Alchemy as Hieratic Art (Selections)
Translated by Aaron Cheak, PhD
What is presented here are some important extracts from Henry Corbin’s study, ‘The Book of Seven Statues of Apollonius of Tyana, with a commentary by Jaldākī’, as published in the 1986 collection, Alchemy as Hieratic Art, edited by Pierre Lory. Note here that Corbin is translating Jaldākī from the Arabic, who in turn is citing a lost Greek text of Apollonius preserved in Arabic translation. We are therefore dealing with ‘translations within translations’. For the original French, see ‘Le « Livre des sept Statues » d’Apollonios de Tyane, commenté par Jaldakî,’ in Alchimie comme art hiératique, ed. Pierre Lory (Paris: L’Herne, 1986), pp. 63-4, 67, 71-3, 114-6.
Corbin on Alchemy
The Book of Seven Statues is of capital importance for many reasons. In the first case, it is a matter of the transmission of a Greek text for which we only have the Arabic version at our disposal. In the second case, this text is a major testimony of the hermetic tradition in Iran. And finally, it clarifies for us very well the conception of alchemy as a hieratic art, to employ an expression from Proclus (Arabic: sinâ‘a ilâhîya, ars divina). The statues designated by the word asnâm are in reality living and speaking statues, and each statue is the priest of the Temple that belongs to it. Together they are the seven priests of the seven Temples corresponding to the seven planetary divinities. One may think here of the seven Temples of the Sabaeans of Harran that provided a haven for hermeticism in Islam until at least the tenth century. These statues are living and speaking because they are made not just from common metal but from “philosophical metal” issued from the alchemical operation, and it is this that renders them capable of fulfilling their sacerdotal function in their temple. In sum, they are “sacerdotal living statues.” The motif of the living statue and the motif of the priest are the two aspects under which alchemy presents itself here as ars hieratica.
Not only does it contain a mine of information, it is eminently representative of a conception of alchemy that is neither a simple dramaturgy of the unconscious or psychological allegory, nor a simple manipulation of materials practiced in the manner of a mere chemist or pharmacist. It is an operation at once material and spiritual, the juncture between the two aspects remaining the hidden secret underneath the symbols of the “Philosophers” (as the alchemists designate themselves). And because the ars hieratica integrates the two operations, its locus is in fact a mesocosm (intermonde), of which the ritual form and the cadre of a temple are the best means of imposing the integral representation.
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Underlying this great historical debate is another question, which, as we discussed above, is directed at the very conception of alchemy. It is impossible to appreciate the respective positions of its adversaries and its adepts without having first verified whether both are truly speaking of the same thing. When an Avicenna refuses the very idea of transmutation (a refusal which agrees with his proper metaphysics of essences, unfamiliar to the idea of intensifications of being professed by a Mulla Sadrâ Shîrâzî), it appears that he remains completely distant from that which will be sought by an adept such as Jaldâkî in his commentary on the Book of the Seven Statues (and also in his other books). The difficulty is aggravated by the fact that the majority of western historians have treated Graeco-Islamic alchemy as if it were a precursory chapter to modern chemistry. Holmyard, Ruska, Kraus think only to situate Jâbir, for example, within a line that leads to Boyle, Lavoisier, etc. The misunderstanding is serious, if not complete. To speak of “quantitative science” in Jâbir, as P. Kraus does, is perhaps to play with words, since it is a matter for Jâbir of measuring “the desire of the Soul of the world [which is] incorporeal to the elements”; moreover, an express declaration in Jâbir invites us to read the collection called the Seventy Books as a ciphered text, a complete exposé in veiled form. All these reservations have already been formulated by the publication with a translation—it will soon be thirty years—of our study of “The Book of Glory of Jâbir ibn Hayyan.” One must ask: do the “quantitative” formulas established by Jâbir have anything in common with the meaning of the same in the laboratories of our own day?
It seems essential, as Jâbir himself invites us to do (for example in the Five Hundred Books, cf. above)—to differentiate several levels of signification. The same operation can be accomplished respectively by a chemist and by an alchemist: the respective level of hermeneutic proposed by each will in no way be the same. The first case, the chemist, can be typified in the person of the doctor Rhazes. The second case, the alchemist, can be typified in the person of Jaldâkî. This includes his forebears (a Zosimos) and his successors, whose preoccupation links them to the tradition identified in the west as "laboratory and oratory" and which leads to the liturgical idea of a Missa alchemica. The historian, or better, the phenomenologist of alchemy, does not find themselves placed before a simple dilemma calling for a decision between the “puffers,” “charcoal-makers,” or charlatans and the serious practitioners who would conduct “scientific work.” There is a third term, the only one capable of representing alchemy properly and authentically as both a science and a spiritual experience (expérimentation) of Nature and of humanity. This alchemy is eminently represented by Jaldâkî, and the tradition continues in Iran through the work of a Mîr Fendereskî, and up until our own day in the Shaykhî school. Meditation on the alchemical operation as a spiritual expérimentation of Nature tends to liberate the thought or spiritual energy (extrahere cogitationem) immanent in the metals that the alchemists treat, in order to incorporate them into the interior being. Synchronistically, they realise the inner growth of the subtle body, the “body of resurrection.” In other words, to interiorise the true operation is to obtain the psychic reactions that resolve themselves into a mystical physiology of the “resurrection body.” In short, this is why alchemy is a hieratic art.
I am that in light by which Air is illuminated. I am that which warms and ferments (échauffe) Earth by bringing forth the wondrous plants. I am that which, by his sovereign authority, repels the obscurity of night. It is I who raise the days of the world. It is I who make the flowers grow. It is I who clothe with light all things possessing light. Every beautiful thing, every gracious and brilliant thing, is raised by my art and by my work. That which I clothe with a part of my vestment receives complete beauty and total lustre because my colour is the most beautiful, the greatest and the most lustrous of colours.
Jaldaki's Commentary on Apollonius
Know that God Most High has created the entire Universe and has divided it into two parts: one, active, [exercising its action] in another, passive. [literally, an agent (fâ’il) and a recipient (qâbil)] And as it is of the condition of the agent (the active) to comprehend, to utter and to hold forth discourse, it is fitting for him to say: “I have acted, I have asserted,” just as the sovereign declares, with the plural of majesty: “We have ordained, we have prescribed”; likewise the judge [qâdî], who declares: “I have judged, I have given a ruling, I have signed,” words which are permanent and binding. And likewise too, man affirms: “I have acted so, in such and such a manner,” and here, also, one can relate back to the sun the acts and the signatures that he asserts, which God has instituted for him. But the agent in reality and in the absolute sense is God Most High, and the ensemble of acts which proceed in beings, whatever the agent may be, these acts take place by His assistance [madad], by His power and His will.
Thus, every agent which acts upon a patient [a receptacle, qâbil] among created things, this action produces itself by the energy which God has conferred to it, and the origin of that which nourishes this energy comes from the divine power. If we suppose that God were to cut off the nourishment of this energy, this energy itself will be abolished, the action would not be able to take place, and the capacity to act will itself be removed from the agent by the agent. The agent therefore will no longer be an agent; there will no longer be for him a patient upon which he acts, and there will be a state of arrest and impotence. All strength and power therefore belong to God Most High. It is He who provides the spirit of life. It is for Him to give life, it is for Him to remove this force and the nourishment of this force, and to produce therefore death. He is the Living, such that “there is no god but Him, Lord of the Sublime Throne” (Koran XXVII, 26).
Therefore, by virtue of these precisions, when the agent of a thing declares: “Me, I have done this,” his remark is metaphorical in one respect, and true in another. On one hand, the force by which he acts is not in essence his, because if it belonged to him by essence, he would also have power in essence; it would follow that he will be the creator of his acts and that power emanates from him by his self-same essence, not from another, but this is impossible, because he is only the agent by means of a certain force, and this force by which he is active has need of the nourishment which the True and Establishing Creator sends to him. Therefore when the agent declares: “I have done, I have arranged thus,” it is in this respect a metaphor. On the other hand, the true sense of this remark is that the activity clearly emanates from him ad extra by the force which God made exist for him, and clearly this force needs the help of the Creator. The agent is therefore the agent only by a force which for him is a gift accorded by the Creator, but it always remains possible that this force will be removed from him, for it does not belong to him in reality. It is conferred to him for a determined duration, after which God takes it from him, if he so chooses—there is no divinity outside Him, He makes live and He makes die (Koran, VII, 158) and He has power over all things. Comprehend this well.