Lecture II 5th May, 1939
I repeated the sequence of Tantrik symbols in the last lecture, which arise from the Shri-Chakra-S ambhara Tantra; today I shall give you the corresponding series
of Hermetic symbols of which I began to speak last Semester.
The prevalent opinion is that alchemy is formidable nonsense.
A modern book on the subject begins with the statement that it is the history of one of humanity’s greatest mistakes.
This assertion may have some justification when looked at from the point of view of natural science, but every profound student of alchemy knows that the making of gold was not the real purpose and that the process was a western form of Yoga. With few exceptions, however, this fact is not recognised, so I am also performing an act of historical justice when I speak to you of alchemy.
In the first half of the nineteenth century an old Englishman and his daughter were still pursuing this philosophy and may be called the last alchemists.
They lived together and practised a life-long Yoga.
When the old man was getting on in years, he thought that they should share their secret with the world and suggested to his daughter that they should each write an account of their experiences in their own way.
For this purpose they retired into separate wings of their house.
After some months, the daughter had filled a respectable volume and brought it to her father who was delighted and in turn showed her his record.
He wrote in verse and she had produced a scientific book!
But after publication the old man began to have scruples, for was it not a sin to betray the secrets of Hermetic philosophy?
In a panic, the whole edition was bought up and burnt as a sort of auto-da-fe, but nine volumes escaped the flames.
This was about the middle of the nineteenth century. [The East has the same misgivings when it hands out its precious documents to us.]
Alchemy has mostly remained a secret tradition, it has only lately reached the surface of western consciousness.
To return to our modern alchemists: the daughter did not die till about 1910 and the book was republished by her admirers.
It was the first attempt at reviving the medieval spirit of alchemy on modern lines of thought.
To understand the symbolic language of this western Yoga is a difficult and arduous task and entails very laborious reading, for the alchemists had no psychological knowledge and we have to find the philosophic and psychological interpretation of their symbols for ourselves.
Mrs. Atwood’s book, “A Treatise on Alchemy”, is out of print to day and very rare.
I do not advise you to make a point of reading it, for it is indigestible and you must have real knowledge of alchemy in order to understand its meaning.
Till recently the book has remained unnoticed outside certain circles of alchemists.
Such groups do exist and when I published my article on alchemy in the “Eranos Jahrbuch 1936”,
I received many letters from modern alchemists, telling me that I had failed to see the whole point of alchemy, which was really the making of gold!
It is, as I have said before, the inner content of alchemy which is of psychological interest, and we must draw on the history of the past if we wish to understand what is happening in our own unconscious.
The Hermetic symbolism, which corresponds to the Tantrik in all its essential points, begins with:
(1) the chaos, the massa confusa, everything is in a mixed condition in the primeval sea; this is the primeval water mentioned in Genesis. Psychologically this watery chaos means a dark unconscious condition.
(2) The Tetrameria follows, it is the division of this confused mass into the four elements, we would s ay the four functions, this quartering is an attempt at discrimination.
Through the influence of the fire, the prima materia is heated in the alchemist’s oven till it separates into the vapours at the top and the firm substance at the bottom. The matter used by the alchemists was never pure, so the reactions
produced in the retort varied enormously, but the volatile, the spiritus, always rose and the corpus remained below.
The alchemists participated to such an extent in the process – which comprised distillation, sublimation, etc. – that their unconscious was entirely projected into it, and this caused them to have visions, but for the most p art they did not realise that the visions had anything to do with their own psyche.
They lived very isolated lives and worked in secret, for their quest was illegal and opposed to the orthodox teachings of the Church.
Alchemy was looked up on as sorcery and it was dangerous to be taken for a sorcerer in those days. It is understandable, in such conditions, that all the alchemists’ unconscious expectations should be centred on the opus and should appear in the form of visions.
There are old texts which record these visions in a wonderful language of images. We see from all this that the alchemists can hardly be compared with our modern chemists!
(3) The next symbol in the process is the mons, the mountain.
The alchemists often used this term for that which app eared above the dead or glowing body in the retort; and they also sometimes called the upper part of the retort itself the mountain.
This is a parallel to Mount Meru, it is the mountain in the clouds and the rain is below.
It is als o thought of as the carrier of the precious substance which will appear at a later stage of the process: the jewel, the medicina catholica, the elixir vitae or the wonderful
healing herb, the panacea.
Christ, as a saviour, is another parallel.
We have seen that Christ is identified with the mountain and with the little stone cut out of the mountain without hands which destroyed the great image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:
“Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image up on his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors ; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them : and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth ” (Dan. II, 3 4-3 5.)
This allegory was certainly known to the alchemists, for among their number were fathers of the Church, such as Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas and Alain de L’isle.
Some of these texts are falsely ascribed, to Albertus Magnus, for instance, but the symbolic language was greatly influenced by the fact that the fathers of the Church contributed to it.
The lapis angularis, for instance, was ascribed to the corner stone which is a well-known symbol for Christ.
(4) the city, the civitas, the castrum, which is built on the mountain.
This is the idea of the retort containing the precious substance.
It must be safely enclosed, hermetically sealed, for it is important that it should not diminish or disappear during the process of heating; the spirit must not escape.
(5) Thenthe four elements, the Quaternitas, appear on the mountain, corresponding to the four-headed Vajra on Mount Meru in the Tantrik sequence.
Whereas the elements in the Tetrameria were in solution, they now app ear as spirit and not matter, they are already sublimated elements.
These are four essences and on top comes the quinta essentia, the mediator in the centre.
This has a deep symbolic meaning, as it has in Tantrik Yoga, where we have seen the lotus coming out of the four.
(6) The fols auri is the alchemical parallel, we find that symbolism frequently in alchemy, as well as in Chinese philosophy.
It is an image for sublimation and the quinta essentia is such a sublimation.
The flower of sulphur and the flowering of salt petre are still spoken of in modern chemistry.
In India, the lotus forms the hollow vessel in which the gods appear, in alchemy this is more often a bath or retort.
(7) The moon and (8) the sun. The flower is followed in both sequences by the moon.
The Tetrameria was not only the “separatio” of the four elements, but also of the masculine and feminine, the primeval idea of the division into two.
We find it represented as the clouds in the air, the spirit, above; and the water, the feminine, below.
In Genesis we read:” And the Spirit of God moved up on the face of the waters”.
The alchemists understood this in the sense of “brooded”, the water was impregnated by the sperma dei.
So the most important opposites, the masculine and the feminine, come together in the lotus and the retort.
When this union succeeds it is usually personified.
(9) The moon, the feminine is the albaoral- baida.
The introduction of Arabic words comes from the fact that our first knowledge of the old Greek alchemical texts came to us through Arabian alchemistic tradition.
Although the Codex Marcianus already existed in Venice, we had no knowledge of Greek in the Middle Ages.
Greek culture only spread to us by the efforts of the Humanists after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks.
Al-baida is an Arabic word meaning white woman and Beya is a corruption of it.
There is an important old text about Gabricus and Beya.
Gabricus derives from the Arabic el kibrit, sulphur, the colour of the sun, whereas the moon, the white, is the quicksilver: it is a union of the fiery heat with the cool damp substance.
(10) the Conjunctio. An old Latin M.S. of the 11th or 12th century, the Consilium Conjugii, gives advice concerning the marriage of the sun with the moon.
The Conjunctio is the last union, in which the difference of the sexes disappears.
The sun is often represented by gold and the moon by silver but, as mentioned before, these metals were not thought of materially, for the alchemists continually say “our gold is not the ordinary gold “; it is a gold essence – what that is was their secret.
It was not a corporeal union, but a union of the spiritus, the breath bodies.
(11)The following symbol, which corresponds to the Vihara, the monastery in the Tantrik sequence, is the vas herrnetis, the place in which the secret is made.
In the Book of the Yellow Castle we find this place described as the “purple hall of the city of jade”.
It is also the crystal vase in which one can see the small figures of man as sol and woman as luna, in union.
The last opposites are brought together in the Vas Hermetis, it is the coincidentia oppositorum, the union of the two warring opposites.
The costly substance resulting from the process had to be protected in a treasure house.
(12) The lapis philosophorum appears as the last symbol.
This is the aim and the meaning of the whole opus.
In the Tantrik sequence it is the Lord of the mandala: the final product is identified with Buddha.
Christ is also frequently spoken of as a parallel to the precious substance.
The Church stresses the Imitatio Christi, so the idea of Christ being a symbol for the lapis, of Christ being the allegory instead of vice versa, brings in a heretical note.
The highest figure is hermaphroditic: male and female in one.
Christian iconography represents Christ as a very feminine man.
This is not just a matter of taste, but because he could not be the redeemer if he were not woman as well as man: all the opposites had to unite in him.
This is where the psychological secret comes in.
The figure which represents the highest symbol is also in one aspect a child.
The title of an old alchemical treatise runs: “The Hermaphroditic Child of the Sun and Moon.”
It is the homunculus , the small thumbling, for it must be small to dwell in the innermost heart of man.
Alchemical philosophy conceives of the lapis as body, soul and spirit.
An old text actually says: “Thou art the stone”, showing that a totality of human personality is really intended.
But this is represented in images such as the flower, the lux moderna, the light which has broken into the darkness, the sun of justice descended from heaven, etc.
The stone cannot be made without the grace of God.
The alchemists continually say “Deo concedente”: (if God permits).
The process is an opus miraculous, because God manifests himself in it.
The essence of the divine appears in the experience of the working alchemist. In Greek alchemy, and especially in the writings of Zosimos, the famous Gnostic of the 3rd century, we meet with the symbol of light: Photeins, the luminous man. The idea of God as the luminous man played a significant role in the Gnosis, as the scintilla, the spark of eternal light in the darkness of matter.
It is the task of man to find the redeeming light in his dark condition.
In alchemy, the redemption of man is brought about through the opus; in contrast to Christianity, where redemption depends entirely on the grace of God.
The eastern concept is identical with the alchemical idea: it is the task of the individual to redeem himself.
It is not correct to say that the alchemists did not know this; some, and perhaps not a few, had this conception.
The chemical and the psychological processes went hand in hand, the alchemists worked with such intensity and expectation that it had a psychological effect on them.
This is difficult for us to understand.
But when we consider that the primitive hears trees and animals talking to him, that is he animates everything around him with the contents of his own psyche, because he does not see the world at all objectively, we cannot wonder that the alchemists lived in the same “participation” with the materia on which they worked, because its contents were unknown in the Middle Ages.
Those people found in dead matter what we should experience in another way, psychologically or metaphysically.
But today we no longer know what metaphysical means.
I shall now give you a psychological parallel to the two sequences which we have been following.
The first condition, Shunyata, Chaos, (avidya) is unconsciousness.
We like to think that we are not unconscious but we are to an amazing extent: think of the many things we do without knowing it.
But, so long as we are not aware of them, we do not even know that we are acting unconsciously and “Was ich nicht weiss, macht mir nicht heiss” (what I do not know, does not annoy me).
These unconscious actions, therefore, do not exist for us (any more than America exists for those who do not know that it was ever discovered) but other people see what we are unaware of ourselves!
When we suddenly get a box on the ears from the unconscious, we are often quite unable to discover any reason for it, but the cause lies very close to us, even if we do not like to see it.
Then something must be done about it and the Tetrameria begins.
Order must be brought into the confused condition or we shall never understand why we are at loggerheads with our surroundings or why we have suddenly got into an awful hole.
This is why Freud called this process “Psycho-analysis”.
The analysis of the psyche with the purpose of dissolving this dark condition and bringing order into it.
Every system of ordering is a system of four.
This dissolution of the darkness also dissolves the picture which we have made of ourselves.
Some people have a very exalted opinion of their own value, they do not doubt themselves, yet everything goes wrong – and others complain of them.
These people have to find out that they are not a hundred percent pure gold, but that they consist of a rubbish heap as well.
When this other side comes up, it can be so unacceptable that people lose all faith in themselves: the generous person sees that he is a miser and the respectable person that he is as scoundrel.
Then what is left?
A yea and a nay are both present, an uncanny condition in which you can lose yourself.
Then something slowly comes out of all this bewilderment, as Ararat emerged from the waters of the flood.
Just as the ark found a dry point on which to land, so you find a small but firm spot, an instinctive foundation on which you can stand and from which you can see: here I am right and there I am wrong, I am not quite right and not quite wrong, I am that.
This is the mountain, a sure though small conviction which appears first as an island in the waters.
With it comes the light and an insight which tells you that you know very little of yourself.
There is no certainty, it is a dark feeling.
But this precious insight is related to your very foundations – and then the city appears with its fortifications, as the magic circle.
This protection is essential, for there are people who are always letting !heir mind be torn away.
We need an inner and an outer protection from the dangers which surround us. ~Carl Jung, ETH Lectures, Pages107-111.