The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.

Sources

(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

  1. Thanks Brian. I appreciated this as Columba palumbus has had a place in my personal mythology for a couple of years since a rather bloody incident which made me face life-death and other visceral facts of existence in the face.

    I’m curious as to your reference to Columba palumbus being called a ‘ring dove’ as I would have thought this would refer to the Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto.

    All the best. A /\

  2. Yes, I was a bit surprised by ‘ring dove’ too, but Francesca Greenoak (in British Birds, their Folklore, Names, and Literature) gives it as widespread (in general use). She also says that the first record of collar dove breeding in the U.K was as late as 1955, so they haven’t aquired local names – yet.

  3. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. The bird-people have many gifts and graces we humans do not and could certainly benefit from if, as you point out, we only bothered to pay attention and thereby learn from them.

if you would like to respond

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s