In this rationality-biased world many aspects of life have collapsed into what can be monetized or used in self-promotion. This process has penetrated deeply into almost all creative acts, yet there are some who recognize a more complete range of being and expression. There are those who wish to create in order to know, who wish to engage all ways of knowing and seeing. Early alchemy is one arena in which these ideas played out. It is not without reason that visionaries, both mystic and artistic, found inspiration in this art.
Hellenistic alchemy operates on several aspects of reality along with the observation that creation arises within the play of opposites. The alchemical understanding of being is that there are no hard boundaries; that it is more a spectrum of awareness from ignorance to wisdom.
The Emerald Tablet,a foundational alchemical text, states that all creation, large or small, regardless of medium or time, follows from the same principles and processes. Alchemy actively engages both “outer” physical processes and “inner” practices such as meditation, visualization, and dream work. It is not a question of “either/or” but “both/and.” This unity is like the experience of seeing a stereographic photo: each image of the pair is a fair representation of the world. However, no explanation can convey the startling experience of 3D perception when the images are seen through a viewer. And with this union, we gain an insight more than either of the two photographs alone could provide. Working with both “inner” and “outer” engenders a process of discovery and invention that informs the work. And the resulting union of inner and outer is manifested in the end result, whatever form it may take.
The aim of the early alchemists was the ascent of the soul and union with the divine. Through their alchemical work, they used all ways of knowing to create while creating in order to know. Articulated more fully by Stephanos of Alexandria, the seventh-century alchemist, in his On The Great and Sacred Art of Making Gold as “the way of the philosopher.” He says that the philosopher:
carefully investigates all their natures, compounds their union according to rule, resolves intelligently both their associations and ten thousand compositions, accomplishes with skill the combination that has been mentioned, and focuses his general observation upon simple unity. He will have a plain knowledge in these matters that is contemplatively and decidedly correct.
In so doing, he “may learn by the direct operation and by theological and mystical words.”
Stephanos continues: “The method of mystical chemistry consists of celestial images and whatever is necessary is accomplished by method.” These “images” may be of any material, sound, idea, model, etc. Sometimes traditional symbols are the starting point, as well as “images” from dreams or initiatic flashes. Take all aspects of the question and, as an action meditation, work with material as a dialogue. Images that repeat and develop sometimes take on a life of their own, and that thread is followed. One of the places union is first experienced is in the lunar realm, in dream, a place where impossible unions become possible.
In his Virtue Lessons, the fourth-century Alexandrian alchemist Zosimos i reports the use of dream in searching for an answer. He writes:
The composition of waters, the movement, growth, removal, and restitution of corporeal nature, the separation of the spirit from the body, and the fixation of the spirit on the body are not due to foreign natures.
Saying these things I went to sleep, and I saw a sacrificing priest standing before me at the top of an altar in the form of a bowl. This altar had 15 steps leading up to it. Then the priest stood up and I heard a voice from above saying to me, “I have accomplished the descent.”
The key phrase here is “saying these things I went to sleep,” and it suggests a method, the consideration of a problem while falling asleep. Then in dream the unions and dissolutions become apparent, guiding the work further.
Eventually it becomes an act, not so much about the interpretation of the dream, but of accessing the mind supporting it, not the letter but the sender, so to speak. From there, alchemy begins. Creating in order to know, probing the boundaries, the work becomes an ecstatic way of being and knowing, all channels open, thin as the breath: all circulates and a center of luminous understanding and insight arises—it is one’s very own personal apocalypse.
Creation—intent, a consideration, silence, a space, a body, and then a rupture, a mark, a cut. For every act the work acts back.
…saying these things I went to sleep…
BRIAN COTNOIR is an alchemist, artist, and award-winning filmmaker. Author of The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy, The Emerald Tablet, and Alchemical Meditations, he is currently writing his next book, Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter.