Alchemical Symbolism as a Spiritual Language
The English language lacks the nuance that ancient languages rooted in mystic traditions have. Alphabets that have meaning beyond their linguistic face value. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Old Norse carry layers of meaning in each individual letter. Languages originally intended to record religious laws, history and mythology have numerous words for which the English language has no equivalent. In Western Esoteric traditions many mystic texts that have influenced such traditions were originally written in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Arabic. However, over centuries of re-translation some of the context has been lost. The knowledge passed down through medieval alchemical texts and hermetic magical traditions have kept many of those occult concepts alive, concealed within their occult symbolism. The secrets of alchemical symbolism are available to those who understand its language.
To the exoteric world, the engravings in alchemical manuscripts look like something out of an acid trip. They depict beautiful other worldly scenes, fantastic creatures and monstrous forms. Their scenes contain geometric figures and celestial spheres. Plants, animals and humans contained in glass vessels are commonplace in the symbolic language of alchemical texts. These arrangements contain layer upon layer of meaning, providing context for the processes of transmutation and universal cosmic forces they represent. These pictorial representations provide a narrative for the unseen forces at work in the wider Universe and within our own individual microcosm. By seeing the abstract connections present in these archetypal forces we are able to gain insights into their deeper meaning through their dynamic interplay, thereby internalizing these powers within ourselves.
Numerology in Alchemical Symbolism
One common tool used in the representation of deeper esoteric concepts is numerology. In alchemy this is represented in the sequence of the numbers 1-7. This sequence represents not only the seven ancient celestial bodies of the solar system, but also the stages of alchemical work. When considered individually each number also has its own unique associations with key concepts in occultism.
Beginning with the number one, the first manifestation out of the Void of Consciousness represents both the macrocosm and microcosm. It is the first point of individuation. It also represents the consciousness of the alchemist at the center of the Work.
The number two is the number of duality, polarity, and balancing opposing forces. These are represented by Solar/Lunar, male/female. active and passive. These are the forces of Creation, being all potential of the singularity and the first initiating force that sets everything in motion.
The Trinity is of special significance in many spiritual traditions, and the same is true in alchemical symbolism. It represents the Spirit, Anima, and Corpus symbolized by the Tria Prima or Three Primes; Mercury, Sulfur and Salt. These are connected to the three processes of the Great Work; Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo. These three stages are signified by the colors black, white and red which also are commonly used in witchcraft to represent other triune spiritual concepts.
The number four is the number of structuring and the organization of matter. Balanced by the two polarities of the four elements it forms the cube of matter, symbolized by the Corpus or Body. The square of matter and triangle of the Three Primes combine to form the number seven which is a significant number in alchemical symbolism. It also represents the seven planetary bodies. When three and four are multiplied they become the twelve signs of the zodiac.
The pentagram represented by the number five consists of the four elements and the quintessence of spirit. It also represents the body of the alchemist, and is a symbol of transformation and change.
Six, is also a number of polarity, a higher octave, representing the three pairs of two that stand on the two pillars of the Tree of Life. It is also represented by the Hexagram which represents the union of opposites.
The number seven is of special importance to the alchemist. Not only does it represent the seven planets and their corresponding metals, but it also represents the seven stages of transformation which start with death and culminate in rebirth. Seven is the number of words in the alchemical mantra, VITRIOL. Which means to “Visit the interior of the earth, and through purification you will find the hidden stone.” This is the Great Work that the alchemist seeks to achieve, and is a cornerstone of alchemical thought.
Applying Alchemical Symbols in Magic
Adam McLean, in his book, The Alchemical Mandala, expresses the benefits of alchemical symbolism in meditation and visionary work. Describing their circular shape and geometric arrangement as being the Western equivalent of mandalas of Eastern spiritual traditions used for similar purposes. He describes techniques of meditation in which the imagery of the mandala is contemplated until it can be recalled in the mind’s eye. Once this is achieved the mandala is used as a gateway for pathworking meditation. The wayfarer takes the place of the alchemist in the center of the mandala, visualizing its components in three dimensional form. Over time the individual is able to interact with the symbolic forms gaining deeper understanding of their nature.
The magical applications of alchemical symbolism are manifold, and yet to be discovered. The mandalas, as visual representations of occult forces can be employed as ritual symbols similar in nature to Solomonic pentacles and circles used in ceremonial magic. By being drawn on the floor of the ritual space or on the surface of the altar they act as an interface, or microcosm upon which these forces can be moved and manipulated.
The various stages of alchemy can correspond to a number of magical processes. The stages of Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo are connected to solar, lunar and earthly energies commonly used in the Craft. The planets associated with these three stages; Saturn, Venus and Mercury are intimately connected to magic. The active, passive and integrative forces are also found in the characters of the gods, elemental powers and the body of the witch.
Alchemical symbolism provides a deeper understanding of many of the natural forces that we are already familiar with working with in the practice of magic. The symbols of alchemical processes, metals and stages can all be employed for their unique properties as talismans and the marking of ritual objects. The language of alchemy provides a rich vocabulary for the magical practitioner and warrants further exploration in modern magical practice.
Visit Adam McLean’s website to find his book, The Alchemical Mandala. This website is a great resource for the study of alchemy. http://www.alchemywebsite.com/adam.html