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Uranus and Pluto: Epochs of Revolution

By Richard Tarnas

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Richard Tarnas’ 2006 book Cosmos and Psyche. This selection is from Rick’s chapter on the Uranus-Pluto cycle, which was active during many phases of revolution, as he explains. The book may take you a year to read, but when you’re done you will understand how astrology works — and you’ll even have a clue why it works. The 2012 alignment is specifically an alignment of Uranus and Pluto, and will have the flavor of many other such alignments — though in our era, we get to decide what to do with it. That’s the creative part. The book is available easiest from Amazon, though I ask that you special order it from a small, local bookseller.

The Storming of the Bastille. Visible in the center is the arrest of Bernard RenГ© Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789), Watercolor painting; 37.8 x 50.5 cm

The archetypal meanings of the three outermost planets seem to have been derived principally from correlations observed in the study of individual natal charts and personal transits, and of synchronistic historical phenomena in the specific eras in which those planets were discovered. When I applied those meanings to this entirely different category of phenomena—analyzing periods of history when the outer planets were in major alignment in the sky and thus, theoretically, when the corresponding archetypes were most activated in the collective psyche—I was deeply impressed by the empirical correlations. These extended alignments of the outer planets consistently seemed to coincide with sustained periods during which a particular archetypal complex was conspicuously dominant in the collective psyche, defining the zeitgeist, as it were, of that cultural moment. The dominant archetypal complex was always discernibly composed of the specific archetypal principles associated with the relevant aligned planets, as if those archetypes were interacting, merging, and mutually inflecting each other in highly visible ways.

One of the first such instances was the decade of the 1960s. By all accounts the Sixties were an extraordinary era. Intense, problematic, and seminal, the entire decade seems to have been animated by a peculiarly vivid and compelling spirit—something “in the air”—an elemental force apparent to all at the time, that was not present in such a tangible manner during the immediately preceding or subsequent decades, and that in retrospect still sets the era apart as a phenomenon unique in recent memory. Early in the course of my research I noticed that during the entire period of this decade, specifically from 1960 to 1972, there took place a conjunction of two outer planets, Uranus and Pluto, that occurs relatively rarely. Indeed, this was the only conjunction of these planets in the entire twentieth century.

Because of the great distance of both planets from the Sun and Earth, the Uranus-Pluto cycle is one of the longest of all planetary cycles and, because of Pluto’s eccentric orbit, is variable in duration. Conjunctions and oppositions between Uranus and Pluto, the two axial alignments, occur only once each per century, with each such alignВ¬ment lasting approximately twelve years, when the two planets are within 15В° of exactitude. To recapitulate briefly the nature of the archetypal principles associated with these two planets: The planet Uranus appears to be correlated with events and biographical phenomena suggestive of an archetypal principle whose essential character is Promethean: emancipatory, rebellious, progressive and innovative, awakening, disruptive and destabilizing, unpredictable, serving to catalyze new beginnings and sudden unexpected change. The planet Pluto, by contrast, is associated with an archetypal principle whose character is Dionysian: elemental, instinctual, powerfully compelling, extreme in its intensity, arising from the depths, both libidinal and destructive, overwhelming and transformative, ever-evolving. On the collective level, the archetypal principle associated with Pluto is regarded as possessing a prodigious, titanic dimension, empowering, intensifying, and compelling whatever it touches on a massive scale.

Counterculture surged during the Sixties, spreading across many countries and continents. Photo: Wikipedia.

When I applied these specific archetypal meanings to an examination of the historical periods that coincided with the sequence of major alignments of the Uranus-Pluto cycle, it was immediately apparent that not only were these two archetypal principles each conspicuously active in the collec¬tive psyche during these particular eras; they were also in some sense combining with each other—acting upon each other, mutually inflecting and synergistically merging. The resulting archetypal complex seemed to express itself quite dramatically during those specific historical eras in which Uranus and Pluto were in axial alignment, as evidenced by such phenomena as widespread radical social and political change and often destructive upheaval, massive empowerment of revolutionary and rebellious impulses, and intensified artistic and intellectual creativity. Other distinctive themes of these historical periods included unusually rapid technological advance, an underlying spirit of restless experiment, drive for innovation, urge for freedom in many realms, revolt against oppression, embrace of radical political philosophies, and intensified collective will to bring forth a new world. These impulses and events were typically mixed with massive demographic shifts and a general ambiance of fervent, often violent intensity combined with the excitement of moving rapidly towards new horizons.

For example, Uranus and Pluto were in alignment not only during the entire decade of the 1960s, when they were in conjunction, but also during the entire decade of the French Revolution when they were in opposition, from 1787 to 1798. This was of course an era whose character was conspicuously similar to that of the 1960s, to which it has often been compared.

Again, had it simply been a matter of the same two planets, Uranus and Pluto, happening to be in such precise major alignment during those particular periods, and not being in such alignment during eras of relative social and cultural equilibrium, the coincidence would have been at best interesting and curious. What so provoked my attention was the fact that the historical character of these coinciding periods corresponded exactly, even profoundly, to the archetypal meanings for those two planets according to the consensus of standard astrological texts, meanings that had been derived from altogether different sources from the phenomena I was now examining. Equally remarkable was the further correlation of alignments of the ongoing Uranus-Pluto cycle with comparable historical periods of epochal revolutionary upheaval, social liberation, and radical cultural change in each century I examined, deep into the past.

Certainly at first glance there would seem to be no two eras more tumultuously alike in such a similarly sustained manner than the decade of the 1960s and the decade of the French Revolution. A pervasive spirit of rebellion against the “Establishment,” the ancien régime, dominated both periods. As in the Sixties, so also in the French Revolutionary era there was the aggressive assertion of new freedoms in every realm. In both decades an entire generation was swept up in the passions of the era, which were not limited to a single country but erupted simultaneously and independently in many different places in both hemispheres, in a seeming tidal wave of revolts and revolutions, marches, demonstrations, strikes, riots, insurrections, street fighting and barricades, protest movements, independence movements, liberation movements, and calls for radical change. The widespread sense of awakening to a new consciousness of freedom, bringing the birth of a new age, was nearly identical in the two eras and was repeatedly articulated in terms that eloquently conveyed the epochal significance of the historic drama taking place during these decades.

The word “revolution” itself, so often heard in the 1960s and so emblematic of its spirit, first came into wide use in the 1790s in its present meaning of sudden radical change of an overwhelming nature, bringing into being a fundamentally new condition.3 Innumerable allusions, explicit or otherwise, were made in the press and the popular culture of the Sixties that directly connected the spirit and violent revolu¬tionary impulses of that era with those of the French Revolution, as in the lyrics to Street Fighting Man by the Rolling Stones:

Hey! said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants.

The massive upsurge of the revolutionary impulse during these two eras was not only or even principally a political phenomenon, for it expressed itself in every aspect of cultural life: in the music heard, the books read, the ideas discussed, the ideals embraced, the images produced, the evolution of language and fashion, the radical changes in social and sexual mores. It was visible in the incessant challenge to established beliefs and widespread embrace of new perspectives, the movements for radical theological and church reform and antireligious revolt, the drive towards innovation and experiment that affected all the arts, the sudden empowerment of the young, the pivotal role of university communities in the rapid cultural shift. And it was evident above all in the prodigious energy and activism of both eras, the general impulse towards extremes and “radicalization” in so many areas, the suddenly intensified will to construct a new world.

Yet of course in the larger historical context the similarity of these two periods was actually not unique, and as I examined the planetary tables further, I soon found that the precise coincidence of this particular planetary cycle with both the 1960s and the French Revolutionary era was in fact part of a much larger pattern. For it turned out that cyclical align¬ments of Uranus and Pluto—specifically the conjunction and opposition (the two axial alignments, equivalent to the New Moon and Full Moon alignments of the Sun and Moon in the lunar cycle but on a much larger and longer scale)—consistently occurred in close coincidence with periods in past centuries that were marked by equally extraordinary widespread and sustained social upheavals and radical cultural change, in an apparently systematic manner extending back in time for as far as we have adequate historical records.

For example, since the French Revolution, there were only two other periods when Uranus and Pluto were in conjunction or opposition alignments. Both of these eras stand out as clearly defined by historical events and cultural trends bearing this same highly charged character of massive change and revolution, innovation and upheaval. The first of these alignments took place in the mid-nineteenth century, from 1845 to 1856. This was coincident with the wave of revolutionary upheavals that took place in almost every capital of Europe in 1848-49: Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Dresden, Baden, Prague, Rome, Milan. Again one sees the sudden eruption of a collective revolution¬ary impulse affecting an entire continent with mass insurrections, the emergence of radical political and social movements, revolts for nationalist independence, and the abrupt overthrow of governments throughout Europe.

As many historians have said, it was in fact the climax of the revolutionary impulses that were set in motion by the French Revolution. A striking convergence of other archetypally relevant events also occurred during the years of this alignment: among many that could be cited, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, Henry David Thoreau wrote On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman led antislavery efforts in the United States, and the women’s rights movement began with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Throughout Europe during the years of this conjunction, major artists and intellectuals engaged in revolutionary activities and radical ideas. Beginning in 1845 Dostoevsky entered into revolutionary circles in St. Petersburg first with the radical critic Belinski and then through his involvement in 1848 with the anticzarist utopian Petrashevski circle. Mikhail Bakunin participated in the revolutionary agitations of 1848 in succession in Germany, Austria, and France, and developed his theory of revolutionary anarchism. Wagner, influenced by Bakunin, took part in the 1849 revolution in Dresden and then wrote Art and Revolution in exile in Switzerland.

Moreover, this was the same period in which comparable upheavals took place in China (the nearly simultaneous Taiping and Nian rebellions), Japan (the revolutionary dismantling of the long-established Tokugawa social order with the forced opening to the West), India (the intensive British incursions leading to the Sepoy Mutiny), and the Ottoman Empire (catalyzed by the Crimean War): a remarkable clustering of events in less than a decade when sudden “revolts either from above or from below,” in the words of the historian William McNeill, “symbolized the irremediable collapse of the traditional order of each of the major Asian civilizations” and permanently transformed the global ecumene. McNeill sums up “the remarkable coincidences which funneled so great a change in world history into the space of less than ten years.”

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