Lecture XV 28th February, 1941
We are dealing with the term “Mysterium” in alchemy.
The word, in its common use, usually refers to something like an organisation, a secret society, or cult, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Their secrets were jealously guarded, so well that, in the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries especially, we have no authentic information about them.
We know hardly anything concerning what took place in the Mithraic Mysteries either and only indirectly; and the excavations at Pompeii revealed a women’s mystery cult, which we did not even know existed.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were apparently stopped in the sixth or seventh century, about 620 A. D., so presumably they were celebrated till then.
We know so little definitely, that it is possible there was something of the same kind in alchemy itself, but the language used in the alchemistic texts does not make this seem very probable.
An English author, A. E. WAITE, wrote a book, called the “Secret Tradition in Alchemy”, in which he investigated this subject thoroughly, and came to a negative conclusion.
My own knowledge of the old texts leads me to agree with him about this, for there is nothing that I know of in the old literature which points to anything like a cult celebrating mysteries.
A secret organisation did exist, the Rosicrucians, and many of the later alchemists belonged to this society.
We do not know much of its origin but we cannot trace it before the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The Rosicrucian order was a real and genuine secret society, which flowed later into the Freemasons, it was in fact their real origin.
It flourished in the seventeenth and continued into the eighteenth century and certain remnants still exist, though they are quite unknown.
The secretiveness still goes on, but we, or at any rate I, have not enough information on the subject to say anything about it.
In the course of my investigations, I came on an interesting passage in AGRIPPA VON NETTESHEIM’s famous book: “De Incertitudine et Vanitate omnium Scientiarum et Artium” 1653. (On the uncertainty and
vanity of all the sciences and arts.)
This is a very learned book, which contains a sort of sketch of the whole of the knowledge of the time.
Agrippa was exceedingly well read in the old philosophers and the writings of the Fathers, and he devotes a section of his book to alchemy.
“I could therefore say a great deal about this art (which is not so very hateful to me) if no vow of silence existed (those who are initiated into the mysteries take this vow) . Beyond this, this vow has been so
constantly and religiously kept by the old philosophers and authors, that no philosopher of recognised authority and no reliable author has ever referred to it (the secret) with a single word.”
You see he speaks of a vow of silence and says that no alchemistic author ever mentions the secret. Now Agrippa is of an exceedingly sceptical turn of mind and is very negative about all the sciences.
He was a Humanist and one of the first great sceptics, so his remark, that he could say a lot about alchemy and that he does not really hate it, means, in other words, that he was an admirer of the art.
One can therefore conclude he means what he says, and that he was really hindered by a vow of silence.
It was before the days of the Rosicrucians, so we can be sure that it is not a matter of that society.
This peculiar remark of Agrippa’s may, therefore, possibly refer: to some kind of organised mystery in alchemy, but if so we have no idea of what it consisted.
To sum up: the mysterium is usually designated as the lapis philosophorum, the central secret of alchemy is the mystery of the ” stone”.
It is also called the salt of wisdom, which is of course an ambiguous term, because on one side it is the actual mercurial salt or sulphur which the alchemists used in their work.
In the sixteenth century the alchemists became rather more communicative, and Khunrath says that the mystery of alchemy is the begotten saviour of nature, the saviour of the macrocosm, and another
author that it is the sapphire or celestial blue flower of Hermes (Hermaphrodite).
This is an allusion to the flower which so often represented the mystery in the Middle Ages, in Dante’s “Paradiso” for instance.
The image of the “hortus conclusus” (the enclosed garden) is often used in medieval hymns to the Virgin Mary, and in the “Litany of Loretto” she is referred to as “Rosa mystica” (Thou mystical rose).
Mary carries the mystery in this Litany, she is referred to as the “vas” repeatedly.
This “vas” is one of the main symbols of the alchemists, and is referred to as the “vas Hermeticum”; or “unum est vas” (the vessel is one, not many) and so on.
The fact that a “mysterium ” is present in alchemy, either in the sense of a secret or as some kind of unknown ritual, needs some explanation.
We are well aware by now that there is a tremendous secret about the whole thing.
The authors repeat again and again, that the matter is a mystery and must be concealed.
Unless we are ready to assume that this was a gigantic bluff, a hocus-pocus which was indulged in for nearly two thousand years, we are bound to conclude that there was really something about alchemy,
which struck these old masters as very mysterious, or else that there was a grim outer necessity to make a mystery of it. In order to explain this, we must actually think ourselves back into the psychology
of the Middle Ages, because, without some knowledge of the circumstances prevailing then, it is difficult or impossible to understand why such secretiveness existed.
One of the reasons can undoubtedly be found in the persecution of heretics.
I will therefore read you some passages from the regulations for the treatment of heretics, in order that you may see some of the difficulties with which the alchemists had to contend.
The first of these comes from the “Regulations of the Synod of Toulouse, in the Year 1229”.
This Synod passed laws which remained valid for the persecution of heretics throughout the Middle Ages.
” 1 . In every parish, inside a s well as outside a city, the Bishops must appoint one priest and two, three or more laymen of good repute, and if necessary bind them by oath, to search diligently, faithfully and
frequently for heretics in these parishes; and to examine individually suspicious houses, underground cellars, annexes, and other hidden corners, which must all be destroyed. If they discover any heretics,
credentes (those who believe in heretics) , patrons or protectors of heretics, they must (taking every precaution that the heretics may not escape) immediately denounce them to the Bishop, or to the Lord of that
place, or his bailiffs, in order that they may be suitably punished.”
The bailiffs are the sheriffs or stewards, lay personages.
“2. The exempted Abbots, who are not under episcopal jurisdiction, must do the same (as the Bishops) in their districts.
3. The Lords of the various districts must have the estates, houses and woods diligently searched for heretics, and must destroy their hiding places.
4. In future he who harbours a heretic in his territory, whether for money or for any other reason, will lose his possessions forever (whether he pleads guilty or is convicted) and his body will be delivered
to his supporters for suitable punishment.
5. But he also, whose territory has become (even without his knowledge but through his carelessness) a frequent refuge for heretics, will be liable to the punishments of the law.
6 . The house, n which one has found a heretic, must be torn down, and the place or ground must be confiscated.
7 . The bailiff, who lives in a suspicious place and is not diligent in searching for heretics, shall lose his post and may not be installed elsewhere.
8 . But in order that innocent persons may not be punished and that no one shall be wrongfully accused, we decree that no heretic or credens shall be punished, until a Bishop, or other authorised clerical person,
has declared him to be a heretic or credens.
9 . Everyone is permitted to search for heretics in the territory of another, and the bailiffs -of the place in question must give him every assistance. So the King may search for heretics in the domain of the
Count of Toulouse and vice versa.
10. When a haereticus vestitus (a clerical heretic) voluntarily renounces his heresy, he may not remain on the estate where he lived before, if this is suspected of heresy, but must be transplanted into a Catholic,
wholly non suspect, estate. In addition he must wear two crosses on his clothes, one on the right and one on the left, and they must be of a different colour to that of the clothes. Als o such persons must not have
access to public offices or legal action, unless, after suitable penances, they are reinstated in integrum by the Pope or his legates.”
That is unless, after suitable penances, they have been entirely reinstated in their civil rights and honours.
11. Whoever does not return voluntarily to the Church, but only through fear of death or for some other reason, must be imprisoned by the Bishop to complete his penance and in order to prevent him
from misleading others:”
These were the principal regulations in force in France.
Soon after the Synod of Toulouse, on March 5th, 1232, Frederick II made the following laws for Germany:
1 . Everyone, who is condemned by the Church as a heretic, is to be punished with death by the civil judges.
2 . Those, who return to the bosom of the Church through fear of death, are to be punished with imprisonment for life.
3. All suspected persons must be kept in close custody during the investigation.
4. Supporters of heretics meet with the same punishments as the heretics themselves.
5 . Heretics are to be punished in every place, also when they have left their homes.
6. Relapsing heretics are to be condemned to death without further ado.
7. Heretics, as well as their supporters, have no right of appeal or proclamation, in order that the disgrace of heresy may be removed by every means from faithful orthodox Germany.
8. The descendants and heirs of heretics, and their supporters, shall be deprived of all their worldly privileges and public honours, unto the second generation; with the exception of orthodox children who
Denounce their heretical parents.”
This represents the state of things in the thirteenth century.
It was obviously very unwise in those days to give the smallest sign of having any different opinions.
This explains a great deal of the secretiveness, for alchemy is, of course, full of allusions which could be interpreted in a way that might have very disagreeable consequences for the alchemists.
If they were afraid, they had good reason for their fear, and that alone must have forced them to be secretive.
But under the circumstances it is very astonishing that they published such books at all, they might simply not have written their treatises.
There must have been a very strong emotional motive behind, compelling them to publish these books in spite of the veto.
This very real danger makes their emphasis on Christianity very comprehensible, and indeed the medieval books frequently contain a most orthodox
confession of faith, usually at the beginning and end.
The treatises, which are not of pagan origin, have no lack of Christian sentiments, and all the honour is ascribed to God.
It is interesting, therefore, that the alchemists say themselves that they use a language intended to conceal; and (quite apart from the general fact that the mystery must be kept secret) they say the language which
they use is mystical or symbolic.
I have collected a series of statements which are interesting in this respect.
V. Secret language
MYLIUS, speaking of the divine or eternal water of the alchemists, says: “Water, in as far as it dyes, is called air.”
Apparently they used the term air, instead of water, to characterise this peculiar water. It is a liquid tincture that colours, and was given the pseudonymous name of air.
The ROSARIUM says:
“They call the water, that ascends, gold.”
“Burn i n water, wash in fire. Dry water.”
A water evidently which does not moisten the hands.
The Rosarium says in another passage:
“The becoming white is our becoming red.”
The changes in colour are a special part of the process, and we hear of them often from the alchemists.
The Rosarium says elsewhere:
“All colours appearing’ is a sophism of the philosophers.”
Mylius again says:
“The bodies become incorporeal: these are mystical words, a mysterium.”
“But the philosophers have never alluded to this goal, except mystically and obscurely, and they have also intentionally varied it.”
That is they intentionally use a confusing language, in order to prevent people from understanding.
Hoghelande also says:
“Where there is something not essential it is emphasised with big words. But where there is something essential, it is usually concealed.”
“No one can reveal the name of the stone, who does not want to risk the damnation of his soul, because he could not account for it before God”
The ROSARIUM says:
“One must transmit such a material in symbolic form.”
In the same book Hortulanus says:
“Only he, who knows how to make the stone, understands the words which refer to it. The philosophers evidently tried to reveal this art to the worthy, and, on the other hand, to conceal it from the unworthy.”
We see here that they did want to speak of it, but only to make allusions for those who could understand.
KHUNRATH, who wrote in the sixteenth century, says directly:
“He who knows the stone, is silent about it.”
This reminds us of Lao Tsu’s words:
“Whoever speaks does not know, whoever knows does not speak.”
The ROSARIUM says:
“And if thou wilt fully understand the opus, thou shouldst read passage by passage and thou wilt see marvels. I have not mentioned all the phenomena and necessities in the opus, for there are some, of
which one should not speak to men. And also it is impossible to know them, unless the knowledge comes from God himself, or from a Master who teaches one.”
KHUNRATH says of Mercury:
“He achieves marvellous things, it is not advisable to write clearly and openly about them.”
“Hearts and eyes are blinded and the ears of all men are made deaf through these analogies and concepts. They read, and understand nothing; they study, and perceive nothing; they are unconscious of
the truth and they project it. These words are unknown to their understanding, for they are contained in the concealed mind.”
“These analogies and concepts” refer to the alchemistic books.
“They project” (proiiciunt in Latin) is interesting.
He really means here that they throw it out, away, but the same word is used for part of the process.
When the arcanum, tincture or powder is produced, it is projected on to the lead or copper and transforms it.
The Latin expression used by Hoghelande for “in the concealed mind” is “in intellectu occulto”, literally “in a concealed intellect.”
We should say they were contained in the unconscious, for we do not know any other “intellectus ” occultus”.
We read in another text :
“Many authors have been full of inner doubt, as they wrote about this art, and have even prayed to God that he might take their souls from that they had betrayed this knowledge unlawfully. He, who only teaches
one or two points of it, can be recognised with certainty by all associates. So they did not write in order to teach the general public, but in order to make themselves known in a secret language : therefore thou
shouldst not be content to read only one book, but shouldst read many authors. For one book opens (explains) the other . . . . “
We have met this sentence before: “liber librum ap erit.”
We hear from an ancient author, KRATES, (whose works come to us in Arabic, though they are of Greek origin) that an angel app eared to him and taught him.
When Krates had told the angel what he intended to do, the angel replied:
“Your intentions are excellent, but your soul will never decide to take the truth among the people, on account of the diversity of opinion and of the wretchedness of ambition.”
The old sixteenth century alchemist KHUNRATH wrote in German as well as Latin.
In his German book he says about the necessity of the secret:
“The age of Saturn is not yet, in which everything that is private shall become public property: for one does not yet take and use that which is well-meant and well done in the same spirit.”
Khunrath means that the age of Saturn has not yet dawned.
The great question is:
What is the age of Saturn?
It is in the future for Khunrath, and he is evidently of the opinion that an age will dawn when it will be possible to reveal this secret openly.
In his days the thing, which was so “well-meant”, was not accepted or understood.
But he believes this will improve in the age of Saturn.
Obviously the question is: what does Khunrath mean by the age of Saturn?
The old alchemists were of course als o astrologers, and thought in an astrological way.
Saturn is the ruler of the sign of Aquarius, and it is quite possible that Khunrath meant the coming age, the age of Aquarius, the water carrier, which is almost due now.
It is conceivable that he thought mankind would be changed by that time, and would be able to understand the alchemists’ mystery.
We can only leave this as a question mark.
The alchemists were evidently conscious, as you will have seen from these quotations, that they spoke a secret language and concealed their secrets in peculiar forms or symbols, and that they used a
great number of pseudonymous words.
I could add dozens of quotations to those I have already given you, the alchemists say again and again that one must not take their words literally, that the real meaning is quite different, it is only expressed
as it is to deceive the stupid and so on.
There are passages, (in Djabir, for instance, the old Arabic alchemist) which reveal an intellectual arrogance, which is not unusual in secret societies or where people lay claim to secret knowledge.
Such societies are sometimes founded for the purpose of feeling superior, so it is not surprising that such an attitude is occasionally to be met with also among the alchemists.
But on the whole the spirit of these old philosophers was very different, and they took a great deal of trouble to teach their pupils the right attitude towards the art.
Therefore I tried to find out what attitude it was that the alchemists believed to be absolutely indispensable able; and I have again collected a series of passages on this subject.
We will deal with these in the next Semester. ~Carl Jung, ETH, Lecture XV, Pages 123-130.