The Great Work (part 3)
The Ladder of the Wise
The Great Work consists of various stages and processes. These processes to which the matter is subjected are often linked to a ladder or steps leading to a temple. The stages are almost invariably presented as laboratory processes, which are described using highly complex imagery, both verbal and graphic.
The most common number of stages in the Great Work is seven. The processes and accompanying emblems may be interpreted in many different ways. Let the emblems (that are described in the following pages) be allowed to speak for themselves.
All our purifications are done in fire, by fire, and with fire. (The Mystery of the Cathedrals)
To calcine a substance means to burn it until all has turned chalky white. When this stage is reached the substance can be altered no further by vulgar fire alone. In alchemy, calcination is always considered a purification process. It symbolizes the secret fire that destroys all aspects of false personality.
A lion is devouring a snake. The lion is the sulfur, the raw, inner fire of the soul; the serpent is unrefined mercury, the unclean, false spirit that starves the soul and poisons the ego with selfishness. The purifying fire is merciless, but only falseness dies.
The ashes contain the salt of the stone, the key to the next stage symbolized by the two flowers growing out of the crucible on the table. Seated at the table are the Sun and the Moon. They too, are sulfur and mercury, but refined, exalted and harmonious. They are the heavenly, immortal soul and spirit. They wear armour, protecting the alchemist’s true self, who is none other than winged Hermes.
Dissolution is the second major operation in the alchemy of transformation. It is the solve of the alchemical law solve et coagula – “Dissolve (the body) and coagulate/bind/fix (the spirit)”.
When we calcinate a plant, we are left with nothing but pale ashes. Within these ashes, however, is the sal salis, the salt of the earth, the matrix of the true self. This salt is strongly hygroscopic, sucking out of the air the moisture that it needs in order to dissolve, thereby becoming a powerfully corrosive solution. The water contains the fire that allows the salt to burn. Dame Nature points to water springing from a rock beneath the lion’s feet. The Green Lion leaps greedily at the Sun. Now it has the power do dissolve gold.
The resurrected man points to the womblike vessel, which is receiving water distilled by the furnace. He has drunk from the stream and radiates strength and joy.
The Green Lion is our Mercury, still in a unperfected state. It is the initiate, who has been tried by fire and is eager for more solar consciousness, the bright light of illumination.
Separation occurs when our spirits and souls (or wills) are not in harmony. Following the surrender of dissolution, the spirit feels antagonized and attacks the will. The solution that we have become is corrosive and as sharp as the man’s sword and the eagle’s beak. It is vitriolic and attacks everything that it contains. But the dross that was burned off is insoluble. It must be separated, filtered off.
The fire of calcination gives way to the water of dissolution. Now the element of air takes over. A man and a woman are in conflict. The man defends himself with sword and shield, while the woman has an eagle on her arm, ready to fly at the man. Hermes separates the polarized couple, armed with a caduceus in each hand, reminding them that they are both responsible for reconciling the polarities within themselves.
Separation can be an extreme painful process, but the emblem shows us how to deal with it. We must identify with the Hermes within ourselves and become reconciled like the caduceus. The sword and the eagle are both symbols of the element of air, which corresponds to the intellect, cognitive imagination, and breathing. Hermes here warns us against allowing our minds to torture ourselves. By the use of breath and imagination, we can resolve our inner conflict.
The warring couple who was separated by a youthful, armoured Hermes is now conjoined in holy matrimony by the mature Hermes. Now reconciled, sulfur and mercury are conjoined in harmony. Neptune’s three-pronged trident punctures the clouds and a shower of rain purifies the royal couple. Sol and Luna, fire and water, combine to produce a rainbow, which arches over the lovers, symbolizing the meeting of heaven and earth and reconciliation. The rainbow’s seven colours represent the seven planets in harmony, as well as the Trinity and the elements. In mineral alchemical work, the rain signifies, the washing of the matter before the appearance of the peacock’s tail, the cauda pavonis, with its display of colours. The double-headed furnace is the inner fire that distils the essence that nourishes both spirit and soul.
The initiate has achieved a state of inner equilibrium, is conscious of the opposing principles within him- or herself, and is able to balance and reconcile them. This development in consciousness is symbolized by the crowns on the couple’s heads. The initiate has attained a degree of power, but the immortality of true enlightenment has not yet been won.
The process of fermentation, or putrefaction, is the initiate’s “long, dark night of the soul”, the descent into darkness, the metaphysical death. This “black that is blacker than black” (nigrum nigrius nigrat) is symbolized by the raven. This nigredo, the black phase, is the shaman’s death, a dangerous and terrifying ordeal that the initiate can only survive if he or she is sufficiently balanced. If the initiate has earned his or her spurs, the reward will be a mystical palingenesis, a rebirth in which the soul is truly born with the chance of immortality.
Sol and Luna are now eclipsed by their own conjunction. Their leavening passion, imbibed with the rain, has set the pair in ferment. This produces a spirit, a philosophical mercury, that dissolves the body that contained them. In becoming something greater through their union, they lose their identities, but do not entirely cease to be: they are dead, but not in the grave. The skeleton stands above the eclipsed pair. Though fleshless and anonymous, Death has already been resurrected. The angels watch over the process, honouring the sacredness of even this most hellish scene. A tree has been felled, yet there is life in it and a new branch sprouts from the stump. On this side of the river all is stygian black, but on the other bank the sun shines, the steeple soars, and all is alive.
The alchemist in red and his soror mystica (“mystic sister”) in white are using an elegant distillation train, shaped like the caduceus of Hermes, to distill aqua vitae (“water of life”).
Distillation is one of the key processes in alchemy. In the Great Work, the distillation is a circulation, a process that occurs within the hermetically sealed alembic. With each circulation, the matter is farther exalted, ”combining the power of above and below.” Through gentle heating, the volatile elements are transmuted into air; they condense at the top of the vessel, becoming water, and descend again like tears, to rise again through the action of fire to repeat the process. Through distillation we can purify spirit and soul.
The glory of the Macrocosm is reflected in the earthly paradise of the Microcosm. The tree of Life provides all the fruits necessary to produce the Elixir. This superb engraving celebrates the perfecting of the legendary Aurum potabile (“potable gold”), personified by a united Sol and Luna, who appear in their naked glory before Hermes the alchemist.
The final stage of the Great Work is accomplished when no more changes can be observed occurring within the matter. The Philosopher’s Stone has been perfected. It is no longer subject to change, but is immutable and incorruptible. It has a waxy, yet powdery, consistency and a crystalline quality. It is bright, and yet not translucent. Its colour combines all of the colours of the Sun. Is has the weight of gold. It has a subtle, but penetrating, mysteriously attractive odour.
The miracle has occurred: The initiate has become the adept, transcending his of her own mortality and gender. The initiate’s will is now at one with the Trinity, and his or her hands hold the power of the Universe.
Melville, Francis: The Book of Alchemy. Fair Winds Press 2002.
Compiled by Simone Anliker.
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