‘Near Death Experiences’ and Cultural Change.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

“An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth.
Ringing powerfully through and through is the most highly desired assurance”. 
J.S.Bach, Cantata no 125, With Peace and Joy I Depart.

While he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack, Carl Jung had a series of visionary experiences that have become widely known from the account in his autobiography: “it seemed to me that I was high up in space.  Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light.  I saw the deep blue sea and the continents.  Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India.  My field of vision did not include the whole Earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light.  In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidized silver.”  This was almost twenty five years before astronauts sent back images of Earthrise from the Moon.

Jung then became aware of a huge black stone floating nearby, reminiscent of some rocks he had seen on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in which temples has been carved.  A Hindu man was waiting for him at the entrance to just such a temple.  “As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process.  Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished“.(1).

After many years’ work he had just completed Psychology and Alchemy, and had been meditating on alchemical symbolism.  It is perhaps not surprising then that he saw, or was shown, a huge black stone, or lapis.  The epilogue to Psychology and Alchemy  concludes with the prescient assertion that ‘mysterious life-processes’ pose riddles that can’t be solved by reason alone.  We must engage with direct experience.  ‘As the alchemists themselves warned us: “Rumpite libros, ne corda vestra rumpantur” -Rend the books, lest your heart be rent asunder’.

During the N.D.E vision Jung met his doctor in ‘primal form’.  Shortly after this he became furious with the doctor’s insistence that he return to the ‘prison’ of earthly life, and frustrated by his refusal to talk about their recent otherworldly meeting.  He was also seized by a premonitory conviction that his own life was about to be exchanged for that of the doctor.  Then, on the day he was finally allowed to sit up in bed the doctor came down with a fever that proved fatal.

After this he experienced a sequence of indescribably beautiful and intense visions of otherworldly weddings, including the mystic marriage between ‘All-father Zeus and Hera’.

Despite his marked reluctance to return to the ‘box system’ of Earthly life, Jung tells us that: “After the illness a fruitful period of work began for me.  A good many of my principal works were written only then   I surrendered myself to the current of my thoughts.  Thus one problem after the other revealed itself to me and took shape.”

In subsequent writings he discussed the alchemical notion of scintillae, or sparks from the light of nature -‘seeds of light broadcast in the chaos’ […] ‘dispersed or sprinkled in and throughout the structure of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere’.  I particularly like Cornelius Agrippa von Nettleheim’s observation that from this “luminositas sensus naturae”, ‘gleams of prophecy come down to the four footed beasts, the birds, and other living creatures, enabling them to foretell future things’.(2)  Many N.D.E. experiencers describe meeting beings of light (sometimes percieved as angels) that may lead or follow them, and take their pain away.

Jung’s account raises many questions -about the effect of cultural assumptions, emotional states, and spiritual practice, as well as about the nature of other dimensions or worlds and their inhabitants.  His perception of earthly life as a ‘prison’, for example, seems a rather extreme expression of the inevitable tension between otherworldly ecstasy and remembered pain in this world.  Perhaps he was influenced by the longstanding devaluation of material existence (and of women as agents of incarnation) in Western philosophy and transcendental religion?  This prejudice, which feminist theorists such as Val Plumwood and Grace Jantzen have traced back to Plato -whose Story of Er is regarded as one of the first recognisable ‘N.D.E’ accounts- reached its apogee in gnosticism, and is apparent where alchemy becomes a quest to liberate light ‘imprisoned’ in matter.

N.D.E. studies consistently find that people typically return with a deepened and broadened spiritual sensibility.  Some people have abandoned rigid religious views after meeting spiritual figures or deities from traditions other than their own.  On the other hand many N.D.E’rs don’t associate the ‘beings of light’ they meet with any religious tradition.  Jung’s account is the only one I’ve seen to date in which Pagan deities appear.  His visions differ from the classic ‘N.D.E’ in that they continued during an almost three week period of tenuous recovery, but were typically pluralistic (as well as reflective of his worldview) since he also encountered figures from Hindu, Jewish Kabbalistic, and Christian traditions.

Unfortunately much of the N.D.E. literature is framed in dualistic New Age or Christian terms.  Even Kenneth Ring, an American psychologist, talks about ‘black uncertainty’ and the ‘blackest moments’ of the twentieth Century, and refers to ‘the Light’ coming to show us our evolutionary way forward.(3)   Against this we might mention various positive references to fecund blackness in alchemy -‘the black earth in which the gold of the lapis is sown like the grain of wheat’, or ‘the exeeding precious stone proclaims: “I beget the light, but the darkness too is of my nature” ‘.(4)

My take on this is that we need to recognise the difference between duality and dualism.  Clearly, there needs to be debate about how ‘N.D.E’-like experiences are framed, and how they can be recruited into dominant religious discourse.  Some of the frightening ‘N.D.E’s that have been somewhat marginalised within the dualistic literature may be akin to ‘the perilous adventure of the night sea journey’, shamanic initiation, or the ordeal of the deceased in the Bardo realm of Tibetan lore.  Jung, did, after all, describe the ‘life review’-like element of his visionary experience as ‘an extremely painful process’, and felt depressed about the need to return.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.


A recent research study involving fifty participants from an American town focussed on responding to the often problematic impact and after effects of N.D.E-like experiences.  Suzanne Gordon situated her research in the context of ‘escalating social and ecological crises and an in-progress paradigm-shift away from the still-official Newtonian/Cartesian material world view of Western culture’ [towards] a (re)emergent sacred worldview more comparable to diverse indigenous knowledge systems.  She argues that the marginalisation faced by people who have had Spiritually Transformative Experiences (not just N.D.E’s)  is comparable to discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and has been instrumental in setting up an organisation that aims to listen to the stories of experts-by-experience, de-medicalise spiritual/visionary experience, educate professionals, and establish peer support groups.(5)

Near Death Experiencers tend to become more altruistic and compassionate, and have an increased appreciation of life.  They may feel a greater concern for the ecological health of the planet and some acquire acute psychic sensitivity and/or healing abilities.  The process of re-integration within an uncomprehending mainstream is often challenging however.  Only three of Gordon’s fifty participants had little difficulty with integration -two of whom were the only two African American participants in her project.  One of these women said that her family ‘talk to dead people all the time’.  The only difference her N.D.E. had made was that her ‘windows were open a little more’, and she now had no fear of death.

To be continued …

B.T. 24nd February 2017.


(1) Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Knopf Doubleday 2011, and a longer extract here.

(2) Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics, 2001, citing Khunrath and von Nettleheim, and Psychology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944).

(3) For example his chapter in Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates, The Near Death Experience, A Reader, Routledge, 2013.

(4) Carl Jung, Pyschology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944)

(5) Suzanne Gordon, Field Notes from the Light, PhD thesis, University of Maryland, 2007 and see the webiste of the American Centre for the Integration of Spirituality.







We are Stardust – A Quick Look at Paracelsus.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from 'L'Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1998. "a medieval missionary claims to have found the point where heaven and earth meet'.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from ‘L’Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1898. “a medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and earth meet”.

Following an alchemical thread, I’ve been having a quick look at the writings of Philippus Aureolas Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a Paracelsus.  Born in a Swiss village in the year after Columbus reached America, he’s variously celebrated as a pioneering theorist of modern medicine who founded antisepsis and wound surgery, or as an early exponent of holism.  Rejecting the classical canon of his day (Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna) Paracelsus preferred to put his trust in a combination of devout, if unconventional, Christian faith, a cosmological system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm (as opposed to the theory of humours and temperaments), personal experience – including as an army surgeon, and medical lore gleaned from ‘herb-women, bath attendants, peasants, gypsies and magicians’.(1)  His writings, therefore, give us a vivid sense of the thickets of European thought at the dawn of modernity.

Little is known about the early life of Paracelsus, except that his mother is thought to have taken her own life when he was about nine years old.  His father, a respected local doctor, ‘gave him herbs and stones, water and metal, as friends’.(2) As a young man he embarked on extensive travels that took him right across Europe, to renaissance Italy, then as far as Algiers, Constantinople, Russia, and Ireland.

Paracelsus regarded the human spirit as a divine spark, and believed in free will to the extent of thinking we could act upon the stars (of which more later).  Because he saw divine potential in humanity, he often took a stand against social convention, vested interests, or political structures.  This was usually done with a flourish, as when he staged a public burning of Avicenna’s authoritative textbook, or when he promised the be-robed doctors and academics of Basel that he would reveal the greatest secret of medicine, before presenting them with a dish of steaming human excrement. “If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians!”(3).

Though his motto was ‘… that man no other man shall own, who to himself belongs alone’, he drew upon medieval ideas of Christian community life.  He was a pacifist, sided with the rebellious peasants against the feudal lords of Salzburg in 1525, and was in contact with Anabaptist groups.  His religious views embraced the popular pantheism that influenced mystical anarchist and millenarian movements of the late middle ages -his concept of yliaster (probably from hyla matter, and astrum the stars) revived Avicebron’s doctrine of prime matter -a primal divine being originating, sustaining, and existing within the material substrate of all thingsFor Paracelsus it was this spiritual force that justified human freedom and moral agency.(4)

His charitable medical work involved risks to his own health and life.  He wrote the first  treatise of occupational medicine, on the miners’ disease, as well as advocating the therapeutic value of music, chants, magical seals, and amulets.  Like the alchemists he sought invisible virtues within substances, and believed that “decay is the beginning of all birth”. Paracelsus regarded base metals as analogous to disease, and based his remedies upon the homoeopathic principle of sympathies between diseases and the arcana (mysteries, secerets).  Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke argues that his predominant contribution was the foundation of an alternative science and medicine, ‘the science of the symbol’.(3)

Nicholas Campion, however, points out that whilst Paracelsus made conventional assumptions about astrological correspondences, he argued that, from the moment of birth, the physician should respect individual autonomy by examining a patient’s physical processes on their own terms, rather than imposing a univeral astrological model for each disease.  For Paracelsus, the Kaballah impelled empirical observation.  Campion goes on to argue that ‘Paracelsus’s emphasis on the functional separation of nature and spirit, even if they were theoretically entwined in the Kabbalistic cosmos, presages the mind-body split written into Western thought by Rene Descartes in the next century ….’.  In Paracelsus’s work ‘magic was a stepping stone to modern science’.(6)

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555.  Anon.  Creative Commons.

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555. Anon. Creative Commons.

Although there is much of interest, and much to like, in Paracelsus’s prolific writings, Goodrick-Clarke’s account erases some major contradictions and difficulties.  According to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus believed the relationship between humanity and the stars to be particularly close in relation to ‘mental illness’ (I prefer ‘distress’, and ‘madness’).  For Paracelsus, madness resulted from “the subjugation of man (sic) and his divine spirit by his low animal instincts, notably lust, covetousness, and the passions of the soul in general … each star corresponds to an animal with its characteristic emotional behaviour, also to a single passion in man.  When he falls prey to these passions, the star awakens in him the one that corresponds to its own animal nature”.  Moreover, “He who is prone to meanness has chosen Saturn as his wife, for each star is a woman.  Hence in this case, the cure must be directed against Saturn.  The patient must be talked to, admonished, and encouraged to confess in church.  His disease must be explained to him.  If he is not accessible to advice he must be taken into custody ‘lest he lead astray with his animal spirits (vichgiestern) the whole town, his house, and the country.”

Whilst some of Paracelsus’s reccomendations sound like a relatively ‘modern’ and progressive, albeit paternalistic, response to the complex and difficult realities of crisis support, his markedly gendered -and anthropocentric- understanding of the underlying causes clearly express the dominant Christian/neo-Platonist assumptions of his day.  Unfortunately, according to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus was also ‘deeply immersed in the contemporary belief in witches and demoniacal and devilish posession as causes of insanity’ and ‘in some treatises recommended the burning of the patient lest they become an instrument of the devil’. (7)  He was hardly progressive in this respect then!  But let’s not forget that he also wrote that “Every cure should proceed from the power of the heart; for only thereby can all diseases be expelled”.

Or that he talked about the ‘light of nature’ -which Jolande Jacobi gives as- ‘intuitive knowledge gained by experience of nature and implicit in all beings at birth’; about ‘magnalia (Dei)’ -remedies and works whose special efficacy derives from the divine power inherent in them; and about the matrix -‘the primal womb or mother, the formless receptacle of form’.  Interestingly, Paracelsus used the term anima (soul), mainly when referring to the notion of a sidereal body (an inner heaven) -but also for anything resembling breath, or for ‘the specifically effective part of medicine’.  Another interesting term he used was the astrum (or sidereal body) -‘an impression engraved in man at the hour of his birth by the external heaven’, consituting an inner heaven, and giving us our innate disposition.(8)  As Joni Mitchell (in Woodstock) put it more recently: “We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden …”.

 B.T 28/11/14.


Some Paracelsus quotes:

“Every land is a leaf of the codex of nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet”

“Decay is the midwife of very great things!”

“Dreams must be heeded and accepted, for a great many of them come true”.

“The art of astronomy helps us to discover the secrets of the innate disposition of the heart..”

“How can a man say ‘I am certain’ when he is so far from any certainty?”.

“I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum, monarch of the physicians”, and I can prove to you what you cannot prove”.


1) Nicholas Goodricke Clarke, ed. Paracelsus, North Atlantic Books, 1999.

2 and 8) Jolande Jacobi, ed. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Bollingen series XXVIII, 1958.  (this book has a useful glossary).

3) Philip Bell, The Devil’s Doctor, Heinemann, 2006.

4 and 5) Goodricke Clarke, Op Cit.

6) Nicholas Campion, A History of Western Astrology, Vol 2, The Medieval and Modern Worlds, Continuum 2009 pp117-8.

7) Walter Pagel, Paracelsus; an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 2nd ed. 1982 S. Karger. A.G. Basel.

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.


(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.