Tag Archives: alchemy

Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

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Spring Equinox: Ostara and Temperance

Today is the Spring Equinox, symbolic of balance and rebirth, themes that seem even more important as we grapple with the rapid changes that COVID-19 is bringing to our world. Anyway, after my morning meditation and journal writing, I read a short essay entitled “Ostara and Temperance” published in Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook 2020, and figured I would share part of it in today’s post.

At Ostara, the Goddess returns from the underworld, bringing with her a celebration of miracles, spring, new life, and balance. The Temperance tarot card beautifully represents these themes. Birth is considered a kind of miracle, a mixing of life and death (for the minute anything is born, it begins to die) that creates our experience on this planet. The angel in Temperance holds two cups, their liquid blending at a scientifically impossible angle, representing an alchemical mystery. Although equinoxes represent balance, and at this time life and light are becoming stronger than death and darkness, each equinox contains the seed of its opposite. Like an eggshell—which is strong enough to protect new life but at the right moment is weak enough to be broken through—something is destroyed and the old existence of the newly born creature dies.

(Barbara Moore)

For me, it is evident that our old way of life has cracked like a fragile eggshell, and is dying to make way for something new. It is a scary time, because all birth and all things new are scary. None of us can envision what our new world will look like. But clearly, our consumer-driven capitalist society is the thing that is actually dying right now as a result of this virus. That said, we all have a role in manifesting what will rise from these ashes. It is crucial that we nurture the new growth, and not let fear and self-centeredness dictate our actions in the coming days.

Have a blessed Equinox, and may you be a conscious participant in the change to come.

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Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“Paracelsus: Selected Writings”

Reading metaphysical texts from the Renaissance period is challenging, and the challenge is often compounded when the text is alchemical and symbolic in nature. For this reason, I approached this text with a little trepidation. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it much more accessible than I had expected.

In order to better understand the text, some basic biographical information may be helpful.

Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the German Renaissance.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the “medical revolution” of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is credited as the “father of toxicology”.

He also had a substantial impact as a prophet or diviner, his “Prognostications” being studied by Rosicrucians in the 1700s. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I won’t spend a whole lot of time discussing Paracelsus’ medical writings from this book. But I will mention that he seemed to practice a form of holistic healing, treating the body and the spirit at the same time to promote optimal results. This is an idea which I personally embrace. I think spiritual and emotional unease manifests in physical ailment, and vice versa. Anyway, that is all I want to say regarding the medical aspects of this text.

The alchemical selections in this book I found fascinating. Paracelsus explains alchemy as the symbolic purification of the human soul.

Man must bring everything to perfection. This work of bringing things to their perfection is called “alchemy.” And he is an alchemist who carries what nature grows for the use of man to its destined end.

(pp. 92 – 3)

For the Great Physician created the ore but did not carry it to its perfect state; He has charged the miners with the task of refining it. In the same way He enjoined the physician to purify man’s body . . . from which purification man emerges as indestructible as gold.

(p. 94)

Paracelsus believed that the next phase of human evolution would include an embrace of the mystical arts. He saw the next generation of humanity as one that would embrace spirituality and turn away from worldly trappings.

Know that man makes great discoveries concerning future and hidden things, which are despised and scoffed at by the ignorant who do not realize what nature can accomplish by virtue of her spirit . . . Thus, the uncertain arts are in such a state that a new generation must come, full of prophetic and sibylline spirit, which will awaken and direct the skills and arts.

(p. 132 – 3)

He then goes on to assert that God’s power is hidden within nature, and that it is in nature where humans must search for divine power.

For God has given His power to the herbs, put it in stones, concealed it in seeds; we should take it from them, we should seek it in them. The angels possess wisdom in themselves, but man does not. For him wisdom lies in nature, in nature he must seek it. His harvest is stored up in nature. Through nature God’s power is revealed to man, through nature he enters into his Father’s heritage, in wisdom and in the arts.

(p. 164)

Finally, in the era of Twitter and social media, where people are wont to write whatever they want with little or no thought, Paracelsus reminds us of the divine power of the written word.

The Scripture says: the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life . . . That is to say, the spirit which bears nothing but the truth in itself. If a man adheres solely to the truth in his writings, it is not mere letters that he writes; it is the spirit that he sets down in its truth, the spirit that is invisible in itself and that must come to us through the written or spoken word . . . But if a man does not write the truth, he writes lies; and the letter that is a lie kills. Therefore let any desirous of writing be careful to keep always to the truth, that he may kill no one. For to kill is forbidden under the penalty of forfeiting eternal life.

(pp. 165 – 6)

I realize that this book is not for everyone. But if you are interested in the metaphysical, it is worth reading. You can certainly see the influence Paracelsus had on later thinkers in the area of mysticism.

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Neil Gaiman’s “Miracleman” Issue #6

Miracleman_06

This issue concludes the Golden Age. The first issue of the Silver Age arc was supposed to have been released this month, but I heard from my friend at the comic store that it has been delayed and no word on when it will be out. Alas…

Anyway, this issue, like the others, is very surreal and leaves you with a heavy feeling, oscillating between hope and despair. At the end, people take hold of balloons and float up to the heaven, a symbol of transcendence and separation of the soul. The words are exquisite and worth including here.

I drift upwards, perfectly, unspeakably happy. I see the city, spread out below me like a child’s toy; its streets and lanes thronged with more people than I have ever imagined. And one by one they rise to join me. Magical, glittering children fly among us, laughing and darting like will-o’-the-wisps. I weigh nothing. It’s like a dream; a dream of love and perfection. Some of us call out to each other, happy, near wordless cries of good fellowship and joy. I watch the sun setting in slow flame, painting the low summer clouds with light. I watch it; a huge orange balloon that seems to fill half the sky. It commences to sink below the horizon; and as it does, its last rays catch the stray clouds, silver and mauve and grey; transmute them into ruby and amethyst and gold. Purest, most perfect, eternal gold.

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“Science, Technology, and Magic” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

I have to admit that this essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, was not what I expected from the title. I expected an analysis on the similarities between the three, but actually it is an exploration of science is different than technology and magic, which Eco asserts are similar in nature. Honestly, I always considered magic and science to be more alike.

Eco begins his argument by pointing out that technology is not the same as science, but is merely a product of science.

Science is different. The mass media confuse with technology and transmit this confusion to their users, who think that everything scientific is technological, effectively unaware of the dimension proper to science, I mean to say that science of which technology is an application and a consequence but not the primary substance.

Technology gives you everything instantly; science proceeds slowly.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 105)

This is where Eco argues that technology and magic are similar—both appeal to the human desire to have fast results. Essentially, he claims that technology and magic both promise instant gratification without having to go through the work required by rigorous adherence to the scientific method.

Magic is indifferent to the long chain of causes and effects, and above all does not trouble itself to establish by experiment that there is a replicable relation between a cause and its effect. Hence its appeal, from primitive cultures to the Renaissance to the myriad occult sects to be found all over the Internet.

Faith and hope in magic did not by any means fade away with the advent of experimental science. The desire for simultaneity between cause and effect was transferred to technology, which looks like the natural daughter of science. How much effort did it take to go from the first computers in the Pentagon, or from Olivetti’s Elea, which was the size of a whole room (and they say it took the Olivetti programming team months to configure that mammoth machine to emit the notes of Colonel Bogey, a feat they were enormously proud of), to our modern PCs in which everything occurs in a split second? Technology does everything possible so that we lose sight of the chain of cause and effect.

(ibid: p. 106)

While I understand Eco’s argument, and see his logic, I am not sure I am in complete agreement. Based upon what I have read regarding ceremonial magic and alchemy, there is a definite cause and effect relationship. In fact, Aleister Crowley defines magic as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” I would have to argue that magic is closer to science, that it is a process of experimentation, careful taking of notes, and then replicating the process in order to see if the results are consistent.

Our culture has a tendency, it seems to me anyway, to look for the differences in things instead of searching for similarities. Everything in our universe is connected in some manner. Maybe if we focused more on the connections instead of the divergences, we might advance to the next level of humanity.

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“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking

BriefHistoryTime

This book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I had high expectations for a couple reasons. First off, I am fascinated by theoretical physics. Wormholes, black holes, quantum mechanics, string theory, all that stuff I find intriguing. But more importantly, as a technical writer, I am very interested in how other writers of scientific and technical information are able to present complex ideas in a manner that is digestible for the lay person. From this perspective, Hawking excels in communicating deep and complicated ideas in a clear and concise manner that we commoners can grasp.

There is a lot of deep information and I could not do the book justice by trying to summarize it. So instead, I will cite a few quotes that sparked some thoughts and questions for me. The first one concerns event horizons associated with black holes.

The event horizon, the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape, acts as a one-way membrane around the black hole: objects, such as unwary astronauts, can fall through the event horizon into the black hole, but nothing can ever get out of the black hole through the event horizon. (Remember that the event horizon is the path in space-time of light that is trying to escape from the black hole, and nothing can travel faster than light.) One could say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Anything or anyone who falls through the event horizon will soon reach the region of infinite density and the end of time.

(p. 92)

So I can accept that our physical bodies cannot surpass the speed of light, but what about consciousness? I could not help but wonder whether consciousness is the one thing that can travel faster than light. If so, is it possible for humans at some point in our future evolution to develop the ability to project our consciousness into a black hole and return back through the event horizon? I think these are valid questions. It has already been proven that consciousness affects quantum particles on a subatomic level. I feel that it is possible for humans to use consciousness to explore regions of time and space which are currently beyond our physical grasp.

Another passage that stood out for me was a question regarding whether the universe was created via the big bang or whether it is eternal and has always existed. As Hawking points out, the answer to this question has profound impact on religious ideology, but not in the way I would have expected.

With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

(p. 146)

When I first read this, it seemed completely opposite to what I conceived. I would have thought that the big bang theory would be contradictory to the concept of God as creator of the universe. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense what Hawking asserts. If the universe it eternal and infinite and has no beginning or end, then how could a divine entity create the universe? How does consciousness come into play regarding the creation of the universe? Again, challenging questions for me to contemplate.

Finally, I would like to cite Hawking’s closing paragraph regarding the elusive unified theory of physics.

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

(p. 191)

Understanding existence is in my opinion the proverbial Holy Grail. Who has not asked the questions: Why are we here? How was the universe created? Are there parallel dimensions? Can we travel through time? It is possible that one day physicists will find answers to these questions. I for one believe that when these answers are discovered, that humanity will see a bridge between science and mysticism, the likes of which we have not seen since the days of alchemy. I don’t expect to be around for that, but I would like to think that I will have participated in the global conversation.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading, thinking, and exploring!

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