Underworld Extremes: The Meaning of Pluto in Astrology

Underworld Extremes: The Meaning of Pluto in Astrology


Pluto is a planet that is not a planet. By the time Pluto had its planet status taken away by the international astronomical community (more on that below), astrologers had firmly accepted Pluto as an important member of the planetary roster. Only the most hardcore of traditional astrologers won’t use Pluto (or the other outer planets, Uranus and Neptune) in their work. Most astrologers who focus on traditional astrology (such as myself) still look at the position of Pluto and the other outer planets in charts, and if these planets play a key role in the chart, then we always consider that in our interpretations.

I do think a lot of astrologers, especially those who started practicing in the decades before the traditional astrology revival really kicked off in the 1990s, tend to over-emphasize the outers – sometimes to the exclusion of other important factors. Until very recently, and even sometimes still now, it was commonly accepted that the outer planets ruled certain signs – Uranus ruling Aquarius, Neptune ruling Pisces and Pluto ruling Scorpio.

This has shifted a lot recently and a number of astrologers have returned to traditional rulerships (Saturn rules Aquarius, Jupiter rules Pisces and Mars rules Scorpio). Of those who still use modern rulerships, I find most usually consider co-rulerships in their interpretations. But the modern vs. traditional rulership debate is a big topic for another day (read this article for my thoughts on Saturn as the true ruler of Aquarius). Today, I want to focus on the meaning and signification of Pluto in astrology.

The Rich Color Variations of Pluto. (NASA)

Pluto has some of the darkest significations of all the planets. Some of the common meanings assigned to Pluto include:

  • Destruction and rebirth
  • Obsessions and compulsions
  • Ruthless transformation
  • Exertion of power
  • Extremes
  • Underworld

It’s no wonder so many people find this little planet compelling!

Many of Pluto’s themes overlap with that of the two malefics, Mars and Saturn. If we consider a blend of these two planets’ traditional meanings, we arrive at Pluto’s archetypes. Mars represents fiery anger and violent desires, which are tempered by Saturn’s cold heaviness and restrictive stagnancy. Combining those, you get Pluto’s obsessive, compulsive nature – Mars’ quick temper blended with Saturn’s slow approach into something that compels a person into obsessive circles of unfulfilled desires, as well as transformational processes of tearing down long-established structures. 

Mander, Karel van (I) (1548-1606), Braeu, Nicolaes (werkzaam ca.1586-ca.1600), Schonaeus, Cornelius (1541-1611), toegeschreven aan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From an astronomical perspective, Pluto lurks on the very edge of the solar system: cold and impossibly distant, a preternatural and eternal force working on us in ways that remain mysterious and opaque; a force that resonates through aeons. Here we find a vivid visual metaphor for Pluto’s associations with profound transformation and the kind of karmic forces that play out over multiple lifetimes in the grand cosmic wheel of life, death and rebirth.

Pluto has a very eccentric and inclined orbit, circling the Sun at an angle of 17 degrees. For part of its orbit, Pluto is above the plane of the ecliptic and other times it’s below it. Because of this, it can actually move inside Neptune’s orbit – the last time that happened was between 1971 and 1999. 

Pluto moves slowest through Taurus and fastest through Scorpio. This is why current generations have seen quite a few more Pluto sign changes than previous generations, at a younger age. Given the intense level of transformation our world has seen in the last century, I think we can definitely chalk up some of that to Pluto’s ongoing transformative effects.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, in a painstaking, tedious, Plutonian obsessive-compulsive manner. Tombaugh pored over millions of pairs of photographed sections of the night sky, taken on different dates, searching for any minute discrepancy. Have you ever done those puzzles where you have to spot differences between two seemingly identical images? That’s what Tombaugh did for almost a year before he found Pluto.

Eventually, he stumbled upon the Lord of the Underworld: a tiny little speck that had shifted slightly from one photo to the other. It was an unremarkable little dot, seemingly identical to all of the other little dots surrounding it. Yet here was a planet lurking on the edge of our solar system.

After Tombaugh published his discovery, Pluto was heralded as the ninth planet: a tiny but fascinating capstone to our solar system that was named for the Roman god of the underworld.

In this 1931 file photo, Clyde Tombaugh poses with the telescope through which he discovered the Pluto at the Lowell Observatory on Observatory Hill in Flagstaff, Ariz. (AP)

On an astronomical level, Pluto is tiny – only about two-thirds as big as Earth’s Moon. It is made of rock and ice. Yet it is also wonderfully complex and beautiful. In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe captured images and data of Pluto that revealed many of its secrets. We learned that Pluto has an intricately textured surface including a giant icy heart: a plane of frozen nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide that stretches for millions of square kilometres.

This area has complex patterning across its surface, which looks like the surface of boiling water captured in solid form. Scientists speculate that underneath Pluto’s Heart, there is a heat source creating a circulating convection current, which melts the nitrogen ice and causes it to rise, cool and then fall again, constantly resurfacing the area. Pluto’s icy heart is beating!

Pluto also has cryovolcanoes – ice volcanoes – which spew water, ammonia and/or methane in a super cold environment where these substances condense into a solid again. We can’t know for sure, but it has been suggested that there is an ocean of liquid water underneath these volcanoes. This would be almost unfathomable in the cold stillness on the edge of solar system; yet Pluto seems to suggest that such a thing is indeed possible.

In this we can see Pluto’s astrological significations appear in a rather literal way: Pluto is undergoing an eternal transformation of its own self, caused by powerful unseen forces welling up from the underworld. Note that we did not discover these physical characteristics until well after the planet had been named and assigned its astrological significations; these recent astronomical discoveries reinforce the astrological archetypes already assigned to Pluto.  

Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto’s icy surface is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. The scene above, which is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) across, uses data from the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), gathered July 14, 2015. (NASA)

Perhaps the best example of Pluto’s astrological significations is the uproar about its demotion to dwarf planet status in 2005, after astronomer Mike Brown discovered another planet of almost equal size, Eris, deep in the Kuiper Belt. Brown wrote a great book about this debacle, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. It’s a fascinating read about why they ended up changing Pluto to a dwarf planet. Even though I think Pluto’s presence as a planet in astrology is undeniable and therefore I’m not willing to discard it from my astrological interpretations, I appreciate Brown’s perspective of why Pluto shouldn’t be classified as a planet on an astronomical basis.

The story of Eris’ discovery and the subsequent consequences for Pluto’s planet status is a beautiful match to Pluto’s astrological associations with profound transformation, death and rebirth. This incident destroyed our previous understanding of the solar system and transformed it into a new model that we’re still working to understand and delineate. And it involved a huge power struggle between different people and institutions in the astronomical community, many of whom revealed various obsessions and compulsions in an ongoing transformative process. All of this is very Plutonian!

Image c/o WTTW News

To wrap this up, I want to give a couple quotes about Pluto from a pair of eminent astrologers.

Robert Hand, Planets in Transit, 1976:

“The nature of Pluto is similar to that of the Hindu god Shiva, the creator and destroyer. Pluto usually begins by breaking down a structure; then it creates a new one in its place. This entire cycle of death, destruction and renovation is accompanied by tremendous powers, for Pluto is not a mild or even very subtle planetary influence. You can always see its effects very clearly – ranging from machines breaking down and needing repair to full-scale destruction or death. Decay at one level or another, followed by new life from the old is the typical Plutonian process.

Characteristically Plutonian people are those who seek to change, transform and take control of everything around them. Often a Pluto transit will signify the arrival of a person who transforms your life, either for good or for evil. Or it can symbolize an event or circumstance that has the same effect.

Pluto also rules those energies inside of you that lead inexorably to change. It rules the death and regeneration of the self, as old aspects of your life pass away and are replaced by new ones that could not otherwise have come into being. Pluto does not signify death in the literal sense; instead, it refers to a metaphorical death, something that ceases to be.”

The Wheel of Samsara in the Ganden Monastery in Karnataka, India.
François Zeller from Montreal, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 2006:

“Pluto is associated with the principle of elemental power, depth, and intensity; with that which compels, empowers, and intensifies whatever it touches, sometimes to overwhelming and catastrophic extremes; with the primordial instincts, libidinal and aggressive, destructive and regenerative, volcanic and cathartic, eliminative, transformative, ever-evolving; with the biological processes of birth, sex, and death, the cycle of death and rebirth; with upheaval, breakdown, decay, and fertilization; violent purgatorial discharge of pent-up energies, purifying fire; situations of life-and-death extremes, power struggles, all that is titanic, potent, and massive.

Pluto represents the underworld and underground in all senses; elemental, geological, instinctual, political, social, sexual, urban, criminal, mythological, demonic. It is the dark, mysterious, taboo, and often terrifying reality that lurks beneath the surface of things, beneath the ego, societal conventions, and the veneer of civilization, beneath the surface of the Earth, that is periodically unleashed with destructive and transformative force. Pluto impels, burns, consumes, transfigures, resurrects. In mythic and religious terms, it is associated with all myths of descent and transformation, and with all deities of destruction and regeneration, death and rebirth: Dionysus, Hades and Persephone, Pan, Medusa, Lilith, Inanna, Isis and Osiris, the volcano goddess Pele, Quetzalcoatl, the Serpent power, Kundalini, Shiva, Kali, Shakti.”

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