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The Astrological NEPTUNE and the Quest for Redemption
By LIZ GREENE
Samuel Weiser, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Liz Greene
All rights reserved.
Out of water all life comes.
The mythology of Neptune begins with the mythology of water. In astrological symbolism, Neptune is the ruler of Pisces, the third sign of the watery trigon, and the god after whom the planet is named is the lord of the ocean depths. But even if the planet had been called by another name, the language of water arises spontaneously on the lips of those experiencing important transits and progressions involving Neptune. Over and over again I have heard people completely unfamiliar with astrology describe their feelings and perceptions at such critical times with images such as drowning, flooding, drifting, dissolving, swamped, inundated, and flowing with the current. Their dreams at these junctures also reflect the domain of water: tidal waves, sinking ships, leaking pipes and overflowing toilets, flooded houses and torrential rain. Human beings describe with great precision, although usually unconsciously, the archetypal background of any important life experience. Neptune's vocabulary is that of water, And water, in the myths of every culture in every epoch, symbolises the primal substance, fons et origo, the source of all creation.
Mychs of water are particularly resistant to a neat definition of their meaning. Because they are so vast and elusive, usually lacking human characters and depicting instead the creation of the universe, their psychological significance seems to be related to primal experiences of which we have only the dimmest awareness. Since all myths are in one way or another the psyche's portrayal of its own processes, these creation stories are, on one level, images of human conception, gestation, and birth, projected out onto the cosmos and envisaged as the birth of the world. Human birth also occurs in more than one form, for it involves not only the physical emergence of the baby out of the womb; it also describes the birth of an individual identity out of the undifferentiated sea of the collective psyche. The pre-world "before," which is described in the ancient myths of creation out of water is something we can never "remember" as we might recollect, for example, the emotional and sexual conflicts of puberty. Individual memories depend upon an ego to do the remembering. And in the realm of Neptune's waters there is not yet any "I."
Water in myth, as well as in dreams, is an image of everything that is inchoate and potential—the prima materia from which all forms come and to which they will ultimately return, either through their own inevitable disintegration or in the throes of a divinely impelled cataclysm. Water exists at the beginning and returns at the end of every cosmic cycle; it will exist even at the end of creation, containing the seeds of future worlds waiting to germinate in its depths. If we wish to grasp more fully this ancient and sacred meaning of water, we need to contact within ourselves an archaic, preverbal and altogether more sensuous perception of life. A child's first glimpse of the magic and mystery of the sea will tell us more about the awesomeness of water than any scholarly analysis of ancient religious rites. The way in which we relax into a warm bath at the end of a tiring day reveals more about the healing and nourishing power of water than the intellect can ever apprehend—how water slides deliciously over the skin, how it soothes aching muscles, how it offers the body the seductive sensation of floating without effort. The mythic imagery of water is connected with our earliest bodily experiences and the exquisite sensations of being soothed, lulled, refreshed, protected, and cleansed. These are not only sensuous fantasies; they are also our past, albeit unremembered. We have all begun life in the waters of the womb, and milk is our first food. And we can also understand a good deal about the chthonic sea-monsters of water-myths from the child's experiences, not only of the birth canal but also of unwilling or accidental immersion—the incipient suffocation, the blind panic, the terror of something bottomless like a giant maw that will suck us down into oblivion. Those individuals who are frightened of swimming in deep water may gain insight into the deeper basis of their fears through exploring Neptune's imagery. The immense success of films whose central theme is the creature lurking in the depths of the sea—from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to Jaws—is testimony to how frightening and yet irresistibly seductive these images can be, even to a jaded modern consciousness.
Immersion in water, willing or unwilling, is—in mythic language— a return to pre-existence. Such a return occurs at death, and in the throes of the mystical experience, and in the twilight world of the drug-induced trance. It can also happen whenever primal emotions rise up and flood consciousness, so that the "I" disappears. This can, at certain times and for certain people, seem delicious and full of enchantment, particularly if life is cold, harsh, and frustrating. But if one has fought hard to claim one's place in the world as an effective individual, it is certifying, because it seems to herald madness, helplessness, and the utter pointlessness of all one's efforts. We cannot remember what it is like to be without form, except when in the grip of particular oceanic experiences; and then there is usually a kind of blur afterward, with "holes" in the memory such as one might have after a drunken binge. But although we lack memory, throughout the ages we have imagined, and portrayed, this wacery prelife—in myth, in religious symbolism, and in art. Emergence of life from the water is also a miracle— how can something come out of nothing?—for it is a repetition of the act of creation in which the new universe, fresh, glistening and free of sin, was first brought forth; or the newborn baby, slimed with blood and fluid, emerges into daylight. Water, and underwater life, enthrall us now as they always have. Intelligent dentists keep tanks of tropical fish in their waiting rooms, because somehow the terror of the anaesthetic and the penetrating drill, for adults as well as children, is mitigated by the hypnotic rhythm of peaceful aquatic existence. The fountain is as magical to us today as it was in the ancient world, and clever film-makers regularly portray lovers meeting by its moonlit waters as they immerse themselves in the flow of their feelings. Fishing, too, is miraculous for a child, and continues to be so for many adults. To catch a fish is like receiving a blessing; beyond the concrete world of lines and flies and bait, it is the grace of the river or lake or sea which yields up its treasure. Thus, in virtually all ancient initiation rites, as well as in the Christian ceremony of baptism, immersion in water confers a cleansing of the corruption of the past, and a new birth; and these processes occur in a secret, hidden place to which we have no access except through the portals of fantasy.
The Water-Mother in Mesopotamian Myth
Since prehistoric times, water has symbolised the ultimate source of life and fertility, both for human beings and for the universe. Thus the presence of water, whether sea, lake, river, stream, or spring, marks the materialisation of the primal godhead. Every Neolithic and Bronze Age sacred sire was located beside or over a source of water, and its significance was greater than the obvious practical considerations of drinking and washing; it was perceived as a divine source. In those later cultures which developed more sophisticated pantheons of gods and more elaborate rituals of worship, the temple altar was usually placed adjacent to a spring or fountain, whose mysterious emergence from the depths was interpreted as a penetration of the Earth-world by that life-creating deity who presided over the formless and invisible realm below and beyond. This visible manifestation of the divine life-source was always personified as a self-fertilising female creatrix, or as a male-female dyad whose chief power resides in its feminine face. The human experience of the world of the womb before the existence of an individual ego is, in the language of myth, that of an oceanic and absolute maternal power.
The Sumerian myth of the origin of the world, dating from around the 3rd millennium B.C.E., has come down to us through the medium of the Babylonian civilisation which absorbed Sumerian culture and achieved the time of its flowering under the energetic king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.E.). Of the Babylonian version of the story of creation we possess no existing document; but the entire five-thousand-year-old tale is cold in the Enuma Elish, found in the library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, who ruled from 668 to 630 B.C.E. If there are older creation myths than this one, we do not know about them. Enuma Elish means "when above" (the opening words of the poem), and it is recorded on seven clay tablets and covers in all a little over a thousand lines. Thus we meet the mythic world of Neptune first in the Levant, with the Sumerians who laid the foundations of our Western culture. And for the Sumerians, everything began with water.
In extant Sumerian tablets, the goddess Nammu, whose name is written with the ideogram "A," meaning "sea," is described as "the Mother who gave birth to heaven and earth." The word nammu or namme is given another interpretation by Nicholas Campion; he suggests it can be roughly equated with essence, fate, or destiny. The two interpretations are related, since the divine source is also the essence and destiny of all life, which emerges from and returns to it. Sumerian myth offers no explanation for the origin of the primeval sea. It just is. We will find this a priori quality of the primal deity in other creation stories, and it is a peculiarity of the mythic portrayal of the birth of the universe; if we keep going back and back, we cannot find our way past Something that has always been there. The subjective feeling of an eternal source, which transcends the limits of time and space and lies beyond the limits of logical thought, is characteristic of Neptune. The goddess Nammu is the earliest recorded image of this Neptunian source. In the Sumerian language, the word for water is also synonymous with the word for sperm, conception, and generation. The great Sumerian sea-mother is parthenogenic; she is both fertilising sperm and the moist, receiving womb; she is male-female, androgynous and undifferentiated, an image both of cosmic primal chaos and of the dark unformed world of the womb.
The Babylonians absorbed the Sumerian myth of creation out of the sea, and elaborated on it. The Enuma Eluh tells us that in the beginning nothing existed but water: Apsu, the sweet-water ocean, and Ti'amat, the bitter salt-water ocean. From the union of these two deities, male and female but contained within the single uroboric image of the sea, the gods were brought into existence.
When above the heaven had not (yet) been named, (And) below the earth had not (yet) been called by a name; When Apsu primeval, their begetter, Mummu, (and) Ti'amat, she who gave birth to them all, Still mingled their waters together, And no pasture land had been formed (and) not (even) a reed marsh was to be seen; When none of the (other) gods had been brought into being, (When) they had not (yet) been called by (their) name(s, and their) destinies had not (yet) been fixed, (At that time) were the gods created within them.
As the offspring of Ti'amat and Apsu grew, the Enuma Elish tells us, the noise and clamour disturbed their parents beyond bearing. Ti'amat and Apsu therefore devised a plan to annihilate their rambunctious progeny. But the plan was discovered by the young gods, who destroyed their father Apsu in self-defence. Then Ti'amat pitted herself in mortal struggle against her children, the strongest and boldest of whom was the fire-god Marduk. Marduk challenged his mother to single combat; he cast his net to enclose her; and when she opened her mouth to swallow him, he split her heart with an arrow. From her dismembered body he created the upper vault of Heaven and the lower vault of Earth; and thus the creation of the manifest world was accomplished.
Just what this cosmic imagery might suggest in psychological terms, and how it might relate to the astrological symbol of Neptune, we will explore more fully in due course. But certain essential things can be gleaned from the ancient story, perhaps the most important of which is the ambivalent nature of the primal life-source. Having generated her children within her watery body, Ti'amat abruptly decides she has had enough of them. The realm of the womb is not just a place of bliss, for the creatrix can, for reasons best known to herself, proceed to dismantle her creation. The inherent duality of the pre-and post-natal world of the infant, part paradisaical fusion and part terror of complete extinction, is vividly portrayed in Ti'amat. She is shrouded in darkness, as is the place of our origin. It might also be relevant here to emphasise that in the Enuma Elish the creation of the world out of the formless depths of the sea is accomplished by an act of violent separation. No alternarive is possible. It is an image of the struggle necessary to wrench independent existence out of the primordial unconscious; and it might be understood as a story of the life-and-death struggle of the emerging child, as well as the battle to form a separate identity out of the mass psyche of family and collective. Ti'amat is not an unconditionally loving womb and breast. She is a monstrous cosmic sea-serpent, and from Marduk's perspective must be destroyed and transformed. Marduk is for us an image of a certain stage of human development, from which the once blissful place of origin is now viewed as dangerous rather than a place of delight. But Ti'amat is also more than a monster to be slain, for her echoes continue through subsequent myths, and they are full of longing. Although the Enuma Elish does not tell us that Marduk sorrowed at his act of violent separation, it would seem in human terms that the destruction of the primal unity inevitably results in regret and longing for the fusion which has been lost. It also results in a persistent fear of reprisal.
The death of Ti'amat is only an illusion, for she is eternally present in the world which has been created out of her body. Babylonian myth hints at this paradox in the Epic of Gilgamesh, whose Sumerian original dates from the 2nd millennium B.C.E. In historical terms, Gilgamesh was a king of the early Sumerian city of Uruk. In psychological terms he is, like most mythic heroes, an image of the independent ego, splendid and mighty yet perpetually in conflict with the divine powers. In the story he sets out to find the Tree of Immortality which was lost when the primordial sea was destroyed and the world was created; for with the defeat of Ti'amat comes the inevitably of death. Eternal life can only exist when one lives within the body of the eternal source. Gilgamesh must first travel across the cosmic ocean to the Isle of the Blessed, where the ever-living hero of the Flood, Utnapishtim, dwells in eternal bliss with his wife. The ageless couple wash him with healing waters, and tell him of the Tree of Immortality which grows at the bottom of the sea. The hero finds the tree and, although his hands are mangled and torn in the process, breaks off a branch and flees. When he has safely traversed the cosmic ocean and landed in his own country again he pauses for the night by a scream, believing his prize to be safe. But a serpent slides out of the water and steals the branch and consumes it, thus shedding its skin and becoming immortal. Whereupon Gilgamesh the hero sits down and weeps. Thus the sea-mother Ti'amat, disguised as a humble water-snake, reclaims her boon, and human beings are left with their mortal lot and their eternal longing. Perhaps, under the influence of Neptune, we may remember the Tree of Immortality hidden beneath the cosmic sea, and strive through pain and sacrifice to reconnect with the unity that was lost with the emergence of individual consciousness. But if we are to take the story of Gilgamesh as a valid psychological statement, then we must live with the knowledge that, sooner or later, our possession of eternity will prove transient and the Tree will be lost once again.
Excerpted from The Astrological NEPTUNE and the Quest for Redemption by LIZ GREENE. Copyright © 1996 Liz Greene. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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