Celestial Classics: Pluto and Orpheus

No words. A true-colour image from NASA’s New Horizons probe shows Pluto to be stunning. (Credit: NASA New Horizons, Public Domain)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains Greek Gods – If you don’t know what that means by now, Greek Gods basically invented rape culture so it will contain discussion about abduction, rape and sexual assault. Also includes a lot of discussion about death.

Well I know where we start with Pluto. No, it is not a planet.

It is now classified as a dwarf planet.

The reasons for this reclassification are that for a long time there was no clear definition of what a ‘planet’ actually was. Our solar system just had nine of them, of which Pluto was one. Our ability to see to the furthest reaches of our solar system improved over time, and with that came the discovery of other objects not too different in size to Pluto, in roughly the same area as Pluto.

This sparked the discussion. Do we add these as new planets in our solar system, or do we formally define what a planet is and exclude Pluto and Pluto-like objects? The International Astronomical Union – the group who effectively make the decisions on the labels we give stuff in space made a choice.

The latter decision was made.

Whether you think it fair or not is arbitrary, much like the decision to re-classify Pluto as a dwarf planet. It does not move it, it does not change it, it does not stop it existing, it wasn’t blown up like Alderaan in the movie ‘Star Wars’ – they just changed a designation.

So what is Pluto if it isn’t a planet? It is a designated dwarf-planet, and a trans-Neptunian (i.e. beyond Neptune) object, although due to the shape of its orbit it sometimes comes within Neptune’s borders. Don’t worry, though, they’re aligned in such a way that Pluto will never hit Neptune, as far as our modelling tells us.

Some of the reasons why we had to formally define what is and isn’t a planet in our solar system. It is likely had Pluto remained a planet, Eris and possibly Haumea would have been added too. From an educational standpoint it is easier to teach one fewer thing, than two additional things! Also, dem moons of Pluto…We’ll get to those in Celestial Classics, don’t worry. (Credit: Lexicon CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It is an object in the Kuiper belt, sort of like an asteroid belt on the fringes of our solar system and it was the discovery of Eris in this same belt that caused the discussion about its classification. Whilst Pluto is, as far as we know, the largest object in the Kuiper belt, Eris has more mass.

Either way they’re both small. Pluto is maybe about a third the size of our Moon, and under a fifth as massive. Unlike terrestrial, rocky planets and satellites it’s basically an oversized water balloon, giving it comparatively less mass.

The recent flyby of NASA’s New Horizons probe has given us remarkable detail on Pluto, as a dwarf-planet, as a system of its own (it has five moons) and their compositions, what makes them, and atmospheres.

Pluto is a very icy planet, on a surface level it’s mainly frozen nitrogen, with a little bit of carbon monoxide and methane ice thrown in. It is believed that underneath this outer-crust of ice is a layer of water ice, beneath that a layer of liquid water and then the mineral (likely a silicate – rock/crystals made of silicon and oxygen) core.

Pluto does have an atmosphere, albeit a very loose one. It mainly consists of the same frozen elements and compounds of it’s surface, nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide.

Pluto wasn’t officially discovered until 1930, but had been theorised much earlier (in the mid-late 19th century) due to strange details of Neptune’s orbit suggesting something was messing with it. The discovery itself was controversial. Many sightings and images of Pluto happened before its ‘discovery’, but people didn’t know what they had seen or photographed, including the most passionate in the search for it, Percival Lowell, who had two faint images of it in Spring 1915. This is known in astronomy as ‘precovery’.

After Percival’s death in 1916 there was a bit of drama between the Lowell observatory and Percival Lowell’s wife Constance that led to a legal battle that held up any work on looking for the theorised planet.

Eventually in 1930, Cylde Tombaugh is credited with the ‘discovery’ of Pluto.

The original photography plates of the discovery of pluto. They were effectively taking pairs of photos of the same objects of sky, days apart, and looking for any specific objects with an expected movement. (Credit: Lowell Observatory Archives, Used without permission)

Well done, he found something that had already been found but not identified. A round of applause! I mean, it’s all so silly the way we arbitrarily give the credit of ‘discovery’ to a specific person. As mentioned, the irregularities in Neptune’s orbit already pushed people in that direction around the mid-19th century. Lowell and others had already observed Pluto. They just didn’t know it was Pluto because nobody had told them Pluto was Pluto yet so they didn’t quite know what they were looking for. To credit one person with this discovery is ludicrous.

Do you know what else is ludicrous? From the time it was first even hinted at in the mid-19th century, to this very day, Pluto has not completed one orbit around the sun. It’s ‘year’ is 247.68 Earth years long.  

An animation of Pluto’s orbit since 1900 CE, going all the way up to where it will be at 2100 CE. As you can see, it’s not made it round yet, and it won’t do so in 80 years either! You can also see it crossing over into Neptune’s orbit. (Credit: Phoenix7777 from NASA data – CC-BY-SA 4.0)

So, the name? Where does that come from. Well allegedly an eleven year old schoolgirl, Venetia Burney, with a passion for classical mythology suggested it to her grandfather. He was a former librarian at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford so – well connected, and he passed it on to an astronomy professor who passed it on to the relevant authorities.

Constance Lowell did make the suggestion that it should be named ‘Percival’ after her husband, suggesting use of the names of ‘gods of the past are worn out’.

I might be inclined to agree with Constance if the name was not Pluto. For one PLuto contains the initials of Percival Lowell’s name and this is believed to have made a difference, as well as its astronomical sign being a monogrammed PL. But also, Pluto, the God, is…deep.

The astronomical sign for Pluto. We haven’t really got into astronomical signs yet because most of them are bollocks related to alchemy or astrology. (Credit: Lexicon – Public Domain)

Pluto (or sometimes Plouton) is interchangeable in name with ‘Hades’ as the Greco-Roman god of the underworld, ruler of the realm of the dead. There are slight differences in, I suppose, tone more than anything.

The god Pluto is assumed in a more protective role and is associated with wealth and abundance too. I mentioned in the articles on Ceres and Persephone the importance ‘the underworld’ played in protecting their seed-harvest ready for planting. Ancient Greeks would have stored their seed-grain in underground containers over winter, meaning next year’s harvest was in the hands of the god of the underworld in the most literal sense. Also, metals, ores, gems, minerals – they all come out of the ground.

One big happy family! Persephone (left), Kerberos (or Cerberus, centre) and Pluto (right) in statue form. From the Archaelogical Museum of Heraklion, Crete. (Credit: Jebulon, Public Domain)

I’ve also mentioned the Eleusinian Mysteries before, and central to that specific cult are Pluto and Persephone (sometimes referred to as Kore, or ‘the maiden’, although in some contexts it seems like Kore and Persephone might be two different daughters of Demeter…It’s confusing!) as a loving couple. Meanwhile Hades is more associated with abduction, rape and keeping Persephone against her will.  

According to Hesiod Hades is one of six children of the Titan Cronus and the goddess/titaness Rhea, with Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter and Hestia being his siblings.

The dudes being ancient Greek dudes divided the realms of the world amongst themselves. Zeus took the air, Poseidon the sea and Hades the underworld. We should be thankful they were so busy enjoying their third favourite pastime of arguing over who controls what, because their second favourite pastime is fucking with mortals and their most favourite pastime is rape. A lot of the time they liked combining their second and first favourite pastimes, especially Zeus. Anything to stop those Greek gods doing those latter two things is welcome.

Kronos, or Cronus, carrying off two kids. You see, it was prophesied that the Titan of time would be overthrown by his own son, so he ate his kids to make sure that didn’t happen but Rhea hid Zeus to protect him. Zeus grew up, forced Kronos to regurgitate his siblings and then led them in a war against the Titans. This is, I assure you, perfectly normal for Greek Myth. (Credit: Mary Harrsch CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Ploutos, or ‘wealth’ appears later on in Hesiod as a child of Demeter and Iasion.

Clearly at some point there has been some amalgamation of the two myths, of Hades and Ploutos – creating the figure of Plouton, or Pluto. Once we get to the abduction and rape/happy marriage (depending on myth) with Persephone we see how Death-and-Rebirth becomes the dominant motif and this feared underworld deity becomes associated, also, with the wealth and abundance of a good harvest. Indeed Pluto is rarely seen without a Cornucopia – the horn of plenty bursting over with goodies.

I know it’s confusing. We’ve got Ploutos, Plouton, Pluto, Hades…It becomes even muddier when we consider Hades as a term for both the God of the underworld, and the underworld itself (also known as Tartarus).

Are these all names for different things that got mixed up and confused? Are these merely other names, synonyms, of the same thing? Did different regions have different origins, different names, different myths of the same phenomena that all got smushed together? It is actually really quite difficult to tell!

Pluto, holding a Cornucopia, the ‘horn of plenty’ that symbolises wealth, prosperity and abundance (either physically or spiritually) and, to his left, is a figure of Persephone. (Credit: Jastrow, Public Domain)

It’s difficult to tell for experts, for people who studied this all their lives, to people who have read Hesiod and Homer (two of the main sources for these myths) in ancient Greek! Never mind a lay person. The easiest way to think of it is it’s just different names for the same stuff. Pluto or Hades are interchangeable.

Probably best not to mention the Roman Dis pater, then, isn’t it? He is the Roman God of the Underworld who is practically interchangeable with Pluto, too. Or Thanatos, the minor Greek God who is the incarnation of Death itself and is also often associated with Pluto. This mythology stuff? It’s like a plate of spaghetti met all those wired earphone wires from your pockets, in that box of audio-visual cables you keep in that cupboard in case you need a SCART lead for something – It’s a tangled fucking mess! It’s okay, I’m here to help you pull it apart.

We covered the role of Pluto in the abduction and rape of Persephone in our article about the asteroid Proserpina. So you can read about that there. I’ve also mentioned the Eleusinian Mysteries and how I am not going to tackle them until I have a far better understanding because it takes a specific group of Gods and Goddesses from the Greek pantheon and crafts a cultic religion out of them. It’d be like trying to cover all of Christianity in a thousand words.

What I want to talk about with Pluto is the Orphic mysteries.

Now, it is hard enough to pin down the truth, life and identity of a Hesiod, a guy we think we have known writings of, or Homer, so often talked about but who may entirely be a myth or an amalgam of other poets.

Orpheus is suggested to have been a real person who lived generations before even Homer and Hesiod. He may have been real, but for the purposes of keeping our sanity let’s just say he was fictional. What I am also about to present will probably have lots of ‘depends on which myth’ clauses and will be a vast oversimplification of what could be the story of an ancient bard who gifted song (and possibly also medicine, and possibly also parties – depends on the myth) to the Greeks or could just be nonsense.

A beautiful Roman mosaic of Orpheus charming all of the animals. Obviously the artist was better at mosaicing people and not animals, I’ve certainly never seen a tiny tiger half the size of an ostrich, or what looks in the bottom-right, for all my best guessing, to be a walking pineapple. From Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo (Credit: Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto)

Welcome to Greek myths. They’re a bit like Asian cheesecakes, it seems like there’s some substance there but actually they’re very light and airy. But let’s detour for a minute, this is ‘Celestial’ Classics, after all…

Orpheus is not just a myth, the asteroid 3361 Orpheus is a near-Earth asteroid in the group known as Apollo asteroids. It has an orbit that crosses by Mars and Earth and approaches Venus. What makes Orpheus worth noting? Well as a near-Earth asteroid, and with a slightly dodgy orbit it has been classified as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA). It is set to pass Earth closely again on November 21st this year! So keep an eye out!

Also, try not to worry, we’ve calculated its orbits for a few hundred years and, excluding any disruptive events, we’re cool. Orpheus will not kill us all.

The blue orbit shows the orbit of Orpheus from 2013. As you can see, the orbit of 3361 Orpheus crosses the orbits of Mars and Earth, although I believe no collisions are believed to be due. (Credit: NASA, Public Domain)

In legend, Orpheus is a renowned poet and player of the lyre or harp (depends on the myth). In some cases he is literally the first of the poets, the first ‘inspired singer’ and greatest of the musicians. Such is his ability that all who heard him were moved, and he was able to charm people, animals, the sea, twigs, rocks and even the Gods with his song.

His father is mainly agreed to have been a Thracian King, named as Oeagrus, however some say his father is Apollo. His mother, however, turns the myth very Maury Povich being either the Muse Calliope; her sister, the Muse Polymnia; an unnamed daughter of another King, Pierus; or Menippe, daughter of a famous singer. Who is Orpheus’ real mother? We’ll have the DNA test results after the break…

Orpheus (left) with his lyre, in Thrace. We can tell by the man (centre) in Thracian dress. A woman stands menacingly (right) with a sickle in her hand. This depiction is from around 440BCE (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY-2.5)

He is probably most famous in pop-culture for being an Argonaut, one of the crew of Jason’s ship the Argo, on his quest for the Golden Fleece so he could knit the most bling-bling Christmas jumper. As far as I remember he was not in the 1963 movie ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ but he was in the TV miniseries. Either way there is an Argonautica – a poem about the journeys on the Argo, ascribed to Orpheus himself, but our knowledge of the story mainly derives from the Argonautica epic of Greek poet Apollonius Rhodius, writing in the 3rd century BCE.

What I want to talk about is his journey to the underworld, his link with Pluto.

The story goes that Orpheus was fantastically in love with his wife Eurydice (or Euridice, or sometimes, because Greek myths, Argiope). Whilst either out walking, (or dancing with naiads, freshwater nymphs, according to Ovid) she was set upon by either a Satyr (horny animal-man spirit) or by Aristaeus, a minor god of bee-keeping – depending on the myth. What they agree upon is she was bitten by a venomous snake, either whilst running through the grass or by falling into a nest of snakes, and she died of the bite.

Orpheus found her corpse and, in his grief, played sad songs until the nymphs of the streams, rivers and forests wept and even the Gods of Olympus could not hold back their tears.

The nymphs (foreground) listening to the songs of Orpheus (in shadow between the trees in the background). (Credit: Charles Jalabert, Public Domain)

Hearts touched by the mournful songs of Orpheus the Gods convinced him to pop to the underworld and ask nicely for his missus back like a kid whose ball has gone into a neighbour’s back yard.

Now this is where we get a drastic difference.

According to one legend (associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries) Orpheus travels to the underworld, plays beautiful songs for Pluto and Persephone and they allow Orpheus to take Eurydice back on one condition. Neither can look back until they are both in the upper-world again. Sadly, either love-eager or just plain stupid, Orpheus hits the upper-world, looks back at his not-yet-in-the-upper-world wife and she vanishes. Now the comparative mythologist in me is screaming “LOT’S WIFE!” Here because of the similarities – not being asked to ‘look back’ by a God and being punished for doing so. Don’t know what I mean by Lot’s wife? Well then hang tight because ‘We Lack Discipline does The Bible’ might be incoming and I will cover it.

The other version, which I believe is mainly known from Plato (so Plato talks Pluto!) says that the ‘Infernal Gods’ – those of the underworld, presumably, presented only an ‘apparition’ of Eurydice to Orpheus. In that version, Orpheus is not a hero making this journey to the underworld to win his wife back, but rather a coward for not joining her in death in the first place. Thus he gets punished for his cowardice by being tricked by the Gods, and then being murdered by a group of women. Given how rampant misogyny was in Ancient Greece I can only imagine “Being murdered by a group of women” was a shame worse than shitting yourself at the agora.

Orpheus appealing for his wife, Eurydice, back from Pluto (beardy man with the bident, right) and Persephone (woman who looks like she couldn’t give a shit, right). (Credit: Friedrich Bruckmann, Public Domain)

Whichever version you pick it is an interesting tale for one important thing. Katabasis.

Kata-whut-sis? Katabasis – from the Greek meaning, almost literally, ‘to go down’. No giggling at the back!

No Katabasis is, as far as comparative mythology – indeed even narratology, the study of narrative – goes one of the most important human themes. It represents a journey down, an inevitable descent, before one can climb back up, to ascend, to become a hero. It is one of the fundamental aspects of the narrative theory of the ‘hero’s journey’ that I know we’ve discussed on We Lack Discipline before in my analysis of King Lear, with regards to Edmund and Edgar.

Orpheus’ myth is not the only Greek myth to see someone bothering Pluto in the underworld. Adonis goes there and is recovered by Aphrodite, Dionysus rescues Semele, Herakles (or Hercules if you prefer) potentially goes twice, because he liked it so much the first time, Hermes rescues Persephone from the underworld, in Greco-Roman mythology Aeneas visits the underworld to speak to his father, Anchises. A jolly to the underworld from which you return is something only undertaken by exceptional people or in exceptional circumstances.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld by Flemish artist Jan Brueghel – Painted around 1600, you can already see the images, the Christian motifs of ‘the underworld’ as a place of suffering and torture, versus the Greco-Roman idea of it being a bastion of souls and a provider of plenty. (Credit: Jan Brueghel the Elder – Public Domain)

But it’s not just Pluto who gets bothered. Katabasis is a world mythological theme. From the earliest human storytelling about our origins, who we are and why we do what we do, going back to some of the earliest known myths, a descent to the underworld, or a death-and-rebirth (effectively the same thing) are common themes.

Enkidu, the partner of Gilgamesh, makes the journey in one of the Sumerian tablets in the Epic of Gilgamesh; Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna attempts to overthrow her sister Ereshkigal the goddess of the underworld by visiting the place; In Egyptian tradition Osiris, cut into pieces by his brother Set, thus sending him to the underworld, is put back together, returned from the underworld, by Isis; in Norse mythology Odin can ride his eight-legged horse Sleipnir to and from the underworld; Jesus Christ it’s a pervasive myth. I mean literally, Jesus Christ, died on the cross, resurrected after a few days! Jesus Christ returned from the dead! Resurrection, effectively death-and-rebirth, is a central theme in Christian theology, not just of Christ but of Christians many of whom believe in a ‘ressurrection’ of all saved souls in the Kingdom Come!

Enkidu, seemingly BFF4LIFE with Gilgamesh, is one of the known, mythological, underworld botherers! Here he is depicted in stone from Iraq around 2500-1700 BCE. (Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) CC-BY-SA 4.0)

This journey to death and back again, to the underworld and back again is pervasive across all of world mythology.

It is, to use one of my favourite words, themes and ideas, very eschatological. Eschatology is a theological, a religious, concept of ‘the end’ – generally the end times, the end of the world. In my opinion Christianity is little more than a politically motivated eschatological Jewish cult. Eschatology is huge in Christianity.

In the case of Katabasis it is the exceptionality, either the protection or the salvation that is the key theme. It is eschatological defiance, defying the end. A living person can dive into the underworld and walk out still living so long as they are ‘true’ enough, ‘pure’ enough, ‘smart’ enough, ‘strong’ enough – whatever the characteristic so long as they are exceptional they can, in effect, transcend death; Either that or so long as they are rescued by someone else exceptional.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, depicted in the Mortier Bible. A prime example of the importance of eschatology in Christianity is the idea of this global reckoning, an end times, an ultimate judgement, before – in the spirit of classical eschatological defiance, the ‘worthy’ will be resurrected in the Kingdom of God. Even Christianity maintains this theme of transcendence of ‘the end’. A common, human, mythological theme. (Credit: Phillip Medhurst CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Here’s the thing. Do you ever notice that the Gods, deities, daemons, agents, spirits, whatever it may be, put in charge of minding the dead, are some of the most important in mythology, and also some of the most complex?

Even the myths of Pluto have this dual character; cruel, grumpy, to-be-feared ‘Hades’ on the one hand, yet bountiful bringer of wealth, ‘Pluto’, on the other. Even in Christianity “God giveth and god taketh away.” The cycle, death-and-rebirth, give-and-take, the duality, is an almost universal mythological construct. Pluto, his links to Demeter and Persephone, embodies this so emphatically. Linking human life, plant life, Earth’s life, with an endless cycle of death-and-rebirth, of deprivation and generosity, that in modern biology we are coming to know and understand through so many cyclical biochemical processes! If you want more on that go to my Introduction to Biology – Grow, Fuck, Age, Die article! It’s basically all about it the basics of biology.

It’s almost as if mythology is a pre-scientific means of making sense of the order of the natural world, as well as our place within it!

In Pluto we have a figure of death as both feared and respected. A figure connected not merely with the taking away of those important to us and beloved by us, but a figure who also returns to us and generously gives to us. He represents not just death, protection of our ancestors and their departed souls, but rebirth, cycles and seasons. The very reason for the return of life in the spring is Pluto allowing Persephone back to the surface world.

Modern presentation of Pluto, of Hades, maybe takes far too much from a post-classical, Christian mythos about the realm of the dead, of the underworld. It makes it a den of suffering, of fire and pain, of longing, yearning to be alive. I think of Hades in the Disney movie ‘Hercules’ and how influenced he seems to have been by Satanic ideas, of the Lord of the Underworld being a trickster and a temptation.

Hades from Disney’s Hercules probably owes more in his presentation to Christian ideas of Satan, or the Anti-Christ, than he does to his actual Greek inspiration. (Copyright: Disney, used without permission.)

At worst Pluto/Hades was a known grump, unreachable and unemotional. Even then, whichever myth you pick, whether by abduction and trickery or by passion and love, he keeps Persephone around. He wants her around enough to either trick her or seduce her, he is so upset at her having to go away he effectively makes a pomegranate pact! He is moved by Orpheus’ song, and the love for his wife, Eurydice, such that the iron-stoic Pluto sheds a tear (at least by some interpretations). Far from being a punisher, a trickster, he is – almost numb. It is as if Pluto so loves life (e.g. Persephone, the very spring of life!) that his guardianship of the souls of the non-living has caused him such suffering, such agony, that he must blot it out, he must rationalise, he must detach his emotions. Much like I imagine doctors working in emergency rooms, or undertakers have to.

How fitting, then, that one of the most important features of the dwarf planet we have seen is this pristine patch, the Sputnik Planitia or, as it has been nicknamed, Pluto’s heart.

This image shows ‘Pluto’s Heart’ more clearly. (Credit: PlanetUser CC-BY-SA 4.0)

This stone-cold hearted God, represented by a stone-cold former-planet, Pluto, teaches us much about what’s important, through what is taken from us. Love and life are important. ‘What is’ is important. ‘What will be’ is important. ‘What has been’? Well, we must guard it, honour it, understand it, but never let that past determine our futures.

Pluto is! And that’s enough for me to love it, planet or not. As for the God, he’s a big softy who maintains a tough exterior because of a harsh environment. I can understand that.

Want to read about more stuff in space linked to classic mythology? Read more Celestial Classics here;
Celestial Classics: Introduction – The basics of why the ancients are linked to the skies.
Celestial Classics: Vesta – Roman Goddess of hearth and home, associated with willies.
Celestial Classics: Ceres – Roman equivalent of Greek Demeter, goddess of agriculture.
Celestial Classics: Proserpina – Greek Persephone, goddess of the underworld.
Celestial Classics: Orion – The hunter so renowned the Gods put him in the sky.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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