Why did we choose the labyrinth as a logo (or place)? Because it is a symbol synonymous with the magic square. And, at this point, the right question to ask is, what does the character of Ariadne represent (the memory so severely treated by Theseus, the initiate)?
“When the nature of the gods disappears, there appears the nature of things” – Cicero.
“Deprive the body of body and that which has no body provide a body“ – Rosarium Philosophorum. Metals killed in a certain way can germinate again as their forms endure over time in the materials that had made their graves. This concept, known as Magisterium Corpi, is what Alchemy is for, and along with the key concept of Secret Fire, it can clash dangerously with certain religious beliefs. Because we can extend this notion to reigns other than mineral
The assumption that alchemy is a proto-science born from the personal and reeling intellectual efforts of Neolithic people and developed through the various ages of bronze and ironing up to the sophisticated acme of the Baroque period represents our crucial misunderstanding. It is increasingly clear that it may be just the opposite.
Alchemical mechanisms must have two characteristics that seem contradictory today: being “unstoppable” and “within the technical reach of the Neolithic”.
When it was more acceptable to look up to the sky to observe analogies and synchronism phenomena, it was understood that under the words “sky and cosmos,” some archetypal form was hidden instead. And that everything travels together. Also, nothing travels, but everything is duplicated.
Whatever it means, that’s, first and foremost, physics. We cannot avoid what was formerly called matter.
The alchemical Egg is a maximum concentration of processed matter. While from the part of the Neoplatonists and Orphics, the symbol of the Egg represents what will be unified, as well as being means of unification.
The two elements which compose the name Demeter – Δημήτηρ – are an alteration or a more ancient form of a word meaning “Earth Mother”. Dom Pernety called her the prototype of any passive substance containing its active agent. Proclus, a neo-Platonist who did not meddle in minerals, decided instead to give up divulging his master Syrianus’ notes on the chthonic aspect of the harvest deity, mindful of the age-old warning never to reveal anything about the Eleusine goddesses.
Damascius is thought to have surely found the scrolls somewhere inside the school of Athens, and he has said to have made a book out of them of such length that he could believe he had hidden them again.
Canseliet often spoke of the “bird language” as a secret language encrypted for assonances: for instance, a commonly used word that sounded like an undisclosed operative term. It may seem bizarre, but the so-called bird language had a precise symbolic value in all ancient civilizations. Several stories, legends, and myths explain that the one who had overcome the human condition could get the knowledge of this “language” assimilated to the same “language of the gods”. And since birds represented the higher states of being or the angelic status itself, the “language of birds” symbolized the elevation towards transcendence and the direct knowledge of celestial reality.
Only a pure human intellect can become the receptacle of the memory, represented by the symbol of the heart, which I do not want to define as divine but rather archetypal.
The Alchemy books we still take as a reliable point of reference lead us to the first twenty years of the last century: the roaring 20s – which René Schwaller de Lubicz defined as “the era of necessary excesses” It should be noted how the scholar Schwaller took allegories literally and did not even suspect that they could be only symbols. If he had studied history a little more, he would have learned that while Mediterranean alchemy took examples from nature to hide the operations of physics (the sea, the sun, the moon, the earth, the wind), Eastern alchemy took examples from the human body to explain the same operations.
Finally, Schwaller confessed that he paid J.J. Champagne for him to reproduce his interpretation of the “mystical marriage” on minerals… Champagne went through some pretty stressful times in that Parisian laboratory-equipped attic.
But in one thing, Schwaller was right: Alchemy needs a doctrine on which to base itself. Otherwise, the “how” search will always prevail over the search for the “why”.
Philosophers such as Porphyry believed that their ability to think abstractly freed them from the constraints of the material realm. While from Iamblichus’ point of view, their conceptual constructs had the opposite effect: they were cut off from the world’s divinity and communion with the gods. Iamblichus followed Porphyry’s teacher, Plotinus, who said: “Our concern is not simply to avoid error, but to be god.”
We know that Porphyry and Iamblichus had a very heated debate about sacrifices. However, what these rituals represented was probably already lost by the time of the Neoplatonists. Already in earlier times, an imposture was made, and the king-priest replaced his sacrifice with a substitute, an animal. The narrative here becomes very complex and involves the archaic concept of the transition from chaos to cosmos. Which in alchemy is expressed with the terms of Microcosm and Macrocosm.
One of the nine processions in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Each with different animals, carriages, banners, and characters. In Alchemy, quite simply, these scenes symbolically represent multiplications or, better, repetitions. Duplications.
In Philosophy, but I could call it Theurgy – although I prefer Philosophy – Plato’s Parmenides taught: “Without the Many, the One could not be one”. The interpretation of this sentence was a battleground for some of the neo-Platonists, certainly between Iamblichus and Porphyry. Ultimately, also, in this case, it was all about, again, duplication.
Better to risk with metals or in theurgic processions? I say this because, brutally and reduced to the bone, the difference between alchemists and theurgists has always run along these lines.
There is nothing in heaven and on earth that is not also in man, said Paracelsus. We are talking about tiny anatomy that is invisible to our senses. And it all boils down, once again, to duplication. Without it, memory is not possible, and the transmission of chains becomes unfeasible.
We had to study elementary particles to understand the symbolism of the ancient sacrifices: an ancestral ritual of memory repetition through “nourishment”. In the end, it was just a banquet with the gods. Indeed, a communion. But for this to happen, a form must be given.
The net manufactured by Hephaestus to trap Mars and Venus – and which only the Olympus blacksmith can release – is known for being “metallic”, but, like all his works, they are just symbols of the alchemical and theurgic fire through which he was able to make the bronze of his simulacra breathe. Whether it is the alchemists ‘ Mercurius, or the subtle body described by Iamblichus as the vehicle of the soul (ochêma tês psuchês) to animate bodies, ultimately, we can only define it as the movement of air. Homer called it ‘the brawn of steel’, which liquefies, softens, and returns stiff and powerful.
Greek mythology further tells us that Hephaestus is a coarse and earthly copy of the distant Zeus, and only he, the fire expert, can bring the King to the earth just as only Vesta can bring Hera, the other of the kings, to earth. They are the earthly repeaters of the ineffable, certainly slow deities, but they hurry to follow the uncatchable. However, the only real craftsman is always him, Hermes/Mercury.
The contradictory polymorph is Zeus’s main servant. When Hermes/Mercury, the ‘liar’ par excellence, turns into the King’s mouth, he cannot lie. He is not the god of alchemists… but Alchemy tout court. If Athena is the goddess of pristine Wisdom, Hermes/Mercury is the context, the assumption, and the element. If we fail to understand the god Mercury, we will never be able to interpret Alchemy.
Once upon a time, the intrinsic nature of flowers and mountains was the same. And if time is that strange entity that physicists seek to discover, which the ancient philosophers have speculated so much about, and which mathematicians say is the stuff of numbers… then we can understand the archaic forma mentis of the ancients, whereby the past contained everything, present, and future.
Andrea Alciati says: “Fingers touch and strings emit tones. But when a string is broken or badly made, the harmony is spoiled. Then we need the cicada song that fills the forest with its uniform voice.”
So what is this site all about? I wish I could say it doesn’t deal with Alchemy. Believe me, if I had started publishing today, I would be careful not to use this term again… Alchemy… Let me quote a passage from a novel set in the second half of the eighteenth century, in which a disillusioned noblewoman presents the state of the Art: “… In truth, gentlemen, the paradox is that if we connect Alchemy to experimental philosophy, and therefore to its concrete usefulness in our earthly lives, we must recognize that we are instead faced with a strange physics that does what it wants, regardless of our desires… in fact, it seems to operate exclusively for itself, and its ends… and ultimately it seems to have no appreciable use for the average human being: it will not make you rich, nor will it make you eternally young, nor will it cure your ailings.” Alchemy will lead you to the world of the dead while alive. Being able to return… But this is an archaic way of speaking, as we find in Homer’s poetry. The problem, at least for me, is that if it has no earthly utility – at least that desired by mediocre people – and once the experimental philosophy progresses along its road, Alchemy will become obsolete and even more misunderstood than today… and once it becomes no man’s land, it will simply be a container of symbols exposed to any plunder… waiting for some adventurer quick of hand and mind, ready to take it…. It is no coincidence that Hermes, in later times, became the god of thieves.”
Today the duchess’ words would sound cutesy. And those of Canseliet permeated with the harshness of metallurgists: “Anyone who has never experimented with the oven, even if the most erudite and subtlest of philosophers, remains a thousand miles away from imagining how intimate the artist’s communion with his material can become – the Lady of his thoughts – and what revelations this can make to him, in the awakening and exaltation by the fire of his sleeping existence, so that he becomes a philosopher by fire ( philosophus per ignem).”
I want to launch a challenge: if you’ve noticed, I’ve used images from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra twice. There is a well-defined reason: they represent the union of Alchemy and Theurgy. Anyone who fully understands the sequence of all the woodcuts will stick together these two doctrines that are so different.
And he/she will complete the infamous chess match between Apollo and Hermes, proclaimed by Zeus to celebrate the never-ending wedding of his very old ancestors Okeanos – divinity so ancient that he is not even considered a deity, but only the origin – with Thetis, not a goddess, but the primeval waters.
Cernunnos, the deer god who came and went from the world of the dead, never left his gameboard. On him, cast for divination, cathedrals were still built in French Gaul. He is said to have many Hermes/Mercury characteristics. I wonder if, like his Mediterranean analog, the deer god also played by deceiving Apollo. But it must be admitted that the esoteric sun’s arrogance would have gotten on anyone’s nerves.
Bizarre as it may seem, the Celts considered the deer a symbol of the sea. They say it because the horned king of the woods swam very well. In any case, from ancient poets and waters, one could acquire immortality. Here they are in this picture, Okeanos and Thetis, to serve as a frame for the power of Poseidon, the shipwreck maker.
So, let’s get the festival started and get back to our roots.
And then everyone chooses his own. Power goes to the mind, not to the form.
Throw your coin where old Okeanos becomes the ancestor of young Poseidon, and you will return.
The Upaniṣad says it, but it is also valid for Alchemy: the deities are song in a world of resonances. When the first name is pronounced, other minor gods take it upon themselves to repeat it. Very poetic, too much indeed.
It is difficult for an alchemist to be lyrical when everything around him speaks a material language. To express the same concept, he instead brings out hordes of madmen from eggs that only he can call philosophical.
Who of that bunch of drunks will manage to emerge from the bottom of the sea, despite everyone singing an off-key song?
The hour that the inebriated love unknowingly is the instant that in ancient times was represented by the rooster: the before-dawn, the blue hour. When philosophers say, our ancient memory tries to come back. The moment in which also the alchemists’ Mercurius triumphantly manifests itself. Then it is easier to sing in resonance and repeat the primordial song name from mouth to mouth, string to string.
Hackneyed image, the one from Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” now banal and overused, that of the musical score printed on the ass of a figure submerged by the great resonating lute. However, that ass is our foundation. The anatomical part is anything but engaged only on the awareness level.
If the idea of human buttocks is not at all spiritual – but unfortunately, the alchemical symbolism loved the grotesque side – the idea that nature too has its basement can help. And don’t get it wrong, but think about the sun and the moon, the astronomical ones for once, and how they bounce and reflect lower frequencies off each other. And that only the shadow can welcome and guard for that fleeting moment.
Talia, the lame Muse, according to Martianus Capella’s suggestion, could not fly and live in the ponds of the body of the earth, and instead of flying, she goes directly to the waterhole where she was born. For this reason, the ancients gave the earth the symbol of the swan: because it sings only once in a lifetime.
Have you noticed how many playful objects are at the bottom of Bosch’s right panel of the triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights”? They will tell you: do you see how the players were punished? Now they are all in hell!
Instead, there is not a single detail in the whole painting that Bosch represented as mere moral teachings (aside from using them as a cover-up, of course). Note that the triptych is not called “Last Judgment” – which already existed and was somewhat different in the symbolic rendering of hell – but rather “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” So what art historians imaginatively call “The Musical Hell” was not intended by the artist as hell, but – I would add – as the most earthly part among the parts under the moon, that is, Hades. And between Tartarus and Hades, there is a substantial difference: the former is a dead-end, while the latter is known from Greek mythology as a land of resurrection. From the first, there is no return; from the second, there is the possibility of a comeback because Pluto’s land is the place of transmutation par excellence.
If anyone doubts, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” was commissioned by a lay patron.
Most readers will wonder how I could stoop so low as to present playing cards, dice, pawns, and playing boards on a site about alchemy. But all this was part of the most ancient mythologies: how many gods of hunting or war were also gods of gaming, for example, in the temples of Artemis, devotees used to play sacred dice.
The playing gear was a divination technique, except these words were symbols. As for the gameboard, we know very well that at the dawn of time, gameboards, calendars, and arithmetic calculation plans were the same: the sand or soil arena on which to trace with a stick. As for “divination,” for the ancients, it was customary to believe it had to do with the numina immanent in objects and nature.
Upon the occurrence of certain cosmic conditions – the game board – the deity returned to earth. What lay behind the generic word “deity” remains to be defined. For sure, the loss of the gameboard was the loss or dissolution of certain conditions.
In any case, all of this was reserved for the deities, not for humans, unless they found a substitute. If you think it’s all trivial and artificial, consider that the game was once sacred and only played once a year.
Moving pieces using a strategy was a forbidden practice. The dice had to be rolled on the board. And not before having made them resound in their disastrous fall from the steps of Turricula-Pyrgos.
Played for only three days a year, when the sun finally silenced its background noise, the playful activity was anything but carefree. One’s destiny wasn’t at stake but a return to one’s origins. And that’s what, very cautiously, Macrobius tried to mention in his Saturnalia.
In those stellar days, players, devotees, alchemists, theurgists, magicians, and pilgrims all attempt the ancient resonance upon the gameboard, which is none other than Saturn/Chronos itself.
Ask an alchemist what Saturn represents… and ask a mythologist why Hermes/Mercury was also known as a game deity. Then it would be interesting to do the opposite: ask an alchemist what Hermes represents and a mythologist why Saturn/Kronos, in the Archaic age, rather than a divinity, was considered the stellar calendar of the great agricultural cycles.
If Kronos is the king’s father, and Hermes is the king’s mouth, then we can guess what role a pawn plays on a gameboard. But we still don’t know how many chances it has.
From above: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, attributed to Andrea Mantegna’s school/Benedetto Bordone, 1499; SATOR square on the north side of the Siena Cathedral; miniature from Épître d’Othéa, Codex Bodmer 49; Daniel Cramer, Emblemata Sacra 1, 1624, engraving n. 42 Alta Cadunt; Greek vascular art portraying Dionysus offering a hare to Demetra and Persephone, Amassis painter c. 560–515 bc; Detail from Piero della Francesca, Pala di Brera or Pala Montefeltro 1572, Pinacoteca di Brera; Terracotta group of two seated women, perhaps Demeter and Persephone. Myrina c. 100 BC. British Museum, London; an example of how to draw a sparrow; Daniel Cramer, Emblemata Sacra, 1624, Emblem 7, Sum Constans; inside a venue, Paris 1920s; Reconstruction of the Cotilia lake; Achille Bocchi, Symbolicarum Quaestionum de Universo Genere, page II; Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, attributed to Andrea Mantegna’s school/Benedetto Bordone, 1499; Jan van Eyck, the Arnolfini portrait aka Arnolfini wedding, 1434, National Gallery, particle fractal design (it has nothing to do with the content, but I liked it); Leonardo da Vinci, Il Cenacolo (the Last Supper) 1495-1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie Milano; a trivial light cage-lamp that made the idea; Isaac Briot, Les Metamorphoses d’Ovide, Paris 1621; Copper engraving, Nicola Tiberi 18th, Museo Civico Palazzo D’Avalos; Andrea Alciati, Emblems d’Alciat de nouveau traslatez en françois vers iouxte de latin, 1549, Lyon; Scacchia Ludus or the game of Chess a Poem written originally in Latin by Marcus Hieronymus Vida, London 1721; Bas relief of the Celtic god Cernunnos found under Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (Knight 1987, 5-7); Claude Mignault woodcut, Andreae Alciati emblemata cum commentariis Claudii Minois I. C. Francisci Sanctii Brocensis & notis Laurentii Pignorii, Padova 1661; Emblemi di Andrea Alciato dal latino nel Volgare ridotti, Padova, 1626; Claude Mignault woodcut, Andreae Alciati emblemata cum commentariis Claudii Minois I. C. Francisci Sanctii Brocensis & notis Laurentii Pignorii, Padova 1661, emblem CLXXXI; Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola aka Parmigianino, Portrait of a collector, 1520 – 1530, National Gallery, London; Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid; the interlude thumbnails are taken from Emblems d’Alciat de nouveau traslatez en françois vers iouxte de latin, 1549, Lyon.