Thoughts on astrological Ceres

Demeter Mourning Persephone
Demeter Mourning for Persephone by Evelyn de Morgan, 1906

If you troll the internet for interpretations of the dwarf planet Ceres in astrology, you’ll mostly find the following themes represented:

  • Nourishment, food, by extension maybe agriculture, cooking, herbalism and so on;
  • Mothering and caretaking, unconditional love; and
  • Over-mothering, empty nest syndrome, the inability to let go of the adult child or inability to allow a child’s independence

Well, I’ve got a bone to pick with some of that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to state for the record that a big part of my interest in astrology is its mythologyology. A natal chart interpretation is really our own personal mythology (so make sure you interpret yours well!). I often use mythology to circumscribe the potential interpretations of a planet. That is arguably rather arbitrary on my part. Astrological interpretation has changed a lot over the course of its history, as have the uses of astrology (e.g., from finding out what dates are unlucky to psychological/personality analysis), so of course the meanings ascribed to certain bodies are going to change too. We like to think those changes are based on actual results observed by astrologers, but if we’re honest it’s just as much due to cultural changes in semiotics. So it seems to me that myth, coupled with observation, is a good basis for interpretation.

In keeping with that, when it comes to interpreting these relatively recent additions to Western astrology, the dwarf planets and asteroids, which don’t have as much of a literature built up around them, I always look to the mythology. Below, I’m going to assume you already know the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto/Hades and Demeter’s subsequent search for her.

Food and nourishment

I don’t have a quibble with this one–food (in particular, domesticated plant foods) were indeed the purview of Ceres. I think we can reasonably extend this into a more abstract symbolic domain and talk about nourishment generally, but we can’t overlook the element of husbandry here. Ceres is (mostly) not a goddess of wild plant life, but of the interdependent relationship between humans and plant foods. She’s also a goddess of staple foods–that is, in the civilizations of the Classical Mediterranean, cereals were a major, if not the major, component of the diet. So we’re not talking about something that’s just nice to have, but something that you’ll die without.

Mothering and caretaking

This gets into territory traditionally associated with the Moon in astrology, but it is certainly a big part of Ceres’ mythology. It speaks to that matter of husbandry I mentioned above and is of course part of the classic Mother Earth persona. Here is a rather good article on Ceres and what/how we cherish. The author suggests that Ceres has more to do with how we nourish (and cherish) than how we are nourished.

By combining the concept of Mother Earth with that of caretaking and food production, Ceres has also been associated with environmentalism. I’m not sure how well that pans out “in the field” (pun intended) in natal charts, but it seems like a reasonable elaboration at least for our times.


This is the point that I have the biggest problem with–the idea that Ceres is a smothering mother. This seems to have grown out of a revisionist version of the myth in which Persephone wanted to go off and have sexy times with Uncle Pluto in his basement dungeon, or at least decided while being raped that she was really into it. Well, that’s all very modern and whatnot, but it’s not, so far as I have been able to learn, part of the original myth. Nor is there any implication in the myth that the bond of affection between Demeter/Ceres and Persephone is abnormally codependent or excessively clingy. The original mythology is very clear that Persephone is forcibly abducted and raped by Pluto. Yes, she subsequently reigns as queen of the Underworld during her annual winter sojourns there–but for me this is less about a good girl who likes bad boys and discovers a taste for incest and BDSM than it is about the personal empowerment of a trauma survivor. Yes, that’s a modern interpretation too, but it is better supported by the mythology. I’ll come back to that.

Bear in mind that Pluto was wearing a helmet that rendered him invisible at the time. There are Ceres and her daughter happily going about their business when suddenly the earth opens up and Persephone is just sucked down into it. I can only assume if that happened to my daughter I’d be pretty motivated to try to rescue her.  So I view Ceres’ behavior after the abduction as that of a courageous mother rather than a smothering one.

I think the other thing one has to bear in mind here is that this actually happens to women. Actual living and breathing young human women are abducted, held captive, and sexually assaulted on a not-infrequent basis when you look at the phenomenon through history and globally (it being an especially common tactic during wartime–consider the Korean “comfort women” of WWII for just one example) and I don’t think very many of them say to themselves, gee, I really like being locked in this box and raped all the time, I sure hope my mom doesn’t try to find me and rescue me… Here is an article that looks at Ceres in the charts of women/girls who were abducted (and in some cases, literally held underground).

Every planet arguably has a dark side, and since Ceres is so strongly associated with the Mother Goddess persona, I guess it’s predictable that when casting around for the dark side some astrologers would land on the idea of over-mothering. But there is a “dark” side to Ceres that is all too often overlooked, to wit:

Feast and famine, death and rebirth

First of all I have to say that I’m not the first to point this out. I highly recommend Dawn Bodrogi’s post Ceres: The Dark Harvest (the title says Part 1, but as far as I’m aware there’s no Part 2; possibly it moved behind a paywall, i.e., became part of a course). She writes:

“People often talk about Ceres simply in terms of feeding, nurturing, caring, mothering. But Ceres reigns over much more, and she has her dark side, too. Sure, she walks around waving those stalks of wheat. But, um…what’s that there? I see poppies…blood red poppies. And what’s moving around under that wheat…a snake? The lesser known symbols of Ceres hold the key to understanding her….

“She oversaw, amongst other things:

“The physical journey from birth to death, and all its major rituals.
The female passage into maturity.
The balance of nature.
The feeding, nurturing and sustaining of life.
The seasons and cycles of life–natural order and balance.
The pleasure and satisfaction of the senses and appreciation for the physical world.
The giving and receiving of unconditional love.
The interplay of darkness and light….”

If we’re looking for Ceres’ dark sides, well, the obvious dark side of food is famine. As I said, she is associated with plant foods that are so essential to the diet we would (at least in the old days) die without them. In her search for Persephone, Demeter/Ceres allowed the crops to wither and thereby caused famine.

I mentioned the interdependent relationship of humans with our food plants. We now know that this extends beyond just the plants themselves to the micronutrients in the soil and mycorrhizal networks–both we and the plants are bound up in the entire food web. So Ceres makes us look at relationships of nourishment beyond just those of parent and child, to a network of interdependencies that would be very familiar to Buddhists (cf. Indra’s Net). Interdependence is not in itself good or bad, but can be either depending on the value judgments placed on it in context.

And finally, lest we forget, the Eleusinian mysteries that revolved around Demeter and Persephone were all about the promise of rebirth and eternal life. Here we return to Persephone as queen of the underworld. She isn’t queen by virtue of some domestically-abusive marriage to Pluto; rather she stands apart from him, a sort of parallel ruler. In Pluto’s underworld, there’s seldom any return possible; but the underworld of the Mysteries is not a permanent destination. Indeed, Persephone’s ascent out of the underworld and her reunion with her mother (and thus life, growth, and fertility, the return of spring) was the most important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In a sense, Persephone’s story is another variation on the theme of the underworld journey, albeit one that is not undertaken willingly.

So there’s a very strong case for reinstating the birth-death-rebirth cycle to the semiotic field of astrological Ceres. Bodrogi again:

“Ceres reveals herself very strongly in a study of secondary progressions. Ceres is often on an angle when a major life passage is at stake, a birth, a marriage, a death. She’s often prominent in divorce, or when natural disasters sweep homes away. Ceres is often featured in progressions when we lose the very thing we believe we need to live–a partner, professional status, financial security….Ceres is also there when we lose things through neglect and lack of respect.”

But I think it’s important to understand that ultimately, Ceres was primarily associated with forces of life rather than death. Obviously life and death are inextricably entwined, but Ceres is the life part of that relationship.

In chart interpretation there is the risk of turning Ceres into a mini-Moon, but instead it needs to be approached almost as a mirror of Pluto. I’m not entirely sure what that means in practice–I suspect few astrologers do know, since Ceres is a relatively new addition to tropical astrology and many more traditional astrologers don’t look at it at all. Intuitively I have the sense that whereas Pluto is about insight into and transformation of what one might call the soul-deep level, Ceres relates more to the earthly body. Also Ceres lies between Mars and Jupiter and thus can be considered more “personal” and less “generational” in its scope. So where Pluto acts like (and is likely to be experienced as) an impersonal force that “happens to you” and sweeps you along, Ceres reflects dynamics that you can identify with and recognize as a part of your inner life. Keywords I would associate with Ceres would be resurrection, fertility, abundance, protection, sustenance (and sustainability), husbandry (or midwifery); or, life and how to support it, nourish it, maintain it, and regenerate it. I would hypothesize that a prominent Ceres in a natal chart could function as a sort of resurrection engine or life support giving the individual an ability to rise from their own ashes and/or to act as a sort of rebirth-midwife to people and projects. In synastry I would expect to see the dynamics of care, protection, and nurturing love come out more.

Thoughts on art and ecology


It isn’t that more people died during 2016-early 2017. Well, actually, probably more people did die, because there are more people to die, and there are quite a number of nasty little wars going on, murder technology that is extremely efficient, and a high degree of wealth inequality ensuring lots of people die from treatable diseases and starvation.

But here in the Empire of the West I submit that we’ve all been very sad about the proportionately rather large number of artists* who died last year. Now a lot of these people weren’t exactly young, many of them were rode hard and put away wet for years, and they had to shuffle off the mortal coil sometime. We all know Keith Richards has been living on borrowed time for decades. But I suggest what makes these deaths hard is that they make it clear how little art there has been in pop/monoculture for a long time–long enough for the last celebrity artists to get old.

And as it stands, I think it will be a very long time before we see any more celebrity artists, because we are a monoculture that excels at entertainment, but sucks at art.

Lots of people are artists, humans being a creative lot, and many of them are even very talented and/or skilled, but I have this idea that what makes an artist or a work of art “great” is that they make us see from new perspectives. If they have a big enough audience, that can change culture and society. Even with a small audience they can cause a trophic cascade to borrow a term not originally from Gordon White, but I’m applying it in a parallel way. Obviously there will be dispute about who and what is “great” because individuals will inevitably be differently affected. For one thing, there’s an aesthetic barrier to be jumped right out of the gate, since if people don’t find the artist’s work pleasing enough they may not experience it enough to be changed by it. On the flip side, just because something is avant garde or not aesthetically pleasing does not make it great art. I don’t know, your mileage may vary, but putting a picture of Jesus in a jar of pee not only does nothing to change my perspective, it’s just lazy. Art is inevitably controversial but just because something is controversial doesn’t make it great art.

Some chalk artistic “greatness” up to genius. I don’t think genius is an intrinsic quality that some humans have–I think it’s a collaborative thing whereby certain individuals have something to express and a mode of expression that act like a key that fits the lock of the Zeitgeist or egregore or some such. The same key wouldn’t fit in a different lock. Sometimes a key comes along that fits no lock until after the artist has died. That’s probably the case more often than not (thinking of Colin Wilson’s outsiders here). It doesn’t matter if your great artist is not so great for me, and vice versa; it doesn’t matter that there are different schools of art and different followings for different artists. What matters, or rather, my point, is that the putative “genius” must be in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing in the right way, just as a seed has to fall on fertile ground and get the right amount of water and sun in order to germinate. Art and genius are, in short, ecological. And just like any other ecology, they involve spirits. Indeed if folklore is to be believed, spirits are all over art like white on rice.

But at the moment we are in an ecosystem that’s not particularly friendly to art or artists. Anything that changes perspectives is going to make people uncomfortable–some people uncomfortable all the time, a lot of people uncomfortable some of the time–and what makes people uncomfortable can’t really be mass-marketed. Seeds that fall on such barren ground have little chance to flourish, and that’s what I mean when I say that today, artists are seldom celebrities and vice versa.

The stereo in my car is broken so my options when driving to work are NPR or the pop music station. I often end up listening to the pop station just because it’s energetic. (For man cannot live by bread alone–yea, sometimes he needs a funky beat.) But at the risk of sounding like a hipster here, today’s pop music is highly repetitive dreck.

Because when it comes to selling stuff, you want to manipulate people’s emotions, and the easiest, lowest-common-denominator way to do that is through sex or fear. The plethora of sub-mediocre, copycat sex songs in American pop music is a sure sign that you are being sold. It’s not that you can’t have great songs about sex (blues music is full of them) but if you haven’t been listening to today’s pop music, you cannot imagine just how stupid and crass the current crop of songs is.

Yes, artists are still making art. Some of it is great. But you’re more likely to stumble upon it in a weird series of synchronicities than you are to hear it on the radio or recommended by your coworker, because the monoculture ensures that most of these people labor in relative obscurity. We are lucky that technology enables us to discover art from outside our own communities and times. Indeed, for my money, there is some tremendous music being made at the moment, and I am particularly pleased to see a resurgence of a hippy/Romantic, poetic, occasionally overtly animist, folk aesthetic being melded with modern instrumentation in fabulously unique ways. It’s exciting for me not only aesthetically but because of what it suggests about the values and visions of the people involved. They are visions that I want to see propagated as widely (but as faithfully) as possible. But sadly you’ve got to slog through a lot of Arianna Grandes and Thomas Kinkades to find them.

The role of spirits and of mediumship in art is something I want to know more about. Until college I was an artist (not a great one by any stretch of the imagination), and then something happened that switched off my connection. Connection is what it was, because I was not so much expressing something in myself as I was compulsively trying to birth something that moved through me. I felt almost commanded to draw and paint; the images had their own agency and controlled the process much more than I ever did. I don’t know how or why the connection was shut down but I am doing my best to reopen it. Sorry, I don’t have any answers to this question yet. But if you’re interested, check out Chris Knowles’ series on Elizabeth Fraser and the Siren archetype (Part I, Part II, Part III) and also watch her perform. I don’t know if Knowles is right but there is something weird going on there. Incidentally, this isn’t to diminish the agency, talent, or skill of Fraser or any other particular artist, merely to acknowledge that in this sphere of human activity as in all the others (perhaps more than in some others), there are more influences than we usual credit, and some of them just happen not to be humans.

*I know this is a controversial topic with room for disagreement but I’m not really interested in a discussion of “what is art?” at this time because

On the feast of St. David

St. David’s Cathedral with Carn Llidi in the background (there are a couple Neolithic burial chambers up there)

I have a soft spot in my heart for St. David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, and for the town that bears his name (St Davids, obvy). You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or more magical corner of the world than Pembrokeshire, and it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot like northern California, where I spent my childhood. As Gordon so rightly remarks, when it comes to the colonized corners of Britain, Wales may not have Scotland’s aggressive glamour (so metal), but there’s something undeniably subversive in the way the Welsh just go on quietly Keepin’ It Welsh. (And I submit that what they lack in kilts they make up for in wetsuited surfers, so.) To my ear there’s a sweetness unique to Welsh music, and the language with its many Fs, Ps and Ws and its soft, full vowels and rolling cadences sounds gently magnificent. Appropriately, St. David–whose dying words included the injunction to “be joyful, and do the little things you have seen me do”–is a very chill saint. He has the juice to get stuff done but he doesn’t put on a big show about it, and I respect that.

So it’s the feast of St. David today, 1 March, and this year I have really connected with his dedication to the little things. Currently I’m looking at having to ruthlessly Marie Kondo-ize all my earthly possessions, including family heirlooms, move out of my house within 2 months, and move overseas (destination and job TBD) sometime probably within the next half year, leaving friends and family behind yet again–and I feel very acutely the importance of community, family, friendship, and home.

The profundity and preciousness of the small is evident from within a state of absorption such as I wrote about yesterday. In a divination the other day it was suggested that the the joys to be found in the small will always play a large role in my life and family. That of course remains to be seen, but it is an important reminder that how you do everyday things is usually more important than doing “big” things. And with everyone miserable with the state of the world and its so-called “leaders” these days (Kali Yuga, innit?), some renewed attention to the small, the local, the personal, the immediate, the realizable, the concrete is timely. St. David’s day is an excellent time to reflect on the power of simply caring. And if you want to really mark the day, you could experiment with what happens when you combine mental absorption with an attitude of confident expectancy and calm enthusiasm and apply them to the little things in your life.

And so I leave you with a song about being indestructible and honoring the small things, by the utterly delightful and brilliant Cosmo Sheldrake.

Did you know it has been suggested that 2017 be “the Year of the Tardigrade“? Words to live by, eh?

Poorly organized thoughts on absorption

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s biography of Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (highly recommended). I don’t know why but I’ve always had an aversion to biographies; but something told me I needed to read this one and I’m very glad I paid attention. His philosophical contributions aside–and those are exciting and thought-provoking–Wilson’s determination, sense of purpose, and industriousness are inspiring. I will never be that disciplined; I have finally realized after years of trying to force myself to be more organized in planning, executing the plans, and then recording the results that the harder I push and poke at myself, the more obnoxiously watery I become. I am prone to topic-specific brain fog, and it might sound like something you just overcome with sufficient effort, but ha ha ha ha, no. The only way to keep the phlegmatic formlessness in any kind of check is to allow it to do its thing most of the time. Damming it up leads to very bad outcomes. Huh. It’s almost like somebody in the wayback observed the behavior of actual water when drawing an analogy to certain personality types… Too bad some of us just have to learn everything the hard way.

I swear I do listen to music other than Johnny Flynn.

Speaking of water…stick with me here…I was talking to the herbalist and constitutional types maven Rebecca Altman two or three years ago, and she made a rather offhand comment about how phlegmatics have a tendency toward…well, let’s call it historical revisionism. That is, the way they feel about something now is, they say, how they have always felt about it. They might feel differently tomorrow, and then that will be how they always felt. (At least that’s how I remember what she said.) Similarly, they may be terribly indecisive about everything but once a decision has been reached, they always knew that was what they were going to do. Now to me that retrospection makes perfect sense, though I do see how it makes us phlegmatics super annoying to pragmatic melancholics and driven cholerics. Humans make meaning, it’s what we do–and meaning is subjective and thus subject to constant revision and negotiation, as I wrote when I discussed the narrative paradigm theory of human behavior. Well, one of my big lessons of late 2016-early 2017 has been that rather than revising un-self-reflectively and without purpose, it makes much more sense to just craft yourself a better narrative. The keyword there is craft: feelings and opinions are going to change and there is a lot of magic to be harnessed in taking charge of that process.

It’s harder than I expected to put into words. I’m not talking about positive affirmations or lying to yourself. It’s more a matter of trying on different perspectives deliberately, rather than as a passive reaction to events. It’s also about embracing the wibbly-wobbliness of time: changing a feeling about something that happened in the past, for example, and creatively rewriting the narrative you have been telling yourself about it changes how you feel in the present, and thus the future. In the same way it reverberates along the mycelia-like network of non-local consciousness to effect other aspects of your reality.

In Beyond the Robot Lachman discusses Wilson’s discovery that interest is dependent on attention. This means that a thing is not inherently interesting to you or not, you make it so through your relation to it. I would say the same for beauty. This kind of dovetails with something I read in a Thich Nhat Han book (don’t remember which), where he said that your boredom, impatience, or annoyance with a task is proportionate to the amount of your attention that is somewhere else. In other words, when you’re thinking about something you were previously doing, or would rather be doing, or are planning to do, chores seem to take forever. On the other hand, when you are absorbed in the chore at hand you lose your sense of the passage of time and when you’re done, it seems to have gone by quickly-but-not-too-quickly. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and usually that’s true, but I’ve found that I can make my enjoyment seem to last much longer by focusing intently on the present moment.

Not only that but, as Wilson wrote, that level of concentration and focus opens up a perception of your immediate reality as intensely fascinating, beautiful, and meaningful–he called this perception Faculty X. You suddenly notice something you never noticed before, and all of a sudden you’re totally amazed by it. Faculty X is how you interface with non-local consciousness and then, to put it in terms of an image that came to me last night, it’s like you just reach out and scoop up handfuls of passing magic. Point is, when you start putting such attention into your narrative and your feelings, not only do your inner workings become a lot more interesting in their own right, but you gain some really powerful new tools. It can be fun to play around with too.

Because of music’s ability to stir the emotions, I find I’m able to use it to induce a state of deep absorption in a feeling, especially feelings associated with memories; and from that “place” I can kind of tinker with the feeling-memory link. That’s the best I can describe it; you’ll have to try it yourself. The risk is that you can become confused about events in the past, but then again, that is also the point of the exercise. You have to be willing to sacrifice “what really happened”–that was only ever a story anyway–for what might have been. Choose your targets accordingly and stay very conscious of what you’re doing (as that also is the point of the exercise).

On the evolution of unicorns

I haven’t posted much lately because there’s been a lot going on, but it’s mostly internal stuff which is terribly interesting to me and terribly irrelevant to everyone else. I guess you could say I’ve been navel-gazing, and I didn’t want to subject everyone to the slides from that vacation. I half-jest, but seriously, it’s also that so much of this stuff is inexpressible, and some of it even feels like it benefits from secrecy while it gestates. You all know what I’m talking about. But there are a number of thinks that may develop into posts in time, if the assays pan out.

I came here, to my family’s little corner of Appalachia, a little over a year ago now, and I laugh now to think of my plans for my future back then (best left unsaid as they are embarrassing). It all made perfect sense, logically, and I thought I had some idea of what I wanted. That might sound like no big deal but having spent my life up until late 2015 always doing what others wanted, I am only beginning to have a sense of the boundaries between my own interests and those of others. Well, I was still way short of the goal there. Anyway, shortly after I got here it became obvious that spirits had other plans. I wasn’t ready to start a new life yet, because I still had to process the end of the old one. Also I had some remedial education to go through. My ancestors ensured that I got a safe place to land and cocoon, and I have been able to forge stronger communication with them as well as reconnecting with a culture integral to my family’s experience and values. My inner power has been building though I don’t know what that means or what to do with it. That I have made friends and had fun here has been gravy.

So it’s bittersweet for me that my ancestors are now making it clear they are going to push me out of the nest soon. Economic opportunities here are severely limited, so I’ll have to leave. I mean, I don’t maintain a luxurious standard of living, but I got bills to pay. On the positive side, this will mean I get to go overseas again, that being where I stand the best chance of improving my circumstances–something my ancestors get really excited about–but I am going to miss this place and these people, the waters and the ghosts. It’s also damn difficult because while I am getting tons of synchronicities and lots of spectacular bird omens, and the helping spirits are all thumbs up, I have no idea what I am doing. There is no guiding purpose or goal here because defining one would require a better understanding of what I want. (The curse of the phlegmatic. You see why I don’t do much practical magic now, right?) Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is enough, of course, and I’m used to being a rambler; funnily enough the little direction I’ve been given actually confuses things more than clarifies because the intermediate steps all seem to lead in the opposite direction. Well, they don’t call it a crooked path for nothing.

Alpaca posse, assemble! We’re hitting the road.

Anyway. Something I thought might be of interest to some:

Because of reasons, I found myself having to do some research into the mythos of the unicorn. “Mythos” is maybe a bit of a stretch, since there isn’t much of a mythology when it comes to unicorns–more of a symbol set, really. What struck me, though, is that it is pretty obvious the European unicorn evolved/derived from the Chinese qilin, yet The Internet seems determined to disavow this. The obvious caveat: Of course I know the internet is not a good place to do research on anything, but it can serve as a sort of bibliography and lead you to better places. Also, I’m busy and lazy. My research is only at the beginning, and doesn’t necessarily need to go too deep–that remains to be seen–and I am certain I cannot be the first person to make this connection. But what surprises me is that this little corner of Eurasian myth apparently hasn’t been given the common-knowledge treatment yet.

Unicorn from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell (1658) (Wikimedia Commons). Note all the extra hair on the shoulders, fetlocks, and chin, cloven hooves, and tufted tail.

It’s true there are significant differences in appearance between modern depictions of qilin and unicorns; but the historical evidence, while circumstantial, is pretty darned suggestive. Consider:

  • The first (surviving) written Chinese record of the qilin and the first more or less European (Graeco-Persian) account of unicorns are approximately contemporaneous–5th century BC. That makes it possible for the European account to be derived from the Chinese (assuming that the qilin existed in Chinese oral lore before being written about).
  • That first European account of unicorns is in Ctesias’ Indica (“On India”), which was more or less a natural history based on the accounts of Silk Roads travelers in Persia. The eastern hub of the Silk Roads was, of course, China–but to the Greeks, India was the eastern edge of the known world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Subcontinent and everything east of it was basically “India” from the Greek point of view, and thus a Chinese creature might be understood as Indian, which is what Ctesias said of the unicorn.
  • Although qilin and unicorns have followed separate trajectories since the 5th century BC, and settled into familiar forms which are quite different today (people of a certain age may remember the plethora of folders and Trapper Keepers with airbrush unicorn pictures on them back in the ’80s…pretty sure I collected them all), there is a great deal of overlap in their earlier forms: Older (e.g., medieval) depictions of the unicorn show it with a deer-like body, horse-like head, tufted tail like a lion or ox. The hooves are sometimes cloven, sometimes horse-like, and sometimes it has a goat-like beard and/or feathery hair on the fetlocks and shoulders. Ctesias described it as a type of wild ass, as large as or larger than a horse, with a white body, red head, and blue eyes, and of course a single horn. The qilin was described differently by time and region (here is an assortment of images), but among its recognized variants were a deer-like body, cloven or horse-like hooves, a tufted tail, and a single horn. It is often depicted with flames emerging from around its shoulders, and sometimes with a goaty beard and hairy fetlocks. The main consistent differences between the two is the shape of the head (horse-like in the unicorn and dragon-like in the qilin)–although these are not entirely dissimilar in overall shape–and the color (generally white in the unicorn since the Middle Ages, and variable in the qilin). The all-white color of unicorns presumably came to be emphasized as part of its symbol set related to purity.
  • The European unicorn is symbolically associated first and foremost with purity (hence virgins), and deriving from that, healing. It is generally described as gentle and elusive, but extremely wild and pretty much impossible to capture. It is fierce only in defense of its freedom (hence its use as the symbol of Scotland). The qilin is described as an exceedingly gentle and peaceful creature, but one which is fierce in the defense of justice. It too is elusive and impossible to catch. Both are often used as symbols of forests and wilderness.

I see no reason there couldn’t be an even earlier origin for a unicorn-like creature in Indian myth, but if so it went through China before reaching Europe. I don’t find the argument that the Indus Valley Culture seals represent unicorns terribly persuasive. Maybe the representation is of a one-horned magical form of bull (elsewhere two-horned animals are shown with both horns, after all), but it is still clearly a bovine; and while it’s possible the unicorn as we know it could have evolved from a very ancient bovine prototype, there are so many more similarities to the qilin that the Chinese connection mustn’t be dismissed. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the unicorn derives from the accounts of travelers who saw oryxes in profile. I mean, are we really to believe that multiple travelers never saw an oryx turn its head even a tiny bit? The qilin connection is way more parsimonious than this oryx nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the European end of the Silk Roads has tended to way downplay the influence of the Asian end. We are determined to be the core and make them the periphery. Temperate Eurasia (that is, Eurasia minus the arctic or tropical parts) is basically one giant prairie, with horses, rivers, and wheels allowing for rapid and efficient transit; trans-Eurasian contact has been the norm since at least the Bronze Age. And It doesn’t take a Marco Polo traveling the breadth of the entire supercontinent* to share myths, it just takes interlinked trade networks. So as far as I can tell there is no valid reason to think the unicorn couldn’t have evolved from the qilin and yet over and over again I read how they are in no way related.

Anyway, personally it doesn’t change much for me to know that unicorns and qilin are related, except it makes me wonder what other connections we might be missing. It also gets me thinking why the unicorn caught the European (or Graeco-Persian) imagination the way it did, not only being carried across Eurasia but remaining/becoming an extremely potent symbol in the process. For me the connection, or communication, came through the symbolic vectors of healing and childhood. And finally it makes me curious what further evolution of the unicorn/qilin we may yet see.

*Although there clearly were such people:

What is Inari up to?

Bruno Liljefors, Mother Fox with Cubs, 1905.

This is just some off-the-cuff musing here… I’ve noticed that among Western followers of Shinto or hybrid Shinto-paganism (example), Inari seems to be the most popular “patron” deity. My initial take on this, and this isn’t meant disrespectfully or judgmentally, is that this is because (1) Inari is very popular in Japan, one of the few kami that isn’t rooted to one particular locality, and is associated with a host of life events and activities that tend to be important to people, especially food, fertility, and general prosperity; (2) Inari is incredibly polyvalent so there’s lots of room for individual interpretation, which while rather unusual in Japanese culture, fits well with generalized Western values; (3) Western pagans seem to have a real attachment to the notion of matron/patron deities and to explicitly devotional polytheism; and (4) Inari is associated with foxes which are adorable.

But I recently finished reading Karen Smyers’ The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship (very good, check it out if you’re interested in Shinto, Japan, anthropology, or Inari), and along with some UPG of my own, it’s clear there is more going on.

I think Inari is on a mission, though to do what I don’t know. And I should say, it’s clear from Smyers’ research that Inari is not one deity but many grouped under a collective name, some of which are represented in only a single inscription, or a single person’s narrative of their UPG. (That, incidentally, should be a lesson to us when we think about just how many deities are actually represented in, say, Romano-British inscriptions or early medieval Irish literature.) It’s really difficult to wrap your head around–well, it is for me–and I suspect that’s partly linguistic. Japanese allows for distinctions between singular and plural if needed, but doesn’t normally make them. You figure it out from context, or you don’t. No big deal. English is not so comfortable with that lack of specificity. It’s unclear to me whether there is a unitary being that is Inari with maybe a lot of different outlets to plug into, or if Inari is almost more like a class of being, or a role, or if in English we should really be saying Inaris.

A statue of one of Inari’s messenger foxes holding a wish-fulfilling jewel in its mouth, at the Inari shrine in the precinct of Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. The votive bib it’s wearing was once red but had faded to pale pink, but I got a kick out of its message: “LOVE PEACE DREAM,” with happy faces.

For all the reasons I outlined above, I think of all the Shinto kami Inari is best placed to make the jump to the West. Inari has clearly been evolving since his/her/its/their first appearance in written history (which dates to the 7th century AD if I remember correctly), becoming more personally accessible to individuals and indeed making that a hallmark of–I’m just going to say “her” for simplicity’s sake but let’s all agree that it’s not simple–her character and method; less locally-specific; and more involved with general wish-fulfillment in return for human devotion. Inari also seems to really like working with and through women, including female shamans. A further characteristic of Inari is a propensity toward shapeshifting: among the various forms Inari takes are a young woman, an old man, an ordinary fox, a white fox, a golden fox, a dakini riding a flying fox, a dragon, a snake, and a dove. In Japanese culture, foxes themselves are shapeshifters and tricksters. I think all of this further puts her in a position to be more widely embraced in the West.

It will be interesting to see what further changes this brings, and what projects Inari has/have in mind. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened, but would be the first case, as far as I know, of a Japanese kami integrating into the Western cultural context (as opposed to being transplanted to a shrine which is geographically located in the West but is otherwise culturally Japanese).

UPDATE: Shortly after I wrote this, the Green Shinto blog posted about Inari and foxes.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A couple weeks after I wrote this, this post about “the Inari faith” outside of Japan appeared.

Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

Maybe it’s part of the trend of magic re-entering the mainstream of late, I don’t know. Although the inner shadow-hipster I completely disavow cringes at the idea, I think it’s a good thing that we seem to be seeing a re-injection of proper myth into stories “for kids.”

Cases in point: Spirited Away, The Little Prince, Moana.

(Ok, I know Spirited Away isn’t new, in fact this year is its 15th anniversary. But for precisely that reason some theaters are screening it this month. And to be fair, Miyazaki has been making movies with spiritual/Shinto themes for decades, but maybe now people outside Japan will be able to get that in a way that I suspect they haven’t previously. As a sidebar, Chihiro is way less bratty and annoying in Japanese than in the English-dubbed version.)

Oh yeah–spoiler alert. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Spirited Away (2001)


Spirited Away is the most overtly shamanic of the three films here. It is pretty explicit that the heroine Chihiro and her parents inadvertently cross into an Otherworld when they wander through a seemingly abandoned amusement park. I mean, they should have known, really–transdimensional crossings pretty much go with the territory with abandoned amusement parks, I would think, much like buildings that used to be hospitals (speaks the voice of experience) or are full of antique dolls (shudder) are bound to be haunted. There follow a series of encounters with bizarre spirits out of a really adorable (Japan, amiright?) mushroom trip as Chihiro is stripped of her this-world identity* and must find allies, and her own courage, on the Other side. She does this, in part, through performing services to spirits like the river kami in the bathhouse, Kaonashi (“No-Face,” a kind of wetiko–and indeed, greed is the big villain in this film), Haku the dragon, and Bou the giant baby. What she learns in the Otherworld enables her to return herself and her parents to this world, but now she is not only transformed by the journey but has a posse of helping spirits.

There’s some more theories about the meaning(s) of Spirited Away in this article, but it unfortunately reduces the shamanic character of the story to the more universal but neutered “spiritual.”

*Chihiro’s loss of this-world identity is made explicit when she is renamed Sen. Sen, another reading of the first character in the name Chihiro, means 1000; in other words, she is literally robbed of a name and becomes just a number. That this is done by Yubaba, the greedy mistress of the underworld bathhouse where Chihiro must earn her freedom, could be read as a symbol of the dehumanization we all face in the modern workplace/marketplace.

The Little Prince (2015)


The Little Prince, based on the ostensibly-children’s story (really more a tale for jaded adults), was released as a Netflix original. It sets the original story within a framing narrative which is what turns this from a very French meditation on love, loss, and death (seriously, when I read the story I can hear it in my mind’s ear as if it is being read by an ennui-filled Frenchman between slow, cynical drags on a Gaulois) to an underworld journey. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Netflix had been plugging the movie on its homepage but I had exactly zero interest until I happened to hear an interview about it on NPR while driving to work. Specifically, it was this quote, from the Fox, that happened to be a major sync for me:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Three days later I was looking to kill time while doing laundry and Netflix promoted the movie again, and my primary helping spirit told me emphatically that I needed to watch it.

You can “read” the movie on various levels: as a social critique about how work and school crush our souls; as a parable about death and grief; or as an exploration of “what is essential” in life, e.g., play, spontaneity, love. But the more interesting story, to me, is once again about a journey to the Otherworld and the encounter with helping/tutelary spirits–specifically the Little Prince, the Fox, the Snake, and the Rose. The little girl heroine first acquires her own helping spirit/power animal–a fox (Trickster par excellence), represented/embodied by one of the most shamanic implements I can imagine, a stuffed fox toy covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and filled with jingle bells–and then goes to retrieve her friend the Aviator’s helping spirit, the Little Prince, before stewarding the Aviator into death. In so doing she effects healings/soul retrievals for herself, her friend, her mother, and by extension (if you’re receptive to the idea) the viewer.

For me, this movie was filled with truth bombs, some of which are still waiting to be ignited. My feminists out there will be happy to know that the Rose, who in the book is a two-dimensional and very unflattering depiction of Woman as weak, vain, and naive, is in the movie a tutelary spirit; and as mentioned, the Little Prince is actually not the hero in this version, but rather a little girl.

If you do work with helping spirits, it’s hard to put into words but there is something about this movie that seems to allow them to plug into it and download huge packets of information to a receptive mind. I don’t know, maybe it was just me? Give it a try. For example, if you plug the character of the Rose into the mystical and goddess (Isis/Venus/Mary/etc.) symbolism of the Rose (an example, another–there’s a lot and it’s well worth the dig), and even its medicinal properties, it’s like a cheat code that lets you jump ahead five levels. Then layer it onto this:

Strike, dear Mistress, and cure our hearts. I’ll just leave you with that and let you do your own experimentation.

Moana (2016)


Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Disney films. Even as a kid I chafed against the message that the most important things I could aspire to were being pretty and falling in love with a rich man. I mean, I get the social context of the films made circa midcentury when that was an accepted “truth,” but Disney has lagged way behind the times in updating that message. As far as I know it wasn’t until Brave (2012) that we finally got a movie where romance wasn’t portrayed as the apotheosis of the story (and thus of a woman’s existence).

Also I hate musicals.

But, again because of an interview I heard on NPR on the way to work–which is interesting because I only switch to NPR these days during commercials on other stations, because as shit as popular music mostly is these days, it’s still better than what passes for “liberal” “news”–I thought I’d give this one a shot. I mean, it has a Trickster (Maui), explicitly identified as such.

Unsurprisingly considering this is Disney, of the three movies under consideration here it’s the most literal and (for me anyway) has the least potential for truth-bomb-downloads. In some ways, this movie is kind of an example of how not to do a movie about Otherworld journeys. It takes the seafaring very secularly and beats one over the head with the usual vapid Disney pabulum about “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart” and such, and once again the protagonist is a “princess” (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the part of the writers, she rejects that title, but if it walks like a duck…). Being a “voyager” is held up as something wonderful but there is never any reasoning for it; I can’t help but think how cool this movie could have been if the writers had read Star.Ships. Yet it does have ancestor spirits, Tricksters, an animate ocean, and gods, and the classic storyline of seeking a helping spirit, journeying through the underworld, ordeals, performing service to the spirits, and returning home transformed: The eponymous character Moana rebels against custom and authority in watered-down Whale Rider-style to find Maui and force him to fix a mistake he made that is ruining the world for mortals. Although she finds Maui in this world, together they journey to the underworld to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook.

The underworld act is by far the best part of the movie, in large part because it evokes that boss Trickster, now on the spirit side, David Bowie.

Indeed, of these three movies, this one actually explores the Trickster mythos most deeply, showing how Maui is both a teacher and helper of humans and also something of a bumbling clown who “inadvertently” makes trouble for us. Arguably the story would have been more realistic (at least based on my experience of Tricksters) if at the end we found out that Maui had set up the story’s central McGuffin and all of Moana’s ordeals from the get-go for inscrutable purposes of his own, but I think that’s way too meta for Disney.

Anyway, if you bring the right perception to Moana (he who has eyes to see, let him see) you can still show the kids how to extract its mythic marrow. And for the girl children, they will get another young heroine, one who is happily not on a quest for a socially-advantageous marriage. And it’s a more appropriate entry-level treatment of myth for the littles, where Spirited Away has some creepy nightmare fuel and The Little Prince might go over the head of “kids” who don’t already have some grounding in the concept of spirit journeys.