Lecture V 6th December, 1940
In the last lecture, I read you the beginning of an old Greek text, Physika kai Mystika”, by the so-called Demokritos.
This will have given you some idea of the outward appearance of such texts.
Demokritos begins with a chemical recipe, presumably for making gold, but the concrete result was a failure.
So we are told Demokritos searched in the books left behind by his master, an old legendary OSTANES .
The name is Persian, and there was such an Ostanes about the time of Alexander the Great, possibly the same man; for the treatise of Demokritos, though attributed to the first century A. D., probably contains a great deal of material dating from the pre-Christian centuries.
These early texts are develop ed products, showing a certain line of thought, which must have been in existence for a considerable time.
The maxim, which Demokritos found to elucidate the secret, is the famous phrase: “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, and nature rules nature,” which is constantly quoted in later alchemy, right up to the eighteenth century, because it is very characteristic for the significance of the process.
It is also often cited by the critics of alchemy in all ages, to prove the unscientific, muddle-headedness of the alchemists.
One must admit that it does sound somewhat peculiar, but this is characteristic of alchemy which consists of peculiar things, and seems to be just nonsense at first; it is only after careful hought that one is able to see that there really is something in it.
We will try to understand this sentence in detail.
Nature is a concept which had about the same meaning in antiquity as it has now: the totality of nature.
There are various versions of the sentence, and the plural is often used: “The natures rejoice in the natures” and so on.
The natures refer to nature beings, including the chemical elements and matter in general, for ancient, and even medieval, man had no notion of the actual construction of the elements.
“Nature delights in nature.” In some later Latin texts we find this word amplified as “embraces” or even as “devours”.
Nature gives itself pleasure, or eats itself out of sheer love, so to speak.
Nature is then represented as an undivided being, a dragon or a snake biting its own tail, eating itself up from the tail end.
This is the famous Ouroboros.
You find this symbol everywhere, the snake or dragon which forms a closed circle.
Claiming to be explaining the hieroglyphs, HORAPOLLON interprets it as the symbol of eternity, or of the cosmos, the totality of nature.
This rejoicing in or embracing means the interpenetration of nature in itself, everything hangs on everything and all things are interwoven.
Then we come to the sentence: “Nature conquers nature”, “vincit” or “superat” in the Latin texts.
This means that the web of nature is not something static but represents a process, a process consisting of two ends, a head and a tail, or a left and a right.
A p air of opposites is present, which mutually repress or overcome each other, so that when one principle is below the other is above, and vice versa.
This is an idea which you also find in Chinese natural philosophy, as the two principles of Yang and Yin: Yang the masculine, hot, dry, the sun, belonging to the day, the south side of the mountain, the dragon; Yin the feminine, cool, moist, dark, belonging to the night, the north side of the mountain, the tiger.
These two principles make up the essence of nature, the opposites are necessarily present in every process of energy, there can be no energy without a potential, a p air of opposites must be there: high and low, hot and cold, and so on, otherwise no phenomena could take place.
The two Chinese principles, Yang and Yin, are constantly active, swallowing each other, penetrating each other, diminishing and increasing.
Whenever one of them gains the upper hand, the other begins to operate.
The essential p art of this idea is not an empirical fact but a psychological hypothesis.
It is an intuitive perception that man himself consists of such opposites, which he can thus observe directly.
He knows from this that when one opposite is in power and is overshadowing everything else, then necessarily in a short time it will decline, and whatever else has been repressed will come into the foreground.
This happens not only in the fate of the individual but also in that of nations.
Nature is an unrecognizable mixture of opposites, the one swallows the other, so to speak, or rules the other, and then the process is reversed.
This sentence really expresses the fact that nature exists without human aid, can deal with her processes herself, has everything in herself to bring about transformations, to move from the depths to the heights and down into the depths again.
This sentence represents a basic principle in alchemistic thought and therefore it fits very well into any of the alchemists’ meditations, and runs exactly parallel to Chinese thought.
Taoist meditation is mainly concerned with the curious transformations of Yang and Yin.
The standard work on this subject is the I Ching, the Book of Changes, where these processes are represented in the form of sixty-four hexagrams.
The activity of Yang and Yin plays the decisive role in Taoist philosophy, to which Chinese alchemy belongs.
Because of many similarities, it has been claimed that western alchemy was originally inspired by China, but to prove such a statement is quite another matter.
By what routes did this philosophy reach Europe?
The dragon, for instance, did not need to be imported from China, there have been dragon myths in Europe since the earliest times.
And, as far as we know, alchemistic philosophy developed in East and West practically simultaneously.
The oldest Greek treatises date from the first century A. D., and the oldest Chinese treatise that we know of, that of WEI POYANG, from about 142 A.D.
But of course in Chinese literature, as in Greek, there are quotations from, and traces of, earlier alchemists.
We can trace these back with reasonable certainty, in the Greek texts to the fourth century B. C ., that is, about as far as the probable date of Ostanes.
Demokritos remarks, at the end of this short text, that he took the treatise to Egypt in order that the adepts should rise above curiosity concerning banal things and chaotic matter, and not cling to these.
This is peculiar advice to find among chemical prescriptions, but all the texts which are ascribed to Demokritos contain such philosophic advice, inserted just where the chemical matter is being dealt with.
This is extremely characteristic for the alchemistic treatises in general.
We will now turn to some passages from another old alchemist: ZOSIMOS OF PANAPOLIS who lived in the third century A. D.
He was a pagan and a Gnostic, influenced by Christianity, but it is very difficult to make out just how far the latter influence went.
You will see for yours elves in the passages which I am about to read. We will take a very short text of his first:
“Concerning the true Book of Sophe, the Egyptian, and of the Divine Master of the Hebrews and “the Sabaoth Powers. ”
The Sabaoth Powers are angel powers. This treatise then deals with these, with the Book of Sophe and with the divine Lord of the Hebrews.
The latter can apparently be no other than Jehovah, the Jewish God, yet one cannot be absolutely sure in this case, because there was such a terrible jumble of opinions, convictions, religions and philosophies in the third century A. D., that one can never be perfectly sure of anything.
The treatise begins:
‘ . . . There are two sciences and two wisdoms, that of the Egyptians and that of the Hebrews, which latter is confirmed by divine justice. The science and wisdom of the most excellent dominate the one and the other.
Both originated in olden times. Their origin is without a king, autonomous and immaterial; it is not concerned with material and corruptible bodies, it operates, without submitting to strange influences, supported by prayer and divine grace.”
This passage represents a sort of introduction into the art of alchemy.
I would draw your attention especially to the assertion, that this wisdom has nothing to do with material and corruptible bodies.
The task of alchemy is admittedly to transform chemical matter, corruptible bodies, into incorruptible bodies.
Yet here it is expressly stated that this is not the case, it is rather an entirely immaterial process, supported by prayer and divine grace, which must necessarily be present.
This last statement again is a formula which you find throughout alchemy up till the late Middle Ages.
It is stressed again and again, that the art cannot be brought to completion, unless divine grace intervenes.
There must, so to speak, be a miracle.
The text continues :
“The symbol of chemistry is drawn from the creation by its adepts, who cleanse and save the divine soul bound in the elements, and who free the divine spirit from its mixture with the flesh.”
Here you have a piece of alchemistic doctrine in a nutshell.
The word symbol is not used here in the real sense of a symbol, but means rather idea.
The idea of chemistry, its central conception, is said here to have been drawn from the creation.
The creation, as it is reported in Genesis, should in a sense be imitated in the chemical process.
We find the same idea in other texts, though it is not always the Genesis version of the creation (the Greek alchemists would know this through the Septuagint) which is referred to, but often the idea of the creation of the world by the gods or by nature.
The alchemists copy the process of creation, in order to reach the original intentions of the creator, and thus to find a means of transforming and ennobling nature.
Zosimos tells us here exactly what is to be achieved by the divine art: the anima mundi, the divine soul and spirit, are bound in matter, and they should be freed from this prison.
You can see here, what was really happening to these people, who were working with a physical matter which was totally unknown to them.
All that we now know about chemical matter was unconscious to them ; so for them it was the great mystery, by which they were completely fascinated.
And they assumed that a divine soul lay sleeping in this prison.
This idea originated in a Gnostic myth: the Demiurge manifesting himself in matter, through his animating breath.
As man is filled with the Pneuma, so matter is filled with the divine essence.
Creation has, so to speak, got the Divine Being into difficulties, for he is hung up in matter, bound in her, and he suffers from this imprisonment, and must therefore be freed.
This shows us why the alchemist was so tremendously enthusiastic about his work, he was, so to speak, in the role of the redeemer.
He undertook a work of redemption in the materia, in that he set the divine spirit – a piece at least of the Deity – free from its prison.
In most other religions, in Christianity for instance, this process is reversed.
Our souls are bound in our bodies, and we suffer from the prison of the flesh; and a Saviour came from Heaven in order to free our immortal souls from this miserable plight.
But the alchemists turn the tables, they themselves are the saviours of matter; it is the meaningful, metaphysical task of man to undertake the divine work of freeing God from his bound condition, and to lead him back to his original perfection and incorruptible condition.
This is a very important thought, but it is a projection.
It is not really to be found in the materia.
If you look at a piece of pyrites you will not see anything of the kind.
The alchemists stared into the dark unknown hole of the materia, until their own unconscious psychical background became visible in it.
This is always the case whenever man sees something which is unknown to him, he finally sees his own unconscious.
It was his own psychical condition which appeared to the alchemist in the materia; he saw the divine being which lay bound in himself.
But as he saw this in the materia, he worked on the materia in order to free the divine being; and therefore, but only in a projected and symbolic way, he did the thing which should really be done in himself.
We assume that the old alchemists did not know this, yet texts exist where the author is by no means so naive as we think; he recognizes the character of the projection and is apparently quite aware that the work was really done on himself.
You will see this presently in Zosimos.
The text continues:
“As the sun is, so to speak, a flower of the fire and (simultaneously) the heavenly sun, the right eye of the world, so copper when it blooms – that is when it takes the colour of gold, through purification – becomes a terrestrial sun, which is king of the earth, as the sun is king of heaven. “
Here analogous conclusions are drawn between the sun and the fiery flower which appears in the chemical process.
This is the golden flower.
We find exactly the same idea in China, in the “Secret of the Golden Flower “, for instance. The golden flower appears in the fire; that is, it is preserved and blossoms in the fire, instead of being destroyed.
Sun and gold have a common sign: medieval man assumed that the sun was made of gold and that gold shone in the dark.
It does not seem to have occurred to anybody to find out whether gold really gave a light in the dark, people simply assumed it did.
The sun, as the right eye of the world, is an Egyptian ide a : the eye of Horus.
And as the sun is the King of Heaven so the copper, though it is base metal, when it receives the colour of gold becomes king of the earth.
In Latin texts this gold is even called the deus terrestris, the god of the earth.
This again is a projection: it is the ignoble, dark, corrupt and rejected quality in man, which contains the imprisoned soul.
This base part of man is capable of transformation, and can be raised into a sun; just as the alchemists say that copper can become gold and a deus terrestris .
For, as you know, this gold, which alchemy tries to produce, is not ordinary gold, but philosophic gold, something exceedingly mysterious .
It has been given a “thousand names”.
There is a book in the Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris) which consists only of names, for it is something so mysterious that it cannot be described clearly, which accounts for the innumerable names.
The thing, which is to b e produced, is really indefinable, though it is possible to speak of gold, for instance, as an analogy, because, by a psychological miracle, the brightest thing app ears in the darkest place of the soul, just as gold is found in the darkest depths of the earth.
The text continues :
“The following are the perfect tinctures which communicate the true colour of the sun: that of Demokritos and the monad which communicates the Scythian comaris (komaros = strawberry tree), the perfect (tincture) of the (silver) like that of Isis, made known by Heron; this is the perfection of the sun.”
This rather cryptic passage means that Zosimos intends to describe the tinctures which will give the quality of the sun to base matter.
The monad is the unity, often expressed as “to hen”, the one.
This monad communicates the “Scythian comaris”.
This is again a peculiar concept from ancient alchemy.
It is the “theion ” (divine), and arsenicon (male) ; the divine and the male together make the monad.
But theion is also sulphur and so this comaris is sulphur and “arsenic”.
But man at that time did not know arsenic, this term was only used later to designate a chemical substance.
When they spoke of arsenic in antiquity they were speaking of the male, and we have no idea what they understood by that.
To make it still more complicated, the word “comaris” did not come from a Greek root but from a Syriac root, Komar, which means priest.
There is a treatise by a certain Comarius, an Archpriest ;he is the author of, or chief personage in, the treatise.
We can therefore assume that the comaris in our text also means a mystical monad, on one side the prescription of Demokritos and on the other the Monad, the divine and the male.
The tinctures have the quality of penetration, and the alchemists always tried to find the tincture, or colouring matter, that would dye lead, silver, copper, iron, etc. right through, in order to give them the perfect colour; because they assumed that gold was essentially characterised by its colour.
Therefore they spoke of the tinctura auri and the process of transformation was also sometimes referred to as a process of dyeing, and many terms belonging to the technique of dyeing were used: dipping, colouring matter, [bapheion), and the term baptismal water also appears: an immersion in the font, so to speak, which transforms or changes the colour of the baptised.
The treatise then continues with a whole series of recipes, and we are confronted with the extremely peculiar fact that this text, which began mystically, ends in nonsensical recipes, which it would hardly be possible to interpret.
This is incredibly confusing, and is even worse in another treatise of Zosimos, which bears the title: “Concerning apparatus and ovens.”
The alchemistic ovens played a much more important role in olden times than they would now.
We have developed continual and reliable means of heating, but in those days only wood was used and that is unreliable.
The alchemist took a great interest in his furnace, and often laid the blame for failures on the heat of the fire.
The title continues: “Commentaries on the letter Omega.”
This letter Q is like a head and a neck, it is a “stoicheion” which means letter or element.
The element Omega is also the last letter of the Greek alphabet; and belonged to the zone of Saturn in the “language of corporeal beings”, presumably of men, inasmuch as they are corporeal beings.
“In the language of incorporeal [beings) it is something different which cannot be interpreted. Nikotheos, the hidden one, alone knows it.”
Incorporeal beings are presumably spirits, or ghosts, immaterial beings and things ; in so far as the element Omega is immaterial, it cannot be expressed.
In other words, on one side it is Saturn, lead, on the other something totally different, inexpressible.
Only Nikotheos knows what it is, and Zosimos describes him in another passage as the “one who cannot be found “.
We know of Nikotheos from other sources. PORPHYRIUS , in his life of Plotinus, speaks of Nikotheos as the adversary of Plotinus [or rather of Plotinus as the adversary of Nikotheos) , and we learn that he was the founder of a Gnostic sect and left a book, Apokalypseis [revelations), behind him.
This mention of him is about 244 A. D., contemporary therefore with Zosimos. Nikotheos is also mentioned in the Coptic Codex Brucianus in Oxford, a Gnostic text.
Nikotheos is spoken of there as one of those who were raised to Heaven, where he saw inexpressible things.
In the same passage the author says, that there are things concerning Heaven, which cannot be expressed by a tongue of flesh.
This is exactly the idea of the Omega element being lead in the language of corporeal beings, and inexpressible in the language of incorporeal beings .
The fact, that matter includes something which cannot be formulated by a human tongue, is clearly expressed here; something which is a tremendous mystery, connected with metaphysical things.
This means, that there is again a projection, because what we cannot express, what we cannot grasp or know, is naturally the unconscious .
There is no other source that we can prove scientifically.
“So, in the speech of corporeal beings, this element is called ocean, the origin and seed of all the gods.”
The whole world of substances originated in this dark unknown element, which is concealed in lead, and which is called the ocean, the place of origin, in corporeal language .
We find similar conceptions in China. If you read “The Secret of the Golden Flower ” (which Richard Wilhelm and I published together) you will find this Omega element described as the ” germinal vesicle” or as “the altar upon which consciousness and life are made.”
So as you see such terms are characteristic for this peculiar process. ~Carl Jung, Modern Psychology, Pages 42-48.