Tag Archives: alchemy

“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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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IV – The Red-Haired King and his Lady

Proteus

In this episode, Telemachus and Pisistratus go to Sparta and meet with Menelaus and Helen to inquire about the fate of Odysseus. Over dinner, the king and queen share stories of Odysseus’ feats at Troy, and Menelaus recounts how he made it back after the war. Also in this book, the suitors discover that Telemachus has left Ithaca and they plot to murder him upon his return. Mendon overhears the plans and informs Penelope who grieves that she may lose her son as well as her husband. She prays to Athena, and Athena sends a phantom to let Penelope know that Telemachus will be protected by the goddess.

There is a lot that takes place in this book and it would be easy to write a long post analyzing all the various tales and symbolism, but instead I will focus on one small section that I found to be the most interesting, which was Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus.

Menelaus tells how he was stranded in Egypt and could not figure out how to please the gods and gain favorable passage to leave the region. Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea, takes pity on him and agrees to help Menelaus capture Proteus and thereby acquire the information he needs to escape the doldrums.

I’ll put it for you clearly as maybe, friend.
The Ancient of the Salt Sea haunts this place,
immortal Proteus of Egypt; all the deeps
are known to him; he serves under Poseidon,
and is, they say, my father.
If you could take him by surprise and hold him,
he’d give you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.
And should you wish it, noble friend, he’d tell you
all that occurred at home, both good and evil,
while you were gone so long and hard a journey.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 64)

Before continuing, it is important to note that Proteus is a symbol for the unconscious mind. The god is also associated with Mercury in alchemy.

The German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote of the shape-changing sea-god who, because of his relationship to the sea, is both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ and symbol of the anima mundi, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury:

“ our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and …power over all things.”

—Von Hyleanischen Chaos, Carl Jung, vol. 14:50

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing, has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Eidothea lays out the plan to Menelaus. It is a fairly long passage, but one that I find rich with symbolism and worth including in this post.

I’ll tell you this, too, clearly as may be.
When the sun hangs at high noon in heaven,
the Ancient glides ashore under the Westwind,
hidden by shivering glooms on the clear water,
and rests in caverns hollowed by the sea.
There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.
Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks his silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:
Who is the god so hostile to you,
and how will you go home on the fish-cold sea.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 65)

First off, the depths from which Proteus will emerge represent the mystical realm which is the source of archetypes and forms, the unseen source of divine emanation. The seals are symbols of the forms which are emanated from the depths of the creative consciousness. The fact that the seals emerge from “silvery foam” suggests the alchemical connection to mercury.

Proteus is described as having “strange powers.” While these could be the powers of transformation, I suspect that the powers also have something to do with the ability to manipulate the emanated forms into corporeal manifestations.

Finally, Menelaus must wrestle with the god of the sea, and must hold onto the god no matter what. This is very similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel, which is symbolic for man wrestling with the concept of the divine. So essentially, Menelaus must grapple with the unknowable aspect of the god-consciousness in order to acquire the knowledge he seeks. He must struggle to keep hold on that which is fluid and ever changing.

As I said, there are many other rich aspects to this book: Menelaus’ comparison between earthly riches and spiritual wealth; the mystical knowledge of herbs and drugs that Helen acquired from the magicians in Egypt; and Telemachus’ voyage to sea as a symbol of a rite of passage. As always, feel free to share any thoughts or comments below, and thanks for stopping by.


 

Further Reading:

Fascinating Mythical Creatures: Proteus

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“The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness

BookOfLife

I’ve waited two years for this book to come out. It is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I loved the first two books: A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. I must confess, though, that this one was a little disappointing in comparison. Not that it was bad; it was just not as good.

I have two main criticisms regarding this book. The first is that it felt drawn out. I kept waiting for something to happen. I found myself reading faster and faster just to reach the interesting parts. After about 300 pages, I was reading faster because I just wanted to finish already. I felt that this could have been incorporated into Shadow of Night by adding a mere 100 pages, but because publishers want trilogies now and it seems that every other book that comes out is part of a series. I suspect Ms. Harkness had to comply with her publisher’s demands and deliver the requisite pages. The second thing I found disappointing about this book is that it felt more like it belonged in the Twilight saga. It seemed to have less of the scholasticism, the history, and the rich description of cities that I found so engaging in the first two books. Instead, I suffered through pages of vampire/witch romance, which is really not that interesting for me. When the story finally moved to Venice, I was yearning for more description of the city and the architecture. I didn’t get it.

In spite of my disappointments, the book is still good, just not as good as her previous ones. There were parts of the book that were brilliant and I have nothing but admiration for Harkness as a writer. As such, I definitely want to point out some strong points in this book.

There is a great section that discusses dark magic. The term generally conjures images of evil and nefarious activity. But as the characters in the book explain, it is just representative of knowledge that is hidden and may be dangerous if mishandled.

“Dark doesn’t have to mean evil,” Sarah said. “Is the new moon evil?”

I shook my head. “The dark of the moon is a time for new beginnings.”

“Owls? Spiders? Bats? Dragons?” Sarah was using her teacher voice.

“No,” I admitted.

“No. They are not. Humans made up those stories about the moon and nocturnal creatures because they represent the unknown. It’s no coincidence that they also symbolize wisdom. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. That’s why we’re so careful when we teach someone dark magic.” Sarah took my hand. “Black is the color of the goddess as crone, plus the color of concealment, bad omens, and death.”

(p. 140)

At one point in the book, Diana is discussing alchemical texts with a library assistant. As she points out, the difficulty in deciphering an alchemical text is that the writers blend the physical with the symbolic, making it near impossible to figure out what is literal and what is symbol.

“The Voynich manuscript’s illuminations of strange flora would certainly intrigue a botanist—not to mention the illumination of a tree from Ashmole 782. But why would an alchemist be interested in them?” Lucy asked.

“Because some of the Voynich’s illustrations resemble alchemical apparatus. The ingredients and processes needed to make the philosopher’s stone were jealously guarded secrets, and alchemists often hid them in symbols: plants, animals, even people.” The Book of Life contained the same potent blend of the real and the symbolic.

(p. 223)

Since Harkness is a professor at the University of Southern California, her best writing, in my opinion, is when she is depicting the analysis of documents. I can sense the academic thrill of closely examining a one-of-a-kind document.

Hubbard turned the page so that it faced me, but I already knew what I would see there: two alchemical dragons locked together, the blood from their wounds falling into a basin from which naked, pale figures rose. It depicted a stage in the alchemical process after the chemical marriage of the moon queen and the sun king: conceptio, when a new and powerful substance sprang forth from the union of opposites—male and female, light and dark, sun and moon.

(pp 252 – 253)

If I had to rate this book on a ten scale, I’d give it a seven. I think a lot of my disappointment was the result of the fact that my expectations were high. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the first two books, which was why I expected more from this one. I am also getting tired of the trilogy trend. Personally, I am feeling like I no longer want to read anything that is part of a trilogy. When I reach the end of a book, I want some closure. I don’t want to have to wait two or three years for the next installment, then struggle to remember the nuances of the characters and storyline. In fact, if I do decide to read a trilogy again, I will wait until all three books are out so I can read them one after the other.

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Excerpt from “The Lords and the New Creatures” by Jim Morrison

JimMorrison

Jim Morrison died 43 years ago, but people are still curious about his death. Recently, Marianne Faithfull revealed that her former boyfriend, Jean de Breteuil, provided Morrison with the fatal dose of heroin. Click here to read the article.

Anyway, the news made me think about Jim and the Doors, so I located my copy of The Lords and the New Creatures and skimmed through it. The following excerpt caught my attention.

Cinema returns us to anima, religion of matter,
which gives each thing its special divinity and
sees gods in all things and beings.

Cinema, heir of alchemy, last of an erotic science.

Film is certainly an alchemical art. It combines visual imagery, written word, music and sound. Because film communicates both visually and audibly, it is the art form which provides the ideal escape, allowing us to immerse ourselves and temporarily lose our connection with the real world. It is when we lose that connection that we open ourselves to the divine essence within, or the anima. That moment when we connect with our divine essence is similar to sexual ecstasy.

While I concede that much of Morrison’s poetry could be classified as the scattered thoughts of a drunken individual, there are some moments of brilliance, as demonstrated by this passage. His poems also provide us insight into the workings of a creative genius who left us too soon.

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