Agnolo Bronzino, Il serpente di bronzo, from the chapel of Eleonora of Toledo, Firenze, Palazzo Vecchio
The divisive and separative function of the sword, which is of such importance in alchemy, is prefigured in the flaming sword of the angel that separated our first parents from paradise. Separation by a sword is a theme that can also be found in the Gnosis of the Ophites: the earthly cosmos is surrounded by a ring of fire which at the same time encloses paradise. But paradise and the ring of fire are separated by the “flaming sword.”
An important interpretation of this flaming sword is given in Simon Magus: there is an incorruptible essence potentially present in every human being, the divine pneuma “which is stationed above and below in the stream of water.” Simon says of this pneuma: “I and thou, thou before me. I, who am after thee.” It is a force “that generates itself, that causes itself to grow; it is its own mother, sister, bride, daughter; its own son, mother, father; a unity, a root of the whole.” It is the very ground of existence, the procreative urge, which is of fiery origin. Fire is related to blood, which “is fashioned warm and ruddy like fire.” Blood turns into semen in men, and in women into milk. This “turning” is interpreted as “the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
The operative principle in semen and milk turns into mother and father. The tree of life is guarded by the turning (i.e., transforming) sword, and this is the “seventh power” which begets itself. “For if the flaming sword turned not, then would that fair Tree be destroyed, and perish utterly; but if it turneth into semen and milk, and there be added the Logos and the place of the Lord where the Logos is begotten, he who dwelleth potentially in the semen and milk shall grow to full stature from the littlest spark, and shall increase and become a power boundless and immutable, like to an unchanging Aeon, which suffereth no more change until measureless eternity.”
It is clear from these remarkable statements of Hippolytus concerning the teachings of Simon Magus that the sword is very much more than an instrument which divides; it is itself the force which “turns” from something infinitesimally small into the infinitely great: from water, fire, and blood it becomes the limitless aeon. What it means is the transformation of the vital spirit in man into the Divine. The natural being becomes the divine pneuma, as in the vision of Zosimos. Simon’s description of the creative pneuma, the true arcane substance, corresponds in every detail to the uroboros or serpens mercurialis of the Latinists. It too is its own father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and sister from the earliest beginnings of alchemy right down to the end. It begets and sacrifices itself and is its own instrument of sacrifice, for it is a symbol of the deadly and life-giving water. ~Carl Jung; Psychology and Religion; Pages 236-237.