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The Planets on the Playa: An Astrological Guide to Burning Man

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In the spring of 2009 we had the pleasure of taking a class called Archetypal Cosmology, which explored the history of esoteric thought in regard to planetary and psychological archetypes. Of course the course featured a good dose of Jung, who popularized the term “archetype,” and it was fascinating to learn how closely his ideas synch up with (and in some case were directly appropriated from) those of the Stoic, Platonic, and Hermetic traditions.

Along with a richer understanding of Western thought and the cosmos at large, the biggest thing to emerge that semester was a plan to form an archetypal astrology theme camp for the next Burning Man. Darrin pitched the idea to Annabelle, who didn’t hesitate, and we immediately enlisted the enthusiasm and expertise of our friends Chad and Jessica, practicing astrologers who have since become the foci around which the camp revolves. Others in our ellipse of friends and classmates quickly joined ranks, and the camp that would later be dubbed Cosmicopia soon began meeting on a semi-regular basis.

Despite all the planning, our first year on the playa (2010) wasn’t quite as stellar as we had hoped. Our contingent of about 40, which had been gifted a half plot in the “gayborhood,” was joined by two musical troupes and a steady influx of seemingly random folks, more than doubling our numbers. Exactly how cramped was the camp was later revealed by the annual satellite photo of Black Rock City that clearly shows a high-density clusterfuck near 7:15 and D. With all those bodies, plus the always-on-stage energy of dozens of performers, it was tough to carve out the niches needed for the astrology and tarot readings, numerology sessions, philosophical discussions, yoga classes, breath- and bodywork, massage, dance, and other offerings (we were nothing if not ambitious) that we had envisioned and listed on our colorful sign (which, perhaps tellingly, was rendered mostly illegible by an early rainstorm).

Having learned some valuable lessons, we decided to register as an official Burning Man theme camp in 2011, and to set our intentions for a more cohesive community geared toward providing daily astrology readings and hosting presentations revolving around the general themes of psychospiritual growth, healing, and creativity. The placement gods and goddesses blessed us with a prime patch of real estate at 7:45 and A that was twice as big as the previous year (with about half as many bodies), and being registered allowed us to list our events in the official guidebook given to each of the 50,000+ Burners who rolled through the gates.

We got what we wanted, and then some. Over the course of 5 days (M-F), a team of eight astrologers (with the kind support of greeters and techies) gave over 150 readings, many of which evoked tears of gratitude. Even on Monday, the sign-up list was full to overflowing, as was our colorful and couch-filled shade structure, which attracted more than a few passers-by (“The energy’s so nice in here! Zzzzz…”). The talks, too, were well attended, all of which made it somewhat difficult — for both practical and psychological reasons — to leave the cozy confines of our camp and venture forth into the outlandish landscape beyond.

But venture forth we did, each time remembering how incredibly fortunate we were to feel like an integral part of such an audacious experiment in human community and creativity, and to be so intimately connected to the magic and mystery of the cosmos. Having honed what our teacher Rick Tarnas calls the “archetypal eye,” we began to experience and process Burning Man in terms of the ten planetary archetypes, the distillations of which we present below. Our hope is that these descriptions will not only illuminate the heavenly bodies, but also shed a unique light on the Burning Man experience, for the benefit of veterans, newbies, and never-beens alike.


The Sun: First, the literal: Burning Man takes place in the desert, where the daytime sun takes center stage, and even after sunset, giant fireballs light up the night. Figuratively, the sun is about shining, and Burning Man invites everyone to shine as brightly as possible at all times. In most other social situations, there are usually one or two charismatic individuals around whom everything seems to revolve, but on the playa, everyone’s a star. Indeed, in a place where FOMO runs high, it’s helpful to remember that no matter where you are, you are the center of the universe.

The Sun is largely about creativity and self-expression, which are in full bloom on the playa. Even those who don’t identify as artists are usually radiating warm smiles while sporting hot (or otherwise awesome) outfits and colorful costumes. Your inner Sun wants you to express your true personality and share your unique gifts, talents, and assets.

As the archetype of the divine child, The Sun invites us to play. Almost all of the art at Burning Man is interactive, inspiring the inner child to clamber up giant lotus flower towers, fly through the air on zip lines, or make giant metal faces smile and wink. Could it be more than a coincidence that the word “playa” contains the word ‘play’? Burning Man is fundamentally fun.

And, it’s an adventure. The Sun also represents the archetype of The Hero, who decided to follow that inner calling to embark on this crazy journey in the first place, to explore the unknown, not just out there, but within.

The Moon: Everyone is greeted at the gate with a warm “Welcome Home!” Burning Man, and The Moon, are both partly about community and the tribe, the environment within which one feels a sense of belonging. Nevertheless, the playa is not always brimming with lunar energy, which also relates to self-nurturance and bodily care. In such a hot, dry, and over-stimulating environment, one has to be especially vigilant to stay cool, hydrated, nourished, and well rested (ha!). Fortunately, this task is made easier by the kindness of comrades offering refreshing body mists, icy beverages, tasty (and sometimes nutritious) foods, vitamins, sunscreen, massages, and comfy chill spaces in which to rest and recoup.

The dark side of The Moon has to do with lunacy. Burning Man has its share, as anyone knows who has seen (or been) that wayward tripper stumbling naked through someone else’s camp at 4am, mumbling something about aliens.

Mercury: The playa is always buzzing with communication and the exchange of ideas and information. One can spend the entire day talking with strangers and learning about their experiences. Other mercurial activities include taking in lectures, engaging in discussion groups and workshops, and ogling thought-provoking art. Black Rock City also has a post office, newspapers, and a radio station, all of which convey and relay information. Mercury is also associated with transportation, which at Burning Man involves the constant circulation of bikes, art cars, and other mutant vehicles, all of which have to be transported to the playa, along with…well, absolutely everything else (alas, the gas)!

Venus: Everywhere one looks on the playa, one sees incredible beauty. To begin with, the Black Rock Desert is a breathtaking setting, with intricate earth patterns below, expansive sky above, and magnificent mountains spanning the horizon and demarcating the sacred container within which transformation occurs. Stunning pink and orange sunsets often give way to a sea of shimmering stars.

This awe-inspiring landscape also serves as the backdrop for some truly mind-blowing art. By day, the playa is dominated by large wooden structures and exotic metal sculptures, many accented with striking color. At night, the darkness is punctuated by blinking and flowing lights, bouncing blobs of glowing and pulsing neon, multicolored laser beams shooting into space, and dramatic fireballs emanating from incendiary sculptures. Art cars roam about in the form of ships, houses, giant chairs, and every kind of creature imaginable.

Dancing and music (especially dance music) are omnipresent, as are Venusian performances by fire dancers and aerial artists.

Venus is also apparent in the many half-naked and fully naked bodies on the playa, each beautiful in its own way. Most people are dressed to impress, and everyone looks sexy despite — or maybe because of — the dust and sweat. The Burning Man community pays deep devotion to Venus through costuming, accessorizing, tattooing, piercing, and body painting, and through the intimate encounters that often result from such sensual self-adornment.

Venus rules the heart chakra, which gets activated simply by witnessing the many acts of kindness and generosity occurring at nearly every moment on the playa. Participation in this process yields even greater heart opening. Especially in an era of isolation and a society of competition, the love, connection, and genuine sharing present among the Burning Man community is deeply moving and edifying.

Mars: The desert is a dry, hot, harsh place, very masculine in many respects. It takes enormous amounts of energy, willpower, drive, and literal muscle to get oneself to Burning Man, set up camp, and construct those massive metal installations. One such structure is the Thunderdome, a Mad Max inspired arena for gladiatorial bungee battles that can help release aggression (and sometimes blood). Other displays of Martian power and yang energy are found in some of the pyrotechnic displays and performances, and anyway the element of Mars is fire. The music, too, is often loud, intense, and driving, which helps sustain those round-the-clock raves (as do other certain other things).

Jupiter: Like the largest planet in the solar system, Burning Man is epic in scale. The expansive desert hosts hordes of gigantic art pieces, 100,000-watt sound camps, and a weeklong celebration that’s nothing if not over-the-top. Like the average Burner, Jupiter is prone to occasional excess, but he’s a friendly drunk who won’t stop giving you drinks and complimenting your furry orange hat. Even sober, he’s gracious, jovial, and generous. He loves bestowing gifts, and his magnanimity tends to bring out the best in everyone with whom he comes in contact.

Jupiter is associated with peak experiences, and for many of us, Burning Man is often the highlight of the year-like Halloween, Christmas, and New Years rolled into one.

Saturn: If Jupiter is the life of the party, then the strife of the party — the party crasher — would be Saturn, usually associated with constriction, conflict, limitation, and mortality. Saturn is the reality principle, which shows up on the playa in the form of rules, regulations, laws, and the fine folks paid to enforce them. Saturn is, in essence, The Man, the stern voice of authority and tradition.

But Saturn certainly ain’t all bad. He imparts structure and organization, the kind of energy needed to get shit done. If not for Saturn and all his lists of things to do and buy and pack, none of us would ever even get to Burning Man, let alone be able to set up our tents and shade structures and kitchens and greywater systems. Even after this hard work is done, we need to act responsibly on the playa and to feel reasonably secure that some yahoo on meth isn’t going to gun us down with his tank.

While Jupiter often reveals our best qualities, Saturn shows us the areas in our lives and our relationships where we experience challenges. Even — or especially — on the playa, it’s common to have moments or days of feeling trapped, stuck, lonely or disconnected, wondering why one came and what the point of it all is anyway. Is it not just a colossal hassle, a horrifically hot hell-hole full of hippies and hedonists? The beauty and magic are eclipsed by Saturnian doubt, fear, and judgment.

In moments like these, Saturn invites us to reach out to others for support or find our own stable center. If you can remain grounded amidst the tumult of Burning Man, you can probably do it anywhere. Both Burning Man and Saturn will push our buttons and boundaries to get us to grow. Resistance causes more pain, while surrender leads to release, greater trust, and a sense of being cared for by the cosmos.

Uranus: One of the patron saints of Burning Man, Uranus invites everyone to get their freak on. This archetype is associated with individuality, diversity, creativity, rebellion, and revolution. Eccentric, unconventional, outside the box, freedom-loving, divine trickster energy is abundant at Burning Man, as reflected in the art and costumes, in the double entendres of many camp names, and in the mischievous interplay among Burners. On almost every street corner stands a megaphone-wielding weirdo offering spiritual enlightenment, iced coffee, or free spankings (sometimes all three).

Uranus’ true identity is Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Uranus is also connected with electrical energy, which is one way to describe the constant buzz of the playa, and the buzz that it seems to induce. Burning Man is a psychoactive drug that imparts a lot of energy, although it does have its aftereffects (primarily exhaustion).

One of the roles of the trickster is to playfully distract us from what is real, and a person can certainly spend an entire week under the spell of Burning Man’s glitter and sparkle without uncovering its spiritual essence…

Neptune: Despite the lack of water on the playa, Neptunian energy abounds. Burning Man often seems like a fantasy or a dream (a lucid one at best), full of surreal situations and bizarre experiences. With everyone in costume, identities are unclear and fluid, and nothing is as it seems. Boundaries between genders are blurred while others dissolve completely, and a feeling of oneness prevails. Intuition, another Neptunian function, is heightened, while sychronicities and mystical moments manifest with above-average frequency.

Non-ordinary states of consciousness seem to occur naturally at Burning Man, even without the assistance of exogenous substances. But assistance is all-too-readily available, which points to Neptune’s shadowy side relating to escapism and addiction.

Neptune is associated with spirituality, which appears on the playa in the form of yoga, meditation, kirtan, and sacred sexuality classes, as well as lectures focused on personal transformation and planetary evolution. Just knowing that certain camps are devoted entirely to providing free healing and bodywork is spiritually uplifting and inspiring to those on the path of compassionate service.

Of course, the main locus of Neptunian energy at Burning Man is the Temple — the heart and soul of Burning Man, where people go to pray, grieve for lost loved ones, let go of old patterns and fears, and set positive intentions for the future.

Pluto: Last, but certainly not least at Burning Man is Pluto, which pertains to sexuality, the taboo, the shadow. This archetype can be accessed via the tantric workshops and orgy tents, and through the darker energies/entities roaming the playa at night or being invoked through certain forms of music (it’s been said that dubstep has the rhythm — and sometimes the sound — of vomiting). Like Pluto, the stinky port-o-potties and compost heaps remind us that defecation and decay are normal and necessary aspects of life, while the desert itself tells us that death is no further away than a long mid-day walk onto the playa without water or protection from the sun.

Pluto and the playa both put us back in touch with our own animal natures and instincts, our primal energies of rage, pain, hunger, and passion. Ritual burning and fire worship, especially apparent in the burning of the Man and the Temple, are major Plutonic/Dionysian rites in which we throw what no longer serves our evolution onto the pyre.

One of Pluto’s most profound and mysterious gifts is deep transformation, the kind that comes from facing one’s own demons, from undergoing a dark night of the soul, from being burnt to ashes and rising like a phoenix. Many people return from the playa humbled and cooked to the core, but spiritually regenerated.

Indeed the desert has served as an alchemical cauldron for many centuries, drawing monks, saints, Sufis, yogis, mystics, and wanderers. These seekers have shared an intuitive sense that the desert’s extreme conditions can quickly strip away the ego, burn off what is false and superficial and outmoded. Like Pluto, the desert shows us with a harsh and intense clarity what we are truly made of-bone, flesh, and spirit, infused with vulnerability and power.

Darrin Drda’s book entitled The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times will be published under the Evolver Editions imprint of North Atlantic Books on October 25, 2011.

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