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PLUTO:  PLANET OR DWARF?

by Gary Brand - written September 16, 2006,
published in the October 2006 edition of Echo* newspaper

Pluto, its previously known moon Charon, and the two much
smaller moons discovered in May 2005. In this image taken by Hubble Space Telescope on February 15, 2006, Pluto is center and its previously known moon Charon is below it and right of center.  The two moons discovered in May 2005 by Hubble, named Nix and Hydra, are to the right of the bright pair.  Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
f you have been reading my articles lately, you know that I have been writing a series about the metaphysical meanings of the signs.  Last month I did not write an article for Echo* (first time in seven years) because, when my article was due, my wife had just returned home from three weeks in the hospital with a life-threatening case of pneumonia in both lungs and I was in no shape to write.  Following the pattern for this year, last month's article would have been devoted to the topic of metaphysical Virgo and this month to metaphysical Libra but I am deferring these topics until early next year.  Instead, this article addresses the recent demotion of Pluto from a full-fledged planet to a "dwarf planet" by a vote of astronomers at the meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in August 2006.

The vote to diminish Pluto's status was by a majority of only 424 astronomers on the last day of the meeting of the IAU.  Alan Stern, project leader of NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto, noted that less than five percent of the world's astronomers voted on the definition.  The astronomers who were present voted that, to be designated a planet, a body must meet all three criteria of the new IAU definition: (1) it orbits the sun, (2) it has enough matter that it has a round shape, and (3) it has a strong enough gravitational field to eliminate other bodies in the region of its orbit.  They demoted Pluto to the status of a "dwarf planet," which they defined as a body that orbits the Sun and is large enough to be round but that doesn't meet the third criterion.  Stern points out that other planets also don't meet this criterion.  One example is Earth, which has not cleared from the region of its orbit the "Near-Earth" asteroids (e.g. Eros) with orbits close to/crossing Earth's orbit or "Earth Coorbital" asteroids that actually share Earth's orbit.  Jupiter, another example, has not cleared the estimated 50,000 Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter's orbit locked in positions in front of or trailing the giant planet.  The new definition also elevates Ceres, the largest known and first discovered asteroid, to the status of dwarf planet but it excludes that favorite of some astrologers, the "Centaur asteroid" Chiron (not the same body as Charon, Pluto's largest moon).  Because of the controversy and polarization in the astronomical community on the status of Pluto before and since this vote, I doubt that the matter is settled.

What does this mean for astrology and astrologers?  I imagine that most professional astrologers like myself will be unwilling to just exclude Pluto from charts we interpret (although astrology software programs make it easy to exclude Pluto from a chart).  Like some other astronomers, I have problems with the third criterion of the new planetary definition.  I also have seen the effect of Pluto in the charts of thousands of clients, my own chart, and those of my friends and family during my 26 years in practice.  While it doesn't make sense to ignore Pluto just because its definition has changed, this change should cause astrologers and those interested astrology to pause and consider what factors do enter into our decision about what bodies to include when interpreting an astrological chart.  Why should the change in astronomical definition of a planet matter to astrologers?  Because for centuries we have based our astrological symbolism on the mythology associated with the name of the body (planet or asteroid), which has been determined and assigned by the international community of astronomers.  We have also derived importance (or lack of it) from the definition, by astronomers, of newly discovered bodies as planets (major importance), asteroids (minor or no importance to some), or comets (somewhat important but temporary).  If astrologers are to be taken seriously, we cannot simply dismiss this change in Pluto's status as inconsequential.

Pluto is very distant (on average, 38 times as far from us as Earth is from the Sun) and fairly small, with an estimated diameter of 1,400 miles (the distance from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado).  Charon, Pluto's largest moon, has an estimated diameter of 750 miles.  In Greek myth, Charon was the hard-natured old ferryman who transported the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld.  By comparison, Earth's Moon has a diameter of 2,160 miles (the distance from Atlanta to Los Angeles), equaling the estimated diameters of Pluto and Charon combined.  The scientific evidence of the influence of the Moon on plant, animal and human life here on Earth is overwhelming and indisputable so its size and proximity to us do matter.  If size and/or proximity to Earth matter astrologically as well, then perhaps Ceres (with a diameter of only 620 miles but much closer to Earth than Pluto) has as much of an astrological impact on us as Pluto.  Additionally, Ceres comprises over one-third of the estimated total weight of all the known asteroids.

These facts have stimulated my interest in the now "dwarf planet" Ceres, named after the Roman goddess (equivalent to the Greek goddess Demeter), about whom there is some mythology to study.  An interesting connection between the mythologies of Pluto and Demeter is Persephone, daughter of Demeter and wife of Pluto.  The myth involving these three tells how Demeter (Ceres) withheld her fruitfulness and creative power from the world out of the grief and sorrow she suffered because Pluto abducted Persephone.  So the abuse of power, sexual passion, and possessive jealousy (Pluto) oppressed and dominated the beautiful, fruitful, creative force (Persephone) until wisdom (Jupiter) struck a compromise:  Persephone would abide with Pluto in the Underworld during winter, when all of nature withdraws and releases the dross, and would spend the rest of the year above ground making the Earth plentiful.  What is the metaphor for this myth in your life?

What about the tens of thousands of asteroids out there, near Earth (Eros) and far away (Chiron)?  If these bodies are included in astrological interpretations, what criteria should we use?  At a recent meeting of the Richmond chapter of NCGR (National Council of Geocosmic Research) to which I belong, a colleague presented a talk on the topic of asteroids, suggesting that we only look at those that conjoin a planet in a birth chart.  This makes sense to me, but only if we have a firm grasp on the mythical or metaphysical meaning of such asteroids.  Because there are a plethora of them (so many that most are unnamed and many are uncharted), determining the meaning of an asteroid without a mythological etymology presents the biggest challenge to using it in a chart.
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*Echo is a monthly newspaper about community, the environment, health, cuisine, and spirituality that is distributed in central Virginia.
Good Timing and Location are Keys to Success

Gary Brand, Traditional Astrologer
Tallahassee, Florida
850-656-5758


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