The Antics of Mercury

An Alchemical Dialogue by Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)

‘Philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad.’

An alchemist and would-be philosopher, who grapples with the elusive Mercury

Mercury was playing tricks ahead of time – there was a glitch and hold-up between publishing my last post (‘The Ship of Night’) and the automatic notifications being sent out by email. Automatic, did I say? Mercury can surely play games there too! ) Anyway, here is a tale of the merry prankster – and if he’s showcased somewhat later than first intended, it’s his own fault.

In 1997, I was asked to lecture at a conference in Prague, to be held on the theme of ‘Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition’. There was a fascinating mix of delegates from the USA , the UK, and from Prague itself. The city had only been open to the West for a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was a wonderful new chance to meet those with similar interests. Prague itself has deep connections with the alchemical tradition, and so in between sessions we wandered the streets, marvelling at the alchemical symbols and signs adorning many of the old buildings in the streets. A medieval tower, moreover, had been turned into a temporary exhibition of alchemy, with each storey of the tower representing a stage in the alchemical process. And a replica of an alchemist’s laboratory had been set up in the museum at the castle, where alchemical experiment was once practised. The trip is curiously linked too in my mind with twists of fate, and the making of history. One morning, as a bunch of us was entering the gates of Prague Castle, a fellow delegate rushed over to tell us all about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. She and her partner watched the news late at night, and suddenly the reports started coming through. (And, as I prepare this blog for posting, we have just had news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II…the sense of both shock and finality are strangely the same in both cases. Even though now separated by 25 years.)

To view some of Prague’s alchemical sites, take a tour here . And for an old alchemical laboratory, discovered in Prague in 2002 after my stay there, see Speculum Alchimiae, also reviewed here.

The tower where the Opus Magnum alchemical exhibition was held

As well as a lecture, I also gave seminar on the theme of ‘Hermes and the Caduceus’. It was in full swing when a young man, bearing a large white flip chart and pens, suddenly strode in through the door. ‘You asked for these’ he said. It seemed that a representation of Mercury/Hermes himself had entered the room in his role as scribe. We fell about laughing.

To add a little more live alchemy to the experience of the conference, I decided to stage informally an adaptation of a dialogue by Michael Sendivogius, an early 17th century alchemist who had lived in Prague towards the end of his life. The city at that time was a hotbed of alchemists and magicians, searching, experimenting, writing, and conferring under the benign patronage of Rudolf II. As we performed it, I realised that this was probably the first time the dialogue had ever been spoken aloud since Sendivogius wrote it in 1607.

So here’s to the revival of the dialogue, which is adapted from the original text, to be found in this extract from the writings of Sendivogius. You are welcome to perform it too, if you choose! In it, Mercury gets to have the last laugh – his apparent folly is his wisdom, and the would-be alchemist and spiritual sage is a victim of his own vanity! You can read more about Hermes aka Mercury in my previous post.

Oh – and in the process of adapting it, I couldn’t resist adding in a few responses of my own – hence the Commentator.

Below: old houses in Prague, adorned with mythical and alchemical symbols

A Dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist and Nature

Michael Sendivogius, 1607

On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was arranged that they should speak in order, and each after the manner that seemed best to him. Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else. These Alchemists had read the books of the Sages, and hence there was a decided majority in favour of Mercury, not only as the true first matter, but in particular as the first matter of metals, since all the philosophers seemed to cry with one voice: “O our Mercury, our Mercury,” &c., whatever that word might mean.

But a consensus, a fraternity of alchemists was not to be:
Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world — and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day.’

One of them, however, determined to grapple with this tricksy spirit. He is sure of his superior abilities, but somehow success eludes him…Let us enter the scene at this point:

NARRATOR: We first meet with our alchemist as he is struggling to get to grips with mercury in his glass vessel. He’s read all the books, but somehow he can’t seem to get the right results. He tried heating the mercury over the fire, but it evaporated and disappeared. Like many an angry man, he blames his wife.

ALCHEMIST: No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my mercury out of the vessel.
WIFE [sobbing]: No, no, not I!
NARRATOR: Well, the Alchemist tries again, mixing the mercury into various disgusting concoctions with all sorts of substances such as blood, hair and urine. He tries metals and minerals, salts and sulphur, but nothing very alchemical happens. Then he suddenly remembers that dung is a good thing to work with, so he gets his hands deep into the shit! It’s no good. He falls asleep, exhausted. But lo! In his dream an old man comes to him, and advises him to charm the mercury in the way that you would charm a serpent. The Alchemist wakes up shouting joyfully:
ALCHEMIST: Serpents are charmed! Now what is it that I have to say – yes, “Ux, ux, Ostas!’
NARRATOR: And with that, Mercury appears, laughing his head off.

The ‘Second Key’ from Basil Valentine’s alchemical engravings, published 1618. Mercury as he might apear to the alchemists.

MERCURY: Why dost thou trouble me my Lord alchemist?
ALCHEMIST: Oh ho, do you call me your Lord? I have found a bit to bridle you with; wait a little, and you shall soon sing the tune that I bid you. (angrily and imperiously) – I conjure you by the living God – are you not that Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: (pretending to be frightened) – Master, I am Mercury.
ALCHEMIST: Why would you not obey me then? Why could I not fix you?
MERCURY: Oh, most high and mighty Master, I implore you to spare your miserable slave! I did not know that you were such a potent philosopher. I see now, to my own great cost, that your Worship is a high and mighty and most potent philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: (with a smile of satisfaction) – Now at last I have found what I sought. (in tones of thunder) Now mind that you obey me, else it will be the worse for you.
MERCURY: Gladly, Master, if I can: for I am very weak.
ALCHEMIST: What is the matter with you?
MERCURY: An Alchemist is the matter with me.

An alchemist’s laboratory

ALCHEMIST: Are you laughing at me, you false rogue?
MERCURY: Oh no, no, Master – as God shall spare me, I spoke of an Alchemist – you are a philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: Of course, of course, that is quite true. But what did the Alchemist do?
MERCURY: Oh Master, he has done me a thousand wrongs; he belaboured and mixed me up with all manner of disagreeable and contradictory things, which have stripped me of all my powers, and so I am sick, even to death.
ALCHEMIST: You deserved such treatment, because you would not obey.
MERCURY: I never yet disobeyed a philosopher, but I cannot help laughing at fools.
ALCHEMIST: And what is your opinion of me?
MERCURY: Oh Master, your Worship is a great man, and mighty philosopher, greater by far than Hermes, both in doctrine and in wisdom.
ALCHEMIST: Well, I won’t praise myself, but I certainly am a learned man. My wife says so too. She always calls me a profoundly learned philosopher.
MERCURY: I quite believe you. For philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad. (sniggers quietly)
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, what am I to do with you? How am I to make you into the Philosopher’s Stone?
MERCURY: Oh, my master philosopher, that I cannot tell. You are a philosopher, I am the philosopher’s humble slave. Whatever he wishes to make me, I become, as far as my nature will allow.
ALCHEMIST: This is all very fine, but I repeat that you must tell me how to treat you, and whether you can become the Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.

COMMENTATOR: I cannot help interrupting here, as the voice behind the Narrator – this is a splendid saying, isn’t it? I’m going to store it up for future use. ‘If you know, you can, and if you don’t you can’t.’

Alchemist at work – 17c, Teniers

ALCHEMIST: You talk to me as a simple person. Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of great princes, and have always been regarded as a very profound philosopher.
MERCURY: I readily believe you, my Master, for the filth of your brilliant experiments still cleaves to me.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, are you the Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but you should know best, whether I am the Mercury of you philosophers.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me only whether you are the true Mercury, or whether there is another?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but there is also another.

NARRATOR: With these words, the Mercury vanishes. The Alchemist shouts and calls aloud, but there is no answer. He carries on with his experiments – he fails – he curses Mercury and Nature too. Nature herself wants to know what’s going on.

NATURE: Mercury, what have you done to the Alchemist, and why will you not obey him?
MERCURY: It’s not me – he’s the problem!
NATURE: Well, you should obey the Sons of Knowledge who seek to know me!
MERCURY: All right, Mother Nature, I will – but who can satisfy fools?

NARRATOR: Nature smiles, and departs. The Alchemist, meanwhile, has prepared some ‘excrements of swine’ – that’s pig shit to you – and is smearing Mercury with it.

MERCURY: What do you want of me, you fool?
ALCHEMIST: Are you he whom I desire so much to see?
MERCURY: I am, but blind people cannot behold me.
ALCHEMIST: I am not blind.
MERCURY: You are as blind as a new-born puppy. You cannot see yourself: how then should you be able to see me?

COMMENTATOR: Ha! That’s another good one.

ALCHEMIST: Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of princes, and have always been called a philosopher. My wife says so too.
MERCURY: The gates of princes stand wide for fools. I quite believe that you have been at court.
ALCHEMIST: You are, undoubtedly, the Devil, and not a good Mercury, if you speak like that to philosophers.
MERCURY: Well, my philosopher, what do you seek, and what would you have?
ALCHEMIST: The Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Of what substance would you make it?
ALCHEMIST: Of our Mercury.
MERCURY: Oh, my philosopher, then I had better go: for I am not yours!
ALCHEMIST: You are none but the Devil, and wish to lead me astray.
MERCURY: Well, I think I may return the compliment; you have played the very devil with me. You sow me in dung; and you reap dung. Verily, you are a good husbandman!
ALCHEMIST: Yet the Sages say that their substance is found on the dunghill.
MERCURY: What they say is true, but you understand only the letter, and not the spirit of their injunctions.
ALCHEMIST: Now I see that you are perhaps Mercury. But as you will not obey me, I must once more repeat the words of conjuration: ‘Ux, ux, ostas!’
MERCURY: And what more do you want of me? Am I not obedient? Do I not mingle with all things that you ask me to amalgamate with? Do I not suffer myself to be sublimated, precipitated, amalgamated, calcined? What more can I do? I have submitted to be scourged and spat upon till my miserable plight might move a heart of stone. I have done all that any metal or mineral can do. I do whatsoever you make me do. If you make me a body, I am a body. If you make me powder, I am powder. How can I be more obedient than I am?
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, what you are in your centre, and I will not torment you any more.
MERCURY: I see there is no escape. If you will, you may now understand me. It has nothing to do with my form that you now see. My centre is the fixed heart of all things, immortal and all-pervading. I am an immortal body. I die when I am slain, but rise to stand before the judgment seat of a discriminating judge.
ALCHEMIST: How in all the world am I to understand you, if you answer my questions in dark parables?
MERCURY: Whatever is with me, I love; and to that which is born with me, I impart nourishment. That which is naked I cover with my wings.

Alchemical exhibition, Prague

ALCHEMIST: I see plainly that it is impossible to talk to you. If you do not answer my questions better, I will torment you again.
MERCURY: Have pity on me, Master, I will gladly tell you all I know.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, are you afraid of the fire?
MERCURY: I myself am fire.
ALCHEMIST: Why then do you seek to escape from the fire?
MERCURY: Because my spirit loves the spirit of fire, and accompanies it wherever it goes.
ALCHEMIST: Where do you go when you ascend with the fire?
MERCURY: Every pilgrim looks anxiously towards his country and his home. When he has returned unto these, he reposes, and he always comes back wiser than he left.

COMMENTATOR: And that, I have to admit, is a beautiful sentiment. I shall ponder it.
ALCHEMIST: Do you return, then?
MERCURY: Yes, but in another form. I am fire within; fire is my food and my life; but the life of fire is air, for without air fire is extinguished…Add air to air, so that both become one in even balance; combine them with fire, and leave the whole to time.

The two Mercuries, portrayed in Atlanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier (1617)

ALCHEMIST: What will happen then?
MERCURY: Everything superfluous will be removed. The residue you burn in fire, place in water, ‘cook’, and when it is cooked, you give as a medicine, and have no fear.

NARRATOR: Nature re-appears, to scold the Alchemist once more for his mistreatment of Mercury.
NATURE: You do nothing but cross me, and deal with my children against my will…my obedient son Mercury you torment in the most fearful manner.
ALCHEMIST: Then I will in future deal with him gently, and subject him only to gradual coction.

NATURE: That is well, if you possess understanding; otherwise, you will ruin only yourself and your possessions. If you act in opposition to my commands, you hurt yourself more than him.…

ALCHEMIST: But who is that Mercury?
NATURE: Know that I have only one such son, he is one of seven, and the first among them; and though he is now all things, he was at first only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet he performs a woman’s part: a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, and yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things, a King, but another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, but does not wet the hands; he is earth, and yet he is sown; he is air, and lives by water.

NARRATOR: But alas, it seems that the Alchemist just isn’t ready to give up his pride and greed.

ALCHEMIST: Now I see that I know nothing; only I must not say so. For I should lose the good opinion of my neighbours, and they would no longer entrust me with money for my experiments. I must therefore go on saying that I know everything; for there are many that expect me to do great things for them.

NATURE: But if you go on in that way, your neighbours will at last find you out, and demand their money back.

ALCHEMIST: I must amuse them with promises, as long as I can.

NATURE: And what then?

ALCHEMIST: I will try different experiments; and if they fail, I will go to some other country, and live the same life there. There are many countries, and many greedy persons who will suffer themselves to be gulled by my promises of mountains of gold.

NATURE: Such philosophers are only fit for the gallows. Be off, and take with you my most grievous curse. The best thing that you can do, is to give yourself up to the King’s officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy!

Alchemy may be a path to madness for some, but if you’d like to read more about its history, and see how it can relate to everyday life in the modern world, you might enjoy these books.

William Blake and the Moravians

Glad Day‘ by William Blake

I have always admired William Blake as poet and artist, and have a battered copy of his poetry from university days. But shortly after I left university, as I began to explore the practice of meditation, and the philosophy of Tree of Life Kabbalah, his work became even more meaningful to me. He was a natural visionary, but behind his blazing revelations and frequent conversations angels and spirits from another realm, there appeared to be a kind of  philosophical framework. How did that come about? And was it really similar in some ways to the Tree of Life, which I had been studying?

Further reading revealed that he was a man of some knowledge, as well as a spontaneous mystic. This was still somewhat at the fringes of scholarly research into Blake, however. Although Laura de Witt James had already published her study of ‘William Blake and the Tree of Life’ in 1956, it didn’t hit the bookshops widely until it was republished by Shambala in 1971. Following these scanty leads, in the mid-70s, I persuaded my husband that we should take a long detour, while on holiday in Devon with querulous small children in tow, to see Blake’s famous ‘Sea of Time and Space’ picture which then hung at Arlington Court. I can’t say that I understood it at the time, but it definitely pointed towards a more structured understanding of the spiritual nature of the universe.

The Sea of Time and Space‘ as this symbolic image of the cycle of life is usually now titled.
Blake wrote in one of his letters:
Temptations are on the right hand and left; behind, the sea of time and space roars and follows swiftly.’

My connection with Blake over the years remained enthusiastic, if mostly unscholarly. When the Tate housed a recent major exhibition of his work in 2019-2020, I travelled to London twice to view it, , and marvelling over his paintings and engravings for hours each time. The vibrancy of his work in its original form has a presence which surpasses the experience of seeing it in print.

But at the same time, I decided to pursue a new line of enquiry, which began with a conversation with the author R. J. Stewart, a specialist in magical and esoteric traditions. I hoped to find out more about Blake’s connections to these traditions, a theme which is close to my heart. (See ‘Soho Tree’, a blog I co-write with Rod Thorn.)   

I should warn you that this is a somewhat long article! You may prefer to scan it, and enjoy the visuals and video clips, or pick out the sections of interest. Don’t miss the exotic Count Zinzendorf… I emphasise again that I am not a Blake scholar – I’ve merely drawn on the findings of others, and have endeavoured to make these more accessible. I feel that this element of Blake’s work deserves to be more widely known.

Thought to be the only self-portrait of Blake, made when he was around 45

William Blake, 1757-1827 and the Moravians

A few years ago, therefore, R. J. Stewart told me that William Blake’s parents had belonged to the Moravian Church in London. This was news to me, and I decided to try and find out more. With the access I had at the time to JStor, that wonderful repository of academic articles, I was able to follow the trail which certain modern scholars have opened up. (I give the sources for these at the end.) No doubt there is more information and possibly argument to come, but even as this early research stands, it brings an extraordinary new view of Blake’s mystical affiliations and practices.

The question turns on the religious allegiance of the Blake family. They were known to be Protestant dissenters, but speculation hadn’t previously managed to pin down what type of sect they belonged to. Even when Peter Ackroyd wrote his major biography of William Blake in 1995, nothing definite was known, and he considered that the issue wasn’t of great importance: ‘The identity of that sect has never been determined…It is of no consequence at this late date.’ He accepted, however, as most other scholars have done, that Blake’s family had some connection with the the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th c. Swedish scientist and mystic. For the Swedenborgians, conversations with angels and knowledge of the higher realms of beings was central to their practice, and this is something s certainly reflected in Blake’s own visions and writings. But just over ten years after Ackroyd wrote the biography, new evidence came to light.

The River of Life c.1805 by William Blake

Catherine Blake and the Moravians

One of the most important new discoveries is that William Blake’s mother Catherine had made an earlier marriage to a Thomas Armitage in 1748, before she married James Blake, William’s father. And it’s on record that both Catherine and Thomas were both members of the Moravian Church. There had been earlier, inconclusive hints from writers on Blake that the family had Moravian connections, but these hadn’t been taken very seriously, especially without firm evidence. However, the Moravian archive at Muswell Hill has now yielded the evidence which confirms this. This also scotches the notion that the Blakes were ‘Muggletonians’, a curious sect who based their belief on the Book of Revelations.

And now further investigation is revealing how much influence the Moravians may have had on Blake’s upbringing, along with his sources of inspiration. This Moravian connection also includes links to Rosicrucianism, the teachings of the alchemist and mystic Jacob Boehme, and to Kabbalah. ‘Through their association [the Blake family] they enjoyed unusual – even unique – access to an international network of ecumenical missionaries, an esoteric tradition of Christian Kabbalism, Hermetic alchemy, and Oriental theosophy, along with a European “high culture” of religious art, music and poetry.’ (Schuchard)

The Moravian ‘Lamb’, their prime mystic symbol

Catherine, Blake’s mother, was granted admission into the Congregation of the Lamb, which was the elite group at the heart of the church. The letter of application she wrote is still extant (Moravians are known for their detailed documentation of personal lives), and shows that she was a fully committed member, rather than an occasional attender. This letter would have been read out to the Congregation for their approval, but applications had to be further tested through the ‘drawing of the Lot’. Human decisions were put to the test of holy divination -‘the casting of lots was seen as God’s intervention in directing human affairs.’

It’s likely that William Blake’s uncle and aunt (on his father’s side) were also members of the Church –Brother and Sister Blake, Butchers of Pear St were also referred to in the records. Catherine’s first husband Thomas died in 1751, only three years into the marriage, and she married James Blake in 1752. She may therefore have met her second husband and his family members through this Moravian Congregation.

Surprisingly, it was perfectly acceptable to be both a member of the Moravian Church and the Anglican Church. In fact the majority of the English Moravian Brethren followed this practice. Their religion was officially classified as ‘episcopal’ and as a ‘sister church’ to the Church of England. Nevertheless, the law demanded that their places of worship should be licensed as Dissenting Chapels. It was probably from this odd hybrid, that the traditional scholar’s view of the Blake family as ‘radical dissenters’ grew up, even though they were in another way within the fold of the official Anglican church.

One of Blake’s illustrated poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Moravians cherished their children and included them in the Church’s acts of worship

Origins of the Moravian Church

‘The Hussite movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by Jan Hus in early 15th century Bohemia, in what is today the Czech Republic.’ The Moravians were classed as Reformist and Protestant. But after various upheavals in Bohemia, when Catholic influence was restored, the Moravians ‘were forced to operate underground and eventually dispersed across Northern Europe.’ The chief remaining communities of the Brethren were thereafter located in Leszno in Poland, andas  small, isolated groups in Moravia. These latter were referred to as “the Hidden Seed” which Bishop John Amos Comenius prayed would preserve this faith.

Comenius himself had Rosicrucian links, including a friendship with Johann Valentin Andraea, the putative author of the mysterious and significant Rosicrucian Manifesto and/or The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. These have retained their mystique in Rosicrucian and alchemical circles right up to the present day. So the influence of the Rosicrucian movement too probably fed into the Moravian Church’s philosophy.


‘The Ancient of Days’ by William Blake

The Moravian Church in England and its Teachings

Once the Church, known as Unitas Fratrum, was displaced from Bohemia, it established branches in England too, where it was known as ‘The Renewed Church’ from 1722 onwards, the period relevant to the Blake family. The first Moravian ‘missionaries’ arrived in London in 1738, spending a few months there on their way to America. (America proved fertile ground for the Church to take root.) They took John Wesley (brother of Charles and co-founder of Methodism) into their religious group, and there was a degree of mutual influence, although he later separated from them. By 1742 they were ready to lease a Meeting House in Fetter Lane, which then became the main London HQ and Chapel for the Moravians for the next 200 years.

Swedenborg himself attended Fetter Lane Moravian services and became friendly with members of the congregation. This too may have had a direct influence; his visits were in 1744-5, during the year he spent in London, and around the time of Catherine’s early involvement with the Church, before Blake was born. There is also a historic claim that Blake’s father was a Swedenborgian, which is as yet unproven.

The main centre of Moravian worship in London remained at the church in Fetter Lane, until it was bombed in World War Two. The Moravian Church Library and Archive, where much new Blake material has been discovered, is now in Muswell Hill (north London). The Moravian Cemetery is in Chelsea/Fulham and it looks as though worship is still carried on in the chapel there. Details here, and also here. There are also still a number of Moravian churches in the UK, and by chance, a few years ago I happened to drive past the biggest Moravian centre of all at Fulneck near Leeds in Yorkshire, with its magnificent buildings.

The Moravian Philosophy

The Moravian Church philosophy was to seek transcendence and joy in the context of everyday life, and to aspire to Unity. It was considered important to ‘be still’ and await God’s grace, rather than becoming too fervent in worship. (Something we might consider to be in harmony with the contemporary interest in meditation, and with enabling a personal connection with spiritual experience.) The Moravians also attempted to reconcile the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, and carried a semi-secret Christian-Judaic form of Kabbalistic teaching – which, as mentioned earlier, accords with Blake’s own acquaintance with the tradition.

The Lamb (as in the Congregation of the Lamb which Catherine joined) has been a key symbol for the Moravians, with strong mystical associations. It sheds light on Blake’s use of the Lamb in his poetry, and his frequent references to sheep and shepherding.

The concept of the divine feminine has also been extremely important to them. There are mentions in their hymns of the Shekinah, the female emanation of God who is found in the Kabbalah and in mystical Judaism. At the time of Blake’s upbringing, they believed in treating children gently, and introducing them to art and music in mystical contexts early in life. They also encouraged home schooling, considering that the best teacher was the child’s own mother. In the church, special services were held for children, with plenty of singing; reports declare how joyful some of these occasions were. Overall, the Moravians were renowned for good pastoral care, and members could request one-to-one visits for a form of counselling – Catherine Blake, William Blake’s mother, requested this herself.

Love Feasts

Becoming a full member was very time-consuming and involved many monthly meetings, plus ‘love-feasts’. These may sound extraordinary today – the feasts involved a sensual identification with the body and wounds of Christ. Followers were encouraged to visualise holy scenes of Christ, and to feel like active participants in these. (A modern and more restrained version of the love feast in America is described here .) So visualisation and imagination played a key part in their religious practice, which again chimes in with Blake’s own approach to writing and art. There is also an erotic element to this mysticism which has recently been explored by academic Marsha Keith Schuchard in William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision. However, overall propriety of conduct was always emphasised, and stricter than it is today. Men and women were strictly separated, but seem to have played an equal part in the church. One John Blake (possibly William’s uncle) was expelled from the elite Congregation for flirting with a ‘Single Sister’!

Mystical Calligraphy

Among the Moravian mystical practices was that of ‘Frakturschriften’, defined as the ornamental fracturing or breaking of letters. It seems to have been a kind of contemplative calligraphy where the letters were allowed to break up into whorls and flourishes and labyrinthine patterns. This became a speciality at the community of Ephrata, in Pennsylvania, which operated on principles drawn from the teachings of Jacob Boehme and the Rosicrucians. The notion of writing sacred letters and the names of God, in a meditative state, is of course found in other traditions, in particular as another aspect of mystical Kabbalistic ‘letter permutation’. It also has resonances with the Christian pre-Reformist Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the Low Countries, who worked mindfully with calligraphy both as a religious practice and as a way of earning money.

The Ephrata Centre, where ‘Fraktur Calligraphy’ is still practised today.

Count Zinzendorf

The flamboyant and innovative Count Zinzendorf

One of the most important figures on the Moravian scene was Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760), leader of the Unitas Fratrem movement in the Moravian Church. A fascinating and flamboyant character, he paid visits to London from his base in Saxony, at a period which coincided with the Blake family’s church membership. His input helped to cement the London congregation that threatened to fall apart when John Wesley left it in 1740. More remarkably, though, he also influenced the Moravians by promoting a kind of full immersion into a fusion of vision, music and mystical experience. Demonstrations took place at Lindsey House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, once Zinzendorf’s London home. (It is now National Trust but not usually open to the public.) Both here and in the Fetter Lane Chapel, the walls were painted with mystical scenes, and further images were also projected by lanterns or candlelight. The practice was to gaze at these, sometimes with music playing to heighten the experience. It was an unusual experience for the 18th century, to say the least!

To us today, it might seem gruesome, since there were often bloody images of Christ’s wounding and crucifixion, and in contemplating these, followers sought a kind of intense combination of agony and ecstasy. And Zinzendorf believed that this wasn’t an ‘adults only’ experience; he advocated that mother and child should contemplate these together, and that even pregnant women should mystically assimilate these images to influence the baby in the womb. (No X ratings or ‘over eighteens only’ held sway at Lindsey House!)

Blake and the Moravian influence

The importance and power of language, especially when combined with music and imagery, would have been brought home to Blake in the Moravian context. The obvious correlation in his own work are his Songs of Innocence and Experience, where poetry and images are intertwined, beautifully and symbolically. We don’t know whether he directly experienced love feasts and lantern gazing, but the influence would have been within the family experience of Moravian practices. And his polarised view of primordial, bright ‘innocence’ contrasting with the suffering of ‘experience’ certainly resonates with the unusual Moravian culture.

Blake’s ‘Cradle Song’ from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Did his mother Catherine sing such lullabies or simple hymns to him as a child?

Other papers on this topic also emphasise the connections between Blake’s own writings and the Moravian outlook on parenting, mysticism and indeed its music. Moravian hymns bear a strong resemblance to some of Blake’s poetic forms. You can listen to modern recordings of these. I’m struck by their pleasing, tuneful quality; they have an appeal which is innocent and fresh. Some are within the more mainstream repertoire of church music, and probably many of us have sung a few over the years without realising where they came from.

And we can imagine William Blake, as a young boy, sitting on his mother Catherine’s knee, as she sang these to him as nightly lullabies.

Morning Star I follow thee’
Lead me here or lead me there:
Thou my staff in trav’ling be
I’ll no other weapon bear;
Me may Angels guard from ill,
When I am to do thy will:
So shall I with steady pace
Reach the dearest City, Grace.

A rendering of ‘Morning Star’ sung by a contemporary Moravian choir

Blake’s own faith therefore may have been profoundly influenced by the Moravian religion and worship. It may have given, at least in a part, a framework for his psychic and mystic experiences. Possibly, too the contrast between their fostering of the love and innocence of childhood along with a strictness about sexual separation may have induced a dichotomy in Blake which revealed itself in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I’ll end with some quotes, however, that I have taken from Blake his letters, to show his own very personal and intense connection to nature as a sacred force and to a realm of spirit which lies beyond the senses:

I know that this world is a world of IMAGINATION and Vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike…The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the Spirit and see him in my remembrance in the regions of my imagination. I hear his advice and even now write from his dictate…it is to me a Source of Immortal Joy: even in this world by it I am the companion of Angels…The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity.’

‘That which can be made explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Aesop, Homer, Plato.’

And when Blake died, George Richmond wrote to Blake’s friend, the artist Samuel Palmer:

He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see and expressed himself happy…Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brighten’d and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in heaven.

Blake’s ‘Tiger, TIger’ – possibly his most popular poem, one that has been chosen as the nation’s favourite (UK).

Papers consulted

The Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family: Snapshots from the Archive’ – Keri Davies (Literature Compass 3/6 2006)
A very useful and clear account of the Moravians and the Blake family.

Young William Blake and the Moravian Tradition of Visionary Art’ – Marsha Keith Schuchard (Blake – An Illustrated Quarterly Vol 40, Issue 3, Winter 2006-7)
A fascinating study of Moravian practices, including those of Count Zinzendorf

The Influence of the Moravian Collection of Hymns on William Blake’s Later Mythology’ – Wayne C. Ripley (Huntingdon Library Quarterly, vol. 80, Autumn 2017)
This is a detailed study of hymns and Blake’s terminology, more than is needed for general understanding, but probably very useful for those who want to analyse the poetry closely.

Anglo-German Connections in William Blake, Johann Georg Hamman, and the Moravians’ – Alexander Regier (SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900,Vol 56, no 4, Autumn 2016
Closely examines the influence of German connections on the English Moravians, and the way that Moravian spiritual thinking and hymnody could have influenced Blake.

The Moravian Origins of Kierkegaard’s and Blake’s Socratic Literature’ – James Rovira (Chapter in Kierkegaard, Literature and the Arts, ed Eric Ziolkowski, Northwestern University Press 2018, via JStor) Draws the threads between their Moravian connections and their literature and philosophy.

William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision Marsha Keith Schuchard (Inner Traditions, 2008)
Blake – Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) – A biography
William Blake – Tate Catalogue 2019

Videos about the history and style of FrakturSchrift can be found here and here

‘Let us Rejoice’ – 16c. Moravian hymn

‘The Great Moravian Hymn’
Moravian Christmas hymns (played here on trombones)

You may also be interested in some of my earlier posts:

Alchemy: Mystery and History

Meeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy: Mystery and History

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Before we head into Christmas, I’d like to offer a further post on alchemy which gives some background to this very mysterious and enigmatic practice. It’s spiced up with some glorious alchemical illustrations which I hope will light your path through it.

Alchemy and ‘New Dawn’

In 2015, author and editor Richard Smoley and I conducted a conversation about the whys and wherefores of alchemy. It was published in the Australian journal ‘New Dawn’, and I’ve adapted it here for Cherry’s Cache. This discussion helped me to piece together my own thoughts about alchemy.

My personal story with alchemy is an odd one, in that I never set out to study it or write about it. I had followed a path since my student days which primarily taught me about Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, and included Buddhist and Western meditation practices. Tarot was another tradition which I engaged with, and I began to learn and practice astrology. Of course, I came across alchemy when I began to devour material about these traditions, and I could see that there was a broad field of interrelated practices of a so-called ‘esoteric’ nature. Frances Yates was just emerging as a scholar who could piece some of this together. So how hard could it be, I asked myself, when I was invited to write a short history of alchemy?

Very, as it turned out! Commissioning editor R. A. (Bob) Gilbert was lacking a script for a series currently being produced by the Aquarian Press, grandly entitled ‘Esoteric Themes and Perspectives’. Alchemy was on the list, but an author had let him down, and now he needed someone who could write it in six months. Armed only with blind confidence, I sallied forth to our local University Library in Exeter, to assemble my source material. Luckily, they had a good collection of texts, to be supplemented by other books that I could lay my hands on. But my dreams of swiftly assembling a dazzlingly coherent study of alchemy were dashed when I saw just how complex and contradictory its history was. However, I gritted my teeth, and learnt a valuable lesson – to use my own judgement. I had to go for the jugular, as it were; I couldn’t afford to waste time on peripheral material. I used my own experience of working within genuine traditions to discern where integrity and value lay. And I got it done – somehow.

Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984, and, rather mysteriously, it has never been out of print since, weaving its way through different publishers, titles and editions. (You will find it also as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy, which I thought would be its last incarnation in 2007, but then suddenly Harper Collins decided they wished to re-publish the original 1984 version.) Surely the tricksy but ultimately helpful hand of Hermes has played a part in this somehow? Yes, I’m sure he did, since the publishers ‘forgot’ to tell me they were doing this, until just before it hit the shelves! And I am still proud to have produced an accessible, clear and reliable history of alchemy, while imbuing it with some meaning, rather than a dry recitation of the facts.

I do not consider myself an alchemist, in the usual sense, and yet undeniably, we have a close relationship. Perhaps this was a task given to me to undertake, rather than one I directly chose myself.

Here follows the discussion which I had with Richard Smoley, slightly shortened:

The Red Dragon: the release of the three forces in the alchemical fire, from the Ripley Scroll 1490

Alchemy and Transformation

R.S. Maybe we could start by a brief definition of what you think alchemy is.
C.G. Alchemy is about transformation. In its most basic definition, it’s the transformation of base material or metal into gold. However, that is too simplistic, according to the ways in which the tradition of alchemy has been practised and understood over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In a way, alchemy is about the process of creation itself: how does one thing become another? How do things change state? How can we change our state of being? And can we, as so-called conscious human beings, learn how to make those changes? So, another way to put it is that alchemy is a way of using the life force to effect transformation, whether that’s on the physical, external level, or in a spiritual way. I hesitate to say that the alchemical process can work either on the material or on the spiritual level, because in one sense, in alchemy, they are completely integrated!

R.S. Most people would say that alchemy is just an old and outmoded form of chemistry. Why should we interest ourselves in it today?
I think this old chestnut comes up because of the way historians have dealt with alchemy in the last hundred years or so. That has formed the belief we’re fed. I use the word ‘belief’ because I really do think our perception of what is true and false, what is reliably scientific and what is non-scientific and therefore superstitious – in some people’s eyes – is molded by the way history has been interpreted. Anyone who reads my book will, I hope, have that view changed. The evidence from the history of alchemy alone, when explored more fully, shows just how seriously it was taken, and how it can’t be just cast on the scrapheap as a well-meaning but deluded forerunner to enlightened science. Isaac Newton himself was an alchemist, and funnily enough, scholars have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to that fact.

I myself make no claims that alchemy is effective when judged by the standards of modern chemistry. I am not a scientist and clearly, we’re not going to go backwards in time and revert to what now seem very primitive methods for working with chemical elements. I think the point is more that alchemy has had many applications over its history, and that the way it led into chemistry as we know it was just one feature of the whole spectrum of alchemy. Maybe it still has more to teach us about how to work with physical materials though – and with the whole area of interaction of mind and materials opening up in science, it could offer views and approaches which breathe new life into scientific development. But whatever the case there, alchemy still has much to impart in terms of psychology, spiritual development, and our relationship with the natural world. In one form or another, it’s still a path to knowledge.

The Alchemist and his Apprentices, from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century

Puzzles of Science, Mind and Matter

R.S. Could you say a little bit about the origins of alchemy?
C.G. Well, again here we are somewhat constrained by the degree of research and scholarship available to us. This suggests, to put it briefly, that the metal-workers of Ancient Egypt may have kicked off the interest in the transformation of one material or metal into another. And that this came to early fruition in the Hellenistic, Alexandrian period, which began about three hundred years before the Christian Era. But I suspect that if a few scholars really dig into the roots of alchemy, they will find a much wider realm of alchemical endeavor, particularly if they broaden the definition of alchemy. In the Far East, alchemy also had ancient origins, but the focus there was more on how the human body worked. Just as shamanism has extended its definition in recent years – it was once considered to be exclusively Siberian, and now is traced almost world-wide – so alchemy may have a broader historical lineage than we suspect at present. Perhaps this is beginning to happen. It has been suggested for instance that the discovery of charcoal burning is linked to a historical peasant tradition of alchemy as practiced by the Basques, one of the most ancient peoples of Europe.

R.S. Some writers describe alchemy as a physical process—actual working with minerals and plants and so on. Others see it as a psychological process. How do you see these different roles? Are they both valid?
C.G. I used to hold firmly to the view that true alchemy must be applied across the levels, having both a physical and a mental component. Its magic, if I can call it that, is that it is neither purely material or purely spiritual. However, I’ve come to see this in a different light, and I think now that alchemy has an incredible spectrum of application, and can be targeted at different levels of creation. The most extreme examples of selective application are perhaps the old-fangled ‘puffers’ who spent all their time trying to work out how to concoct gold and get rich. And also the purely spiritual alchemists, among whom we can count Jacob Boehme. I consider now that both of these are valid in their way; they are both participating in an alchemical process. However, if the get-rich-quick alchemists ignored the bigger scale of the creative process, and limited their goals to financial reward, they were likely to end up dirty, disappointed and broke! Alchemical laboratories weren’t pretty, fragrant places to work in.

The hot and often cluttered laboratory of the alchemists, 16-17th c. (untitled MS, Bodleian Library)

Looking at the other extreme – as exemplified by Boehme – can certainly have more significant results, using alchemy as a metaphor for spiritual development. But perhaps it peters out as a way forward, or be very particular to one alchemist, because it is treated then purely as a set of symbols, which could be replaced by another set at will. If you sever the connection between material process and our sense of creation as a whole, or between spiritual and material understanding, then that approach to alchemy can’t flourish for long. There’s much to ponder on here, and I doubt that my own views will ever reach a complete and final conclusion!

Hermes Trismegistus, sage of alchemy and the Hermetic wisdom literature. Pavement, Siena Cathedral, Italy

The Wisdom and Folly of Hermes

R.S. The book title links alchemy with the ‘hermetic tradition’. How does that work? does Hermes come into this too?
C.G. Hermes is very important in alchemy, as a kind of patron saint – except that he isn’t very saintly! He’s more of a shape-shifter or trickster figure. Hermes and Mercury meld to a certain extent, so that we have the guiding spirit of Hermes who might or might not lead you to enlightenment through your alchemical practice, and we also have Mercury the metal, with its indwelling Mercurial spirit. Hermes is more than a figurehead too – his name is associated with a body of literature which has influenced both alchemists and the Western esoteric tradition. Hence the broad term ‘hermetic tradition’. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his excellent study The Western Esoteric Traditions, points out that the cult of Hermes was founded on the Egyptian traditions associated with Thoth, and that Hermes evolved into a kind of ‘syncretic god’ who had a profound influence on the whole development of esoteric work up until the Renaissance period. I would say further it goes further than that, actually. Sir Walter Scott and G. S. Mead, for instance, were keen to plumb the wisdom of the so-called Hermetic texts, and to translate them for others to read in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have left us a legacy that we value today.

So we can see Hermes/Mercury as a kind of guide in individual practice of alchemy. But also as a mischievous creature, apt to lead us astray. Michael Sendivogius, in his alchemical treatise The New Chemical Light, which was published around 1608, addresses his readers as ‘the Sons of Hermes’ and includes a wonderful dialogue between the alchemist and Mercury. Here Mercury is the trickster spirit who plagues the alchemist with his cunning ways – the alchemist decides to invoke Mercury himself to shed light on what’s going wrong with his experiments. Mercury appears to him, but is laughing his head off! Then they engage in a clever battle of words, at the end of which the alchemist is none the wiser, and demands that Mercury tells him how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, which is another term for Alchemical Gold or The Elixir. Mercury neatly wraps up the repartee with, ‘Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.’ That one gets me laughing too! Suddenly, it’s like the tales of Hodja Nasreddin, or a lesson from Gurdjieff. (I plan to post a blog which touches on these elements of ‘wise folly’ very soon. In the meantime, try the home-grown Black Country ‘fools’ Enoch and Eli for ‘a bit of a laff’ at my previous post: Enoch and Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit. )

I prepared a version of this dialogue, and we performed it – perhaps for the first time in nearly 400 years? – at an alchemical conference in Prague. Not many people think of alchemy as being a source of humour, but it’s there, if you dig for it. And we can probably attribute it to the Hermetic influence.

Anyway, the role of Hermes and his sidekick Mercury make for a fascinating study, one that I want to continue with. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s more than something on the page. On three occasions, Mercury aka Hermes has actually turned up in my life. Laugh if you will!
(You can read an account of the first and chief occasion when this happened in my postAlchemy and the Trickster)

Dragons, Lions and Lovers

R.S. Why did the old alchemical texts rely so heavily on symbols and emblems rather than verbal descriptions?
C.G. I think it’s clear that you couldn’t really explain alchemy in normal, so-called rational terms. Alchemy doesn’t work as a collection of recipes, as many practitioners have found to their cost. It was considered important too that each alchemist should work it out in their own way. Alchemy has to speak to the spirit; it isn’t just an assemblage and processing of materials. So the symbols can do that. They really stirred the spirit of the historical alchemists, and still resonate for many of us today. Some are very complex, and also very beautiful. Dragons, kings and queens, water and fire, serpents, lovers, lions – a rich panoply of imagery. Colours were very important too – the stages of transformation were marked by colour changes in the vessel. Also the imagery poses problems and questions, which the alchemist must wrestle with. Why is the king sick in bed? What are the dragons fighting about? What do the steps on the mountain represent? This generates insight and stimulates the imagination.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Alchemy and Dreaming

C.G. It’s also recorded that the secrets of alchemy came to certain practitioners through dreams and visions too – and dreams, as we know, deal in paradoxical, powerful images. The place of dreams in alchemy is a whole topic in itself. There’s evidence that alchemists deliberately cultivated visionary states, and practiced what today we might call ‘visualisation’.

R.S. Jung found much of value in alchemy. Do you find the hooking up of alchemy with psychology and archetypes of interest? Or is it just one particular slant that doesn’t reflect the real body of alchemical work?
C.G. Jung found himself mesmerized by alchemical imagery, and used it to illuminate his psychological theories and indeed to help him towards new insights into the human psyche. I think he has done us a huge favour by re-investigating the writings and symbols of alchemy, in one sense. It means you can have a conversation with a psychologist about alchemy, and that it’s crept back into our vocabulary again. There’s much in Jung’s writings on alchemy that those with a modern education, and little time for pre-scientific theory, can relate to. On the other hand, I also believe that Jung has done us a disfavour by cutting off the main body of practical alchemy, where laboratories, equipment and materials were involved. He actually said that the alchemical operations of old were ‘senseless’ and never led to the desired goal. As I said earlier, if you slice off just one layer of alchemy, you may produce something with a kind of one-off value, but you also divorce yourself from the evolving path of alchemy. I do think it’s time that we moved on from Jung’s interpretations.

‘Fermentation’, a stage of the alchemical process from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century. Note the complex cosmology.

Alchemy, Spirituality and Personal Development

R.S. How does alchemy work as a spiritual path?
C.G. This is something that has to be done within a context. If you are a Christian believer, it’s perfectly possible to use the symbols of alchemy to represent stages of mystical attainment, and understanding of Christ’s teachings. Boehme did it, and so did the poet Henry Vaughan. I think that if you meditate on the symbols, and you embed the imagery in your consciousness, it will work there, to release your own limitations and expand your awareness in an intuitive, even cosmic way. That’s the power of symbols, and alchemical ones aren’t random – they form a kind of graded teaching system.

However, we can also use the symbolism in the context of everyday life, if we’re prepared to be attentive, observant, and aim to increase our conscious awareness. This has much in common with Kabbalistic or Gurdjieffian practice. I have written about it in Everyday Alchemy. You can actually start with very simple things – it needn’t be too high-flown or complicated. There’s a talk that I give which begins with the statement, ‘I’m an alchemist. I cook supper every night.’ There’s a moment’s puzzled pause, then laughter, as the audience gets it! I explain that cooking is a process of transformation very much akin to alchemy, and that in our own kitchens we have the materials and the method to start to understand transformation.
(See my Cherry’s Cache post about Alchemy and Cooking )

The Sealed Vessel of Alchemy and Creativity

R.S. Can you say more about alchemy and the creative process? Is it a model which could be used in any sense nowadays for creative work?
C.G. Writers and artists have used alchemy as inspiration for their work for a very long time. Studies of Shakespeare, for instance, reveal that he was almost certainly using alchemical templates to plot some of his plays. This is not wild conjecture, but has scholarly back-up. Therefore, I think those working creatively can dig into the symbolism, read about traditional forms of alchemy, and find inspiration for their work. I have talked to several artists about this, including one or two highly successful ones, who find that the framework of alchemy is a wonderful source for their creative work. One of the key points that strikes me again and again – with my writing too – is that alchemy is ‘hermetic’. It’s sealed, it’s private up to a certain point. The creative process must ‘cook’ in the vessel, and you must shield it from prying eyes. Too often nowadays, we’re expected to talk about artistic or literary work in progress. No, says alchemy! Wait until the time is right, or you risk prematurely wrecking your material. It could all just evaporate. So you have to have courage, and patience, and be your own guide for a lot of the time as well. All lessons which I think we could profit from today.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582. There is a stage of darkness in the alchemical process, when it seems that everything may be lost, before the sun reappears in transformed splendour

The Mystery of Consciousness

R.S. Alchemy seems to imply that there is some kind of consciousness latent even in inanimate matter. Would you agree with that view? If so, what do you think its implications are?
C.G. I do agree, and have struggled for many years to try and understand and perceive that. I think that alchemy was way ahead of its time in this respect. Once you start to break out of the dead hand of the world view of material/mind split, you realise just what a grip it has on you. Whether or not the alchemical view of consciousness is really ‘true’ in a scientific sense, I think it’s incredibly important to see just how our values and outlook are shaped by religious, cultural and scientific thinking. We tend to assume them as the norm, whether we like them or not. And we desperately need new models to go forward. And as far as I can tell, there is progress on the scientific or biological front too in accepting a broader definition of consciousness. According to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, we do have ‘species mind’, for instance. I think it will also improve our care of the environment if we even concede the possibility that consciousness of some kind is within everything. And restrict the waste for instance of food and resources. (I’m not one to believe that all yoghurt in the world cries when you eat a pot of yoghurt! Seriously, I have heard that said!) But I can’t bear the waste of life forms, both of plants and animals and probably mineral too, which taints human culture now.

And, after all, what is consciousness? I don’t mean that as a clever-clever question. But it strikes me that there is much further to go in unravelling its mysteries. For instance, how come we are apparently ‘unconscious’ at night, and yet we can create the most amazing dreams? We may generate insights, and even when not dreaming, our identity remains during sleep. How do we often know exactly what time it is when we wake up, if some form of consciousness has not been operating? If we take a broader view of consciousness, re-brand it if you like, we can go much further in our discoveries.

Further Reading

The current edition of my book Alchemy: The Great Work offers a clearly-written history of alchemy and insights into its meaning, including its relationship to spiritual development.

Everyday Alchemy, published in 2002, is a guide to using alchemical symbols to transform and enrich everyay life. No laboratory required, apart from yourself! (Out of print, so search on the internet. I hope to bring this back into publication before too long.)

Next time…

The next post on December 19th will be an entertaining word game which I hope you’ll enjoy over Christmas! See you then!

Eating Apples – and the Distillation of Memories

Epigram Nine, Atalanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier 1617

Lock the tree with the old man in a bedewed house, and by eating of its fruits he will become young.’

As we get older, in less cheerful moments we may feel that nothing new will happen to us again in this lifetime. But actually, I don’t hold with that idea, as I think there’s always scope for a surprise, or a new activity or friendship which blossoms even at a late stage. It’s true however that there is more behind us than ahead of us, and that our ability and energy become more limited. There’s a painting by Russian artist Vasily Maximov, from 1889, called ‘All in the Past’. In it, an elderly aristocrat and her aged female servant sit together outside their summer cottage – brooding, snoozing, knitting and remembering. But although distinction of rank scarcely matters any more, with a touching sense of kinship as their lives even out, there is also a depressing sense that there is nothing more to expect from the future.

However, that’s not the only aspect of growing old – or it needn’t be. Even for those who experience severe physical limitations, inner change can still occur as the threads spun over the years are gathered together. Maybe there’s a symbolic touch to the servant’s knitting?

I describe one instance of this in my book Everyday Alchemy, about something which happened with my mother. Before I include this extract, though, I’ll add a hasty rejoinder that this kind of change may not be possible for everyone, and a person’s state of being may hinder these gentle transformatory experiences. However, I write about them here in a spirit of optimism. Certainly Michael Maier’s emblem in Atlanta Fugiens holds the promise of this, embedded in a symbolic image of alchemical change.

After the extract from my book Everyday Alchemy below, I’ll follow with a further reflection on my mother’s love story.

Distillation and eating apples

First a preamble, also drawn from the text of Everyday Alchemy: an idea of what ‘distillation’ means in alchemy, during the process of changing base matter to gold.

In alchemical terms, this process of receiving sustenance from the higher world is called distillation. The vapours rise from the ‘cooking’ of the ‘earthly’ substance in the vessel; they ascend and then condense into purified drops, running down again to feed the matter that remains below.

And you may like to listen to the vocal ‘fugue’ which Michael Maier wrote to accompany this emblem; like certain other alchemists, he believed in a fusion of visual imagery, music and poetry to accompany his interpretation of each stage of alchemy.

Epigram Nine
In Wisdom’s garden grows an apple tree
With fruits of gold. Take it and our old man,
Enclose them in a glass house, wet with dew,
And let them stay there many days conjoin’d.
When he has eat his fill of fruit, behold!
The former old man is a youth agai

Contemplating Change
Here we have a somewhat bizarre image of an old man sitting in a glass house, eating apples in order to grow young again. Interpreting this in terms of everyday life, let’s not think of it as a literal turning back of the clock, but instead as the renewal of optimism, hope, and energy. We are at liberty with alchemy to wander between the worlds when we interpret its imagery, and to find a way of relating it to our own lives.

To take part in this process of renewal, one thing is essential, and that is the willingness to change. Sure, life is full of changes, and ageing brings change, but that’s the kind of change that seems to advance without our consent! In fact, the more we age, the more we tend to resist changes, building up habits of comfort and thought and lifestyle. And this is not exclusive to the elderly; if you are over the age of twenty or so, you can be sure that those habits are already setting in. They just become more pronounced with the passing of the years.

When we give up accepting change, we give up on life. And maybe this is inevitable in our closing years. My mother, in her last years, wanted to slow the world down, and make it a place of as little change as possible. She kept more and more to her room, and lost interest in what was happening outside. But at the same time, something else was happening. Her memories began to play a very important part in her life. Ironically, as is often the case with old people, her sense of time began to fail, and her short-term memory was poor. But old memories that had meaning for her resurfaced vividly. Verses of poetry she had learnt as a child came floating into her mind again. She relived her courtship and marriage, and told me the story of her first love affair, which she had never revealed before.

It was soul-work. She was contemplating her life, ordering it, and distilling it. Even at that stage of her life, transformation was still in progress, and she ate of the apples in Wisdom’s garden. It was also work that lasted for a particular time span of about eighteen months, and when that was done, it really did seem as though there was nothing else that she had to do except to cope with the increasingly difficult routines of simply staying alive, until the body itself gave out. On the last day of her life, I arrived too late to see her still alive. But instead of the gloom and despair I expected when I entered the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and release. It was a beautiful spring day, with flowers bursting into bloom. In some curious way, I felt that she was at last free to be a part of that. The same day, I went to see the priest about the funeral service, and told him that I couldn’t only feel grief, because there was such a powerful, joyful energy which accompanied her passing. We composed a service which included poems about nature, which she loved.

Alchemy draws its secrets from nature, and from our natural range of experience in life, it but works with them at a higher level. So the natural process which my mother went through is one that we can actively choose to use in our own lives now, without waiting for old age to bring it. The whole principle of taking a process that happens naturally, but using it in a distilled form, means that its potency will be greater, just as in homeopathy the highest potency remedies are those with the least substance in them. (Incidentally, alchemy was responsible for perfecting the art of distillation and inventing brandy!)

Pps 118-119, Everyday Alchemy

The Love Affair

What my mother revealed during that visit, when she showed me the picture of her first lover, stayed with me. It was a kind of strange mother-to-daughter gift, and I do believe that a mother’s gift can be a mixed blessing, even a curse sometimes, as fairy tales and personal experiences readily show. But perhaps that’s a theme for another time! At any rate, it has percolated through my mind since, shedding a little light on my parents’ own relationship, and the hidden emotions that must have remained in my mother’s mind during my own early childhood. Such a close-up insight into our parents’ emotions can come as a shock.

So here’s how this went, in more detail.

On one of my visits to my mother during the last years of her life, she drew a portrait out of her photo box. It wasn’t actually a photograph, but a sketch of a handsome young man.

This was the man, she told me, who had broken her heart.

‘He was my first serious boyfriend.’

Kathleen Owen was a first year student at Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate in another college, and they fell passionately in love. Although my mother – a pretty, slim redhead – was used to going out with boys in her village, this was an affair of the heart of a different order. She pinned all her hopes on him. They exchanged love letters, he gave her his picture, and maybe they were even planning a life together.

‘Then we went home for the summer holidays, and that was it. I never heard from him again.’

Mum may have been a minister’s daughter from a country background, but she was not unworldly. She also had plenty of common sense. So I think her perception that this man was genuinely in love with her was true, not a naive illusion.

‘What happened? Did you ever find out?’

I was caught up in this story, which had been kept hidden for sixty years.

She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t know why he did it.’

Was he too cowardly to pursue a real commitment? Did his parents object? I imagine my mother waiting after she’d returned to the family home in Soham, where her father was a Baptist Minister. Did her glow of joy gradually drain away day by day, as she waited for a letter in vain? Did she have to hide her anguish from the family? I wanted to ask her more, but I sensed that it was a fragile moment, and more than she’d ever revealed to me before.

My mother Kathleen, 2nd from left, with some of her college friends

After she came back to college, the news percolated through that her boyfriend had died, of a burst appendix. But this had happened months after they parted from each other, and wasn’t the reason for his withdrawal. So plainly now there could be no way back – no explanation, and no possible reconciliation. She was heartbroken.

‘And the strange thing was,’ she said, ‘that his surname was Phillips.’

My father’s name, the man she was later to meet and marry, was also Phillips. And thus it was my maiden name too. ‘Joscelyn Phillips, he was.’

She gave me the portrait to keep, plus a photo of him. It seemed to put something to rest after all these years. But there was something more: ‘I kept his love letters until we were living in Sandwich,’ she admitted. This was some twenty years later, in the town where I spent the first part of my childhood. ‘Then, one day, I decided there was no point in keeping them, and threw them into the stove.’

A photo of Joscelyn Phillips – not quite so handsome as the portrait!

I remember that cantankerous old coke boiler in the passage by the back door. My father would carry up the coke from the cellar, grumbling, and prise open the dangerously hot metal lid in order to shoot it into the flames below. A dangerous monster, to which I gave a wide berth. Now I also see it as one which devoured my mother’s young hopes and dreams.

My brother Richard, myself and the dog Russ sitting outside the backdoor of no.12 Upper Strand Street, Sandwich

It was over twenty years ago that my mother told me all this, and although I remembered the story, I didn’t take it any further until recently. And I had forgotten the name of her boyfriend, even the Phillips bit. But luckily, I discovered that I had written it down at the time, and surely I could trace this guy on the internet, with the new powerful search tools not available when I first heard the tale? Family history research is my thing; I know the ropes. Birth, death? College records? Newspaper reports? Should be no problem.

But I got nowhere. Phillips is commonplace, of course, as a surname. And although his first name was more unusual, I discovered that there are many ways to spell Josselin or Joscelyn. I found nothing that matched. His identity thus remains a mystery.

My parents also met at Cambridge, in the early 1930s, where my father-to-be, Ormonde Phillips – from various accounts – was a tall, shy and handsome young man. He was also badly in need of some pleasant female company after an upbringing by a shrewish mother and an elderly, gentle but weak-willed father. He fell for Kathleen, and cemented the relationship. My mother told me that when she heard how badly his somewhat crazy mother had treated him, she determined to make it up to him through her love. I think this became a lifelong promise which helped them to stick together through the rough patches. Dad, unsurprisingly, was not an easy man.

My parents at Cambridge and my father’s graduation day

Their marriage plans, however, were disrupted by the outbreak of war. The preparations for a white wedding with all the trimmings, and a honeymoon in the Peak District, had to be cancelled. Like many couples in a similar situation, a hasty registry office ceremony was arranged before my father was sent off to Salisbury with his call-up papers. I found a newspaper report of the event, held on Thursday September 7th, 1939:

Although Miss Kathleen Florence Owen should have been married in Mansfield-Road Baptist Church, Nottingham yesterday, the ceremony did not take place there. Instead she was married at Gosport, on the South coast. The reason for the sudden change in her plans was that her bridegroom – 2nd Lieut. Charles Ormonde Reynolds Phillips – was unable to get to Nottingham. For the same reason the honeymoon, which should have been spent in Derbyshire, will now be spent at Gosport. Three bridesmaids should have been in attendance, but owing to the change of plans only one could be present – Miss Maisie Owen, sister of the bride. She carried a bouquet of bronze chrysanthemums.

My father’s stay in the army was short-lived, as he was invalided out with pleurisy, and so their regular married life together began not too long afterwards.

My mother as a young married woman, with her favourite dog Judy

And despite some tensions in the marriage, they were loyal, and supported each other in old age. After Mum’s death, I found a card in which Dad had written a poem to her on their 55th anniversary.

This card to all your loving cares
Of me for five and fifty years
Attests, and speaks my love to you.

As time approaches our three score,
Our love must surely grow yet more
And burn as brightly as when new.

So, as we eat our apples, youth does come back in another guise. Memories resurface; hidden love stories can be revealed. Is this a kind of renewal? I think that indeed it may be. Perhaps the title ‘All in the Past’ can actually be a key to transformation, and development of the soul; it points us to the riches which we already have, if we can just recognise and re-live them.

My parents on their Golden Wedding Day in 1989

When the Egg Cracks Open

The Alchemical Egg

The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.

As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.

In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.

I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!

I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.

The Story to Come

In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.

When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.

This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy
(Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)

Emblem 8: Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
(from Michael Maier’s ‘Atlanta Fugiens’)

This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.

But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?

It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.

The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)

There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.

Setting out on the Path

Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.

Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.

Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’

Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.

A Road Trip in Mexico

In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.

For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.

Here I am, sitting in the car repair yard, wondering if they’re going to be able to fix our VW camper van. Zacatecas, Mexico, 1968

By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.

The VW van in the repair yard, with my boyfriend examining the rear door. Would you trust any of these guys standing around? We had little choice, though.

But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.

The Egg Breaks Open

When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.

Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.

If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.

The Story of the King’s Son

This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth.
The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)

His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.

It flew and alighted beside me
And turned into speech altogether
At its voice and at the sound of its wings
I awoke and arose from my deep sleep.
The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince:
‘Up and arise from thy sleep…
Remember that thou art a King’s son…
Think of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’

So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.

This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…

But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.

(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )

To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!

Following the Thread
What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.

Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.

Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.

Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy and Cooking

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Alchemy and the Trickster

I’m planning to offer some intermittent and experimental posts about alchemy, based on my book Everyday Alchemy. Alchemy itself is experimental, so it may be no bad thing to adopt that approach here! Here’s the first of them. But to begin with, I’ll say a few words about alchemy and the background to the posts.

When I was in my mid-30s, I was offered an unexpected chance to write a book on the history of alchemy, for a series published by Aquarian Press. They had been let down by an unsuitable text from the author they’d commissioned, and a writer on their radar recommended me instead. ‘How hard can it be?’ I asked myself, already well acquainted with Kabbalah, Tarot and the Western esoteric tradition. Yes, I would take it on. Oh, and it had to be completed in a very short space of time – 6 months, as I recall.

I soon found out the huge challenge of the task ahead of me. Alchemy has a lengthy and complex history, and it has been practised in all sorts of different ways. It was not the straightforward task I’d envisaged. However, I was lucky to live near the city of Exeter at the time, whose university had (and still has) an excellent section on so-called esoteric subjects. I swiftly learned that I had to be perceptive and ruthless in my approach to research, in extracting the essence, doing my best to understand and clarify it, and present a reliable overview within those few months. I also had to use my own discrimination, tempered by experience of the esoteric tradition and meditation. This was necessary so that I could discard peripheral and fantastical practices which were a long way from the genuine core of alchemy. Necessity drove me here, and I think the book was all the better for it. Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984 and has never really been out of print since, though in different, revised and re-named editions. It was met with good reviews and acclaim, and I trembled to be unseated by an expert who knew what I had perhaps missed, this has never happened. It remains one of the very few accessible studies of the history of alchemy.

The Red Dragon of alchemy, symbolising the basic energy or life force which must be released and transformed into gold

Everyday Alchemy (2002) carries on where my history of alchemy (Alchemy: The Great Work) left off; it reveals how we can use alchemical practice within the ‘laboratory’ of our own lives to achieve change. In Cherry’s Cache, I’ve already covered one of these topics, about cooking as a form of alchemy, and I’ll be coming back to other forms of ‘diy’ alchemy in later posts. But for now, I’d like to set the scene and tell you a true-life tale. So I start today with an overview of alchemy,adapted from the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy, and end with a story about encountering a mysterious stranger in shadowy Amsterdam. This is an account of something that happened to me the year that I turned twenty-one, and which I have never written publicly about before. Is that enough to entice you to read on? I hope so!

Alchemy, broadly speaking, is the quest to make gold from base materials. It is the art of transformation. That quest in one sense eventually developed into modern chemistry, but alchemy itself has never been just about material change. It is about mystical inspiration and powerful visions, and the interaction of mind and matter.

A historical perspective: the alchemist and his assistants at work

What is Alchemy?

From the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy

The practice of alchemy stretches back for thousands of years. It was one of the esoteric arts of the ancient Egyptians, who sought the secrets of transmuting metals. Later, seekers from Greek and Middle Eastern cultures recorded their visions of eternal gold, and added practical instructions for setting up an alchemical laboratory. From the medieval period, the quest for turning base metal into gold spread into Europe. Alchemists could be found across a wide range of society, from ragged tricksters who promised instant gold in return for funds, to philosophic princes in Renaissance palaces, who shut themselves away in secret chambers to pursue the Great Work. And over in the Far East, there were yet other traditions of alchemy, which focussed chiefly on the search for the ultimate medicine, the Elixir of Life, gleaming with the golden light of immortality.

An image from Splendor Solis (The Sun in Splendour), an illustrated manuscript from the 16th century. Alchemy is rich in symbolism, and here the rising sun symbolises the creation of gold in the alchemical vessel

The aim of alchemy is usually understood as the transformation of base metal into gold. Yet this can be interpreted in so many ways: historically, some alchemists certainly concentrated on the material properties of chemicals and metals, and their work in time gave rise to modern chemistry. This in turn then started to rule out the miracles and revelations which were so much a part of traditional alchemy. Other alchemists saw their path primarily as a mystical one, where developments in the laboratory were considered only an outward sign of divine transformation in the soul. But for most alchemists, spiritual and material labours have always gone together, and been expressed through the realm of imagery. The world of alchemical imagery is a fantastic one, teeming with winged beings, dragons and serpents, kings and queens, naked lovers, and exotic birds and beasts. Imagery forms a kind of symbolic communication between the different levels of experience. For us today, it is just as important to span these different levels too. But rather than setting up a traditional alchemical laboratory, we can use our own lives as the prime material.

Alchemy is a living tradition, and has to be re-invented in each new age. However, connecting to the lineage of alchemists who have gone before us is important; the tree of alchemy has many branches, but they all connect to the main trunk, the tradition of transformation. There are ways of filling in the historical background; we have access to a vast number of alchemical tracts, which leave us with a wealth of imagery and enigmatic writings. Alchemists deliberately set out to mystify, so that ‘the wise’ might understand, and ‘the ignorant’ remain confused. They preferred to leave clues rather than recipes. But linking into the tradition is important, and one reason why I have chosen to illustrate this book with emblems from an important source, Atlanta Fugiens by Michael Maier (1617). Emblems formed part of the core material of alchemy, especially in the seventeenth century. The idea was based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the belief that you could contain a wealth of secret knowledge within one image, which only the initiated could truly understand. These complex, many-layered emblems largely replaced the more graphic alchemical woodcuts and illuminations from earlier centuries. The best emblem books were published in different languages throughout Europe, and became common currency for alchemists.

Here is Hermes, aka Mercury, the presiding spirit of alchemy and also planetary ruler of the astrological sign of Gemini. This is how Anna Zinkeisen depicted him in her Zodiac Calendar, which you can read about here

The ‘patron saint’ of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus. This is why alchemy is also often known as ‘the Hermetic Work’. The secondary meaning of hermetic as ‘sealed’ comes from the practice of alchemy itself, and relates to the closed vessel in which much of the transformation takes place. On a more symbolic level, this signifies that alchemical work is self-contained, and must be protected from intrusion. The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus is known as a master magician, the guide of souls, and also as a trickster figure. Although he is related to the Greek God Hermes, messenger of the gods, he is a specific personification of revelation, wisdom and the arts of transformation. He is said to have initiated the first alchemists. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, thought to have been written by the sage himself, became the key text for alchemists; it contains the famous saying: ‘As above, so below’. The first known versions of this text appeared in Arabic in the 9th century AD, but its history may be far older.

A Roman copy of a 5th c. BC Greek statue of Hermes, with his traveller’s cloak, caduceus, and characteristic hat

Hermes himself has a life stretching back beyond recorded history, and certainly beyond the classical Greek myths where he was known as a tricky messenger and a charming thief. In his earlier incarnations, he was the god of boundaries, who carried a magical staff, and was also the mediator of quarrels, as well as being healer of the sick and patron deity of trading. His role was always that of a magical intermediary, and he could communicate even with the souls of the dead. From Greece, his cult spread to Egypt, and was then taken up in the esoteric culture of Alexandria, where Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions combined in the early centuries AD to form the Hermetic mystery schools, which also included a strong element of alchemy. Their guide was Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘Thrice Great Hermes’, and many of the inspired writings of that period were attributed to Great Master Hermes himself. It is not surprising that later European alchemists also took Hermes as their patron, and aspired to follow his teachings.
Hermes Trismegistus is one of the chief sources of inspiration for Everyday Alchemy. His key symbol is the caduceus, the staff with two winged serpents winding around it. These represent the awakened energies of Ouroboros. The staff stands for the straight and firm direction of the work: our central aim of transformation. But on its own, it is not enough. There must be ways and means to achieve this end. The two serpents signify the ways in which we must be resourceful and even cunning, moving this way and that in order to reach the final goal. The caduceus thus stands for the taming and harnessing of creative power, the weaving of its three fundamental energies into a new and higher harmony.

An ancient depiction of Ouroboros in a Greek alchemical text

Hermes as teacher and messenger also shows the important responsibility of sharing any gains that you make with others. There are stories of alchemists in history who used their ‘gold’ (whether material or spiritual doesn’t really matter) to help the poor and the sick. When alchemists succeed in making gold, they are expected to go further, and create the ‘elixir of gold’, which can then be used to make more gold. In our terms, this means that by transforming our potential into gold, we create new possibilities which may be useful to others. We have a duty to bring these to life too. The caduceus is also a symbol of healing, and is still used as such over the doors of pharmacy shops today.

One of the most ancient symbols of alchemy is that of Ouroboros, the dragon or serpent which lies in a circle with its tail in its mouth. Within Ouroboros, everything is there in potential, but as yet, nothing has been realised; the dragon is asleep. And indeed, we already have everything within ourselves that we need for our alchemical journey. But first we have to wake the dragon up. Then the aroused dragon must be battled with, and its three different energies released. The skill of alchemy is to combine these energies in a new way, so that they work at their highest potential. But, as the dragon says, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ And so the symbol of Ouroboros never loses its meaning, for in a sense, the journey is never completed; each ending is followed by a new beginning. Even if we eventually arrive back at the place we left, nothing is the same: all is transformed.

Ouroboros as a dragon, as depicted in Michael Maier’s Atlanta Fugiens. I chose emblems from this set to illustrate ‘Everyday Alchemy

An encounter in Amsterdam

Sometimes, it seems that an archetype can come to life. The story which follows does not feature in Everyday Alchemy, and I’ve largely kept it private for over fifty years. I wrote it down some nine years after the event, when it was still very fresh in my mind, and what follows is largely taken from that account. ‘Chris’ refers to my former husband; at that time we were still students in our last year of university. The meetings referred to were run under the aegis of ‘The Society of the Common Life’ in Cambridge, where we had very recently been introduced to the Tree of Life and Kabbalah.

As I was at the time, around 1970 – a photo taken in Cambridge Botanical Gardens

The Story

In the spring of 1970, just after we had started going to the Common Life meetings, and learning about the Tree of Life, Chris and I went to Amsterdam. There was no special purpose, apart from enjoying the last of our student vacations and mixing with the counter-culture of the city. By this time, however, this culture was beginning to peel away for me, like a skin that I didn’t need. Another kind of world was making itself known, and the old hippy ways were less attractive now.
It was very cold, with flurries of snow, and we spent more time inside than out. One evening, we went to a bar. There followed an encounter with a mysterious stranger.

Nothing was bright or light on the night in question. The streets were dark, and the bar where we went was dimly lit; I recall nothing of his face, or how we began to talk to him. But there cannot have been much small talk before we were all into the realms of discussing psychic and esoteric knowledge. He described an experiment that he made with friends, a kind of astral projection, in which they perceived one other as bubbles, floating up to meet in the air. I didn’t know whether to accept this, or be sceptical. Then either Chris or I mentioned the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which we had just learnt to draw and name. He showed interest, and asked us what it was. One of us sketched out the diagram and we described the significance of the different ‘sephiroth’ (spheres on the tree) to him. He nodded, and replied, ‘I just wanted to see how much you knew about it.’ Not the reply of a woolly psychic relating his dubious experiences. Nor did he go on to expound his views on the Kabbalah – no, it was left at that.

The ‘Ladder’ shown here, in Robert Fludd’s engraving, is an emblem for various forms of teaching, including the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (seen below in a modern Western form), which encourage the individual to understand and experience different levels of existence, encompassing both material and spiritual worlds.

We all exited the bar together, and made our way up to the Central Station. It is only from this point that I have a vague recollection of the friend who accompanied him, but who must have also have been present in the bar. On the way, although we learned more about our new acquaintance, his identity became even less certain as he professed dual if not triple nationality, spoke alternately in French and English, admitted to being known by more than one name, was not keen to be noticed by the police, and had several countries of residence. At the station he fetched a large rucksack, full of books from a left luggage locker. He couldn’t travel round without books, he said, but these were weighing heavy on him and he wanted to give us a number to lighten his load. We took an armful from him, and said our goodbyes.

Only later did I remember that the newcomer’s entry point on the great Tree of Life is said to be at the sephira of Hod, personified as Mercury or Hermes, the quicksilver trickster. ‘Hod’ on the Tree represents the sphere of rational mind, with attributes of quick wit, mastery of language plus deviousness and playfulness. As the archetype of Hermes in particular, he is an elusive, shadowy figure, speaker of many tongues. He is a traveller of no fixed abode or name, a trickster, a bringer of books and knowledge. And he is also fond of a joke now and then.

We still have two of the books he left with us, (
as I wrote in 1979): the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a selection from the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan. The rest of the books and papers have disappeared one way or another. I wasn’t attached to them in any way, and somehow that seems appropriate. (And now, in 2021, they are all gone…)

From ‘The Book of Lambspring’, an alchemical text of 1625. Here, Hermes performs another of his crucial roles, that of guide to the seeker. He leads him up up to a high place where he can see the terrain, the ground he has covered, the holy powers of sun and moon, and the journey he has yet to take.

Aftermath: As I’ve discovered through subsequent research, Amsterdam was once an important centre of Kabbalah teaching schools. Our own line of study in the ‘Society of the Common Life’ is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries in the early 20th century. However, at the time, I knew little or nothing about this connection. I’ve also now made my own modest contribution to Kabbalah lore, as the interpreter of the Tree of Life Oracle, a divination system which was bequeathed to me by my mentor. Rather like the hermetic, quicksilver spirit itself, this project has bounced through three separate editions involving four different publishers. It has taken three different names, and the planned publication date for the latest edition has been changed several times over. I hope now that it will shortly be available, in August 2021. Pre-orders are welcome! Just follow this link….and you never know where it might lead you.

You may also be interested in

Alchemy and Cooking

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

And please visit the website that I co-author on The Soho Cabbalists

Further reading