Geometry of the Opus Alchymicum

October 21st, 2007

Three etchings reproduced in Johannes Fabricius’s Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and Their Royal Art.

Riddle of the sphinx

Emblema XXXIX of Michael Maier’s 1618 Atalanta fugiens (see earlier post).

“The foreground figures illustrate the riddle of the Sphinx: What is that which walks on four in the morning, on two at noon, on three in the evening? Answer: Man. The geometrical signs inscribed on the three foreground figures refer to the opus and to the composition of the philosopher’s stone [says Maier]: ‘The true meaning is: first one should consider the square, or the four elements; from there one should advance to the hemisphere, which has two lines, the straight and the curved one, representing Luna, who is made white; after that one should pass to the triangle, which consists of body, soul, and spirit, or Sol, Luna, and Mercurius'” (p32).

Basil Valentine’s Tenth Key

Basil Valentine‘s Tenth Key, 1599. The Latin inscriptions read: ‘I am born of Hermogenes. Hyperion elected me. Without Jamsuph I am compelled to perish’.

The above “shows Basil Valentine’s emblem of the third coniunctio and the production of the stone. Its trinitarian design merges the sun and moon (top corners) in the sign of Mercurius philosophorum (bottom corner). The Trinity is inscribed with a radiant double-circle… symbolizing the philosopher’s egg. Its ‘nesting’ in heaven is expressed by the name of the Highest inscribed in the stone’s centre”.

“Basil Valentine’s ‘election’ by Hyperion is a reference to solar rebirth, Hyperion in Greek mythology representing the Father of the Sun. The text reads: ‘In our stone, as composed by me and by those who have long preceded me, are contained all elements, all mineral and metallic forms, and all the qualities and properties of the whole world. In it we find the most powerful natural heat, by which the icy body of Saturn is gently transmuted into the best gold. It contains also the highest degree of cold, which tempers the fervent heat of Venus and coagulates the living Mercurius, which is thereby also changed into the finest gold. The reason for this is that all the properties are infused by nature into the substance of our great stone, and are developed, perfected, and matured by the gentle coction of natural fire, until they have attained their final perfection'” (p165).

Squaring the circle

Emblema XXI of Michael Maier’s 1618 Atalanta fugiens. ‘Here followeth the Figure conteyning all the secrets of the Treatise both great & small’.

“Above, the alchemist performs the squaring the circle [see earlier post], thereby turning the two sexes into one. The motto repeats a saying of the ‘Rosarium’: ‘Make a circle out of a man and woman, derive from it a square, and from the square a triangle: make a circle and you will have the philosopher’s stone.’ As informed by the text, the triangle denotes the unity of body, soul and spirit. Of this operation Petrus Bonus says: ‘In this conjunction of resurrection, the body becomes wholly spiritual, like the soul herself, and they are made one as water is mixed with water, and henceforth they are not separated for ever, since there is no diversity in them, but unity and identity of all three, that is, spirit, soul and body, without separation for ever'” (p198).

Aor and the Language of the Birds

September 15th, 2007

Continuing on the theme of the last post, another diagram from Vandenbroeck’s Al-Kemi.

“I worked up a construct [below] to show as clearly as possible the qualities which characterize the predominance of each of the three alchemical principles: heat for Sulphur, humidity for Mercury, coldness for Salt. This structure shows the principles and elements held in a network of relations between trinity and quaternary, and ruled by the permutations of two pairs. Completed to the show polarized duality manifesting a vertex of puncticular and irrational oneness, this pyramid of Pythagorean number forms the renowned Tetractys. An exaltation of the four elements reveals a quintessence as basis of the Pentactys, emblem of manifestation traditionally associated with the five senses” (p118).

Pythagorean pyramid

Click image for larger version.

“Neither formulas, mechanisms, or processes had any bearing upon the science that concerned us. The presentation would be a gesture of knowing intuition, so that the only dependable representation would be an intuitive perception of form — as number, color, sound, volume, or plane-image. It would be an inscription into the fixed salt, not a notation onto memory” (p228-9).

“Aor maintained that the material process of the alchemical opus are banal, that they occur at every moment in every laboratory in plain view of everyone. There are no special or hidden chemical events, and the alchemical processes are of the most usual sort, so common that they escape notice, as is repeated again and again with regard to materia prima in alchemical texts. The difference in the esoteric manipulation lies entirely in the apprehension of the event: it is a matter of perception, of vision” (p147).

Says Aor, “The Oeuvre is not the discovery of a technique, it is nothing of the sort, it is the perception of an existing process. It is the perception that is the object of study and prayer. That is the theoretical part, and after that comes the practice, the proper gesture in matter and time. The perception of a process, the vision of an evolution, that is the first aim of the scientist. Prima materia into Materia prima is a constant process of nature, it is mindless, and therefore beyond the cerebral cortex. That is really the only difficulty. There is no use addressing the analytic mind with Hermetic language; it can do very little with it. Therefore the language of the birds, not spoken, only heard” (p60).

A Reeducation of the Senses

September 8th, 2007

A diagram from André Vandenbroeck’s Al-Kemi, memoir of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz.

Perception Construct

Says Aor, “It is interesting to study the senses from the point of view of form-perception, to become aware of their functions as formative instruments. Realize how prejudiced we have become in favor of sight, because it seems to give us the volume so immediately and, we think, so surely, so certainly. But that isn’t even the eye’s primary function; this perception of volume is entirely secondary, it is color that is the primary sight-form… In the same way, volume is secondary form for the hearing function; it is sound that is primary. But volume is the material presence and all the senses partake of it… The immediacy of [sight] is what attracts us, but it is a solution of facility, and without perceptual education, it results in a universe of objects, of things. Actually, for the proportional perception that gives us so many profound hints as to the cosmic constitution, the ear is a far better tool. The laws are harmony are just that, perception of ratios and proportionality, and here the sound-form without equal… That trinity of lower senses can in fact be summed up under the sense of touch, as both smell and taste are a matter of contact… And touch… has contact with volume only.” (p106-7).

“You can say that the universe of form, pervaded by affinity, spans between number and volume. Volume and number are the forms of origin, whereas color and sound are later forms of more advanced evolution. Number exists inside and out of the least mineral structure as surely as does volume. Polarity is already number, in the same way that space is already volume” (p107-8).

Attention, cher ami, if you really want a beginning, you have to find a totality, a oneness, and where experience is concerned, that oneness must be achieved in the perception of the experience. You can fragment it through an analytic view, which is what we have trained our cerebral cortex to do, or you can identify with the formal and functional essence of the experience and intuitively place it in its cosmic context. That takes a reeducation of the senses for modern man… Without adequate perception, you will encounter a world of objects to register into your brain matter, but you will only rarely be inscribing experience into salt” (p177-8).

Four illustrations appearing in E. J. Holmyard’s 1957 Alchemy, a historical account of exoteric alchemy.

First, a diagram (p22) of the Greek conception of the four elements — fire, air, water, and earth — in relation to their qualities — wet (fluid, moist), dry, hot, and cold.

Four elements and four qualities

Each element is described, unequally, by its two adjacent properties; thus fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, air wet and hot, water cold and wet, and earth dry and cold. “None of the four elements is unchangeable; they may pass into one another through the medium of that quality which they possess in common; thus fire fire can become air through the medium of heat, air can become water through the medium of fluidity; and so on” (p22).

This system (with earlier roots, and similarly present in other cultures) was conceptualized by Aristotle (384 BC — 322 BC), who “argues that each and every other substance is composed of each and every ‘element’, the difference between one substance and another depending on the proportions in which the elements are present… It follows that any kind of substance can be transformed into any other kind by so treating it that the proportions of its elements are changed to accord with the proportions of the elements in the other substance. This may be done by change of the elements originally existing in the first substance, or by adding some substance consisting of such proportions of the elements that when the substances are mixed or combined the desired final proportions are attained” (p23).

“Here we have the germ of all theories of metallic transmutation and the basic philosophical justification of all the laborious days spent by alchemists over their furnaces” (p23) — a point well-illustrated (plate 18) in Mylius’ 1622 Philosophia Reformata (see also earlier post on Mylius):

Four elements and the Work

The spherical fundaments display the alchemical symbols of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire, from left-to-right), while the flaming flasks atop represent so-supported stages of the Work, blackening, whitening, yellowing, reddening, which color changes describe successive objectives of the various alchemical operations: calcination, sublimation, fusion, crystallization, distillation, and putrefaction, among other processes.

Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (a.k.a. Geber, 721 — 815) theorized that all metals were formed in the earth by the union of sulphur (that is, philosophical sulphur, dry and hot) and mercury (also philosophical, cold and wet), and that therefore the art of alchemy is the balancing of these two natures (later, salt made three, the tria prima) to produce other metals (e.g., gold). This was the start of a “chemical marriage” that would influence all of European alchemy during its entire extent, as seen (plate 19), for example, in Barchusen’s Elementa Chemia one thousand years later (1718):

Mercury and sulphur

Wherein is shown the opposing principles of sun and moon, drawing near over receding waters, with the symbols for sulphur and mercury in close association — thence, if the alchemist is successful, to finally unite, the fusion of oppositions, of male and female, represented by the philosophical androgyne:

Grand Hermetic Androgyne

“The Grand Hermetic Androgyne trampling underfoot the four elements of the prima materia. From the Codex Germanicus 598″ (plate 34).

Whose imprint can still be seen today:

Babar in St. Michael and the Dragon

A Laurent de Brunhoff adaptation of Raffaello Sanzio‘s Saint Michael and the Dragon from Babar’s Museum of Art, 2003 (p15).

Continuing on the theme of the last plate of the last post, four engravings from three works of the master miner Goossen van Vreeswijk: De Roode Leeuw (The Red Lion), 1674; De Groene Leeuw (The Green Lion), 1674; and De Goude Son (The Golden Sun), 1675. These engravings are also collected in de Rola’s anthology (see previous posts), bringing the total here to just 14 of his collected 533.

To make the Bird fly

“‘To make the Bird fly’ is to free the Spirit from its material prison, that it may soar in the alchemical sky and bring back Below the benefits of what is Above. The whole Work, and I have repeatedly stated, is a series of Dissolutions” (p251).

Make the Earth fly

“‘Make the Earth fly’, enjoin the authors; and indeed the Dissolution of our chosen Subject opens the portals of the Garden of the Wise. In rising from the Earth below to the Sky above, the Subject acquires the strength that is strong of all strength” (p245).

The Hermetick Labyrinth

Regarding the path, “the Hermetick Labyrinth symbolizes the material realization of the Great Work. The maze expresses two main difficulties: how to reach its centre and how to get out again. To reach the centre, one must first acquire sure knowledge of the Subject of the Art, and of its preparation, which is accomplished at the central pavilion. The return journey — when the chances of getting lost are greatly increased — signifies the mutation of the prepared Matter with the help of Fire. One sees Fire leading Matter on, guided by Ariadne’s thread. The thread is the Possibility of Nature: the fact that like produces like” (p251).

Pray and Work

As for method, “the result of assiduous studies, speculations and theories will be verified by practice. The spiritual dimension of Alchemy can only be attained by using one’s hands. Ora et Labora sic habebis: ‘Pray and Work, thus thou shalt receive'” (p264).

Drawing again from de Rola’s anthology (see earlier post), seven emblems by Balthazar (Baltzer Schwan) from Johann Daniel Mylius‘s 1622 Philosophia reformata.

These engravings illustrate application of the alchemical formula Solve et Coagula — ‘Dissolve the Fixed and Coagulate the Volatile’ — towards the ultimate conjunction of those opposing principles: the Philosopher’s Stone. The descriptions below are de Rola’s.

tyranny of the external Fire

“Without help from the Volatile, the Fixed is never sublimated; and conversely, the Volatile in growing Fixed grows more and more resistant to the tyranny of the external Fire” (p180).

the fleeing maiden

“Every fixation of the Volatile (the fleeing maiden caught by the monster) is followed by a volatilization of the Fixed until Perfection is reached” (p180).

The First Silver Perfection

“The First Silver Perfection is reached at the end of the Putrefaction” (p181).

the Green Lion

“Here is the Universal Dissolvent, the Green Lion or Mercury of the Wise, without which nothing can be achieved” (p181).

Three faces of the Stone

“Three faces of the Stone: the Philosophick Child, the purified Matter; the Old Man in the sphere, the Materia Prima; and the union of the three Principles, Mercury, Sulphur and Salt” (p182).

Philosophick Mercury

“This emblem (equivalent in significance to the image of a Mermaid or Siren) shows the union of Sulphur (our Fish) and of the first Mercury (the Woman), from which results Philosophick Mercury” (p182).

birds fly

“Here are the components of the Secret Fire: the fiery Water and the watery Fire which, excited by the ordinary Elemental Fire, cause the Birds to fly” (p182).

Three Johann Theodor de Bry engravings from Michael Maier‘s 1618 alchemical arrangement, Atalanta fugiens, as reprinted in Stanislas Klossowski de Rola’s essential anthology of alchemical engravings, The Golden Game. The Hermetic explanatory text below is also de Rola’s.

The egg

“Emblema VIII. Accipe ovum & igneo percute gladio. ‘Take the egg and strike it with a fiery sword.’ The egg is the Subject of the Art, which must be struck by the martial igneous agent wielding the ‘double-edged sword’ of the Secret Fire. Mars thus comes to the help of Vulcan, and from the ensuing darkness of Putrefaction (Nigredo) the hermetick chick will hatch. Raymund Lull, quoted here by Maier, stresses in several places that the fiery sword is a sharp lance, because Fire, like a lance, pierces bodies, rendering them porous and permeable, so that Water may penetrate them and turn their hardness into softness” (p98).

Nature teaches nature

“Emblema XX. Naturam natura docet, debellet ut ignem. ‘Nature teaches Nature to vanquish fire.’ ‘The way of Nature when it seeks the perfection of any work,’ writes Maier, ‘consists in making one thing come out of another, the most perfect from the least perfect, and to activate its potential.’ This is exactly what we see in the gesture of the mercurial heroine speeding the Knight on his way to do battle against the tyranny of Fire. The Knight is the Fixed Sulpher that the flame can no longer vanquish” (p99-100).

Birth of Orion

“Emblema XLIX. Infans Philosophicus tres agnoscit patres, ut Orion. ‘Like Orion, the Philosophick Child acknowledges thee fathers.’ Mythographers relate that Orion had not one but three fathers. Most accounts tell how Jupiter, Mercury, and Neptune granted the wish of their host Hyrieus to give him a son. Accordingly, the gods urinated in the skin of a heifer which was then buried. Nine months later, Orion (the name is a pun on the Greek ouron, urine) was born. Here, Maier names Orion’s fathers as Apollo, Vulcan, and Mercury; but, as usual, circumstances contrary to nature must in alchemy be understood to be the cloak of hermetick allegory. The Stone’s first father is Apollo: a celestial occult virtue (of the Sun) which fecundates the Matter of the Philosophers and gives her a son who will, ultimately, grow even more splendid than his father. Vulcan, symbol of Fire, is its second father (or mentor). Its third is Mercury, who lends it his own volatile Matter (or Mercury). To those three must be added the figure on the left, who is the attentive Artist, and as it were the fourth father. Towering above the others is Mars, whose presence is indispensable: without his action, the Body would not be dissolved. He is the symbol of the metal which, joined to the mineral Matter, attracts the magnetic influence of Phanes: Light, Spirit, Fire, personified in Apollo” (p104).