River Phoenix: What Price Faith?

Zip Dobyns

River Phoenix was winning talent shows as a child and already nominated as “best supporting actor” at the age of 17. He seemingly had everything going for him. But at age 23, he collapsed in convulsions and went into cardiac arrest. His autopsy said he died from an overdose mixture of heroin, cocaine, valium, cold-medicine, and marijuana. What a price for a drug high!

According to Lois Rodden, River’s parents were part of the hippy generation who became missionaries for the religious cult, the Children of God, between 1973 and 1977. They named their children River, Rain, Liberty, and Leaf. River was born at home in Madras, OR on August 23, 1970, a little after noon. He gave the time of 12:10 P.M. to astrologer Marie Yates. His parents moved to Los Angeles in 1981, and River became a regular on a TV series. His fans were shocked and heart-broken when he suddenly died on October 31, 1993.

A strong identification with work is shown in River’s chart by the Ascendant rulers. Mars is in the tenth house and Pluto is in Virgo as well as conjunct Vesta, our super-Virgo asteroid. River was also ego-involved with work with his Sun in the sign of Virgo and the house of Capricorn, and the position of the south lunar node showed a lesson in that part of life. I am always intrigued when a horoscope shows that kind of mixture which includes already developed skill in an area, an urge to do more in the area, and a lesson in the same area. In addition to the earth already listed, the tight Mercury-Pluto conjunction is trine Saturn and the Moon in Taurus—exactly trine the midpoint of the latter two as well as conjunct the MC/Ascendant midpoint. With the “new asteroids” and midpoints, I limit aspects to one-degree orbs. Charts with many aspects with tight orbs show above-average intensity, which can be manifested as talents and/or problems. I think that any form of letter five in a chart is a key to a desire to do more in that part of life, to develop creativity and increase one’s sense of self-esteem. The south lunar node and any form of letter ten are signs that we need to learn something, so putting them together is a double statement of a lesson. Once we have learned to handle that part of life, we have an obligation to give something in that area.

So River was born with high skills in the area of work, career, and earning a living; he came with a desire to carry his talents to new heights; yet he still had lessons in the area of being practical, of knowing the LAW and living within it voluntarily.

The fire planets and signs (Sun, Mars, Leo) in the tenth house mark a potential steamroller. Being identified with and ego-invested in letter ten can express as “My will is Law. My ego is Law. I should be able to do anything I want.” The person who is born with these habitual subconscious feelings may become a steamroller. If there is real talent, she (or more often he) is usually very successful until he or she overreaches, hits the stone wall of the Law, the limits to personal will, in some form, and crashes. Of course, if the lesson of realistic, voluntarily accepted limits are learned, and the individual can continue to be highly successful.

Alternately, the individual with these patterns may say “the world has all the power. I really want to be outstanding, to accomplish big things, but I lack the skills or the opportunity to achieve the really important career I should have. I might as well give up and not try. I would just fail or fall short in some way.” If the habitual self-doubts and self-blocking persist, the individual is likely to become ill or incapacitated in some way. Illness frees people from feeling guilty that they are not as successful as they think they ought to be.

Another variation is a combination of the first two. The subconscious feelings are “I ought to be able to do what I want but I can’t and if I can’t do it my way, I won’t play.” These people usually do not feel guilty since they blame the world rather than themselves, so they don’t need the excuse of illness. However, they may test the limits of the “law” in a variety of ways. Some end up in jail. The more intelligent and/or persuasive ones can be pretty successful in getting much of what they want from the world by getting others to do the work. Such individuals will usually have an emphasis in the other two elements in addition to the fire and earth. Air and water live “in the head,” air as the conscious and water as the subconscious sides of the mind. Air and water are willing to let others take the action, to be spectators, and to be dependent. Both fire and earth hate being dependent but an individual with enough air and water can satisfy the fire need for personal control and the earth need for tangible results by getting others to do things his or her way.

Remember, the “law” includes “natural” law—taking care of one’s body with a reasonable diet, exercise, rest, and enough faith to handle the emotional stress which is an inevitable part of life here. It also includes the laws of society like speed limits and stopping for red lights. One’s conscience is the internalized form of the law.

The preceding alternatives provide a good example of the futility of expecting astrology to predict the details of a person’s life. There are always many different ways to manifest the basic twelve principles. Quite often, individuals will try different alternatives at different times in their lives as they seek to integrate the natural conflicts which are inherent in life. Integration is possible by finding ways to satisfy each of the different desires so that they become complementary. All of us are born with some desires already integrated (shown by harmony aspects) and others on which we are still working (shown by conflict aspects). The consequences in our lives tell us “how we are doing” in our progress toward integration.

River’s drug mixture obviously tested the limits of both major forms of the law, but the more drastic consequences came from assuming that he was not subject to natural law. Some of the drugs he had taken were illegal, but it was the mixture and/or the quantity that his physical body could not handle, which produced his tragically early death.

Why did River have to “test the limits” so drastically when he had achieved so much that most people can not even dream of? The astrological elements which are most likely to get us into serious trouble are fire and water. They are both emotional while earth is practical and air is logical. Fire tends to express the emotions freely and spontaneously. Water, with its need for security, tends to hold in the emotions until it feels it is safe to let them out. Fire-water mixtures are the most intense. Individuals with this emphasis may be subject to extreme mood swings from euphoria when the fire is pouring out to depression when the water is holding back. The repression may be for self-protection or for the protection of others, but it is always driven by safety needs.

Most people live with a frequent if not constant sense of limits. More often than not, their jobs offer little satisfaction, their relationships are a source of tension, they feel pressured by money, and they have few areas where they can safely release their emotions. The entertainment world, especially movies and sports but also fiction in written form, provides outlets for these pent-up emotions, Actors and actresses express the emotions for the spectators, and offer some vicarious satisfaction to them. The most successful entertainers are often intensely emotional people. It is this quality which makes them magnetic, which draws and satisfies the spectators, helping them forget for a little while the drabness and frustrations of their own lives. The entertainment figures do the heroic or horrifying things which the spectators could not even dream of doing but which somehow relieve a little of the pressures of an ordinary life. But there is always the danger that these intensely emotional entertainers will carry their emotional drives too far.

River Phoenix was partly identified with the fire-water combination. Jupiter (fire) was in Scorpio in the Pisces house (double water). Jupiter is part of letter one (identity) because it rules the Sagittarius in the first house and it is conjunct the Ascendant. Neptune (water) was in Scorpio (water) in the Aries (fire) house. The Ascendant and East Point were also in a water sign in a fire house, but the planets are always the most important keys in a chart, and Jupiter and Neptune are both keys to our search for the Absolute, for some form of God. The Absolute has no limits. This combination, added to the one-ten mixture previously discussed, is suggesting that subconsciously River felt that he had the right and the power to do anything he wanted.

The other extreme of the one-nine and one-twelve combinations is the feeling that we ought to be God, perfect, and that if we are not, we are no good. There is ample earth in River’s chart to show the ability to be practical, yet River’s actions were clearly not realistic. Apparently, the cumulative effect of the identification with both the Law and the Absolute left River feeling that he really could do anything he wanted.

But if the preceding were the whole answer, it would not explain why River took drugs. A feeling of omnipotence could lead to many kinds of risk-taking. It is the fixed emphasis in the chart which points to the potential for challenges in the area of money or possessions or sensual pleasure, and there are an infinite variety of ways to deal with those issues. River could have been a compulsive gambler or a great philanthropist. He could have collected art objects or homes or beautiful women. River’s identification with Jupiter and Neptune (including having Neptune’s house occupied by a key to identity and the Antivertex in Sagittarius) are major clues to his particular choice of excess. Letters nine and twelve are really searching for the Absolute. Their appropriate goal is conscious awareness of (Jupiter) and union with (Neptune) the Infinite Whole. For most people, such mystical experiences are fleeting. They can be found in many ways—in religious rituals, through nature, music, meditation, reading inspirational literature, and associating with people who live in a “connected” way, even when they are not fully conscious of their connection to the Absolute. For some of the people who lack a sense of connectedness to the Whole, who lack faith in a “higher Power” which we can trust, the “high” they experience through drugs or alcohol serves as a substitute for the experience of mystical union with the Whole. The values of our culture include the knowledge of “science,” material wealth, fame, passionate love, physical beauty, and power in many forms. In general, our culture does not value spiritual vision and mystical experiences.

I suspect that the drugs which killed River Phoenix were pitiful substitutes for the spiritual experiences he craved. He had everything that the material world could give him; money and the power it confers, fame with the adulation of millions, but drugs are often a sign of a spiritual vacuum. Perhaps the religious excesses of his parents helped to “turn him off” to faith. But the picture of River’s basic character which we get from his chart points to a lesson connected to beliefs, goals, values, faith. The Moon and the Sun rule the signs in the ninth house. The Moon is conjunct Saturn and the Sun is conjunct the south lunar node and in the house of Saturn. Also, the midpoint of the south node and Saturn is in the ninth house. In recent years I have been watching this midpoint as a potentially important key to a lesson area since midpoints represent a joint focus of the factors that are their source and I think that Saturn and the south node represent fundamental lessons for almost everyone. The patterns in River’s chart suggest that too much of his faith was vested in the material world, as is true of a great many people. Ivan Boesky pronounced the mantra of the 1980s; “Greed is good,” and his slang was just the modern version of Adam Smith who taught that self-interest would eventually produce the greatest good for the greatest number. To the people at the top, Smith is a Guru and competition is the name of the game. The people at the bottom need a world with more empathy.

As our readers know, I believe that character creates destiny and that character is a collection of habits which we gradually revise as we experience their consequences. Astrology just offers us a mirror to let us see the issues with which we are dealing at any given time. I think that astrology’s secondary progressions (one day in the sky symbolizing one year in the life) are very valuable, showing us the natural stages of development in the life. River’s progressions at his death clearly pointed to the danger that his excesses might be fatal. One of the relevant Arabic Parts is the Part of Death. Arabic Parts, or Planetary Pictures as the Uranians call them, are derived by adding two factors in the chart and subtracting a third. If this calculation is done with every factor in a chart, it is possible to create hundreds of additional points. Most astrologers limit the use of the Parts to the Part of Fortune which I interpret as an additional Moon in the chart—an area where we seek or provide emotional security.

When strongly aspected, the Part of Death can point to many actions which involve “letting go” of the past. It is certainly not limited to the death of a physical body though it will normally have aspects when that occurs, along with the natal and progressed cusps of the eighth house. I have found the Placidus house system the most effective in these calculations. The formula for the Part of Death adds the eighth cusp to the Ascendant and subtracts the Moon. For its progressed position, the progressed degrees are used for the same three factors. Progressed aspects are limited to a one-degree orb. Along with the eighth house cusp, the fourth house cusp or IC is also a key to endings. The water principle marks closure, finishing chapters in order to make a new beginning with the fire which follows water. The twelfth cusp can also signify completions. As our regular readers know by now, I have also found the local house cusps very valuable if an individual has moved from the place of birth.

At River’s death, his P Part of Death was conjunct his IC, a dramatic key to an end which can only be present in a chart once in about 28 years. River’s local P Part of Death was conjunct P Pallas, square his P local Ascendant, and opposite his natal Sun, P south lunar node, and P Dionysius. The latter Greek god was noted for his religious frenzy produced by alcohol and drugs. In his myth, he ended up torn apart by his crazed followers. When he moved to Hollywood, River put his local Ascendant conjunct his natal birthplace Part of Death. When he died, his P Icarus was conjunct them both. Icarus is noted for his overreach which led to his death. P Uranus, noted as a key to our rejection of limits, held a long conjunction with natal Icarus in the natural house of Uranus. P Phaethon, another mythical example of overreach, was conjunct natal Dionysius. The P eighth house cusp was conjunct natal Karma and P Karma was octile the local MC and natal Juno. P Moon squared the local P eighth house cusp and the local Antivertex, and it opposed natal Vesta.

The preceding aspects are only a fraction of the ones which could be listed. Of course there were aspects involving the traditional planets which gave us the same picture of testing the limits with a danger of overreach. P Ascendant (letter one) opposed both natal and P Saturn (letter ten) and it squared natal Mars (letter one) in the tenth house. P MC (letter ten) was conjunct P Mars (letter one) as well as P Amun—a sun god. The tenth house set was also quincunx P Chiron in Aries (letter one). P Mercury in the tenth house was octile natal Jupiter, a ruler of the first house.

The potential of excessive sensuality was also suggested by P Jupiter and P Venus equidistant on either side of the natal Ascendant, putting the latter on their midpoint. Traditional astrology regards Jupiter and Venus as benefics, but as with everything in astrology, they symbolize psychological principles which can be expressed in either pleasant or painful ways. With Jupiter a key to our search for the Absolute and Venus a key to our search for pleasure, both can warn against excesses. It does not always follow that if some is good, more will be better. Since River’s immediate cause of death was the stopping of his heart, we expect the Sun to be involved in some way. The opposition of the P local Part of Death to the natal Sun was mentioned above, but P Sun should also be aspected. It is trine Saturn and sextile P Ascendant and semisextile natal Mars; all aspects considered harmonious. It also has an octile to P Venus and a trioctile to natal Ceres which is close to the Descendant. Pluto, one of the “standard” keys to death, remained octile to River’s Hollywood Ascendant and natal Part of Death for most of his life. Since the heart failure was apparently brought on by the drug mixture, we would also expect a prominent Neptune in the picture. River’s first house Neptune opposed the Moon and squared the Sun within two degrees. His P local Ascendant had been conjunct it for over two years prior to his death, probably marking the period when he became deeply involved with drugs. At his death, transiting Pluto was conjunct Neptune and T Saturn squared it, highlighting the natal Sun-Moon-Neptune T-square.

Many more asteroids could also be mentioned. River’s chart was loaded with meaningful ones. Angelina (for Los Angeles) and Midas (who turned things into gold) were on River’s natal Mars, fitting his success in this area. P Asmodeus (the demon of lust) was on P Ascendant; all of the preceding in about 22 degrees of their fixed signs. P Juno was at 24 degrees of Taurus, but still within orb of natal Mars so it participated in the T-square in fixed signs and cardinal houses. The P south lunar node remained conjunct natal Siva for all of River’s short life. Circe was prominent, the lady who turned men into pigs. So was Libitina, the Roman goddess of death, and Vinifera, the grapes from which wine was made in the ancient world. Natal Vinifera was on River’s MC and P Vinifera on P Libitina with both square P Juno. The sky is literally inexhaustible when we look at the chart of someone who has played a prominent role in the world, even a relatively short-lived one. Perhaps his death will bring home the dangers of drugs to the young people who adored him. Perhaps it will encourage some to seek the spiritual experiences which are an important part of life in more effective ways.

Copyright © 1994 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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