What Is Alchemy, Part Two: The Hermetic Code (by James Lynn Page)

What Is Alchemy, Part Two: The Hermetic Code  (by James Lynn Page)
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The works of the Mythographers and inspired poets are permeated with the … language of Ancient Mystic Theosophy. Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, Virgil, Ovid, teach us mystic myths. Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritos, Heraclitos, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Proclus, Plotinus, and many more, teach a veiled Theosophy.’¹

In a previous post on this site I began by questioning whether or not there was anything ‘in’ Alchemy at all, whether all of the florid symbolism actually amounted to anything. Commentators like the eminent psychologist Carl Gustav Jung couldn’t believe that the immense outpouring of Hermetic writings (especially in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe) and its elaborate symbolism was due to ‘whim or play of fancy’ Let us investigate further, as I introduce the Hermetic Code. Within Alchemy’s rich tradition of allegorical representation, one of its most persistent and obvious is that of the Threefold colour scheme: black, white and red. At the risk of oversimplification, these three colours represent different spiritual stages at which humans find themselves – ordinary or base; approaching enlightenment (though with imperfect knowledge) and, finally, the full glow of wisdom and initiation. (Of course, red – a lucky colour in Chinese culture – also symbolises the spirit, the Life force, due to its being the colour of blood).

Tied into the Hermetic Code is a parallel symbolism of seven metals (representing the original seven planets) of which lead (Saturn), silver (the moon) and gold (the sun) correspond to black, white and red. In this post I am going to focus mainly on the earliest of these stages, the nigredo, the blackening – our unregenerate dark side, to put it simply. First, let’s see the Hermetic Code in action in one of the world’s better known legendary books, Revelation from the New Testament. (Far from being a purely Christian document the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of Saint John, it borrows heavily from esoteric paganism with its symbols of spiritual renewal.)

In chapter six of the Book of Revelation, we find the Four Horses of the Apocalypse, bringing death by sword, famine, plague or beast as they usher in the Day of Judgement. Each are assigned a colour: black, pale yellow, white, red as they represent the Four Greek elements of earth (black), air (yellow), water (white) and fire (red). black, white, yellow and red. This fourfold scheme belonged to an earlier strand of Alchemy, one predating the birth of Christ, which as Carl Jung once explained ‘was called … the quartering of the philosophy. Later, about the 15th or 16th century, the colours were reduced to three and the xanthosis [yellowing] fell into disuse.’²  First mentioned by neo-Pythagorean writer Bolos of Mendes (c.300-250 B.C.) the four colours symbolise the journey from the darkness of human ignorance to the reddish ‘sunlight’ of illumination. But before this latter stage can occur, the ‘death’ of the old self must first take place. In Revelation, it is imaged as a ‘cosmic passion’ amidst a medley of devastation: the earth consumed with fire, hail, blood and smoke. But this process occurs on an inner level, and in Alchemy was called calcinatio (burning).

Thus, spiritual regeneration is preceded by one’s ‘raw self’, the dark, ignorant dross, being ‘burned’ up and consumed. These ideas are even present in the Old Testament: in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar has three men thrown into a furnace who boast that their God will save them. The King casts them into the flames and looks on amazed as they remain unscathed. Then, he sees a fourth man ‘whose aspect is like a son of the gods’. This depicts the ‘release’ of the Spirit from the old, dead ‘matter’ that conceals it – but it has to be done with fire. The second major stage was solutio, the ‘whitening’ where the soul is washed clean. This also entails a realisation of our lowly nature, a kind of self-disgust at one’s own inferiority. This insight was also known as ‘bitter water’, hence, Revelation says that ‘a third part of the waters became wormwood, and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.’ All of this is metaphor, of course, for the arduous journey of the soul as it undergoes purification. The ‘men who died’ are initiates into something akin to the Mystery religions (essentially, death-rebirth rituals once popular in Ancient Greece) after which arrives a state of purification. This is symbolised in Revelation’s promise that ‘to him that overcometh … I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it.’

The final alchemical stage is rubedo, or ‘reddening’, traditionally denoted by the colour gold. Thus, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, a splendid golden city requiring no sunlight, because divine ‘light’ (enlightenment) has at last been realised within. The New Jerusalem image is based on the mythical Solomon’s Temple from the Old Testament, with its interior of pure gold, and which was raised in an impossible fashion, since ‘there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building.’ This is more metaphor for an inner reality – something ‘built’ without noise can happen only in the soul and the ‘construct’ is spiritual, not material. It is one’s ‘new’ Self – the process ends as the golden city appears, its crystal walls enclosing golden streets. And so behind its apocalyptic facade, the Book of Revelation symbolises the Initiate’s struggle towards spiritual perfection and rebirth.³

 

THE HERMETIC CODE AND THE NIGREDO – THE ‘LOWER SELF’

And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Hermetic Code can be described as a set of common symbols and literary devices that have been used throughout history in order to denote an alchemical work, to draw attention to its magical and esoteric nature. The code would find its way into the texts of ancient philosophers, encyclopaedists, historians, and biographers whose works have too often been taken at face value. (Thinkers like Plato, Josephus and the elder Pliny.) Then there are the manifold religious books (whether pagan or Christian, orthodox or heterodox) and any number of Myths, Fable, and – later on – Fairy Tales that have graced our literary heritage. The nigredo phase, the death of ‘the lower self’, has been allegorised throughout such stories, and as the Countess of Caithness said of their fabricators,

‘they all use a special Occult mode of expression, and both Poets and Philosophers seem to have an agreed method of mystic and allegorical Hermeticism for those higher truths, which were ever beyond the grasp of the unphilosophic and untrained minds of the multitude’.4

Before we look at Myth and the symbols used by the ancients for the ‘lower mind’ – let’s ask: what do we mean by ‘lower mind’? Well, our ordinary five senses do little more than help us access information from the environment. The ego, as it builds its structure of material pre-occupations, is our usual navigator through daily life, and this is ironic, as it possesses only limited awareness. Plus, in our everyday lives we become habituated to ‘rational’ experience as a way of cutting through potential chaos and uncertainty. We want to be in control – but often find we cannot be. We begin to question things, and get no answer. Thus does doubt and scepticism creep in, a defence mechanism. If you think about it, it is hard to sense much of the Spirit in our everyday lives of worldly responsibilities, the need for money and a sense that we’re not getting any younger. There’s just no logic to all this spiritual stuff! However, the bodily vehicle we inhabit from birth and our narrow ego consciousness (with its incessant thoughts and distractions) is in fact the inferior part of us. Even our much valued intellect, where we allow ourselves to be oh-so clever, is likewise an inferior, ‘lower’ aspect of humanity.

Many people believe the material level of existence is all there is to life. The Alchemist knows better – that there is a more sublime reality, that there are higher states of awareness available to us, of which the everyday ‘lower’ mind can barely conceive. The ego is a barrier to this spiritual dimension. To move beyond this ordinary physical plane, something must give, however – something must ‘die’ and be transformed – the conscious ego itself. As stated, humans crave being in control. But with any spiritual discipline we need to lose control. We need to ‘die’ to the so called real world. Only when the lower mind has undergone ‘death’, when its perpetual chatter and opinions (the almost unignorable ‘internal dialogue’) has been silenced, can this happen. When its petty doubts, spite, vanity and greed are at last demolished and its blindness cured, only then can the Spirit break through and take its rightful place. All of these baneful things are encapsulated in the nigredo stage of Alchemy– and when you think about it, many of us are still stuck there.

The lower mind in the Secret Teachings of was symbolised by ugliness, stupidity, a distorted physicality, an ogre or a monster. As we have seen, it might be represented by the colour black, or personified by some evil or malignant entity (either god or mortal) – Seth, Loki, the Gorgon, the gospel Judas or Herod, the Dragon of Revelation, in fact, any number of ‘villains’, wicked stepmothers or disgruntled gods or goddesses whose job it is to thwart the hero. The ignorant and immature ego is also portrayed as an animal, an ass, say, or a pig or a dog. In Greek myth, the hellhound Cerberus is subdued by Heracles in the Underworld; in the Norse tales, during the twilight of the gods, the wolf Fenris will be destroyed by the almighty Vithar. In an allegory related by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the only way in which a precious, glowing plant (spiritual power) can be uprooted is by way of a dog tied to it. The dog then dies as it tries to follow its master who is walking away. These symbols are usually carefully selected, too; the nature of the animal itself is suggestive of the conscious ego – dogs are noisy creatures, just like the ‘noise’ of the conscious mind that must be muted in order to commune with the inner self. The Dog in Babylonian culture was even seen as something to be feared. In one prayer we find: “From the dog … the scorpion, the reptile, and whatever is baleful . . . may Merodach preserve us.”

Also, asses or donkeys are – so it is said – stupid and stubborn and such animals are oft considered ‘lowly’ and servile. Plus, pigs are said to wallow in their own filth, just as the egoistic lower mind likes to wallow in its own vanities and fantasies of self-importance. In the wanderings of Odysseus the crew are turned into pigs. In Heracles third Labour, he must bring back alive the Erymanthian boar which lived on Mount Lampeia in Arcadia. The arduous process from lowly animal state to spiritual perfection is also allegorised in The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius (A.D. 125-190) whose hero spends most of the story in animal form before finally he is restored to humanity. In brief, The Golden Ass depicts the journey from lowly animal state to Initiate. Late in the story Lucius witnesses a procession of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the Underworld when men and women sweep by in a pageant bearing all manner of symbolic objects; men with grotesque creatures, women shouldering mirrors, others acting as bearers of light. ‘I seemed to see the whole figure of her body, mounting out of the sea and standing before mee … her vestiment was of fine silke yielding various colours, sometime yellow, sometime rosie, sometime flamy, and sometime … darke and obscure.’ Here then are those four alchemical colours again, slightly modified: yellow, pink, red and black.

In Celtic Myth this theme of the sacrifice, or untimely death leading to transformation into lofty spirit, is seen in the beautiful and gifted bard Taliesin, whose former existence was as a stupid apprentice called Gwion Bach. He was eaten by a black hen after being turned into a grain of corn (which is golden, right?) and emerged reborn in another form nine months later. From the Greek tales we have the elderly Jason crushed to death by the rotting hulk of his own ship, and the musician Orpheus torn to pieces by the devotees of the god Dionysus, who himself had been dismembered by the Titans, but reborn. There is Osiris who becomes a victim of conspiracy: ‘Set, who regarded with jealous eyes the good works of his brother, for his heart was full of evil and he loved warfare better than peace.’ Plus, Quetzalcoatl from Aztec myth perishes after immolating himself after too much alcohol, whilst the Phrygian Attis castrates himself beneath a pine tree and bleeds to death. Jesus, famously is crucified atop a hill in Jerusalem whilst the Sumerian Goddess Innana ‘was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.’

All of the preceding are elaborations on the nigredo state, yet in the midst of Death there is always rebirth. In other words, Death is not the end, it is merely a fact of our spiritual existence, a part of Life itself. As scholar Robert M. Price succinctly puts it, ‘rebirth can never come without death.’ As Nancy Howard put it

‘the [mythic] hero’s descent into death, which represents the final casting off of an old and outmoded existence, is not the end of the quest, but a prelude to its final stage. Once the hero secures the treasure, he must still return with it. The fictional characters who successfully complete the journey are never the same people they were when they first started out; the treasure they have sought and found is precisely the transformation of lives that have been too constricted or of selves they have outgrown.’5

As Ananda Coomaraswamy put it, ‘no creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.’ Just as Death is at work in our bodies even as we live (our cells die off and are being replaced all of the time), so is it at work in our soul – our spirit is forever striving towards the light and our ‘old self’ must – in the process – die away, like some moribund husk or skin. This psychological process can easily be felt at critical points in our lives where we realise we can no longer continue in the old way, something (a relationship, a job, even a personal viewpoint) must surrender to something new. But just what is it that has changed? Not the external situation, the person or job we have left, but something deep within ourselves. Something we may even be at a loss to explain. What has really occurred is a type of spiritual growth – our understanding of Life has expanded (or our world has become more confined) and we want more. Again, we might not even know what we do want more of! Only that we have changed. We demand to be reborn. And we should.

Let’s finish this part with one of the most and poetic images of the nigredo, and the necessity of total ‘death’. It comes from the Father of Western Alchemy, Greek adept, Zosimos of Panopolis (c. A.D. 300) who conveys a vision of a priest willingly undergoing sacrifice. With its references to the body’s ‘coarseness’ and the mashing of flesh and bones being consumed in ‘the fire of the treatment’, these are all dramatic images of the ‘lower mind’ being ‘purified’, as it sacrifices itself to higher forces. (It’s quite powerful stuff!):

‘And saying these things, I slept, and I saw a certain sacrificing priest standing before me and over and altar which had the form of a bowl. And that altar had fifteen steps going up to it. Then the priest stood up and I heard from above a voice say to me, “I have completed the descent of the fifteen steps and the ascent of the steps of light. And it is the sacrificing priest who renews me, casting off the body’s coarseness, and, consecrated by necessity, I have become a spirit.” And when I had heard the voice of him who stood in the altar formed like a bowl, I questioned him, desiring to understand who he was: “I am Ion, Priest of the Adytum, and I have borne an intolerable force. For someone came at me headlong in the morning and dismembered me with a sword and tore me apart … And, having cut my head off with the sword, he mashed my flesh with my bones and burned them in the fire of the treatment, until, my body transformed, I should learn to become a spirit.’

Part three in this series will be along soon – when we look other myths that contain the Hermetic Code, in particular Fairy Tales and the motif of Alchemical Gold – the longed for final stage in Alchemy. This is symbolised by Red in the Threefold colour scheme (even Isaac Newton used it in his personal correspondence!).

1. Marie, Countess Of Caithness, Duchesse De Pomar, The Secret Doctrine Of All Religions (3rd edition.), London, C. L. H. Wallace, Philanthropic Reform Publisher, Oxford Mansion, W. 1887.

2. Psychology and Alchemy, Coll. works vol 12. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

3. Excerpted from The Christ Enigma: The Jesus Myth and the Gospel Code, James Lynn Page, 2012

4. Caithness, op cit.

5. Nancy Howard, ‘The Quest Motif in Literature’ (Supplemental handout for English 215, Fantasy Fiction, Fall 2010).

(N.B. Biblical quotes are from the RV of 1881.)

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What Is Alchemy, Part Two: The Hermetic Code  (by James Lynn Page)
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What Is Alchemy, Part Two: The Hermetic Code (by James Lynn Page)
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In this second part to the 'What Is Alchemy' series, James Lynn Page looks at the Hermetic Code and its Threefold Colour Scheme - what might it symbolise?
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