And Other Venus-Neptune Tales of Woe
By Glenn Perry
The title of my article is inspired by The Butterfly Lovers, a Chinese legend and tragic love story that illustrates Venus-Neptune dynamics. Zhu, a beautiful and intelligent young woman, earnestly desires an education. Traditions of the time forbid females from going to school, however, so Zhu convinces her father to allow her to attend classes in disguise as a young man. While at school, she develops an unusually close bond with a classmate, Liang, who does not realize that Zhu is a female. They study together for three years and Zhu gradually falls in love with Liang.
One day, Zhu receives a letter from her father, asking her to return home as soon as possible. Zhu has no choice but to pack her belongings and bid Liang farewell. However, in her heart, she has already confessed her love for Liang and is determined to be with him for all eternity. Liang accompanies his “sworn brother” for 18 miles to see her off. During the journey, Zhu hints to Liang that she is actually a woman, but Liang does not catch on and hasn’t the slightest suspicion that his companion is a woman in disguise. Zhu finally comes up with an idea and tells Liang that she will act as a matchmaker for him and her “sister”. She intends to reveal her true identity to him when he visits her home for the proposed meeting. Liang and Zhu reluctantly part ways.
Months later when Liang is able to visit Zhu, he discovers that she is actually a woman. They are passionate about each other and make a vow of “till death do us part”. Their joy is short-lived, however, as unbeknownst to the two lovers, Zhu’s parents have arranged for her to marry a man from a rich family. Upon hearing the news, Liang is heartbroken. His health gradually deteriorates until he becomes critically ill and dies.
On the day of her marriage, the forlorn Zhu is sailing on a ship to meet her betrothed, but mysterious whirlwinds prevent the wedding procession from escorting the bride beyond Liang’s grave, which lies along the journey by sea. The winds blow her ship to shore. Upon learning that it is Liang’s grave, Zhu leaves the procession to pay her respects. She collapses in despair at the gravesite and begs for the grave to open. Suddenly, it opens with a clap of thunder. Without hesitation, Zhu throws herself into the grave to join Liang. Their spirits turn into a pair of beautiful butterflies and emerge from the grave. They fly together as a pair and are never to be separated again.
The author of this tragic and beautiful tale is unknown, but surely he had a Venus-Neptune aspect. All the elements are present: illusion, longing, idealization, bliss, disillusionment, surrender, loss, tragedy, sacrifice and reunion. As we shall see, these plot elements are recurrent in the relationship histories of individuals with hard Venus-Neptune contacts.
In terms of plot structure, The Butterfly Lovers begins with an illusion—that of Zhu’s true identity—accompanied by an unfulfilled longing for eternal love with Liang. Zhu expresses an ideal love that transcends sexuality, for in her disguise as a boy she experiences an intimacy with Liang that is utterly pristine and pure. Following their initial separation, the promise of reunion pulls the lovers forward, culminating in Zhu’s disclosure that she is a woman, thus dissolving the boundary that prevents the couple from declaring their love. Alas, their fleeting glimpse of love’s bliss is followed by disillusionment, for fate intervenes in the form of an arranged marriage that requires compliance with conventions rooted in concerns for status and security. Liang and Zhu’s attachment must be relinquished, forsaken, surrendered. This sets the stage for the ultimate sacrifice. Unable to accept the loss of his true love, Liang withers away and dies. Soon after, Zhu willingly sacrifices her life to be reunited with Liang in eternal love.
Indeed, the butterfly is the perfect metaphor for Venus-Neptune. While conspicuously beautiful and transcendent in its capacity for flight, it is never-the-less a fragile, ephemeral creature, doomed to die within the year of its birth. Just so, Venus-Neptune love entails a requirement to die in order to experience unitive consciousness with a divine ideal—infinite love and beauty—embodied in the person of the beloved.
To fully appreciate the difficulty of integrating Venus-Neptune aspects, it is necessary to understand the fundamental drives that these two planets represent. As the ruler of Pisces, Neptune signifies a spiritual impulse for transcendence and reunion with the source of all that is. This longing tugs unendingly on the soul, for in the absence of God-realization all pleasures and attainments ultimately prove empty. According to many spiritual traditions, the final goal of life is to awaken to the illusion of separateness from the whole and willingly surrender one’s separate-self sense, i.e., the ego, in order to merge in ecstatic bliss with God. To assist in this process, Neptune—the spiritual face of the divine—conspires to bring about experiences of defeat, disillusionment, and loss, for in the wake of such experiences one is inclined to develop the requisite attitudes that facilitate one’s evolution as a spiritual being, such as humility, surrender, and compassion, to name a few.
In conflict with this picture are Venusian needs that impose their own requirements. These include the Taurean drive for stable attachments to things and people that provide for a sense of security, pleasure, and comfort. Also included are Libran needs for beauty, intimacy and companionship, which may especially conflict with the Piscean imperative for oneness with all life. Fulfillment of Libran needs requires recognition of differentness—a prerequisite for any stable relationship. But how can one aspire to fairness, resolve conflicts, and collaborate toward considered agreements under the Neptunian imperative for obliteration of difference in euphoric oneness? This is the fundamental dilemma implicit in the quincunx between Libra and Pisces, which is brought to the fore in any hard aspect between Venus and Neptune.
When planets aspect one other, each acts upon and infuses the other with its essence. Neptune elevates and spiritualizes Venus, making it function in a more idealized way and imbuing it with a sense of the transcendent, infinite, and eternal. Venus, in turn, sensualizes Neptune and brings it down to the earthly realm of bodily pleasures and instills in it a desire for intimacy and commitment. Myths and fairy tales of mere humans aspiring to mate with gods and goddesses are surely Venus-Neptune tales. Yet, because Neptune is ultimately a disembodied ideal—an imagined perfection insubstantial and ephemeral by its very nature—such unions have a tendency to dissolve into nothingness, bringing loss, tragedy, and heartbreak in their wake. Venus-Neptune is not all negative, however, for at higher levels of integration the two archetypes are able to combine in ways that are relatively stable and mutually enriching. In any single life there is apt to be more than one expression, with positive outcomes intermingled with negative. Over time it is certainly possible to evolve one’s expression of the aspect in a more fulfilling direction. We will consider these shortly, but first let us examine its more virulent forms.
Every end is implicit in its beginning. Early manifestations of Venus-Neptune are often characterized by porous boundaries with regard to the body and relationships. A Venus-Neptune child may experience unwanted and inappropriate touching that evokes feelings of guilt, and which may later be denied through lying and/or repression of the experience itself. Lack of clear boundaries may also characterize the parental marriage. The child observes affairs, deceptions, and abandonments with all their messy entanglements and consequences, including grief, guilt, and loss. In some instances, the child may be appropriated by one parent as a cover for an affair, as when a father takes his son with him for an outing but spends most of it in bed with his mistress, then requires the son to lie about it to his mother. This not only makes the son an accomplice in the crime, it provides a model for relationships. I have seen mothers appropriate their sons and daughters for similar ends.
Neptune rules processes of dissolution. Accordingly, marital dissolution is a common outcome if Neptune forms a hard aspect to Venus. This can result in the Venus-Neptune child being left behind with a lonely, depressed parent who appropriates the child as her primary relationship and source of love. The child is deprived of a healthy role model due to the disintegration of his parent’s marriage, while also being burdened with responsibility for one parent’s emotional well-being. Sometimes he will be caught in the middle between mother and father, which strain his relationships with both parents and put him in a catch-22: if he’s too close with mother, it hurts father; if he’s too close with father, it hurts mother. Inescapable, irrational guilt stems from the perception that loving and receiving love is unavoidably a cause of suffering to someone, one way or the other.
A variant on the bad marriage theme is when the parents do not divorce, but the child is appropriated by one parent as a substitute spouse. This poses twin dangers: fear of being engulfed by the needy parent, and guilt for causing distress to the alienated parent. The guilt and fears that such relationships evoke establish the pattern that later must be worked out in adult relationships.
It could be argued that at the heart of hard Venus-Neptune contacts is a sense of unconscious guilt indissolubly associated with human attachments. While there may be a basis for this guilt in actual childhood experiences, as detailed above, there is also likely to be a certain amount of existential guilt associated with relationships in general. By existential guilt I mean the guilt that comes from simply being human. The reason for this is Neptune’s spiritual imperative and prime directive: sacrifice for the sake of unitive consciousness. To be human is to be separated from God. All Neptunian experience is teleological in that it occurs for the sake of reunion with God. As this requires renunciation of attachments in the service of spiritual oneness, it follows that any actual attachment to a human being is an obstacle to this higher calling. Relinquishment of the attachment not only atones for the imagined crime of loving a god-substitute, but also creates that ineluctable mixture of grief, anguish, and remorse that softens and readies the soul, as it were, for God.
Evidence for unconscious guilt can be discerned in the pervasive tendency of people with these aspects to subvert their needs for intimacy by marrying someone who is dissolute, deceptive, or otherwise undeserving of trust. Again, Neptune is about dissolution of boundaries; thus, the marriage may have been entered into prematurely without the necessary Libran conversations and contractual agreements that allow the participants to really know one another. Lack of truly intimate, revealing conversation is symptomatic of a lack of boundaries; that is, enmeshment. The Venus-Neptune person simply imagines that everything is perfect, that “we are one.” Partners may be idealized beyond all proportion to their actual merit. Neptunian imagination becomes a substitute for actually doing the Venusian work to determine who is really there. By the time it is discovered that the partner has a history of indolence, criminality, substance abuse, bi-sexuality, sexual addiction, pedophilia, or other acts of marital betrayal, it is too late.
If the Venus-Neptune person is in a stable and healthy marriage, he or she may subvert the relationship by finding themselves irresistibly drawn to someone else—often a person that exemplifies a more ideal type of love, or a love just out of reach, or someone unattainable for reasons that appear tragic and fated. This may lead to an affair or simply remain an unfulfilled longing. It is not a ‘choice’ in the conventional sense of the term, but more like a compulsion to sacrifice the love one has in order to pursue a greater love that one cannot have.
If single, the story is similar. A person may fall in love with someone who is married, lives far away, is already betrothed, is of their own gender, or is simply disinterested. The English novelist, Somerset Maugham, who has the square, once confessed: “I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.”1 Maugham also said, “The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.” These statements reflect a common pattern in Venus-Neptune contacts: that of falling in love with someone who is not even aware that they are the object of one’s passion—a friend, a teacher, someone else’s spouse, or a public figure such as a movie star. A yet creepier variant involves taking it to the next level—imagining that the beloved has reciprocal feelings even though nothing of the sort was ever actually communicated or even suggested. This can lead to bizarre outcomes: sending unwelcome letters and gifts, stalking, accusations of being misled, and other ways of setting oneself up to feel abandoned, disillusioned, and bereft.
If Venus square Neptune were a drink, it would be a highly intoxicating, addictive potion of divine love mixed up with human love. To drink this tonic is to be entranced, bewitched, and carried away by feelings of attraction that are irresistible and often hopeless. These include impossible relationships between married/single, teacher/student, therapist/client, doctor/patient, and old/young, among others. It is precisely the longing for what one cannot have that implicates the divine in such relationships, for God is likewise an unattainable ideal that cannot be physically possessed. By projecting the face of God onto the person of the beloved, she is imbued with a quality of the transcendent, like a muse that inspires but is herself unattainable. On those occasions that the loved object is momentarily acquired, there is a high probability that he or she will soon be lost. This may entail the actual loss of a lover through sickness or death, or simply be due to the inevitable disillusionment one feels when the idealized love object reveals his or her all too human flaws and failings.
I once had a client with Venus in Pisces at the Nadir opposed to Neptune on the M.C. For the first two years of his life he lived with his unmarried mother who had birthed him after being impregnated by a wealthy and powerful man with whom she had been having an affair. She was under the illusion that this man would eventually leave his wife and marry her. Two years later when he admitted that he had no such intention, she abandoned her baby and was never seen or heard from again. The father took the traumatized toddler into his own family, confessed his infidelity to his wife, and together they raised the child as their own, never letting him know that he had been abandoned by his biological mother. When my client was 21 and joined the military, he saw his birth certificate for the first time and discovered his true origins. This opened the floodgates of the repressed memory of his lost mother and he responded by getting drunk, a state he remained in for five years.
Upon recovering from his alcoholic stupor, he embarked on a pattern of passionately pursuing women that were unavailable. Unconsciously, he was compelled to find his lost mother. This led to a string of marriages that always ended the same way: he would find some new goddess that beckoned from the beyond—the lost love object whom he must have. By fifty he had settled into a somewhat stable relationship with a woman on whom he was financially dependent, like a little boy with his mother. When under these circumstances he met his latest twin flame, he could not marry her because it meant losing his source of security. In effect, he was caught between staying with his mother—his security blanket—or pursuing his mother in the form of an idealized love object that might again disappear. When, in fact, she did end the affair (like his own mother, she became disillusioned with the affair), he was inconsolable and began to stalk her, which forced her to obtain a restraining order from the police.2
In this case, a number of Venus-Neptune themes are represented—an early abandonment, idealizations of women followed by disillusionments, devaluations, new affairs, loss, guilt, and grief. This reflects the larger point that an aspect of this sort is not merely a set of behavioral traits; it is a pattern of experience that extends from the crib to the grave. The dissolution of his attachment to his mother during the Taurean stage of 18 months to 4 years established a pattern that he was compelled to repeat throughout his adult life: continuously abandoning current relationships to pursue idealized lovers that symbolized his lost mother. The affairs, deceptions, and disillusionments that constituted the pattern were merely the surface features of a deeper story that had its roots in an original abandonment that he was trying to reverse.
Another way the aspect can play itself out is through victim-savior relationships. In this version, Neptune expresses itself in the complementary roles of victim and savior, while Venus unites them in an intimate relationship. The victim evokes feelings of compassion from the savior, who must sacrifice his own relationship needs in the act of administering selfless care to the victim. While some victims are legitimate, as in a spouse who develops cancer, others are casualties of their own undoing, as through drug and alcohol addiction. In the case of the latter, the misery of the pairing is a folie-a-deux, for the savior is also an enabler who helps to maintain the problem by his participation in it. Should his self-inflicted victim/partner recover, she is not likely to feel gratitude but resentment, for his strength and virtue has been purchased at the expense of her guilt and weakness. This usually leads to ill-treating the rescuer through some act of betrayal or abandonment; hence, the savior becomes the victim. The roles are interchangeable.
An excellent example of this is portrayed in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. The protagonist, Larry Darrell, has embraced eastern mysticism and the life of an ascetic. He falls in love with a fallen woman, Sophie, who seeks to bury the pain of her previous losses by escaping into alcohol, opium, and promiscuity. Larry tries to save her and ends up marrying her, but she soon slips back into alcoholism, abandons Larry, and ends up dead in a Paris slum. Maugham, as stated, had Venus square Neptune, which he sublimated into other works of fiction as well, like Rain, Of Human Bondage, and The Painted Veil, all of which express similar Venus-Neptune themes.
A somewhat higher version of this same dynamic can be found in the lives of celibates who consciously and deliberately sacrifice their personal love needs in the service of a spiritual calling. Venusian needs for attachment are sublimated into acts of selfless love for casualties of war, illness, or any other condition that causes suffering. Perhaps the best example is Florence Nightingale, who had the opposition. A celebrated English nurse, Nightingale believed that God had called her to be in His service; thus, like a nun who takes a vow of chastity so that she can give all her love to God and through God to all people, she remained celibate for life.
Nightingale is credited with laying the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of the first secular nursing school in the world. She came to prominence during the Crimean War (1853-1856) where she tended to wounded soldiers and was dubbed “The Lady with the Lamp” after her habit of making rounds at night. Allegedly, Nightingale developed some rather intense attachments to her patients. The psychological syndrome known as the “Florence Nightingale Effect” was named for her and is used to describe a situation where a caregiver, typically a doctor or nurse, falls in love with a vulnerable patient in his or her care.
Other Venus-Neptune celibates may forego human relationships altogether and sublimate their relational needs into the love of a more abstract entity, like mathematics. Isaac Newton, who had the square, never married or even dated so far as historians can discern, but his “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” published in 1687 is considered one of the most important scientific books ever written. As the agent of Libra, Venus rules mathematics. An equation by definition is a statement of equality involving two or more variables considered to have the same value. Newton also developed a theory of color, another Venus topic. He showed that a prism can decompose white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum, which in sum are equal to the whole. The Neptunian dimension of the aspect is implicit in Newton’s focus on the Universe as a whole system, or light in its entirety, the mysteries of which he succeeded in decoding by virtue of abstract mathematical formulas (Venus). The celebrated English poet Alexander Pope was so moved by Newton’s accomplishments that he wrote the famous epitaph:
Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
A similar expression of celibacy can be found in the lives of Venus-Neptune individuals who transcend human attachments via devotional love of a spiritual entity that symbolizes the Venus archetype itself. The recently deceased Pope, John Paul II, who has the square, was reportedly so in love with the Madonna—the Virgin Mary—that he was pictured in a Catholic periodical praying before a full-cover image of Mary accompanied by the words, “The most Marian Pope in history has entrusted his pontificate—and his life—to the Virgin Mother of God.” After recovering from an assassination attempt, John Paul II claimed it was Mary who actually saved him from the assassin’s bullet. This puts a new twist on victim-savior dynamics. To signify his devotion, he chose the Episcopal motto Totus Tuus, meaning “Totally Yours”.
Denying one’s need for human attachment by aligning with the Neptunian impulse for transcendence is certainly one way of avoiding the pain of loss, for one can never lose what one never had—in the Pope’s case, the love of a woman that exists entirely in his imagination. Elsewhere I have argued that the Pope’s devotion to Mary was compensatory to early traumatic losses of his mother, brother, and father.3
Curiously, a similar history afflicted the American singer and actress, Madonna, who watched her mother slowly waste away with breast cancer when she was five years old. Like the Pope, Madonna also has Neptune squaring Venus. She compensated for the traumatic loss of her mother—a personal attachment—by pursuing a transpersonal love with no attachments—the mass adulation that comes with celebrity. However, unlike the Pope who chose celibacy and an imaginary relationship with a spiritual icon, Madonna chose celebrity and transitional relationships with an endless series of lovers, both male and female.4
Madonna has been accused of making a mockery of the religious import of her name by virtue of the sensual and sexual excesses for which she is infamous, going so far as masturbating with a crucifix on stage in Rome. It is no small irony that John Paul II subsequently had Madonna—the very name of his beloved—permanently banned from performing in Italy. Yet, these two figures are strangely connected by the planetary aspect they share. Despite their diametrically opposed expression of the aspect, each strategy may be in the service of the same end: defense against pain of loss. The pope could never lose the love of a woman who existed entirely on a spiritual plane; Madonna could never lose the love of objects that existed merely as interchangeable parts.
Another way the aspect can be expressed is by working out the conflict through artistic expression. I have already mentioned Somerset Maugham, but there are innumerable other artists and writers who combine Venusian pleasure, beauty and intimacy with Neptunian themes of transcendence and eternal love. Of particular note is the 19th century English writer, E. Rider Haggard, who had Venus in the 12th square Neptune on the M.C.; thus, he not only had the square, but also had Venus in Neptune’s house (the 12th). In 1886, Haggard wrote She, a classic of imaginative literature and one of the best-selling books of all time. She is the ultimate example of merging divine and human love into one object—Ayesha, an immortal Egyptian priestess of such extraordinary charms that she enchants any man who beholds her.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Ayesha is transcendently beautiful, a veritable goddess that promises eternal love if her chosen lover is willing to sacrifice all prior attachments. The main protagonist, Vincey, a 19th century explorer, falls under her spell and is invited to bathe with Ayesha in the “pillar of fire,” which will grant him immortality, too. Vincey learns that Ayesha has lived for over two millennia awaiting the reincarnation of her lover whom she accidentally killed in a fit of jealous rage two thousand years ago. She recognizes Vincey as her reincarnated lover and assures him that the pillar of fire will enable them to be together for all eternity. To allay his fears, Ayesha steps into the Spirit of Life—the pillar of fire—but with this second immersion she reverts to her true age and dissolves away in the blue fire.
The Venus-Neptune theme of the story is so explicit that it hardly needs further interpretation. One point is worth noting, however. Venus-Neptune is frequently experienced as a love that is fated, eternal, and transcendent, as when the individual proclaims his or her beloved as being from a past life, a twin flame, a soul mate, and so forth. Neptune is projected onto the partner so that the entire relationship feels mystical and supernatural. Human beings, however, are not gods and goddesses, so the usual progression of such relationships is from magic to tragic, as when Ayesha dissolved away into the Spirit of Life—an apt metaphor for disillusionment.
With regard to love goddesses, some iconic performers literally embody the archetype, like Pamela Anderson, Bo Derek of “10” fame, Jane Fonda in her “Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy” role, Josephine Bakker the erotic dancer, Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct”, and the tragic Dorothy Stratton, all of whom had Venus-Neptune squares (except Derek who has the conjunction).
Other ways of sublimating the aspect into artistic expression involve transcendent imagery. Painters like Sulamith Wulfing, who had the square, depict ethereal, enigmatic figures such as angels, fairies, and nature spirits. Likewise, the French impressionist painter, Paul Gaugin, who also has the square, emphasized symbolism, spirituality, natives living in a tropical paradise, and other visions that sprung wholly from his imagination.
Perhaps the most perfect expression of a hard Venus-Neptune aspect occurs when both archetypes are fully differentiated, developed, and integrated in a manner that allows each to enhance the other. In such cases, neither archetype is expressed at the other’s expense. Venus is not used as a defense against the pain of loss, and Neptune is not employed as a barrier against a fear of personal attachments. Rather, they join in a manner that allows the individual to have a deep, intimate partnership while also allowing for the disillusionment that inevitably follows discovery of one another’s imperfections. In effect, loss is contained within the relationship, which is consecrated to a spiritual ideal and becomes a vehicle for developing compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.
Very often the partners will collaborate in some sort of Neptunian project, either charitable, spiritual, or artistic. In this way, Neptune finds an outlet that actually stregthens the relationship rather than undermining it. The couple might meditate together, paint, share an interest in poetry or music, or cooperate in the allieviation of suffering. With regard to the latter, Someset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which in 2006 was released as a film starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, provides a good example of a couple that undergo a painful, spiritual journey, which ends quite beautifully in their joint efforts to save a small Chinese village from a cholera outbreak.
One of my favorite examples of an integrated Venus-Neptune square is Doctor Joyce Brothers, the iconic American psychologist who became famous for doing an advice show and syndicated newspaper column on relationships. She married a physician who specialized in internal medicine and was renowned for his charitable work. They remained happily married for forty years until he died of cancer in 1989. Her 1992 book, Widowed, was inspired by the loss of her husband and offered practical advice for widows and widowers, helping them to cope with their grief and move on with their lives.
Her other books, too, dealt with the unavoidable tensions, disappointments, and transitions that love and marriage entails. Brothers’ 1988 book, The Successful Woman: How You Can Have a Career, a Husband, and Family—and Not Feel Guilty about It, instructed woman how to balance marital sacrifices with career aspirations. More importantly, it dealt with the Neptunian theme of how unconscious guilt can sabotage otherwise good relationships, which is certainly testimony to her integrated Venus-Neptune square.
In the good doctor’s life, we see how Venus and Neptune can combine in a marriage that revolves around both partners dedicating themselves to the relief of suffering. Her husband did it as an internist that focused on diseases of the body, and she did it as a psychologist who focused on love’s hardships and travails, including the inevitable death of one’s spouse. Brothers’ life demonstrates how marital happiness and disappointment, bliss and anguish, attachment and loss, are not mutually exclusive affairs, but can be transmuted at a higher level into a love that truly is eternal. Doctor Joyce Brothers is 83 and still working. I suspect that when her time comes she will not mournfully throw herself into the grave of her deceased husband and rise with him as butterfly twins. She is way beyond that.
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1 Meyers, Jeffrey (2005). Somerset Maugham: A Life. New York: Vintage Books., p. 232.
2 Not surprisingly, she also had a Venus-Neptune square.
3 See, “Pope John Paul II and the Culture of Death,” at: http://www.aaperry.com/index.asp?pgid=66
4 See, for example, Morton, A. (2001). Madonna. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.