So what I thought I would do is, in a highly chaotic fashion, read you some of this alchemical literature. The big bring down about alchemical literature is that apparently the muse didn't always smile on the alchemist and some of this poetry is pretty tormented stuff. Why this is, who can say, but let's try one here and see if you can bear with it. Also, my Middle English is not as good as it might be. This is a short one, and typical, and you will see why the alchemists were charged with unbearable obscurity and prolex prose. This poem is called "A Description of the Stone:"
Though Daphne fly from Phobeus bright yet shall they both be one
And if you understand this rite you have our hidden stone
For Daphne is fair and white but volatile is she
Phobeus a fixed god of might and red as blood is he
Daphne is a water nymph and hath of moisture store
Which Phobeus doth confine and heat and dries her very shore
They being dried into one a crystal flood must drink
Till they be brought to a white stone which washed with with virgin's milk So long until they flow as wax and no fume you can see
then have you all you need to ask. Praise God and thankful be.
This is a recipe for the production of the philosopher's stone and the author, I'm sure, felt that he'd spoken as clearly as he dare speak. And yet making something of this is no easy task. This is from the Teatrium Chemicum Britannicum and the late phase of alchemy. Here's another one:
The world is a maze and what you why
For sooth of late a great man did die
And as he lay a-dying in his bed
These words in secret to his son he said
'My son' quoth he, 'tis good for thee
I die for thou shall much the better be
Thereby and when thou seest that life hath me bereft
Take what thou findest and where I have it left
Thou dost not know, nor what my riches be
All which I will declare give ear to me
An earth I had all venum(?) to expel
And that I cast into a mighty well
A water ick(?) to cleanse what was amiss
I threw into the earth, and there it is
My silver all into the sea I cast
My gold into the air and, at the last
Into the fire, for fear it should be found
I threw a stone worth forty thousand pound
Which stone was given me by a mighty king
Who bade me wear it in a fourfold ring.'
Quoth he, ' this stone is by that ring found out
If wisely thou cans't turn this ring about
For every hope contrary is to other
Yet all agree and of the stone is mother
So now, my son, I will declare a wonder
That when I die this ring must break asunder
The king said so, but when he said with all
Although the ring be broke in pieces small
An easy fire shall soon it close again
Who this can do he need not work in vain
Till this my hidden treasure be found out
When I am dead, my spirit shall walk about
Make him to bring your fire from the grave
And stay with him till you my riches have.'
These words a worldly man did chance to hear
Who daily watched the spirit but nay though near
And yet it meets with him and everyone
Yet tells him not where is the hidden stone.
This stuff is obscure, it's deliberately obscure, it was obscure to its contemporaries and the whole effort became one of collecting this kind of material and finding it out. And you have to understand this was all circulating in manuscript, very little of this was printed. The Teatrium Chemicum Britannicum was not printed until 1652 so this was a world without vehicular transportation other than the horse and carriage and these people were paranoid of being discovered and persecuted for wizardry and witchcraft by the church. So, each alchemist working in secret, with a limited number of texts, with a local control language, created this vast conceptual patchwork of ideas and this is in large measure responsible for the obscurity of what is said.
Then another factor which impinges on this and further complicates the matter is that the name of the game was projection of the contents of the imagination onto physical processes, so taking red cinnibar and heating it in a furnace until it sweats mercury, for one alchemist this is the incineration of the red salamander and the collection of aurmercurius in the great pelican. They named their chemical apparati after animals and gods and so the pelican is a standard distillation apparatus, basically a condenser on top of something which is boiled and then these materials would be collected, ground, powdered, refired, mixed with other materials, refired again and in the process these people were, we call it, and it's such a weak term, the projection of the intellect into this dimension, they were living in a waking dream and many of the recipes are designed to wipe out the boundaries between waking and sleeping.
Remember I talked about the river of mercury that runs between the yin and yang? Many of the alchemical processes were of 40 days duration. Well you can imagine a hermit fearing discovery by the church, trying to keep his fires not too hot, not too cold, working day after day, night after night, eventually all boundaries dissolve and you're just living in a pure world of intellectual projection and then in the swirling of the alembic, in the chemical processes going on in the retort, you begin to be able to project your consciousness onto this. It's what we call visualization but for us it's a kind of a weak term because we are never really able to accept in the psychedelic state to transcend the belief in the inner world and the outer world being somehow separate so for us it's always separate. But they were able to wipe out that boundary. Well then, what they saw in their swirling retorts and alembics was not carbonization, calcination, condensation of various molecular weights of liquids and oils out, but rather the birth of the red lion, the coming of the eagle, the appearance of the smagdarian(can't quite make out this word) stone. They had hundreds and hundreds of these words. I didn't bring any with me, but much alchemical literature is dictionaries. Martinus Rulando's Alchemical Dictionary is a huge book of words with special meanings in the alchemical context.
So, why, why do this and what happens when you do it. Well, no matter what alchemist you're reading, there's always an agreement that there are stages in the great work. Stages in the opus, as they called it. You can't get any agreement on in what order these stages come, but roughly it's something like this: most agree that it begins in the nigredo, the blackening, Arcro(?), the Saturnine world of what we would call manic depression, despair, and that Aurchaos(?), a chaotic near psychotic state of unbounded hopelessness and that is the precondition, then, for the alchemical work though the stages of the opus never occur in order.
I had a dream last night that was, I think, triggered by an illustration in Fabricious(?) that I'll show you tonight but it was a classical alchemical dream. It was that I was at a country fair and its antiquity was indicated by the fact that it was happening in the school yard of my childhood and as I moved among the participants of this country fair I began to notice that they were freaky. There were people with withered arms and one side of their face slid down and so forth and so on. The whole thing began to drift toward nightmare and Richard Hermes Bird appeared in my dream as my alchemical compadre and at one point a black woman, perfect symbolism for the nigredo, a black woman with three withered arms and six or seven breasts, slid herself sideways in front of me and it was at that point that I went and found Richard and said, "I think we'd better get out of here."
Now, an alchemist would greet a dream like this with great anticipation and joy and would understand that this sets the stage now for the next movement forward. Well, then accounts differ. Those of you who really want to get into this, I recommend you read Mysterium Cunjunctiones by Jung, the Mysterious Conjunction. He discusses the nigredo in great detail. Another symbol for the nigredo is the Senax(?), the old man, because the old man is just short of death and that's the state that the nigredo makes you feel. Then you must take this raw, chaotic, unformed material, often compared to feces, compared to corruption, compared to the contents of an opened grave, and you must cook it in the alchemical fires of contemplation, prayer, and ascetic self control and then you will move through a series of stages that are associated with colors. There is the rubado, the reddening, there is the citronitas, the yellowing, there is the veriditas, the greening, and the order in which this occurs differs according to who you follow but then there is closure at the end of the process. Most alchemists, although certainly not all, agreed that the higher state is the albedo, the whitening, the purificacio. At each stage there are substages of dissolution, dissulutio et coagulacio. There's one alchemical aphorism that says "dissolutio et coagulacio, know this and this is all you need to know." And so it's a melting and a recasting and a purifying of psychic content. So finally you reach the albedo, the whitening, the highest stage, the stage of great purity.
But remember how I said last night that mercury was always the metaphor for mind in alchemy, or one of the metaphors for mind in alchemy, and I talked about its mutability and its ability to take the shape of its container and when you shatter it it then splits into many reflections. So, once you move into the domain of the albedo, the whitening, then a whole new problem arises for the alchemist. This is the problem of the fixing of the stone. Somehow the mutability of mercury must be overcome and it must be crystalized, it must be fixed so that it doesn't get away from you, so that it doesn't slip through your fingers. To achieve aurmercury is nothing unless you have the secret of the coagulacio. So then, there is a huge amount of effort devoted to this.
What is being described is what Jungians call the individuation process. A dissolving of the boundaries of the ego, an allowing of the chaotic material of the unconscious to pour forth where it can be inspected by consciousness, and we'll see tonight when we look at this art, these images are full of ravening beasts, incestuous mother/son pairs, incestuous brother/sister pairs, hermaphrodites, all taboos are broken, this stuff just boils up from the unconscious then is sublimed through these processes and then is somehow fixed and this fixing is the culmination of alchemy and if you can bring off this trick then you possess our stone, the philosopher's stone, the lapis, the Sophic Hydrolith of the Wise, Aranius Philolithes(sp?) calls it. There were hundreds of control words for naming the secret difficult to attain.
Alchemical gold, in short, this is what we're after. If you possess it, nothing else is worth anything because it is psychic completion, peace of mind, Jung called it the self. It's the self that we are trying to recover and remember we talked about the Gnostic myth of the light trapped in matter. Well this is the luminae de luminae, the light of light, the lux natura, the light drawn out of nature and condensed into a fixed form which then becomes the universal panacea. And I'm using as many of these alchemical terms as I can draw out of my memory to give you a feeling for it. This is the universal medicine. It cures all ills, you know, it brings you riches, fame, wealth, self-respect. It's the answer, it's what everyone is looking for and no one can find.
So this just became a consuming passion of the 15th and 16th century mind. They thought they were on the brink of it. Along the way they were discovering stuff like distilled alcohol, phosphorous, gun powder, all of these things were coming out of the alchemical laboratories but that was not it. They kept driving themselves onward because they knew that this was not the real thing and they were pursuing the real thing. Then for some people it became reassociated with this notion of the utopia that I mentioned this morning in the passage that I read about the city of Hermes Trismegistus, they began to see, it's almost like the crisis which overcame Buddhism, it must be an archetypal, and notice how rarely we've used that word here, it must be almost an archetypal stage in human thought. Theravadin Buddhism stressed individual thought, and individual redemption through meditation on emptiness, and then with the great reforms of Nagurdjuda(sp?), the idea of Bodhisattvic compassion was introduced and there carries with it political freight. An obligation to society and mankind.
So, as the 15th and 16th century progressed there began to be this awareness that what was wanted was not for an alchemist to break through, to his own personal salvation, but somehow to create an alchemical world. You get then the notion of the multiplacio, the idea that the stone, once created, will replicate itself and be able to change base matter into itself almost like a virus spreading through the ontological structure of matter itself and the world will be reborn and this idea then, what was happening was that these alchemists were getting bolder and printing was invented in Meins, near Frankfurt, in 1540, the distribution of alchemical books was changing the character of alchemy, it was no more the solitary hermit working away in his cave or mountaintop, far away from the minions of the church. These alchemists began to dream of banding together, of forming societies, of creating brotherhoods that were united in the sharing of their knowledge and their purpose.
This brings us to the curious episode in history called the Rosicrucian enlightenment. Dame Frances Yates, once again, got there first and she wrote a book called the Rosicrucian Enlightenment which traces the history of these alchemical brotherhoods and reveals to us what they were really about and what they were about was this dream of somehow taking the philosopher's stone, and the power, the immortality, the insight that it would bring and making it a general utility of mankind and in the, one way of looking at modernity, I have one friend who claims that the summoning of the Holy Spirit into matter can be seen as the creation of the modern world of electricity. That people like Helmholz(sp?) and Farraday were completing the alchemical work. It's very hard for us to realize how mysterious the electromagnetic field seemed to the 19th century. The 19th century had entirely imbued itself with the spirit of democratian atomism translated through Newtonian physics and they believed that everything was little balls of hard matter winging through space. When Helmholz and Farraday and these people began to talk about action at a distance and generating the electromagnetic field and trapping lightning and light in jars and running it through wires, what could this be but the trapping of spiritus. What could it be but the literal descent of the Holy Ghost into history and, you know, give it a moment's thought. For thousands of years, electricity was something that you saw when you took an amber rod and a piece of cat fur and went into a darkened room and stroked the cat fur and then when you would bring the amber rod close to the cat fur you would see the crackle of static electricity through the cat fur. For thousands of years that's what electricity was. Who would dream that you could light cities, that you could smelt metals, that you could illuminate the earth with this energy and yet from the 1850s to the present, this was done. It's almost the final literalizing of the alchemical dream.
But to go back now, I digress, I fear, let's go back to the climate of the 1580s and the central culprit here, and to my mind a giant figure casting an enormous shadow over the landscape of alchemy and of modern science, is the Englishman John Dee. John Dee united in himself the complete spirit of the Medieval Magus and the complete spirit of the modern scientist. He invented the navigational instruments that allowed the conquest of the round earth. When Frances Drake sailed up the coast of California he had navigational instruments that were top secret. The French, the Spanish, must be kept away from this stuff and these were navigational instruments created by John Dee that allowed him to locate himself anywhere on the globe. But John Dee was a man who, on a late summer evening in Mortlag, his house in Mortlag outside of London, the angel Gabriel descended into his garden and gave him what he called the shewstone, shew being show in Old English, and the shewstone exists to this day, you can see it in the British Museum and what's amazing about it is it's a piece of polished absidion, it's an Aztec mirror, is what it is. There was a ruler of the Aztecs called smoky mirror. How John Dee got this thing, we cannot even imagine. He says he got it from an angel, nobody can really nay say that, however I suspect that Cortez, on his first return to Spain from the new world, he brought a number of objects with him that he had collected in Central Mexico and somehow John Dee got his hands on this thing and it was for him a television screen into the logos and he used it over a number of years to direct the foreign policy of England.
He was the confidante of Queen Elizabeth the First and he also was the most accomplished astrologer in Europe and he used his ability to cast horoscopes as an entre into all the great houses of Europe, the kings and nobles of Europe. He was functioning as an intelligence agent, he was a spy for the British crown insinuating himself into these various courtly scenes and then writing back to Elizabeth in cyphers, cyphers that had previously only been used for magical purposes. He was sending back data on the strengths of military garrisons and the placement of fortifications and this sort of thing. This is what he was doing in the 1580s, he kept the shewstone for a number of years and he didn't seem to be able to make much progress with it. He had other methods too, he had wax tables and sigils but finally into his life came a very mysterious character named Edward Kelly and some accounts say that Edward Kelly had no ears. That indicates that he had had his ears removed for being a charlatan and a montebank. This was a common punishment in the provinces of England. So Edward Kelly was a very dubious character, I think. One strong piece of evidence that he was a shady character was, John Dee was married to a much younger woman named Ann Dee who by all accounts was quite a beauty and after gaining Dee's confidence as a scryer, the person who could look into the shewstone and lay out these scenarios that the angels and the entities coming and going in the shewstone were putting forth, Kelly revealed to Dee that the angels had instructed him to hit the hay with Ann. This was a great crisis in their relationship. However, according to Dee's diary "and so it was done," we read. So, hanky panky didn't begin with the Golden Dawn, believe me. In 1582 Ann Dee, John Dee, and Edward Kelly set out for Bohemia and Rudolph, the mad king of Bohemia held sway at that time. This is another one of those bizarre figures in the whole story of this...(tape cuts off a bit here)
Table of Contents