The Astrological Archetype of Pluto in Mary Oliver’s “The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water”

Alex Stein
3 min readAug 30, 2019


Archetypes are multi-dimensional, multivalent and infinite patterns by which both human consciousness and the the universe organize themselves. They are multidimensional, meaning we can experience them internally, in the mind or emotions, or externally in the physical world. They are multivalent, meaning that the same archetype may express itself in a number of ways. For example, the Mother may present herself to varying degrees in one’s actual mother, in the Earth, the Church, the mothership, the Moon, milk, cozy spaces, a friend, one’s hometown. Finally, archetypes are infinite, meaning that no matter how many expressions one might identify, there will always be more. Archetypes also exist (if “exist” is even the right word) in an eternal realm, which transcends the everyday reality of time and space. We can never directly experience an archetype, except in mystical or extended states of consciousness. These invisible energies require an interface: an archetypal image. In pre-modern times, we knew these as gods and goddesses: living presences shaping our psyches and our world. But even though God has been pronounced dead, these presences live on in all of the infinite expressions of life.

Speaking in image and metaphor, the arts can help us feel the archetypes most directly. We will take a brief look at the archetypal field of Pluto through Mary Oliver’s poem, The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water. Pluto relates to death and rebirth, the Underworld, destruction and regeneration, the instincts, transformation, elemental power, nature “red in tooth and claw,” mass movements, the blind Will, etc. Fundamentally, Pluto embodies the primal urge to transform through an ongoing death-rebirth process, involving decay, putrefaction, or incineration, followed by a spontaneous, instinctive emergence of new life.

Everything in the universe, whether in the human mind or heart, in the backyard, the classroom, the office, the ocean, the Earth’s mantle, or the galaxy partakes of the Pluto archetype. Mary Oliver paints a vivid picture of this archetype at work in her poem. In blossoming, the lilies, are “simply doing, from the deepest spurs of their being, what they are impelled to do/ every summer”. These beautiful, luminous, sweet-smelling flowers emerge from a foul, dark pool of decaying vegetation: “that mud-hive, that gas-sponge/ that reeking leaf yard, that rippling/ dream-bowl, the leeches’ flecked and swirling/ broth of life, as rich/ as Babylon”. The structure of the short, progressively indenting lines, the driving pile-up of images, the association of life and fantastic richness with putrid water make one feel Pluto’s power as life-force, as beyond politeness, as spontaneous and inexorable, and as uniting life and death.

The speaker addresses a person watching the lilies from the shore, “trying/ to attach them to an idea”. But the Plutonian nature of things is inscrutable: “the lilies are slippery and wild — they are/ devoid of meaning.” As with everything in this ever-flowing universe, the lilies behave precisely according to their nature, impelled into existence by the force of life itself. This energy will not be pinned down and summed up neatly in a concept. And yet, “there you are/ on the shore,/ fitful and thoughtful.” The person addressed is in the midst of their own Plutonian process, in resonance with the processes of nature. Though they cannot attach an idea to the lilies, their own emotional process is as “slippery and wild” as the lilies themselves. Just as the lilies emerge every summer, so this person’s sorrow emerges naturally and spontaneously, of its own accord.

The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water provides a brilliant example of the multidimensionality of the Pluto archetype, showing it at work in the processes of both nature and the human psyche. And though we cannot exactly assign a meaning to the lilies, or to anything in Pluto’s realm, we can bear witness to this process as it unfolds both within ourselves and without.