PLUTO AND CHARON
Like shades bound for Tartarus, embarked in the boat of the dark ferryman, we tremble with our departure. Launched into the silent depths of night, we are leaving familiar landmarks behind. We are gliding in a spacecraft called Orpheus or Aeneas or Persephone, gliding past moons and planets seen from earth, past the systems, forms and thoughts that filled our world. We are floating beyond the world to the outer world, the underworld, the realm that verges on non-being, that shrouds its secrets in the distant mist of unknown space. We drift beyond time, forgetting time, and land upon the shores of Pluto's kingdom, the shadowy cratered shores of a drear and icy world. From there the sun appears as a tiny distant star. The cold, thin atmosphere reveals the stars and the sun at the same time, for there is little scattering of light through the air and one source does not obscure another. But where shadows fall, they are dense.
The contrasts on Pluto are very stark; his realm is one of coldly clear light and blackest darkness. We must be very careful not to step in a shadow lest we fall into a crevasse completely invisible to us. Everywhere about are craters, chasms, caves and icy corridors. It seems there are many chambers and byways in Pluto's place and great caution must be exercised in exploring them. For with each step taken, one bounds weightlessly ahead, undaunted by a strong field of gravity. One could very well plunge into an unexpected opening and never be seen again. Oh yes, we tremble even now, for though we wish to gather Pluto's secrets, we are afraid of being detained by him, and continually try to keep our craft in view. If one wandered just a mile or two away from it, it would disappear over the horizon and the thought of losing track of our means of returning to the world is terrifying.
While considering this, Charon's barque has crossed over once again to the earth's shore and we are left wondering if this has been a voyage of scientific speculation or one of mythological fancy. The fact that it is based upon data so painstakingly gleaned by modern astronomers does not diminish the value of the myths describing visits to Pluto's kingdom at all. The parallels to be found between many aspects of these mythic themes and what we are beginning to learn about the very small and distant planet we have named Pluto are very striking. Of course, the myths describe the hero who ventures through the underworld of death and the conditions of the dead whom he encounters. But they are also rich in their descriptions of the approach to Pluto's kingdom, of the ferry which takes the hero across the vast waters at the end of the world to reach it, and of the contrasted character of the kingdom itself.
Homer's Iliad speaks of Oceanus, which Odysseus found at the world's end. Along its mist-shrouded shore, throngs of the dead waited for Charon to pull up his barque and carry them into the dark waters beyond. Later, when Aeneas approached this same shore, he asked the sibyl the meaning of this gathering and was told that the marshes of the Styx hold the unburied and poor who have no coin to pay the ferryman. Looming darkly out of the turbid mist, Charon approached and challenged him, saying he could not carry the living to Pluto's abode. After the sibyl had convinced the reluctant oarsman that Aeneas had earned the right to visit, they had still to confront the fearful dog Cerberus before descending into Hades (the Greek name for Pluto and his abode) itself. Virgil depicted the review of lives that takes place therein, followed by judgement and the imprisonment of souls in the various fields of mourning. He described how Aeneas paused before a huge stream of Tartarus which coursed in a fiery blast before a terrible brazen door, from behind which wails and grinding chains could be heard. This was the abode of the evil, a realm in stark contrast to the cool fields of Elysium.
In the old Greek cosmology, Chaos, Night, Black Erebus and Broad Tartarus were first to manifest, long before the appearance of Gaia and Ouranos. It is significant, therefore, that Hades or Pluto should be placed in the generation of Zeus on the Olympian family tree. Even so, his Tartarus links him directly back to a condition existing before the formation of worlds. He and his attendants are chthonian, beings of the earth as opposed to the gods of the bright air. But considering that the name Pluto means "wealth", one wonders if the wealth of the earth is meant or if it refers to some more antique concept of wealth, a notion of plenitude associated with non-possession and release. This idea harmonizes with the address of Hades as the "Unseen One" but is less obviously compatible with Orcus, one of the Roman names for Pluto, which means "the One or the Place that constrains or confines".
In puzzling Pluto's nature, it is important to remember that both Neptune and Pluto are associated symbolically with the negative aspects of the spirit. When Venus sought to engender the manifesting power of love in all three worlds, she saw that Pluto was immune to her influence. She ordered her son Eros to pierce him with one of his arrows and rouse in him desire. The result of this act was the immediate kidnapping of Persephone, whose loss to the world brought drought and the devastation of crops. The fierce reaction of Demeter, her mother, resulted in an eventual bargain being struck whereby Persephone would spend half the year in the underworld as queen of Hades (autumn and winter) and half the year on the earth (spring and summer). Thus life and love were brought into the realm of death and death was brought into the realm of life. From the point of view of occult astronomy, this has to do with a great shifting of the earth's poles which caused the constellation of Virgo (Demeter-Persephone) to appear to fall below the southern horizon or, as it is put, into the pit of Tartarus.
This momentous event marked the fall of the Kumaras (Prometheus-Satan), the lighting up of the Manasic principle in mind and the separation of the sexes. Related to this is a wonderfully rich store of allusions in sacred and mythological sources which tell of the Titans locked up in Tartarus, the Cyclopes who built Pluto's palace, Eurydice being bitten by the (polar) serpent, and the anguished journey of Orpheus. In all of these metaphors, Pluto is brought more and more into relationship with the earth as a stage whereon life and death struggle and interchange ceaselessly with one another. Confined are the titanic forces of immortality. The spotlight shifts its focus to the dilemma of mortals who grapple and strain to realize their eternal souls even whilst embodied in dying forms. Eros had burst forth as desire from the egg of Erebus and succeeded in roping the latter's Plutonian manifestation into playing an active part in the human drama.
Confinement is a condition also associated with the Hindu god of death, Yama the Restrainer. Like Pluto, Minos or Osiris, he is the god with whom the spirits of the departed dwell. That he possesses two voracious dogs which guard the road leading to his abode indicates a close similarity to his Greek and Latin counterpart. It also raises questions about the symbolism of Pluto's Cerberus, whose job is to prevent the living from entering Hades and keep the inhabitants from escaping. Herakles and Aeneas managed to get around him only because their quests were directed towards the attainment of immortality. Cerberus acts as the awesome guardian, the implacable dweller on the threshold between life and death, and he joins the Furies, Harpies and Eumenides as Pluto's chief attendants. Like Yama, Pluto himself does not judge, nor does he punish. His attendants see to these things. The Furies who fell from the blood of the castrated Ouranos are formidable and pitiless. They carry torches and scourges and are the just avengers of crime. Orestes was hounded by them as he fled far and wide after murdering his mother. Only in the last book of the Orestian trilogy, which is named after the Eumenides, did these more kindly Furies come to his assistance. The emphasis here is on precise justice rather than arbitrary mercy, the judgement and punishment of Pluto's domain appearing to be an exacting enactment of karmic law within the confines of kamalokic and devachanic conditions. But Pluto remains aloof from this; he reigns but is impervious to the joys and pains. He functions as a reflection of a universal force whose nature is so impersonal and ubiquitous that it cannot be confined but acts in the conditioned world through strict restraints experienced with especial poignancy in the human kingdom.
The spaceship has gone, Charon has returned over the vast waters of space to the shores of earth, where he appears terrible in his squalor, his dirty cloak hanging from one shoulder by a knot, his great unkempt beard streaming and his eyes glowing with a steady flame. Tall and gaunt his dusky figure looms, standing as he pushes his boat with one long pole. He is old but timeless, and as the horde waiting for him rushes to get into his craft, he drives some back and accepts others without hint of hesitation or care. Voyagers who wish to visit Pluto's realm while alive would indeed need to obtain his right of passage. They would have to satisfy him with the clear purpose of their desire to make the journey and to return alive to earth once more.
To reach Pluto one must obtain the full cooperation of Charon, for he alone knows the secrets of the oceanic vastitudes over which he regularly crosses and he alone conceals the hidden character of Pluto's manifest form. Ironically, it has come to pass that in the long search modern science has mounted to discover more about the planet Pluto, Charon has indeed played a critical part as both revealer and concealer. For Charon was the inevitable name to be given to Pluto's lone satellite when it was finally discovered, and its close proximity to its parent echoes the intimate relationship the ferryman has to death. When someone dies in the villages of Greece, the peasants say, "O Xάρον τό έχει πάρη" ("Charon has taken him"). Two thousand years of Christianity have not removed the idea and it lingers and merges with the astronomical understanding of Pluto slowly acquired by modern science. For Charon is indeed taking us. He is taking us on a long journey towards the discovery of the nature of a truly remarkable and mysterious planet.
In the mid-nineteenth century, both Adams and Leverrier (the discoverers of Neptune) predicted the existence of a further planet. As Neptune had explained some of the anomalous movements of Uranus, so some explanation was needed to account for residual discrepancies. In 1903 Percival Lowell asserted that the clustering of certain comet orbits bore evidence of a further planet to be discovered. As a man of means with a long-standing passion for astronomy, Lowell had established an observatory near Flagstaff in what was known as Arizona Territory in 1894. There the quest for the trans-Neptunian planet began in earnest in 1905 with a photographic survey along the mean plane of the solar system. A mixture of theory and calculation was applied later in order to narrow the search, but it was seldom integrated with the observational approach. In 1910 a new mathematical assault was launched, new photos were taken, and a blink microscope was used to cut back and forth between two optically superimposed plates in order to reveal any movement that might have taken place between the dates on which they had each been shot.
This search ended in 1916 and the one thousand photo plates obtained revealed five hundred and fifteen new asteroids, seven hundred new variable stars, and two images of the ninth planet which were unrecognized! These images were between the fifteenth and sixteenth magnitude (ten thousand times fainter than what the unaided human eye can see) and were barely visible on the plates. Lowell died in 1916 without ever knowing that he had come so close to the astronomical discovery of the century. With his death, a long legal dispute over his endowment to the observatory tied up the work so that nothing further was done until 1927. At this time, a generous gift of a fine thirteen-inch photographic refracting telescope was given to the observatory by Lowell's brother. It was installed in 1929, the year a Kansas farm boy, Clyde Tombaugh, was invited to join the staff as an assistant in the search for what was to be known as Planet X.
Clyde Tombaugh had worked hard throughout his youth on his father's small rented farm. He developed a passion for stargazing early on and built several telescopes for the purpose. He was entirely self-taught and had dreams of going to college. But owing to pressing financial needs on the farm, he decided he would have to find a paying job to help his family. One of the fruits of his stargazing were several meticulous drawings that he sent to the Lowell Observatory which, as it happened, was the only observatory he knew of. His timing was good. The professional astronomers there liked the rigour of his work and needed someone to photograph when the new telescope arrived. With no formal training in astronomy, this twenty-two-year-old lad entered into the routine of things with enthusiasm and a great care for detail. Soon he began to improve the search procedure on his own initiative, made critical adjustments in the telescope, and developed a plan to photograph each region three times. The two more identical plates would be blinked against one another and the third plate would be kept for comparison and verification. The rest of the staff were so busy on other projects that they soon handed over to him the critical job of blinking the photo plates, a responsibility which entrusted him with the possibility of making the discovery then sought by astronomers the world over.
Tombaugh started his search east of Cancer, where each exposure captured about fifty thousand stars. Moving on to Gemini (and closer to the Milky Way), the plates now contained an average of four hundred thousand stars, each of which had to be checked in the blinking process. He spent half the month at the telescope and half (when the moon made the sky too bright) at the blink microscope. His session at the latter instrument lasted a numbing three to six hours a day, with star counts of up to one million. He would blink a few hundred stars at a time, watching for tiny changes in pattern. Besides the extremely difficult task of keeping alert and fully concentrated during this process, there were daunting problems of discrimination to be overcome. Irregularities in the distribution of silver grains in the photographic emulsion gave rise to dozens of false suspected planets on every plate. In addition to this, asteroids orbiting the sun generally moved faster than Planet X was supposed to, but when the earth caught up with and passed each one, it would appear to go into retrograde motion, during which it closely mimicked a trans-Neptunian planet. Tombaugh solved the problem of mimicry by photographing the sky one hundred and eighty degrees from the sun's position, where the retrograde motion of the asteroids would be most noticeable and produce a tail. This allowed him to discriminate them from Planet X. But still, each plate required one hour of exposure and each pair of exposed plates required three to seven days of blinking - an incredibly tedious and lengthy process!
Despite the difficulties and tedium, which were, unhappily, aggravated by the discouraging scepticism of many visiting astronomers, Tombaugh made a thorough search of the entire zodiac. In January of 1930 he circled back into Gemini, where he exposed three negatives. When blinking the plates in February, he saw a tiny pinpoint of light shifting back and forth between the two superimposed exposures. It was 4 o'clock P.M., February 18. He noted the exact time, realizing he had finally found Planet X. The news aroused enormous interest, providing a stage for much debate and a distinct amount of competitive egoism. Characteristically, Tombaugh quietly went about his business, which included obtaining formal university training in astronomy as well as contributing many decades of valuable expertise to his chosen field.
The name Pluto was proposed by an eleven-year-old Oxford schoolgirl who thought that such a dim and gloomy planet should be named after the god of the underworld. It was not long before the initial estimates of its size were adjusted downward, a process that has continued up to the present, prompting one observer to describe Pluto as the Incredible Shrinking Planet. Owing to its immense distance, very little is known about the composition of Pluto, but spectrographic data indicate the presence of highly reflective methane ice on much of its surface, accounting for a degree of brightness which has encouraged scientists to further reduce their estimates of its size to 1,457 miles in diameter. Viewed from the earth, one could compare Pluto to a baseball one hundred miles distant, even when it is at its perihelion. On its surface, the methane ice freezes at about minus three hundred and seventy-nine degrees and vaporizes very slowly to form what is believed to be a thin and tenuous atmosphere. In 1988 the planet passed in front of a star whose light faded gradually rather than all at once, indicating the presence of such an atmosphere.
It is thought that Pluto is composed of about seventy percent rock and thirty percent water, having a density similar to Neptune. This quantity of rock would be great enough to have ensured that the decay of radioactive elements soon after the planet formed would have caused it to differentiate. This denser matter would have sunk to the centre and the lighter ice floated to the surface. The methane ice predominates at the poles, whereas Pluto's equator is darker and marked by two spots: one very large and shaded, the other small and bright. During the two hundred and forty-eight years of the planet's orbit, the poles remain covered with the ice, which is believed to extend further into the equatorial regions during its aphelion.
In 1978 the big breakthrough came with the discovery of Pluto's satellite, Charon. It was a near miss because a strong bias persisted in those astronomers who felt that moons could not exist so close to their planets, thus blinding them to what was visible in the heavens. But James Christy had spent years looking for double stars, and his mind was open and ready to identify the bulge on the side of Pluto as a satellite instead of a "poor picture". With the discovery of Charon, it became possible to calculate that the size and mass of the Pluto-Charon system was hopelessly inadequate to account for the measurable gravitational perturbations of Uranus or Neptune. Pluto could not be the sought-after Planet X. If this were not so, the system proved to be so unique and unexpected that interest in it has continued at a high level. It has been learnt that Pluto and its moon are tidally locked together, the only example of mutual tidal coupling in the solar system. Most moons revolve around their planet in the same period of time as they rotate once, so that the same face is always pointing to the planet. The huge and relatively dark Charon follows this pattern, but Pluto rotates once for every revolution of its moon and also keeps the same face pointed back to Charon. The coincidence of the light curves and orbital periods confirms this as well as the fact that Pluto's pole of rotation is on its side relative to the plane of the solar system. As a result, Charon's orbit around its equator is from north to south, whilst it circles only six Pluto-diameters away from its planet, looming huge in Pluto's sky wherein it would appear eight times wider than our moon appears to us here on earth.
With karmic fortuitousness, Christy discovered Charon just in time for scientists to prepare for the Plutonic six-year eclipse season which began in 1985. Details pertaining to mass, density, surface character and composition have been forthcoming from careful observations of this series of eclipses, a rare opportunity to unveil some of Pluto's secrets not to be repeated for another one hundred and twenty-four years. Pluto is now as close to the earth as it comes in its highly inclined (17.2 degrees) and eccentric (0.25) orbit. Its ideal viewing time (for those possessing eight-inch or larger telescopes) will extend through August of this year, after which the planet and its moon will slowly arc away from the sun and begin their journey to parts far outside the orbit of Neptune.
At the apex of its inclination, Pluto is 1.25 billion miles above the ecliptic and its elliptic path carries it out to 4.6 billion miles away from the sun. In January 1979 it passed inside the orbit of Neptune, where it will spend twenty years before making this vast outward journey. Some scientists have hypothesized that Pluto may have originated from Neptune, but in passing in and out of the latter's orbit, Pluto bridges Neptune's path by almost a billion miles. It is generally now agreed that Pluto and Neptune never have come closer together owing to the size of the gravitational forces that Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter exert on Pluto. The timing of these forces does not allow Pluto's orbit to precess and so it merely oscillates, permanently confined to a narrow range of passage. Shades of Orcus, the one who constrains and confines!
Of all the planetesimals forming in the early solar system in outer space, Pluto is the only one that escaped the giant planets. It is confined in its orbit by the giants but it cannot be captured by them. Still, long-range computer simulations of its orbit show that its motion around the sun is chaotic, defying predictability over a vast curve of time. It now appears to be in a small and subtle chaotic zone, but if this is connected with a larger one, it is conceivable that Pluto could head off into another orbit. Such a fascinating possibility strangely echoes the mythic theme of Pluto suddenly carrying Eurydice into another world or sweeping Persephone away, only this time it would be Pluto himself who fell under the rule of a more powerfully ubiquitous expression of the force to which he belongs. For the time being, however, if one considers the events which have unfolded into the world since the discovery of Pluto, one is struck by the enormity of the influence the planet has had from within the confines of its present orbit.
Since 1930, when Tombaugh made his valiant discovery, enormous waves of military death, planned genocide and nuclear threat have washed over the globe. The horror and necessity engendered by this has led to a profound psychological and social application of the idea of relativity which eventually spawned the "new physics" and the notion that man creates and perceives patterns of reality which are arbitrary. This revolution in consciousness is intimately linked to the recognition of the planet Pluto and its spirit, who rules the dark forces necessary for light and life in conjunction with evolution. The Plutonic spirit governs the journey through the underworld, which is the key to transformative growth and the deepening and purifying of energy in life. Evolutionary growth is a slow, circular process, but when a pattern is completed, quantum leaps occur. The soul erupts and takes a leap involving the death of the old energy, a successful initiation and a rebirth into a new field. We burst out of patterns of reality when we realize they are a creation of our own consciousness. The patterns may be abstract mental structures, emotional associations or concrete creations. Abandoning the reality of their limits and definitions, we move ever closer to a conscious coadunition with the cosmos.
Whereas Uranus releases the kundalini energy which breaks up lesser forms and Neptune prompts a mystical release into the cosmic stream, Pluto drives man into the underworld, where an intense cleansing and clearing up of karma reveal truth in a stark and unalloyed light. Transformation in Pluto gives human beings freedom from conditioned responses and the gift of pure Divine Will. The discoveries of Tombaugh and Christy reflect this freedom. Neither of them were bound by conventional assumptions and both were bold and tenacious enough to pursue truth wherever it led them. The man-made obstacles to their discoveries which had taken the forms of quarrelling over money, scepticism and smug preconceptions never succeeded in diverting them from completing their journey into the Plutonian world. The discovery of Pluto and Charon entailed an evolutionary deepening and purification of consciousness, but to achieve full transformation in Pluto requires the mastery of all the lunar forces and the ability to focus upon an unseen but impending Truth which will erupt into one's consciousness and destroy the shreds of previously held perceptions. A good analogue to this can be found in the requirements for a successful viewing of the planet during this perihelion period. If one looks at Pluto's field through a telescope, a great many stars will be visible. One will need to reduce the confusion by centering Pluto's position in a low-powered eyepiece and then gradually increasing the magnification to X 10 per inch of aperture.
The persistent focus and magnification negate the distracting clouds of lunar influences, and the dim truth suddenly moves, suddenly leaps to the mind's eye and sweeps away everything that is not consonant with its larger energy. The eruptive and enlightening forces of Scorpio (which is ruled by Pluto) are released and the microcosm which is Man begins to self-consciously experience itself in the Macrocosm. But tenacity and personal will are not sufficient to bring this about. The Furies are not attendant upon Pluto as mere decorations. They are formidable, pitiless and just avengers who, whilst inevitably awaiting each soul after death, also confront every individual intent upon making the daunting journey into the underworld during life. Such a self-determined pilgrim must become his or her own Fury, scourging and cleaning out the residues of lunar ideas, lunar attachments and lunar images of self. This is not easy, and the self-discipline and sacrifice required may be too much for some who then fall under the sway of Pluto's negative influence. Shunning masochistic possibilities, such individuals may fall into atavism, attempting to plumb the depths not of truth but of the lunar aspects of death and magic. They may become engrossed in primitive elemental practices, combined with a desire for the power not of universal evolution but of manipulation and distortion. A dramatic example of this operating through a large collective of individuals manifested in the 1930s with the rise of the Nazi movement. One has also seen many subsequent instances of the negative side of Pluto's influence in all sorts of atavistic practices, including those in the American culture involving a frequent misuse of native Indian beliefs as well as general psychic activity focussed upon the dead and the dark corridors of the astral world.
Such practices journey backward in evolution, making a mockery of the real wisdom once held by so-called primitive peoples. One who is lured by such things easily finds himself wandering off into shadows. Like the heedless voyager to the surface of Pluto's planet, such persons easily step into a depthless chasm offering no escape. Walking on Pluto in such a direction, they are carried forth in rapid bounds and wholly lost before they realize they can no longer see the ferry boat over the horizon. Even for the wise voyager it is essential not to lose sight of Charon's craft, for if it is the means of crossing over, it is also the means of return. To succeed in making the initial crossing with the intention of return, Charon must first be satisfied with the clarity and purity of one's purpose. Only those truly seeking the realization of immortality are permitted by him to make the journey when alive. To all else he continues to conceal Pluto's realm, as the large moon bearing his name conceals its planet during eclipse. But he is prepared to reveal Pluto's nature to those who stand cleansed and fearless on the shore of the universal sea.
The chaotic movement in Pluto's progression partakes of a greater chaos which lies within and behind all universal systems of order, and which provides an adjunct crucial to evolution, keeping it from sinking into a stagnant circle of repetition. The eruptive power of volcanoes ruled by Pluto is a symbol of this flashing, truth-revealing energy which continually arises out of the ashes of abandoned lesser realities. Pluto's eccentric orbit is a symbol as well, one of order and chaos merged, life and death wedded together over and over again, for it links our known solar system to the unknown and mysterious galaxy beyond. With every orbital passage Pluto and Charon make, they bring the macrocosmic design of evolution into the more ordered-seeming field of the microcosmic experience of our globe. The dark emptiness of space, which we fear as death, is commingled with the fullness of our visible system, which we imagine as life. Face to face, the tidally coupled Pluto and Charon pass back and forth, in and out of life, in and out of the solar system like a ferryman whose dark and cheerless aspect masks a shining new world beyond. The two sides of the coin needed to pay him for the passage are thus brought together in the stream of human consciousness.
Transformation in Pluto implies a mastery of the means of crossing to this new world as well as a realization of that which transcends life and death within oneself. Such a Master experiences the balanced confinement of this unlimited power in every aspect of his being. It is contained in its orbit, so to speak, by the forces of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter which he has already understood and learnt to govern in himself. He is of this world but fully of another. He has journeyed back beyond the floating dream of manifesting worlds into the vaster Tartarus, a sleep which is both being and non-being in repose. He knows death in life and life in death and consciously enters into each phase without missing a beat, alert and fully concentrated, aware of each blinking of deeper truth as it flashes and reveals itself. Such a Master floats over the great river of life. Like Vasudeva, the ferryman whose wisdom guided Siddhartha, he passes back and forth, knowing both shores to be the same. To emulate his passage, one must find the point of crossing and the ferry boat within oneself. Launching upon a course of cleansing and clarification, one prepares to embark, waits to perceive the link that connects the noetic individual to the universal soul, the paramatman. It reveals itself, looming in the mist shrouding the depths of one's inner being, the vast spaces that reach to Pluto's shores. The silent ferryman nods and one steps aboard. The tide surges, the mists part, the crossing is begun.