21 Dec The Sickness Unto Death ~ Capricorn Season ~ December 21st, 2021 – January 19th, 2022
After the exhausting journey through the final days of darkness in Sagittarius season, on December 21st the solstice arrives. This represents a universal moment of celebration. After reaching the lowest point in the heavens, the Sun finally returns to its path of ascent.
This begins the season of Capricorn, where the Sun fixes its gaze onward and upward. In the northern hemisphere, Capricorn brings winter, the struggle to draw the breath of life underneath the weight of death.
As a Saturn-ruled sign, the gravity pulls down hard here. But this is what births the indomitable spirit of Capricorn which pushes and climbs no matter how much resistance there may be.
As we head into a New Year in 2022, you may feel hesitant about being overly optimistic. It is difficult not to feel grim about the future. From a political and economic perspective, the world has become a tale of woe and atrocity.
This year, the mood will be complicated by Venus’ retrograde through Capricorn, asking you to raise your standards in both relationships and finance. The lessons of the retrograde will lead you to attract from a deeper more soulful place within. This is a very positive shift, but it is born from a process of internal alchemy that might feel a little messy for a while.
There is plenty of severity to tap into during the season of Capricorn. But there is a powerful wave of mercy that appears when Jupiter moves into Pisces on December 28th. Many of the rougher edges will be softened by grace. And you’ll be inspired to dream BIG with faith that your vision will manifest. Small seeds of tremendous success will begin to germinate.
The sign of Capricorn is Saturn’s domain, where time and space condenses all energy into matter, which naturally evolve into civilizations, including political philosophies, economic systems and social hierarchies. There are ages where these systems are flourishing. And there are ages where they fall into decay or decadence.
The West was described as being in late-decadence for a large part of the 20th Century. So at the end of 2021, it must be dissolving into dust.
Capricorn is where cold hard reality and the way of the world becomes known. All the beauty and corruption of civilization: the powers that be, the story of the past, the institutions that rule you. The relationship between spirit and matter.
This knowledge has the potential to become great wisdom one day, but it depends on how you use it. Knowledge of the world brings great power and responsibility, the burden of which has a tendency to inspire cynicism and ennui.
But the true meaning of Capricorn season asks you to look within, draw strength from the marrow of your bones and dream big.
That Long Agony
The mythos of Capricorn is the story of the spirit’s descent into matter, when light was condensed into physical form and bound to the earth by the forces of space and time.
The traditional holidays of this season, including Christmas, correlate with the symbolism of the winter solstice, the day that the Sun returns to its path of ascent.
Capricorn begins as a celebration of the light’s return. Christmas is an exemplary solstice holiday that clearly tells the story of the Sun’s return through the birth of Christ.
As the great esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall said Christ’s birth represents the “day when divine love was made flesh”.
The Son of God is the divine Sun.
The story of Christ was blended with previously existing solstice festivals. Historically, the date of December 25th originally belonged to an ancient Sun god called Mithra, the Lord of Light.
Mythologically speaking, both the birth of Christ and the birth of Mithra both took place in a cave, amongst the goats. (Capricorn)
According to Joseph Campbell:
“[The cave] is associated particularly with the winter solstice, when the sun has traveled to its farthest point away from the tilted earth and the light is in the nadir of the abyss. That is the date of the birth of the god Mithra, who is lord of light. He was born—we recall that his mother is the Earth…”
This cave at the nadir of the abyss is also referred to in ancient mythology as the Cave of the Nymphs, the place of the soul’s generation into physical being. In ancient writings, human souls in heaven were described as being like clouds, wispy, vaporous and floating.
And like clouds, these souls condensed through desire and poured themselves like rain upon the Earth.
And to complete the cycle, these souls on earth would eventually evaporate back up into the heavens.
In esoteric philosophy, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn represent the two entrances to a place called the Cave of the Nymphs. Note that the Tropic of Capricorn and its opposite the Tropic of Cancer represent the exact latitudes where the Sun (sol) reaches its solstices.
This Cave of the Nymphs illustrates a kind of distillation process for souls: the soul (sol) descends from Heaven into Earthly life and then from Earthly life back up to Heaven.
In ancient cosmology, Capricorn season represented the soul’s desire to leave the Earth and ascend back up to Heaven: to return to divine origin.
As Heraclitus said, “a dry soul is the wisest.”
Capricorn is just that: a dry soul, ready to leave behind sentiment and clinging desires for a wider vision and a greater purpose.
Thus, at the winter solstice, the soul begins moving away from Earthly desire, concerned now with its ascent back into the realm of the divine. This is illustrated by the mountain that Capricorn is always envisioned climbing.
Capricorn season will offer you the instinct and the tenacity to push the soul towards its ascent back into the light of divinity.
As the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry says, the pathways opened in Capricorn are filled with “souls ascending to the Gods. On this account, the poet does not say that they are the avenues of the Gods, but of immortals; being also common to our souls, which are essentially immortal.”
The season of Capricorn opens a gateway for your soul’s journey of ascent. The Romans honored this with the name for the month of January, derived from the word janua meaning gateway.
The gateway of ascent was also the sole purpose behind the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a holiday in which slaves were served by their masters and great feasts were shared by rich and poor.
The wisdom in this festivity was to uplift the souls of the enslaved by letting them taste freedom and to uplift the souls of the masters by letting them taste humility.
Capricorn is the sign that honors the hard work undertaken by each soul that is incarnated upon earth, from spirit’s heavy descent into matter and onward into matter’s ascent into spirit. This is the season where struggle becomes strength.
So at the end of 2021, if you feel an urgency to grow, to create, or to improve yourself, you may respond with the liberating strength that the spirit of Capricorn offers.
Sick Unto Death
To connect with this spirit more deeply, consider the life and work of the greatest American writer, Edgar Allen Poe.
Born January 19th, 1809 with his Sun and Mercury conjunct in Capricorn, Poe embodied the tenacity and spirit of his sign in his life and art.
For one thing, nobody worked harder than Poe. He was a prolific writer of poems, horror stories, and essays. He was also a magazine editor and a literary critic. Part of his indomitable work ethic was driven by his genius talent and part was driven by tremendous financial struggle. He barely slept and his life was never easy.
Poe created a new voice in American literature that was wildly popular in Europe, he invented the genre of the detective novel and he won many awards for his poems and stories. Aside from his artistic success, Poe had a biting and acerbic wit that he used to throw shade in his literary reviews. He had no respect for establishment writers and tore down many great reputations when he judged their work to be unremarkable. He once accused Henry Wordsworth Longfellow of being a plagiarist.
Poe is famous for his dark imagination and melancholic moods, fueled by the many tragedies in his life. But his writing was not just to horrify and titillate. He wove in plenty of philosophical depth, the humor and wisdom of his dry soul.
For your meditations on the wisdom of Capricorn season, might I turn your attention to Poe’s 1842 short story “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
Originally published, rather apropos, in a literary annual titled The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843, “The Pit and the Pendulum” sees Poe at his most essential—distilling the quintessence of Capricorn’s wisdom into a macabre tale that is as memorable for its grotesque depiction of torture as it is for its subtle political commentary and spiritual transcendence.
The premise of the story is simple. An unnamed narrator recounts his morbid tale of terror as a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition. After his trial when the “last of distinct accentuation which reached” his ears was “the dread sentence of death”, he awakens in a black chamber where he feels “that my senses were leaving me.” Upon further investigation, he discovers that at the center of this chamber is a bottomless black pit that bathes him in “a clammy vapor” while the “peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose” to his nostrils.
He knows immediately where he is. After nearly averting an accidental fall into the pit, he reflects:
“I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me, and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. Another step before my fall, and the world had seen me no more. And the death just avoided, was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. To the victims of its tyranny, there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors. I had been reserved for the latter. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me.”
Having been reserved for “death with is most hideous moral horrors” the narrator understands that his torture is beyond the bounds of physical reality and will take him into metaphysical dimensions of both space and time.
After falling asleep, the narrator awakens to find himself strapped to a board. The pit is now illuminated by a dull orange glow, allowing the narrator to witness the unique “species of torture” which awaited him. Looking upward to see the ceiling of his prison, he beholds the “figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks.”
Only this pendulum has a razor-sharp blade on its end… and it is slowly descending toward his heart. The narrator reflects:
“I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents—the pit whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant as myself—the pit, typical of hell, and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments. The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss; and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term.”
After successfully freeing himself, the pendulum suddenly retracts into the ceiling… and the walls turn to molten hot iron… and they start to close in on him.
Having no choice but to throw himself into the pit, the narrator surrenders to the machinations of the Inquisitors. But by deus ex machina, he is rescued:
“There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.”
The Dread Sentence of Death
Poe completely subverts the myth of the Cave of the Nymphs in “The Pit and the Pendulum”, capturing the soul’s descent into the nadir of the abyss with brutal agony.
Camille Paglia adroitly reads “The Pit and the Pendulum” as a dark meditation on vagina dentata, Latin literally for “toothed vagina”—the primal fear of men that they will suffer castration during intercourse.
In her magnum opus Sexual Personae, Paglia writes:
“The narrator is trapped in a strangely mobile room with ‘fiery walls,’ closing upon him in spasms of contraction. This is a body-warmed womb-world: the floor is ‘moist and slippery,’ ‘treacherous with slime,’ suggesting female secretions. The narrator is caught between a circular pit, a dank ‘abyss’… and the razor-sharp pendulum of time, to which men are condemned at birth.”
From Capricorn’s lofty peaks, the Cave of the Nymphs looks more like “The Pit and the Pendulum” than Cancer’s wet and wondrous womb world, that sweet and nurturing nursery of human souls, for Capricorn clearly sees the razor-sharp pendulum of time descending into the heart of the matter.
But there is more to this view than meets the eye. Far from detached cynicism, the vantage point of Capricorn offers you the rebirth of the light—the first rays of sunlight that crack the proverbial horizon after an intense Dark Night of the Soul.
The first line of “The Pit and the Pendulum” suggests its interior spiritual meaning:
“I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony…”
This is a reference to that most mystical of the four gospels, The Gospel of John. It specifically refers to the moment that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. When Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, find Jesus they tell him, “behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.”
And when Jesus heard that, he said,
This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
The raising of Lazarus is famously the seventh sign of The Gospel of John that attests to the divinity of Jesus Christ, which provokes his opponents to demand his execution.
In a series of lectures on The Gospel of John given in Hamburg in 1908, Rudolf Steiner said:
“One who knows how to read this Gospel will understand that a mystery lies hidden within this chapter… In order to understand this, we must turn our attention to what in the ancient Mysteries is called ‘initiation.’ How did these initiations in the ancient Mysteries take place?”
Steiner goes on to describe a process by which an initiate “was put into a death-like sleep by the initiator or hierophant who understood the matter and there he remained for three and a half days.”
“‘This sickness is not unto death,’ means here that it is the three and a half day death-like sleep. This is clearly indicated. You will see that the presentation is of a very veiled character, but for one who is able to decipher a presentation of this kind it represents initiation. Lazarus had to be initiated in such a way that he could be a witness of the spiritual worlds.”
In Steiner’s view, Lazarus is the perennial initiate of the Mysteries—and the faithful reader’s own analogue to be a “witness of the spiritual worlds.”
“The Pit and the Pendulum” can thus be seen as an initiation, the nameless narrator a Lazarus figure who emerges from the hellish phantasms of a death-like sleep with a view to a higher order of reality.
A Discordant Hum of Human Voices
One of the most peculiar aspects of “The Pit and the Pendulum” is its deliberate ahistoricity. The story opens at the height of the Spanish Inquisition but concludes during the Napoleonic Wars. This means that the narrator spends centuries in that long agony of the pit.
To decipher this ahistorical nature, one need look no further than the “Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris” that opens the story, which translates from Latin into:
Here the furious mob, unsatisfied
Long harbored hatred of innocent blood.
Now that the fatherland is saved, and the cave of death destroyed,
Wholesome life appears where grim death has been.
The Jacobins were the radical group whose demand for liberté, égalité, fraternité during the French Revolution quickly turned into the Reign of Terror—that most bloody moment in European history marked by its liberal use of the guillotine.
For Poe to invoke the Reign of Terror to set the mood for a tale about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition is not entirely arbitrary. The Spanish Inquisition represents the most reactionary, intolerant, tyrannical dimensions of power in recorded history, while the French Revolution was fought for some of the most progressive, utopian and virtuous ideals to which humanity can aspire.
And yet it all ended in the Reign of Terror. The merciless swing of the pendulum cared not for the virtuous cause of the revolutionaries. It saw only another angry mob of Inquisitors seeking a heretic to punish for sins against the Ideological State Apparatus. The conquerors became the conquered as the oppressed became the oppressors.
And the pendulum continues its incessant swing from left to right and right to left, from hero to villain and back again.
But for the Glory of God
A final interpretation comes from Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who titled his own masterwork on Christian existentialism The Sickness Unto Death, which is often recognized as the first self-help book ever published.
In Kierkegaard’s view, the human being is a synthesis of human and divine, and the self is truly your relationship to God. Therefore, the greatest sin in the eyes of God is to lose one’s self—and the greatest path of self-help is through divine mercy.
This is your Higher Self speaking.
To succumb to despair and sever your relationship to the divine truly is the greatest sin for it subverts, inverts and perverts your greatest potential as a human being.
The Inquisitors of “The Pit and the Pendulum” knew this, and it is why they reserved the “most hideous moral horrors” for the narrator of the story—to imprison him in an eternity where he is “sick unto death with that long agony”, in a perpetual state of succumbing to the despair of a human separated from the divine.
As we now endure an era predominated by mob rule, when the Inquisitors will change dictionary definitions to more easily identify heretics—when the pendulum swings so wildly that those who a year ago would refuse to take a vaccine railroaded by the Trump administration now shame their neighbors for showing any form of hesitancy at the fourth booster—it is important to meditate on “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
The effects of the modern world will be amplified by the final Saturn/Uranus square that perfects on December 23rd, 2021. In mythology, the revolution that Saturn waged against his father Uranus was a savage and bloody one. And with Saturn currently transiting his domicile of Aquarius—the sign most associated with the revolutionary spirit and the common good of all—you will no doubt be tempted to join the mob of Inquisitors seeking a heretic, or succumb to the despair of a world massacred by its own virtue.
But do not let the Inquisitors of our time subject you to the “most hideous moral horrors”—do not let them force you to commit that greatest sin of despair, to lose yourself and sever your connection to the divine.
Instead, discover the higher ground of Capricorn wisdom. Seek not scapegoats of modern heresy. Take the view above and beyond mob rule to see a greater spiritual truth.
You will emerge, but for the Glory of God, as a Lazarus of the modern age—an initiate of the Mysteries and a “witness of the spiritual worlds.”