In January 1, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi pointed his telescope in the direction of the rocky objects that orbit the Sun between Mars and Jupiter and discovered what he thought was a new comet. Piazzi named the object Ceres, after the Sicilian goddess of grain, and Ceres became a planet for 50 years. Three other objects were discovered in the next few years: Pallas, Vesta, and Juno, which were also considered to be planets. Later, William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, argued that they were too small to be planets; and when the fifth, Astraea, was identified, they were all reclassified as asteroids, which means “star like.” By the end of the nineteenth century, several hundred had been spotted, and at present, several hundred thousand asteroids have been given provisional designations. Thousands more are discovered every year.
Most planetary astronomers believe that the planets of our Solar System formed from a nebula of gas, dust, and ices that coalesced around the developing Sun. Although some have suggested that the asteroids are remains of a proto-planet that was destroyed in a massive collision long ago, and there is considerable mythic evidence to support this view, the prevailing scientific opinion is that asteroids are leftover rocky matter that didn’t become a planet. It’s believed that insufficient mass, and Jupiter’s strong gravitational influence, caused collisions and captured many small bodies, perhaps placing the Trojan asteroids that precede and follow Jupiter. Instead of sticking together, the planetesimals shattered, preventing them from becoming a larger planet. Astronomers believe that most of the main belt’s mass has been lost since the formation of the Solar System.
In 1930, 129 years after Ceres’ appearance, Pluto was discovered, and he was a planet for seven decades. But in 2006, after the discovery of Eris, who was the tenth planet for a brief time, Pluto was demoted, becoming the first in a new class of objects called plutoids—objects in a 2:1 orbital resonance with Neptune. These events also caused a planet to be defined for the first time. Ironically, it was Pluto’s change in status, and the creation of new categories of objects in our Solar System, that resulted in a promotion for Ceres. She was reclassified as a dwarf planet in September 2006, placing her on a level playing field with Pluto, and making her unique (so far), in the Solar System since she is the only dwarf planet in the Main Asteroid Belt. Asteroid Vesta may also be a candidate once the Dawn spacecraft gets a closer look at her in 2011. Dawn will then visit Ceres in 2015.
The combined mass of all the asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt is less than that of the Moon, and Ceres contains approximately one-third of the total. Unlike the lumpy, potato-like objects with lower gravity we normally expect to see, Ceres is spherical, and with a diameter of about 950 km, she is by far the largest and most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ceres appears to be differentiated into a rocky core and ice mantle with a surface that is probably a mixture of water, ice, and various hydrated minerals like carbonates and clays. Ceres may contain a tenuous atmosphere with water vapor and also harbor an ocean of liquid water that makes her a target in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Ceres and Pluto share several correspondences. They were both the first objects to be discovered in their respective belts, and both have the distinction of being the first of their kind in recent nomenclature. Both were considered planets for decades, and both occupy highly populated belts of objects orbiting the Sun. There’s a symmetry between the Main Asteroid Belt and the Kuiper Belt, Pluto’s home, where four planets precede each belt; Ceres follows the terrestrial planets, and Pluto comes after the gas giants.
Ceres and Pluto are also profoundly linked in myth. In the earlier Greek stories their names were Demeter and Hades. Demeter was the ancient Greek mother goddess of the greening of the Earth. She oversaw cycles of life and death as well as preserving sacred law. Demeter taught humanity the arts of agriculture: sowing seeds, plowing, and harvesting. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, dated to about the seventh century BCE, she is invoked as the “bringer of seasons.” According to Isocrates, an Athenian rhetorician, the greatest gift that Demeter bestowed was grain, the cultivation of which elevated humans above the animal kingdom and freed people from the seasonal migrations of the hunter-gatherer.
In myth, Demeter’s daughter Persephone (Prosperpina in Latin), was picking flowers in a field when she was abducted and raped by her uncle Hades/Pluto, god of the underworld. This violent act occurred with the complicity of her father, Zeus/Jupiter, which also mythically describes the abduction of the feminine principle that occurred as the patriarchy rose to power.
Demeter grieved for her daughter, or her own lost innocence, and withdrew to search for her. Without her the Earth became barren, and people risked starvation. Zeus sent gods with gifts to influence her, but it was not in his power to command her to make the Earth green. Nor could the king of heaven order the crops to grow on his own, as the nature of her feminine fertility was not within his domain. This strongly suggests that Demeter was an earlier and more powerful goddess. In fact, when Demeter was given a genealogy, she was the daughter of the Titans Cronos and Rhea, and therefore Zeus’s elder sister, even though Persephone was said to be his daughter. Their mother, Rhea, finally intervened, and Zeus agreed to bring Persephone back. Meanwhile, Hades/Pluto had tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds, which meant she had to remain part of the year with him. At the end of the tale, Demeter taught humanity the secrets of wheat and cultivating grain, pointing toward the deeper meaning of the story.
Demeter and Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon. These were the most important rites of initiation in ancient Greece and are believed to have originated in Minoan goddess worship in Crete nearly 4,000 years ago. The road between Athens and Eleusis was called the Sacred Way as thousands of pilgrims from all levels of society, from Greece and beyond, made their way to celebrate the mysteries. The only requirements were never having committed murder and not being a ”barbarian,” that is, unable to speak Greek.
A binding vow of secrecy was required, and the penalty for breaking this oath was death, so we can only speculate from clues and indirect evidence what actually occurred. But tradition says that the high point of the ritual was a eucharist where a “sheaf of grain was reaped in silence.” What little is known about the exact nature of the rites bears similarity to the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris, and Syrian and Persian mystery cults, which have similar themes.
It’s said that the secret mystery ritual of Eleusis held the symbolic key to immortality and the principle of resurrection. Ancient writers asserted that the rites of Demeter promised the initiate a better life on Earth and happiness in the afterlife. The Eleusinian Mysteries were seen as deeply spiritual and inspiring—a far older and more elevated approach than the intrigues of the battling and scheming Olympians—and offered an alternative religion well into the Christian era, as did the worship of Isis in Egypt.
Demeter’s emblem was the poppy, a bright red flower that grows among barley, or grain, which links her to altered states of consciousness as well as themes of death and resurrection. Scholars say that the great Mother Goddess, who bore the names Rhea and Demeter, brought the poppy from Crete to Eleusis, which means “arrival,” or “advent,” and assert that in the Cretan cult, opium was prepared from poppies. In a clay statue, which resides at the Heraklion Museum on Crete, the Minoan poppy goddess wears the seed capsules in her diadem, source of both nourishment and narcosis.
The pomegranate played a key role in Persephone’s journey. Hades tricked Persephone into eating the red seeds, which tied her to the underworld. The number of seeds varies from four to six, but determined the number of months she had to spend as queen of the underworld. The pomegranate has been a symbol of life and death, rebirth, resurrection and eternal life, fertility and marriage, abundance and prosperity throughout history and in almost every religion. The abundant seeds held the promise of cyclical resurrection. Almost every aspect of the pomegranate, its shape, color, seeds, juice, has come to symbolize something.
Ceres rotates on her axis in nine hours, orbits the Sun in 4.6 years, and stays in an astrological sign about 4.6 months, creating an intriguing harmonic resonance with the number of months Persephone spent in Hades. Ceres’ astronomical symbol is the sickle, or barley hook, an ancient harvest implement and instrument of reaping. It seems natural that Ceres should be astrologically aligned with Virgo. Virgo is the only female among the zodiacal constellations, and other than the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, she is the only human figure. Virgo is depicted as a maiden, holding a palm branch in her right and a single ear of wheat in her left. Her brightest star is named Spica, “ear of wheat.” The symbolic eucharist of Eleusis is the perfect symbol of Virgo, and of the mysteries of alchemical transmutation, that occur in the intestines, the area of the body ruled by that sign.
Virgo is one of the oldest constellations and over time has been equated with every important feminine deity, including Ishtar, Isis, Demeter, Persephone, Medusa, Artemis, and Urania. Richard Hinkley-Allen says, “Those who claim very high antiquity for the zodiacal signs (15,000 years ago), assert that the idea of these titles originated when the Sun was in Virgo at the spring equinox, the time of the Egyptian harvest.” Astrologer Bernadette Brady has remarked that, “Whatever image is chosen across time and cultures, what is contained in Virgo is the archetype of the harvest-bringing goddess, pure and good, independent of the masculine. She gives the four seasons and is the source of the fertile Earth.”
Earth is the womb of the Goddess, and her mysteries of generation and regeneration include the seeds that are planted, germinated and the subsequent harvest that results. We reap the harvests of our lives according to the seeds that we have sown, and the manner in which the garden has been tended, carefully winnowing the wheat from the chaff as we learn our lessons.
When the sickle is wielded, the crop is severed from the stalk and its connection to the Earth is terminated. As the fruits of the Earth are gathered and consumed, the promise of another harvest is implicit.
The symbolic themes of Ceres and Virgo are roots, fertility, plenty, crops, renewal, cultivation, nourishment, substance, eucharist and communion. Astrologically, I believe Ceres/Demeter represents reclamation and renewal and can reveal what needs to be uncovered deep in the underworld of our consciousness. Examining Ceres’ place in a natal chart we can ask, what is hidden, lies fallow, or is imprisoned in the underworld of our psyches that needs to come to the surface so our fertility returns and our personal gardens flourish?
Ceres’ reemergence as a planet, albeit a dwarf, is similar to her myth. Her energy is reappearing from the underworld of our awareness and coming into her own. I believe this also represents the resurgence of the feminine principle, which must be reintegrated into humanity’s psyche. The resolution involves a restitution and restoration of balance.
Pluto is seen as the astrological agent of transformation, but he must remain in the underworld. Persephone/ Proserpina, daughter of Ceres/Demeter, was his wife and queen, and each year she journeyed from above to below and back, reuniting with her mother to make the world green again. What might the Persephone in each of us bring back from her annual journey to the underworld? Her mother as “bringer of the seasons” teaches us that nothing really dies, but a cyclical descent to the underworld of our own psyche may be required for real growth to occur. Bravely undertaken, this passage leads us toward a Sacred Union with the Goddess, revealing the “knowledge of the gods,” the superhuman qualities that reveal the true nature of immortality.