THE NEGLECTED ROLE OF CERES, THE “FOOD” PLANET, IN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: AN ASTROLOGICAL ANALYSIS
by Thea Wirsching
(This is a long and excellent article on the overall influence of one of our more prominent asteroids, Ceres, exploring some of her deeper influences on individuals and the public at large. Live and Learn, ~Don)
I have long argued that the astrological Ceres represents a forgotten archetype in human consciousness, a connectedness to the land and its fortunes that has been convenienced out of modern society. In the targeted Ceres readings I perform, my clients’ awakening to this lost archetype often resembles the recalling of a dimly-remembered dream, as they share with me their intimate relationship to particular foods, herbs, and power plants. Ceres, a natural ruler of Virgo (whose symbol is none other than the mighty grain goddess herself), grounds us in the particularity of place, diet, and our daily routines, yet the word “rhythm” best captures this planet’s essence. It is my contention that the famous anxiety we associate with Virgo, the sign we love to insult by saying she’s only good for cleaning up, has everything to do with the suppression of the Ceres archetype. A healthy Ceres archetype might look like a deep respect for the land and its limits, and a humility regarding one’s individual role in the vast web of life. To say that we are out of touch with this archetype of interdependence here in the United States is to grossly understate the case; rather, the individual’s role in the stewardship of the land is actively suppressed by almost every social system in place.
So, what does Ceres have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic, other than that this planet was also exact with the dreaded Saturn-Pluto conjunction at 22 Capricorn on January 12? How about this: the virus is zoonotic, meaning it jumped the human-animal barrier, and so likely derived from the practice of consuming wild animals for food or medicine. The fate of Chinese “wet markets” or open-air slaughter-houses has been a part of the unfolding narrative around what caused the disease to spread to humans. You might have noticed that the most obvious effects of the pandemic for the majority of us have been felt at the grocery store; my local stores have been consistently sold out of staples like bread, meat, potatoes, onions, flour, and oatmeal. The absurd hoarding of toilet paper may make a nod to Plutonian territory, but excretion is also one of those daily rhythms that falls under Ceres’ domain. The lack of food is not only a textbook description of Ceres in Capricorn, it is also the core archetype of humanity’s relationship to food: the memory of starvation is literally written into our genetic material, and for all but the last fifty years of human history, fear of lack has dominated our relationship to food. Our current horrible exigency that demands weekly trips to the grocery store simply would not have existed two hundred years ago, when most Americans lived on farms and subsisted on their own produce or stores.
While the human relationship to food is a theme that can be seen in both the derivation of Covid-19 and its effects on the populace, all of us have also been affected in our work lives. Ceres represents the archetype of “the worker” for a few very simple reasons. Historically, long before money economies, the primary work that needed to be done in any tribe was the growing, gathering, hunting, processing, cooking, and/or storing of food. “Worker” equates to “farmer” for most of human history. In ancient Rome, Ceres was the particular deity of the lower classes — that is to say, the farmers. This makes sense, since Ceres was (and is) a goddess of agriculture. Astrologers associate the sign of Virgo with laborers, and in this day and age that may mean someone who gets paid by the hour, by the gig, or by the ounce of product harvested. Borrowing some inspiration from the 6th house, the natural house of Virgo and where astrologers look for information about daily work and daily routines, we can surmise that the transits of the planet Ceres will reflect the collective’s relationship to daily work. Since that epic conjunction of Ceres with Saturn and Pluto in Capricorn, many of us have seen our employment dry up in the face of widespread “shelter in place” orders. Some of us are taking the Capricorn hit economically, from lack of work. Others of us are seeing an exponential rise in our stress, responsibilities, and work-load, if we stand on the front-lines of the epidemic as health-care workers, grocery store employees, or are in public service positions like the military and police, etc. Grim adherence to duty is another face of Capricorn, which is surely the attitude of every employee forced to leave the house for work right now, when it’s much safer to stay home.
Ceres entered the sign of Aquarius on January 31, 2020, where it will remain until April 23. Over the course of February and March, millions of us found our daily work being transferred to an online medium like Skype or Zoom. Our daily routines have become entirely mediated by technology, that Aquarian hallmark. We also, increasingly, do not leave the house without thinking about how our individual actions will affect the collective. For many of us, the life-or-death significance loaded onto our most mundane activities, like shopping for food, is deeply uncomfortable. As a society, we are not accustomed to thinking about the long-term consequences of, say, our individual air travel, car travel, meat consumption, or Netflix binges. To even suggest that we think about curbing these indulgences is to, well — awaken that persistent Virgo stereotype of the school-marmish prude, waving a rolling pin over everyone’s head and demanding that we be as morally pure and self-denying as she. Where on earth did this shrew come from? And how is it that she has replaced Demeter, the ancient mother goddess, whose sacred laws must be obeyed if we expect life on this planet to flourish?
To my mind, Demeter, the Greek counterpart to the Roman Ceres, is a destroyer goddess. She fulfills the role of the elder in the ancient triad of maiden, mother, and crone, with her ugly grief, righteous rage, and peasant woman disguise; she is the death-dealing crone to Venus-maiden and Moon-mother. It is Demeter’s afterlife mysteries that were taught and enacted at Eleusis. After Demeter’s daughter was kidnapped and presumably raped by the god of the dead, Demeter withdrew the earth’s ability to flourish and grow. I’m skipping a fair bit of the story, because I want to zero in on this portion: Demeter starves the people. She is not the goddess of abundance; she is the goddess of limits, sacred law, and respectful relationship to the earth.
Inevitably, Demeter must make a deal with the underworld god, Pluto. Earth cannot produce during certain portions of the year when Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, is fulfilling her annual allotment with Pluto in Hades. It’s a hard law, but we respect it and this stern goddess along with it by gathering our stores for the winter and rationing for the lean months. At least, we once did. Now we can have avocados and berries in all seasons of the year, and few of us think about the costs of making the earth produce unceasingly, deeply alienated from her ancient rhythms. Our consumption habits are a desecration of Demeter’s sacred law, and it was only a matter of time before she showed us her destroyer face.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe an ancient agricultural goddess (or planet for that matter) is punishing us with the scourge of a global pandemic. I do, however, believe that we will ultimately feel the effects of the vast number of causes in place that helped create the Covid-19 pandemic. Patient zero for Covid-19 was treated in China on November 17, the day after Ceres entered the sign of Capricorn. This suggests that there is something to be learned from Ceres’ time in Sagittarius, the sign where the planet spent most of 2019, and during which patient zero became infected.
This past week I had an eerie feeling as my Facebook feed surged with friends enthusiastically devouring the show “Tiger King” on Netflix, which is, among other things, a deeply disturbing look at how easy it is for private citizens to keep and breed wild animals in the United States. This same week, Deion Broxton enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame for making a rather comical retreat from a bison that had locked eyes on him at Yellowstone National Park. The copious praise heaped on Broxton for “doing the right thing” — leaving wildlife alone — gave me pause. Americans rarely come out in droves to congratulate one another for following the rules. But here was a sacred law (“leave wildlife alone”) being repeated on the national news. I saw the archetype of Ceres at work in this potent juxtaposition of what we too often are — the debacle of Joe Exotic’s tiger ranch — and what we might become: Deion Broxton’s instinctive respect for the wildness of wildlife.
Sagittarius is classically the sign of wildness, wildlife, and the great outdoors. It is also a sign associated with groundless optimism, neglect of details, hyperbole, and endless expansion. A Sagittarius probably invented the corporate growth model of success, which is alright as a fantasy but not sustainable anywhere on this earth. When Jupiter was in its own sign of Sagittarius in 2007, I partied like crazy and lived on expectations and dreams. When Jupiter moved into Capricorn the following year, I had to pay the bill for all that over-reaching, irresponsibility, and easy living. My health collapsed, my personal life went up in flames, and my career was hanging by a thread. You may recall that the rest of the country was not doing so well in 2008 either, when the balloon of Sagittarian hope popped, and the mass defaulting on subprime mortgage loans caused the housing market to crash.
There is much wisdom to be gleaned by meditating on how each astrological sign represents a reaction against the excesses of its next door neighbor. If Sagittarius is the abdication of responsibility in the name of endless expansion and permissibility, Capricorn is the hard look at empirical facts and a necessary check on growth. Capricorn might be the conservative choice to stay at home and do the work of restoring your own locality to its native beauty, versus the Sagittarian addiction to hopping on planes to exotic locales for the Instagram bragging rights.
More to the point, Ceres’ movement through Sagittarius specifically suggests a collective rhythm or habit around the consumption of wildness, both of places and of animals. We might think of the devastating effects that tourism has on the world’s remaining natural places, and also of the Wuhan wet market, where exotic animals — fish, flesh, fowl, reptile, and whatever the pangolin is — are exposed to one another’s feces, blood, and diseases in cramped and unhygienic quarters. Though the jury’s out as to whether we can cite the Wuhan wet market as a cause of Covid-19, there is no question that the virus itself is zoonotic, or of animal derivation. Edible zoos like the Wuhan wet market, which bring together the Sagittarian themes of wild animals and exotic imports in a stomach-lurching display of viscera (blood: yet another Sagittarian hallmark) are breeding grounds for the sort of viruses that cause pandemics.
An interesting facet of the times we’re living in now is that we may be witnessing the death of the concept of “wildness” as it pertains to both natural places and animals. The sign of Virgo, where I believe Ceres is naturally at home and thus in dignity, might be characterized as an attitude toward food that is modest, conscientious, ecologically aware, and tending toward the ascetic. In other words, Virgo is the sustainability-minded locavore. Sagittarian consumption is naturally square to Virgoan consumption, just as broad-minded, globe-trotting Jupiter’s language of generalities finds little in common with rule-bound Ceres’ emphasis on the small and particular. Until the last fifty to one hundred years and stretching back into the darkness of prehistory, the human diet consisted of what was locally available. Now our grocery shelves and to a large extent our meat counters and produce aisles are stocked with a dizzying variety of foods from around the globe. The exotic has become the everyday. Cue the Virgo shrew (or Demeter the destroyer if you prefer): but at what cost?
There’s more than a little cultural blindness at work when Americans point the finger at China and its luridly-named wet markets. Covid-19 may have originated in bats, but it is the proximity of animals that in nature would exist far apart from one another that is the culprit here, not Chinese culture, and certainly not bats. Industrial animal farming in the United States places thousands of animals together in shockingly cramped quarters that are as unhygienic as they are inhumane. Developers gobble up more and more of the transition zones that exist between the human and natural worlds, forcing wild animals into our cities and into proximity to the domestic animals we consume. Americans can smugly look down on the barbarism of the Chinese wild animal trade, but what about the barbarism inherent in the fact that we lead the world in meat consumption? Our collective habit of shrugging off the consciousness of our own consumption represents our cultural indoctrination into the idea that we don’t have to care, or that being mindful of the impact of our choices is something only boring people do. However, cultivating awareness that we share a planet with millions of other species in the plant and animal kingdoms is no longer a choice; it is the only path forward. The worldwide One Health Initiative reflects this burgeoning consciousness. Big Farms Make Big Flu, and the more we feed our meat habit, the more breeding grounds we create for the pandemics of the future.
On the other hand, the Spanish flu of 1918 which killed 20–40 million people across the globe suggests that there may be something more “natural” and hence inevitable about zoonotic disease. That same year, an influenza raged among pigs, an animal sacred to Ceres. Though the origins of the Spanish flu are still contested, it’s clear that pigs are often intermediate carriers or host animals for the avian flus so deadly to humans. Compelling evidence shows that the so-called “Spanish” flu may have derived from a tiny farming community in Kansas where pigs and cattle were raised alongside poultry. Such humble origins for such a devastating pandemic raise the question as to whether any animal husbandry, on however small a scale, puts us at risk for zoonotic disease. Yet another factor we should consider is how the Spanish flu morphed from a local virus into a global pandemic. The deployment of troops during World War I and the movement of military ships between continents were major factors in spreading the disease. It’s sobering to reflect that international transit is the connecting link between the devastating reach of both Spanish flu and Covid-19, and to contemplate how little a hundred years’ difference in the culture and technology of travel seems to make in the circulating power of zoonotic disease.
The astrology of Spanish flu has some eerie similarities to that of Covid-19. During the month of March, 1918, when the first cases of Spanish flu occurred in Kansas, Ceres moved out of the sign of Sagittarius and into Capricorn, making an opposition to Pluto in Cancer (compare the recent conjunction of Ceres and Pluto in Capricorn on January 12, 2020, a date which corresponds almost exactly to the first reported Covid-19 death). The vastly more deadly wave of flu that occurred in the fall of 1918 is simultaneous with Ceres in Capricorn again opposing Pluto in October. The flu was widely thought to have run its course by the summer of 1918, when Ceres dipped back into Sagittarius by retrograde. But it was during this period that experts believe the virus mutated, and came back with a vengeance with Ceres’ re-entry into Capricorn in late September, 1918.
The first signs of the Great Plague of London were apparent in February, 1665, the month Ceres moved into Capricorn and conjuncted Saturn. Ceres retrograde conjuncted Neptune in Capricorn in July when the epidemic was in full swing, passing over the planet of loss again in October, when the death toll reached about a quarter of London’s total population. London’s Great Plague was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. The Black Death, as the bubonic plague has come to be known, originated in Asia in 1331 when Ceres conjuncted Chiron and Pluto in Pisces. The disease traveled along the Silk Road and spiked again in 1337/38, this time with Ceres, Chiron, and Pluto all conjunct in the early degrees of Aries. The peak of the pandemic which wiped out half of Europe’s total population began in 1347, which again found Ceres, Chiron, and Pluto tightly conjunct in Aries.
While my research has not been exhaustive, I think it’s safe to say that Ceres’ movement into Capricorn at the onset of some of the most famous plagues in history seems significant, as does its involvement with Pluto in the Black Death, Spanish flu, and Covid-19 pandemics. What is to be gleaned from such information? Should we fear Ceres as an under-appreciated malefic and bringer of disease? Perhaps, but I think that’s only part of the story. My sense is that, much like the 6th house, Ceres represents the threshold between wellness and disease. For the purposes of comparison, we might say that Venus represents the threshold between society and loneliness, or that Mercury represents the threshold between communication and confusion. Any planet that is well-aspected and dignified will show us its positive potential, while an afflicted planet typically shows us a hardship in its domain. So if disease is the shadow face of Ceres, what is her lighter side like?
This is a challenging question to answer, not because Ceres doesn’t have a nice face, but because Ceres’ humble duties and joys in the natural world are experiences that have been mostly streamlined out of modern life. I find that the everyday transits of Ceres to my own chart sometimes manifest as minor health upsets, when I’m able to plumb them at all. But what if I was planting seeds in winter and tending my garden in spring, harvesting in the fall and canning in winter? What if I was making my own cheese or knitting clothes or gathering herbs in season and preparing simples? If I lived a life that was more dependent upon and receptive to the earth’s rhythms, what treasures might the transiting planet then reveal to me? A hidden patch of a sacred herb? A bumper crop? The abundance to feed a destitute neighbor from my table? The revelation of a common weed’s medicinal use? An inspired recipe that I’ll keep perfecting until my dying day? A cord of recycled wood I can use to build raised beds? The most fragrant blossoms I have ever smelled? Most of us are not acculturated to understand any of these simple gifts as “events,” but then, most of us are not in relationship to the natural world.
The potent presence of Ceres in the natal charts of organic farmers, herbalists, natural perfumers, root workers, chefs, and grocers has shaped my examples above. It is one thing to consume food, but it is quite another to be flushed with exuberance over the perfect avocado. It is one thing to swallow herbs as medicine, and quite another to make a shamanic journey to meet the spirit of the Osha root. Some of us pick up a hamburger at the drive-through at McDonald’s, others of us say a prayer of gratitude to the spirit of the animal who sacrificed its life for our supper. Some of us walk wherever the posted signs say we can go, and others of us ask the land for permission. This sort of acknowledgement of the sentience and autonomy of the earth and her plant and animal inhabitants is no longer a part of modern culture, though it must once have been a part of all our cultures. To think and behave in such a way is a discipline, one that is deeply out of step with a culture defined by fossil-fueled-mobility, constant interface with screens, and completely thoughtless consumption.
Many of us are upset that a disease which seems to have come from so far away (China!) is functioning to curtail our personal freedoms here in the United States. We are outraged that a virus passed to us by a mere animal is already the cause of the deaths of tens of thousands of humans, a number that will probably become millions before the year is out. Yet very few of us have any sort of comparative emotional reaction when confronted with the millions of animals who die daily for our dinner tables, or care anything for their diminished quality of life; the mass species death occurring every day elicits, perhaps, little more than a passing grimace. This is what it is to be deeply out of alignment with the Ceres archetype. To care only for our own wellness with no reciprocal action for the wellness of the earth is not a relationship. It is a rape. And we’ve seen how Ceres-Demeter responds to those desecrations.
Earlier this year I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s enchanting book, Braiding Sweetgrass. In it, Kimmerer, who identifies herself as a mother, scientist, professor, and native woman (in that order), introduces us to the radical concept that humans can be the stewards of the earth. She is horrified to discover that her recent classes of botany students believe that humanity’s every interaction with nature is harmful. The title of her book derives from the fact that Sweetgrass has flourished most where native peoples harvested it. We have evolved in relationship to plants. Reading about Kimmerer’s methodical and meditative process in restoring native habitats was, for me, like drawing back the curtain on that dimly remembered Ceres archetype, when we all lived and breathed in reciprocity with the natural world.
On March 20, when the dire implications of the Covid-19 pandemic first began to dawn on us here in Southern California, my husband and I sat down to a virtual Spring Equinox ritual led by the ecofeminist and activist, Starhawk. One of the first things she asked us to do was to acknowledge our residence on native land, and to remember that the European colonists who brought their diseases to Turtle Island wiped out ninety percent of the native population in places. I remember sucking in a sharp breath of air, and then I burst out crying. I’ve heard such numbers before, but not in the emotionally wrought state brought on by my fear of global pandemic, and never in a ritual setting. There was something comforting in remembering that the spread of disease is not personal, but rather a part of the universal human condition. We’re all in this together. And it was also good to be reminded that I’m not so innocent. My people are not innocent. I hopped on a few planes last year. I eat meat. My seemingly unimportant personal choices contribute to an overall culture that helped foster the spread of Covid-19.
My sense is that Ceres is exalted in Aquarius, where the planet is currently transiting. Though policing our individual freedoms for the sake of the public good seems hard to many of us, there is a kernel of the beauty of the Ceres archetype in all of us hunkering down, washing our hands, and covering our coughs. While many people are in an absolute panic fretting over whether or not others are following the social-distancing protocols, horrified by the prospect that “one person’s selfish actions might devastate the populace,” this is only a terrifying consciousness when not balanced with the awareness that your every action also affects the bees, butterflies, air quality, soil pH, and native animal populations where you live. In other words, the Aquarian talent for thinking socially and systemically merges beautifully with the Ceres archetype of living within limits for health and wellness. Self-care is earth-care.
I certainly think it’s possible that Ceres in Capricorn is the destroyer face of Demeter, and may trigger periods on earth when a mass culling of life takes place as a necessary check on growth. Though the devastating impact of January’s Pluto-Saturn-Ceres conjunction is still being felt, you’ll be relieved to know that Ceres spent relatively little time in Capricorn this year, and will move into Pisces later this month. Ceres will transit Pisces for most of the rest of 2020, though that dip back into Aquarius in October suggests that we may witness the return of social distancing protocols in the fall.
The sign of Pisces holds out the possibility of both loss and redemption. I very much doubt that things will go back to the way they were before the Covid-19 pandemic, and there is both grief and opportunity in that. How can you heal your relationship to the earth this year? How can you limit your consumption and practice mindfulness of the plant and animal life around you? How can you get your hands in the dirt? Last year I came across an old piece by Rebecca Solnit in which she quotes Gary Snyder saying, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” The #stayhome hashtag that started circulating following widespread “shelter in place” orders this year should absolutely include Solnit’s declaration that being a good steward of your own little patch of earth is the best way to change the world. I labor in my garden; I carry my vegetable scraps to our worm compost; I plant flowers for the butterflies and bees; I tend my native plants. These small, unremarkable actions give me a greater sense of peace and wellness than any other aspect of my daily routine. Stay home, be mindful, cultivate respect for life, and in time we will be released from Pluto’s lair and reunited with Demeter, the stern but merciful grain mother from whose footsteps flowers spring.