Hidden Faces of the Asteroid Goddesses

Published in The Mountain Astrologer, Spring 1998.

During the last few decades the inequities of patriarchy have been challenged in virtually every realm, from the legal to the linguistic. Celestial symbolism may be the last bastion of the old boy’s club that has defined civilization in the Western World, but there are stirrings of change even there. The discovery of the four major asteroids, just now, at the advent of the Millennium, symbolizes that change. From pagan sky-gods through Jehovah and Allah, male divinities have reigned in heavens perfectly suited to male-dominant cultures. Classical theologians, from whom contemporary astrologers draw so much of our imagery, voted Jupiter/Zeus as king of the sky and we have retained the male focus, with our pantheon of eight male and only two female planets, ever since.But astrology now has a language with which to expand upon this cosmological patriarchy, and to reclaim the mysteries of the Feminine Principle. The first four asteroids discovered –Ceres, Pallas Athene, Vesta and Juno–represent the archetypal Feminine exclusively, as the Moon and Venus do, but represent it in distinctly contemporary ways. Metaphysicians refer to the Law of Correspondences to explain how it is that a planet is discovered in the sky at exactly the same time as the issues it governs occur to the mass mind. By this law, each one of these recently discovered asteroids deals with a set of ideas whose time has come. Eating disorders, for example, governed by Ceres, and the phrase “the double standard”, associated with Juno, had not been part of the vernacular until the last few decades, when the asteroids officially entered the astrological lexicon.

The sighting in the sky in the early 1800s of the first four asteroids corresponded historically with women’s suffrage. Feminism got its second wind in the early 70s, just as Eleanor Bach published the first asteroid ephemeris.

This is what astrologers mean by “As above, so below”. These bodies may have been orbiting between Jupiter and Mars since the birth of the solar system, but they are peculiarly new just now, as once again astronomical fact segues into astrological symbolism to offer a teaching about suddenly relevant concepts.

Seen in this light, the asteroids become tremendously important. Each of the four is a concentrated little package of symbolism, a particular slice of the whole that is the Archetypal Feminine Principle, expressly suited to restore a particular aspect of wisdom that has been underground for 5,000 years.

The fact that conventional astrology has used just two planets to express unqualified femininity is an accurate reflection of the fact that there were by and large only two socially acceptable roles for women: the venutian consort and the lunar mother. In a larger sense, we have all been cut off from any but these two expressions of our own feminine power, women and men alike. And the problem goes beyond sex roles, to all the yin aspects of human experience, from our attitudes towards Mother Nature to our cluelessness about the right-hemisphere of the brain.

Now the asteroids come along to fill in the blanks. In her seminal work, Asteroid Goddesses, Demetra George digs deep into prehistory in her search for their meaning, examining the four deities in terms of their role in Greek and Roman stories, and then tracing those myths back to a time before the Hellenistic period, when each goddess had a different face, and in every case, considerably more power.

This is where it gets really interesting.

Originally, each of these deities derived from the time of Mother Goddess worship, a period which began to crumble when the sky-god religions took over, starting somewhere in the Age of Taurus. Piecing together the clues as to how these goddesses were perceived by their worshippers way back in the primordial era, we see how the legends mutated over time as different political shifts in the cultures generated new religious images.

The premise here is that historical ages and cosmological imagery are inextricably intertwined. And to get the full picture of each of the four asteroids, one must take into account their goddess’ origins: each has an archaic inner face and a newer outer face. The outer face is the acculturated one: we all know this one (the extent to which classical mythology has a lock on our assumptions about sex roles in the Western world, and by extension dominant culture, could be the subject of another paper). The inner face, far less familiar, is the key to our liberation.

This makes for a whole new way of reading a chart.

Looking at the four asteroids the way George does makes me feel as if each one is its own mystery school, with the native being led through a calculated set of instructions into initiation, based on that person’s peculiar set of circumstances and absolutely individual way of receiving the information, as symbolized by their unique natal chart. It is as if each of us has the key to being an inductee into the sacred Rites of the Great Mother. Such practices once constituted the only religion in town: they held sway in the Mediterranean for thousands of years before being shut down by a Christian Emperor in the 5th Century AD. George argues that they live on in the collective unconscious, that the images are familiar to us on a cellular level; and that a thorough study of the asteroids can allow us to recognize these buried truths, to be moved by them and profoundly changed by them.

Ceres is the largest asteroid and the first to have been officially sighted.

Demeter (Da-Mater, or Earth Mother) was the Greek name for this goddess, whose young daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades/Pluto and secreted away down in the Underworld. First in grief and then in anger, Mother Ceres withdrew her blessings from the world, causing the plants to die and people to go hungry. A compromise was eventually struck whereby the daughter is allowed to spend some of the year up above ground with her mother during which time crops would grow again, but she must spend several months every year below ground, during which time nothing would grow. Apparently mollified, Ceres is said to have given humanity the gift of a grain of corn, the central symbol of her initiation rites into the Mysteries of life and death.

And so on one level, we have here a myth explaining the cycle of seasons and the origins of agriculture, as well as a universal story of innocence lost. But who was the Ceres figure before the Greeks got hold of her? A look at the antecedents to the myth shows another layer of meaning.

George points out that there had been many fertility goddesses in this part of the world leading up to the classical period, each of whom had a myth like this, except for one salient feature: the rape of the daughter. That part seems to be a late addition: an allegory illustrating the power struggle that was taking place between the new masculine-dominant cultures and the indigenous cultures they were replacing. The endless-summer state the world was in before the abduction has been said to represent the Golden Age of pre-patriarchal times in the fertile crescent. The absence of a father for Persephone symbolized the fact that in the more ancient tribes, paternity was considered secondary, if at all, in lines of descent.

Some of the themes George sees in the myth include incest, as indicated by the rape by Pluto, who was Persephone’s uncle, and the interesting sub theme of its being permitted by the authorities (Homer described Zeus in his Ode to Demeter as “seeing far, and allowing it”) as well as custody sharing, as indicated by the compromise arrived at by the Olympian judge. Custody struggles seem to align with Ceres transits. Ceres also governs food complexes, as indicated by Ceres’ refusal to eat; withdrawal of support; and work stoppages, as she halted food production as a means of control.

George argues that Ceres’ placement in the chart shows more specifically than the moon does one’s style of nurturing, both the creative giving of it, the style of receiving it, and its dark potential: withholding or over-controlling in the name of nurture. A twelfth- house Ceres might mean an elusive or abstracted maternal relationship, or one where the native ingests spiritual values along with the mother’s milk. A Taurus Ceres would lend a hearty groundedness to the nurturing style, while increasing the potential to want to possess those being fed. Interpreting the asteroid in terms of its archaic inner face, we discover the wise funerary priestess, Ceres in her crone phase, as well as the innocent transformed in Hades, Ceres as puella. Like the prehistoric crones who cradled their dying tribesmen in their arms in last rites, Ceres can inspire us as compassionate caretakers of the terminally ill to guide those in hospices, for example, to make their final descent. This asteroid’s placement also gives clues as to the types of situations where the native might “go through hell and back” as did Persephone. Ceres in aspect to the Moon, for example, would make it very likely that transformative crises would happen on the home front, not just with family but with roommates or anyone else living under one’s roof. In such a case even a domestic squabble with a house mate can put one into the state of a powerless child who must then resurface to adulthood through catharsis and understanding.

As parents, we can use both the transformative and valedictory facets of the Ceres archetype to help us through the loss and self-reinvention that characterize empty-nest syndrome. Ceres can guide us through any heartfelt–or womb felt– loss that must necessarily be integrated, as the goddess’ had to be.

Like a feminine Pluto, Ceres represents a mother-love that embraces death and grieving. It also seems to govern the kind of rite-of-passage into adulthood that is taught through an encounter with the Dark, the extreme example of which is rape. Whether the violation is literal or psychic, its teaching is that even the most terrible traumas may be precursors to a state of sovereignty, as was the case with the young victim who ended up Queen of the Underworld.

Pallas Athene is the civilizing asteroid.

She was for the Greeks the patroness of arts and healing, crafts and trades; a great warrior and strategist, who refused to be married. She was the one without a mother: Homer describes her as springing out of Zeus’s head full-blown, his favorite child. Astrologically she seems to be associated with politics and social causes.

It is a very particular type of intelligence that George sees in Pallas Athene. Not logical in the usual sense of the word, it is holistic and inventive: George associates it with whole-pattern recognition. What is noteworthy here is that we have a mental planet that is not mental in the masculine sense. It is a feminine type of mentation. And it is designed to be used in the outer world. What a concept: a distinctly feminine energy that is most at home in the career.

There is an androgynous quality to this asteroid, with humanistic camaraderie emphasized over sexuality. And the Greek stories surrounding Athena portray her as playing a pivotal role in the issue of gender-bending.

In the myth of the trial of Orestes, Athena was the tie-breaker who came down on the side of the hero who had killed his mother. Under the older blood law, matricide was the ultimate taboo. But Athena says, in essence, “Why not? The mother is not the true parent of the child. The father is.” This is an allegorical reference to the fact that around the time Aeschylus recorded the myth, the laws of mother-right were being foresworn in order to achieve some degree of leverage in the new patrilineal culture, from which we get one of the meanings of this asteroid: a woman’s ability to achieve success in a man’s world. At its most distorted, this figure represents selling out to the powers-that-be. Athena the goddess was impregnable behind the suit of armor she was born in, and Pallas Athene the asteroid can similarly denote the blocking of emotional vulnerabilities behind a psychological armor, in order to be free of the prejudice against them.

On the face of it, Pallas Athene can refer to the positive relationship a woman can have to an authority figure, as a professional woman might have with a mentor, or the daddy’s-little-girl type of bonding, with incestuous undertones, that is its shadow. She can be expressed positively as a pioneering career drive or, in her distorted guise, as the fear of success.

The other face of Pallas Athena can be uncovered by considering her origins before she became the protector of the State and apologist for the conquering order.

In the Perseus legend, Athena was pitted against Medusa, the hideous she-monster with snakes for hair. But George reminds us that stories from further back feature Medusa as a beautiful queen of the Gorgon Amazons (such tribes actually existed before the Hellenic invaders). The slaying of Medusa is again a reference to the sociohistorical shift that saw the end of female political power in its earlier form, and its incorporation into another system. The emblem featuring Medusa’s face which Pallas Athena wears in the center of her breastplate is a reference to this incorporation. In fact, Medusa is the crone aspect of the Pallas Athena archetype. When I read the asteroid this way, I see her heroism and courage in a very different light from the interpretations of Athena I learned in school. I see her valor deriving not from an identification with maleness, but from her amazonian origins: a feminine form of warrior spirit.

The placement of Pallas Athena in the natal chart indicates the best ways to use one’s holistic perception and intelligence. George has seen Pallas in Gemini, for instance, in the charts of speech therapists. This asteroid’s placement also gives clues as to how the native might respond to contemporary sex-role issues such as preference for male children, educational streaming, and the glass ceiling in the work place. It may be that the newly politicized issue of sexual harassment falls under this asteroid’s rulership. A person with Pallas Athene in Sagittarius would be particularly sensitive to the moral dimension of these issues and would address them with passion; the Libra placement would be more likely to approach them through reason and negotiation.

The idea that world leadership should be in the hands of women gets heard more and more frequently these days. Whether the 21st century prime ministers and presidents will be biological women, or men who have repudiated destroy-and-conquer methods, Pallas Athene may be our model for the new face of governance.

Vesta is the asteroid whose archaic inner face is the least like her outer face.

She’s the one who lost most in the translation. In pre-Hellenic Greece, the priestesses of the Moon Goddess practiced sexual rites. They initiated temple pilgrims into the Mysteries that way. Virgins not in the sense of being literally chaste, but in the sense that they belonged to no one partner, they would ritually bathe themselves after these unions, symbolically re-virginating themselves. The pagan festivals so reviled by later churchmen had their origins in sacred rites where groups of vestals and their consorts coupled in the darkness of a sacred cave, without knowing who was partnering whom. The children resulting from these unions were thought to be divinely chosen. This seems to be the origin of the legend, later adopted so enthusiastically by the Christians, that certain Latin kings were born of virgin mothers or were the sons of a god.

As soon as patrilineality came about, these practices became highly disadvantageous to the ruling castes, since knowledge of paternity was essential to the passing on of land and title. The Romans instituted a literal chastity into the vestal rites, which was enforced under penalty of death by live burial. The Christian mythos that followed literalized this virginity business still further, by coming up with an image of an idealized mother who even gives birth without sex.

The inner archaic face of Vesta is that of a spirituality that sees sex as a means to channel the power of the Divine Feminine: a sexuality that is not used to get a mate, nor to get children, nor to achieve personal pleasure… but to practice a religious devotion. From the standpoint of conventional morality, this has got to be the most explosive of all the ideas spiritual feminism has to offer.

The vestals of the ancient world were also charged with keeping the fires lit which established the spiritual and secular center of each community. The Greek goddess Hestia stood for the unity and cohesion of the family and state, and governed hospitality and the notion of sanctuary. Modern astrologers have thus associated the asteroid Vesta with security systems, insurance and notary publics.

Vesta functions as the ability to center the self, to focus (the Latin word for hearth is focus), and to pull in the consciousness away from outside distractions into a state of undivided attention; Vesta in Virgo, for example, has a tremendous capacity to lose oneself in work. Vesta by transit can indicate the times when one needs to retreat from intimacy in order to recharge one’s batteries alone. Vesta in Aquarius would probably withdraw in front of the computer.

Vesta stands for the memory each of us can access through the collective unconscious of sacred sexuality, a very private use of second chakra energy that is emphatically not other-oriented. Vestal sex is Doing it for the Goddess. Because of the extreme suspicion, not to mention legal prosecution, that such impulses would elicit in the contemporary world, it follows that Vesta’s expression is especially prone to distortions. Relationship separations were part of the healthy functioning of the sacred harlots. But we don’t have a cultural framework to express this energy though, and if we don’t find a personal framework either, the vestal urge to withdraw manifests pathologically. Vesta’s shadow side is sexual repressiveness, fear, even frigidity and impotence, which George has found indicated especially when Vesta is afflicted by Mars. The more a given society debases sexuality, the more potential there is for individuals with strong Vestas to suffer–either by suppressing their own sexual longings, or acting them out but thinking them shameful. Superficial promiscuity is another symptom of denied Vesta, however: the fully conscious Vesta may seek multiple partners but never in a superficial way. Vesta is acutely discriminating. For her, sex that is merely ordinary is a blasphemy.

Juno is the asteroid of the C-word: committed partnership.

Earlier than the classical period, Juno, or Hera in the Greek, was one of the tripartite Moon Goddesses who ruled quite alone. Her marriage to Jupiter, or the Greek Zeus, was the mythological record of her absorption into the victors’ theology. Small wonder that husband and wife are always fighting.

Where Vesta uses sexuality in a way that allows her to stay complete unto herself, Juno is after heirogamos, or sacred marriage. Her placement shows more specifically than Venus’ does how one expresses the desire to be a significant other, no matter what the sexual orientation. A person with Juno in Capricorn would prefer a relatively conventional marriage; Juno in Scorpio would lead a person to place more importance on the sexual bond than on the legal aspect of union. Actual engagements and weddings and moving-in-togethers and divorces often correspond to Juno transits. Zip Dobyns finds that synastric connections of Juno make her clients think of marriage even when nothing else in the comparison would seem to indicate it.

Juno is the one among the four asteroid goddesses who represented steadfast loyalty to relationship-for-the-sake-of-relationship. It is she who offers the teaching for modern spouses trying to find ways to live as a unit without losing themselves in co-dependency. Like all the lunar deities, Juno had three facets: in this case, the maiden, the bride and the widow, which described the cyclical state of a committed union. In the myths, we see Juno and Jupiter separating for some reason, usually an infidelity of his; she goes into solitude or a wandering phase, then she bathes herself in the sacred spring, and goes right back into the relationship. This asteroid is about the natural rhythm there is in uniting with and separation from and reuniting with a mate.

It is possible to read Juno as being merely about bridal showers and couples counseling. But looking beneath this level, we find a more subtle perspective on committed partnership.

To understand the archaic inner face of Juno it may be necessary to dispense altogether with the modern term “wife”, and resurrect the ancient notion of a consort. Giving this asteroid both Scorpio and Libra rulership, George posits that Juno represents the concept of a union of intimate equals: the craving to fully merge with another human being in order to find the perfect balancing of masculine and feminine energies. On a secular level, this could be seen as the mutual respect and support a happily married couple would have for one another’s work, emotional well-being and creative projects, as well as their commitment to mutual pleasure in bed. On a spiritual level it could be seen as committed lovers in meditation, exploring the psychic sharing and the raising of the kundalini life-force that transpires in conscious sex, as practiced in Eastern tantric traditions. Ultimately, Juno’s goal is not the marriage itself but the ego transcendence the marriage can offer. Though pleasure may be part of it, this kind of coupling has more to do with religious ecstasy. The union becomes a means to get beyond the separateness of the self by joining forces with another at the deepest levels–the original meaning of the heirogamos –leading to healing and spiritual consummation.

The distorted expression of Juno stems from the skewed power relationships in the institution of marriage or its facsimile.

Infidelity and the anger it inspires, jealousy and possessiveness and sexual rivalry all are potentials of dark Juno. Where there is the kind of dependency in a relationship such as the traditional wife has upon her husband, or where one partner keeps a vow of monogamy that the other does not keep, the pathology of Juno may rear its head. Greek legend is full of stories of Hera wreaking havoc on the lives of Zeus’ lovers and their children.

People in whose charts Juno is strong have a special sensitivity to the double standard, and by extension, to the underdog in relationships where there is a power imbalance, as is the case with abused children.

As George points out, the distortions of the original goddess imagery are direct reflections of their cosmological disempowerment over the ages, now imprinted in the modern psyche. If the feminine power they embody is skewed, so has actual feminine power been skewed. The study of these asteroids, particularly their dark sides, resonates strongly with those searching for a way through confining cultural patterns. The primordial ideas they embody are alive within us, and it can feel like a soul-deep self-recognition to reconnect with them. Digging beneath the distorted images –seeing who Juno was before she became the jealous wife, for instance — we can find the archaic power buried there and let it out.

George, Demetra: Asteroid Goddesses, ACS 1986
Homer, “The Hymn to Athena”, The Homeric Hymns, trans. Charles Boer.
Texas Spring Pub. 1979
Aeschylus, The Orestian Trilogy