Death and the Maiden

Monday December 13th 2010
Death and Life, Gustav Klimt 1911.

Death catches up with us all – but in what guise. As a virus? A car crash? Will it come slowly or will it be sudden? Are our days numbered from the moment we are born? Medieval astrologers certainly believed they could foretell the hour of your death.

The Renaissance German
artist Hans Baldung painted many
versions of death and the maiden.

I think it would be dangerous to do that now. But they lived closer to death back then. A human lifespan was shorter, a child’s survival into adulthood a small miracle. They lived at a time when Europe was ravaged by plague, war, flood and famine. The horsemen of the apocalypse cut down the young and the old; the beautiful, the good, the wicked and the sinful – without discrimination. So perhaps they were more comfortable with death than we are.

But still we remember: death visits everyone – even the fairest. This is a motif in our collective unconscious that juxtaposes horror with beauty. The story of a young woman’s untimely death recurs in art, myth, music and literature – from Persephone’s abduction by the god of the Underworld to the seamstress Mimi’s death in La Boheme to Lucy Westenra’s spoilation by Count Dracula to the quiet passing of Beth March in Little Women. (If you fancy a good cry, link to Mimi.)

Made by Hans Schwarz in about 1520,
this carving shows death embracing
a young woman.

In astrology, this is described by the passage of Venus through the sign of Scorpio; and echoed when she encounters the planets Pluto or Saturn. This year, Venus has spent an uncomfortably long time in Scorpio. Right now she is in the final few weeks of this difficult transit, having spent months going back and forth here.

The ancients said Venus was in “detriment” in the sign of the scorpion, by which they meant that she struggles to express her nature well. But I think you could say that she expresses her nature in a way that we find shameful, disconcerting or ugly; in a way that we would prefer to keep secret.

Kali, goddess of death,
dancing on her
mate Shiva as he sleeps.

Powerful Women

In this powerful film, which
perfectly exemplifies several Scorpio themes
a torture victim gets her revenge.
Weaver has her Venus in Scorpio.
Click here for the trailer.
Another, Scorpio theme is truth.

Some astrologers argue that a planet in detriment may act strangely at first, but if the person who has this configuration works with it, what at first seems to be a weakness can be turned into a strength. In the case of death and the maiden, the story can be turned on its head. There is another powerful motif in many cultures which is death as the maiden.

She comes as an avenging angel sometimes, as in Ariel Dorfman’s powerful play about torture and brutality in Chile, Death and the Maiden (1990). Or perhaps she comes as death itself. In the 19th century, when the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis, cut a swathe through the haute and demi-monde, death was often portrayed as a young woman. Death and sex became associated. Schubert’s string quartet, Death and the Maiden (1824), was written when he knew he was dying of syphilis. To hear it click here.

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986)
explores the perverted
underbelly of small town life.
Isabella Rossellini is both victim
and seducer.

Oblivion can be seductive. In Beyond the Pleasure Principal (1920), Freud outlined his theory of a death drive. That is an unconscious urge towards death. Death lures us, whispers to us. We are fascinated and afraid. We take risks with death in order to feel more alive. When Venus is in Scorpio, we flirt with death – and sometimes we come out alive.


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  1. Lachesis says:

    Strange – or perhaps not so strange given Venus in Scorpio – that I should be writing about Upper Palaeolithic funerary rituals as you post your blog about death. Death certainly seems to be whispering loudly as the last of the leaves fall in the fog of a pretty bleak year, though I must add that for once, I’m feeling pretty inspired by it all. Perhaps the passage suits me, or perhaps I’m just sensing an end to it!

  2. Christina says:

    I always associate Scorpio with archeology – literally and also archeology of the soul.

  3. That was a nice read, thanks for posting. I was just thinking about the astrological Pluto and Freud’s death-drive in connection with some authors who (at least in part) found an outlet for their strong death-drive in their writings, for instance Algernon Swinburne (‘I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love hath an end’ / ‘I would we were dead together today’ / etc.) with Pluto closely conjunct Moon and Sun, near Venus and Mercury and opposite Saturn in Scorpio, and Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano). The subject probably appeals to my Venus in Scorpio and the 12th house – which many textbooks cheerfully interpret as ‘death by rape in a lonely place’.

  4. Christina says:

    @Kasper – What a charming thing to look forward to.

    (I have Algol on the NN which apparently is death by decapitation or strangulation – fiddle dee dee.)

    That’s a brilliant point about Freund and the death-wish. I quote Keats for you – ‘I have been half in love with death…’

    I adore Under the Volcano. Both Swinburne and Lowry were also falling-down drunks, which is one expression of the death wish, of course.

  5. Isy Aweigh says:

    I’m reading this from the Pluto/Venus link, and it’s most timely as I’ve been mulling my Pluto/Uranus-Venus opposition.

    The other half of the sketch started to make more sense halfway through “Prometheus the Awakener,” on viewing the force of Uranus as Promethean in nature. Turns out some really great authors have Venus/Uranus oppositions.

    Combining that with the imagery you have here, I’m reminded that opposition is not necessarily an argumentative position, though it is necessarily an intense one. We must face each other directly to see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of those we love enough to stand that close to.

    Perhaps this food for thought will be an aid to digestion 🙂 My stomach is in knots. xoxo