Lecture IX 17th January, 1941
In the last lecture we spoke of the miraculous substance which the alchemists strove to produce.
I can only define it as an optimum of life.
It seems to me, that this definition is, in a sense, further justified by the fact that most of the alchemists were doctors, at any rate in the Middle Ages.
The professions of doctor and apothecary had not yet been separated, so the doctor prepared his medicaments in his own laboratory.
In this way he naturally became well acquainted with the components then used and interested in their nature, working of course from the standpoint of the well-being of the human
species and the curing of illness.
This is the reason why we are often confronted with the fact that the theoria of alchemy, or Hermetic philosophy, is really a medical philosophy, in that the healing quality of the substance, which the alchemists were searching for, is frequently emphasised.
It is called an elixir of life, a wonderful aurum potabile (drinkable gold), a panacea, a healing drink, and so on, and it is capable of curing all diseases, not only of the body, but more especially of the mind.
In the last lecture I read you a poem from the “Rosarium Philosophorum”, but I did not finish my explanation of it.
We find the peculiar statement in the last line, that the sun and moon are subject to this hermaphrodite.
Who could be the Lord of sun and moon?
Obviously only the Deity.
There is an interesting piece of alchemistic thought in the last part of the poem, which I should like to point out to you, and at the same time to draw your attention to the things which we should observe in such texts.
“A fountain rises from my earth”, that is from the body, from the tangible and firm.
A fountain springs from the body of this hermaphrodite and divides into two streams.
Two eagles rise from these streams, they fly up into the heights and fall down again.
The streams flow East and West; the sun rises in the East, and the second stage in the alchemistic process of transformation is often represented as the dawn, the sol oriens, the stage of the albedo, which follows the dark night of the chaos.
I will draw a diagram to make this process clearer.
Below is the dark night and above the light of day.
We have the vertical movement of the birds and the horizontal movement of the streams and a suggestion of rotation.
We must ask ourselves where the alchemists got this idea; it is the image of the cross, surrounded by a circle.
The image of the sphere was always suggested to the alchemists by the vas hermeticum.
The Hermetic vessel had to be round, because the process was founded on the idea of the creation, and so the container must resemble the universe, in order that the creation might take place
Where I to show this diagram to an alchemist, he would immediately think of the round retort.
I will give you another diagram of the process in the retort (see Diagram II).
There is a solution in the retort (1) in which all the substances are dissolved.
They correspond to the earth and remain at the bottom.
A fire (2) is needed, of course, below the retort, in order to develop the steam.
The hot water rises and descends as two streams (3).
The non-substantial or half substantial vapours (4) rise above the level of the solution, and are called spiritus or in Greek pneumata.
The original meaning is breath, Pneuma is moving air.
These steams and vapours as they rise are often called birds, the eagles in our poem for instance.
They fly up , lose their feathers in the cooler regions of the air, are unable to fly without feathers, and so descend again into the solution (5).
If you watch such a vessel over the fire, you will see that the steam moves outwards towards the walls of the retort, which causes the circular movement that we saw in Diagram I .
The steam is forced down by the top of the retort.
The image of the retort, where matter is cooked and turned into steam, is the basic image of alchemy.
The alchemist watched the cooking of his solutions innumerable times and was completely fascinated by it, and returned to it again and again in his writings.
It was all the unknown to him, and each time he hoped that the miracle would happen.
The idea is, of course, to purify and refine the steam to such an extent that the pneuma or spiritus would reach the highest degree of subtlety.
For this it required distilling many times – a thousand times it was said – so that the spirit should reach the state of the purest substance.
Retorts were placed one over the other for this purpose, and the uppermost one was called the head.
It was hoped that, in this uppermost retort, the quinta essentia would appear, the finest of all spirits, in the form of a sky blue fluid.
This is the right substance, for which the alchemist was seeking, and is in a way an extract of heaven.
This coelum philosophicum, this most subtle of all spirits, is produced in the head retort, where it could also be caught.
This fluid is no ordinary water, of course, but the most refined and spiritual of substances, the alchemists call it the “aqua permanens” or “aqua aeterna” (eternal water).
The Greeks called it “hydor theion ” (divine water), but the Arab transmitters of Greek alchemy did not reproduce the word “theion” (divine), because it was forbidden in the Koran.
They therefore translated the “hydor theion” of the Greek alchemists as “aqua permanens”.
I have already pointed out to you, that this water is really a baptismal water, if we like to use Christian phraseology.
The alchemists often did so themselves, in that they spoke of the application of their miraculous water as if it were a sort of baptism, by which man was changed psychically.
A hylikos became a psychikos or even a pneumatikos.
For this water contains the Holy Spirit, so the man to whom it is applied is impregnated by the water, so to speak, in that first he is purified, and then the Holy Spirit is imparted to him, through the purified substance, and he is reborn in a new form.
The Catholic Church still uses this rite today in the form of the Benedictio fontis (the blessing of the baptismal water, and the following text is read, in which the Holy Ghost is invoked:
“Who by a secret mixture of his divine virtue may enter this water fruitful for the regeneration of men, to the end that those who have been sanctified in the immaculate womb of this divine font, being born again a new creature, may come forth a heavenly offspring: and that all that are distinguished either by sex in body, or by age in time, may be brought forth to the same infancy by Grace, their spiritual Mother.”
In the Latin text it is “divini fontis uterus”, so the baptismal font is conceived of as the immaculate womb of the Church.
The alchemists also sometimes called their creative retort a uterus; so you see that the Christian conception of the baptismal water almost exactly corresponds to the alchemistic.
It is very remarkable that this conception of the divine water should have existed in Greek philosophy before the days of John the Baptist.
So it is by no means impossible that this idea found its way into the early Church through Alexandrian philosophical syncretism, perhaps through the congregation of “Baptists”, of which John the Baptist was the teacher or director.
These people were Sabians; a Mandaean, or really a Gnostic, sect which is still in existence round Basra and Kut el Amara in Mesopotamia.
Its members have the peculiarity of only eating the flesh of drowned animals, on account of their teaching: everything needs to be purified and renewed by water.
There is another short poem from the “Rosarium Philosophorum”, to which I should like to draw your attention.
This poem speaks of the emperor instead of the empress, that is, of the male side of the hermaphrodite, again of course the philosophers’ stone:
“Here is born the emperor of all honour,
There cannot be above him born a higher,
Born through the art, or by the means of nature,
88 But not through the womb of any living creature. (A)
The philosophers speak of him as their son,
And everything they do, by him is done. (B)
From him it can be had what man desires,
He gives good health which lasts and never tires,
All precious jewels, he gives, silver and gold,
Full strength and youth, pure, beautiful and bold.
Wrath, sickness, grief and want are all transformed,
Blessed is the man who is by God informed.”
(A) The “stone” is not produced by an ordinary birth but only through the art or through nature.
(B) This means that it is thanks to him or to his help that the philosophers can accomplish what they achieve.
You can see from this poem also, that the panacea is thought of as something which can free mankind from those three great evils, illness, poverty and death.
It is extremely peculiar, that this substance should be thought of as something which resembles man, and as a bi-sexual being.
One searches the old texts in vain for the reason why it is called a hermaphrodite.
They give so-called explanations, they say, for instance, that it is because it is the child of the sun (male) and the moon (female) .
But after all ordinary mortals are also born of male and female parents and are not hermaphrodites, so this is no explanation but a mere rationalisation.
We should expect a real explanation to give us some hints as to the history of the term, so we must turn to that side and follow other traces in order to explain it.
We can find signposts to guide us in the alchemistic writings themselves.
They frequently quote the great authorities who lived in ancient times.
Hermes is the most often quoted, and after him Plato, particularly his “Timaeus”.
This book is one of the main sources of their philosophy.
There are still older sources which are also occasionally, though seldom, quoted by the alchemists.
Such a source is Empedocles (circa 490-430 B.C.).
I will read you a passage:
“27. There (in Sphairos), one did not distinguish the swift members of the Helios, nor the hairy strength of the earth, nor the sea. So preserved in the strong dungeon of harmony, lies the round Sphairos (Sphairos kykloteres) , glad of the prevailing loneliness.
27a. No discord nor unseemly dispute prevails in its members.
- But it was similar on all sides and endless everywhere, the round Sphairos (idem !).
For two branches do not arise from the back, nor feet, nor agile knees, nor pro-creating memcci”s, but a sphere it was and equal to itself on every side.”
Evidently the Sphairos described here was a most blissful God (eudai monestatos theos).
Sphaira means sphere, and Sphairos is the masculine form.
There is no doubt that Empedocles’ conception influenced Plato in his Timaeus.
I will read you such a passage:
“Wherefore, for this cause and reason, he built a single whole”, (He speaks here of the creator of the world.)
“all whose p arts were wholes, to be perfect, immune from age and disease.” (Perfect living beings.)
“For its figure he gave it that which was fitting and in keeping with its nature. Now, for the living creature which was to embrace in itself all living creatures, the fitting figure must be that which contains all figures in itself. Therefore he wrought it on his lathe spherical and round, with centre equidistant from extremity in every direction, the figure of all others most perfect and uniform, judging regularity beyond compare more comely than irregularity. Moreover he rounded its outer surface to a perfect smoothness, and that for many reasons . . . . It was contrived by art to feed itself on its own waste, to act wholly on itself and be acted on by itself alone. For he that contrived it thought it would be better self-sufficient than dependent on anything else . . . .
“This, then, was the whole purpose of the God who is forever for the god who was yet to be”, (Namely this Sphairos.)
“in accord wherewith he made it smooth, uniform throughout, equidistant from its centre, a body whole and perfect, with perfect bodies for its parts. Then he set a soul in its centre, stretched it throughout the whole and further wrapped it about its body without. Thus he established a round revolving Heaven, one, sole, solitary, able, in its excellence, to be its own companion, needing nothing beyond itself, its own sufficient acquaintance and friend. In all these respects he begat it a blessed god.”
This is a real son-god formed by the creator of the world, a “deuteros theos”, a god beside the original and everlasting God.
What Plato says in the Symposion about the original forms of man belongs also in this connection.
” . . . First, then, human beings were formerly not divided into two sexes, male and female; there was also a third, common to both the others, the name of which remains, though the sex itself has disappeared. The androgynous sex, both in appearance and in name, was common both to male and female; its name alone remains, which labours under a reproach…
“At the period to which I refer, the form of every human being was round, the back and the sides being circularly joined, and each had four arms and as many legs; two faces fixed up on a round neck, exactly like each other, one head between the two faces; four ears, and everything else as from such proportions it is easy to conjecture. Man walked upright as now, in whatever direction he pleased; but when he wished to go fast he made use of all his eight limbs, and proceeded in a rapid motion by rolling circularly round, – like tumblers, who, with their legs in the air, tumble round and round. We account for the production of three sexes by supposing that, at the beginning, the male was produced from the sun, the female from the earth; and that sex which participated in both sexes, from the moon, by reason of the androgynous nature of the moon. They were round, and their mode of proceeding was round, from the similarity which must needs subsist between them and their parent.
“They were strong also, and had aspiring thoughts. They it was who levied war against the Gods; and what Homer writes concerning Ephialtus and Otus, that they sought to ascend heaven and dethrone the Gods, in reality relates to this primitive people. Jupiter and the other Gods debated what was to be done in this emergency. For neither could they prevail on themselves to destroy them, as they had the giants, with thunder, so that the race should be abolished ; for in that case they would be deprived of the honours of the sacrifices which they were in the custom of receiving from them; nor could they permit a continuance of their insolence and impiety. Jupiter, with some difficulty having desired silence, at length spoke. ‘I think,’ said he, ‘I have contrived a method by which we may, by rendering the human race more feeble, quell the insolence which they exercise, without proceeding to their utter destruction. I will cut each of them in half; and so they will at once be weaker and more useful on account of their numbers. They shall walk upright on two legs. If they show any more insolence, and will not keep quiet, I will cut them up in half again, so they shall go hopping on one leg.’
“So saying, he cut human beings in half . . . . . ”
You see here, that the idea of this spherical being was extended to the primeval human beings.
Plato attributes a complete form to them, they were like God and, in Titanic recklessness, they levied war against the gods.
The alchemists’ conception of a divine being, although it is based on Plato’s, differs in an important respect from other conceptions, in that it is given into the hands of the doctor, chemist, philosopher or artist to create this divine being.
In this connection, I cannot resist drawing your attention to something further.
We find the idea of the hermaphrodite connected with certain other religiousideas, with Dionysus, for instance, and JULIUS FIRMICUS MATERNUS, a Christian apologist of the fourth century, quotes a mystic call belonging to the Bacchic mysteries: “euoi dikeros dimorphe.”
This ” two-horned, two-figured” being, that is evoked, is a hermaphrodite.
These two horns are derived from the horns of the moon and were apparently a thorn in the flesh to Firmicus Maternus.
His book was dedicated to the three most Holy Emperors, the three sons of Constantine the Great, he tried to incite them to eradicate the heathen temples.
7 “The horns mean nothing other than the venerable signs of the Cross. The one supports the world and holds the earth together, and through the connection of the two, which go sidewards, the East is touched and the West held ; so that the whole circle should be stabilised threefold”, (He counts the vertical beam as one, and the horizontal as two.
One would expect the circle to be stabilised fourfold, but it had to be threefold.]
” and that the foundations of the united work should be made firm with immortal roots.”
(The expression “roots” is a translation of the “rhizomata” of Empedocles, a way of expressing the four elements.
You will remember the four in “our masterly stone” in the “Empress” poem from the “Rosarium”
These are the four roots of the stone, and the ” immortal roots ” are undoubtedly four.)
” . . . These are the venerable horns (or ends] of the Cross, here is the immortal trace of sacred virtue, here the divine structure of the glorious work, Thou, Christ, with outstretched hands, thou supportest the universe and the earth, the heavenly kingdom, on thy immortal shoulders rests our salvation.
Thou, Lord, bearest the signs of eternal life, with divine inspiration thou hast foretold it through the prophets: Isaiah says:
‘Behold, a son is born unto us, the government is upon his shoulders, and his name is called : Messenger of the great thought’.”
(This i s quoted from Isaiah IX. 6 . but it i s quite different in our Bible.9]
“These are the horns of the cross through which the universe is uniformly supported and held together . . . ”
Firmicus Maternus regards the horns as the arms of the cross, which the devil placed on the head of Dionysus.
He means that the two horns of Dionysus are a sort of devilish anticipation of the idea of the cross.
He also insists that the cross is threefold.
The Christian form of the cross does lend itself to a certain extent to the idea of three; and it must be three, on account of the Trinity being the support of the universe, for objectively a cross has four ends and not three.
This question was taken up again by the medieval doctor and philosopher Gerardus Dorneus.
He was very much excited about it, and attributes not just two but four horns to the devil.
It was regarded as the invention of the devil, that the world should rest on a quaternity, for it must essentially rest on the Trinity.
This is one of the great mysteries in medieval psychology.
I dealt with the subject of the three and the four in my Terry Lectures.
Till about the sixteenth century, alchemy was founded on four roots, it was only then that the number three began to play a role and to compete with the four.
This basic quaternity goes far back into the history of alchemy, right back to Mary of Egypt, who is sometimes called the Jewess.
She had an axiom: One becomes two, two three, three four, and four one; and then it begins all over again from the beginning.
The alchemistic process is completed in four stages, the old Greek alchemists already discovered this.
The number four represents the four elements, and the process usually works up to the element of fire.
When the process reaches the nature of fire, the hottest, driest and most spiritual element, the goal is, so to speak, attained, in that fire comprises everything.
This idea of the eternal living fire goes back to Heraclitus (circa 540-475 B.C.); and corresponds also to the extra-canonical saying of Christ ]:
“Who is near me is near to the fire. He that is far from me is far from the Kingdom.”
So the inmost nature of Christ is fire, that everlasting fire which is also the goal of alchemy.
The god Dionysus himself fits well into this connection, for his nature was also fire.
Perhaps you have seen the famous antique head of Dionysus, where a lock of his hair is a flame?
We find the same idea in the New Testament, when the cloven tongues of fire came down from heaven and sat up on each of the apostles, filling them with the Holy Ghost, the fiery breath of the Pneuma. ~Carl Jung, ETH Alchemy Lecture IX , Pages 73-80