Pictures speak more than words. But words, ideas and archetypes are an evolving landscape through which the pictures move, and mind stops … to breathe.
This essay on Alchemy occurred suddenly in about 1991 when I was writing my way through a dense Karmic knot/relationship. It was “dropped in from above”, and surprised me. It summed up my understanding of Fulcanelli’s La Mystere des Cathedrales. It held the lamp higher than my immediate personal concerns. Associating Kabbalah and Alchemy with my childhood – the sense of wonder – I include a few drawings from 1956/7 – when about 8 years old.
The Three Graces, after Botticelli, 1956 or 57
AN ESSAY ON ALCHEMY
“The water we need is dry. It does not wet the hands, and it gushes out of the rock at a blow from Aaron’s rod.*”
This dry water is quicksilver, the element of mercury or hermes (thrice Great) which adapts to all conditions. Mercury is the symbol of the mind. The object of the Great Work in alchemy is to dissolve the temporal mind, through repeated ordeals, regression and purification, into the infinite plane of essence; the essence being an ocean of its Self – immortal, quiescent and aware.
Light penetrates dark, and seems to become silver. The photographic image is precipitated when sensitive salts of silver upon a plate in darkness are exposed suddenly to light.
In some Hermetic representations of the Tarot, the genital organ of “Baphomet” in the 15th Arcanum, is portrayed as Mercury. The mercurial symbol here is the mind and the force of intellect. When this is employed to generate a physical or worldly manifestation only, it becomes subject to death in the prison of that solid physical form. Baphomet represents the descending current of spirit into matter. The key to understanding Baphomet lies in the right balance between solve and coagula. This is the discovery in ordinary everyday life of when to increase a certain density of experience, and when to dissolve or let it go like a bird.
This action combines the descending current with the ascending awakening principle – or essence – within the matter. It uses the power of Baphomet to solidify, in the manner of a coiled spring. Within the tight “coiled spring” of the material world lies dormant a very great release. The name baphomet read in reverse is TEMOHPAB – a condensed spelling of “templi omnium hominum pacis abbas – the priest of the Temple of Peace for humanity. This secret work or “argot” of the masons who built the twelfth century Gothic cathedrals, was their technique to transform dense weight of stone to the soaring ogive of light.**
The symbol for Mercury looks rather like a divining-rod with two questing antennae. This mercury is the dry water that runs from the rock. It is, so to speak, the dissolution of the rock or stone into a living and flowing condition. It is a staff of Caduceus around which two serpents, the poles of positive and negative, twine and are held in equilibrium by a bird’s wings. The Rod of Aaron striking the rock, releases the spring of its own Self.
In the Mercurial glyph are combined the Sun, the Moon, the infinite Centre, and the Cross of manifestation. It is the ‘cockerel’ bird (volatile) which arises from the ‘fox’ (fixed) to crow at dawn. And according to gospel tradition, the earthly element of mercurius must undergo dissolution in the dry and silver water of life three times to realize his essential self.
The thought of “I” which arises from the heart to create the mind, must turn ever inward to dissolve the silver sea of her seeingness. For this, the alchemist’s bellows (or prana) keep the flame steady in the furnace. This concentrates the mutable element. There is a flame that rests like an unseen lantern deep in the inner chamber of my life. Visualise a candle flame, tall and stretching upward. Now watch the little gap of colourless and invisible heat between the wick and the visible fire. It holds the flame to its source. The flame is the mind, the description of life, the livingness. But the clear dewy space from which it springs is “being”.
From a notebook I keep by my bed:
“If you search for truth, truth will come and find you.”
It is important to evoke and to see ahead, light and serenity, while working through heavy matters in my furnace. A mantled hermit raises his hermetic lantern (which illumines his inner path) to peer a little further into the dark night which surrounds his labours.
The Hermit – hermetic Tarot deck, 1991
The sudden exposure of a process to light, precipitates a form which may not be complete. The subtle use of the mercury maintains the element of guess-work, touching merely on the shapes of things; truth reveals itself in due course. There is a slow process of learning to see in the dark. This pupil needs time to dilate. A sudden exposure to light produces … a photographic distortion.
“The production of a photographic image is based on the property, possessed by the salts of silver, of decomposing in light. These salts resume their inert metallic state, whereas in the darkroom they had acquired an active, living and sensitive quality.” (La Mystere des Cathedrales).
According to Fulcanelli, direct sunlight is likewise fatal to the generative or gestative process of any creation. It fixes or solidifes it prematurely. “The sun is the destroyer par excellence of all substances too young and too feeble to resist its fiery power.” For the sun, read the impact of any cosmic illumination upon a yet undeveloped nervous system.
Photography, the germination of seeds, the hatching of eggs, the fall of dew, dreaming, the recuperation of body tissues in sleep, the fertilization of the ovum and the growth of the embryo in the womb – all these take place and unfold in the dark, under the ground, or in the lunar arms of the lady Isis. The Moon polarizes or reflects the light, as from a silver shield. Many delicate alchemic processes can be safely left to ripen under the veil of that gentle radiance.
When Perseus slew Medusa the Gorgon, he looked not directly at her serpent tressed head. If he did, her terrible eyes would precipitate him into stone. He had to seize her before she seized him. So he looked at her reflection in the polished shield which wise Pallas Athene gave him, sliced off and bore away her head under a goatskin. The head of Medusa retained intact her catalytic power to precipitate or petrify any form of life that met her gaze. She seems – because her hair was all of snakes – to harvest an awesome creative power from earth and sea, whose peril lies in untimely use. Her demon sisters pursued Perseus, but he sped away with his trophy, on the winged Hermetic sandals he wore on his feet, and under the cover of … the hat of darkness.
Perseus slays the Gorgon, 1957
When a gestation – like any artistic composition or gleam of understanding – has reached fuition, it emerges to meet the day, the Sun. It is robust enough to receive the impact of light with its own frame of resistance: the becoming of Life, the coagulate into substance. In other words, light on the subject fixes and encloses it. This is the imprint of the Solar system on the tender fleshy psyche of the new born Child, and upon the aura around that seed. Until this moment, the Child is all of possibility. After it, the Child, like a thought, is born to die like ripe grain to harvest. Birth, as death, transforms to a different plane. The volatile and thematic fluidity of the pre-natal Child was yet led, by the pattern of a mutual tendency or gravitation, to an optimum environ in space and time into which to berth and stabilize.
Father, space: Mother, time. On the Tree of Life these are Wisdom and Understanding.
As with the birth of young animals, so with potencies that seek release from psyche; the problem of translating the sacred flame into words, shapes and ideas, is shared by all artists, poets and musicians. Remember here the tale of Cupid and Psyche: she, lighting and holding a lamp to look with eyes of earth upon her hidden lover from the sky, dropped hot wax on him and lost him.
Psyche & Cupid, circa 1973
When photo-sensitive paper is placed in a bath of developer after exposure, the negative or shadow of light “appears” as through a white mist upon the surface. The dark lines or narrative of a world-picture are forming. This impact of light has undergone a process of inversion, upon the retina, as through the film in the camera. Light darkened the exposed film, to become describable. Similarly, physical light – sunlight, the event upon retina and optic nerve, the visible world – must be an inversion, a shadow or ‘negative’ of the metaphysical radiance. An image is fixed at the speed of photons of light. But in the valley of the dark, of the “poor in spirit” or the physically blind, some subtle power of vision is always latent or gestating, which is not of the ordinary senses.
The Sun of earth-bound consciousness, applied suddenly to some tender tendril of intuition, inhibits its further growth. It projects it, complete or incomplete, onto the physical plane. Full sunlight in this application, might also characterize a lack of spiritual or psychological modesty.
Let there be an introversion of the senses. Collapse them inward, into the well within. Here is a pool of the dark, the untold. The pupil of the eye is directed not outward upon the world, but into interior perception. There is a period of waiting, as for a sensitized plane to manifest. It is a shy and mysterious process whereby the inner illumination or truth, is known not to the photo-sensitive surface, but moves as the heart. Landscapes may come, if mental imaging is active; and light or radiance as space may spill into these. If mental imaging is at moments quiescent but awareness very alert, there may be infinity – through any material condition – to all sides, strangely effulgent, like unoccupied sky. Or there may be neither of these, but a blank, the dynamo of thoughts.
What does the radiant imagery have in common with the sky-like aliveness which has no occupant? or with the busy internal streets? Who is the seer? and who is the image? Don’t seek an answer!
Let the flower be in its green stem a source of opening, holding concentration to this point of source … and finding it everywhere, the origin of thoughts, an outward and inward sensuality. Its centre is everywhere: its circumference nowhere.
Vision is the resonance of “THAT” within all forms and karmas that tumble into the world. It quickens their beauty and their pain. It witnesses what emerges, settles, changes and vanishes. Daylight in the mind, fixing an image, installs a system of belief. But the image, fixed then as in exposure to light in the dark room, no longer grows. Like a plucked flower it blooms, dies and is clung to. That from which it arose and is arising, alone un-changes, in the centre of the Tree of life. Wood is rising from and around the water of life in the well. “To be silent” about this, is a good way, for it does not prematurely precipitate information.
The farmer, the alchemist, the gardener, the artist, study constantly what to bind and what to loose, what to cull or prune, and what to allow further growth, what is ripe and what is sour, when to increase a density of rotation (of a crop or an idea) and when to dissolve it and let the matter rest.
The dolphin surfaces from the ocean’s deep dense element to breathe, to bounce on the wave. If sub-atomic particles collide, a ‘new’ particle is created, which is the energy released. Waves meeting ‘clap hands’ and out of that there leaps … some winged creature for an instant: the over-seer.
In Fulcanelli I read also about a curious substance called nostoc. This is a greenish form of subtle algae, which was said to descend on the countryside like manna with the fall of dew from the night, and dissolve or evaporate into the day. It swells softly with the morning dew, and then disappears. It is born during the night, and is found at dawn in spring-time. It feels so green, corresponding to a feeling of an ‘inner chlorophyll’ in the room of my heart … and to a sense I have sometimes, that I am a tree, and leaves, buds and trace elements of greenness begin to expand in my tissues. This living protoplasm is a kind of food. It is manna from heaven. It has a barely detectable sweet and cereal flavour.
The alchemy of inner life is an organic transformation of tendencies by their formless substratum.
And what of gold? It is said that alchemy does not mix or compound anything, it causes that which already exists latently, to become active and grow; the power of GOD moves in the mustard seed; the light which shines from the core, must become living and bright before it can act upon those substances with which the Alchemist deals, and – aphoristically – “Art begins where nature ceases to act.”
True gold begins with detachment. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be” (Matt.6.21). I am no thing – this is the treasure undying, at the heart of the atom, of healing, of the unborn possibility of all things. As the i-thought disappears like a bee into the flower of the Self, to let go of the world is to love it.
In the words of the abbot Johannes Tritheim (date unknown):
“God is an essential and hidden fire in all things, and especially in man. That fire generates all things …
God is a fire; but no fire can burn, and no light appear within nature without the addition of air to cause the combustion, and likewise the Holy spirit in you must act as a divine ‘air’ or breath, coming out of the divine fire and breathing upon the fire within the soul, so that the light will appear.
“For the light must be nourished by the fire, and this light is love and gladness and joy within the eternal deity. This light is Jesu, having emanated from eternity – from JHVH. He who has this light not within himself is in the fire without light; but if the light is in him, then is the Christ in him, and takes form in him, and such a person will know that light as it exists in nature.
“All things such as we see are in their interior fire and light, wherein is hidden the essence of the spirit … The fire resides within the heart and sends its rays through the whole body of man, causing it to live; but no light is born from the fire without the presence of the spirit of holiness.”
* La Mystere des Cathedrales by Fulcanelli, publ. The Brotherhood of Life
** See the Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral by Louis Charpentier publ. RILKO: “The gothic, built up on a dynamic of pressures, handles forces directed upwards … The crossed ogive is built on the principle of the transformation of lateral into vertical thrust. It is a sum of forces in which the vault no longer weighs down but springs upward under the lateral counterthrust of buttresses. If it is to last, the gothic monument requires perfect adjustment between weight and thrust; the weight that creates the thrust becomes itself its own negation. The activity in the stone is therefore in a state of constant tension which the art of the master-builder can ‘tune’ like a harp-string. For a gothic cathedral is not only a musical instrument by similitude.”
Cupid & Psyche 1957
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