Freedom includes the will to suffer this dark moon freely. No resistance. Today, I need to know that, and what, I suffer. I am afraid of that -knowing me-. I am afraid. To deny, ignore, or refuse what is contained therein, would perhaps be the ultimate rejection:
To eclipse is to occult, hiding through darkening. It expresses the deep vulnerability that darkness reveals, and yet is it not an opening of the womb of the new seed?
It is in and through the suffering that the layers are known, that feeling finds life, ripening through the depths of unknowing, wanting new being. If it flows, it goes, moving into this truly human proposition that there is always this need of the dark; fallow, alone, apart, the fear.
Oh surely we are one in the god scheme, the holy body, where love and light ask, can there be a god that doesn’t see an other? One, necessarily, is and is not one. You’ve punched that ticket still in your pocket.
Don’t waste another moment then in refusal of what befalls one. Necessary, like everything else, it is all that is. Whatever we choose, or chooses us, the deep surrender is not free, but beyond any freedom where the interpreter grants the dark moon’s solace of silence. Who knows? Keep asking…
Perhaps love is only possible in places where it’s understood as a grace or gift, and by necessity, to come and go of its own accord. Love then, is truly beyond any grasping, holding or securing on our part. We can only submit to its power, never fully possessing neither her pains nor delights so graciously bestowed upon us. These limits, Saturn’s way, might seem imposing, thwarting our dreams as beyond what’s possible. But Saturn*, Kronos, is the ancient reminder that there are limits to this Earthly marriage of spirit and matter embodied within the delights of the sense world.
For us mortals, is not desire then, a being in want, seemingly perpetual? And perhaps, isn’t being-in-want a hunger for change, change imposed by Kronos’ time, satiated, content or complete, all by necessity temporary? How can being in time ever reach any such steady state? Surely the constancy of desire binds us to time, to birth and mortality. Perhaps though, time’s bounty and providence provide that which we might abide more faithfully to, through the images that move us into a deepening appreciation of meaning and purpose. Every possibility and nuance of God lives through us. Our individual fate then is our portion, our share of the Whole, unique and separate as we must be. An incomprehensible gift it is just to be alive (Jupiter).
Love’s boundless mystery, beyond our share (again Jupiter), seems both pregnant with possibility, but also suggests the possibility of refusal to unveil the bride. Impersonal, it holds and carries all of the deepest hopes, dreams and reflections beyond what any one of us could know. Without human embodiment though, do they stay forever untarnished without the mess of time’s daily fare of coming and going?
Meaning and Purpose
Beyond the base needs of food, water, shelter, and after such has been granted, what? What does desire want in its ceaseless weaving of us through the finite vulnerability of living and dying? Or, when not satiated, where else can desire take us?
Perhaps it is this: to submit to time what belongs in time, to learn to dance with its capricious hold on us, step to the changing, ceaseless rhythms, as they come and go. They move us, shape us. Must we lessen too, the idea of one’s self as the sole creator of the dance and of our very being to accept the invitation? Can we not only see, hear and taste, but be present to the eternal nature of a love so great it must create; must make manifest, even imperfectly an expression of spirit through matter (or spirited matter)?
Not only to speculate, but what is it to experience the eternal nature that we sense, even if only glimpsed in tiny bits and pieces? Desire then, perhaps seeks out these missing pieces as if to make or see whole, perhaps to heal, or to see and feel the wholeness we come from and really belong to. Is that what we see within the mirrors of each other, and especially through the beloved?
Can it be enough to recognize that we are indeed pieces of the whole? For how else can nuance, specificity and the peculiarly odd nature of separation be expressed without time, the temporary, which places such a heavy burden of coming and going upon us. It weighs us down into a life that must continually give way to change and someday, death.
Only time can tell, true, and perhaps, only we humans can know desire in this way; we the tiny scintilla, endlessly reaching out to light a fire, when, or if, we fail to experience its already sustenance through the eternal breath tethering us to life. Breath, the seeming disembodied spirit, cannot not be. That we are possible, and we obviously are, proclaims through us creation as that which is, as it is, within the bounds of eternal possibility. For how can such an apparently inherent possibility come into being?
Love is free then, yes, but what does that even mean? Love, in some ways, always fails within the limits of time, as it can never completely give us that wholeness of self, or completeness that desire eternally seeks. Then, might we say that love is free through acceptance of the limits we mere mortals are subject to? …and to love and be loved seeks a willingness to submit to the human condition that might disappoint when we ask for more than our share? …and within the perpetual mystery not only of the other, but of one’s self?
This mortal life, within the bounds of such a perfect place that permits such a thing as human being, allows not only a glimpse, but a tiny unique expression of the enormity of God. In this sense, God is beyond necessity, but the love that creates is necessarily fully free to allow for any and all possibilities, including love’s desire and hope, time’s suffering and all that comes and goes through you and I.
*In Hellenistic astrology, Saturn is said to be the greater malefic, and to the ancients, was the end of the heavens, while Jupiter, the greater benefic, was Saturn’s son, one of the few that escaped death by the hand of the father.
The idea of divination has become somewhat maligned in present times, primarily from two opposing currents: a science that places faith entirely in its own material rationalism, and a theology which insists that only God is purely divine, and perhaps worries that seeking knowledge of the future, therefore, opens oneself up to potential evil. While the image of God can hardeninto literal notions of a super power, a trusted ally, the image remains subject to what fear and desire captures under duress. Rather than a wall, God might also be the veil; the thinning edge transversing dimensions. Divination than is a practice in which the questions we carry with us come under scrutiny and are refined by experience and the call to love and be loved.
Divination also suffers a malnourished understanding from secular science which does not give any credence to influences and experiences that cannot be anchored to a system of measured repetition. Divination though, as other practices, is an immeasurable qualitative experience much like love and desire. In a world destroying itself through the glut of unending, destructive, over-consumption, why would we not seek out those practices that expand our capacity for love, satisfaction and the sense of both who, I and Thou are?
“Certainty is absence of infinity, infinity is presence of uncertainty.”
― Nanamoli Thera
To limit the idea of divination to that of forecasting the future though, is to miss the idea that it is also a way of seeing and participating in the presence, simultaneously, of both the mundane and the eternal. And if the eternal is that which is all inclusive, then it potentially opens us to that which we don’t know. If God knows, or is all, then every time we learn something new, we are already divining. Where does one draw the line as to what is dangerous, subjective or off limits? …and how might it matter? Through the study of astrology, I am learning to question what it is that divination can provide for us moderns, and learning what it once did in the not so distant past.
Love starts in the personal and means me; then it means my soul and my whole being. Then it moves me, my soul and my being into archetypal being, into a sense of interiority: an interior process contained within me, and myself contained within the interiority of a chaotic universe transformed by love into a cosmos.
James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis
To see into eternity then, is to see into the cosmic order, to glimpse the qualities of God, or the gods, and participate in the realm of coming and going. Love is that which creates from infinity, binding the seeming chaos into an expression of life-giving order. We are already seeing, from all that touches and moves us, an archetypal expression of divinity that calls the little self to something beyond. And without losing that smallness, we may enlarge our perspective through the multi-faceted seeing of multiple dimensions.
The Sacred Arts of Divination
The arts of divination have been revered and practiced by every culture in every time. These practices might indeed seem to some as an attempt to be God, to steal the gods’ powers, and obviously humans have very much been inclined to use and abuse power for a seeming gain, whether personally or collectively, but divination is not in and of itself the danger. That we have trouble discerning the proper and improper use of power doesn’t go away by refusing the attraction to power, but by discerning the consequences and trade-offs of our uses of it.
The aesthetic sense of divining may provide one with skills for course correction by seeing into the possibilities of not only what the future holds, but more importantly, to see more clearly into the present; to see oneself, others and the nature of the world as it is. Not for truth, but for love’s sake. Ultimately, it is the ever-expansive sense of the present that opens one to experience universal truths and the divine – an experience of which gives substance and weight to all that the soul truly desires: love, compassion and acceptance.
When the aesthetic sense is not disregarded as meaningless, care for the past, present and future come to us more readily through awareness of love and beauty.
To live one’s life practicing an awareness of the patterns that we live by, and to seek to align oneself to an ordering of life which values beauty, love, sustainability, and a fuller participation as one among many, accepting the limits of the conditions of life; its joys and sorrows, gains and losses, is itself a divinatory practice.
Perhaps the natal chart of astrology can display the players and the patterns in my life experience, that to some extent, I remain bound to and bound by. But the continuity of the patterns also serve as windows into eternity. They show me the universal nature of human experience and by seeing them more clearly, I can, on a good day anyway, choose my response. My response may or may not change any outcome, but it can show me that my response matters and that all human exchanges are really calls to share in love’s beauty.
These openings further the possibility of seeing the sacred in all life, and in seeing the the sacred throughout all worlds, divine and sacred, and ultimately as one.
What any divinatory practice brings to the fore, are the questions we have, embedded within a call from the unknown, and how it matters to us. But rather than directly providing the knowledge that we believe we need to know – what will happen tomorrow; will I get the job I applied for; will my children be happy, etc. – beginning the process of asking such questions, provides for each of us, images of the desires that capture our attention, the relationships we experience, and how we tell the story of what is happening to us, and the world around us.
What lies at the other end of our quest to know, is perhaps a greater awareness of the nature of our desires through the images we carry of purpose, hope and expectations. This leads to the consideration of just how much influence we dohave over the nature of ourselves, other people and situations that we find ourselves in.
Until these fundamental questions about the nature of ourselves, and of the world are allowed to enter into the narrative of our own telling, it seems unlikely that any idea of the divine, or aesthetic of eternal time will even be desirable to us, let alone offer an understanding of what it is we need to make our way through the mystery of love’s purpose.
At the bottom of every question we ask, friendship we find, house we buy, vacation we take, language we learn, book we read, song we sing, is our perpetual state of want and need. Desire sustains us and belongs to time. We eat, digest, excrete, and we endlessly repeat the cycle. But beyond the desires that sustain us physically, lies a seemingly endless pool of possibilities, just as the starry night seems without bounds or limits. Our relationship to desire feeds, shapes and forms both our character and our destiny on both small and large scales.
Intelligible vs. Omniscience
It is much easier to reject all practices of divination by looking for a failure of omniscience. For then we are off the hook and can stay in our comfort zone. For a true practice, whether of divination, art, writing, music, scientific research or otherwise, requires the courage to move beyond one’s comfort zone and into the unknown. Trust and faith are then necessary and can be found in the everyday world through those who grace our journey, and from the invisible realms of the dream and stream of images that we attend to.
Although it might be true that many who seek out an astrology natal chart or Tarot card reading might be eager to hear “what is going to happen to them,” what might soon become apparent to any seeker is this tug of war between fate and free will. The very act of initiating and submitting to a reading admits one’s fate into the room, as it also invites the idea of “participating via co-operating” with fate by invoking images that “know ahead of time,” or “know at a distance.”
“The problem with introspection is that it has no end.”
― Philip K. Dick
Although we easily recognize that life on planet Earth, and perhaps elsewhere, is possible because of the regularity witnessed within the solar system and beyond, dare we call fate that which influences the individual by a similar ordering principle? If not, then why?
the universe seen as a well-ordered whole.
“he sat staring deep into the void, reminding himself of his place in the cosmos”
It may be easy to intellectually separate the idea that life depends on order to sustain the planet and every living being, from the idea that our lives are also ordered, and therefore, to a certain extent, fated, but in what way does fate provide order?
We pride ourselves on the ability to make conscious choices as we become more aware and responsive to the constraints that bind us, and because the more we can make choices, the less fated and more free the act of choosing makes us feel. But, how do we distinguish between a free choice and a fated one? There must be something in which we measure and compare possible outcomes against in order to categorize our actions as free or fated.
In the study of astrology, these questions of power, forces of fate and will, naturally arise. And so they should if we are to afford ourselves an opportunity to wrestle with their distinctions and correspondence within our practice and understanding of astrology’s purpose.
Where the ancients found the ideas of fate and fortune usefully aligned to the constraints more naturally severe and apparent, and where choices that were contrary to the order of the state or tribe were often punished either by human or natural law, modernity, with its technological advances, allows us the luxury of seemingly going it alone through choices that may not always benefit the tribe. We are much less dependent on the tribe for our survival. We are also much more distanced from exactly what it is that we are dependent upon. To the ancients, many of our choices would seem frivolous, extravagant and self-destructive as we increasingly lose sight of the importance of our choices and the victims of their consequences.
Qualities of Time
Scholars of the myth contrast two kinds of time, secular and sacred, rational and mystical, forward-moving time and timeless circularity.
Hillman, James. The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The idea of eternal time also carries with it the sense of infinitude, that reality, the cosmos, even with its orderliness, has no bounds, no separations, no limits, no beginning and no end. Does this idea of the eternal contradict the notion of a cosmic order? Are order and chaos then, secret allies? It’s fascinating to both imagine and come to a fuller acceptance that from the seemingly finite state of human existence, it’s only through the mind and the nature of our experiences that we can envision eternity and finite qualities of time.
Perhaps it is the emphasis on secular time, the 9-5 habits where attention of the things of the world seduce and enslave us, that have left us with less and less capacity for the experience of eternal time. The more distant these time qualities become, the more the impulse to choose the fast-food of technology that keeps the clock-a-ticking, cutting us off from any experience of the eternal. Precious and few are those timeless states granted to us.
Everyday experience is bound by the limits of our senses, language, thought, culture and the limits of our place within the cosmos, all of which do more to suggest a real separation of experience into discrete parts known as days, hours and moments. We can however, accept that this form of orderliness, through the constancy of the seasons, planetary and stellar motions, and observed through the delicacy of their finely tuned parameters are necessary to sustain life as we know it. Our linear observations about the cosmos, are perhaps, through the very suggestion of limits and boundaries, the very thing, that ironically, give way to the idea of the eternal.
“I’m so tired… I was up all night trying to round off infinity.”
― Steven Wright
How then, do we get at the idea of the eternal, let alone an experience of something both sacred andeternal?
Within the seeming limits of human experience, there are for each of us, moments of discovery, insights, and understanding that bring coherence along with a sense of an expanding wholeness that we participate in; something transcendent, bigger and beyond the narrow confines of “me” and “you.” The more expansive one’s experience becomes, the less it seems to be only inside me, and the more it seems that we are all participants in something much, much grander than previously imagined.
My little ego, even if only now and then, may burst open, giving way to an expanded sense of self and other, transcending the time-bound constraints and acknowledge its smallness in comparison to a greater unbound whole. To the ancients, this feeling, or realization of a greater intelligence has been referred to by many names: One, Anima Mundi, Infinite, God, Cosmos, Eternal, Self, Divine. No matter how imagined, or expressed, this unbounded sensation is perhaps one of the most mysterious experiences of all, and yet impossible to share, and especially, to define. Language, we see, remains the map, not the territory.
How then, throughout the long trail of human existence, does this idea of the eternal persist, especially as it seems so fleeting?
“Cosmos” indicates a world formed by aesthetics. “Cosmetics,” derived from kosmos, gives the clue to the early meanings of the Greek word, when it was linked with the dress of women, with decoration and embellishment, with all things fitting, in order, furnished, and arranged, and with ethical implications of appropriateness, decency, honor. The aesthetic imagination is the primary mode of knowing the cosmos, and aesthetic language the most fitting way to formulate the world.
Hillman, James. The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The aesthetic imagination, rather than seeking to quantify the cosmos, mapping it, saving it for later, for time, permits the immediacy of its ordering and thereby participates through a knowing of the senses that also permits the transcending of time and orderliness, all the while accepting the imposition of limits on all creation, human and otherwise. It is then, the persistence, the constancy of our experience that gives us faith that the sun will rise again, but also that I will one day cease to exist. The coming and going is indeed a fated participation of the cosmos; the ordering ways of the universe. Cosmic ordering itself provides the necessary ground of our being; as a place for transcendence into eternal time.
“Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The love which moves the sun and the other stars.”
Dante’s last line in Paradise
Last December, shortly after my mother passed away, I signed up for Adam Elenbaas’s Hellenistic Astrology course*. How little I understood then the timeliness of this course of study with its potential for reseeding and sustaining me through the subsequent changes in my personal life. The class is difficult, challenging me to discipline my study habits and to align them with the teacher’s plan and vision – for learning now, and eventually, for practicing astrology on my own.
Here goes a first attempt at articulating some thoughts I have about astrology, which like alchemy, I see primarily as a practice for deepening my understanding of the human experience, where the map can align with the territory, revealing a new depth perspective of the landscape. There are countless details yet to incorporate before this new language can begin to be more fully articulated. Astrology itself, is a big world, filled with many diverse voices and perspectives.
Astrology, in the most basic sense, is a way to see and discover the vast array of correspondences between heaven and earth, between the ideal or archetypal realm, and the everyday world of our lives and the patterns revealed over time. The astrological chart then, is an image of the skies from the perspective of Earth. The “wheel” shows the positions of the planets from two distinct perspectives:
Primary or geocentric motion: the clockwise east to west motion that we observe from sunrise to sunset.
Secondary, or heliocentric motion: the counter-clockwise motion of the planets relative to the constellations or zodiac.
Astrology, like alchemy, can provide yet another form or structure for an initiation into a personal experience of the eternal mysteries, the Divine will of the gods, of which we each share a portion of both their glory and fall, or what the ancients referred to as fate.
Fate: late Middle English: from Italian fato or (later) from its source, Latin fatum ‘that which has been spoken’, from fari ‘speak’.
Throughout human history, and in a variety of cultures, astrologers have provided us with the tradition of tending to the “wandering stars” as signifiers of power for their ability to move contrary to the backdrop of the fixed stars. Perhaps the awareness of this secondary motion, sparked the idea that we too, could either harness their powers, or be harnessed, depending on our knowledge and alignment with the heavens. If fate itself is a power, perhaps, we too, could understand it, or least be present to its impact upon us.
That we are situated, a human body on this tiny planet, in such a largely unknown cosmos, when not taken for granted, is humbling. Perhaps through the recognition that astrology offers us a vision of alignment with the cycles of the planets, we might feel all the more that we too, must belong. We are after all stardust! In some ways, we have lost the sense of connection to the underlying powers of any unseen world, just as we no longer remember the stories of the ancient ones.
I am grateful to have found an astrology teacher who suits me well. Adam is immersed in a variety of esoteric traditional studies (See his excellent series on the Hermetica), and views astrology as yet another practice that can mirror back to us the ways we are aligned, or misaligned as the case may be, to the cosmos. Through this embodied life, with all of its joys and sorrows, we are, all of us, offered an experience of something so much greater than what meets the eye.
Are we able to embrace the totality of our personal experience as necessary parts of the whole and so align ourselves into a radical acceptance of the need for cooperation with each other and the powers that be?
Traditional, or Hellenistic astrology, unlike more modern forms, did not shy away from the idea that each of the planets held distinct qualities and influences, and with the exception of Mercury, were considered either benefic or malefic, depending on the qualities of their illumination. Jupiter, big and bright, is considered a benefic, and brings expansion and good fortune, Saturn, with its darker nature, and the farthest away of the seven known planets, was seen as malefic, associated with the time-bound, finite qualities of living beings and, until the more recent discoveries of Neptune, Uranus and Pluto, also served as the end of conceivable time and space.
The ancients, of course, were more vulnerable to the hardships of life, and hence, to a fear of the unknown with the need to seek and find meaningful tools for survival. The idea of fate, that the heavens could “speak” our predicament, was deeply embedded in day to day existence of many peoples and often related to” divine will” whose powers were transmitted through earthly conduits, such as demigods and royalty. To seek access to the divine gifts of the gods was a way to harness power for both mystical and political practices.
While some moderns might argue that rational thought replaced the superstitions of astrology, and that we are better off for it, one must not only ignore the technological context of objective reality in any given era, but might also reflect on the condition we now find ourselves in. If for us moderns, it is no longer true that we can directly experience the state of the world through feeling her mystery, awe, beauty, fear and joy, and if we have become incapable of seeing that the use of technology and political norms has brought us to the brink of destruction, then we are left with a meaningless “nothing but” world of bucket lists, calendar dates with a heap of destruction in their wake.
The Natal Chart
As I am just beginning to learn the basics of reading a natal chart, useful patterns already begin to emerge. As I ponder the meanings of planetary positions, aspects, house placements and dignities, a story emerges that resonates deeply within me.
Any form of an interior practice should, I think, take nothing on faith, but keep all questions front and center. As well, questioning need not deter one from engaging the practice. As with other forms of contemplative practices, trusting in the process as a potential for opening oneself deeper into reflection becomes another precious gift.
My prayer is for the humility to release me into current life changes; to stay with this new practice; to trust and accept in tending to the work, and that it may bear fruit worth sharing.
Along with the Nightlight Astrology class experience, I am also grateful to KoneKrusoKronos for his astrological reflections that can be found here:
To divine something is to appeal to the gods for their power of knowing. To use that power to foretell the future is called “divination.” In Giambattista Vico’s classic book New Science, he associates the modern sense of God as divine, meaning “blessed” or “holy,” back to the pre-Christian or pagan sense of having supernatural powers of predicting and knowing.
“By contrast, the pagans embraced an imaginary providence, for they fancied the gods as physical bodies which foretold the future by signs apparent to the senses. But whether true or imaginary, this attribute of providence led the entire human race to call God’s nature ‘divinity’. They all derived this name from one and the same notion, which in Latin was called divinari, to foretell the future.”
Vico sees the similarities between pagan practices in the near east as a direct influence on the later worship and practices of the Abrahamic religions. Over time, each of the near eastern pantheons developed a hierarchy among the gods. Perhaps this shift of power accounts for the more recent consolidation of the many gods into one.
I sense too that the shift away from polytheism towards monotheism reflects a shift in consciousness to where our animal senses are no longer a unified experience within a tribe. The loss of the unifying power of a tribal consciousness creates a sense of ownership thereby shifting the source of power onto an individual. You might even say that this shift creates the very distinction between individuals and groups.
Unlike tribal cultures, city-states are organized through the rites of family and a principle of ownership. Slowly over time, a sense of ownership has permeated every facet of human life, but more importantly, it now shapes our sense of identity. Where in tribal societies the stories came from the gods, our stories now come from a single source, i.e., God, and in the post-Christian west, from each individual subject.
“Long ago, Noah’s three sons renounced their father’s religion, which by its rite of marriage was the only thing that preserved the society of families in that state of nature. There followed a period of brutish wandering or migration, in which first Ham’s tribes, then Japheth’s, and finally Shem’s, were all scattered throughout the earth’s great forest.”
After generations of wandering in the “primeval forest” some of the scattered tribes began to settle and adopt several critical rites which led to the development of what we now call civil laws and civil society.
“These principles are (1) divine providence; (2) solemn matrimony; and (3) the universal belief in the immortality of the soul, which originated with burial rites.”
Vico then states “they were shaken and roused by a terrible fear of Uranus and Jupiter, the gods they had invented and embraced.”
“Through protracted settlement and the burial of their ancestors, they came to found and divide the first dominions of the earth. The lords of these domains were called giants, a Greek word which means ‘sons of the earth’, or descendants of the buried dead.These lords were considered patricians or nobles: for in this first stage of human civilization, nobility was justly ascribed to those who had been humanely engendered in fear of divinity.”
“Engendered in the fear of divinity” or in the gods’ power to know all that humans fervantly wish to know. To be all-knowing is, among other things, a survival skill that moved human civilization from small tribes of hunter-gatherers to agriculturally based nation-states. To cultivate the land requires the knowledge and study of time, including the cycles of weather. The practice of divination is the beginning of what we now call science which continues to influence all aspects of what it means to know something.
To map the heavens, as astrology does, seeks to understand and respect the correlation between the world as it is; time, her seasons and our needs. It’s no wonder that the deities were located in the vastness of the heavens. To look up and outward to a seemingly boundless expanse might itself account for the notion of infinity. To cultivate the people, along with the land, also requires the god’s help:
“These first fathers of the pagan nations possessed all four of the classical virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. They were just in their supposed piety of observing the auspices, which they believed to be Jupiter’s divine commands. (From his Latin name Ious, Jove, derived the ancient word ious, law, which was later contracted to ius, justice. And in every nation, justice is taught together with piety.) They were prudent in making sacrifices in order to ‘procure’ omens, that is, to interpret them properly, and thus to take proper care to act according to Jupiter’s commands. They were temperate by virtue of their marriages. And, as noted here, they also possessed fortitude.”
Vico traces our Judeo-Christian cultural sensibilities directly to pagan antiquity. Although our modern definition of “divine” can mean anything from a brand of chocolate (yum!), to God as the Divine and Holy one, the association of divinity to the primal necessity of knowing, expresses both the value and power that all knowledge has held for us throughout the ages.
But, to lose a cosmology which at one time enabled us to directly experience a correspondence between each other, and the world we inhabit, is to suffer a great alienation and aloneness. We moderns, because our use (and abuse) of power comes through a pronounced sense of individuality, seem to think it’s a matter of our choosing which direction our lives and the future of the planet are headed. I am beginning to question just how true or not that notion is. If predicated on a faulty premise, maybe there’s more to the story. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
“Our present civilization quite obviously lacks any unifying principle. The degree of unity which the vague term ‘modern civilization’ implies is in many ways a ‘unity of disunity’, the peoples involved being given a superficial coherence by the spread of technology and by common acceptance of certain ways of thought whose very nature is to create further disintegration.”
Alan W. Watts, The Supreme Identity
Except as noted, all quotes from Vico, Giambattista (1999-04-29). New Science (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”
Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.
Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.
Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.
Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.
The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.
One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).
Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.
If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.
With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.
In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.
When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.
Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:
“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”
When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.
Saturn = Lead
Jupiter = Tin
Mars = Iron
Sun = Gold
Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)
Venus = Copper
Moon = Silver
The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.
“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”
The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.
Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.
All quotes: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.