Alchemy at the Apocalypse
We live in a chaotic, but fertile time, which future generations will point to as a turning point in the human journey. The symbolic language of archetypal astrology can give us a backstage view of the play we are currently witnessing, showing us the story behind the story. Using the astrological symbols to decode the present and gain insight into the past, we can begin to make educated guesses– not predictions, exactly– about what our era means, and where the world is headed. The most effective way to change the world is to change oneself. As the support structures of culture and government crumble around us, and as those that prop up our own psyches crumble as well, we walk a razor’s edge between awakening and falling into a deeper sleep. More is changing than we know. A new cosmological paradigm is already emerging, with room for both scientific and spiritual truth. To make the most of this time and to help usher in the best possible world, we must become alchemists: masters of inner transformation, each in our own way.
Welcome to the apocalypse. The word “apocalypse” comes from the ancient Greek word for “uncovering”. Reflecting the strong influence of Pluto, ours is a time of revelation, catharsis, and destruction, paving the way for renewal. Beginning in 2008 and lasting until early 2021, Uranus (planet of awakening, liberation, and radical change) made a square alignment with Pluto (planet of death/ rebirth, shadow, and compulsion). When any two planets align, they each activate the other’s potential in their own way. Under the Uranus-Pluto square, Uranus (the awakener) awakened the Plutonian forces of human shadow and natural fury– totalitarianism, nationalism, white supremacy, the Fukushima disaster, the mortgage crisis, and ever deadlier hurricanes, floods, and fires. At the same time, Pluto, as the compulsive force of nature, instinct, and the masses, empowered the Uranian urge for social and technological progress, liberation, and human rights, as well as the Uranian phenomena of uncertainty and discontinuous change. Additionally, Pluto drew out the shadow elements of our Uranian self-righteousness and love of freedom. Examples across the spectrum of possibilities, whether progressive or poisonous (and often mixed) include the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Silicon Valley, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Trump presidency, and the January 6th Capitol insurrection. We paid the price for progress in taking a long and painful look at our own ugliness, at times needing to viscerally experience our worst qualities in order to purge them. Think of Uranus-Pluto as a volcanic colonic (great name for a band).
As significant as the last decade-plus has been, astrologers knew that 2020 would particularly be a time of crisis and potential breakthrough, owing to the once-an-age triple conjunction of Pluto, Saturn, and Jupiter in Capricorn. The Saturn-Pluto conjunction began in 2018 and lasts through this year, 2021, though it peaked in January of 2020, just as the pandemic began. Jupiter joined the others for the duration of 2020, quickly moving deeper into Aquarius and on into Pisces in 2021, while Saturn-Pluto lingers. While astrology can accurately predict certain qualities, feelings, or themes, it cannot predict actual events. In other words, astrologers knew that 2020 would be felt as a time of intense breakdown, division, struggle, and mortal threat on a global scale– a year with the potential to shed the baggage of generations and step boldly into a new future. We just didn’t know it would specifically involve a confluence of a biological pandemic (COVID-19) and a psychic one (fake news, conspiracy theories, conflicting realities).
Saturn and Pluto alignments put us to the ultimate test. Saturn makes us face bottom-line realities– in this case, the abysmal and humbling reality of Pluto, the power of life and death itself. Because Saturn represents the urge for control, we can feel especially impotent at such times, the victims of larger forces. At the same time, Pluto empowers that Saturnian urge for control. We can feel compelled to identify threats outside of ourselves and take drastic measures to bulwark ourselves or crush the threat. The perceived threats (real or imagined) of our time include: COVID, freak disasters, global warming, vaccines, wearing masks, not wearing masks, fear itself, republicans, democrats, Trump, Biden, “elites”, “deplorables”, men, women, white people, black people, immigrants, Jews, Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, lizards from space, old media, new media, and much, much more. Old divisions intensify as new ones arise– even within families. Additionally, Saturn rules structures and Pluto rules de-struction. Both of these planets face us with our own mortality. Saturn-Pluto alignments consistently occur at the grimmest times in history, including both World Wars, 9/11, the onset of the Vietnam War, and the arrival of the Black Death in Europe. The effects can feel relentless, crushing, and punishing. To quote a character from the 1984 Saturn-Pluto classic The Terminator, “it can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop… EVER, until you are dead!”
Western culture long ago lost its taste for Pluto, seeing its dark power mainly in the Devil (the Christian perspective) or uncontrollable, pitiless nature (the materialist perspective). The ancient Greeks worshipped Plutonian power as Dionysus– the initiatory god of madness, ecstasy, and the sexual power of life– or as Hades, lord of the dead, destroyer of innocence, and guardian of hidden riches. Our relationship to Saturn has been more ambivalent: on the one hand we love having control, on the other we hate submitting to control. Saturn traditionally ruled much of what today astrologers assign to Pluto, including death, decay, and the underworld. Part of the equation with Saturn includes facing the reality that, ultimately, we never were and never will be in control. Saturn is Time, who reveals and destroys all.
The Hindu goddess Kali, traditionally associated with Saturn, expresses the qualities of Pluto as well– relentless, uncontrollable, and destructive. Even as she chops our heads off and drinks our blood, she loves, nurtures, and finally empowers us. Kali embodies a profound paradox: if we seek true power, we must first humble ourselves enough to recognize our own puniness and insignificance. We must let ourselves be destroyed, so that we no longer fear destruction.
To sum up Saturn-Pluto alignments in a single word: “death”. Inherent, therefore, in every Saturn-Pluto alignment is a birth. Just as death proceeds from birth, birth proceeds from death. Day follows night, spring follows winter, waking follows sleep, etc. The universe runs on such polarities, and birth and death, both literal and metaphorical, are fundamental. One of the best reasons to spend any time with astrology is to better observe these patterns.
As mentioned above, buoyant and expansive Jupiter aligned with grim Saturn-Pluto in 2020, further inflecting the qualities of that alignment. As the planet of abundance, optimism, faith, meaning, and luck, Jupiter draws few complaints. But Jupiter can be excessive. To add excess to any Saturn-Pluto phenomenon, as you might guess, is about as fun as it sounds. In combination with other planets, Jupiter tends to amplify, inflate, and make a spectacle. Thus, seeing that 2020’s Saturn-Pluto conjunction would involve Jupiter, astrologers knew it would be one for the books. Still, Jupiter’s nature is fundamentally positive, so even in Saturn-Pluto hell, which Jupiter might amplify, it can still drop unexpected gifts in our laps. When we think in terms of the death-rebirth polarity that Pluto represents, adding both Saturn and Jupiter could signify a spectacularly (Jupiter) hard (Saturn) death (Pluto), yielding an equally spectacular rebirth (Jupiter), with consequential and enduring (Saturn) results.
It might seem absurd to say that our time is more momentous than either of the World Wars, but today we truly stand on the brink of a new world. I am not referring to the level of destruction or the amount of suffering vis-a-vis any other age– only the magnitude of the transition. If we look at the last century as a series of crashing waves battering a levy, the World Wars were monstrous waves, but they did not break the levy. The wave we are living today may be smaller and less powerful, but it may be the one to finish the job– that is until a new levee gets built and destroyed in the never-ending cycle. The internet age is barely thirty years old, and has already had an incalculable effect on everyone’s life, notably (as we are now seeing) by undermining our sense of reality. Genetic technology allows us to edit life like a word document, a fact whose implications we can barely begin to fathom. The idea that we might establish colonies in space seems less like science fiction every day. Democracy is looking uncertain. If we cannot properly address climate change, the Earth might swat us like a fly. On the positive side, women are coming into positions of social power and making epochal scientific discoveries; racial justice is beginning to be realized; people are healing trauma, rather than suffering in silence; people are spiritually awakening and stepping into an expanded reality. If we survive, which I think we will, we may see an incredible renewal– a Renaissance 2.0.
To consider what kind of birth might follow our current collective death, let us look back to the Renaissance in Europe. The Renaissance itself was born from the ashes of the Black Death. The first wave of bubonic plague in Europe peaked between 1348 and 1351, during a Saturn-Pluto conjunction, having emerged in China at the previous Saturn-Pluto opposition. The plague halved the population of Europe, bringing all of the emotional, economic, and social turmoil such loss entails. This undermined the power of the Catholic Church– until then, the ultimate institutional power in Europe– as clergy died in large numbers and their positions were hastily filled by more and more corrupt individuals. The more corrupt the Church became, the less people respected and believed in it. A resulting rise in secular education contributed to a growing emphasis on humanist values. Economically, the decline in the labor force pushed wages higher and increased social mobility– peasants became merchants and merchants became nobility. Especially in Northern Italy, the epicenter of the Renaissance, this led to the collapse of feudalism and contributed to the rise of the merchant class. The new economy generated tremendous wealth in Florence, where the Medici family vented their riches by patronizing the arts and scholarship that drove the Renaissance, and which established humanist and individualist values as central to the Western ethos– values which have since spread across the globe, with mixed results.
It is difficult to overstate the gifts that the Renaissance bestowed on civilization. Much of what we most value in ourselves traces back to this time, including our modern sense of self-awareness and individual destiny. This period saw the birth of the individual creative artist, the birth of heliocentric cosmology and the Scientific Revolution, the rediscovery of Platonic and Hermetic philosophy, and the literal opening of new horizons with the “discovery” of the New World. The sense of humanity’s divine destiny was never stronger, before or since. There was only one problem: as amazing as it was for certain people, it was terrible for Jews and Moors under the Inquisition, American Indians decimated by smallpox and marauding conquistadors, and later the slaves brought to work the newly-discovered land, to name but a few examples. The world still had a lot to work through, much of which we are working through today– this very moment. But still, the seeds of our universal sense that everybody matters were planted during the Renaissance. They sprouted during the Enlightenment and the shoots have been pushing through the dirt ever since.
What is Next?
Amazing awakenings and innovations are at hand, bringing not a utopia, but new levels of existence and awareness. We will still be human, full of human pettiness and bad habits. But perhaps we might also become somehow more than human. Since the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred on the Winter Solstice of 2020, we are experiencing a palpable, if subtle, shift in collective consciousness. Occurring every twenty years, the conjunction of the two “social” planets marks a new configuration of our collective vision (Jupiter) and our capacity for execution (Saturn), our sense of meaning and possibility (Jupiter) with the perceived facts of life (Saturn). The recent Grand Conjunction, which occurred in Aquarius, inaugurated a 200-year period where the Air element will dominate the zeitgeist. For the last two hundred years, from the Industrial Revolution up through our current age of global consumerism, these alignments occurred in Earth signs, oriented toward materialism and accumulation. Of the many bills coming due during this apocalypse, the consequences of our materialism, exploitation, objectification, and greed top the list. These issues predate the Industrial Revolution by far, but the Earth era and the Industrial Revolution shifted these tendencies to a higher gear. The element of Air, by contrast, “rises above”. Air deals with ideas, perspectives, and perceptions. Soon, we may find ourselves solving previously intractable problems from new levels of consciousness. This Air era will invite us to reevaluate how we relate to each other and the planet. We may embrace new ways of knowing and new systems for sense-making. Coupled with the recent “apocalypse” we have been living through, which is burning away so much collective karma, I have hope for the future.
Perhaps you have noted the fact that, during a respiratory pandemic, where some people are literally suffocating to death, others refuse to wear masks they find suffocating, and others complain of suffocating under lockdown. Meanwhile George Floyd’s dying words “I can’t breathe” ring in our ears, while for the past several years, wildfires have made the air unbreathable for weeks on end in certain parts of the world. These are not coincidences. The universe speaks to us in its own language– the language of correspondence, which astrology helps us to translate. This new chapter brings the opportunity to “clear the air” of the stench and smoke of our materialistic, exploitive ways.
Things will not magically resolve themselves, though. Saturn squares Uranus through 2023, bringing the hard clash of the old (Saturn) and the new (Uranus), of conservative and liberal, authoritarianism and rebellion, structure and chaos. We will experience rigid (Saturn) structures suddenly (Uranus) breaking. We may see rebels (Uranus) turn into tyrants (Saturn). One of the worst dangers of this aspect is the tendency to identify as free and awakened (Uranus) while operating from a base fear and mental rigidity (Saturn). We may increasingly face the negative consequences (Saturn), or the authoritarian abuse (Saturn), of technology (Uranus)– and technocracy may itself be the number one shadow element of the Air era. The only thing we have to fear, now, is the fear of fear itself. To manage the tension, let us ask: How do we invite radical change (Uranus), while preserving those aspects of tradition that we still value? What wisdom from the past (Saturn) can free us (Uranus) from our current predicaments? How do we exercise freedom (Uranus) responsibly (Saturn)? Can we stay grounded and practical (Saturn) enough to actually realize our radical (Uranus) ambitions?
21st Century Alchemy
Spiritual awakening and psychological honesty are keys to this next chapter. The Gnostics, living around the time of Christ (a time much like our own), believed that we are divine beings of light carrying sparks of the ultimate divine essence, but that we are born into a fallen reality created by a false God called the demiurge. The demiurge’s henchmen, the archons, presided over this false reality like prison guards. The Gnostics aimed to liberate themselves through direct insight, or gnosis, of their divine nature. We are divine beings of light, but we must recognize that the demiurge and his archons are within ourselves, and not outside. Especially at apocalyptic times like these, we may feel impotent in the face of forces beyond our control. If we are asleep to our true nature, pointing the finger at the many visible manifestations of evil we may perceive– governments, psychopath CEOs, conspiratorial cabals, or even nature itself– we fail to notice the governments, corporations, and secret conspiracies within. Our own psychology, distorted by trauma, instinct, conditioning, and our automatic sense of self-importance, keeps us blind to our true nature. As we alone trap ourselves in the Matrix, we are the only ones who can free ourselves. When we are aware of our true nature and acting from that awareness, we are both invincible and truly creative. We need alchemy to remake ourselves in the 21st century.
Far from being an attempt to counterfeit gold, or a naive pseudoscience, real alchemy aims to transmute the “lead” of our baser nature– instincts, habits, and conditioning– into spiritual gold, through a step-by-step process. Alchemy does not seek release from the world, but rather its perfection, through our own self-realization. If we cannot transform our nature as individuals, then the world has no hope. Through the alchemical process, we take responsibility for our own awakening, and gain the ability to imagine and realize new realities. Supposing, as the alchemists themselves did, that the microcosm and macrocosm correspond, then the alchemist’s success reverberates through the whole universe. In transforming yourself, you transform the whole world.
21st century alchemy will draw on ancient mysteries and spiritual practices, like tantra, hermeticism, kabbalah, shamanism, and sacred medicine, as well as modern spiritual innovations, while also embracing advances in science and modern psychology. Archetypal astrology will provide a cosmological framework to support real meaning in a multiplicitous world. The Air era that we recently entered will facilitate this kind of cross-pollination of ideas and techniques, as well as the shift of cosmological perspective. Two pieces of the alchemical process are especially critical: the direct experience of expanded states of consciousness on the one hand and the disarming of our triggers on the other. The former leads to gnosis, the direct insight into our true nature, while the latter allows us to stabilize in our new reality and not be knocked down again at the slightest touch.
Alchemy demands mental discipline, open-heartedness, and humility. It requires depth without stuckness and flexibility without glibness: we need to know when to sit and do nothing, and we need to know when to act suddenly. The world seems more dystopian every day and we have to hold firm in our efforts to address its problems. We need political action and social engagement, and we need to give whatever help we can to whomever will take it. But even more than that, we need grace. To receive grace, we need to let go of our agendas. That means: engage in your preferred method of activism and then let it go– no matter how important it is.
Activism gains strength when you cast it into the sea and let the currents take it rather than clutch onto it as a club to beat people and objects with. There will always be people with opposite views; or those with similar views but opposite methods; or those with similar views, but with different reasons for holding them; or those with similar views, except on one crucial point. Human reality is massively flawed– but Superhuman reality always sits silently in the corner waiting for us to notice it. Let us leave it to grace, because on our own, we will fail.
Outrage fueled important changes over the past 12 years under the influence of the Uranus-Pluto square. Many react against the outrage– outraged at outrage itself; others urge that we be more reasonable, that we try to understand each other, or that we all just get along. But what good is any of that? Outrage is a stage to pass through, just like nihilism. Both have their place, in a limited way, until we wake up. So if you are rubbing your eyes and stretching after a dream of impotence and outrage, let these words be an invitation to go have some coffee and listen to the birds.
Truth is both relative and absolute, and as alchemists, we can learn to walk that line together. When we live from a place of realized truth, able to peaceably accept and release the lesser truths that come and go, we cannot help but act for the highest good. Morality and ideology cease to matter when we act from base of innate compassion and soulful wisdom. Nietzsche was onto something when he drove himself mad with such thoughts more than a century ago, in a world unready for his message but all too ready to misinterpret and misappropriate it. If you have been miseducated into believing that his idea of the Superman meant some sort of eugenic master race, think again. He spoke of awakening. More a prophet than a philosopher, he microcosmically lived out the drama that our world is living today, in a time and a body that could not bear the weight. Today, as we swirl in the nihilistic swamp feeding addictions to nonsense and self-righteousness, be assured: for the 21st century alchemist, a Superhuman future awaits!