However, on August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union, meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, voted to re-classify Pluto as a "dwarf planet"—and also as "the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects."1 The following day, news media around the world featured prominent stories about Pluto's demise. The World Book Encyclopedia even delayed the press run for its 2007 edition until a decision was reached so that they could publish the most up-to-date information on our solar system.
What does this mean for astrology? Has Pluto downshifted into a lower, less powerful gear? Or is it still able to plow its intense course through our horoscopes? Will Pluto remain the same powerful astrological point in the cosmos, no matter how it is classified by astronomers?
How can astrology's experience of Pluto as a powerful and reliable symbol in the horoscope be reconciled with a scientific consensus that has "reduced" Pluto's status in the solar system hierarchy?
Before I learned about astrology, I learned to love Pluto as a child. My parents had a big picture book on the solar system, circa 1950s. It featured artistic visions of the planets, with panoramic views as though you were standing on the actual planets' surfaces. Pluto was mesmerizing. It was depicted as a twilit planet, its craggy blackness dimly lit by the pinpoint sun's cold and distant gaze over the horizon. The stars glittered. Pluto was timeless and solitary. I would stare at the page and imagine what it might feel like to be there.
Although I did not know it then, I was already "on Pluto." It conjoins the Sun—the symbol of one's core identity—in my horoscope by less than a degree, which means that when I was born, the central symbol of our solar system and its then-most distant planet were at the same point in the heavens. This small object has always been a powerful force in my own life, and I have felt its impact in many ways. I have also seen how Pluto's slow, cosmic passage through the signs has had an enormous influence in the lives of others, both individually and collectively. My book, Cosmic Trends, discusses many of these collective influences.
Solar System Discoveries
Up until the late 1700s, the solar system consisted of just five planets besides the Earth: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Saturn was as far as the unaided eye could see. It was not until the development of more powerful telescopes that the next planet, Uranus, was discovered. Our awareness of the solar system beyond Saturn, therefore, is separated from the earlier known planets by telescopic vision. Our sight has become more powerful. Today astronomers are able to see far beyond the boundary of Saturn, past Pluto, and deep into the Kuiper Belt (a ring of small objects rotating at the outer edges of the solar system far beyond Neptune and believed to be the source of comets2).
The decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was not impulsive or capricious. It was made necessary by advances in the scientific ability to peer with precision instruments deep into the reaches of our solar system—the same ability which earlier revealed the existences of Uranus and Neptune and now shows us the details of a new part of the solar system, the Kuiper Belt, of which Pluto is a part and yet separate.
What If You Are a Scorpio?
Sun-in-Scorpio individuals may be wondering what all this means for them, since Pluto is the modern ruler of Scorpio. The Saturn-Neptune opposition, discussed below, is also greatly affecting anyone with the Sun or other planets in the mid-degrees of fixed signs (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, or Aquarius). However, Scorpios can rest assured. As this article points out, Pluto's strength is undiminished. In some ways, we are just beginning to understand its true significance. Scorpios have always had Mars as the original, traditional ruler of the sign of the scorpion.
Pluto and the Saturn-Neptune Opposition
The decision of the IAU was made at the same time as the Saturn-Neptune opposition, an alignment which is having a large influence in many different parts of our lives, individually as well as globally. Saturn and Neptune engage in a 36-year cycle, meaning that they go from conjoining in the sky to opposing to conjoining approximately every 36 years. During this cycle, the planet of form, organization, boundaries, and measurement—Saturn—and the planet of formlessness, imagination, merging, and intuition—Neptune—must learn to deal with each other. Because these two planets are opposite one another right now, their energies do not easily blend or merge. Like two individuals locked in a staring contest, they tend to build tension and rejection of each other's energies, becoming even more exclusively locked into their own identities .
It is no accident that Pluto, which tapped a deep part of the collective psyche—whether one believes in astrology or not—received from astronomers the equivalent of a numbered orange concert wristband and a place in the Kuiper Belt mosh pit along with all the other punk rocks. Astrologers, on the other hand, understand Pluto's symbolic and mythic value, and know that it should be up on the stage wearing a silk bandanna and playing awesome power chords on an ear-splitting electric guitar—and certainly not stuck down in the mosh pit.
When the world experiences Saturn versus Neptune, as we are now, the challenge is to blend the two, in this case honoring the symbolic language of astrology while not rejecting the science of astronomy.
Pluto and the Symbolic Language of Astrology
Astrology has often used the astrophysical features of the planets and their orbits as springboards to symbolic interpretation. Observation and measurement of the planets is the realm of astronomy; observation of the planets' relationship to human behavior and events here on Earth is the realm of astrology. The two—astronomy and astrology—are connected, but astrology separates from astronomy when astrologers use the planets as symbols, energies, archetypes, and myths, connecting these to human behavior and earthly events.
The planets' names—Mercury, Venus, etc.—represent mythic archetypes which are used in astrology. Similarly, astrology transforms the language of astronomical observations into the language of symbols. Some examples: Mercury's quick orbit relates it to phone calls, e-mail, and instant messaging; Mars is the "red planet," red being a color of anger and aggression; Saturn is the farthest planet which can be seen with the naked eye, thus representing boundaries; Uranus' odd, slightly flattened shape symbolizes non-conformity; and so on. The scientific behaviors and characteristics of the planets and luminaries have enriched their symbolic meanings in astrology.
The observation of Pluto's small size was originally responsible for much of its symbolic interpretation in astrology. When tiny Pluto was found, the world was just beginning to discover the awesome power of something else very small, the atom. This invisible particle would soon be capable of destroying civilization. The radioactive element plutonium, used in nuclear weapons, was named after the planet. Also, Pluto's orbital stretch into the dark unknown seemed to metaphorically parallel the growing field of psychiatry and its probing of the unconscious.
Pluto has several other astronomical features which are also highly symbolic and ensure that Pluto's power as an astrological symbol need not be weakened.
Pluto's eccentric, egg-shaped orbit brings it from the dark outer limits of the solar system—the Kuiper Belt—to an orbit inside of Neptune. Unlike the other planets which orbit our sun in neat circles, Pluto moves slowly in an elongated oval. If an unseen hand were to take a time-lapse picture of our solar system from above, holding the shutter open for 248 years (the length of Pluto's orbit), what would we see? Pluto's orbit would appear like a great string of beautiful cosmic pearls flung over the outer reaches of the solar system, its graceful loop connecting the planets to the collective celestial bodies of the Kuiper Belt. In this way, Pluto symbolically links us to cosmic forces beyond the realm of our human understanding—forces which we are just now beginning to comprehend.
Pluto's moon, Charon (pronounced CARE-uhn), also gives Pluto a special place in the solar system. Charon is named after the boatman in Greek mythology who ferried the dead across the river Acheron. Unlike Earth's moon, which has its own center of gravity, Pluto's center of gravity is in the space midway between it and Charon.3 As a result, they do not spin individually like our earth and moon but together, locked on the same axis. Pluto and Charon rotate while eternally chasing one another, clenched in the tension of a distant cosmic pursuit—the god of the Underworld and the ferryman of the dead—yet never completing the chase. Pluto's unique gravitational connection to its moon gives it added mythic power, resonant with deep overtones of mortality.
The beautiful symbolism of Pluto and Charon can be seen in John Keats' classic poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which extols two lovers painted on a funeral urn. Although a pair of lovers may seem a far cry from Pluto and Charon, the lovers are locked in an eternal pose of youthful chase—much like Pluto and its moon, Charon—one in "mad pursuit," the other fleeing in a playful "struggle to escape." The lovers' youthfulness is frozen in time on a funeral symbol, the urn. Keats could have been writing about Pluto when he refers to one of the figures as the "foster-child of silence and slow time."4
The International Astronomers Union transformed Pluto from a planet to "the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects." Trans-Neptunian objects is another name for the Kuiper Belt. Pluto, the planet of transformation, is itself undergoing a transformation—from planet to prototype. A prototype means the standard for a new model. Translated into the symbolic language of astrology, Pluto's transformation indicates that something is also being transformed in human consciousness, and humanity is being given a new standard to move towards.
1"IAU 2006 General Assembly: Result of the IAU Resolution votes," SpaceRef.com, August 24, 2006
2David Jewitt, "Kuiper Belt,"
3S. Alan Stern, "About Pluto-Charon," The Pluto Portal, site last modified on February 1, 2003
4 John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Fifth Edition, ed. M.H. Abrams (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 822-823.