Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

Re-blog of an article by Brian Taylor discussing NASA’s Pluto Fly-by and the issues surrounding photographing the underworld. Brian speaks about the perils of the ‘single vision’ of astronomy when it is not paired with the deep grammar of astrology: the connections between Pluto and various underworld deities of different cultures and ‘the great cosmic drama of death and rebirth’.

He describes Pluto ‘as ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery, who guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned’.

This description resonates with my experience of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god of the Brythonic underworld and raises considerations about the dangers of travelling to Annwn / Fairyland in Brythonic tradition and the arts of glamoury its people employ. Pluto was so named because of its capacity, like the underworld god Pluto, to become invisible…

In terms of experience ‘personally earned’ Brian mentions the ashes of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh were carried on board New Horizons’ spacecraft. Clyde discovered Pluto in 1930. Another of his research interests was UFO’s and thus space travel. 8 years after his death his ashes flew by the planet he discovered 85 years ago.

The Tombaugh region, Pluto’s frozen heart has now been named after Clyde Tombaugh. I recently learnt this has been interpreted to be dog-shaped and Disney have made a brief film about the dog Pluto based on this discovery (!).

Something that struck me was, in many traditions, the underworld is guarded by a dog (ie. Cerberus guards Hades, Gwyn’s dog Dormach is a guardian of Annwn). This furthers the suggestion there is a link between Clyde’s journey to the underworld (some meeting with its guardian?), the disclosure of Pluto in the photographs, the naming of the Tombaugh region and Clyde’s becoming a kind of guardian spirit himself.

Clyde’s efforts provide us not only with new scientific knowledge but a new myth featuring a journey to the underworld for the modern day.

On a darker note, Brian also maps the synchronicities between the discovery of Pluto by Clyde in 1930, the manufacture of Plutonium (New Horizons’ space craft was powered by Plutonium) and the creation of the first atom bomb. I found this chilling considering I have associated Gwyn’s role as ‘Winter’s King’ with the threat of nuclear winter.

Several months ago I had a deeply upsetting dream I intuited was of a possible ‘post-apocalyptic’ future in Preston.

Sarcophagus City

I dreamt of sarcophagi.
Grey the city.

Midnight blue the cloak
of my god

who I served with prayers
tucking offerings

in plastic wrappers round stony
bodies of the dead.

Slowly I forgot my words.
Doubt unfolded

me in frail threads on a wind
that was not a wind

and did not unfold the city
as it was too still.

The wind that never was blasted
the tower block

where I made my bed. I could not
wake from too softness

too many pillows and dream
myself home again.

I took this dream to be a warning about what might happen if fracking was allowed. It was one of several interlocking factors that prompted my involvement in the protests. However I don’t think that was the dream’s full meaning. As Clyde’s story shows, disclosures happen slowly and may not happen in our life-time.

animist jottings

Pluto's Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.Pluto’s Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

For Plutophiles everywhere this has been a remarkable week.  I began writing about Pluto in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and eventually finished a 25,000 word essay on the cultural context, cosmography, and astrological symbolism in 1995*.  I’m not going to write about astrological particulars here, but in that essay I wrote that “astrology occasionally seems to afford us a privileged glimpse into the subtle infrastructure of a living solar system. The fascination, and difficulty, of the discipline, lies in the way in which these glimpses of an apparent cosmic ‘fabric’ are located in relation to the subjectivities of human experience. Whereas astronomy finds the raw material of both curiosity and wonder out there, towards the perimeter of the universe, astrology can work to dissolve the dualism which has, for so long, been part of our Western world…

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5 thoughts on “Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

  1. “Clyde’s efforts provide us not only with new scientific knowledge but a new myth featuring a journey to the underworld for the modern day.” — really like this observation.

    1. …on a not-entirely-related apocalyptic note, there is something I have been not-quite-writing for a few years now and will eventually finish(!), about the rising sea. Will Parker writes about the Celtic faery otherworld tradition as being described, variously, as underground, on an island, or beneath the waters – but with the psychic element being more important than the geographical element, with temporal and spatial distortion being a feature of otherworld sojourns. It’s an interesting piece of research that sort of solidifies something I intuited a while ago and have been building up a picture of in my practice ever since. I think there is something important that the otherworld has to teach us about the crises we face today, although (as you suggest) the natures of the crises and the insights offered by the otherworld may not be fully understood within the temporal span of a single human lifetime.

      1. Yes, I’ve found that the otherworld tends to ‘distort’ space and time. Makes me wonder if, aside from the way we’re wired to perceive them to stay sane and function, they exist in the sense we understand them at all…

        The past and future bend, we can travel into each in search of answers. But they’re definitely not always the ones we’re looking for or explicable within a lifetime. I often find other people’s answers make more sense than mine. On rare occasions someone finds insights in my work. I think that’s why we need to work hard to keep sharing and conversing and questing.

      2. Oddly enough, you were in a dream I had the other night – there was danger, and a river (I think it was one river, but it appeared as a different river to each of us) and we were trying to find a way to warn people about the danger and wondering what could be done. It was strangely vivid.

      3. That is strange, I have been doing quite alot of walking by rivers lately… also, are we on opposite sides of the Mersey? (Different viewpoints?)

        We have a nasty bug in our water at the moment called cryptosporidium which means we can’t drink the tap water without boiling it…

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