpio's Harry Potters heroes rise to answer the call. Meanwhile, the Pluto in Sagittarius (1996-2008) generation is now emerging. Watch for them to perfect the principles of "The Secret" and otherwise lighten things up.

Chrysalis of Change

Pluto's culture transformations and the enduring obsessions of its generations hint at the central paradox of Pluto. By transit we know him as a powerful change agent, but by natal position he's a force of tremendous fixity and focus. Pluto can indicate where we're powerful. He can also show where we get stuck. By house or aspect, he suggests the familiar hamster wheel of issues we'll chase around for much of our lives.

Recently I got an email from a client who's been struggling to find his place in the world, at work and at home (where he still lives with his parents). "These days everyone seems like the worst of my family," Dean wrote. "At my job I'm around people who are abusive, unaware, vile, poisonous, angry, hopeless and mean. Just like home. It's almost funny how this keeps happening. I wonder why I never get too far away." 

We could say it's Pluto's fault. Pluto is in his 4th house of family and home, rules his Scorpio Sun in the 6th house of employment, and squares his Ascendant persona. In the houses Pluto touches there's a potential for dramatic transformation-and for being denied what we most desire. A 4th house Pluto may long for nurture and support but never find it. With Pluto we can program our own failures, unconsciously provoking the very scenarios we most hate and fear. In the 6th we may yearn to be a powerful influence in our work environment, yet find ourselves consistently at odds with co-workers and bosses. With Pluto square Ascendant, we may crave loyalty and appreciation from our relationships, but find ourselves locked in power struggles, or worse, ignored.

"Hades," the ancient Greek word for the underworld, originally meant "unseen." Invisibility is an important feature of our Pluto landscape; unseen forces encircle us down in Pluto's cave. Above ground we feel powerless, as our internal demons gather strength in their dark hiding place. To vanquish them, we must bring them into the light. This means becoming conscious of them-which was the great obsession during Pluto's transit through Scorpio. In the eighties we went on a cultural binge of exposing secrets, raising awareness of the physical and psychological abuses that were previously hushed up: domestic violence, addiction, child molestation and incest. Depth psychology moved into the mainstream, transforming astrology as well. Astrologers took off their fortune teller turbans and became counselors identifying psychological issues. 

Yet as Pluto shifted into Sagittarius, we grew weary of the exposes. My clients and I were less interested in poking through the particular tyranny of their childhoods. Not that childhood is irrelevant. It's just that Pluto's run through Scorpio erupted into an orgy of psychological blame, ironically undermining the empowerment we initially hoped to gain from our new insights. Given the potential for victimization in the areas Pluto touches, it became a tricky business, validating clients' difficulties without increasing their sense of being thwarted and abused.

When Pluto entered philosophical Sagittarius in the mid-nineties, our hunger for meaning grew. We wanted something more numinous. We wanted the planets to give us Sagittarian things-readings that were inspiring, spiritual, more adventurous and optimistic. No longer feeling caged by our past, we wanted to know what we could do now to change our future. Astrologers looked at Pluto through a new paradigm: now he represented the matrix of our own beliefs. This gave us new power, because beliefs were something we could change. Our early Pluto experience was just one reality. We could, like spiritual adepts, enter others.

Pluto will be in Capricorn soon. (Editor's note: Dana Gerhardt wrote this article when Pluto still was in Sagittarius. The planet entered Capricorn on 26th January 2008 and moved backwards again in Sagittarius in June 2008. But since 27th November 2008 Pluto entered definitely the zodiacal sign of Capricorn.) The paradigm will shift again. There is, however, an enduring method to Pluto's madness. Through this planet we're meant to earn our power. According to author and teacher Carolyn Myss, this may be the very purpose of our lives-to learn the management of power.[2] As Pluto moves through the zodiac, he teaches that there are at least twelve ways of doing so! But what gets in the way? From Myss' vantage as a medical intuitive, she long puzzled over why some people couldn't heal. As an astrologer I've often had a similar dilemma. Why do some people never get beyond their familiar issues, seemingly unable to grow in the directions they desire? Myss suggests one culprit is the tremendous naiveté of people, in particular the belief that becoming "conscious" or "spiritual" means the end of all bad things. "This is," she says, "a child's notion." When you look at the great teachers from Jesus to Buddha, notes Myss, none has ever made a safe or perfect place for themselves. What does this mean? Perhaps that our Pluto difficulties shouldn't be feared or avoided. Rather we should value them. 

As Pluto enters Capricorn, our Sagittarian naiveté (ie, "The Secret's" claim that we can create anything we desire) will be refined by Capricorn's pragmatism. Pluto transits always bring new ways of seeing reality. Traditional approaches will gain renewed popularity in many fields, including astrology. We'll surely see changes in Capricorn-ruled institutions-governments, leadership, business. We can already smell these coming.

But it's not necessary to get too far ahead of ourselves. Transformation is inevitable. Going through it has its own rewards. Pluto simply asks that we surrender fearlessly to the shifting, unpredictable quality of life, to its fantastic dance of energy. Along with its transformation symbols, the Phoenix and the snake, we could add the humble caterpillar. Consider the following Pluto meditation: "I am caterpillar. The leaves I eat taste bitter now. But dimly I sense a great change coming. What I offer you, humans, is my willingness to dissolve and transform. I do that without knowing what the end-result will be; so I share with you my courage too."[3]


* Thanks to amateur astronomer Laurel Kornfeld http://laurele.livejournal.com for informing me that the debate about Pluto's planet status is ongoing. Writes Ms. Kornfeld, "Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers." You can find the petition of astronomers who opposed the demotion here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/planetprotest/

1.  I am grateful to Georgia Stathis, from whom I first heard this basic story of a Pluto transit during her talk "Pluto: The Planet of Choice," at the First International Cycles & Symbols Conference, July 26-30, 1990, San Francisco, CA.

2.  This material is paraphrased from the following tape:  Caroline Myss, Ph.D., Anatomy of the Spirit (Sounds True Audio, 1996).

3.  From Joanna Macy, "The Council of all Beings," in World As Lover, World As Self, (Parallax Press, 1991, p. 205)



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