Excerpted from:

Prometheus the Awakener

by Richard Tarnas


The Uranus-Neptune Cycle

The Uranus-Neptune combination is associated, both in history and in personal biographies, with periods in which the archetypal--the mythic, the spiritual, the transcendent, the imaginal, the numinous--is suddenly awakened and liberated in new ways into human consciousness. We see this all around us now: the tremendous upswelling of interest today in an astonishing multiplicity of spiritual paths and traditions, in esoteric disciplines, in the transpersonal movement, in meditation and mystical religious traditions, in Jungian and archetypal psychology, in mythology and ancient religions, in shamanism and indigenous traditions, in the recovery of Goddess spirituality and the feminine dimension of the divine, in ecofeminist spirituality, in psychedelic self-exploration and new forms of experiential psychotherapy that effect profound changes of consciousness, in the emergence of holistic and participatory paradigms in virtually every field, in the unprecedented convergence of science and spirituality. We see it in the collective awakening of an intense desire to merge with a greater unity--to reconnect with the Earth and all forms of life on it, with the cosmos, with the community of being. We see it in the powerful new awareness of the anima mundi, the soul of the world. And we see it in the widespread urge to overcome old separations and dualisms--between human being and nature, between spirit and matter, mind and body, subject and object, intellect and soul, and, perhaps most fundamentally, between masculine and feminine--to discover a deeper unitive consciousness.

Of equal importance in making possible this great shift in world view, we see signs of Uranus- Neptune in the decisive emergence of "postmodernity" itself in our era, bringing the radical dissolution and deconstruction of so many long-established structures and boundaries, roles and hierarchies, so many once-firm certainties and beliefs and limiting assumptions. The cultural consciousness has experienced a shift into a state that is fundamentally between paradigms-- unprecedentedly flexible, free-floating, uncertain, disoriented, epistemologically and metaphysically confused, and yet open to possibilities and realities not even permitted within the arena of sensible discourse in an earlier generation. Mainstream modern culture is awakening to the unsettling but ultimately liberating truth that, as a certain dramatist born under a Uranus-Neptune opposition several centuries ago once put it, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Given an orb of 10-15*, which appears to be the usual range within which these great outer-planet conjunctions and oppositions are archetypally operative, the Uranus-Neptune conjunction of our time began around 1985 and will last until just after the turn of the millennium, in 2001 (being within 10* orb between 1988 and 1998). We saw this archetypal combination's Neptunian activation of the Prometheus impulse first emerging in the international political arena with the rise of perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, and in a widespread intensified urge for international peace combined with the growing dissolution of global barriers through communications technology. And it achieved its most dramatic impact with the great and seemingly miraculous successful revolutions that swept Eastern Europe when Jupiter came into opposition to the Uranus-Neptune conjunction in 1989-90 (a conjunction that also, significantly, involved Saturn--hence the crucial elements of the sudden breakdown of old structures, the end of the Communist dream, the widespread disillusionment and despair that overswept the peoples of Eastern Europe, as well as the presence of practical idealism in the service of radical social- political restructuring).

Thus the first half of the Uranus-Neptune conjunction has coincided with the liberation not only of millions of people from the oppression of the Communist belief system, but of the entire planetary consciousness from the imprisonment of the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear apocalypse. Also appropriate to Uranus-Neptune, these years witnessed the unexpected spread throughout the world of the Promethean democratic ideal, vividly illustrated in the appearance in Tiananmen Square of the Goddess of Liberty statue constructed by the gentle student rebels of China.

Of course every archetypal combination has its shadow side, and the Uranus-Neptune conjunction is no exception. The collective psyche's highly activated thirst for transcendence, while ultimately spiritual in nature, has brought forth a wide range of less exalted impulses and behaviors. The collective impulse toward escapism and denial, passivity and narcissism, credulity and delusion, the hyperstimulating rapidity of technologically produced images signifying nothing, the hypnotic fascination with and addiction to image ("image is everything"), indeed the widespread obsession with addictions of all kinds--from drugs and alcohol to consumerism and television--these and many more forms of accelerated and intensified maya make less unambiguous the positive virtues of such other characteristic Uranus-Neptune phenomena as interactive electronic multimedia and "virtual reality." (We see suggestive signs of a disruptively hyperactivated Neptune on more literal levels as well, with massive floods, tidal waves, disasters at sea, oil spills, industrial accidents involving liquids and gases.) The intensified religious consciousness of the age has given rise to cult movements, fundamentalist fanaticism, and a host of eccentric "new age" infatuations. The dissolving of rigid structures in the psyche permitting the emergence of non-ordinary states of consciousness can lend itself not only to higher levels of consciousness and genuine mystical illumination, but to destructively delusory states as well. Seldom has the need for discernment been more critical.

Yet I believe that a larger historical perspective of the Uranus-Neptune cycle gives much grounds for hope. As we consider the potential archetypal significance of this combination in terms of fundamental paradigm shift, spiritual and psychological awakening, and the accelerated emergence of an archetypal awareness into the cultural psyche, it is useful to recall the extraordinary confluence of events that coincided with the last Uranus-Neptune opposition which extended throughout the first decade and a half of the twentieth century: the revolution in human self-understanding mediated by depth psychology, especially Jung's archetypal psychology and his deepening of Freud's psychoanalytic breakthrough (which continued its own important evolution during these years); the revolutions in physics and cosmology (Einstein's relativity theory, Planck's quantum theory); in painting and the visual arts (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Kandinsky); literature (Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Rilke); music (Stravinsky, Schoenberg); philosophy (William James, Bergson, Husserl); spiritual activism (Gandhi, Tolstoy), esotericism and mysticism (Rudolf Steiner, Aurobindo). The remarkable coalescing of these and many other related events and trends precipitated a radical transformation of vision for the entire culture, as well as the seeds for future profound changes in the cultural psyche.

If we move back to the immediately preceding Uranus-Neptune conjunction, that of 1815-1829, centered around the year 1821, we find a similar emergence of the archetypal, mythic, transcendent, and numinous into the collective psyche with the great age of Romanticism at its height. Here was Shelley, reading Plato at sea and writing Prometheus Unbound, seeking to combine the ideal spiritual realm with a revolution in consciousness bringing new freedom to humanity. Here was Keats writing his great odes, beginning with "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (where he compares his awakening to the numinous mythic realm to the discovery of Uranus: "Then felt I like a watcher of the skies..."). Here also was Keats's influential conception of "Soul-making," described in a letter to his brother in 1819, later to become so central to the archetypal psychology of the late twentieth century. Here was Byron, Schubert, Stendhal, Scott; and Coleridge working out his profound Romantic philosophical perspective in his Biographia Literaria; Hegel articulating his absolute Idealism in his Encylopaedia; Goethe and Beethoven in their inspired culminating years--the completion of Faust, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the late quartets. And here was the great wave of births of individuals whose extraordinary imaginative visions would so enrich world literature in the nineteenth century--Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, Flaubert, Turgenev, the Brontes, George Eliot, Baudelaire, Whitman.

The emergence of an archetypal consciousness, whether it takes the form of an enhanced awareness of the ideal, a resurgence of Platonism, a new appreciation of the mythic, or a heightened access to the imaginal, seems especially characteristic of Uranus-Neptune alignments, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Uranus-Neptune conjunction of the 1470s and 1480s, at the heart of the Renaissance (a conjunction closely resembling our own with Uranus and Neptune in harmonious sextile to Pluto). Here was that luminous period that saw the Florentine Academy's Neoplatonic revival at its height during the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Ficino writing the Theologia Platonica and publishing the first complete translation of Plato in the West, Pico della Mirandola composing the manifesto of Renaissance Humanism, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, Leonardo da Vinci beginning his artistic career with The Adoration of the Magi, and Botticelli painting The Birth of Venus, the paradigmatic embodiment of the Renaissance's rebirth of archetypal beauty. And here also we find the births of those artists who would fulfill the Renaissance idealist imaginative vision, Raphael and Michelangelo, as well as of Copernicus and Luther, the two men who would initiate the great paradigm revolutions beginning the modern era, the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation.

So also with the major religious awakenings of history. We see it, for example, in the Great Awakening that swept America during the conjunction of the 1730s and 1740s, or in the great wave of mystical fervor that swept Europe in the first two decades of the fourteenth century (during the conjunction that also brought Dante's Divine Comedy and the birth of Petrarch), or in the birth and rapid spread of Islam under the prophet Muhammad during the conjunction of the 620s and 630s.

Moreover, we find that the birth of Christianity itself took place during the Uranus-Neptune alignment of c. 15-35 AD, an opposition, encompassing most of the events described in the New Testament, including the period of Jesus of Nazareth's ministry, his crucifixion (during the Saturn-Pluto opposition of 29-30) and the revelatory events immediately following, and the conversion of St. Paul.

Moving back yet farther, we find that Uranus and Neptune were again in conjunction in the last decade of the fifth century BC and the first decade of the fourth, which encompassed that historic period in ancient Greece that brought Socrates's most influential teaching as well as his death, in 399 BC in Athens--this event initiating the birth of Platonism, and indeed of the entire Western philosophical tradition that is rooted in Socrates and Plato.

Finally, we move back one more cycle to that epoch- making Uranus-Neptune alignment that was joined by Pluto in the only triple conjunction of the outermost planets in historical times, extending from the 580s to the 560s BC. Here we find the heart of the great "axial age" that brought forth so many of the world's principal religious and spiritual traditions: the age of Gautama Buddha in India, of Lao-Tse in China, of Zoroaster in Persia; the age of the major prophets of ancient Israel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah, when the Hebrew Scriptures began to be compiled; the age when the oracle of Delphi was at the height of its influence in ancient Greece; the age of the earliest Greek philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras.

Thus there is reason to believe that our own experience of Uranus and Neptune in conjunction will not be without its enduring blessings.

© 1995 by Richard Tarnas

Excerpted from:
Prometheus the Awakener
Spring Publications, Woodstock, CT