Alchemical Traditions ∙ Images & Extracts


The goddess Nut swallowing the Sun (Re).

The Divine Body in Egyptian Alchemy

« While seeking the flame-like heart-intellect in the psychosomatic darkness, the initiate travels through the inner organs of the sky goddess Nut. Her macrocosmic divine body is related to the microcosmic structure of the initiate’s body. Like the Tantric sadhaka, the ‘traveller’ resembles a finely tuned instrument: the rituals and visualizations, along with breath exercises, lead to the activation of the elevating serpent power of Hathor. Like the Tantric chakras, created by yogic visualization, the inner organs of Nut, related to different night-hours and different kheperu of Ra, are imagined and experienced in this inward odyssey from the tomb to solar immortality. »

— A l g i s  U ž d a v i n y s
Telestic Transformation and Philosophical Rebirth: From Ancient Egypt to Neoplatonism

The Union of Wisdom and Method—Kalacakra and his Consort.

Tibetan Buddhist Gnosis & Alchemy

The Kālacakra [Tantra] presents its alchemy within a vision of the human being as interwoven into the fabric and ritual of the living, breathing cosmos. It emphasises that the ultimate concern of alchemy is the re-awakening of the human being into the primordial ground of an all pervading cosmic gnōsis (kun gzhi ye shes), and the actualisation of that ‘primordial dimension’ (chos dbying) in a transformed individual, a Bodhisattva. In this tantra in particular, this new Bodhisattva is understood to be actualised through the transformation of the elements of the body, speech and mind of the ordinary person into the ‘three enlightened bodies’ (sangs rgyas sku gsum) of a Buddha, a process that requires both ‘scientific' knowledge of worldly phenomena, as well as Buddhist gnōsis".

— K i m   L a i
Iatrochemistry, Metaphysiology, Gnosis: Tibetan Alchemy in the Kalachakra Tantra

Nicholas Roerich, Forging the Sword (Nibelung), 1941.

The Divine Craftsman & Greek Alchemy

And let us remember that—from the outset—alchemy (a spirituality of metallurgy) is the preserve of the blacksmith, a craft tradition, and it comes to the literate class and becomes intellectualized later. Alchemy consists of the spiritual secrets of the blacksmith’s forge. If we go searching for scholarly tomes by educated intellectuals, they come later. Intellectualizing comes later. In the early layers, the earlier stages, though, mythology is not intellectual in an elitist sense but rather it is comprehensive, encompassing, inclusive. These crafts were, in any case, sacred—hieratikē technē—and the subject of cultic development, religious rites, and traditions passed on in secret, craft secrets. The point at which such things start appearing in texts, in explicit writing, is symptomatic of the decline of a tradition. From where we stand, that is a problem. Living traditions leave no trace. When it starts to be written down it is already dead. […] Plato, for example, is an expansion upon—we could say an intellectualizing of—elements of Greek mythology, and it is of course deeply intellectual. And yet it is also a craft. It is not abstracted intellectuality. Notice how deep Plato’s acquaintance with the crafts is. In almost every sentence, every metaphor, he turns to the traditional crafts. This is especially true of his account of creation, the Timaeus, which work—in fact—is a fountainhead of western alchemy, although not an explicitly alchemical text. His account—with his creator god—is craft based. The Divine Craftsman. In fact, the primary craft is smithing, metalwork. Plato’s creator god is an unfolded—intellectualized, if you like—version of the mythological god, Hephaestos, Vulcan.

— R o d   B l a c k h i r s t
Metallurgy and Demiurgy: The Roots of Greek Alchemy in the Cult of Hephaestos (Discussions)

From Tarkovsky's polaroids.

Tarkovsky & Alchemy

The counter-stretched nature of creation was sensed very keenly in modern times by Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker who likened film to ‘sculpting in time’, and directing to literally being able to ‘separate light from darkness' and 'dry land from the waters’ (Genesis 1: 9-18). ‘The work of art’, remarks Tarkovsky, ‘lives and develops, like any other natural organism, through the conflict of opposing principles’:

Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified. The image makes palpable a unity in which manifold different elements are contiguous and reach over into each other. […] The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible. The absolute is only attainable through faith and in the creative act.

—  A a r o n   C h e a k   and   S a b r i n a   D a l l a   V a l l e
The Alchemical Khiasmos: Counter-Stretched Harmony and Divine Self-Perception.

Man Ray, Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1930.

Man Ray, Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1930.

Mad Love—Surrealism & Alchemy

"Lovers are infallible diviners. Renewed by emotion, their eyes wash clean habit’s dust from things and so perceive their total reality". Here Mabille strikes to the heart of Surrealism’s commitment to alchemical transformation, for the particular intensity in which lovers participate was regarded by them as possessing the same transforming powers as the phosphorescent fire within the alchemical athanor. This alchemical intensity was called by Breton l’amour fou—‘mad love’. Perhaps the best-known document about the transforming affect of l’amour fou is André Breton’s ‘anti-novel’, Nadja, with its famous concluding line: La beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas—‘beauty will be convulsive, or not at all’. Breton’s description of his chance encounter with the woman Nadja, and their subsequent relationship, in which ‘we could truly say that her role was to focus the entire appetite for the marvellous upon herself ’, quintessentialises the Surrealist expectations of erotic love: ‘the Surrealists as a whole theoretically (and lyrically) agreed that the highest human aspiration, the one that transcended all others, resided in elective love’.

—  L e o n   M a r v e l l
Take Two Emerald Tablets in the Morning: Surrealism and the Alchemical Transubstantiation of the World

Still from Ingmar Bergman’s "Det sjunde inseglet" (The Seventh Seal), 1957.

The Chiasmus of Death and Life 

The fatal aspect, the very terminus and termination of the chess-game, is its natal aspect: a condition subtly suggested in the advice given by Beckett during the staging of his short novella Company—namely that ‘special attention’ should be paid ‘to words like terminé (concluded), for the accent on the last syllable is also heard in (born)’—a Beckettian echo of the Heraclitean fragment that plays on the Greek bios, which means ‘life’ when accent is placed on its first syllable and ‘the bow’ or the instrument of death (ergon de thanatos) when accent is placed on the last. ‘I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth into death’, Malone straightforwardly states in the novel Malone Dies

The signatory X [crossing out] of the shah mat is the signature of the shah, the king, that is mat, that is dead. Like the so-called alchemical or homeopathic ‘signature’ (which is the trace left behind after a substance has been diluted beyond any trace of itself), this signature is but the presence of an absence, ‘the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything’, in the words of Levinas."

—  D a n   M e l l a m p h y
Alchemical Endgame: ‘Checkmate’ in Beckett and Eliot