Continuing with Alchemical processes: sublimatio and birds
” The essential thing about birds is that they, having as their domain the air element, mediate between the earthly realm and the heaven world. The alchemist in observing the flight of birds, recognized in them a picture of the human soul undergoing spiritual development. ”
Adam McLean “Birds in Alchemy”
“In alchemical writings we meet a seemingly bewildering multiplicity of animal symbols – red lions, white eagles, stags, unicorns, winged dragons and snakes. Although at first glance all this complex mass of symbolism seems tortured and confused there is an inner coherence to these symbols, which the ancient alchemists used in specific ways reflecting their esoteric content.
In this article I wish to consider a particularly tight knit group of these animal symbols, the birds of alchemy – the Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, and Phoenix – which are descriptive of certain stages of the alchemical process. Of course it would be wrong to suggest that there are fixed rigid meanings with regard to these symbols.
The alchemists always integrated the symbols they used, so that one has to look at the total context, the background against which they stand, but when the birds appear in this sequence it is almost certain that the following interpretation can be applied.
Firstly, let us look at the symbols in general. What did the alchemists wish to symbolize by birds? The essential thing about birds is that they, having as their domain the air element, mediate between the earthly realm and the heaven world.
The alchemist in observing the flight of birds, recognized in them a picture of the human soul undergoing spiritual development. The soul, aspiring upwards, flying free of the restraints of the earth bound body seeking the heavenly light, only to have to return to the earthly consciousness again after the meditation, the alchemist symbolized by the bird.
Thus the bird symbols, in alchemy, reflect the inner experiences of soul alchemy, the soaring of the soul free from the earth bound body and the physical senses. The soul, in the meditations of soul alchemy, touches upon the spiritual world, and brings something of this back into the outer life again.
The birds as symbols mediate between the physical and spiritual worlds, they reflect certain archetypal experiences encountered by the soul in its development through the alchemical process.
These symbols were used in two ways. Firstly, as a description in a text of one aspect of the process. Thus the alchemist might indicate a certain process as the Pelican stage, and describe certain facets of this by using perhaps other symbols, Secondly, these bird symbols could be used as a subject matter for a meditation, and by inwardly building such a symbol, one connected in soul with the essential experience of the particular stage of the alchemical-soul process.
Now us will look at these in detail. I would like to consider them in the following sequence, one which occurs in various sources: Black Crow – White Swan – Peacock – Pelican – Phoenix – as these correspond to a developing inner experience which involves a progressively deepening encounter with the inner spiritual dimension of our being.