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

Glimpses of the Tarot – 6

The Empress, the Sun and the Devil

Today’s cards are The Empress, The Sun and The Devil. In this Tarot post, I’ll focus in particular on the relationship between them, and what it means to interpret a triad of cards.

Images below by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA for Tarot Triumphs. It just so happens that the Devil comes out larger than the others in my photographs!

The Triad

Every trio of cards presents its own challenge, because taking the symbols in combination is very different from studying each archetype in turn. We need to learn about them individually first, to grasp their essence, but the real magic of the Tarot comes about when we look at the dynamics between a group of cards. Three is the basic minimum for such a relationship; a solo card is a world unto itself, two cards form a polarity – useful, but goes nowhere except back and forth – but three cards immediately form their own connection. It’s rather like putting three guests together at the dinner table, and wondering how they’re going to react to each other. Will the regal Empress tolerate the sunny-natured, but over-exuberant guest on her right? And how will that sardonic-looking businessman on her left tell her what she needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear, that her financial investments are at risk? He won’t get any thanks for it, that’s for sure. You could invent a multitude of stories about such characters, in keeping with the Tarot archetypes. These particular three strike me as being awkward companions – strong-willed, full of drive and energy, and no doubt opinionated. That’s my immediate take on these three guests, but there are many, many more ways in which you can
tell the story of each triad of cards that is picked, and the situations they create.

Indeed, if you like writing fiction, the Tarot offers a good stimulus for creating characters and plot lines. Pick between three and seven cards, and see how they appear to combine and interact. An opportunity once came my way to do just that, when I was invited to submit a story based on a combination of five Tarot Trumps, for an anthology published as Tarot Tales. It is usually more fruitful to pick your cards blind, so that you have something of a surprise, which can be more of a stimulus for the imagination. Or if you already have a particular character in mind, choose the card which represents that person best, and then draw the accompanying cards at random. Not all the cards represent human figures, of course, but there’s always a way of imagining a person emerging from the symbol -a gambler from the Wheel of Fortune, a romantic novelist from the Moon, or a recycling expert from Death! They can be as light or as serious as you wish.

Images of the three cards from the French ‘Conver’ pack from around 1760

A three-card reading, as I write in Tarot Triumphs, is a useful starting point for interpreting a real-life situation too. ‘This is a simple, but effective way of reading the Tarot, and a good place to start, if you are a novice. It is also a useful method for any Tarot reader, to give a snapshot reading for an individual, or if you want to obtain a quick take on a situation. Ask the individual to phrase a simple question and invite him or her to pick three cards from a set of Tarot Trumps which you have shuffled. This is also an effective way of getting to know the Tarot Trumps, playing with them in threefold combinations and seeing what that triad suggests to you. As one of my own Tarot instructors said, ‘After all, Tarot is a game!’ (Historically this was true too, and various versions of full Tarot packs, with the four suits included, were used for card games.)

I’ll take the current cards one by one here, then suggest how they might be seen in conjunction with one another.

The Empress

The Empress represents worldly feminine authority, and she is also a symbol of fertility. In many of the traditional packs, her voluptuous curves hint at pregnancy, so she has a dual role. As the highest female authority in worldly terms, she helps to guard civilisation, and represents the power of the land. But her role as the mother of heirs is also implicit. She is both an earth mother, with the warmth and nurturing that this implies, but also the strict keeper of the hierarchy and of law. Although an Empress as such might seem rather remote from modern life, we do have our female prime ministers and presidents and members of royal families, all of whom have a particular position of authority. And if you take that into domestic life, even a so-called ‘ordinary mother’ usually operates from a mix of maternal love and strong authority. Both are needed and expected, with the important empathic and emotional bond between mother and child, but also the more detached structure she employs, employing rules and routines to govern behaviour and help the child’s development. The Empress, therefore, can be seen as a stern, controlling woman, which is her predominant feature, but she also carries an element of fertility and sexuality.

A woodblock print Empress from the Bologna pack, contrasting with the finely-painted reproduction of the Empress from the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned by nobility.

From the standard ‘Marseilles’ Tarot pack

The Sun

Unlike the complex, elusive Moon, the Sun shines forth in its simplicity. Its qualities are truth, openness, warmth, and generosity; it could also indicate friendship in a reading, along with trust and personal integrity. Thus the Sun in a prominent position may denote new energy and growth, or the healing of a rift. All in all, it speaks of creativity, love and joy. Every Tarot Trump has its downside though, and the Sun can also signify excessively high spirits reckless enthusiasm, or over-indulgence in pleasure. Too much sun can burn the skin, or even make us ill! Historically, there have been different versions of the card, but the prevalent image is that of two naked children playing innocently under the Sun’s rays. And it may be a very ancient motif, as male twins have been associated with the Sun since the Bronze Age.

A less common image of the Sun, with a naked youth on a prancing horse, bearing a flag. From the early Vieville pack, of the 17th century.
A racy looking Devil from the Bologna pack, with his henchmen chained at his side

The Devil

We don’t tend to see the devil as a significant force in our lives any more – or at least, we describe malevolent forces in other ways. But let us not assume that this Trump has lost all his significance. Although the Devil in a reading does not for the most part represent evil, it can certainly indicate people or situations that are diminishing our capacity to act, think or feel. The two little devils chained to his plinth have no apparent means of escape. Awareness of this bondage is therefore the first step towards liberation; to have a chance of becoming free, we first need to recognise that we are enslaved. We may need to use intelligence, compassion, or even cunning to release the ties that bind us in an unwelcome way, and to move on. However, sometimes the Devil indicates that this is a situation of very limited choice, and that we have to act from necessity, rather than personal desire. It may be time to ‘do what must be done’ in a difficult situation to stop poison spreading, or to prevent further enchainment. It may be time to blow the whistle, file for bankruptcy, or get the police involved. Unpleasant choices must be made; the Devil must be faced. “Take what you want, and pay the price,” is another relevant saying: the Devil is a reminder of the bill that must be paid.

A gallery of grotesque Devils

The Trio

Although there are different possible views of the relationship between these three cards, I am drawn to see the Empress as ‘lead’ card here, and the other two as dual aspects of her nature. This is only one of many interpretations, but it does integrate the seemingly opposed forces of her accompanying emblems. The Empress has both sides to her – the warmth and fertility of the sun’s rays, and the often unwelcome, punitive aspect of the devil. She may be gracious and generous, but she is in charge and will wield her power to cut off argument. She can be playful and tender in intimate situations, but is dignified in her outer role as ruler, mother, politician. But I invite you to try other ways of looking at the triad: what happens if the Devil or the Sun is the dominant card? Or if the three form a kind of circuit, where the energy generated courses between them?

In fact, a triad of cards doesn’t always give you a sense of a stable situation, and to anchor this, introducing a fourth card can help, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs (p. 89). A simple four-card reading involves choosing or picking a single card ‘significator’ to start with. It can act as a centre to the triad of the other three cards, or they can be laid out from left to right as past, present and future. With a fourth card, you have more context to work with, and possibly a time frame.

Reading the Tarot is not for everyone, but I hope by going deeper into the symbolism of the Trumps, I can show that they can be carriers of wisdom and generators of creativity, as a fascinating set of archetypes in their own right.

‘Cherry Reading the Cards’ by Robert Lee-Wade RUA. The set depicted here is the Rider-Waite pack of 1909, which is fully pictorial in both Major and Minor Arcanas (Trump cards and suits). It draws from traditional designs, but is also strongly influenced by the symbolism of the esoteric Golden Dawn movement.

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot 1

Glimpses of the Tarot 2

Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Glimpses of the Tarot 4

The Fool and his Feast

Glimpses of the Tarot 5

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

In August, I featured posts about Russia, based on my travels and studies there. Here, we are back to Russia, but in a very different way. This story is from an unforgettable trip which I made to Siberia in 2004, travelling to the regions of Tuva and Khakassia. One of the most fascinating encounters that I had was with a traditional Siberian shaman, Herel. This is a shortened version of the article I originally wrote forQuest: The Journal of the Theosophical Society in America(Winter 2017).

Evening ritual by Herel and his wife at our yurt camp near Kyzyl

The first beats of the shaman’s drum were resounding, starting slowly but quickly mounting in intensity. I was transported, in spirit at least, back to Siberia from my home in Devon. But then came the sudden roar of a helicopter overhead, completely obliterating the sound I was listening to on the recording. I clicked on the pause button, and peered out of the window. A large army helicopter was circling right above me, barely skimming the rooftops of the town. Its presence felt incongruous, and menacing. But was it? Had I perhaps inadvertently invoked a shamanic presence, as I played the recording of the ritual in my study? After all, it is said that shamans can fly.

This particular recording was of a ritual that took place in 2004, in the far-off province of Tuva, Siberia. It was a consultation I had there with Herel, a local shaman. In fact, this was the first time I had ever played back the recording. I couldn’t bring myself to do so earlier –it might have seemed artificial, and dilute the experience while the power of that occasion still burned bright in my mind. But now, twelve years later, the time was right, and I was ready to listen and reflect. When the helicopter finally departed, as quickly as it had come, I immersed myself again in the drum beats and chanting. I sensed that I was sliding into a different world, eerie and disorientating in one way, but a place where reflection and calmness were also possible. However, the visceral sound of helicopter remained imprinted on my senses, a reminder that this meeting with the shaman had been a powerful experience, and one that, perhaps, was not quite over yet.

The yurt camp where we stayed, which had its own ‘spirit of place’ shrine, as did most sites in the area, including mountains and rivers

My own spiritual path has led me deep into the heart of the Western hermetic tradition – in particular Tree of Life Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot and astrology. At the time of my trip to Siberia, I was certainly interested in shamanism, but in a cautious, anthropologically-orientated way. I was wary of the contemporary enthusiasm for taking up shamanism. This provoked questions for me: is it possible to practice shamanism in a modern Western context? Does it require its own traditional culture, for authenticity and indeed safety? Many serious studies of shamanism emphasise what sacrifice is required from true shamans. Physical ordeals, renunciation of normal life and exhausting, risky encounters with the spirits, are part of the job description, in the efforts to help and heal others.

In a traditional context too, the shamanic path is not one that you can choose on a whim. Usually the shaman shows signs from childhood that this is his or her potential destiny. Having a parent or relative may pre-dispose one to be a shaman, but this is not guaranteed. Herel told me that although both he and his wife were shamans, only one out of their five children was possibly a shaman in the making. The signs were there at her birth, as the weather changed dramatically, from thunder and lightning to sunshine and then snow. The heavens were pointing a finger to her ability, which was now manifesting in later childhood through significant dreams, and encounters with spirits.

Pictured in Tuva at the purported Centre of Asia, looking very much the Englishwoman abroad!

I came to Siberia seeking answers to my questions about shamanism: can it be practised, or truly experienced by anyone not of that traditional culture? I had no doubts about its power, only whether it could survive in a modern world, without losing its identity as a genuine spiritual practice. By 2004, I had visited Russia nearly sixty times. I ran a Russian arts and crafts business; I had studied Russian traditional folk culture, learnt the language and mixed freely with people in cities and countryside. But I was keen to find an even older culture, to witness practices which go back thousands of years, and which may be the source from which much Russian folk tradition itself has evolved. Siberia has a living, truly ancient culture; the majority of its people are ethnically different from Russians, and its primary religions are shamanism, and Buddhism.

I travelled with writer friend Lyn Webster-Wilde, visiting the fabled lands of Tuva and Khakassia, along with the Sayani Mountains. Our trip was an organised journey of exploration with a small group of Russian travellers. We went in the warm summer months, when the forests were in full leaf and mountain pastures were studded with alpine flowers. We traversed landscapes that had remained largely untouched since the Bronze Age, including sweeping grasslands studded with standing stones and stone circles, like an airbrushed version of the Wiltshire plains. In Khakassia, we saw Bronze Age carvings and pictograms on rocks still relevant to the customs of local people today –of the magic elk, for instance, who they say leads souls to the underworld. Shrines set up to spirits of the land were abundant, and ancient ceremonies of purification and healing were still carried out at important ritual points in the landscape. This was the landscape of shamanism in southern Siberia, that as far its people are concerned, is still a spiritual, magical terrain.

A shrine on a sacred mountain, and a kind of temporary wigwam set up by shamans who visit this place regularly for gatherings. My companion, Lyn, investigates.

When we arrived in Kyzil, the capital of Tuva, we were put up at a nearby yurt camp, and then taken into the town itself. Here there is a monument that, allegedly, marks the Centre of Asia. It is also home to the shamans ‘clinic’. This is where approved and regulated shamans are allowed to practice. It might sound contrary to the spirit of shamanism, with its allegiance to nature, to fires and skies and a freedom of movement. However, Tuvan shamanism is in recovery after brutal suppression by the Soviet regime– many shamans throughout the whole of Siberia were murdered or dispossessed. In that era, some were even thrown out of aeroplanes with the cruel taunt: ‘You shamans say you can fly! Let’s see you do it, then.’ The tradition was severely depleted, but it was not lost, and is making a strong comeback. To a certain extent, though, it still has to work in co-operation with the authorities, hence the ‘clinic’ set-up. And these shamans certainly practice outdoors as well. They have special gatherings at sacred mountain sites, and as we shall see, our shaman Herel came to our yurt camp with his wife the following evening to perform a ceremony of blessing.

The entrance to the ‘clinic’ in Kyzyl. Note the figure of the eagle on the pile of stones. (Stones are often heaped up to form a cairn, with its own significance.)

The consultation
From listening to the recording, from my notes written at the time, and from the vivid recollections that I still carry, I now offer an account of the session with Herel, the Tuvan shaman.

So now our group sits in Herel’s consulting room, which is filled with feathers, ribbons, ropes, bones, plaques, a reindeer head, a horn and bells. They hang from his walls, a chaotic clutter of ritual paraphernalia, rather in the way that strips of cloth or leather hang from the traditional shamanic costume itself. He shows us some of the tools of his trade, and how they work. His is a hard calling, he admits. His own speciality is purification and divination, whereas his wife specialises in healing women’s ailments.

Herel, explaining his practice

At the end of the talk, he asks if anyone would like to have a personal session with him. I alone say yes. I’ll pay the price he asks – higher for visitors than for locals, I’m sure, but he has to make a living, and I don’t begrudge it. Later, Ira our young guide tells me that from all the groups she has brought to this place, I am the only person who has ever opted for a private consultation. This surprises me, but she adds that Herel is the very best of the shamans she has encountered, and a man of compassion; some seem aggressive, and the quality, she implies, is variable.

Lyn and Ira stay. Ira needs to translate for me. I speak good Russian, but Herel’s accent is thick and guttural, as it is probably his second language. Lyn makes a recording, her earlier BBC training coming in handy.

Preparing for the session

Herel dons an eagle headdress and tells me to sit on a bear skin in the centre of the room. ‘Raise your hands,’ he says, as he passes burning juniper around my body. ‘While appealing to the spirits, I’ll ask them to take your worries and bad feelings out of you, and I’ll ask them to make your future road happy.’ He tells me to shut my eyes, and bids me not to be afraid. Let the tears come, he says. Tears often fall during an encounter with the spirits. And indeed they do. I am moved, and emotionally exposed during this session, though I am neither afraid nor unhappy. Herel dances around me, drumming and chanting, creating a kind of beehive of sound and movement around me. I feel that I am in a magical chamber, in a different dimension of space and reality.

The ritual is constantly changing. I have the impression that his chants and cries are a dialogue with the spirits, as they shift in tone and intensity. Phases of the session peak, and then fall away into silence. A new one is heralded by the blow of a conch shell, or jangling of bells. Suddenly, he thumps my shoulder with a bear paw – it’s a shock. Later, he pulls back my Tshirt and spits down the back my neck. Curiously, I don’t mind this a bit. He even uses a whip on me several times, but it is never painful. I write down later that this is ‘stimulating and pleasant’, rather like using a switch of birch leaves to beat your body in a Russian bath. At the end of each section, he blows away the psychic ‘debris’ and sends it out of the door. I am in a different time zone, and have no sense of how long the treatment lasts, although Lyn tells me later that it is about 15 minutes

He mentioned at the start of the session that I have an obstruction in my left shoulder. ‘You are worrying about something. I’ll take it out of you.’ Curiously, at this point I have had several years of problems with my right shoulder, and already recognise that is probably stress-related. I can see now that if one side of the body is numb with some emotional weight or obstruction, then it’s the other side that may take the strain and display the symptoms. After the session, Herel says that he has succeeded in asking the spirits to relieve me of this. Next year, he tells me, will be more normal, and that I will start to be happy again, after going through a little more personal suffering first.

We conclude with three measures of advice. He tells me that I may come again next year, if I wish. But if I don’t, I can connect to him at a distance; he is able to sense people he has treated, and can help if needs be. He gives me a ‘spirit bag’, a little bundle of cloth tied up with cord, and tells me that I should feed it three times a week with oil or melted butter. It is my talisman, to connect me to the power of the session, and I should take it with me if I am travelling or am away on business. He also advises me to contact the spirits of place where I live – the spirits of the hills, trees and streams. After this session, he says, I will be able to do this. That’s if I have such spirits in my homeland. (The aftermath, of how I endeavoured to put this into practice, is omitted here for reasons of length.)

The next day, Herel and his wife arrive at our yurt camp to conduct a ceremony to promote the well-being of everyone there. They come as the light begins to fade, preparing the space carefully, setting the fire and arranging little balls of dough to mark out the territory for the ritual. Once the fire is blazing, they don full costume and invite everyone to sit in a large circle. I am still bathed in my impressions from the day before, and the difference between the two occasions strikes me strongly. This one is open to all comers; it has resonance and power but not, to my mind, the concentrated force that I experienced in my session.

Herel’s wife, playing the traditional shamanic drum, wearing her cape of strips of cloth and what may be another eagle headdress

Herel and his wife are dealing with a big mix of people, from earnest Japanese tourists to young Australian surfers, since the camp is used by various travellers passing through the area. Some of them have never even heard of shamanism, and are nervous, or giggle loudly at this unfamiliar ritual. At one point, Herel passes around the backs of everyone in the circle, giving some of them a thump with his bear paw, though never as hard as he clouted me the day before. I wonder if they realise that they are actually being offered a precious nugget of healing, or blessing, or insight? I have a video of this ceremony though, and even viewing it ‘cold’, a long time later, it is compelling, and there is an unearthly quality to the chanting and singing of the shaman pair. I do not know exactly what the sounds mean, though it certainly sounds at times as though they are in conversation with spirits.

The ceremony under way

One study of shamanism mentions that Tuvan shamans simulate bird and animal calls to express particular emotions: that of a raven to curse an enemy, a cow to call up rain, a wolf or eagle to frighten people, a magpie to uncover a lie, a bull to demonstrate power, and a bear to convey rapture. (Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003) The horse has special properties in many branches of Siberian shamanism; it is a creature that can fly the shaman to the spirit world. The bear, hare and eagle are also particularly important in Tuvan shamanism.

I suspect that the eagle is Herel’s own spirit guide, although – understandably – he refuses to tell us what kind of creature it is. During my individual session with him, I ‘saw’ an eagle.
My notes say: ‘Just the head, neck and shoulders were visible. It was quite clear and communicating with me – intelligent.’

The eagle cloud appearing after the ceremony

When the ceremony ends, the mood is peaceful. The daylight has not quite gone and unexpectedly, the sky brightens and I look up to see a cloud in the shape of an eagle just overhead. Am I imagining it? No, it is there when I look on the video later. Curiously enough, this video will give me a lot of trouble; I discover that the original mini-tapes are jammed, and only after various professional companies refuse to try and repair them do I find one local man who is prepared to have a go. Luckily, he succeeds in transferring the whole recording to DVD. As I said at the beginning. strange things do happen when shamanic forces are in action.

On a lighter note, after the evening’s ceremony is over, I pick up some of the balls of dough used by the shamans, and take them back as souvenirs to the yurt that Lyn and I are sharing. I hang them in a cloth bag from the end of my bed, for want of anywhere better to put them. That night, I sleep peacefully. Lyn, however, is awake for hours, disturbed by the sound of a mouse that has detected the presence of tasty titbits and is trying all kinds of ways to reach the prize. Scuttlings, rustlings and chewings ruin her night’s sleep. The next morning, when we relate this light-hearedly, to one of our fellow Russian travellers, he takes it very seriously. ‘No, that was not a mouse!’ he pronounces solemnly. ‘That was a rival shaman come to steal the power of our shaman.’ A little far-fetched, perhaps? But there again, if I am claiming that an army helicopter might be a shaman in disguise, perhaps my ideas are no stranger than his.

Sunset at the Tuvan yurt camp

As is often the way, my initial questions about shamanism gave way to a different perspective on it. My trip to Siberia, rather than achieving solid answers, showed me that shamanism is a living tradition that cannot be completely pinned down. It is in essence a shape-shifter, and will ebb and flow, finding different forms in different cultures.

I have come to realise that such a development is more important than an anxiety about inappropriate use of shamanism in other cultures, or the blurring of boundaries and nomenclature in academic studies. As Tim Hodginkson, anthropologist and musician, and former student friend of mine at Cambridge, says in his excellent papers, (see link below and Related Reading, below) shamanism is itself improvisatory. It deals with the circumstances as they are; it responds to very particular configurations of place and time.

And each of us may discover something different within its practice. Meeting the shaman gave me not just insight into the tradition itself, but a very specific outcome: it invigorated three of my major passions: the power of music and sound, the power of nature, and the world of ancestry.

The shaman’s shelter at the sacred mountain

Related Reading
Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape, Cherry Gilchrist, Quest 2009 and e-book edition Lume 2019
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats – Virlana Tkacz with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps
Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Joan Halifax E.P. Dutton, New York 1978
Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003
Shamanism in Siberia, V. Dioszegi & M. Hoppal (editors), Akademiai Kiado, Budapest 1978
The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Piers Vitebsky, Duncan Baird, London 1995
Transcultural Collisions: Music and Shamanism in Siberia, Tim Hodgkinson. Paper given in 2007 at SOAS, London; available on Tim Hodgkinson’s website.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin’

Glimpses of the Tarot – 2

An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards

This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.

The Star – from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE STAR (no. 17)
The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.

Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.

Swiss Tarot pack, probably early 19th c.

The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.

Marseilles Tarot

DEATH (no. 13)
In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.

An early Tarot emblem of ‘Death’ from the so-called French Charles VI Tarot, which is now designated as Italian, probably from the 15th c.

Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.

A balanced and watchful Hanged Man – Le Pendu – from Nicolas Convers, Marseilles 1761

THE HANGED MAN (no 12)

The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.

There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.

A tiny image of male and female acrobats practising, one balancing upsidedown on a rope. From Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’ 1658

And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.

The early ‘Charles VI’ Tarot (prob. 15th c.) card of the Hanged Man shows what is clearly an acrobat, using weights

So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.

Jean Dodal, Lyon, early 18th c.

Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.

You may also be interested in: ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ (part 1) and ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Kabbalah: The Tree of Life Oracle is due for re-issue October 2020, so may be on sale shortly after this blog appears.

Glimpses of the Tarot – 1

I’ve taken an interest in Tarot cards since I first came across them in the USA, at the age of 19. I was fascinated by their images, and over the following years delved into their meanings and history. When I wrote Tarot Triumphs in 2016, it was a chance at last to put together my research and findings, and to pass on what I had learnt from others too – in particular a unique divination layout called ‘The Fool’s Mirror’.

But it didn’t allow me to share the glorious images of traditional Tarot cards, which range from the opulent gilded cards from the royal courts of Europe, to the crude but vigorous woodcuts sold for popular use. There are many mysteries as to Tarot’s origins, and how it was used – you can find out more in my book – but the images have retained their power through the centuries, and are a colourful set of symbols in their own right.

And so I’m planning a series of occasional posts on Cherry’s Cache, which enables me to share images from my own sets of cards, and from digital resources. Along with this, I’ll post extracts from my book on the individual cards themselves, giving some snippets of their meaning, history and variations of imagery.

‘Cherry reading the cards’, oil painting by Robert Lee-Wade – in this case, not the traditional pack, but the renowned Rider Waite pack with its detailed symbolism. It suited Robert’s art better!

I prefer the traditional packs, which have been handed on down through the centuries, and adapted to different countries and cultures. They have a resonance, like traditional folk songs. Their river of time can carry me on its currents, whisper secrets in my ear, and speak to me of its past and future. The symbolism of the 22 Tarot Trumps, as the pictorial cards are known, echoes down through the centuries, if we do but listen to it, connecting us to an ancient way of knowledge.

Each post will put the spotlight on three individual cards – today’s cards are pictured above, in line drawings produced by my husband Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs. I’ve allowed the cards to speak in the time-honoured way, simply by shuffling the pack, and using the order in which the cards appeared in, to define the sets of three, rather using the regular numbering of the 22 cards. These are from what is known as the Major Arcana, or the Tarot Trumps; the remaining 56 cards fall into 4 suits like regular playing cards, with one extra court card in each suit.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, card master and engraver Dijon, 1709-1740

THE HIGH PRIESTESS (No. 2)
The image of the High Priestess, otherwise called the ‘Papesse’ or Female Pope, is very simple in one sense. A woman with a tall headdress sits before a curtain hung between two pillars, holding an open book in her lap. But she has aroused great debate and much learned research among Tarot historians. Does she represent Pope Joan, Isis, Sophia, the Virgin Mary, Faith and the Church, a prophetic Sibyl, a Sorceress or Pagan Knowledge? All have been proposed as candidates, along with a specific historical character, the heretical Manfreda who believed in creating female popes. After fighting my way through this thicket of possible allusions, and appraising their possibilities, I have arrived at the view that this card can best be understood not as one particular figure, but as an embodiment of wisdom and ancient knowledge, symbolised in female form.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

In the early Renaissance, for practitioners of philosophical or Hermetic traditions, such a figure of female wisdom was not only acceptable but essential to their cosmology. The headdress and book of the High Priestess were associated with the spirit of ancient teaching, and from that standpoint, she could quite readily have been equated by different interpreters with Mary, Sophia, Isis or the Kabbalistic Shekinah, each of these a feminine representation of wisdom, current in different strands of teaching and thinking at the time. She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form. There is a case though for associating her with ‘Prudence’, a later personification of Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom; some of her attributes – book and triple crown, for instance – can be found in imagery related to Prudence.

Image of Prudence (top left) with book of wise teachings and disciples. From the illuminated manuscript ‘La Somme le Roy’ (early 14th c.)

So the High Priestess is a teacher of wisdom. And if you go past the trappings, you can also see her as the symbol of contemplation itself. She sits at the entrance to the temple, and is the keeper of its mysteries. In a reading, the card may suggest the need to tap one’s inner resources and to use silence wisely.

Classic image of ‘The Lover’ or ‘Lovers’ from the Marseilles Tarot. This was indeed produced in the Marseilles area of France around the 18th c., but was more widespread than that. A reproduction of a set in 1930 by Paul Marteau set this pack on course to be the typical ‘traditional’ Tarot for the 20th and 21st centuries.

THE LOVER (No. 6)
The usual version of The Lover clearly indicates a choice: which woman will the young man decide to marry? However, some earlier versions, notably the 15th century Visconti-Sforza pack, show what appears to be a wedding in progress, and in that particular case, the figures are presumed to be Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The couple were married in 1441, and the sumptuous set of Tarot cards may have actually been commissioned for their wedding. But the dilemma shown on the prevailing traditional image is not a straightforward, happy union; as with many of the cards, it poses a question for us to fathom.

From The Golden Tarot a historical reproduction of the beautiful 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack. Here a wedding is taking place, perhaps of the patrons themselves

One common interpretation is that these two ladies represent Vice and Virtue. This is borne out by various emblems independent of Tarot packs, such as the one in Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius (1658), where his illustration no. 109 under “Moral Philosophy” shows much the same picture, with the two women positively tugging the young man in different directions.

Comenius: his emblem ‘Moral Philosophy’ shows a young man being pulled in two different directions by Virtue and Vice.

But if we take this as a choice to be made, rather than purely a decision over love, it opens the way to broader interpretations. The question of a dilemma still remains at the heart of this image. The Marseilles Tarot version of The Lover (seen at the start of this section) is a masterpiece of cross tensions, within this Y-shaped formation, indicating this agony of decision. Here, Cupid’s arrow points towards the man’s left, and to the fair-haired maiden standing there. The Lover, though, looks to the right, towards the laurel-crowned lady with the severe face. She rests a restraining hand on his right shoulder, her left reaching out to him below, while the pretty girl on the left, in some versions crowned with flowers, touches his heart with her fingers. She looks forward, while Miss Laurel Crown looks straight into the Lover’s eyes. Both seem to say, ‘He’s mine!’

A magnificent emblem from the early French Tarot cards known as the Charles VI pack. This pack is now more reliably designated as Italian, possibly made in Ferrara, in the 15th c.

The card therefore may not always be about a relationship, but can also indicate a decision pending, a choice to be made in another area of life. Likewise, it could indicate a matter of choosing a particular path, and sacrificing another tempting way forward, in order to achieve the desired goal. And sometimes, the best choice is really very simple.

‘La Force’ – Strength: Marseilles Tarot

STRENGTH (No. 11)
The usual Tarot image for ‘Strength’ shows a woman bending over a lion, calmly but firmly opening its jaws. The French name for this this card is ‘La Force’, which means Strength, but not ‘force’ in the English sense of the word. Here, therefore, gentleness triumphs over ‘brute force’, which sets up one of those intriguing Tarot paradoxes: how can a woman tame such a savage creature without using force? Some versions of Tarot cards show this as a woman breaking a pillar in half or a man clubbing a lion, but these are crude allegories by comparison, and, to my mind, miss the point.

A savage version – and probably adrift from the original meaning. Card from the Schaffhouse Swiss Tarot deck. The style is more ornamental, and probably dates from the early 19th c. In the so-called ‘Swiss Tarot’, the High Priestess (Papesse) and the Pope are replaced by the classical gods Juno and Jupiter, so as not to offend Protestant sensibilities.

To understand this better, we can go back to the cult known as the ‘Mistress of the Beasts’ or ‘Lady of the Animals’. This portrays a woman presiding over wild animals, and in particular lions. Images are found as statues and paintings from ancient civilisations such as Crete, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, where ‘The Lady’ may be seen standing between lions, riding upon a lion’s back, or driving a chariot drawn by lions. There may not be a definite historical link to ‘Strength’ in the Tarot, but it shows that the archetype of woman taming beast resides deep within our culture. It’s also possible that this image derives more directly from the woman jongleurs, the wandering performers who travelled in mixed bands, and whose ‘entertainments’ included showing women taming wild beasts. As I’ve suggested in my book, the troubadours and jongleurs may well have played a part in shaping the Tarot.

Mother goddess flanked by two lionesses on a pithos from Knossos, 625-600 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
A partially-restored Roman bronze statuette of the cult goddess Cybele, on a cart drawn by lions. 2nd c.A.D, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ‘strength’ shown, therefore, overcomes danger through gentleness, patience and persistence. This type of strength works through anything that is not direct force – through confidence, compassion, understanding, or quietness.

The Tarot of Jean Noblet is the oldest surviving ‘Marseilles’ type pack, produced in Paris in 1650.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Tarot Triumphs can be bought from Amazon UK and Amazon USA as a paperback or Kindle edition

Meeting Walter Lassally – Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Walter Lassally shooting ‘We are the Lambeth Boys’ (1959), a Free Cinema documentary
Credit BFI (British Film Institute)

The Meeting – January 2014
As our train pulled into Diss station in Norfolk, Walter was on the platform to meet us. My colleague Rod Thorn and I had seen photos of him, but were unprepared for the sheer energy of this 87-year-old, striding forward energetically to greet us with a long mac flapping behind him. We shook hands with a rugged-faced man, with exuberant wavy white hair, and a ready smile. We piled into his car, which as I recall was on the rough and ready side, and he drove us to ‘The Abbey’ at Eye, his current home just over the border in Suffolk. As the name suggests, this was a former medieval Benedictine Monastery, which had evolved into a large and impressive house. Its permanent resident at the time was Walter’s partner, Kate Campbell. Walter himself was not long back from his second home on Crete, close to where he had filmed Zorba the Greek, his most famous cinematic feat. For a few hours that day, my colleague Rod Thorn and I were able to enjoy Walter’s company, listening to his philosophical ideas and sharing impressions of the Kabbalah group he had studied in, to which we also had connections.

Career

Walter had long been renowned as a cinematographer, in a career that spanned half a century.  He began his career as a lowly clapper boy at Riverside Studios, frequently sent off by the crew to collect cups of tea on his clapperboard, but swiftly moved on to greater things. His career as a cinematographer blossomed at the start of the 1960s, when he made three films with director Tony Richardson – A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Tom Jones. These titles became key films in the British cinema of that decade.

But the film for which he was most highly acclaimed worldwide came straight after these British triumphs. For his work on Zorba the Greek (1964), Walter won an Academy Award for cinematography.

Yet despite his status as an Oscar winner, which gave him the freedom to work wherever he wished, he largely stayed rooted to Britain and its film industry. He was a leading light in Lindsay Anderson’s radical Free Cinema movement, which favoured realistic, heavy-hitting narratives, shot with flair and imagination. Critics dismissed some of these works as ‘kitchen sink dramas,’ but they effectively portrayed the spirit of those times.

Walter remained a firm favourite with leading British-based film-makers, notably Merchant Ivory, who hired him as cinematographer on three of their major titles: Savages (1972), Heat and Dust (1983) and The Bostonians (1984). Thereafter he continued working on smaller films in various countries until the turn of the century.

This section has been augmented with the kind assistance of film critic David Gritten, best known for his writing in the Daily Telegraph and Saga Magazine. (David@Gritten.co.uk)

Walter in Crete, probably just a few years before we interviewed him

The Soho Group
Our own interest in Walter’s story began when a few colleagues and I started to research the roots of an organisation known as Saros, which we had been involved with for many years. This had started as a series of groups studying the Kabbalah, in its Tree of Life form, as a framework for peronsal and spiritual exploration. (Read more about these groups, their practices and Kabbalah at our ‘Soho Tree’ website ).

But our study groups, which began in the 1970s, were preceded by one simply known as ‘The Group’, which met in the coffee bars of Soho in the late 1950s. Our small band of researchers was keen to explore the connection, and see where our tradition had come from. As we began locating contacts who had themselves been in that Soho group, the name of Walter Lassally kept cropping up. Some former members were even still in touch with him, sporadically. Fired up by the fascinating interviews we were recording, and the intriguing world of 1950s Soho, we were keen to trace this man.

Walter’s Quest

‘My career as world-famous Director of Photography is well known and has been written about ad infinitum. On the other hand my other activities in the realm of philosophy and esotericism are not so well known but have in my estimation been even more important and significant to me than my main occupation.’

So Walter wrote in his later years, for a talk entitled ‘The Universe and the Individual: The Cosmos and the Microcosmos.

Walter’s chief interests were in Tree of Life Kabbalah, especially through the writings of Dion Fortune (her book The Mystical Qabalah was the one most readily available in the mid-20th century), and in the I Ching. He was also a keen and proficient astrologer. As he said to us at our meeting:

‘You have an aim, which can broadly be described as self-knowledge. The saying ‘Know Thyself’ – inscribed over the temple of Apollo at Delphi – is very important. …And now I firmly adhere to the idea that that is the only point of being on earth as a human being. Everything else is peripheral.’

Watkins Bookshop, just off the Charing Cross Road, as it was in 1960. This was about the only place where books on esoteric and mystical subjects were on sale, and was much-frequented by members of the group which Walter joined.

Walter’s Early Life
As we tried to get in touch with Walter Lassally – he had gone off radar, even to his close friends from ‘the Group’ – we started to look into his background. In a series of YouTube interviews, he gives an account of his challenging early years, a remarkable story of persecution and escape.

Walter was born in Berlin in 1926, growing up there during Hitler’s ascent to power. His father worked as an animator of industrial films, and the family seems to have been cultured and comfortably-off financially. However, although the family were Lutheran Protestants, they had Jewish roots in earlier generations, which led to them being classified as ‘non-Aryan’, even though they weren’t technically Jewish. Hitler’s regime clamped down on them. His father was prevented from working after 1933, and Walter excluded from school from 1938. At this point, his father was put in a concentration camp and would only be able leave if the family could prove they had permission to emigrate.

Walter’s mother tried every avenue, nearly securing a job in Canada for her husband, but finally obtaining a Peruvian visa with a transit visa for the UK. Armed with this, she was able to secure the release of her husband, and the family set out on a stressful and risky journey to Dover. Walter clutched his ‘Kinderpass’, stamped with the red J for Jew. They arrived in the UK with virtually nothing, since all their possessions were bombed while awaiting shipping in Bremen, and their valuables had in any case been confiscated automatically by the Nazis. On top of that, Walter spoke no English, a source of anxiety to him at first, but soon overcome by studying so hard that he came second in the English exams at school!

Walter showing the Kinderpass which he kept, stamped with the red ‘J’ for Jew.

In the UK, his father was at first interned as an alien on the Isle of Man, but set free after a tribunal assessment. The family then settled in Richmond, near London, and Walter left school at the age of sixteen with the firm conviction that he wanted to be a film cameraman. He ascribes his interest in film not so much to his father’s involvement, as to his passion for visiting the cinema as often as possible during those war years.

A teenage Walter, perhaps dreaming of his future life in the cinema.
(from his own collection, posted by the BFI)

Finding Walter
We were about to give up our search when a stroke or two of luck enabled us to trace him. It seemed he was probably in Greece. When our Greek friend Byron, another member of Saros, returned to his native country for a while, he agreed to help in the search. Contact was made. He wrote to me later, on Sat, 5 Oct 2013:

When I finally decided to post the letter to Walter to an address I accidentally found from an interview that he had given on the net, I went to my local post office to ask whether there was in fact a post office in that little village in Crete where I was sending my letter to. By sheer ‘coincidence’ the employee at my local post office hailed from Stavros Acroteriou, the very same place where Walter now resides. He didn’t know Walter himself, but described the place to me and also told me that there was no post office there and that the nearest one was in Chania. So anyway thank you all for your ‘intent’ it must have helped in this search!

However, at that point, it was only a distant possibility that one of us would be able to go out to Crete to meet him. But once again, luck was on our side, as he suddenly decided to return to the UK for a while. And so it was that two of us had the pleasure of getting off that train and meeting Walter for the first time in the East Anglian countryside.

The Abbey at Eye, where we spent the day with Walter Lassally
(This and photo below credit website of the Abbey )
The large living room where we sat with Walter to talk about his memories of ‘The Group’.

Conversation at the Abbey
Walter led us into the main drawing room, an impressive room where we began our talk. Later he showed us his equally impressive study which doubled as a projection room, its shelves lined with reels of the films he had made.

How did he come across ‘the Group’? What aroused his interest? We were eager to hear more about how his search began.

It was probably triggered by an unhappy love affair in the early 1950s, he said. ‘And that led to what I would call the search for the self. Which is still going on…First of all, I turned towards Yoga – I read Paul Brunton’s book, a classic book about Indian yoga, and then I became interested in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.’

One day in 1956 when he was in Soho, perhaps on film business – it was a hub for the film industry at that time -Walter entered a café where an energetic discussion was taking place. As a person of keen intellect, with a friendly nature and an enquiring mind, I imagine he wasn’t shy about joining in. He hadn’t retained an exact memory of the occasion – the Group met in various coffee bars, but he thought it was probably ‘the “Nucleus” [which] was the centre of it all, the coffee bar in Monmouth Street. And someone was always in there holding forth.’

The cafes were the place where most members of ‘the Group’ first encountered ‘the Work’. They were a magnet for young people, who flocked to London seeking something different and inspiring after the war years. The open gatherings acted as a hub for anyone who might be interested in following up ideas on Kabbalah and its associated practices – primarily meditation and astrology. But it wasn’t about putting pressure on people to join; indeed, the waifs and strays who ended up in Soho were often encouraged to go back home, sometimes with a donation of cash towards food or a train ticket. The ‘Work’, as it was known, was only for those who actively wanted to pursue the aims of knowledge.

Nor was it for guru worship. At the core of the Soho gatherings were three key figures. Alan Bain was the overt leader, and the man who became Walter’s teacher. He was a former merchant seaman, and an accordion player who busked for a crust in the early days after he arrived in London. He was far from being a typical sailor, however, and his life had taken a different turn after a transformative spiritual experience. A second figure who tended to observe from the sidelines, even though he was a teacher in his own right, was former RAF Radar Fitter Glyn Davies, originally from South Wales. Glyn became my own mentor, and later initiated Kabbalah groups which evolved into the organisation known as Saros. The third key person was Tony Potter; he too later founded his own line of groups in London. The talkative one of the three, remarked Walter, was ‘mainly Potter. Potter was great at holding forth, whereas Alan was really quite reticent, a shadowy figure in the background’.


Remarkably, a film clip has survived which shows Glyn Davies, Tony Potter, and astrologer Ernest Page discussing a horoscope in a Soho café. It was filmed for the ‘Look at Life’ series. View it here.

The clip of the three astrologers meeting – Ernest Page, Glyn Davies and Tony Potter – is about 5m 45s into the video

The encounter was an eye-opener for Walter, and what he discovered there became his lifeline. He described this type of Kabbalah as ‘such a wonderful system. It’s both simple and complicated. It covers all the areas…the Tree is a terribly dense, but a relatively simple diagram. It’s not hard to understand, although you can study, and study and study …the Tree in all its aspects, the paths on it, its connections with astrology.’

Group Meetings

At this point, so as not to overburden the narrative of Walter’s story, I’ll refer you again to the ‘Soho Tree’ site we have created, which explains the various teachings that these and subsequent groups practised. It also paints a portrait of Soho life at that time, as a fascinating mix of people and ideas. But here we can track Walter’s progress into a ‘closed’ group, and how he later started to hold private group sessions himself.

These closed groups were where the real focus lay, rather than in the casual gatherings and discussions in the coffee bars.  Anyone who showed a real interest would be invited – discreetly – to a private group meeting. As Keith Barnes, another early member and life-long friend of Walter’s told me: ‘Even the existence of the group was hidden. Everything was kept very quiet, and it was very hard to find out anything.’ But then Keith was handed a piece of paper, an invitation to visit a certain address at a certain date and time. This address turned out to be Walter Lassally’s flat. (Walter was becoming successful in his film career, and able to afford a very nice flat in Holland Park.) ‘There were 20-30 people gathered there, many of whom I’d seen around the West End, plus Glyn and Alan’.

Walter had joined a little earlier than Keith, and was still a regular member on the night that Keith turned up, but a few years later he started running a group. It was common practice in this particular tradition to ‘learn and pass it on’, and to set up groups that could offer a useful starting point for beginners. During our visit, he brought down old notebooks to show us, inscribed with ‘Society of the Common Life 1962’, listing attendance of members and their subscriptions (strictly for expenses only, as no one took a fee for their teaching). Two sample pages are displayed below, which he invited us to photograph.

But it became a tricky matter to balance initiatives related to ‘the Work’ with his own professional work, and his financial affairs. One of the most difficult crises he ever had to deal with came about because of conflict of interests, as we’ll see shortly.

Clip of the famous dance sequence, in Zorba the Greek, released in 1964. Walter Lassally won an Academy Award for best cinematography.
He allowed the award to be displayed in a local taverna in Crete, close by where the filming had taken place. Unfortunately, the place burnt down in 2012, and destroyed the statue.

Meeting Kate
At some point in our talk at the Abbey, we were summoned to lunch, where we joined Kate Campbell, Walter’s partner, and Kate’s son Adam. Kate was the widow of artist Peter Campbell – they had been childhood sweethearts, according to one source – and the Abbey had been their home until Peter’s sudden death in 1989. But Walter and Kate had a relationship which stretched back to the 1960s, during decades of her marriage to Peter, and sometimes the three adults had shared a home, both in London and Suffolk. Kate was also Walter’s business partner for a number of years. There seems to have been a kind of accepted arrangement between the three of them. But even so, Kate’s and Walter’s relationship wasn’t plain sailing – both were strong-minded, and Kate was a feisty person, who did not care for Walter’s more esoteric interests. Rod Thorn and I were treated politely by Kate and Adam, but very much kept at a distance.

Kate and Walter at the National Film Theatre in the early 1960s (Credit BFI)

It’s clear that Walter was very loyal to Kate over the years, but their modus operandi allowed for a part-time relationship. Perhaps ‘the Itinerant Cameraman’ (as he entitled his autobiography) preferred the freedom to travel for work and savour life in Greece. Just after I’d finished writing this section, I watched the film ‘Before Midnight’ (2013) in which Walter actually took on an acting role, playing the part of an elderly English writer (based on Patrick Leigh Fermor) living in Greece. At the dinner table one evening with assorted writers who are staying in his house, the conversation focuses on the nature of romantic love. Patrick, aka Walter, speaks the following lines about his marriage: ‘We were never one person, always two. We preferred it that way. But at the end of the day, it’s not the love of one other person that matters, it’s the love of life.’ Were these words, even if scripted, ones which Walter had produced and which reflected his own long-term relationship with Kate Campbell? I think it’s very likely. ‘Patrick’ also proclaims the inscription at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’, which we know was one of Walter’s favourite sayings.

Kate in her study at the Abbey in her later years

The I Ching

Walter had a great passion for the ancient Chinese oracle known as the I Ching. ‘The advice that you get – I did one yesterday – is absolutely to the point. It’s unbelievably practical,’ he told us.

Although the I Ching is well-known today, it was far less so when Walter began to use it around 1960. Remarkably, Walter kept a record of nearly all of his readings, which he later turned into a book called Thirty Years with the I Ching. (He probably practised it for over fifty years, although the book stops short of recent readings for discretion’s sake.) In the event, he failed to find a publisher but left a legacy of a photographic copy on his website.

The opening to the book states: ‘Some of my questions will be seen to refer to something I call the Work. This was the general term I used to denote the ongoing process of the ‘search for the self’ referred to earlier, and which for some years I conducted as a member of the Society of the Common Life, a small group dedicated to this search.’.

Every reading that he includes in the book quotes sections of the relevant I Ching text, with his interpretations of these, both at the time and retrospectively. He uses the classic translation by Richard Wilhelm, which has an introduction by Carl Jung.

Walter’s questions centre chiefly on a trio of concerns: ‘the Work’, his professional film work, and his relationship with Kate Campbell, referred to as ‘K’. On one occasion Walter asked the I Ching whether he should try and keep Kate in the group – the answer was that it would do no good to try and force her! She attended just once or twice, and remained suspicious of it thereafter.

Some questions were less about problems than to seek a balanced view of a situation. On Sep 2nd, 1961, Walter asked a question about the Kabbalah group he was running: ‘What is the present state of the group?’ The I Ching offered two hexagrams – no. 11 Peace turning into no. 55 Abundance. These are plainly favourable situations, and Walter reflects in hindsight: ‘The period in question turned out to be one of the best periods in the life of the group; the traumas connected with the over-ambitious purchase of the lease of the house [more on this below] were by now forgotten, and the group could get on with some productive work.’

Conflict and acceptance
But there were also tricky issues that kept cropping up, and one in particular related to Walter’s teacher Alan Bain. Alan was someone that I knew quite well in later years, and I can vouch for the fact that he was not a straightforward character. Although he didn’t seek to profit personally from his teaching, he had a weakness where money was concerned. As Walter put it: ‘He lived a very easy-going life.’ He looked for just enough money to get by, and if he hadn’t got it, he’d look around for a way to get it.’

That ‘way’ was often to solicit it from those who were in funds. Walter was doing well financially, and he wanted to further the Work as best he could. With the best of intentions, he bought a lease on a building in Bath Street, near Old Street in London, to set up a bookshop, provide premises for group meetings and accommodation for both him and Alan. His record of his I Ching readings tells the story, and I’ve inserted additional comments based on what Walter told us in person.

These grainy images are the only record of the place where this ill-fated bookshop was set up.

Page 4/5:
[In March 1960] ‘I had just taken on the lease of a building in London to serve as HQ for the group, as well as to provide accommodation for myself and A.B. [Alan Bain], the leader of the group and a small bookshop.’

But Walter couldn’t be there much of the time, as he was away a great deal filming on location.

Page 7:
I had left some members of the group in charge of the bookshop I had opened before leaving for Greece, and now K. [Kate, Walter’s partner in business as well as in his personal life] brought me the news that they had proved to be less than reliable, to say the least. The whole thing was a complete disaster.

Even if ‘stole’ is too harsh a word, they certainly ‘borrowed’ and lost most of the stock.

This prompted the question:
3/6/60: Will the bookshop prosper?…the I Ching’s answer indicated that the bookshop had no future, and that immediate steps were needed to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation. K. sorted out the mess, which was considerable, when she returned to England, closing the bookshop and managing to dispose of the lease of the whole building which I had foolishly taken on.

It was plain, as Walter recounted this sorry story to us, that it had caused him much grief and stress, although he found some consolation in hindsight that the lease was sold to Eduardo Paolozzi, who became a leading sculptor and artist.

It also threw into question his relationship with his teacher, Alan Bain. Perhaps it served to make him more guarded in future dealings.

Page 12:
‘After my return home to England I was faced with a number of problems. As result of closing the bookshop and disposing of the lease, my relationship with the group, and in particular with A.B. were rather strained.

Page 13:
He concluded that the I Ching counselled him ‘to proceed gently with the group, distancing myself a little, and taking care not to repeat the weakness that had led to my pandering too much to fulfilling the material needs of the group leader.’

Alan Bain, Walter’s teacher of Kabbalah, photographed later in life.

This wasn’t the only time that Alan attempted to get money from Walter.

Page 66:
‘A.B. was once more in financial difficulties, and asked for a loan to help him move to Glastonbury.
27/3/63 Question: Should I give him a loan?
Hindsight: Here is one of several occasions when I was asked to help A.B. financially, and the advice here is – don
’t!’

Further records refer to ‘the danger of pouring it [money] down a bottomless well.’

However, Walter showed great maturity and wisdom in the way he resolved the complexities of the situation. ‘But the I Ching also speaks of loyalty, so I had to balance my loyalty to him as the leader of the group against my misgivings about his abilities as a businessman. I made a series of loans to him over the period of our association, and whilst not regretting this, I was not surprised when all his business ventures failed.’

As far as Alan’s tendency to sponge off him went, he told us: ‘To some extent I saw that, and as far as Alan was concerned, I was prepared to go along with it as the sums concerned were never anything other than minor. And I think I was getting value for money. He was telling me things I wanted to know about.’

His admiration for Alan as a teacher remained, but he was now able to accept him as a mixture of weakness as well as strength:
‘As a teacher, he was patient; there was a lot of wisdom in what he said, which was never presented as ‘a word from ‘The Man’, it was just something he thought you might like to consider. And I was always very convinced….Alan talked to people who were willing to listen. Quite a lot of them sought him out…He never advertised himself…He was a person who you would pass in the street, and you wouldn’t give him a second look in his dirty mackintosh. And yet he was a very unusual person’

A mosaic of images from his long and illustrious career

The end of the connection

Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Dear Cherry,
I have some very sad news for you. My beloved Kate died peacefully in her sleep last Tuesday and will be buried here tomorrow… I shall therefore return to Crete permanently just after Easter as there is nothing to retain me here…

It goes without saying that you are very welcome to visit me in Crete at any time and I will keep you up to date as to my whereabouts.

Tomorrow evening I will embark on a short trip to Norway, which had been planned since before Xmas. I will be back here on March 26th.

All good wishes,

Walter

We didn’t manage to see Walter again, and he died in Crete at the age of 90 in 2017. His death was reported in the papers, and various obituaries were written, such as that in The Guardian.

But none, as far as I’m aware, mention Walter’s deep and abiding interests in Kabbalah, astrology and the I Ching. I hope that this account will add this dimension for those who are interested in the life of this unusual and talented cinematographer.

Walter celebrating what was probably his only acting role in a movie – as an elderly English writer in ‘Before Midnight’. Credit Cristophe Dupin

Material Videos

Playlist for Walter Lassally life story clips (266 clips)
Although most of these are about his work in film, and specific projects, it’s easy to see from the titles which are about his life story.

Walter reads the Free Cinema Manifesto

Full free and authorised access to We are the Lambeth Boys and Every Day Except Christmas, two short documentary films produced for the Free Cinema movement, with Walter Lassally as director of photography.

A collection of video clips from a Masterclass with Walter Lassally which mentions his interest in Kabbalah and the I Ching.

Websites
An excellent selection of photos of Walter at work, from all stages of his career, published by the British Film Institute.

Photos and descriptions of The Abbey, Eye, Suffolk, where we met Walter and his partner Kate Campbell. This is a memorial site to her husband, artist Peter Campbell

A traveller gives an account of meeting Walter Lassally in Crete in 2011

Books and Articles
Itinerant cameraman by Walter Lassally (John Murray 1987), is an account of his work in cinema. (Out-of-print but sometimes available second-hand)
Uploaded articles and essays by Walter Lassally
Among these articles is access to a photographic version of Thirty Years with the I Ching by Walter Lassally. Scroll down from the article ‘Big Screens’ on the opening page to see this.

Background research
This article has been written from research done on behalf of the Saros Roots Group, which for several years has been investigating the origins of a particular teaching line of Kabbalah and how it links through to present day activities. The members of this group have all been involved in this line themselves, and as well as myself and Rod Thorn, mentioned here, they include Jack Dawson and Michael Frenda. Thanks for our collaborative efforts!

Thanks also to Byron Zeliotis, who helped us to track Walter down. Byron’s website is at https://www.meditator.org

To expand references in this post, please visit The Soho Tree, a website created by Rod Thorn and myself, with collaboration from present and former members of Saros and ‘The Soho Group’.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

A supplicant seeks the compassion of Kuan Yin

The Practice of Meditation
By the autumn of this year, 2020, I will have been practising meditation for fifty years. I began as an undergraduate, when I joined a Buddhist class to learn Samatha meditation, which focuses primarily on the breath. Later I changed to a different, Western practice which uses an inner sound as its focus. Meditation itself is subtle, but the most effective practices tend to use very simple methods to help still the mind, paying attention to breath, sound, or an image. There is no striving for effects; the aim is to bypass the ‘busy mind’. Trains of thought, rising and falling emotions, and physical sensations can be acknowledged, but are not dwelt on. We cannot stop these entirely, but we can learn to let them go, and thereby open up to a different, spacious and more inclusive form of consciousness.

The essence of meditation is the engagement and holding of a mental object, which can be a sound, image, or movement like walking. As the mind stays with this object it gradually magnetises all the mental movements, flurries of thought and feelings, associative chattering etc. towards a single vector, rather like iron filings turning in one direction. And so random thought activity tends to die down, and settle, not so much around, as near the object, which itself gets finer and finer as does the breath. The seed-object can disappear, or hover on the edge of awareness, and pure consciousness rest within itself like fine wine upon its lees.’

(Tessellations, Lucy Oliver – Matador, 2020, p.51)

In the traditions I’ve studied and encountered, regular practice is crucial, along with an experienced teacher or ‘checker’, at least in the early years, to help you stay on track. Meditation as such can’t really be learnt from books. And it also takes time. My first meditation teacher described the practice as being like a drip, drip, drip of water – a drop a day, perhaps – until the cistern eventually fills up and you have a reservoir. Regular meditation is not exciting or instantly gratifying, although it can and does bestow a sense of calm, and helps to centre one’s being. Over time, though, it becomes a core practice, which can become the quiet centre of your daily life.

I’ve written this brief overview of meditation as a prelude to introducing a more specific and defined kind of practice. This is the Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin: a combination of meditation and visualisation. I suggest though that rather than using it a core meditation practice, it’s perhaps best attempted occasionally, or for short periods. It does not need a teacher as such, and is something that might be rewarding to try, whether you’re already a regular meditator or not. As I’ll outline, it focuses on a female figure – archetype, goddess, spirit of the feminine as you will – that of Kuan Yin.

Spirit of the feminine in meditation

Meditation generally aspires to reach a level of consciousness which transcends male and female differences. But it could be argued that some practices are at least more outwardly orientated to a masculine or feminine approach. So how do you approach a more feminine form of meditation? A few years ago, I was delighted to come across a tradition of meditation which does just that, and is associated with the archetypal figure of Kuan Yin, also known as ‘the universal goddess of compassion’. Since then, I have often practised Kuan Yin Moon Meditation at times when I wish to strengthen my contact with the feminine spirit, perhaps when life has been particularly bruising. ‘She Who Hears the Cries of the World’ is a calming and helpful presence.

The temple of Kuan Yin, Georgetown, Penang

Discovering Kuan Yin
I first discovered Kuan Yin’s temples when visiting Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore on different occasions. Each one was a feast for the senses, decked in rich, red and gold colours, imbued with the heavy scent of incense, and enlivened by the constant clatter of divination sticks shaken in brass cylinders. The temple is also an oracle, and so it’s possible to ask Kuan Yin personal questions through the 100-stick divination system, each of which has its own interpretation. Here, I watched worshippers young and old, male and female, as they piled fruit and flowers on Kuan Yin’s shrines, and sought her guidance. Later, looking into the mythology of her origins, I found that she is one of the most widely prevalent forms of the divine feminine spirit, who cannot be pinned down to one religion or culture. She slips from Buddhism to Taoism and Shintoism. She has connections both with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. And, strictly speaking, she is neither a goddess, immortal spirit, nor Madonna, but embraces all these definitions. Her predominant qualities are that of mercy and benevolence.

The temple of Kuan Yin, Georgetown, Penang

Kuan Yin’s Meditation
The meditation that I share here is a traditional one, based on her long association with the moon and the ocean. (She has other attributes, but these are the most relevant here.) In her Moon form, she represents the waters of compassion, and the gentle light of healing.

This Moon Meditation can be practised without having a particular religious or cultural affiliation. The version that I use comes from the account of an old Chinese nun, who had practised it constantly during her lifetime.* Here, Kuan Yin is seen robed in white, a lady of the seas, who rises above the waves to unite sky and sea, moon and earth. This is the theme of the meditation, where she is invited to shine forth, and – if we’re lucky – bring comfort and wisdom to our hearts.

Practising Kuan Yin meditation may be particularly appropriate at certain times in our lives. For women, it may be when we long to re-connect with a tender, intimate version of the feminine spirit. For men, the practice of opening the heart via the feminine spirit can help to awaken subtle emotions. For both, the practice can be consoling in times of need. And beyond the personal level, the aim of this meditation is to help generate compassion for the good of all our fellow human beings.

A blanc-de-chine porcelain statue of Kuan Yin, in my possession, which has been made in the same way, and in the same location in China, for several hundred years. There is a water reservoir inside, so the figure of the goddess can pour little drops of water from her flask into the lotus pool below.

The Practice

Here is how I’ve formulated this ancient practice, and taught it to others in accordance with modern needs:

The meditation can be practised for between ten minutes and half an hour, but I suggest you aim for something shorter to begin with. It’s suitable for practising either within a group, with someone who can lead it from stage to stage, or else as a personal contemplation, where you go at your own pace. It’s necessary to conduct it in a quiet place, which is likely to be in a room indoors, although the traditional instructions suggest it can also be done on a hilltop, or under an open sky. Do everything gently: no forcing, just allowing. You are activating this sequence, and envisaging images as needed, but in a spirit of gentle calmness.

To begin:

Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and let your mind go still. Release any thoughts or images, and gradually glide into neutral. Relax the breathing, until it finds a natural, unhurried level.

Now let your internal gaze rest on an empty expanse, as if on a dark, empty sky, or as if you are looking into darkness before your eyes adjust to what is there. This might sound difficult, but is quite easy in practice, and you only need to hold this for a few seconds. 

Then, something comes into view. You can now see the sea in front of you, and you witness the moon rising above in the night sky. The moon bathes the sea with a soft brightness, rippling with little silver-topped waves. Allow yourself to gaze now at the moon, and to feel calm and happy. Give this a few minutes to develop.

Then observe how the moon is getting smaller, but brighter. It becomes so bright and so small that it reduces to a dazzling pinprick of light, a radiant tiny pearl in the night sky. Then this seed of light begins to grow, and, as it does so, it becomes the figure of Kuan Yin herself. She stands tall against the sky, robed in gleaming white. Around her head is a halo of light. Her feet float on the crest of the waves.

Kuan Yin smiles, and you feel her affection, love and compassion. Allow yourself to rest in her presence. You can allow emotions to arise and fade away again, like the lapping of the water. Let the meditation take its course: Kuan Yin may stay with you for a long time, or just for a brief spell. As she leaves, your image of her gets smaller and smaller until she vanishes, along with the sea and the sky. All that is left is space. Relish this space; become a part of it, and know that you are not separate from it.

As with all meditation practices, it’s advisable to make a definite ending, but to do so calmly and slowly. Now return gently to sensing your body; observe your posture, and allow sensation in your limbs. Then open your eyes, and collect yourself, body and mind. If it seems appropriate, offer thanks for the experience.

*The original description of this meditation is contained in Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, John Blofeld  (p.124 in my edition).

You may come across Kuan Yin figures in unexpected places. This one sits on a resplendent mantlepiece in Saltram House, a National Trust stately home.

Other References
The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion, by Stephen Karcher
Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho
The Meditator’s Guidebook: Pathways to Greater Awareness & Creativity, by Lucy Oliver; see also her website ‘Meaning by Design’

Samatha meditation classes can be accessed through https://www.samatha.org/

Related Books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within, by Cherry Gilchrist is published by Weiser Books. See also http://www.circleofnine.org

Related Blogs by Cherry Gilchrist

Articles I’ve posted on the Oracle of Kuan Yin elsewhere, in my previous blog, can be found at:
‘The Oracle of Kuan Yin’ and ‘The Kuan Yin Oracle’

Alchemy and Cooking

Having acquired White Lead, do the work of women, that is: COOK

An emblem from Michael Maier’s book ‘Atlanta Fugiens‘, 1617. The reference to cooking being ‘women’s work’ should probably be taken symbolically – however, women did play a strong role historically in alchemy.

‘Do you cook supper sometimes? If so, you’re an alchemist.’ This usually produces a response of surprised delight, when I open a talk on alchemy this way. Many people are drawn to old alchemical imagery, as the psychologist Carl Jung pointed out, but the process and practice of alchemy through history can seem very obscure and mysterious. The aim of my first book on alchemy, Alchemy: The Great Work was to clarify its history and significance, and it has been in print now in one form or another for over thirty years.  My second book Everyday Alchemy took a different approach and asked the question:  how we can ‘make gold’ in our own lives? For this, I took a sequence of alchemical emblems from Michael Maier’s book Atlanta Fugiens, published in 1617, and suggested ways in which we can use alchemical knowledge to enrich and transform our personal experience. Cookery turned out to be a very useful way of doing this!

Like alchemy, it is both art and science – it requires attention and ingenuity, as well as knowledge and skill. Cookery is magical, creative and indeed unpredictable process as it endeavours to turn raw ingredients into an appealing and attractive finished dish. Who, after all, hasn’t lamented a culinary failure, or rejoiced over a stylish and delicious success?

So what I’ll do here is to weave some pictures into edited extracts from the book, along with an easy and delicious recipe to finish. In the current days of lockdown in Britain, many more people have turned to baking. It’s comforting and creative, and although there’s a shortage of some ingredients, you may often find that you have what you need in the cupboard if you pick a recipe that’s not too complex.

Cherry in the kitchen – the apron gives a fair idea of some favourite dishes!
An alchemist’s ‘kitchen’ at Prague Castle

From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy

Cooking – Is it really Alchemy?

Strangely enough, cooking is a very good way to appreciate how alchemy works. It is one of the best examples of transformation that we have in everyday life. But it is not just a mechanical process – remember that no alchemy is complete without conscious participation. We need to give it attention, even when the work is repetitive. This way, the transformation can proceed at every level, not just in the saucepan.

But what is transformation itself? The word comes up again and again in alchemy, so I need to take a deep breath and try to penetrate its meaning. Here is an example; it is simple, and comes from the humble kitchen, but it is true alchemy.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make some bramble jelly. It was late summer, and the days were sunny and mellow. There is a patch of wild blackberries just over my garden wall, and I picked and ate them practically every day, often just stewing them up with apples. Then I wanted to do something different, to keep the flavour of summer berries in my store cupboard through the cold months of winter ahead. I followed the recipe by cooking the blackberries in water, then straining them overnight through a canvas jelly bag. The slow drip resulted in a litre or so of a clear, dark liquid, to which I added sugar and then boiled it up. The temperature of the heat is crucial; first it must be gentle, to dissolve the sugar without burning it, and then brought up so that it is high enough to reach the ‘setting point’, the temperature at which the jelly will set. Some jellies and jams will be ready in a few minutes, while others take up to three quarters of an hour. Recipes are only a guide: the cook must be very watchful, because it’s impossible to predict exactly how long it will take.

Quince jelly, made with fruit from our garden. The jelly is being left to set before sealing the jars

You must also pour it into warmed glass jars before it sets completely. If the jars are not warmed, they may crack. If the jelly is taken off the stove too soon, you’ll have a runny mixture, and if you leave it too long it will become too rubbery and the flavour will alter. Fortunately, in my case the result was a translucent jelly, of a beautiful dark ruby colour.  The pots stand in my cupboard; the berry has been transformed into a new substance, but the jelly nevertheless retains the beauty of the blackberry, and the delicacy and tang of its taste. And this jelly can be kept for months, unlike the berry that rots so quickly on the bush.

Bramble jelly became my triumph of domestic alchemy, the ‘gold’ achieved from three simple ingredients – berries, water and sugar – and transformed through the agency of fire. The jelly contains the essence of blackberry. The berry has lost its original form, but through this sacrifice, its essence is released and is embodied in a new and purer form. In alchemy, the death of the ‘body’ must occur, which then liberates the soul and spirit; these in turn find a home in a new ‘glorified’ body.

It is extraordinary to think that the humble blackberry and jelly making can be seen in such mystical terms, but true transformation has taken place. Transformation is a change of state, a process by which the whole person or substance is changed.

A modern version of ‘cooking the trout’ mentioned in the emblem above – although such instructions were usually deeply symbolic, rather than literal. In fact I think this was a sea bream we were about to eat here.

True cookery is a creative process. Cooking transforms the ingredients, whereas food fixing, or assembling, on the other hand, simply combines them into – let’s say – a tuna mayo sandwich, or a prettily presented raw salad. With cooking, there is always an element of risk that something will go wrong – the mayonnaise will curdle or the cake sag. Science may say that results can be replicated if you start with exactly the same ingredients and work in exactly the same conditions. But when is this ever possible? Who can fully predict the final taste of wine that is being made? The variables, such as the weather conditions, the state of the soil and so on, can be assessed to some extent. But perhaps there is more to it than that. After all, no one grape is ever exactly the same as any other grape. No two people are identical. The very fact of existing at a different meeting point of time and space creates differences between people, plants, or raw materials. And this is not perceived as a simple causal effect, but is tied into the alchemical view that the cosmos itself has a conscious life.

 ‘This whole Cosmos…is full of Life. And there is nothing therein, through all Eternity, neither of the whole nor of its parts, which doth not live. For not a single thing that is, or has been, or shall be in this Cosmos, is dead.’

The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus

( From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy)

A home-made loaf – bread is surely one of the greatest examples of how raw ingredients are transformed through cookery.

So, get to it, and enjoy your cooking forays! Here is an easy and super-delicious recipe from the Queen of Baking, Mary Berry, along with some notes I’ve made when cooking this. It’s comforting and simple. Remember – cooking is flexible and even though we might need to start off with exact recipes, there’s often scope for improvising. Bara Brith is a kind of Welsh tea-bread. But there are many versions of this recipe across the British Isles– in Ireland it’s known as Barm Brack. Bringing this even closer to alchemy, you might like to try an Irish Halloween Barm Brack, ‘complete with ring for love and a coin for wealth’. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/recipes/the-perfect-traditional-irish-barmbrack-1.2842588.The essential part of the process for all these recipes seems to be soaking the dried fruit in tea for a few hours beforehand, or overnight. But the Irish twist in this recipe is to add a drop or two of whisky!

Here’s our Bara Brith, made according to the recipe below. I’m afraid it’s being eaten up rather quickly!

From ‘Mary Berry’s Baking Bible’

With notes by Cherry Gilchrist

Bara Brith (Speckled bread)

175g (6 oz) currants

175 g (6 oz) sultanas (Fruit could be varied – cranberries and raisins should work too)

225 g (8 oz) light muscovado sugar (Dark should be fine)

300 ml ( ½ pt) strong hot tea

275 g (10oz) self-raising flour (or add baking powder – soda in the USA – if you only have plain flour. I calculate this at scant 2 tsp)

1 large egg, beaten

(Option to add a little spice – eg 1 tsp mixed spice, or 2 tsp cinnamon and/or a little powdered ginger)

  1. Measure the fruit and sugar into a bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight. (If you make a big enough pot, this will give you an excuse to sit down with a strong cuppa afterwards.)
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C/ Fan 130C. Lightly grease a 900 g (2lb) loaf tin then line the base with baking parchment
  3. Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, then turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.
  4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 1 ½ hours or until well risen and firm to the touch. (Don’t skimp on the timing. It will be moist whatever you do, just about, but if it comes out too early it may be ‘sad’ and a little heavy in the middle). A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack. Serve sliced and buttered.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:

Alchemy: The Great Work (also published as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy) This is a concise and accessible history of alchemy, and explains how alchemists attempted the process of transforming base matter into gold.

Everyday Alchemy (also published as The Alchemist’s Path) is a personal guide to using the process of alchemical change in everyday life. It is currently out of print, but used copies are normally available from internet sellers like Amazon or Abe Books. We hope to organise a reprint and/or e-book edition in due course.