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

Lebanon: the lost rites of Astarte and Adonis

The Lebanon is not your average Middle Eastern country, though it embodies aspects of them all. Today it is a melting pot of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Palestinians, Druze, Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Syrian refugees and wealthy Arabs from the Gulf, but beneath the vibrant surface it is possible to discern the traces of an equally unique and rich past.

‘Astarte’ the Louvre, Paris (public domain)

For thousands of years it was the Canaanite and then Phoenician cultures that flourished in this tiny sliver of land sandwiched between the Mediterranean and two large mountain ranges. This was the time when Astarte, Queen of Heaven, was worshipped as a goddess of fertility and sexuality, bringing abundance from the sea and nourishment from the land, and ensuring together with her consort Baal, that all things were in balance above and below. She herself was derived from the older Mesopotamian goddess Inanna and it was this archetype that was worshipped throughout the Levant in various forms including Ishtar, Ashtoreth and Aphrodite.

‘Jezebel’ by Byam Shaw, public domain

Today little traces of her remain either physically or in the historical record, and what does is often recorded through the lens of disapproving historians or biblical writers. One of her most famous priestesses was Jezebel, the Phoenician princess and daughter of King Ethbaal of Tyre, who took the worship of both Astarte and Baal to the kingdom of Israel at the time of the prophet Elijah. Astarte ruled supreme in all the city states of Phoenica and in the Eschmoun temple near Sidon (named after her consort in this city), a well-preserved temple still stands to this day. She was typically worshipped in the form as a throne supported by winged sphinxes or lions, and represented by a betyl, or sacred stone. It was at Byblos, however, that her main centre of worship was located and it was there that I went to piece her story together.

Astarte’s throne, National Museum Beirut (author’s photo)

The ancient ruins of Byblos are vast and impressive and in the centre of the complex, reached by a grand central colonnade, the temple of Astarte once stood. Reconstructed images show a large open court, surrounded by cloisters, in the middle of which stood a large conical shaped stone, or betyl, that represented and embodied her essence. It was here that the famous rites of Adonis were celebrated, generally seen as the ‘offspring’ of Baal and Astarte, or sometimes as her lover. The name Adonis means ‘lord’ in semitic and though introduced at a later stage by the Greeks and Romans, nevertheless embodied a hugely powerful archetype that also went under the names of Tammuz and Attis.

These young male gods embodied the ‘rising and dying god-man archetype,’ an archaic form of a vegetation deity that has very deep roots. According to James Frazer[1], as harvest gods, they embodied the actual life essence present in the corn and were ritually slain once a year as the corn itself was threshed by scythes and cycles at harvest time. The death of the harvest god was then ritually mourned in a huge ceremony involving cymbals, flutes, and semi-naked women beating their breasts, dancing and weeping in a sacred lament, followed the burial of his wounded body, and then the celebration of his miraculous resurrection the following day.

In the Greek version of the legend, Adonis was born of a myrrh tree (confirming his status as a vegetation deity) and hidden in a box by Aphrodite in the underworld. In a story woven into the mythology of many cultures across the aeons of time, but with local varieties of gods/goddesses playing the part, he is held hostage in the underworld until permitted by an authority figure to spend part of the year above ground, thereby embodying the mysteries of the seed that lies fallow before bursting forth in the spring in the abundant glory of the corn crop.

‘Venus and Adonis’ by Titian, public domain

The next part of the legend is specific to the Lebanon, for we are now told that the youthful Adonis, who loved to hunt, was out on Mount Lebanon near a place called Afqa. He came across a wild boar, that fatally wounded him in the leg. Aphrodite herself could not save him from his injuries and he bled to death on the ground, causing crimson anenomes to spring forth and the river water to run red with his blood. This river was known as the Adonis river in antiquity and flowed from Mount Lebanon through the Aphaca gorge down to Byblos, where it emptied into the sea.

Afqa waterfall, author’s photo

According to Frazer, there was once a large temple of Astarte that stood in a grove near the source of this river, and one hot day in August, I journeyed to Afqa to see what fragments remained. Though I found no trace of the temple, I did find a place of incredible beauty. Set in the towering limestone massif of the Mount Lebanon range was a huge cavern from which a waterfall emerged. Even in August the waterfall was an impressive site forming pools of azure and turquoise water, but in the spring, when the pale sun starts to melt the snow on the top of Mount Lebanon, the frothing waters would have burst forth in torrents, cascading down the valley, fructifying and turning all the vegetation green after the barrenness of winter. It was here, according to the legend, that the wounded body of Adonis was buried, dying so that the vegetation might spring forth.

It is clear from the stories that the blood of Adonis not only fertilised the land but also turned the river red. Upon closer inspection of the waters, traces of iron can be seen and we now know that the soil around the river is rich in iron oxide. As the water levels rise, iron rich soil is washed into the water, turning it the colour of vermillion. This bloody torrent then then snaked down the Aphaca gorge, and on to Byblos where it fanned out to sea, and, in the words of Frazer, “fringing the winding shores of the blue Mediterranean, whenever the wind set inshore, with a sinuous band of crimson.’

Adonis Cavern, Afqa (author’s photo)

And that is not all. As also Frazer suggests, there was a celestial event that accompanied the torrents of water that emerged gushing like blood from the cavern at Afqa, and this could be linked to the planet Venus. According to the historian Sozomen [2] ‘At Aphaca, it was believed that on a certain prayer being uttered on a given day, a fire like a star descended from the top of Lebanon, and sunk into the neighbouring river; this phenomenon they sometimes call Urania, and sometimes Venus.’

Astarte/Aphrodite were closely associated closely with the planet Venus, and the cycles of Venus were well known to the Ancients who considered her retrograde motion then reappearance as the morning star to be mysterious and sacred. It is therefore plausible that at certain times of the Venus cycle, the star was seen from the lofty heights of Mount Lebanon to fall from the night sky and plunge into the river, turning the waters blood red. To the ancients, Astarte would have personified the planet Venus, who fell from heaven to lie in the arms of her lover Adonis, fructifying the barren Earth in a cosmic drama of great potency.

Throne of Astarte at Echmoun Temple, Sidon (author’s photo)

On an even deeper level, it is possible that these rites originally recorded a meteorite impact that occurred in archaic times. Then the falling ‘star’ would have had a physical impact on the Earth, ‘wounding’ it and causing the river to run red with blood. It could also have fructified and brought forth new life, just as the poppies used today to symbolise death and sacrifice rose from the desolate battle fields when they were first ploughed. Furthermore, Astarte herself was represented by a betyl, and the most prized betyl of all were those made from meteorites. They truly were a piece of heaven on Earth and our ancestors understood their significance in a way that has been lost today. In the stories and legends that have come down to us from antiquity, we can therefore piece together traces of a lost world view that saw heaven and earth as a unified whole, and our place in nature as sacred and wondrous.


[1] James George Frazer ‘The Golden Bough,’ Oxford University Press, 2009.

[2] See www.phenicians.com ‘The Adonis legend’