The Chthonic 8th House and the Hero(ine)’s Quest Through the Underworld


Dragon's Nest, Artist Ironshod

The quest through the depths of the 8th house involves finding your hidden treasure and emerging alive to tell the tale. Easier said than done. Click on the image for more information about the artist.


If I’ve been arguing for anything when it comes to the nodal axis, it is that the nodes direct us from one way of being, pointing, like the needle of a compass, towards another way of being.

They point the way, but we can be distracted, discouraged, or prevented by life (which we can’t control) or our fears (which we might be able to control) from proceeding along the path that lies before us.

When we respond to the urges of either node, the messages we receive are on a continuum from very subtle, to overt and hard to miss. If we’re heading towards something on the North Node path though, you might wonder why anyone would choose to incarnate with their North Node in the 8th, since the direction you’re heading towards is… down.

The answer is that self-awareness is a glorious thing, as is acceptance of another’s foibles. Acceptance that human behavior runs the gamut from angelic redeemer to unrepentant devil is the key to working with the 8/2 axis. There’s no pretty face looking back at you here; much of what we see in the 8th is bitter, and cruel, and possibly, at times, evil—but necessary on the spiritual quest for wholeness.

This house reeks of mystery, because we’re drawn to the darker, hidden side of ourselves in our quest to figure out what we’re made of—a process I applaud, since knowing yourself requires plumbing the depths. This quest is not intended to be painless, though; descending into the darkest parts of one’s nature, even for the highest purposes of understanding and transcending the base self, is fraught with risk.

That you might bring something with you from the depths of the 8th gives you a hint about the spiritual purpose of this much-maligned house, which I will explain further as we move into the next post on the 8th house North Node.
Orpheus, the most beautiful singer and lyre-player of all time, had the courage to go down into Hades' realm and petition the god to return his dead wife, Eurydice. Unfortunately, Orpheus did not follow Hades' instructions, and his poor dead wife was forced to return to the realm of ghosts.

Orpheus, the most beautiful singer and lyre-player of all time, had the courage to go down into Hades’ realm and petition the god to return his dead wife, Eurydice. Unfortunately, Orpheus did not follow Hades’ instructions, and his poor dead wife was forced to return to the grey realm of the spirits.

It’s Dark Down Here: One Simple Reason the 8/2 axis has such a bad reputation

One uncomplicated, even mathematical, reason the 8th house has had its bad reputation is that it does not receive any “light” from the Ascendant. However, planets in the 8th might very well aspect the Ascendant, so finishing the [mathematical] equation is crucial here, as it is with the 2nd house. 

Remember, these houses were initially judged by pre-modern astrologers, when whole-sign houses were the norm; today we tend to rely on more sophisticated (and complicated) house systems, which it’s possible many ancient astrologers would have liked, since these systems are capable of greater mathematical precision.

But due to the idea of a ‘lack of light’ and consequent ‘weakness’, early astrologers like 1st century C.E. Dorotheus of Sidon listed the “bad places” in the chart as houses 2, 3, and 8. (The worst places, though, were thought to be houses 6 and 12). The 8th house’s bad reputation is also due to the fact that there were originally only eight, not twelve, houses, and so as the final house, the 8th became associated with the end of life—in other words, death—which obviously is not a happy subject for most people.

Fatalism: Another Reason the 8th House Has Such a Bad Reputation

The vicissitudes of history have swept away much of the astrological knowledge we once possessed, which is why we tend to over-rely on the sources we do have, even when their messages conflict and confuse.

Conflicting ideas might have a relatively benign source, though, since early writers on the subject of star-lore inherited the beliefs and wisdom of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks, all the while filtering the study of the stars through the philosophical beliefs of their time. The problem comes when, as a society, we forget the reasons we were told to think a certain way about something; once that early information is lost, the reason we’re supposed to believe something is true becomes less and less credible, if we even remember its source at all.

A prime example of this synthesis of ideas that often conflict and contradict one another is reflected in the work of wealthy, retired 4th-century C.E. Sicilian lawyer, Julius Firmicus Maternus. Maternus wrote at a liminal historical period, between the suppression of non-Christian, ‘pagan’ religions and beliefs, and the growing political and social dominance of Christianity. 

Between his first book, Matheseos Libri Octo, and his second, a polemic called On the Error of Profane Religions, he underwent a conversion to Christianity. His rhetoric against mystery cults (which rely heavily on death, mourning, and rebirth motifs) is scathing because he had no interest in the afterlife.

Yet his earlier work on astrology, the most complete and explanatory still in existence from the Classical period (and the last published in the ancient world), relies on pre-Christian belief in the idea of an afterlife. Maternus “drew heavily” on Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Syrian sources (Translator Jean Rhym Bram’s notes, p. 3, introduction to Matheseos).

Maternus brought a strict Stoic determinism to his study of astrology. He strongly believed, as did the Stoics, that fate was the natural outcome of an ordered, rational cosmology:

Cosmic nature (the universe), the Stoics firmly believed, is a rationally organized and well-ordered system, and indeed coextensive with the will of Zeus, the impersonal god. Consequently, all events that occur within the universe fit within a coherent, well-structured scheme that is providential […] Since there is no room for chance within this rationally ordered system, the Stoics’ metaphysical determinism further dictated that this cosmic Nature is identical to fate.

Because the transition from ancient polytheism to Christianity turned lethal for astrologers, who were often put to death for their ‘pagan’ beliefs, Maternus’ earlier work was frowned upon by the church, but was nonetheless secretly copied and disseminated. Later, after Christianity became more established and therefore less insecure, astrologers were ‘merely’ forced to burn their books, but Maternus’ work continued to thrive. His was one of the first books to reemerge at the time of the printing press and is renowned for having “sparked the astrological enthusiasm of the Renaissance” (Translator Jean Rhym Bram’s notes, p. 4, introduction to Matheseos).

A problem occurs when we try to understand Maternus’ labels for the 8/2 axis; he used Greek terminology, but conflated two or three ideas, not bothering to explain where these ideas came from, since his audience already knew the now-obscure sources and influences. He’d inherited his astrological knowledge through Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and even Syrian sources (see Bram’s notes for more). Deborah Houlding also states that the “ominous” terminology (“Gates of Hell”, “Gates of Hades,” “Portal of Pluto”) used for the 8/2 axis derived from ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian tradition.  

Maternus used the Greek words anaphora and epikataphora to describe the nature of this axis, but these words do not literally translate to “road to Hell.” Instead, the 8th, which descends downwards towards the Descendant—the point on the Western horizon long associated with death for the Egyptians, since this is where the sun sets—is where you were “carried along to the place of” (epi “place” + kataphora “being carried down”—there is a passive sense with this word, something is happening to you, rather than that you are consciously choosing it). The 2nd house was your way out: anaphora, “to carry back” or “bring back up” from below (see Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon).

Now, the word ‘Hell’ is not of Maternus’ time; in fact, it’s from Old English, traced through an Indo-European root that originally meant “to cover or hide” (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2011, but be sure to look at the links associated with the word ‘hell’ for more). Since Maternus wrote in Latin, it’s likely he originally used the Latin word for Hades, infernus (similar to Dante’s Inferno).

Terminology is important for our purposes because in the punitive Christian version of Hell, you are damned for all eternity; there’s no hope of emergence under any circumstances, yet the key to ‘anaphora’ is that you’re expected to emerge from the Underworld with some sort of treasure.

That’s why it makes more sense, given the labels Maternus and earlier astrologers used for the 8/2 axis, that this is not “Hell” as we’ve come to think of it in the Christian era. Hades, although grim and unpleasant, its permanent residents the shades of the dead (ghosts, in other words) dwelling in perpetual moaning sadness in their grey, dusty, dry land where Pluton/Hades reigned supreme, was a paradise compared with Tartarus.

Zeus about to slay Typhon with a lightning bolt. Notice that Typhon is a monster with a snake-like body and the wings of a bird. He is usually written  of as having many heads, but not in this version.

Zeus about to slay Typhon with a lightning bolt. Typhon, the monster condemned to dwell in Tartarus, has a frightening snake-like body but the wings of a bird. Although he is often described as having many heads, he’s only showing one on this amphora.

Tartarus was the pit below Hades where evil beings were tossed, presumably to find some way to coexist with the Titans who’d been condemned to live out eternity in fiery flames, suffering and misery. One of the Titans was Typhon, a truly awful monster, who, over time, seems to have morphed into our idea of what demons look like, since early depictions of Hell show tiny little people swallowed up by a large black monster whose appearance resembles Typhon.  

(Almost) No One Here Gets Out Alive

There’s a relatively short list of those who visited some version of an Underworld and survived to tell the tale. Visitors usually had a compelling reason to be there, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. Examples include Mesopotamian Gilgamesh, Egyptian Osiris, Greek Hermes, come to rescue Persephone, even Jesus, who endured the “harrowing of Hell” between his death and resurrection. 

In Greek, the process of descending and reemerging from the Underworld is called katabasis, a vital step in many mystery cults, and crucial as an initiation ritual.

The descent to the underworld is a mytheme of comparative mythology found in a diverse number of religions from around the world, including Christianity. The hero or upper-world deity journeys to the underworld or to the land of the dead and returns, often with a quest-object or a loved one, or with heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return, is proof of the classical hero’s exceptional status as more than mortal. A deity who returns from the underworld demonstrates eschatological themes such as the cyclical nature of time and existence, or the defeat of death and the possibility of immortality.

This descent has become such an important part of world mythologies that it is considered a necessary plot point in any work of fiction. At some point, the ‘hero’ must descend into his or her deepest “cave,” often an actual location, but this dark place can also be one’s psyche. One must undergo an “ordeal” of facing one’s greatest fears and emerging stronger for it.

Hopefully, this quote from my work for writers sheds some light on the psychological realities of the 8th house experience:

The “simple secret” of the Ordeal is that, (similarly to the initiation ceremony), s/he must die to be reborn. Obviously, this will not always be a physical death; the death is to some part of the psyche, the old way of being. The popular version of this motif nowadays is the vampire story, which requires that the supplicant of the mystery give up something precious to her—her life—before she can be initiated into a new world, a new reality.

Most stories deal with the “death” of the character’s personality structure, which is also a large part of ancient initiation ceremonies. What you previously thought, believed, or hoped was important must be sacrificed so that a new, more self-aware you can be reborn. This is as true for writers as it is for their characters (the writer’s journey is hero’s journey,’ of sorts).

The point for the Greeks was the “purification process, the change of status, even the identity” of the initiate; compare that to what your characters undergo, and you’ll see a similarity as they are forced to enter the darkest cave of their fears and engage with “the enemy,” which might even be a projected part of themselves.

Take My Hand, I’m A Stranger In Hades

To be an 8th house person is to need to understand that which cannot ordinarily be seen, at a level most either consciously or unconsciously ignore. Even using these heavily-psychologized words—’consciously,’ ‘unconsciously,’ has come to have a deeper meaning, brought to us by the psychologists and psychotherapists who ‘discovered’ the ‘unconscious’ by delving deep into human behavior, thought, and expressions, usually through the metaphor of world myths.

Realizing that there’s no easy way to make the energies of the 8th house work on a daily basis is important for one’s sanity. The call, or compulsion, to understand life’s mysteries is not only difficult, since most mysteries are described in imagery rather than words, but it’s also unwelcome for most of civilized society.

As a corrective to this lack of understanding, Liz Greene, always wise in her use of psychology to explain emotional reality, brings us the necessity of relying on the ‘psychopomp,’ the arbiter between the upper world of rationality (represented by the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus) and the lower domain of the subconscious (necessarily less-well understood, since it is out of sight—Robert Graves in his Greek Myths even translates the word ‘Hades’ to mean “sightless”).

One does not typically enter this underground world without a guide, in other words, since there is a price to be paid for the hubris of trying to attain something that contravenes the laws of nature. Mortals do not belong in the underworld and are often punished in some way for transgressing its boundaries. The underworld is appropriate only for the dead, or those magical few who find a way to make the transition between the two opposite worlds, one light, one dark.

Hermes, psychopompos, as depicted in this marvellously evocative original artwork by Iannis Nikou.

Hermes, psychopompos, as depicted in this marvellously evocative original artwork by Iannis Nikou. Click on the image for more from this inspired artist.


The role of psychopomp in Greek mythology, the god chosen to communicate with Hades, was filled by Hermes, or Mercury. The psychopomp exists in almost every myth across the world where a human needs to communicate with the underworld, and it is this psychopomp we can draw on to guide us through the murky realm of darkness as we go on our journey on the 8th house North Node path. As one astrologer-psychologist expresses it:

Like the god Hermes, the astrologer needs to take on a variety of roles with different clients.  For some people the astrologer is the psychopomp guiding the client into the underworld of the personal and collective unconscious. At other times s/he is Hermes, the translator of symbols.  At other times s/he will be the god of travellers standing at the crossroads with clients when they are going through life transitions. As with psychotherapy, the psychological astrologer can only accompany clients as far as s/he has gone themselves on their own journey; hence a crucial part of training at the centre for Psychological astrology is depth psychotherapy for most of the training period. For many of us depth psychotherapy and supervision is an integral ongoing part of our lives.

Psychological Astrology: A Therapeutic Tool on our Journey of Individuation, Margaret Gray

The 8th House Ethos: Better to reign in Hell than spend one minute on your knees in Heaven

To truly understand the nature of the 8th house, I believe we must acknowledge the importance of early myths about underworld gods and goddesses who represented the ‘hidden wealth’ and power inherent in their domain. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the forces involved in this house, largely due to the psychology that lies behind chthonic motivations buried in the psyche.

Hades, if properly persuaded, had the power to release mortals from their death; he could send you back up to the world of light if your story moved him. His pity could be roused, but you had to approach him in the right way. His primary power, of course, was that he could prevent you from leaving his realm once you were dead, but he wasn’t the final arbiter of your fate; that role belonged to the Moirae

Another well-known Hades perk was his association with ‘riches’ or wealth, largely because his domain is where one digs to find gold, silver, and other precious metals and stones. However, a caveat here is that one person’s treasure is another’s burden; I would not automatically associate the 8th house with monetary wealth, or with a covetous desire to own a lot of stuff, particularly if there’s a lot of fire in your chart. In many cases, people feel ‘buried’ by their stuff, and aren’t happy about it. A good time to purge your life of too much stuff is during an 8th house transit, either in the natal or by progression.

In the earlier example I gave above of Orpheus, he descended into Hades, risking his own life, to retrieve that which he considered to be his greatest treasure—his wife. Each person has a different definition of what they value. As an astrologer, I look to the signs on the cusp of both the 8th and 2nd houses to determine what it is you value. 

Hades and Persephone, looking fairly happy in their underground realm. In spite of all the negative press, Hades could be persuaded to let you out of his underground lair, but there were usually rules to be followed.

Hades and Persephone, looking fairly happy in their underground realm. In spite of all the negative press, Hades could be persuaded to let you out of his underground lair, but he had strict rules to follow.


Although everything connected with this dark world frightens most people, it also inspires awe and reverence through its connection with mystery and the unseen. Chthonic gods and goddesses who inhabited these worlds were scary; if you were sacrificing to them or paying obeisance, they could only be accessed through caves and subterranean openings in the earth. The mythic purpose of descent into their realm is to undergo a quest, to transform in some way, and to emerge alive. This is easier said than done, and there are huge challenges ahead, due to the grim power of the beings who rule this domain. 

Chthonic deities exist in distinction from fertile earth gods and goddesses. Whereas chthonic goddesses and gods signify darkness, magic, and invisibility, the upper-level earth goddess Demeter, related to the ancient earth goddess Gê/Gaia, brings forth (otherwise unseen) life in the same way that the womb, a “potent underground” (Roger Beck, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, p. 48) contains life until the newborn emerges from the darkness into the light. 

In what way is the realm of the dead in any way fertile? It’s not entirely barren, even though Persephone, possibly due to her role as goddess of the dead, remained childless. Persephone, as one of the few feminine chthonic deities permitted to inhabit the Greek underworld, has a very rare power in the ancient world. Another well-known inhabitant is Hekate, who properly belongs to Tartarus since she’s a child of the Titans. As well as being queen of the witches, she functions as a guardian, a watcher at crossroads, and a protector and companion to Persephone.

Persephone represents a complex mythos as consort of Hades, abducted from the mortal world, yet ruler in her own right of this dark domain, with her own chthonic cult whose worshippers were promised a “blessed” afterlife in Elysium, the pleasant alternative to Hades originally reserved for heroes and mortals related to the gods.

While most writers seem to focus on Persephone’s abduction and rape, overlooking the ubiquity of that motif in Greek mythology and focusing on Persephone as passive innocent victim (see Robert Graves’ version of the Greek myths for a full discussion on the history of abduction and rape as a motif in early myth), I believe it’s more empowering, and more interesting, to acknowledge her status as queen of the Underworld and as a goddess who inspired her own death-cult.

Persephone in her role as Queen of the Underworld, a powerful position.

Persephone in her role as Queen of the Underworld. The key to Persephone’s story lies not with her abduction, but with her transformation in the Underworld into something greater than she was.

As a nature deity Persephone’s disappearance (abduction) and reappearance (reemergence to the world of sunlight), or life, death and rebirth, embodies the growth cycle of plants, but it also points to a more subtle truth of the 8th house, that of a necessary (and often symbolic) time of emptiness and silence preceding the more active state of gestation.

Persephone is represented by Asteroid #399 (on Astrodienst it can be inserted into your chart from a drop-down menu on the ‘free chart’ page). “Proserpina,” asteroid #26, is the Roman/Latinized name for Persephone, and she was discovered first.
My hope is that if you’re going to try to work with Persephone/Proserpina, you do not over-focus on the abduction theme; it’s been done to death, no pun intended, unless it is truly relevant for your life. I know her story as we’ve learned it seems compelling, but there are other, less-known aspects of Persephone’s myth that are receiving new awareness as psychologists like Laura Strong, Ph.D., seek to rediscover her:

I think the time has come for Persephone to regain her dignity as the great Goddess of the Underworld. Other scholars are also working to restore the original stories of the lost and ancient goddesses. Help may even be on the way from another synchronistic source. Archaeologists and other researchers are continuously digging up new information from the past. An example of this is the return of the Hymn to Demeter, which was lost for hundreds of years until it turned up again in a stable in Moscow in 1777. Other findings may one day help the credibility of the stories that portray Persephone in all her feminine glory. One of these ancient stories was able to open my own eyes to the positive power of Persephone. 

Another great mystery surrounding the story of Persephone is whether she was just swept away by Hades or actually raped. A clue to solving this discrepancy may be found by examining the transition that occurs in her story as it is translated from Greek to Latin. There is no mention of rape in any of the early Greek texts, but we start to see its introduction with the coming of the Romans near the turn of the century. According to the research of Bruce Lincoln, all Greek sources describing Hades’ action use the verb harpazein, meaning “to seize, snatch, carry off,” which connotes thievery and violence, but does not imply rape. In later Latin translations of the texts the word raptu is used instead, which does imply “abduction, seizure, rape” (Lincoln 168).

The Greek travel-writer Pausanius from the second century CE mentions the rape of Persephone numerous times in his ten book series, the Description of Greece. The concept of Persephone’s rape is also covered extensively in the footnotes of the Library (Bibliotheca), which was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, yet attributed to the earlier Greek scholar Apollodorus (c. 180-120 BCE). The Library also contains a second version of Persephone’s story that suggests she may have never been abducted in the first place, but was instead born in Hades to her prolific father Zeus and the Underworld goddess Styx (bk.1, ch. 3, sect. 1).

In the next post, we’ll find out how these myths apply to North Node in the 8th/South Node in the 2nd.