When Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, ascended the throne in 246 BC at the age of 13, work began on a mausoleum that would eventually protect him in the afterlife. In 1974, workers excavating a well just outside the city of Xi’an discovered the site; archeologists eventually uncovered thousands of life-sized terracotta statues, mostly depictions of soldiers lined up in formation to escort the emperor into the valley of death.
A Scorpio friend who visited China more than a year ago longed to travel to Xi’an to see the soldiers, but there wasn’t time. Soon after he returned home, however, he received a medical diagnosis that seemed grave. Faced with his imminent demise, he immediately scheduled a return trip to China to visit the statues. They proved as marvelous as he’d hoped. And though he is well for now, he has no regrets about having visited far-away China twice in one year.
At the time, my only thought was those terracotta soldiers seemed very compelling indeed, and seeing them was as good a reason as any to make such a long trip for the second time in one year. But on reflection, it’s interesting that this grand display of funerary art is what called to a Scorpio who was facing mortality. Scorpio’s opposite sign, Taurus, represents our attachment to the earth, but Scorpio symbolizes the sobering reality that we’ll leave it someday – taking nothing, not even our flesh and bones.
Everyone deals with this knowledge in his or her own way. Some ignore it, and stockpile shoes and big-screen televisions and expensive cookware that will take up space on the earth long after we’re worm food. Some obsess about diet and fitness; surely there is some magic formula that will make us live forever, or at least in perfect health until the day we drop dead at the age of 110 in the throes of passion. Some might even replicate an entire dynasty in terracotta, refuting the old adage that “you can’t take it with you when you go.”
Forever, humans passionately attached to physical life have sought to decode – and ultimately to outwit – the great mystery of death. The sign of Sagittarius represents the beliefs we form about the afterlife. But to get to Sagittarius on the horoscopic wheel, you have to first pass through Scorpio, and grapple with what it means to leave behind the beloved physicality of earthy existence. We confront this mystery when a loved one dies, or one’s childhood heroes begin to litter the obituary pages, and certainly when a health crisis brings the whole matter a little too close to home.
It’s not just the fear of losing our lives that haunts us. More and more, it’s growing old that is the worry. I know other countries manage aging differently, some better, some worse. But in the United States an astonishing number of Americans have little or nothing saved for retirement, a word which used to evoke happy golden years of golf and RV travel but which now is becoming a euphemism for being, at last, too sick to earn money. And just yesterday, I saw a disturbing headline which reported that in Japan, older women with no family or resources are committing crimes in order to gain the relative security of a prison sentence, with its shelter and three square meals.
In many places, the societal safety net has been worn to gossamer thinness. The process of dealing with a physical body in decline – housing it, feeding it, keeping it from hurting – takes up a lot of mental and emotional real estate as one ages. These physical concerns, the realm of Taurus, leaves little energy left over for Scorpionic thoughts of what happens after we die and our place in the grand scheme of things.
So there is comfort in imagining oneself as a long-ago emperor, powerful, revered, and accomplished in this life and ushered into the next life by a terracotta army. But then, as now, life was very different for ordinary people. It’s estimated that 700,000 laborers created the emperor’s giant mausoleum over three decades; their lives were presumably short and hard and their deaths brutish, with no terracotta soldiers to usher them into eternity. And yet, did the emperor take his riches with him? Did he go to a better neighborhood of heaven?
Maybe he did, I don’t know. None of us knows. In the Taurus season, as we luxuriate in spring’s milder weather and the explosion of beauty, flowers, and new life, the Scorpio Full Moon shines its light on the great mystery, the unknowable secret of death. It’s the impermanence of life that makes it precious, so we’re missing something by turning our backs on our mortality. Better, I think, to let it inspire us to sweep life up in a passionate embrace, to leave everything on the playing field, to celebrate the soft returning sunlight and the feel of a light cardigan around our shoulders.
The Scorpio Full Moon highlights two truths: One is that, against all odds, each of us exists. And the other is that eventually, we won’t. Eventually, we’ll walk off into the unknown, alone, naked, probably a bit frightened – without a 401K, and without an army of terracotta soldiers. Until then, enjoy the gift of now, and savor the mystery of what comes later.