Nessus: The Ultimate Anti-Hero

Lust for Life

Nessus has been transiting my Pisces Sun over the last couple months (and will be back again in the fall of 2015). Nessus is one of the Centaurs, a group of recently discovered planetoids with very irregular orbits that extend from as far in as Jupiter to as far out as Pluto. Nessus’ orbit connects the orbits of Saturn (authority, fear, responsibility) and Pluto (repressed energies, obsessive fears and desires, regeneration).

Astrologically, all of the Centaurs activate and illuminate the psychological Shadow, bringing repressed feelings and drives to the forefront of consciousness so they can be assimilated and integrated. Centaur transits can be quite painful precisely because they force us to pay attention to the energies within the soul that we don’t want to have to see or feel.

Mythologically, the Centaurs were a tribe of half-man, half-horse beings who played an infamous role in many a Greek myth. This is an important point for understanding how the Centaurs show up in your horoscope. Most ‘civilized folk’ tend to think of themselves as totally separate from the animal kingdom; the Centaurs remind us forcefully that there is more to us than the conscious thinking we tend to visualize as happening inside the head. Indeed, we are mammals with powerful instinctive drives and needs.

The Myth

Nessus is probably most famous for killing Hercules, the ultimate hero archetype. Here’s the story: Hercules and his new bride Deianira needed to cross a treacherous river and Nessus, who happened to be hanging out by said stream, offered to help Hercules by carrying Deianira across to the other side.

But once Hercules had jumped in and started swimming, Nessus took off with Deianira and tried to rape her. Hercules shot Nessus in the back with an arrow tipped with the poisonous blood of the Hyrda. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianira to take his blood and semen-stained shirt and keep it. If she ever suspected Hercules of infidelity, he told her, she should just make him wear the shirt and it would cure him of his wandering eye and bind him to her forever.

Eventually, Hercules – who was sexually insatiable and had affairs with just about everyone he met, women and men alike, fell in love with Iole and planned to marry her. Deianira played the Nessus trump card. Hercules put on the shirt and it immediately started burning his skin off. In unquenchable agony, he chose to die on a funeral pyre to escape his suffering. And then was transformed into a god and got to live happily ever after on Mount Olympus 🙂

Deconstructing Nessus

The one thing I remember from French Deconstructionist philosophy was the idea that a text contains many potential layers of meaning or story lines, only some of which may have been intended by the author(s) of the text.

Deconstructionism says that while I may think consciously that I intend a story or piece of music to mean x, “my meaning” is only one of many possible meanings, any of which may be equally valid. Donning a pair of Hillman Archetypes © infrared goggles, we might restate this as: “I, the alleged author of this piece, am actually just a channel through which various archetypal forces in the World Soul are communicating. ”

Which isn’t to deny the agency of “I, the author.” But it is saying there is a whole lot going on in the world at any given moment that we are not consciously tracking.

You might think of the way American history was traditionally taught. White people = good. Colored people = savages. Columbus = good. Indians = bad. That version of history reflected the agenda of the white, male ruling class. It’s very black-and-white, with little room for nuance. If we deconstruct this version of American history, we get a much richer and often more instructive myth.

For example, it’s easy to see the roots of the current environmental crisis in the slash-and-burn, take no prisoners ethos that is so glorified in the old histories.

Isn’t the short-sighted lust for profit and market domination of companies like Monsanto who systematically poison the Earth and pervert the natural rhythms of the land an extension of the greed that drove white fur traders to stampede hundreds of buffalo over a cliff and leave the carcasses to rot once they’d extracted the salable parts?

So, we might ask: Did Nessus actually try to rape Deianira? Or was she perhaps attracted to Nessus and his bad boy animal magnetism?  (Deianira was no shrinking violet; she “drove a chariot and practiced the art of war”.)

Many of us may hear the name of Herakles/Hercules and instinctively think, “the hero.”  Hero = good, right? Therefore, Nessus = bad. Furthermore, the canon of Western Civ always reads:  Deianira = woman = helpless = needs rescuing by the Hero. Ergo, Hercules is good and we should root for him and against Nessus.

Plus, Hercules looks like us and Nessus looks like “not us”. It seems to be encoded in our very DNA as humans to instinctively favor those who look like us over those who don’t.

As a friend who happens to be a non-white female pointed out, surely Nessus is strongly resonant with women and people of color – those who by their very appearance are still viewed as suspect and perhaps even “animalistic” by the patriarchal elite and the hundreds of millions of people who unquestioningly carry on the patriarchy’s agenda.

But how good was Hercules? He had already murdered the children of his first wife in a fit of madness. He seemed to spend most of his time either breaking world records in heroism or fathering illegitimate children. Other than his power, prestige and ability to protect, he probably didn’t have a lot to offer as a husband.

Anyhow…Nessus astrologically seems to talk about the deep wounds we have around power, sex, and money. The way I read it, Nessus in Pisces (the sign of our collective fantasies) is triggering memories and feelings of the abuse each of us suffered in childhood as we were domesticated into society – suppressed, repressed, cut down to size, disempowered, and molded into our future as good cogs in the Machine.

Nessus says: “Yeah, I may be only half-human but I want what you have. Why do you keep showing me thousands of commercial images every day of relaxed, confident, rich, happy people living the Good Life – and then tell me I can’t really have that?”

All of the Centaur archetypes connect us to the shadow realms of the soul. They also connect us to our animal/mammal nature, reminding us that despite our fancy phones and designer shoes, we are still animals driven by instinct. My experience of this Nessus transit is that it is forcing me to go beneath my rationalizations about how it’s really OK that I haven’t gotten what I wanted out of life. It’s forcing me to feel the primal desire for freedom, for sensual pleasure, and to acknowledge my desire to have the money/resources that would buy me more freedom and pleasure.

There’s a level of outrage in Nessus that feels like: “Even if it kills me, I’m going to stick it to the Man! I’d rather live under a bridge and push a shopping cart than have to put up with this unfairness for one more minute!”

These are antisocial desires, n’est-ce pas? But they are real. They exist. So repressing them would be an unhealthy thing to do. And we all repress them. So, what would be a better way?

What can I do when my natal chart is being afflicted by these primal, scary, challenging archetypes?

As James Hillman says in Re-Visioning Psychology, “the gods want to be remembered.” They want to be honored, just as our ancestors did in the old times when they killed the firstborn lamb in Israel or cut out the hearts of virgins on the steps of the Aztec temples.

Those were different times. What we can learn from them is the power of ritually giving attention to the archetypes, which Hillman elsewhere calls the little people in the soul.

What I can do to honor this particular archetype is write about Nessus from a different viewpoint. What might he have felt coming face-to-face with the Ultimate Hero, Hercules? What does it honestly feel like deep inside our guts and loins when we finally face the fact that the System lavishes wealth, power and pleasure on its “heroes” (often ruthless killers and despoilers much like Hercules) while denying a share in the bounty to the other 98 percent? And particularly to the 98 percent who don’t look or act like the dominant culture?

And I can make a musical offering. Which I’ve done. If you want to hear it, check it out here.

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