Astro Journal · Mythology

Planet Myths: The Story Behind Pluto

Pluto represents how you relate to the cycles of life and death and the process of transformation. It’s associated with the primordial instincts and the elemental forces of nature and power. Whether you’re ready or not, Pluto confronts you with the necessity for regeneration and the evolution of your soul.

Pluto – small but powerful

Pluto is a dwarf planet and the largest known ice dwarf that orbits in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. It takes 248 years to cycle around the whole zodiac and spends between 11 and 32 years in each sign due to its highly elliptical orbit which dips across Neptune’s path. It spends the shortest time in Scorpio when it’s closest to the sun, and the longest in Taurus.

Pluto is the modern ruler of Scorpio, along with Mars. The glyph is sometimes drawn as a monogram of ‘PL’ but the alchemical symbol is the same as Neptune’s but with a circle in the centre of the trident. The circle represents spirit hovering over the crescent of soul above the cross of matter. But the crescent could also be a bident – like a pitchfork or trident with only two prongs – a symbol of power sometimes associated with Hades.

As the higher octave of Mars, Pluto represents the life force operating on the subconscious level in the psyche. Mars shows how you use your energy in the world, while Pluto is how your energy is used in the underworld, or the emotional depths of the soul.

Some of the archetypes associated with Pluto include: Death, Fate, Necessity, the Great Mother or Dark Feminine, the Crone or Wise Woman, as well as Shamans, Witches and Wizards, and the Phoenix. It also represents the archetypal experience of the Descent into the Underworld which is really a descent into the soul in order to bring about regeneration and rebirth. Let’s see how these are portrayed in the myths…

Pluto Myths

Pluto is usually seen as masculine because of its link with the god Hades, but the realm it represents was originally associated with the feminine power of the goddess. Ancient Mother goddesses were often depicted as a dragon or serpent representing the transformative power of nature through cycles of death and renewal. The earliest of these goddesses contained both life and death within them and were only later split into separate domains. (see Cancer Myths and Gemini Myths for details.)

These ancient self-fertilising goddesses were later remembered as figures who governed fate and natural law. There are many examples in different cultures but they’re often depicted in triple form to represent the three lunar phases and the cycles of life and death.

The Moirai spin the fate of the cosmos

In Greek mythology these goddesses were known as the Moirai or the Fates. They were the oldest power in the universe, born from Nyx or Mother Night, and so were older than Kronos (Saturn). This meant that even gods like Zeus and Hades were bound by the Fates and limited by their power. Moira means ‘lot’ or ‘allotment’, and the three goddesses were responsible for weaving the reality of each person’s life:

  • Clotho was the spinner who wove the thread of destiny
  • Lachesis was the measurer who decided the quality and length of life
  • Atropos was the cutter who severed the thread of fate at the end of life

Other goddesses associated with fate include Ananke who was a personification of necessity; Nemesis who was either a goddess or an impersonal force that punished hubris in a way that matched the nature of the crime; and the Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance who punished broken oaths by making people mad. The Erinyes were also known as the Eumenides, a euphemism that means ‘the kindly ladies’, and were called ‘the dogs of Hades’ by others.

That brings us to the realm of the underworld and a multitude of myths that show remarkable similarities around the world. As we’ve seen, the underworld was originally ruled by goddesses and was only taken over by the gods in later myths.

Before Hades came along in Greek mythology, we had the moon goddess Hekate as ruler of the underworld. Her origins are unknown but she appears to have ancient roots. In one myth she’s a Titan, born to Asteria, goddess of nocturnal oracles and falling stars, and Perses, the god of destruction. According to Hesiod, Zeus honoured Hekate above all others and gave her equal dominion over land, sea and sky. She was known to bestow great wealth on anyone who prayed to her.

Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft, magic and childbirth, and ruled crossroads, borders and liminal spaces, mediating between worlds. She had a pack of dogs and was depicted carrying a pair of torches or a key, and was later shown in triple form, like the Fates. Her name might mean ‘she who works her will’ and could be related to the Egyptian fertility goddess Heket (Heqet), or one of the many titles of Isis: Heq-Maa, which means Mother of Magical Knowledge. (More here: Dark Angel: Hecate and the Dark Night)

Hecate – William Blake

Hekate is an example of the Wise Woman archetype associated with the dark phase of the moon and knowledge of life and death. Other examples include Crone goddesses like Cerridwen and Morrigan, and the folk figure Baba Yaga flying around in her cauldron. In Hindu mythology we have Kali, the ‘Black Mother’, who rules disintegration and disease but also restores life to the faithful. While in Norse mythology, there’s the goddess Hel who rules Nilfheim and has a dog called Garmr who guards the underworld.

Dogs are a big feature in many underworld myths and are often found guarding the gates or acting as guides in the land of the dead. As with Hekate, dogs are associated with thresholds and the movement between realms, and one can be seen on the Moon tarot card alongside a wolf. Dogs are connected to various underworld gods and goddesses including Hel, Hekate and Hades, as well as Anubis and Gula-Bau.

Gula-Bau was a Babylonian grain goddess and healer who was associated with the underworld and transformation. She lived in a garden at the centre of the underworld where she tended the Tree of Life which gave her the power to bring the dead back to life. She was originally known as Bau, the goddess of dogs, who was linked to healing. (see Virgo Myths)

However, the main ruler of the underworld in Sumerian mythology was Ereshkigal, goddess of Kur, or the land of the dead. Her name means ‘Lady of the Great Place Below’ and she originally ruled the underworld alone, only later acquiring a consort. She had a vizier called Namtar, which means ‘fate’, and was the sister of Inanna, the Queen of Heaven.

Ereshkigal may have become Queen of the Underworld after being abducted by Kur, the cosmic serpent who represents chaos. This could be the source of the later Persephone abduction story in Greek mythology. But the difference here is that Kur is a manifestation of the Great Mother so it’s really one goddess handing power over to another. This might represent an evolution of the primordial instincts to a higher level – moving from an archaic monster to a personified deity.

Ereshkigal represents inner knowledge and her domain was where you went in order to learn about the mysteries of life and death. This is illustrated by the story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld to visit her sister. Ereshkigal strips Inanna of everything she owns and hangs her on a meat hook to rot – lovely!

Book of the Dead – Anubis and Osiris judge the dead

In Egyptian mythology we have another dog in the form of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, mummification and the afterlife. Anubis weighed the hearts of the dead before they were judged by Osiris, and then guided them into the underworld. He was often depicted holding an ankh, the key of life, to the mouth of the dead in order to open the soul to eternal life. Many other gods were shown in this pose too, such as Isis, Horus, and Thoth.

Osiris was the god of the underworld and consort of Isis, Queen of Heaven. He was killed by his brother Set, who chopped him up and scattered the pieces around Egypt. Isis retrieved the parts and put him back together using her magic so she could conceive Horus. Through his death, Osiris ensured the fertility and renewal of the land, but he remained in the underworld and was reborn as his son (see Scorpio Myths).

Finally, in Greek mythology we have Hades, Lord of the Underworld and first-born son of Kronos. After banishing their father, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon drew lots (the Fates!) to see who would rule each realm and Hades got the underworld. His name means ‘the unseen one’ and also refers to the place he rules.

One of his many epithets was Pluto or Plouton, which means ‘giver of wealth’ or ‘riches’. This may have started out as a euphemism because people didn’t want to use his real name. It was often conflated with Ploutos, the god of wealth, and Plouton was depicted with a cornucopia, symbol of abundance. It’s often assumed that Pluto was the Roman version of Hades but this isn’t the case. The Roman equivalent to Hades was Dis Pater, which means ‘rich father.’

Hades and Persephone holding the signs of life and renewal

The ancient Greeks also connected Hades with Dionysus and the two gods were often seen as identical. Like Osiris, Dionysus was dismembered and brought back to life. He represents the subterranean life-force living within the earth and its riches. As the god of resurrection, he’s a redeemer who knows the mysteries of eternal life, and with Hades stands for the polarity between life and death, light and darkness.

Hades doesn’t represent death itself – that job went to Thanatos who was a personification of death. Thanatos served Hades by bringing him subjects, i.e. dead souls. Other denizens of the underworld included Charon, the ferryman who took the dead across the river Styx, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld, otherwise known as ‘Fluffy’ (to Harry Potter fans).

Cerberus is a clear reference to the older goddess cults and reveals that Hades serves the Fates and the dark Mother. Liz Greene calls him “the rampant phallus of the Mother”, and in the myths he’s surrounded by goddesses – who perhaps hold the true power. The main myth associated with Hades is the abduction of Persephone, but he also features in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Persephone was the goddess of spring and daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Her name means ‘female thresher of grain’ or ‘bringer of destruction’. She was a maiden (or Kore) until her abduction by Hades, who erupted out of the earth and dragged her into the underworld. She triggered this herself by picking a flower placed there by Hades – a fated event. Later she ate some pomegranate seeds which meant she had to stay in the underworld for part of each year.

While Persephone was getting to grips with her new life as Queen of the Underworld, Demeter was laying waste to the earth in her grief. Hekate helped her to search for her daughter and later became a companion to Persephone in the underworld. In some versions of the myth, Persephone also gave birth to Dionysus or Zagreus.

Hades abducts Persephone (source)

In a similar way to Hades and Dionysus, Persephone and Demeter represent life and death and the cycles of nature. At Eleusis they presided over the Mysteries which revealed the secrets of immortality through death and renewal (see Virgo Myths). During the ritual, a golden key was placed on the tongue of initiates as a symbol of the secrets of Pluto that they had to keep, and he was sometimes depicted holding keys that represent this wealth of wisdom.

(Anyone who’s read my novel Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic may find that last titbit interesting – just add some gold grapes…!)

The Meaning of Pluto

The underworld is often seen as a dark and horrible place, the equivalent of hell in Christianity, so Pluto becomes equivalent to the devil. But this is simplistic nonsense and misrepresents ancient belief systems. Underworld gods and goddesses weren’t evil or against life. They were often associated with vegetation gods, like Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, which show that life and death are connected in a cycle of transformation. Osiris was even depicted with barley growing out of his mummified body.

The underworld is paradoxical. The entrance is often via a cave that takes you underground, but the afterlife is also a place in the sky reached via the Milky Way. Underworld journeys vary by culture but there’s often a period of purgatory or purification where the soul is stripped of its worldly attachments before it can move on to eternity or rebirth. This might involve a confrontation with various monsters and demons, but the idea was to free the soul.

Ancient belief systems prepared people for death so they would be ready to face the process. This is especially clear in some Buddhist systems where you’re encouraged to see all manifestations of beings, including demons, as illusory. It’s all the play of the mind and if you can let go of attachment to worldly things, you can break free of the wheel of rebirth.

Regardless of the truth about death and the afterlife – and who knows?! – these myths are useful allegories for the search for the true Self, or your divine nature. To find who you really are you need to surrender the ego, the personal self and attachment to the world, and descend into the depths of unknowing – into the psyche or soul.

This is how Pluto works on you, stripping away layers of dead matter until you’re free to be who you are. The self you believe yourself to be is a Shade, a ghost, an illusion. Pluto (with a little help from Uranus) is trying to wake you up to that truth.

Not a dog – the Sphinx guards the entrance to the underworld at Giza

In Evolutionary Astrology Pluto is said to represent the soul and its evolutionary journey. This may provide some useful insights but I’m not convinced you can link just one part of the chart to the soul. The soul manifests through the whole horoscope and ultimately transcends it because it’s multidimensional. But Pluto is related to the need for evolution on the soul level. This happens in two directions:

  • involution – the journey of the soul into matter and separation; and
  • evolution – the journey back to God or the source of creation.

The underworld journey of the soul into the afterlife represents the journey back to the source. But you don’t have to die physically to return to God. Involution and evolution represent another paradox because although it looks like you’re moving away from God when you descend into matter, you’re really not.

Returning to God isn’t about getting away from the body and matter. It’s about transforming the body so it can embody the divine soul more completely through self-mastery.

Self-mastery involves shadow work with your lower drives and the instinctual forces of the Kundalini energy. If you fail to master this energy, it will master you. In other words, the unconscious will run your life from behind the scenes and work itself out through fate. This often manifests as obsessions and compulsions and events over which you have no conscious control.

These fated experiences can feel like violation. Like Persephone getting dragged off by Hades, you’re forced to deal with something you can’t avoid. But this isn’t about making you suffer for no reason. The life force is compelling you to grow and change, and that means letting go of the old, dead forms of your life. This pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel powerless, something the ego is keen to avoid. So Pluto, and what he represents, often gets repressed and the need for deep change is denied until it explodes in your face.

When this happens you call it fate, but you brought it on yourself. You can’t resist the movement of life, or your soul, for long – not without consequences. But you can work with these energies and learn to evolve consciously. If you cooperate with the needs of your soul for change, then the journey can be smoother, although not necessarily pain-free or easy. As Jung says in Psychology and Alchemy:

“’My fate’ means a daemonic will to precisely that fate – a will not necessarily coincident with my own (the ego will). When it is opposed to the ego, it is difficult not to feel a certain ‘power’ in it, whether divine or infernal. The man who submits to his fate calls it the will of God; the man who puts up a hopeless and exhausting fight is more apt to see the devil in it.”

Your soul is your fate. By working with Pluto you can transform your consciousness at the deepest, elemental level – even down to the cells of your body. This creates a stronger container and makes it possible to manifest more of your soul directly. It also gives you more choice in how to use your power, or life force.

Without self-mastery, this power can be dangerous and destructive because it comes from the deepest source, a place beyond form. In Astrology, Karma and Transformation, Stephen Arroyo explains:

“The great energy of Pluto comes from a source that is not at all obvious and which we might call transcendental. This is the reason that Plutonian energy always manifests in terms of opposites, for that which is truly transcendent can only be understood [as paradoxical] … Pluto therefore symbolises a kind of power which can be used creatively only when the user is sufficiently spiritually-oriented.”

If you don’t want to be destroyed by power, there is only one choice: surrender to your fate.

Pluto Myths on Film

Films that represent the Pluto archetype include stories about sex, death, and power, so you’re spoilt for choice. You can also include films about spies, criminals and underground activities, obsession, vampires, the occult, nuclear power, oil and gold, and volcanoes. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Pluto on film:

  • Gangster Thomas Shelby hustling his way to power in Peaky Blinders.
  • Mafia boss Tony Soprano getting psychotherapy in The Sopranos.
  • George Smiley rooting out a mole in the British Secret Service in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • Nate Fisher and his family running a funeral home in Six Feet Under.
  • Henslowe Fisk exploring the reincarnation of dogs into vicars in Dean Spanley.
  • Jung and Freud arguing over the method for psychoanalysis in A Dangerous Method.
  • Loner Travis Bickle entering the underworld to save a girl in Taxi Driver.
  • Mandrake navigating the madness of nuclear war in Dr Strangelove.
  • Daniel Plainview drinking a rival oilman’s milkshake in There Will Be Blood.
  • Ofelia entering the labyrinth and completing three tests to become a princess of the underworld in Pan’s Labyrinth.

More on the fairytale world of Pan’s Labyrinth here.

More on Pluto:

Explore more Planet Myths here

Images: Planet; Fates; Hecate; Anubis, Persephone

11 thoughts on “Planet Myths: The Story Behind Pluto

  1. Hello Jessica!! I am glad you are writing again. I would like to suggest The Handmaiden, 2016 South Korean film, I think it’s very plutonian. And the whole world of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Once you get to know it, your life is never the same again. I´m living that world right now!! So, hope you enjoy it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for such an interesting and cogent survey of the Pluto archetype. I have a question. You wrote:

    Ereshkigal may have become Queen of the Underworld after being abducted by Kur, the cosmic serpent who represents chaos. This could be the source of the later Persephone abduction story in Greek mythology. But the difference here is that Kur is a manifestation of the Great Mother so it’s really one goddess handing power over to another. This might represent an evolution of the primordial instincts to a higher level – moving from an archaic monster to a personified deity.

    In this paragraph you seem to offer two theories for making sense of apparent homologies between myths of different cultures. First you say “…could be the source of….” This seems to suggest a direct transmission of a given archetype which is then translated into imagery that is suitable to the younger culture.

    Later you wrote “This might represent and evolution of the primordial instincts.” This seems to suggest something like convergent or parallel metamorphosis of such stories according to the evolution of fundamental structures of consciousness. There is likely some truth to both of these theories, but they are obviously different.

    Often researches (likely out of the disinclination to differentiate “myth” and “arbitrary fantasy”) simply presume the first one and then hypothesise various means of oral transmission between cultures. As an obvious example, Christian myth and symbolism is interpreted in this manner (e.g. “corn gods,” “solar deities,” “Dionysus,” etc…). But this seems simplistic because it overlooks the fact that, though many symbols may be gleaned and synthesised from surrounding cultures, many of them are rejected despite perfectly similarly levels exposure. This to me seems to indicate that myths and symbols, together with their transformations through time, are informed by much deeper forces than the happenstances of history.

    I have offered a few thoughts on the subject but I imagine you will have a great deal of insight into this matter and perhaps you will be obliged to share some reflections.

    Thank you again for the delightful post.

    Sincerely,
    Max

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Max. There’s so much more that could be said about these goddesses so I couldn’t dig as deep as I would have liked. I’m not an academic so my approach tends to be a little more intuitive.

      As far as I can tell, it was the Sumer scholar Samuel Noah Kramer who made the connection between the Persephone story and Erishkigal, but they’re quite different goddesses. Persephone’s roots are ancient and she’s linked to pre-Greek vegetation goddesses. While others have linked Erishkigal with Hecate – but that seems to have happened later. It’s impossible to tell what the roots are for these figures because they probably go back to pre-literate, oral traditions so it’s anybody’s guess really.

      As you say, the myths and symbols undoubtedly come from a much deeper source than history. People told these stories because they were (and are) meaningful – not just as a way to explain the seasons, etc. but as expressions of a deep truth of the human psyche and experience. That’s why you see the same kinds of figures popping up in every culture. They may appear in slightly different forms, but the underlying archetype is the same. The symbols are multidimensional so our understanding of them needs to be too.

      As to the source of the archetypes – that’s one of those BIG QUESTIONS! I’m not sure anyone can answer that – not without understanding the nature of reality first…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “As to the source of the archetypes – that’s one of those BIG QUESTIONS! I’m not sure anyone can answer that – not without understanding the nature of reality first…”

        Maybe the question is posed conversely and we should rather wonder where everything else came from. That is, of course, a theory of reality but I wouldn’t hesitate to defined it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah yes, but first you need to understand the nature of your own mind. If you don’t understand the nature of consciousness then you can never be sure what you’re seeing when you look at ‘reality’.

          Liked by 1 person

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