Unlocking the Mysteries of Sedna
A New Planet Discovered;
An Ancient Myth Revived
By Mitch Horowitz
Twenty-first century astronomy sits on the brink of a Renaissance of new discoveries in our outer solar system. As new objects are found – such as the tiny, unimaginably faraway planetoid Sedna early last year – the more thoughtful among astrologers face new questions. Chief among them: Should the astrological canon expand to accommodate new discoveries?
The ancients made no division between astronomy and astrology. In their studies of the sky, cultures encompassing the Egyptian, Persian, Vedic, Hellenic, Chinese, and Mayan found correspondences between the positions of celestial bodies and events on Earth, from the shifting of the tides to the cycles of the human body. The great cultures went further, extending their understanding to correspondences between outer phenomena and the make-up of the human psyche: In their own fashion, each located the cosmic traits of their gods – and the antecedents of human nature – amid the Milky Way.
“Astrology – the vital aspect of astronomy – is integrated in a synthesis that represents myth,” wrote esoteric Egyptologist Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, “and should not be considered as a separate philosophical speculation as our rational mentality would lead us to believe.”
And yet, the separateness that Schwaller speaks of prevails: The doors of mainstream science are as closed to astrology as the Church itself once was to astronomy’s insights. But when a planet is newly discovered in our time, it heightens the question of whether these two approaches – the physical science of astronomy, with its dedication to reason and cause-and-effect; and the ethereal search of astrology, with its quest for connection between human nature and physical world – must be so at odds. It will take years before a consensus forms as to how or whether Sedna will find a place in astrology; but we possess a few enticing hints – from both astronomy and astrology – from which to begin our inquiry.
A New Neighbor Amid the Stars
Astrology begins with geology – with the physical realities of heavenly objects. These traits impact how a planet, asteroid, or other kind of body is eventually understood within an astrological framework. Hence, it is helpful to first examine what we know about Sedna from a physical perspective.
Initially identified by astronomers from the California Institute of Technology, Yale, and Hawaii’s Gemini Observatory on November 14th 2003, Sedna’s discovery was announced to the public on March 15th, 2004. Considered the furthest – and coldest – known object in our solar system, Sedna is about eight billion miles away from the Sun at its closest point. Its surface temperature rarely rises above minus 400 Fahrenheit as it traces an unimaginably slow orbit around the Sun every 10,500 years. The last time Sedna would have been at its current point in the sky, humanity was emerging from the last Ice Age.
Sedna now displaces Pluto as the most faraway known planet-like object in our solar system – and as one of the smallest. Indeed, there is controversy over whether Sedna’s size – the highest estimates put it at 1,100 miles across, or about three-quarters the size of Pluto – allows us to consider it a planet at all. But astronomers quickly acknowledge that there exists no firm consensus on what makes an object a planet. Some argue that for an entity to be a planet, it must possess greater mass than the sum total of all other objects in its orbit. Others maintain that the shape of an object’s orbit is what distinguishes planets from comets or asteroids. Still other astronomers say that a planet is defined by its roundedness, i.e., it must have sufficient mass in order to be shaped spherically (otherwise an object has the more potato-like shape of an asteroid).
Indeed, the discovery of Sedna has revived a longstanding debate about whether Pluto itself ought to be considered a planet. At the very least, most experts agree that Sedna – if not our 10th planet – can be considered a “planetoid,” or planet-like object. Sedna is spherical, possesses a distinct – though incredibly slow – orbit around our sun, and early evidence suggests that it may even have its own moon.
We can only speculate as to what Sedna is made of. Its discoverers believe that it may be a mixture of primordial rock and ice. In an intriguing note, observers have found the planet inexplicably colored a bright, shiny red. One of its chief discoverers, astronomer Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology, expressed puzzlement: “Sedna is one of the most red objects in the solar system – almost as red as Mars. Why? We’re currently baffled.”
If even its discoverers understand relatively little, how then should Western astrology begin to approach this odd new world? What can we make of a neighbor so faraway that our Sun itself would be obscured by the head of pin if one were looking out from Sedna’s surface?
Toward an Astrological Understanding
Astrologers typically spend years looking for patterns in how a planet, planetoid, or asteroid appears in the charts of a vast range of individuals. An object’s date of discovery, and the astrological and earthly events that coincide with that general time period, are also scrutinized. Consensus forms over a course of many years: Even the meaning of the asteroid Chiron – named nearly thirty years ago for the wounded centaur of Greek mythology – remains a subject of dispute. Many astrologers interpret Chiron as a symbol of deep-seated suffering and potential catharsis in a birth chart, while others eschew its use altogether.
According to tradition, astrology will also pursue its consideration of Sedna with an eye toward the attributes that led her discoverers to propose the planetoid’s name. Astrologers generally ascribe synchronicity and meaning to the name a planet is given. More than any other single factor, the founding myth behind how these planetary objects are named tends to color their perception in astrology. Sedna – like other recent finds such as Pluto and Chiron – was named by the consensus of her discoverers. Says Cal Tech’s Brown: “Our newly discovered object is the coldest, most distant place known in the solar system, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.” In Fall 2004, the name of Sedna received formal confirmation by the International Astronomical Union.
Sedna is the first planetary name drawn from the Native American traditions, rather than Greco-Roman antiquity. Sedna’s team of discoverers have, in fact, proposed that future outer solar system discoveries be named for figures from Inuit tradition. Yale astronomer David L. Rabinowitz, a member of the discovery team, spoke of the intent behind the name:
The reason we chose the name Sedna is because the astronomical community has agreed that all the objects in the outer solar system should be named after characters from creation myths (or underworld figures if their orbits are coupled like Pluto’s to Neptune). We might have chosen Greek or Roman gods, but they have all been used. So we looked at Inuit mythology. The Inuits are naturally familiar with the cold appropriate for distant planets. Sedna’s association with the icy seas and sea creatures is also appropriate for the outer solar system since Uranus and Neptune are also associated with the ocean.
The goddess of Arctic sea life and a dweller in the icy ocean depths, Sedna is traditionally depicted as a tragic and wrathful female god – a young woman who suffered horrible betrayal by those around her and who was conscripted to immortality at the bottom of the ocean after her own father abandoned her during a deadly storm.
In the West today, we often recast myths in search of an affirming moral: the Death card in Tarot becomes routinely interpreted as a card of rebirth; Pluto – or Hades – in the astrological canon becomes associated with insights of the unconscious; the Greco-Roman gods are often stripped of their malice and vanity in popular renderings. But myths like Sedna’s demand we look at that which is bitter in life.
A Distant, Suffering Goddess
Sedna’s story is complex and variegated. At least two primary versions exist: One involves a young woman who weds a dog-god, to whom she bears many offspring: human children, who become Inuit, and mongrel children, who become the white man. (This is Sedna’s connection to the “creation myth” spoken of earlier by one of her discoverers.) In another related version, perhaps more widely known and accepted, a vain young woman is tricked into marrying a malevolent bird-god. This tale emphasizes the stream of events leading to Sedna’s tragic immortality, and it is this version that we will explore in depth. Based on several sources, here is a contemporary rendering:
Sedna was a lovely but vain young woman with beautiful, flowing hair. She lived with her widowed father in an Inuit fishing village. While many suitors vied for her affections, she found none to her liking – leading her father to fear that his daughter would never wed.
One day a mysterious hunter entered the village, his features hidden behind a robe. He vowed to Sedna’s father that he would provide riches to Sedna and her family in exchange for the young girl’s hand in marriage. Despite his daughter’s reluctance, Sedna’s father sent her off with the hunter, assuring her that she would be well cared-for, and that the hunter would bring her lots of seal meat and other good things to eat.
The hunter brought her to a strange and faraway island – where he shed his cloak and revealed his true form: He was not a hunter at all, but instead was a fearsome birdman. Sedna was less his bride than his prisoner.
Isolated and lonely, Sedna waited daily on the island while the birdman set off to hunt. As a great bird, he caught only fish – and Sedna grew weary of the same diet day after day. It was around this same time that Sedna’s father began to feel guilty about his decision, and set off in his kayak to visit his daughter. He arrived while the birdman was away, and Sedna complained of her plight – how they had been deceived, and how sad she was to be struck on an island with nothing to eat but fish. Her father vowed to take her back home.
He led Sedna to his kayak and began to paddle away before the birdman returned. But the birdman saw the daughter and father from the skies and angrily swooped down on them. The father paddled furiously, but the birdman possessed mighty powers of the air, and he conjured up a terrible storm. Sedna was tossed into the icy waters. “Leave her to me,” the birdman commanded “or die with her!”
Sedna swam furiously back to the kayak. Terrified of his small boat capsizing, however, her father beat her away with his oar, striking at her fingers as they clutched the side of the kayak. So hard did her father strike that he severed the fingers from her hands. Sedna’s fingers fell into the ocean – and were magically transformed. Her thumbs became whales, her other fingers seals, walruses, and other sea mammals. Sedna fell to the ocean depths to join the creatures that her fingers had become.
Thus was the sea populated with life that grew from her severed fingers. Sedna became the mother and master of sea creatures at the ocean floor. Her once-beautiful hair became matted with plants and detritus of the ocean – having no fingers she could not comb it. From time to time, Sedna weeps terribly – for her isolation, for her betrayal at the hands of her father, and for her hair, now matted and thick. When she sinks into her deepest sorrows, Sedna withholds the mammals of the sea from man, and hunters return home without food, their families going hungry. At such times, village shamans must enter ethereal states where they can visit Sedna on the ocean floor and comfort her by combing her hair. When so sated, Sedna softens and once again allows the Inuit to partake of the animals of the deep – the children of her betrayal.
As Above, So Below
Astrologers tend to calibrate the discovery of new bodies – such as Uranus in 1781 and Pluto in 1930 – to changes on Earth. The discovery of Uranus, the planet of revolution and innovation, is looked back upon as a herald of popular revolutions – the French revolution in particular. Pluto – often associated with the underworld and hidden passions – is seen by some to have coincided with the rise of fascism in Europe. How might the myth of Sedna coincide with events in our time?
First, let’s look at where Sedna falls in the current astrological schema. One of Sedna’s chief facets is its slowness. As noted earlier, Sedna requires an astounding 10,500 years to work its way around the Sun – making it the slowest known planet in our solar system. Because of its long, elliptical orbit, virtually everyone alive today will find Sedna in their charts in either one of two signs: Aries or Taurus. At the start of the last century, Sedna was at 7 degrees in Aries and moved into Taurus in 1966. It will enter Gemini in 2023. (Because the Earth is constantly moving apropos of Sedna and the constellations, Sedna will appear in different houses of a birth chart depending on birthplace and time.)
According to information presently available to us – and at this early stage Sedna’s ephemeral data may change – the planetoid will require approximately 50 years to pass through one zodiac sign in the 21st century. But at the furthest reaches of Sedna’s highly elliptical orbit – when the planet travels as far as 84 billion miles away from Earth – the picture changes dramatically. At Sedna’s furthest point from the sun, it can sit for centuries in a single sign. Thousands of years from today when Sedna reaches its orbital elongation in the sign of Scorpio, it is estimated to remain there for roughly 1,500 years.
What is perhaps most remarkable is Sedna’s relative closeness to the Earth at this present moment. According to its discoverers, Sedna will actually make its nearest sweep to Earth within about 72 years – a flash of time in its 10,500-year orbit. From an outward perspective, this closeness is part of the reason that observers have succeeded in locating Sedna. From an esoteric perspective, however, what can we glean about the heightened influence of such rare proximity?
Let’s return now to the mythological Sedna – a goddess who harbors terrible wounds from anger and betrayal. Many traditions view the ocean depths as synonymous with the unconscious or subconscious mind. In the Tarot deck, for example, cards with water are considered hallmarks of the subconscious. One might see those areas where Sedna appears in a birth chart as a place harboring unconscious pain, perhaps from a source so dim and faraway – like the tiny planet itself – that its cause may seem mysterious, or its very existence may be easy to miss.
Throughout 2005, Sedna sits at 18 and 19 degrees in the sign of Taurus – a sensual, earth sign. Sedna may come to be seen as a painful and victimized aspect of the fertile and earthy qualities that Taurus is thought to represent. Some astrologers already suggest that Sedna connotes a need for feminine healing. Viewing Sedna as a woman stripped of choice, the more politically inclined might see Sedna as the harbinger of a worldwide decline in reproductive rights, or something else associated with feminine social concerns, just as Uranus and Pluto were thought to coincide with outward events of their day. Continuing to look outwardly, we may also consider whether Sedna harbors an environmental message for our era. Here is an angry, suffering sentinel of the ocean depths in a material sign of earth, birth, and the physical world. Is there some correlation to what many today view as a global ecological crisis, including the diminishment of ocean life?
Turning inwardly, astrologer Maria Rodreguiz of the New York Open Center has suggested that Sedna may come to be seen as the ruling planet of the sign Virgo. Virgo is currently considered under the rulership of Mercury – which jointly rules both Virgo and Gemini. Some have long detected an unsatisfying contradiction in this. A feminine sign, Virgo is sometimes considered to connote fussiness, methodicalness, yet also dependability. Is this sign compatible with the expansive, communicative Mercury? Consider: the vain young Sedna, who prized her beautiful hair, becomes a suffering immortal unable to brush the detritus of the sea from her matted locks. This is a predicament suggestive of what is experienced by the overly meticulous Virgo. Is this distant planet perhaps a more fitting ruler for the barren, feminine sign that Virgo is sometimes considered?
Virgo is often associated with the Greek myth of Demeter and her ill-fated daughter Persephone – a story that bears striking resonance to that of Sedna’s. Consider: Persephone is a beautiful and carefree young woman who is kidnapped by Hades, who forces her to live with him in his subterranean world. Stricken with grief at her daughter’s disappearance, Demeter – goddess of the harvest – withholds the fruit of the earth until a bargain is struck in which Persephone is free to roam the Earth part of the year, but is condemned to live in the underworld the other part. During Persephone’s absence, Demeter again withholds the harvest in her despair.
To the Inuit, the life of the sea is the Earth’s bounty: there is no other means of sustenance. The goddess of the hunt suffers betrayal at the hands of a malevolent suitor who separates her from her family and causes events that conscript her to life at the depths. From her dark world, Sedna routinely withholds the life of the sea in her sorrow. There is correspondence to these myths, both of which resonate within the sign of Virgo, the woman of the harvest.
The Future of Sedna
We live in an era in which the discovery of new planets, or planetoids, may actually become more routine. In 2004, Michael Brown of Cal Tech told The New York Times, “Our prediction is that there will be many, many more of these objects discovered in the next five years, and some of them will probably be more massive.” Indeed, the joint paper of the team that spotted Sedna reports that astronomers have detected a possible 831 “minor planets” beyond the orbit of Neptune. Someday, the discovery of new planets may no longer be considered newsworthy.
When such a day arrives, it will represent a great step forward for observatory science; but, in other respects, it could pose a diminishment of the awe we experience when we look to the heavens. Recent history suggests an abundance of information can lead to inertia rather than understanding. The sense of the familiar can blunt our questions.
In this respect, real astrology – the astrology of seekers rather than that of the funny papers – endures in Western culture because it sustains mystery in a world in which superficial answers appear so close. “The general interest in astrology,” religious scholar Jacob Needleman wrote more than thirty years ago, “represents, at the very least, a rebellion against the idea of an unalive cosmos which modern science has given us, a cosmos in which man is at best a lonely anomaly.”
Without a conception of our relationship to a living universe, the sheer vastness of space can indeed make us feel purposelessly alone. But perhaps not everything in the telescope is so terribly distant or so separate from us. The ancients – their powers of observation sharpened to a degree that arouses wonder today – correlated the effects of the cosmos not only to natural phenomena on Earth, but also to man’s inner state. To study that sense of connection between our lives and the cosmos would compel us to look to the stars in wonder – even in an era in which new discoveries become common.
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Sources Quoted in this Article
Michael E. Brown; California Institute of Technology website; www.gps.caltech.edu/~mbrown/.
Michael E. Brown, Chad Trujullio, David Rabinowitz; “Discovery of a candidate inner Oort cloud planetoid;” submitted to ApJ Letters, 3/16/04; www.gps.caltech.edu/~mbrown/papers/ps/se...
Stacey Dresner; “Yale Researcher Helps to Discover New Planet;” Jewish Ledger: 4/16/04.
Jacob Needleman; The New Religions; Doubleday: 1970.
Juan Antonio Revilla; Sedna Ephemeris; Riyal Software: www.karmicastrology.com.
Isha Schwaller de Lubicz; Her-Bak: The Living Face of Ancient Egypt; Inner Traditions: 1980.
John Noble Wilford; “Astronomers Discover Most Distant Object in Solar System;” The New York Times: 3/15/04.
The author gratefully acknowledges filmmaker and writer Kurt Teske for conversations that contributed to the ideas and astronomical data in this article.