alchemy

Two Scenes For The Solstice

Years ago, I wrote a couple of seasonal flash fictions; well, they’re really the same story told in two different styles. They were prototypes for a scene in my novel Hunting the Phoenix.

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I

Winter Solstice In the House of the Phoenix

(An Alchemical Allusion)

Summoned at last, I go, wrapped in my cloak of midnight velvet. I bring gifts for the household, and a gift for the chance-met stranger, honouring the ancient law. For the keeper of the door, a distillation of rainbows in a fiery spirit; for his goodwife, the song of a bird caught in crystal. For the stranger, the warmth of my hearth fire in a vessel of amber. For the alchemist, a book of secret wisdom. And for the master of the house, the blind physician, a golden flower, nourished with heart’s blood and watered with my tears.

My footsteps ring on the stones as I approach him. He is not so large as I had imagined, and older, his face lined with years and sorrows, his hair more silver than gold. His clothing is dark and plain against the splendour of the company, but he wears gold spectacles with lenses of emerald. He accepts my gift, smiling as I place it in his hands.

We file in procession to the place of the fire. One by one, our torches are extinguished and we stand together in darkness. From the silence his voice speaks and we answer, chanting the ancient words of faith and hope. Then comes a red glow, faint but strengthening, until by its radiance we see him again, and rekindle our torches from his glory.

Up and up, from the depths to the highest tower we climb, he before us, the vessel of flame, lighting the lamps anew, and the fire at the heart of the house. In the dance of new light we go singing to the feast, to lay our cares aside and come together in joy. For among us is the one who has died and lives again, radiant, rejoicing until the night ends in the red dawn of the new sun.

 

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II

Last Greeting From Kingsport

I got an invite to a shindig last night, at Phoenix House, up on the hill. I wore my best black velvet duds. Good thing, ’cause everyone was togged to the nines. I brought presents, like you’re supposed to: rainbow liqueur for the guy at the door, crystal chimes for his missus, and a glowing coal in a brass pot to keep the beggar warm. For the old alchemist up there, a book of secret mumbo-jumbo; and for the man himself, that doctor folks say is blind, I brought my golden flower, the one that took seven years to bloom and nearly killed me.

He’s not such a big guy up close – kind of old and dressed plain, except for those emerald specs. I think he liked my present, but who knows? “A kindred spirit,” he said. “You will join us here before long.” And he smiled.

Then the lights went out and we all got torches and trooped down to the cellar. We doused our torches and stood by the rocks in the dark, breathing. Some party this is, I was thinking, when he started to sing and we all joined in, even me, who didn’t think I knew the words. After a while there came a little glow. It got stronger, until it was like a star in his hands, and we lit our torches from it.

We went up and up, into every room, lighting candles and lamps. Then the party – mountains of food and rivers of drink, like I never saw in my life. What a night! Music and singing and dancing until the sun came up, all new and red. He was everywhere with us, the wildest of all. (I don’t think he’s really blind, you know).

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and I hope the New Year is a good one. But I’m going back up there now, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.

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Alchemy — the All-Purpose Metaphor

I’m reading a book with the rather lumpy title The Chemistry of Alchemy : from dragon’s blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forged. The authors (Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite) are chemistry professors, which accounts for the tone of amused skepticism toward their subject. They have given the history of alchemy its due attention, though, and explain the links between alchemical and chemical processes. The included “experiments” that readers may carry out at home mostly look worthwhile too (although I haven’t tried any of them myself — too lazy).

The thing that strikes me is the contrast between this approach and that of C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, both of whom wrote about the symbolic aspects of alchemy. Their writings were my introduction to the subject, so the mysticism and symbolism are what I find most fascinating, And the colours! Colour changes in the materials subjected to various processes would naturally signal transformation, which was the whole point of the exercise. The progression from black to white to yellow to red was fundamental. The successful conclusion to the long and torturous process was called by some the “red dawn,” represented by the phoenix. The magical substance which turned base metals to gold was often described as a red powder. Other colours are associated with intermediate phases — the green lion (vitriol) and the peacock’s tail, which is a flush of purples and blues that comes over certain metals when heated. The lion and peacock are only two of the alchemical animals; a full description may be found here.

With its colourful phases as a progression of transformations toward an ultimate perfection, it’s not surprising that alchemy serves as a perfect metaphor for almost anything. Gardening, for example, or writing, or spiritual self-improvement — anything that involves metaphorically breaking something down, burning it, washing and cleansing, joining and renewal, by prolonged effort bringing excellence from imperfect beginnings. When I started to write my first novel, the main character, Herbert West, was a dubious type in great need of improvement. I suppose it was inevitable that I should turn this into an alchemical process; alchemy thus became an explicit part of the book. It reappeared very explicitly in the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix.

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Here is a quotation from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (poached from Wikipedia):

“When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictoral symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros, the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.” (Part 3, Chapter 3.1).

The whole thing bristles with vivid symbols and images and is surrounded with an aura of mystery and ancient secrets. No wonder artists and writers pounce on it with glee.

Here is an excerpt from Apology for Bad Dreams, a poem by Robinson Jeffers (whose work I discovered at the impressionable age of 18):

He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor

From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God,

He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,

Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,

He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it

Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.

I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me

In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,

Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,

And here am I moving the stars that are me.”

 

What is an Athanor?

And what is one doing in the title of my blog?  (Not any more — in July 2013 I changed the title, eliminating the athanor, but it’s still there in spirit, keeping up the ferment of creativity).

The OED offers this definition: “A self-feeding digesting furnace used by the alchemists, capable of maintaining a steady heat for long periods.”

This is what one needs for anything that needs patience and persistence, such as gardening and writing novels. The fact that it derives from alchemy intrigues me also, because alchemy is such a great metaphor for transformations of all kinds, both physical and metaphysical.

Gardening is alchemy. So is writing.

I first discovered alchemy in the writings of Mircea Eliade, when I was doing research for a paper in university. More recently, alchemical ideas found their way into the novels of my Herbert West trilogy, in which an amoral scientist is transformed into a healer with supernatural powers. Alchemy appears in these novels both explicitly and implicitly. Charles Milburn, a principal character in the first and third books, studies alchemical texts and becomes interested in the subject. At the same time, the stories themselves parallel some of the alchemical processes of dissolution, decay, calcination, conjunction, rebirth and transformation.

When I began this blog, the image of the athanor seemed quite apt, since it’s meant to be a generator of ideas on writing (and gardening), requiring patience, persistence and a steady heat of enthusiasm.  A Philosophical Furnace, indeed!

This is what an Athanor looks like.