Venus Retrograde in a time of Lockdown

The planet Venus, associated with love and beauty and all that governs relationships, reached her highest point in the night sky on March 24th and has been descending ever since, mirroring precisely the descent of the world into Coronavirus lockdown. On May 13th she will turn retrograde in the next stage of a complex series of motions during which she will set as an evening star, disappear from view, perform an interior conjunction with the Sun, then rise as the morning star before turning direct again just after Summer Solstice. For millennia human beings have tracked the movements of Venus and correlated them happenings on Earth, but the timing this year seem particular poignant as we contemplate love, loss and all that we value in a time of lockdown.

Inanna/Lilith, British Museum (author’s photo)

In Ancient Sumeria the planet Venus was worshipped as a personification of the goddess Inanna, queen of heaven and earth. The story Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld is the oldest epic poem in world literature (written down around 1700 BC), and, remarkably, it can be interpreted as an allegory of the visible movements of the planet. Thus when we weave together the story of Inanna’s descent with the planetary movements of Venus, linking both with events in our personal and collective lives, we renew afresh the sacred bond between heaven and Earth. And on a personal level, Inanna’s story is a poignant description of the maturing of the soul through relationship, with love, loss and reflection on all that we value, with a powerful message for us all.

In the ancient Sumerian version of the story of her descent, pieced painstakingly together from 13 fragments,  ‘Inanna, from the great above, set her mind toward the great below, abandoning both heaven and earth to descend to the netherworld.’ [1]Before beginning her mythic descent, she was careful to don all her accoutrements of power, and to instruct her messenger Ninshubur to get help if she does not return after three days. This preparation period and initial descent began on March 24th when the planet reached the highest point, and correlates to when lockdown began in ernest. We too had to seek out our power objects and prepare practically, psychologically and materially to go deep into the uncertainties created by pandemic.

On 28th April, Venus attained maximum brilliance, a breath-taking site in the night sky just after sunset and right next to the silver sliver of the crescent moon. Now entering the second stage of lockdown, we watched anxiously to see if the peak of the pandemic has really been reached, and to calibrate our own lives to the restrictions imposed.

Venus at maximum brilliance, 28th April (author’s photo)

Finally, after approximately seven weeks, Inanna, in full regalia, arrives at the gateway of the underworld. This corresponds to the time when the planet starts its retrograde motion, May 13th. For us, as we go into a potential easing of lockdown, we must be particularly vigilant and reflect on all we have lost and gained throughout this time, of the gifts and sacrifices we have received and endured. As Melanie Reinhart says, ‘We are ‘given the opportunity to plumb the depths of our relationships, finish unfinished business, release the past and renew our capacity for love.’ [2]The myth offers us very clear guidance on how can we can do this, for now Inanna must descend through each of the seven gates, and as she does so she is asked to surrender all the carefully collected symbols of her worldly power, just as we have been forced to surrender ours. The following could be used as a journey through the chakras, or as a contemplation of what the different power symbols mean to us, and how they relate to our own personal losses during the Coronavirus pandemic.

At the first gate, she must surrender her crown.

At the second, her rod of lapis lazuli was removed.

At the third, the lapis lazuli stones from around her neck.

At the fourth the sparkling stones of her breast,

The fifth the golden ring of her hand,

At the sixth the breastplate of her breast,

And finally at the seventh, she must surrender her robe.

For it is decreed that she must enter the Underworld naked.

Each time she asks the gatekeeper, ‘Why pray is this?’ And each time he replies, ‘Extraordinarily O Inanna, have the decrees of the netherworld been perfected, O Inanna do not question the rites of the nether world.’[3] This is a reminder that what is demanded of us now is nothing short of unconditional surrender to the situation we collectively found ourselves in, to remain willingly present in the liminal zone, perched somewhere between a world of fact and of illusion. We must enter this stripped bare, peeled away so that only our inner essence remains. This time period lasts 40 days, the length of the retrograde cycle, the proverbial time for mediation and reflection also incorporated into later traditions, including Lent.

Planet Venus (Wikepedia Commons)

On the May 28th Venus will set as the evening star one last time before disappearing from view. This is the time of the greatest danger for Inanna, who now naked and vulnerable, comes face to face with her sister, the dark goddess Erishkigal, seated on a throne next to the Annunaki, or the seven judges. As she stands before them, they pronounce judgement on her. This symbolises on a personal level the confrontation with our shadow, our inner self, that which we keep cloaked. What inner reserves have we discovered, what has emerged for us once the ego has been laid bare?

June 3rd is the interior conjunction between Venus and the Sun, the time period when the planet is behind the Sun and no longer visible. This is the time when Inanna, now turned to a corpse, is hung from a stake for three days and three nights. This is the time to bear witness to not only our own soul, but the World Soul, the most poignant moment of all. We are required to sit with ourselves and engage as little as possible with external relationships, to listen to the inner voice and the voice of the Earth herself. There is the potential for unresolved grief to surface, that which has not been processed, all that has been denied and suppressed.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Three days have passed and Inanna has not returned, so the faithful Ninshabur, as instructed, and goes out to sound the alarm. He turns first to the god Enlil, who refuses to help, then next to Nanna, who also does nothing. Finally he goes to Enki, the ruler of the abyss and the waters, who is so troubled on Inanna’s behalf that he fashions beings called kurgarru and kalatuttu from dirt and gives to them the food and water of life. They find the corpse of Inanna, and ‘sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life they sprinkle upon it, and Inanna rose.’ [4]

After three days and three nights of being hung on a stake, Inanna rises again (note, this myth predates Christianity by about 2,000 years!) This reminds us that during a liminal period, times of great change and flux, we should take special care to nourish both body and soul with good food and allow tears, the waters of life, to gently dissolve the grief and mend the wounds of the psyche, to console that which was previously not consoled.

Akkadian Inanna (Ishtar)

Thus brought back to life, Inanna prepares to leave the underworld. This is marked by the heliacal rising of Venus as the morning star on June 10th. But beware, the danger is not yet passed. In the original Sumerian tale, when Inanna returns she brings with her a whole army of demons, who cause havoc wherever they go. This fragment of the poem breaks before it ends, so we need to look at another text, the ‘Dream of Dummuzi’ to find out how we can safely exit the underworld without unleashing our demons.

In the Akkadian version, Inanna is only allowed to return when she has sent a substitute in her place, in keeping with the laws of the netherworld. She ponders who this could be, and when eventually she sees that her consort Dummuzi has been occupying her throne in her absence, oblivious to her suffering, she fixes her eye of death on him.

A great wail of mourning goes out, let by his sister (Geshtinanna) and this touches Inanna’s heart, who now feels the grief of her consort’s death – by her own hand. Now softened, she decrees that Dummuzi will spend half the year in the Underworld, going down when called, and alternating with his sister, who will go down for the other half. The natural order has been restored, breaking the cycle of destruction, ushering in forgiveness and seeds for new potential. This coincides with the time that Venus turns direct (also in Gemini) on the 25th June, just after the Summer Solstice.

This year, a solar eclipse occurs on the exact day of the Solstice (21st June), which is also on a dark moon. This extremely fiery and powerful combination seems set to melt even the most frozen of areas, especially as Jupiter makes another conjunction with Pluto around this time. At the lunar eclipse in January, the Saturn/Pluto conjunction ushered in the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown in China. As Jupiter tentatively enters the dance again (Jupiter will come into full conjunction in December), this could be time of great upheaval, maybe as lockdown fatigue really takes hold. Only if we take the opportunities offered for reflection, for release and for taking personal responsibility will this be the breakthrough that we are hoping it could be. Working with the retrograde cycle could then really have collective as well as personal impact.

Pattern made by orbit of Venus

The orbit of Venus is highly regular with eight Venusian orbits round the sun corresponding to five of those of Earth’s. This means that every eight years, the retrograde cycle will repeat at the same place in the zodiac. So the last time Venus went retrograde in Gemini, the esoteric ruler of Venus, was in 2012, when a very rare transit of Venus across the sun was also seen. [5]If we look back to what we were doing exactly eight years ago, we gain a deep perspective on the nature of our soul journey, and of the potential for any unfinished business from that time that may need addressing. It seems significant that the much talked about prophecies around 2012 never seemed to materialise. But maybe something was set in motion then which is starting to come to fruition now?


[1] Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld’ in ‘Sumerian Mythology’ by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972

[2] Melanie Reinhart, ‘Venus: Queen of Heaven and Earth,’ (2009) at http://www.melaniereinhart.com

[3] ibid Samuel Noah Kramer

[4] As above

[5] See Melanie Reinhart at http://www.melaniereinhart.com

Spring Equinox: Bran and the Cauldron of Resurrection

The sap is rising, bulbs are emerging, blossom is exploding into life and buds forming at this time of balance between the light and the dark. As the days continue to lengthen, it is the light that has the upper hand but the power of darkness is still strong, urging us to integrate and acknowledge that part of our shadow that is holding us in stillness, even nourishing us like the moist and fecund Earth holds the seed. Dandelion starts to push through the loomy soil, along with burdock, borage, chickweed and violet, all packed full of nutrients and cleansing potential to prepare our systems for the energy of summer. And in the night sky the Spring Triangle is visible, comprised of Arcturus in Bootes, Spica in Virgo, and Regulus in Leo.

Sheelah’s Day is celebrated around Equinox in honour of Sheelah-Na-Gig, the goddess of fertility and sexuality, of green wildness and powerful life force. In the Celtic tree alphabet (f for Fearn), this time is ruled by alder, the tree of Brân. Said to have fought on the front line in the Battle of the Trees, this mother-of-all-trees is also closely associated with the goddess Sovereignty, who in her capacity as the regenerative and destructive power of Nature and ruler of the Equinox and Solstices, ultimately births, marries and lays out in death all sacred kings of which Brân was but one.

Brân was known as one of the three blessed kings of Britain and has an ancient pedigree preserved in several of the tales collated in the Mabinogion. Though written down in the Middle Ages, the tales were based on an ancient oral tradition where Brân was known as the Celtic god of regeneration, and has the illustrious pedigree of descending from both the house of Llyr (god of the sea) and Belenos (the sun god). The legends tell us that Brân possessed a magical cauldron with the power to bring dead warriors to life, but without restoring their speech. He received this cauldron from giants, or otherworldly beings, in return for his kindness, and it was so huge that it needed to be carried by wheeled vehicles such as chariots.

In a story related in the tale of ‘Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr,’ Brân gifted this cauldron to the Irish king Matholwch after he married his sister Branwen, but was dishonoured by another brother who had not been involved in the decision making process. Brân hoped to ward off war between the two kingdoms with his peace offering, but the Irish king refused to accept the cauldron as a gift in kind, reduced Queen Branwen’s position to that of a servant, and waged war anyway. Brân himself was poisoned by an arrow in the devastating battle that resulted and died. On his deathbed he instructed his followers to cut off his head, which was still able to talk even after removal. They solemnly and carefully carried the head back home with them, which was said to speak all the while.

This Cauldron of Resurrection was one of the sacred objects of the Celts and features later in Arthurian legend when King Arthur sets out on a quest to retrieve it. Indeed, in ancient times it was considered to be a gift of the goddess Sovereignty herself, the goddess of the land who bestowed plenty and abundance and presided over the magical gift of rebirth. In medieval times, the story of Branwen’s dishonouring by the Irish king is told in terms of her brothers, and her status is also reduced to that of a kitchen maid in the tale, symbolic of the withdrawal of powers by the goddess Sovereignty.  It is poignant that an object as magical as a Cauldron of Rebirth could no longer prevent petty wars between kingdoms as a result.

This theme is one that weaves through Celtic mythology, though in later times it is often edited out or watered down: the gifted abundance of the land is dependent on mutual respect between the land, the goddess of Sovereignty, and the people and mediated through the marriage between the land and the king who swore to uphold and protect her. When this sacred trust is broken, the gifts of the land and the Otherworld are withdrawn.

There is a powerful message here for our times. Alder rules from 18 March to 14th April, at time of writing, the period of lockdown in many countries due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic worldwide. The entire world is in the grip of the Wasteland, resulting in no uncertain terms from our abuse of the Earth and failure to take heed of the dire consequences of our actions and choices. Alder, like the cauldron of Brân is also known as the tree of resurrection through its association with the growing power of the sun, and its apparent ability to survive in, and therefore ‘conquer’ water. This year, Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection in the Christian church, falls on the 12 April, right at the end of the lockdown period imposed.

Brân was also associated with another magical symbol, that of the singing head removed from his body after he died in the futile battle with the Irish king. There are many legends surrounding this oracular head, but one of them says that it was buried on the hill where the Tower of London now stands, facing out towards France to ‘protect from invasion.’ Brân’s sacred bird was the raven, and to this day six of these birds are resident in the grounds of the Tower to protect ‘the Crown and the Tower,’ and superstition holds that if the ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. During this time of resurrection, we are being given an opportunity to examine the collective actions that have brought us to this current Wasteland. The old stories are very clear in their warnings. We ignore them this time at our peril.