“But what makes it hard for me is that I don’t know how I could possibly enter that eternal alliance with Mother Earth. I don’t kiss Mother Earth, I don’t plow her soil… Should I, then, become a peasant, a shepherd, or what? I go on and on, and I don’t know where I’ll find myself next – in stench and disgrace or in light and joy…everything in this world is a puzzle. Whenever I’ve sunk into the deepest shame and depravity – and that has happened to me more often than anything else – I’ve always recited that poem about the goddess Ceres and man’s fate. But has it reformed me? No…if I must plunge into the abyss, I’ll go head first, feet in air. I’ll even find a certain pleasure in falling in such a humiliating way… in the very midst of degradation…I must still be allowed to kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded; and even if I may be following in the devil’s footsteps, I…felt the joy without which the world cannot be.”*
My first encounter with Ceres came not through astrology, but through the Dostoyevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. In an early part of the novel, Dmitri Karamazov, the sensualist, confesses his degradation to his brother, the compassionate and spiritual Alyosha. Dmitri is torn by the fact that he cannot redeem himself for the sins of excess and greed he has committed. And in the middle of this confession, Dmitri tells Alyosha that when he is wallowing in his “vileness,” he recites to himself Schiller’s “Hymn to Joy.” In this poem, the goddess Ceres searches the Earth for her lost daughter. What she finds is an ugly and violent world that has abandoned the natural order, and ceases to honour what she loves. The poem introduces the idea of man’s need for redemption for the crime of abandoning the rhythms of the Earth itself.
From the peak of high Olympus
Came the mother Ceres down,
Seeking in those savage regions
Her lost daughter Proserpine.
But the Goddess found no refuge,
Found no kindly welcome there,
And no temple bearing witness
To the worship of the gods.
From the fields and from the vineyards
Came no fruits to deck the feasts,
Only flesh of bloodstained victims
Smoldered on the altar-fires,
And where’er the grieving goddess
Turns her melancholy gaze,
Sunk in vilest degradation
Man his loathsomeness displays
Would he purge his soul from vileness
And attain to light and worth,
He must turn and cling for ever
To his ancient Mother Earth…
It is her secret ferment fires
The cup of life with flame.
‘Tis at her beck the grass hath turned
Each blade towards the light
And solar systems have evolved
From chaos and dark night,
Filling the realms of boundless space
Beyond the sage’s sight…
Her gifts to man are friends in need,
The wreath, the foaming must,
To angels — vision of God’s throne,
To insects — sensual lust.
It’s an odd thing for a novelist to put a poem smack in the middle of his story. He can only justify it when the poem is central to the themes of the novel. The grieving goddess is horrified by the excesses of man: the reckless and senseless deaths of the bloody carcasses burning on the altars, the wanton lust for flesh. Dostoyevsky was obsessed with man’s excesses: of flesh, of blood lust, of intoxication, of greed. His characters, like Dimiti, are forever pushing the boundaries of what is balanced and acceptable, struggling to find the strength of restraint and coming up weak and unworthy. He doesn’t stop with ordinary lust. There are characters with lusts for the spirit, or with lust for intellectual dominance, lust for control. And the lesson is always the same–our lusts tip the balance, and punishment must come when balance is disrupted. We must do penance for our excesses, whatever they might be, to set the world right again and be redeemed. When the rhythms of the Earth are disrupted, when the natural order and respect for that order has been usurped, then we court disaster in all its forms; we court death.
Dostoyevsky and Ceres both understand the roots of excess–hunger and deprivation. Where Ceres lies in the chart, we have hungers we must acknowledge, or they may destroy us.
The first part of Karamazov is about being orphaned, abandoned, unwanted. What is more unnatural than an abandoned child? Ceres is about the primal bond between mother as both source and sustainer of the life she brings into the world. To the child, she is the world itself. The second half of the book is about the search for spiritual sustenance, and here Ceres can truly help us.
We speak often about Ceres in relation to food. Ceres position in house and sign shows us how we may be nourished and renewed by the world. Where Ceres is badly aspected, we can often feel orphaned, neglected, unfed. Unwanted. There is a difference between feeling unloved as a being of this earth, (abandoned by the right to receive prosperity and happiness), and feeling unloved as a romantic partner, though the two issues are often similar and devilishly entwined in their origins.
People often talk about Ceres simply in terms of feeding, nurturing, caring, mothering. But Ceres reigns over much more, and she has her dark side, too. Sure, she walks around waving those stalks of wheat. But, um…what’s that there? I see poppies…blood red poppies. And what’s moving around under that wheat…a snake? The lesser known symbols of Ceres hold the key to understanding her.
Ceres reveals herself very strongly in a study of secondary progressions. Ceres is often on an angle when a major life passage is at stake, a birth, a marriage, a death. She’s often prominent in divorce, or when natural disasters sweep homes away. Ceres is often featured in progressions when we lose the very thing we believe we need to live–a partner, professional status, financial security. Although we think of her as the goddess of the grain, Ceres’ symbol is built from a scythe, the very tool that severs that grain from the earth when it is ripe and leaves the fields bare to seed again. Ceres is also there when we lose things through neglect and lack of respect. I’m reminded of a commercial that was popular a few decades ago, which had the tagline, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Mother Nature would come in and take a bite of toast. When she was told that it was margarine, not butter, she would freak out and stir up a minor hurricane or deluge. That’s not Mother Nature, that’s Ceres, and she becomes furious when she’s tampered with. This is not a goddess you want to fool or betray. Our physical lives are at her mercy. There is a bit of Medea in the dark Ceres–on a bad day, she is capable of killing her own. I remember a line from an old Bill Cosby routine. When he and his brothers were acting up, his father would burst in on them and cry, “I gave you life, and I can take it away!” Men have a good dollop of Ceres in them, too.
Ceres was the goddess the Romans rushed to appease when freakish things happened to disturb the balance of life. If the wells dried up or it rained toads, offerings were made to appease Ceres’ wrath. Ceres had a number of symbolic functions. She oversaw, amongst other things:
The physical journey from birth to death, and all its major rituals.
The female passage into maturity.
The balance of nature.
The feeding, nurturing and sustaining of life.
The seasons and cycles of life–natural order and balance.
The pleasure and satisfaction of the senses and appreciation for the physical world.
The giving and receiving of unconditional love.
The interplay of darkness and light.
The attachment to or abandonment of what we have created.
The passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
It is Ceres who allows us to understand that beginnings and endings are all of a part.
The illustration at the top shows a depiction of Ceres (Roman, BC, exact date unknown) bursting from the earth, stalks of wheat and poppies in her hand, snakes coiled around her arms. The symbolism of the poppy is complex and stretches back to Greco-Roman times. It has connotations of both sleep and death–sleep, because of its connection to opiates, and death, from its blood-red colour spilling over the fields. Blood red also symbolizes eternal life. No accident we wear her poppies in November to honour our own fallen soldiers.
Ceres was the one who guided us from the living world to the world of the dead. The poppy here has an additional meaning. It is believed that opiates thin the veil between the worlds. The ritual of the Mundus Cererus was performed to break down the barriers between the living and the dead, and allow phantoms to walk the Earth. Ceres also carries a torch, which can be an alternative interpretation of her glyph–the fire, a symbol of life eternally renewing itself, no matter the depth of the darkness, torch and scythe as one. Interesting that our celebration of this time of year, the time of the thinning veil, Halloween or Samhain, or All Soul’s Day, and the annual wearing of poppies on Remembrance Day are not far apart. Spare a thought for Ceres as we celebrate this weekend, doling out treats to our children.
The other striking character of the poppy is its multitude of seed. Those pod heads have erotic connotations. (Don’t think those shafts of wheat are so innocent and virginal, either–are you listening to me, Virgos?) But we’ll save those, and the snakes, for the next time.
*From “The Brothers Karamazov,” translation Andrew H. MacAndrew.