Scorpio and the Riches of the Underworld

By Dana Gerhardt

herculesScorpio gets a bad rap. You hear things like "Watch out: Matthew is a triple Scorpio!" or "I'm nervous - Joe's ex-girlfriend has a Scorpio Moon." People expect behavior that's devious or perverse from this sign, though I think that's unfair. Even so, I can't resist sharing the following story. It happened to my friend Wendy as Pluto - Scorpio's modern ruler - opposed her 5th house Moon. When transiting planets meet natal planets, the archetypes might suddenly spring to life and enter our lives as real people. Fifth house transits can stage a romance, and sure enough, on the day this transit was exact, Wendy met a man eager to romance her. She was waiting for an elevator in an office high rise when he handed her his business card: he worked at the coroner's office. His eyes were intense. "During the day I cut into corpses," he said, "and at night I dabble in black magic." Standing much too close, he whispered that he could get a little voodoo doll that would make her crazy to have sex with him. His Sun sign? Scorpio, of course!

But I haven't met any Scorpios like that. They may be out there; however, the ones I know are about as twisted and diabolical as the average surgeon, therapist, or tax consultant. So I'm sympathetic when a Scorpio comes somewhat defensively into my office, mumbling "I know I've got the same sign as Charles Manson but most of what I read sounds scary and not true of me."

This sign's clichés are creepy. Pick up a pop astrology book and you'll find that having Scorpio planets can make you secretive, controlling, vengeful, power-mad, paranoid, obsessive, and over sexed. They can also bring you passion, determination, resourcefulness, and a keen intuition - but these positive Scorpio traits aren't on the tip of most people's tongues. After all, this is the sign of scorpions, snakes, and vampires. It rules tyranny, quagmires and rotting garbage; also: the underworld, death, and body parts we don't openly discuss (the colon, anus, and genitals). When people talk astrology at parties, rarely do the Scorpios cheer and "high five!" each other the way other signs do. Yet theirs is one of the most powerful signs of the zodiac. Focused on transformation, Scorpio holds the keys to life, death, and rebirth. It digs deep, solves mysteries, heals sickness, saves lives, builds wealth, and surrenders to high-voltage ecstasy. It governs depth psychology, metaphysics and magic. Without it we'd be hapless amateurs when struggling against our unconscious demons or bargaining with the powers from invisible realms.

It's strange that a sign so concerned with control would do such a poor job of marketing its own gifts; perhaps there is method to this madness. Like a magician skilled in misdirection, Scorpio may want us distracted with its creepier expressions. When cultural ecologist David Abram studied Indonesian magicians and shamans, he was surprised that nasty rumors often swirled about them, spread by the very people these healers routinely cured.[1] The villagers whispered that the dukuns danced with demons or would recite their spells backward at night to reverse their daytime cures. Curiously, the shamans did nothing to dispel suspicion. Eventually Abram understood why. Community fear bought the magicians a precious gift: privacy and the space to do their deeper work.

Scorpio needs space for its deep work too, unlike the sign that precedes it, beautiful and charming Libra, that graceful doyenne of harmony and smooth surfaces. Scorpio is fascinated with what's underneath the surface. Libra throws open the curtains and invites others in, but Scorpio prefers the shadows, comfortable with what people avoid or hide. It overturns the rock and studies the wriggling creatures underneath. Like a root tip poking through the dirt, or the worm feeling its way to the rotting corpse, Scorpio thrives on the riches of the underworld. This is why those with Scorpio planets make such good therapists, researchers, and mystery writers; also detectives, claims adjustors, surgeons, satirists, investors, and tax accountants - not to mention, the occasional devil worshipper or serial killer. We may not always know what our Scorpio friends are thinking - and that may be just how they like it.

Every sign corrects the weaknesses of its preceding sign. Libra can be superficial, apathetic, and vacillating; Scorpio is anything but wishy-washy. Its judgments are firm. Its style is tenacious. As a water sign, it's motivated by emotion, as is Pisces and Cancer, though each sign maneuvers in its own way. If we say that imaginative Pisces floats like a dreamy mist, and nurturing Cancer rolls like a soft and nourishing stream, then Scorpio pools as ground water, powerful, sustaining, and unseen. The water element is sensitive and intuitive, but Scorpio is also tough. Robert Hand says it's the only water sign that's willing to fight [2] (although I know a few Cancers who might disagree).

scorpionScorpio's emblem is the scorpion, an eight-legged predator with a venomous sting. When Gaia learned that Orion was planning to slaughter her beloved wild beasts, out of all her myriad creatures, she chose the scorpion to attack him. The mighty hunter ran all the way to the ocean. Artemis eventually killed Orion - some say with an arrow, others claim it was the scorpion she sent that did the deed. Eventually the huntress repented and tearfully granted Orion immortality in the stars. But there was the scorpion waiting in the constellations; still on the case. Rising as Orion sets and setting as he rises, even now Scorpio is scuttling through the heavens, forever in pursuit.

Scorpio's sting is unnerving, but this sign's intensity can be quite beneficial. With it we can revive projects and partnerships weakened by half-heartedness or fear. Considering what may have slipped through our fingers over the years, we might agree that tenacious Scorpio is a style worth cultivating. Whether or not we have Scorpio planets, we all have Scorpio in our chart somewhere, plus an 8th house, this sign's natural home. When planets or progressions move through these areas, "doing" Scorpio may be necessary. Particularly if we aspire to wholeness, we should be willing to cultivate every sign - as a mode of being, a style of perception, another angle on the truth. Yet it's wise to be cautious with Scorpio. Like Mickey Mouse as the overreaching magician's assistant in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, we could fall victim to the very forces we hope to control. Scorpio's power can surge to extremes. Its focus can lock into obsessive loops. Its ruthlessness can sting itself in the end. Or so the stories go. Let's see what Hercules discovers on his Scorpio mission, when he must kill the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna.

In Greece, south of Argos, on a narrow strip of land between Mount Potinos and the sea, lies a storied region of abysses and springs. There through the bottomless waters of Lerna, Dionysos entered and returned from the underworld. There the fifty daughters of Danaus decapitated their husbands and buried their heads. Guarding this abyss is a giant serpent known as the Hydra - or water snake - though some call her the murderous bitch of Lerna. She has nine heads; one is indestructible and immortal. Her breath is deadly, as is her poisonous venom. Hercules is eager to meet her. With his nephew Iolaus by his side, Hercules locates her lair and shoots flaming arrows into the abyss. Out she slithers, furiously hissing and spitting. Hercules charges forward; her heads writhe and reach for him. He chops off one head. Before it hits the ground, two heads grow in its place! Meanwhile the Hydra wraps herself around his leg, and a crab begins attacking his trapped foot. He can't escape, but he doesn't want to. Furiously, Hercules starts chopping heads as fast as they keep multiplying. It's a stand off. But the Hydra seems to be winning.

Such are the steel nerves of this sign. It stands firm. It's got grit-backed by the competitive nature of Mars, Scorpio's traditional ruler. Why are there so many heads in this story? Lest we miss its deeper meaning, the gods wants us to know that this is a tale about consciousness. The labor begins with Hercules shooting the arrows of conscious awareness into the darkness, exposing an unconscious demon. The Hydra represents Scorpio's shadow. With her many heads in the dark, she depicts the twisted memories, desires, and thoughts we don't often see or admit we have. Hercules models the right response. Don't recoil from what comes to light: we must go after it. His first instinct is to kill it-which is the rational mind's usual reaction to unpleasant shadow material. Our hero quickly learns that what he chops off only grows stronger. This is an important law of underworld physics: what we resist or repress we will energize. As the Hydra's heads multiply, we have a chilling portrait of Scorpio in the grip of its own obsessions.

But there is more. The serpent also depicts the alert presence of Scorpio's deeper intuition, the way it seems to have ears in all directions and eyes in the back of its head. When our Scorpio planets are seized with determination, we could say there's an inner Hydra empowering them. She is the potent force behind Scorpio's obsessions and drives, also its uncannily accurate hunches. What really sends the jealous Scorpio lover into a fit of violence? What nails the Scorpio detective to that thirty-year-old murder case? The stalker obsessed with a celebrity may not be so different from the Scorpio novelist gripped by the murmuring world of his characters. The jealous lover, the driven detective, the novelist writing for days without sleep-all are Hydra-fueled. This power can be as constructive as it is destructive.

hercules and the hydraStorytellers typically describe the Hydra as foul and loathsome, yet this is a Scorpio tale. That means there's more to it than what meets the eye. Scorpio is the sign of the "occult" after all - a word whose Latin root means to conceal or hide. We should ask what hides behind the Hydra's foul and deadly breath. She is a serpent. To an initiate of the mysteries, this is code for sacred power. In cultures throughout the ancient world, snakes and serpents were revered as the guardians of immortality, shedding their skin when they got old, and thus rebirthing themselves. Snakes were emissaries of the Great Goddess, wisdom-keepers, holding the secrets to life and death. Snakes have been associated with prophecy, their venom used for mystical trances. Cassandra, the great oracle at Delphi, was once found as a child with snakes licking her ears.

Though ruled by masculine Mars, Scorpio is a feminine sign. One of the deeper instructions of Scorpio's labor is to unite masculine and feminine, just as the sign draws its testosterone-driven ruler into the feminine mysteries. The labor is about reconciling the Hero with the Great Goddess. Indeed, with the Hydra coiled around his leg, we could say our hero is merged with her! But how does he hold his own against such power? This is the question inside each of our Scorpio planets, as they take us into painful love affairs, odd hobbies, unpleasant pasts, and other people's secrets. How does the focused and incisive masculine dance with the many-headed intuitions of the sacred feminine? Scorpio wants us to enter into her deep wisdom and absorb its essence without losing ourselves. But the ancient temples are far away. Initiates are no longer identified and taken to the priestess for proper training. Today most of us meet the potency in our Scorpio planets on our own. I have Mercury and Venus conjunct in Scorpio. I still remember the afternoon in college when these two made themselves known.

It was one of those periods when I was living at the library. I'd shifted venues to my boyfriend's house, hoping to renew my concentration. After my boyfriend and roommates went out, I could focus on nothing but the stillness of the house. Suddenly I was startled into motion. Without the slightest idea why (though now I know it was the Hydra's prompting), I made a bee-line for my boyfriend's closet. Digging behind his hiking boots and tennis racket, I pulled out the stack of letters I didn't know he had written to the girl he'd been seeing behind my back. The letter on top was from her. She said she was returning his poetry and love letters because he lacked the courage to act on them. It might have consoled her to know that he had saved them - and that he'd never written poetry like that to me.

My Venus snake was aroused; no shrinking violet, she got him back. Eventually he married me. Ten years later, Mercury and Venus brought me hidden information again. I startled my husband by recounting a dream in which a sexy woman appeared. As I described her, he gulped. She looked just like the secretary I didn't know he was secretly in love with. It took months for this dream information to reach my conscious awareness. But when it finally did, my Venus snake was done; she let him go. Scorpio planets bring many transformations.

It takes courage to poke after mysteries. The underworld is an uncomfortable place. It is also vast, containing so many things, the hidden letters of cheating lovers, the secrets of replicating viruses in a researcher's lab, what happened to that still-missing child, as well as the literal underworld where corpses decompose, and where gems, oil and ores are formed. There is truth down there. And wealth. It's not for nothing that Lord Pluto, god of the underworld, is also the god of lucre. Scorpio likes the power wealth can bring, and it appreciates what forms under pressure. Hence the interrogator, the psychotherapist, and the oil tycoon share a common bond. Yet whatever Scorpio unearths generally needs refining. Before one can cash out the treasure, transformation is required. Stones are split, the gems shaped and polished, ores are smelted and tempered.

Arduous as this work might be, it's certainly more straightforward than the refinement of matter from that inner world in which most of us toil. Our personal underworlds hold memories, repressed desires, our family complexes, the collective unconscious with its gifts and neuroses, all of which is bound-up energy and power. How do we make riches of it? Maybe Hercules can show the way. Remember that he brought assistance on his Scorpio mission. The sign which treasures its privacy instinctively knows that it can do more in partnership than alone, like the patient with her therapist, or the spiritual master who reaches higher levels of realization with his consort.

"Iolaus!" Hercules shouts. "Take a flaming tree and hold it on the monster's neck just as I sever the head." After nearly a forest is cleared, the Hydra's wounds are fully cauterized and no new heads grow back. Next Hercules slices off the immortal head and buries it underground, back in the underworld, where the serpent's eternal wisdom belongs. The hero dips his arrows into her blood, gaining the potency of her poison. He has successfully merged and received her teachings in life, death, and rebirth - until the next transformation is required.

constellation scorpioIn our Scorpio planets and houses, we all have wounds like the ones Iolaus cauterized with transformative fire. From these tender areas vengeful heads can sprout. Or we can prevent their growth if we're willing to endure the pain that comes from touching them with awareness. At times this process feels just as death-defying as the meeting between Hercules, Iolaus and the Hydra.

"The general rule in nature," writes Annie Dillard, "is that live things are soft within and rigid without."[3] Of the water signs, Pisces's fish are the exception, living as they do in such a supple medium. But Cancer's crab and Scorpio's scorpion know the wisdom of armoring. Life is so sharp against our soft insides. It pierces us. The Buddhists call this inner soft spot "bodhichitta," our good heart. It is our naked tenderness and vulnerability, the inner raw material that is perhaps what's best about us. This psychic ore of the underworld, when refined, can become the great love and selfless compassion of a bodhisattva or saint. Yet in its raw form, this tenderness more commonly inspires great defensiveness. Ironically, protecting our soft spot is how we usually develop our indifference, even hatred of the world. We have a choice with our Scorpio process. We can cauterize our wounds with awareness or simply burn the vulnerability into a hard surface.

I think of a few bad-ass Scorpio risings I've known. They sport looks that refuse to give themselves away, that just dare you to guess what they're feeling. But stay with them long enough, and a moment will come when the cover drops, and inside their usually indifferent eye, you'll see something soft and unprotected. A pool of sadness. A deep and silent record of some early vulnerability and torment. A horoscope's rising sign represents that first covering of personality, the psychological skin grown to suit one's early environment. Scorpio rising children were perhaps more naked than most, wearing their soft spot like a target. Such vulnerability may have made them the first among us to learn the arts of defensive covering. I think of this Scorpio sensitivity every year during the annual bikers Christmas toy drive. It attracts hundreds of bikers, tattooed, bladed, pierced, bearded, greased, defiant, the kind of people you wouldn't want your family to meet on a deserted highway. Yet on this day every biker carries a plush bunny, bright frog or teddy bear-sweet offerings "for the children," as those interviewed on the local news tearfully explain, revealing the soft spot underneath their leather and chains.

Like a piece of god's own heart inside of us, this divine tenderness may be just too much voltage to control. When it's hurt, it's like a live wire dancing on the pavement, or a nine-headed Hydra hissing from its cave. How do we contain this power? Before we fully understand Scorpio's mysteries, we often dance fitfully, jealous, vengeful, raging, and in grief. But we must ground and empower ourselves, through right management of this more-than-human power. This is the deeper instruction of Hercules' final two acts-placing the immortal head in the ground and dipping arrows in the Hydra's poison. What do these actions mean? If you want Scorpio's respect, you must contemplate this mystery and discover the message for yourself.

Whenever I write an astrology article, the gods visit. First I must sit like a beggar outside the Zen master's gate, empty and uninspired. The sentences come slowly. After a mysterious interval that proves my sincerity - sometimes weeks, sometimes days - the teacher arrives. The archetype I write about begins appearing everywhere, on TV shows, in the blogs, at the grocery store. The sign or planet takes over my thoughts. It winds through my sentences, tells me where to go next, and lets me know when I'm done. I enjoy this surrender. But I was not prepared for the event that Scorpio arranged. When I was three hundred words into the article, my Scorpio rising father died. He was two weeks away from his 89th birthday. At three in the morning his sister heard him mutter "Christ!" It wasn't until daybreak that she discovered him on the floor of his bedroom unable to get up. He fell again that afternoon while opening a can of tuna. "Shit!" he moaned. Blood poured from his head.

bonatti_scorpioDeath is another Scorpio mystery that hides behind a hideous surface. It's universally sad. We consider it a defeat. But as my father lay barely conscious in the hospital, his upper body thin and wasting, his legs swollen three times their size, with a fatty tumor bigger than a cantaloupe in his belly, death seemed more friend than enemy. The final week my father was in the hospital, I began to think of him as Christopher Columbus heading off for a New World, the pioneer of our nuclear family, embarking on the greatest adventure of all. Indeed, when he finally passed, it was within hours of the Jupiter Uranus conjunction, that wonderful aspect of discovery and invention. It was trine his Scorpio Ascendant.

I once heard the great astrologer and data collector Lois Rodden talk about death. I was surprised when she said that benefic Jupiter was often involved. Yet why not? From the soul's point of view, it's such a gift to move on. Grim Reaper Saturn also takes an interest, and the day my father died, Saturn was marching toward his Libra Sun. But when I put the transits of my father's death chart around his natal wheel, it was neither Saturn nor Jupiter who vied for my attention. To an astrologer's eye, the planets will often wink, vibrate, or grow larger to announce that they're involved. The blinking planets this time were Mercury and Mars. Transiting Mars in Scorpio was conjunct my dad's natal Mercury (ruler of his 8th house of death); transiting Mercury in Virgo was conjunct his natal Mars (ruler of his Ascendant and the body). These were the psychopomps who arrived at 1:10 pm to escort my father into the other world. He took two gasping breaths and was gone.

I did not want to write this article after my father died. I'm sure my editors would have been kind to me. But I had already engaged Scorpio's archetype and its steely grit insisted I drive to the finish. And the very psychopomps that took my father on his journey were also at work in my chart (they're my Ascendant and 8th house rulers too). When Dad fell, Mars was conjunct my 3rd house Scorpio Saturn.[4] Mercury was conjunct my Virgo Ascendant. Together they urged: "Keep writing. Scorpio wants its story told." I hope I've done it well.


  1. See David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books: 1997).
  2. Robert Hand, Horoscope Symbols (Whitford Press: 1981), p. 228.
  3. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperCollins, 1974), p. 92.
  4. Saturn rules fathers and Mars brings head wounds and falls.
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