First published in Reclaiming Quarterly, 2005
Ancient View of Death
To early humans, the circularity of the life cycle was a given. Evidence from archaeological findings and creation stories the world over suggests a universal world view which held that all living things, human beings included, follow ever-repeating cycles: birth leads to death leads to rebirth. This, in a nutshell, is the law of Pluto.Before the sky-god religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) rose to dominance, a movement that began around five thousand years ago, spirituality was Nature-based. The Earth was seen as a Great Mother, and all living things were her children. When death came to a member of the tribe, it was the crone priestess who presided over last rites. It is said that she cradled the dying in her arms like a newborn child, crooning the funerary version of a lullaby. The pronouncement of anathema was the priestess’ official statement that the dying person was about to cross the mortal threshold, and should prepare for the great surrender.
During its long campaign to stamp out the old beliefs, the Christian church grotesquely misinterpreted ancient rites such as these. The calling of anathema was construed to mean a curse. Churchmen told their flock that the ritual was a Satan-powered act of aggression, whereby an old woman was magically causing someone to die.These were not mere theological distortions. They were the strategic decisions of a new institution trying to consolidate its power. Through the canny misconstrual of ancient practices, the church conducted the world’s first mass negative propaganda campaign ever attempted on this kind of scale. As we know, it was an astounding success.
Under the new priesthood, it was untenable that female elders be allowed to announce the Mysteries. All evidence of feminine religious authority had to be expurgated. Here, as with so many other tenets of ancient cosmology, the church found a way to cast blame for death onto the Feminine principle. During the centuries that followed, the old priestess’ rite mutated into a rationale for the persecution of “witches”.
But the spin churchmen put on the pronouncement of anathema has a further significance, even more profound: it points up the way our thinking about death has changed over the ages. No longer a sacred phase in the Wheel of Life, death came to be seen as a non-inevitable calamity of which humanity was the cause as well as the victim.
Looking Death in the Eye
When ancient priestesses looked death in the eye, they were conducting an instructional sacrament: they were showing their tribesmen how to face the ineffable with courage and respect. The fact that churchmen saw this ritual as an act of agency, intended to harm, tells us much about how modern thinking came to distort the role of the human ego in the dying process.Any historian who aspires to a rigorously honest analysis of the early church must confront the question: What inspired church fathers to come up with the perverse new explanations of mortality, sex and childbirth that they came up with? How much of it was pure political co-option; how much projected collective neurosis?
However we explain their motivation, their edicts heralded the way death would be seen by an increasingly dis-ensouled world. Eventually their explanations came to be accepted as normative, and evolved into a cosmology whereby modern people imagine themselves to exist outside of and at odds with Nature, and alone in the Universe.
Death Becomes Taboo
Many pre-Christian traditions, Buddhism included, teach that the seeker of enlightenment must accept her own death. This acceptance is believed to be a very personal, inward aspect of the path towards self-awareness — not part of some formalized process. No mentor or institution from the outside world is required to take one through it. Though teachers abound in these traditions, they are not considered necessary. The direct and intimate nature of soul-search is thought to require no intermediary. Indeed, ultimately such interference is a cheat. We must each traverse this ground alone.But under the Christian system, independent explorations into the Mysteries were condemned as heresy. Looking death in the eye was outlawed; and by prohibiting it, the church suppressed the likelihood of a person reaching spiritual maturity. Christians were denied the license to cultivate their own unique spiritual intelligence. Passivity was encouraged. It became a crime even to ask questions that didn’t fit the program.
Thus the church made death taboo in the modern sense1: too dangerous to talk about, think about or confront.
New Death Stories
For untold millennia before the father-gods appeared, death had been seen as basically wholesome. Nature was considered unconditionally sacred. Death was Her way of recycling human energy. If modern linguists had access to their languages, we would likely find that ancient peoples’ word for death would translate to the hybrid death/rebirth. The two were seen as inextricably linked phases: flip sides to the same coin. Like childbirth, death was revered as part of the fabric of a nurturing universe.But with the advent of the patriarchal religions, humanity was presented with a whole new set of death stories: stories of a bellicose and rejecting deity, of inborn human evil and hideous afterlife punishment. The new myths wrenched humans out of their sense of planetary belonging.
Death became linked with fear.
Fear and Evil
The new cosmology proposed that the human mortal cycle, both individually (procreation) and collectively (the expulsion from Eden), originated in sin and folly. Through various tortuous contortions of common sense, church patriarchs invented explanations of sex and death that managed to dissociate humans from the rest of the natural order. In a complete departure from intuitive logic, they introduced the taint of evil and shame. Indeed, the Vatican went so far as to pass a bull declaring it a heresy to declare death a natural occurrence.The changeover from the original view of death to the Christian view was a revolutionary philosophical crisis. It was the most critical ontological threshold humanity has ever crossed, marking the chasm between the primitive mind and the cosmically estranged modern mind.
The new death stories represented a definitive parting of company with Plutonian law.
The Conquering Priesthood
Every society has a priesthood, a group given exclusive license to explain the Mysteries to the people of that culture. For the past few centuries, Western science has been wresting control of this license.If we take a broad enough historical view, we begin to see that notwithstanding the current clashes between Darwinists and creationists, the truth is that modern science itself evolved out of the victory of the patriarchal church over the ancient ways.
Back when the great Goddess-to-God shift was taking place, the contest for the right to explain the Mysteries was between folk (“pagan”) tradition and Christianity, whose crusaders were armed to the teeth and dispatched to “convert” heathens across the globe. It took several thousands of years of persecution, pogroms and inquisitions for the new system to prevail.
It is no wonder that it took so long. One can only imagine how freakish the idea of original sin must have sounded to the goddess-worshiping cultures that came under the conquering sword. To ancient peoples, the idea of demonizing sexuality was not merely bizarre; it was a sacrilege. And for the church to condemn across-the-board the entire race of women — givers of life, like the Goddess Herself — must have seemed an incomprehensible blasphemy.
The Ultimate Power Play
But it was the new way of looking at death that ultimately turned the tide. Fear of death was the primary tool the church used to bury the Old Religion and enforce loyalty to what were called Christian laws.To declare death an aberration was a consummate power play. Cajoling the populace away from seeing their own death as part of a larger cycle, as organic as leaves falling from the trees at the approach of winter, the church presented death as a weird human error that could be rectified only through institutional intervention. By enforcing the belief that we die because of an aboriginal act of human wickedness (Eve and the apple, etc.), death became a problem. The ultimate problem. And one that no amount of self-knowledge or independent spiritual search could solve. There was no choice but to submit to the priests and popes, follow their rules and pay their tithes. Otherwise the horrors of hell awaited.
It was the biggest scam in human history.
Church Teachings Go Secular
In time, the church’s teachings worked their way into what we think of as the most resolutely secular institutions of society: politics, education, the environment… indeed, the whole consensual definition of reality.The church made it its first order of business to denounce reincarnation as a pagan travesty. This campaign proved largely successful in the Western world, where great cosmic truths are now under the auspices of a scientific establishment that dismisses and ridicules the idea of past lives. And by declaring it taboo to sacralize Nature, church founders laid the groundwork for the kind of modern thinking that leads us to treat the environment as a commodity to exploit and consume.
The impact of the new teachings extended far beyond the theological arena. The early church accomplished nothing less than an all-but-total repudiation of the ancient, circular view of existence. Instead they substituted a linear model. The new model said: We are born and then we die, and whatever happens after that — whether heaven or hell — is forever. Simple as one, two, three.
This worldview has become so ingrained that atheists and fundamentalists alike hold it as an unquestioned assumption. One cannot help but see it as darkly humorous that both battling camps unthinkingly subscribe to the same postulate. The anti-spiritual crowd considers what happens after death to be a moot point, while the religionists consider it to be the whole point. But both presume after-death experience to be final and static.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this change in the collective worldview. The modern mind considers it axiomatic that human life — and Time itself — operate in a line, not a circle. Death is seen as the phase farthest away from birth. Indeed, just phrasing it this way sounds absurdly self-evident, which tells us how deeply entrenched the notion has become.
By contrast, the ancient mind saw death as the phase that took a person’s life full circle. Thus it was the point closest of all to the point of birth.
Ideas Go Underground
But taboo ideas do not disappear; they just go underground. Liz Greene has suggested that every two and a half centuries, when Pluto moves through Scorpio, the sign of its rulership, widespread interest in the phenomenon of death-and-renewal rears its head again, despite all manner of cultural injunctions against it.Greene has associated Pluto-in-Scorpio through history with the reawakening of interest in various doctrines which reclaim humanity’s place in the natural order of ever-repeating cycles — all of them heresies in the eyes of the world’s dominant religious establishments. These include reincarnation, astrology, alchemy and other occult traditions.
The New Physics, which entered the collective vocabulary in earnest during the late 80s and early 90s when Pluto was most recently in Scorpio, is of course not new at all. Its basic tenets are merely the latest restatement of the eternal truths: that everything in the universe is interconnected, and that energy can never be created or destroyed, but just changes form — the key premises of the Old Religion.2
Unlike the historians of ancient Mesoamerica or India, whose astounding calendars bespeak a vast, macro-cyclic perspective, Western historians have tended to confine their attention to the couple of thousand years that have transpired since the classical Greeks and Romans: the definitive benchmark of “civilization”. Schoolchildren learn that all earlier epochs comprise a vague, undistinguished mass called “pre-history”, which was populated by stereotypical “cave men” and where nothing of import happened.To the extent that we in the industrialized world are all educated in this myopic perspective, we overestimate the proportion of human history that the father-god theologies have been in power. And we underestimate the significance of the countless millennia before then, during which the human race viewed the world very, very differently. But as Carl Jung and others have made clear, this knowledge is in fact retained by the human mind; or, to be more precise, by a part of our beings that might be termed the body-mind intelligence. Each of us is born with a collective memory that contains within it ineradicable imagery of profound emotional and spiritual power, deeply hidden but very much alive despite the all-encompassing influence of conventional thinking.
Pockets of Resistance
When the whole of human history is taken into consideration, it starts to seem only natural that pockets of resistance to church law, such as astrology, have survived every effort to wipe them out. Eternal truths are nothing if not resilient. Pluto’s teaching — that all things die and come back in another form — is as basic a law of Nature as there is. The self-recycling nature of the universe is written into the hardwiring of human consciousness, just as it is into that of animals and plants. It is not something we have to learn. It is something we have to remember that we know.It also seems likely that each of us carries within our cells the memory of ceremonies conducted by our ancestors to honor Plutonian law, such as the Eleusinian Rites: rituals practiced for thousands upon thousands of years before the relatively recent sky-god religions came along. Deep species-knowing cannot be stamped out, even by centuries of oppression and brainwashing.
I believe we also retain collective memory of the gallows, the stake and the rack. Nine million women are estimated to have been killed in the name of the father-god during the European Renaissance, an epoch glorified for being a high point for (male) education and the arts; but which, for believers in the Old Ways — or those mistaken for same — was a holocaust that makes subsequent historical abominations pale by contrast.
Pluto and Death
As we have seen, the church’s redefinition of death was an artificial construct, a brilliant stroke of power-mongering. It so obscured the fundamental essence of mortality that we cannot make sense of the issue until we move beyond the theological nonsense that has covered it up. Only then are we in a position to look at the essential Natural Law that matched Pluto up with death in the first place; and to use our natal Pluto placements, as well as its transits, as opportunities to look death in the eye.
Originally, the term taboo, from the Polynesian word for sacred, conveyed a sense of spiritual power so profound that its misuse could be dangerous. The fact that the word’s modern use conveys such explosively negative connotations says more about the neuroses of contemporary culture than it does about the subject matter of the taboo. For a discussion of the parallels between the New Physics and ancient worldviews, see Physics vs. Metaphysics: A False Divide on the Articles page of this website.