“Life is a cord stretched between two poles, and the sound of this string is life” (R. A Schwaller de Lubicz). “To make the string vibrate you need a shock, and this shock is Eros”. But—there must be a reversal, a reorientation: propagate “upwards”, not “outwards”, as Nietzsche said. The whole body must be infused, engorged, enlivened, not just the loins. It will open up all your centres of energy. It will turn you into a god. Amorous, playful, magnetic. Effortless. But you must breathe—“deep, deeper than any day”.
Nietzsche uses the terms fortpflanzen and hinaufpflanzen. He says plant yourself not only forth, but upward (Nicht nur fort sollst du dich pflanzen, sondern hinauf!) The term fortpflanzen means propagate, reproduce, increase—“go forth and multiply”. But to plant yourself up (hinauf) means to sow your seeds in heaven—plant your roots in the eternal. The imperative against procreation, what Joseph Needham called a “countercurrent” that leads to immortality, has some very deep resonances. The Daoist alchemists spoke of the process as the central dynamic of creating the golden elixir or embryo. They spoke of a forward movement (shun) and a backwards movement (ni, reversal or inversion). The golden embryo, the nascent immortal, has to be created by turning the normal flow of creation back upon itself, to its source. In three stages, you withdraw the tria prima back into their primordial, apophatic unity: essence (jing = salt) into breath (qi = mercury), breath into spirit (shen = sulphur), and spirit into nothingness. Ad nihilum.
Good bread and good tea make he world go round. There is a relation between the plants that give us our daily life, our livelihood, and the planets. In a sense, the plants that grow on the earth are extensions of the planetary metals that grow in the earth—gestating like embryos in the mineral matrix—the mineral kingdom being the foundation of metallic and biological life. By propagating ourselves upwards, planting our seeds and roots in the sphere of ouranos, we nourish ourselves on the planets directly, rather than their earthly signatures—the plants. This is again a reversal. Or rather, it is a reversion to a higher revolution. Rather than making the world go round, in the sense of a joie de vivre, it makes the world go round in the sense of the Platonic spheres: the cycles of sameness and difference, of which the planets are subsidiary phenomena. By ascending the planetary spheres, we overcome our fate (heimarmenē, astral fatality). But to overcome our fate, to be able to be nourished by the planets, we must properly “digest” their influence. Only then will we go beyond the “wanderers”, and all wandering, to fix the volatile.
“A true man breathes from his heels” (Lao Tzu). By breathing deep, we nourish ourselves on the heaven that is contained within the earth, the essence of yang contained within yin. In a sense, we must let the earth breathe through us. We are instruments and organs of earth. Or rather: the spirit of the earth. We must let the spirit of the earth breathe through us. Yes, man—or rather, royal man—is the mean term between heaven and earth. Like the soul, it is in the privileged position of being able to partake of both domains. But, as the Orphics say: “I am a child of earth and starry heaven, but my race is of heaven alone”. This is important. It is the fire of the earth that seeks nourishment, that makes man and woman king and queen by breathing the stars down through them. This is how breath (qi, mercury) returns to spirit (shen, sulphur).
The Sanskrit word for alchemy is rasāyana. It means “the path of essences” (rasa, “fluid, essence” + ayana, “path”). Rasa is cognate with resin and in French, rosée (dew). From the nocturnal essence (rosée) comes the delicate life of the flower (rose). Essence is a vehicle for spirit. This is why jing (essence) contains qi and qi, spirit. The fluid material essence bears the spiritual form. The Platonic hyperdochē, matter, prima materia, must be prepared to receive form. Must be reincrudated, purified. Become virgin. Only then can matter become mother (mater, matrix). In the human work, the body is the matter, the matrix of the spiritual embryo, created from rasa or jing, reverted into breath and then spirit. Yes, spirit (pneuma as shen) condenses into breath (air: pneuma as qi) and then essence (moisture). Here, spirit, pneuma, and qi form something of a chiasmus, a crossing, between the dry and the wet (the “water which does not wet the hands”). But yes, the body must be purified, the bodily essences cultivated, refined; the breath deepened to become an organ for the spirit (the fire of the earth); and then spirit breathes through us, from the font of nothingness. For the lower is always a vehicle for the higher, an organ within the greater organism. Ultimately, essentially, we nourish ourselves on the maternal aspect of the eternal. This is the meaning of milk in the drowning rite (apotheosis: to drown; to deify).
The connection to the mother is the connection to the maternal numen, the connection to eternity. Spiritual rebirth requires not only dying to the material body; it requires a divine source of nourishment. And yet, at the same time, the material body becomes the mother—the earth, the material matrix—of a new birth. From the mortal comes the immortal. In the words of Baudelaire, we must “distil the eternal from the transient”. But the best image of the birth of the immortal from the mortal, of extracting the eternal from the transient, comes from Zhang Boduan (the “true man of purple yang”), who says: “with a peal of thunder the golden cicada sheds its shell, and you have a body outside your body”. He means the golden embryo. The immortal renatus.
High-noon. Hot. “Bitterness (i.e. the bitter taste) enters the heart” (Neijing). Coffee should not be bitter. Milk and sugar—softness and sweetness—the amelioration of bitterness, should not be necessary. It should be drunk straight. Black as midnight on a moonless night. The cafe near my house had been making excellent coffee for three weeks straight. Only occasionally bitter, and only slightly. For a month straight I drunk macchiatos every day as I worked through Plato’s Timaeus, Hornung’s survey of the Egyptian Unterweltsbücher, and the Wuzhen pian. All in all, an excellent combination. Hard to beat.
And then the coffee got bitter. I stopped drinking. For a week or two, testing the waters occasionally. And then it got better. And I wondered: what changed? Was it the coffee or was it me? It is a matter of thresholds. Ebb and flow. Bitter : better.
In the Duat, the sounds of the gods and the deceased, rejoicing in their response to the passage of the solar procession, are only intelligible to the divine entities: to human ears they sound like the noises of animals, the clanging of metal, the splashing of water—the sounds of nature. These acoustic signatures are a divine language. We need to hear the divine through the sounds of the here and now.
When the bā (psychē) of the sun-god enters the sixth hour—midnight—reuniting with its corpse (its corpse is a scarab, the form of the rejuvenated, rising sun), it provides the denizens of the underworld with cloth, clothing. This indicates the vital, bodily textures that begin to envelope the solar embryo as it moves from its conception (midnight) to its birth (dawn). Yes, the texture incarnates the text (logos). The resurrection of the sun proceeds from the moment of unification of the volatile and the fixed—Ra, the bā or soul; Osiris, the sahu or body.
In the twelfth hour of the Amduat, the gods of the solar barque are drawn backwards through the body of a great serpent: frail and old, they enter its tail; freshly born, they exit its mouth. Before dawn there is thus a reversal of time.
On the sarcophagus of Seti I, the Book of Gates is inscribed like a chiasmus: beginning at the feet of the dead king, the text proceeds around the outside of the sarcophagus; it finishes on the inside of the sarcophagus, at his head. The last gate, with the final vignette depicting the rebirth of the sun from the primordial waters, thus occurs as an aurora, a crown. Like the soul emerging from the cranial vault, the solar renatus climbs into the sky, a body outside the body. The gates of dawn open. The shell of the golden cicada falls to the earth.
The primordial waters, the depths of the earth, the sky. These are the three essential “textures” of the solar procession. Each in their own way supports, nourishes and bears the energy of the solar numen. In a sense they are its vehicles or bodies. The synoptic depiction at the end of the Book of Gates is quite remarkable: Nun emerges from the primal waters, bearing the solar bark; above the solar bark hangs the netherworldly Osiris, who bears Nut; Nut stretches out her arms to embrace the rising sun, which is born aloft by a scarab. Much could be said, but I was struck by the following:
The Sun (Ra) = Fire = Soul
The Sky (Nut) = Air = Breath
The Duat (Osiris, Tatenen) = Earth = Body
The Primordial Waters (Nun) = Water = Essence
The body of Osiris bends around behind him like a serpent to touch his head, from which Nut emerges—not unlike Athena from Zeus.
The stretching of a string—the primordial « tonos »—was the first act in the founding of a temple. In the underworld it is used to measure and apportion land for the blessed dead. Geometry. Geo-metros. “To measure the earth”. The « tonos » bears the impulse toward life; just as the primordial tone holds the harmonies of the diatonic scale—the seven—so too does the solar octave link earth to heaven through the harmonies of metallic, biological and planetary life. The « tonos » is the warp and weft—the tensility upon which creation is woven. It forms the seven vital textures by which the soul is woven into flesh; it forms the seven moral textures through which the soul is loosened from its planetary binding.
The sun begins to sink. The heat has been fierce today, oppressive. It seems to take our energy with it as it plunges, reluctantly, into the realm of the dead. There is toing and froing. Shifting inside and out. Departures and returns. Chiasma at the liminal interstices of day and night. The gates to the underworld open. Activity increases as the day settles. Creatures cry out in the language of the gods. The world turns inside out.
Night rises and I sense a certain reluctance, a holding back; something prevents me from being more open. Fear, uncertainty, to be sure. Or its masks. But fear of what? Of complication, attachment, and (paradoxically) limitation. Fear of limitation limits me. Or rather, of having my options limited. Of missing out on something purer, more perfect. Gemini Moon squares Mars in Virgo. Perhaps. But between the passion for perfection and the fluctuating mind, a path must be struck. Breathe deep.
“The only true love is love of abandon. Love of nothingness” (Schwaller). I need to give. That is all. This I already know. Every limit, every imperfection, every impurity, is a locus of transmutation. An act of love. All is energeia. All you need to do is accept it. More than that: engage it. Every single thing that exists only wants to be raised up in the transfiguring adoration of its beloved.
Recently I had one of those dreams where I slowly discover the deeply disconcerting fact that I am the perpetrator of multiple crimes. Murders. The assumption: I have another self that acts unbeknownst to my conscious persona. A survivor—a young woman, pretty—bears a cut across her mouth. The knife has scratched a line across her teeth from which honey drips as she smiles. And so the primordial crime comes creeping to awareness. Krīm krīm krīm. The primordial being, drowned in milk and honey, dismembered.
The night is thick with humidity. Storms brood on the horizon, but none move to commit. I want the sky to crack open.
And the sky cracks open. The heavens pour. Such precarious creatures, we are, woven on a thin threshold between heat and cold, wet and dry. But there will always be extremes, until the fixing of the volatile that is, and the volatilisation of the fixed. One essence, two natures, as the ancients say.
Rain pelts down upon my face as I lay on my bed. I don't care too much to stop its incursion. Let it cross the threshold of the dry, I say.
The conflict of Horus and Seth wages within me. A war within my body. Love and Strife. What is the meaning of this? How to reconcile? Iron becomes gold through lightning. Fluid metal. Electric current. But the healer of the eye is Thoth, the moon.
Darling Luna. Sol’s light in the night. The fluctuating mediatrix.
This piece was written in March 2011, according to an experimental literary technique devised by Sabrina Dalla Valle, known as the ‘Diurnal’. It involves rigorously setting down your immediate thoughts—on the hour at every hour—over a 24 hour period. One day.
Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. He is the author and editor of Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Numen Books, 2013), and translator of the Greek Lexicon of Goldmaking (forthcoming through Rubedo Press).