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Mythbusting 101
Lesson Four

The Radiant Wisdom Stone

Mystery Wisdom in the Grail Legend

Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung (1875 - 1961) was almost singlehandedly responsible for the modern revival of interest in alchemy. (Jung was initially "turned on" to alchemy by his patient, protege, and mistress, Sabina Spielrein, who—until recently—had been written out of the story.) Jung and all who followed him regarded Western alchemy as originating with the work of Zosimos, an Alexandrian mystic from Panopolis (a town on the Egyptian delta). Textual evidence of Zosimos dates from the 3rd Century CE, but scholars agree that the roots of the Art are far more ancient, going back to the secret schools of the Egyptian Mysteries.

Alchemical Peacock, associated with the cauda pavonis,
"the peacock's tail," the final stage of the Great Work.

Jung's work on alchemy was complemented by The Grail Legend, written by his wife, Emma Jung, and his close colleague, Marie-Louise von Franz. The authors argue that
    the Grail's many wonderful attributes, which qualify it as 'a treasure hard to attain,' and its analogy to the alchemical Stone, which in Wolfram actually goes as far as identification, justify its being taken as a symbol of the Self. (p. 155-6)

But such justification only makes sense within the tautological system of Jungian theory "in which the unconscious explains itself" (p. 142). To Wolfram von Eschenbach and those of his time, the Grail was not a symbol of the Self or of anything else. It was a magical and mysterious object of some kind, a numen described in pre-Christian mythology of Celtic and Irish origin. One French commentary on the Grail Legend, the "Elucidation," says

C'est del Graal dont nus ne doit
Le secré dire ne conter.

This is about the Graal, of whose mystery
None may speak or tell.

This language calls to mind some lines from the Homeric hymn to Demeter, referring to the secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries:

    She taught them the ministry of her rites,
    And revealed to them her beautiful Mysteries,
    Which are impossible to transgress, or pry into, or divulge,
    For so great is one’s awe of the gods that it halts the tongue.
An aura of secrecy similar to that applied to the Mysteries also applied to the Grail, raising the question, Had the Grail been revealed to ancient initiates before the medieval Legend took form, and before alchemy appeared in the West?

A Significant Near Miss

Anyone who delves into Grail studies will encounter a single, supremely influential book: From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston. As already noted, this book (published in 1920) figured in the writing of the famous Modernist poem, The Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot. Avidly discussed by Eliot and other literati of the time, and later featured among the reading material of the deranged Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, From Ritual to Romance asserts that the Grail Quest derived from ancient Pagan Mysteries. Weston was quite explicit with her central thesis. In the Introduction she wrote, "We can now prove by printed texts the parallels existing between each and every feature of the Grail story and the recorded symbolism of the Mystery cults."

That statement may be the greatest near miss of modern scholarship on the Mysteries. But a near miss is also a near hit. Weston was right in tracing the Grail Legend to "Mystery cults," but she was mistaken in her view of what transpired in those cults. Scholars note that there were two levels of the Mysteries, the popular and the elite. This is evident in the Eleusinian tradition of celebrating the Lesser Mysteries in the Spring, and the Greater Mysteries in the Fall. The former were popular, presenting rites of seasonal renewal and ecstatic immersion in nature for the general public. The latter involved elite practices with the kykeon, the entheogenic brew that induced perception of "a marvellous light." When the Mysteries fell into decline, the rites got confused (or subverted) and the kykeon came to be used as a recreational libation (as seen in the case of Socrates' charismatic young friend Alcibiades, one of the few people known to have been accused of desecrating the Mysteries.)

Elsewhere I have argued that no one who lacks first-hand mystical experience equivalent to that of initiation in the Mysteries is qualified to comment in a reliable way on such arcane matters. Apparently, Weston did not have such experience. In fact, like a good many other scholars, she failed to preserve a clear distinction between the popular and elite rites. She assumed that the Pagan Mysteries involved "fertility rites." True, but this is a near miss, because it does not take into account the elite rites that had nothing to do with fertility. This is such an important point that I would like to take a few minutes to clarify it in more detail.


In the archaic model of royal empowerment in the ancient Near East, the male candidate underwent sexual initiation with a woman who represented one or another Goddess identified with the Earth. For instance, the Assyro-Babylonian Goddess Ishtar (the Sumerian Inana) and her human lover, Tammuz (the Sumerian Dumuzi), the shepherd king. In this rite, the priestess represented Ishtar, and Tammuz was no particular man, no single historical person, but the ritual name of the candidate who would be king. The man's mastery in the hunt and his strength as a warrior were measured against his capacity to surrender and become totally vulnerable to the pleasures afforded by a woman's body. It was known to people in those times that pleasure makes us weak, as one can be weak in the knees from a good sexual encounter. For the royal candidate to accept being weak was not regarded as a sign of weakness, however. Rather, it was taken as evidence of his capacity to give and receive tenderness—evidence of his compassion. Candidates for kingship had to pass the test of tenderness to prove they had "female" qualities to balance their male prowess and temper their masculine lust for lording it over others.

These sacred conjugal rites conducted by the Goddess cults were of course enacted privately, but they were also reflected in public celebrations where the king was represented as mating with the earth to insure the fertility of the land. In popular imagination, the "fertility rites" of theocracy appeared to be a means of sympathetic magic to insure the cycles of nature, but they had nothing to do with human fertility. It was never the role of the anointed man to impregnate the anointed priestess—indeed, this would have been an abomination, a sacrilege against the Goddess. The anointing priestesses were always virgins, or viragos— words derived from the Indo-European root vir- ,"heroic force, strength," also the basis of the word virility. Originally, virgin (Greek parthenos) denoted, not the woman who never had sexual intercourse, but the woman who did not procreate. Her womb was virginal because she did not conceive, not because she did not copulate. (Concern with intactness of the hymen is symptomatic of patriarchal societies where women are viewed as property and/or breeding stock.)

At the deeper level understood in the inner sanctum of the Mysteries, conjugal initiation was a tantric rite of empowerment in which a female adept in Kundalini yoga initiated a man who thereby gained paranormal faculties. (See She Who Anoints.) The popular rite concealed another, deeper meaning, and within that meaning, still another. Like most scholars, Weston saw only the first level of meaning. She thought initiation in the Mysteries was a ritualization of primitive fertility rites which, in turn, came to be reflected in the two dominant mofits of the Grail Legend: the bleeding Lance (phallic symbol) and the Grail (vagina or womb symbol). As the leading Arthurian scholar Loomis points out, "Miss Weston's fascinating theory of a lost mystery cult, conveyed by Eastern merchants from the Mediterranean to Britain, and of secret initiation rites enacted in remote ages is discredited by the absence of such a cult in the mass of medieval testimony on heresy" (The Grail -From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, p. 49)—and, I would add, by similar lack of evidence of any such spear-and-chalice mumbo-jumbo in the ancient Near East or Egypt.

Most scholars reject the thesis of From Ritual to Romance, yet they perpetuate a specious inference related to Weston's half-miss: the anointing rite of theocracy was an external and popular enactment of what initiates experienced in the inner sanctum of the Mysteries. This interpretation touches on the entheogenic theory of religion, which asserts that Pagan initiates underwent altered states by the use of sacred potions such as the fermented barley potion (kykeon) of Eleusis. This is a fact that can be evidentially supported. It has been argued that entheogenic initiation provided the basis for anointing sacred kings in a ritual exercise that repeated before the eyes of the world what the illumined ones experienced in the telesterion, the inner chamber of initiation. This is an inference, and no more than an inference. There is no evidence that supports the assertion that initiates did any such thing.

This inference is another half-miss, a shade closer to the bullseye than Weston got. In the first place, it recognizes the true nature of the secret entheogenic rites practiced at Eleusis and elsewhere. This recognition goes deeper than the widely accepted theory of ancient fertility ritual as related to sacred kingship, but it still does not go to the core of the Mystery experience. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries) claim that initiation provided the model for sacred kingship, without a word on the entheogenic practices. Carl Ruck (The Apples of Apollo) makes a similar claim, and does assert the entheogenic factor. In both cases, these learned scholars confound empowerment rites for sacred kingship with the mystical initiatory experience, or they construe those rites as an exoteric expression, and extension, of such experience. In his conflation of entheogenic lore with Judeo-Christian religion, Ruck writes:

    Iesous was the name of the mythical hero Iason (Jason), for Iason was so named for the ceremonial chrismation or anointing that made him a shaman. In the Hebrew tradition, Messiah is the name for the "anointed," who in Greek is called Christos... The ritual of chrismation had become a validation for the authority of kings and prophets; but the unguent of anointment originally conferred its power through the entheogen that made the recipients consubstantial with the sacred plant of their shamanism. (The Apples of Apollo, p. 146-7)

In other words, sacred kingship "originally" involved entheogenic initiation of the royal candidate by shaman-priests who administered a psychoactive sacrament. There is no evidence that theocracy originated with such rites, and to infer that it did so is, I maintain, a serious error. Conflation of this sort is particularly devious because it gives the impression that there is, or originally was, some kind of valid shamanic entheogenic rite behind sacred kingship and even behind Jesus, the Christos. Likewise, Freke and Gandy argue for a type of Pagan apologism in which they confer value on Pagan Mysteries by regarding them as the "true basis" of Jesus' teachings and Christianity. In other words, the Mysteries were a means to an end. And because the end was good, we can assume that the means were also good. In this approach. Paganism (whatever that was) becomes acceptable because it provided the basis for Christianity.

Fine, but the problem here is, it didn't. Christianity stole some window dressing from Paganism—the babe in the manger, for instance, was an infant version of the Sumerian shepherd Tammuz—and it co-opted Mithraic rites to concoct the sacraments, but its ethics and ideology came from elsewhere. The historical basis of Christianity lies in the Zaddikim cult of the Dead Sea. From the time of the Patriarch Samuel, the entire Jewish community was pulled into theocratic politics by the machinations of the Zaddikim whose obsession with a messiah culminated in the Christ of Saint Paul. The messiah is the "anointed one," christos in Greek, formed from the verb echrisa, "to anoint." In both ancient Near Eastern theocracies and Judeo-Christian tradition alike, anointing was the key ritual of investiture, central to the entire ideological construct of divine power, but there is not a shred of evidence that Pagan religion in Europa, North Africa, and the Levant followed this custom.

Entheogenic shamanism in the Mysteries was never used to set up and legitimate either patriarchal rule or patriarchal religion. Telestic rites were not a means to a mundane political end. Initiation had nothing to do with empowerment, except empowerment through knowledge, if that be allowed. It had nothing to do with secular, political power games as exemplified in the public enthronement of theocrats in the ancient Near East and Palestine. No genuine, uncorrupted adept in the Mysteries would have consented to confer initiatory power on a politician or patriarchal authority figure. And no ceremony conferring such power could have reflected what happened at the third and deepest level of initiation.

A Garbled Secret

To avoid further digression, I will let this subject drop for now, but we will return to the specious interpretations of theocratic empowerment later in Mythbusting 101. Clarity on this issue is essential in confronting and defeating the Paternal Lie and its current resurgence in terrorist-supported global theocracy. For now, let's return to the "three currents" from the Grail, and come around to the subject of this lesson, "the Stone of the Wise."

As explained in Lesson Three, one of the currents defines the direction of social enlightenment, after the model of Lohengrin. This current can be traced ahead from the 10th Century to Renaissance humanism in the 15th. Humanism was the mundane, socially oriented expression of the generosity of the medieval Nobility who served the Grail.

Two other currents proceed from Parzival's attainment of the Grail in 968 CE. The direct encounter with the supreme numen of indigenous magic is deeply mystical and does not find expression in social life, but in hidden, anti-social trends, in esotericism, counterculture, and underground movements of a cryptic and cultic character. As noted, both of these hidden currents deeply inform the plot of alternative history. They operate behind the scenes throughout the Middle Ages, but they arose in far earlier times. Unlike the Western initiative of social altruism and philanthropy represented by Lohengrin, these other two currents have an ancient provenance in the pre-Christian Mysteries.

The current that gives rise to Western alchemy is intimately related to the third and deepest level of initiation. Behind the popular seasonal-sexual rites, and even behind the delicious tantric rites of sacred mating, there was the supreme ritual experience: instruction by the Light. Alchemy preserved a vestigial memory of this experience, but not the ancient method for transmitting the experience itself. In other words, with the end of the Mystery network throughout Pagan Europa and the Near East, continuity of access to the Organic Light was disrupted. The supreme initiatory experience became inconsistent and incoherent, almost a matter of chance—which may explain the strange motif attached to the Castle of the Grail, namely that "no knight who sought it would find that place unless chance led him there" (The Prose Tristan, cited by Loomis, The Grail - From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, p 206). Even when the Grail was revealed, witnesses could not make out what it was because they did not have the guiding framework of the Mysteries to assist them. From the 4th century CE onward, instruction by the Light became precarious and aleatory.

The problem with alchemy, which all those who explore it know well, much to their exasperation, is its daunting and often impenetrable obscurity. Again and again, the alchemists allude to something they have the privilege of knowing about, without saying exactly what it is. They do this because they don't know what it is. This was certainly the case in those instances—and that would be almost all instances attested by surviving material—where alchemists appear to be covering up what they know, when in fact they don't essentially understand what they are attempting to conceal.

It is as if I told you a secret in garbled form, and I entrusted you to keep it. Intent on honoring the vow, you would do everything possible to conceal the secret, without in fact knowing what it really, precisely was.

Wolfram calls the Gral a stone, and alchemists universally used this term for the ultimate secret of "the Art." The alchemical dictionary of Dom Pernety (18th C., France) gives over 600 definitions for the Stone. Well, there you go. The amazing thing is, all of them are in some sense correct. But not one of them is valid for unmediated access to the experience of the Stone.

Quant ele fu laiens entree a tot le graal qu'ele tint,
Un si grans clartez i vint...

Thus Chretien de Troies, Perceval, 3224-5, in Medieval French octosyllabic rhyming couplets. In plain English, "As she walked into the hall, the graal she held gave forth a radiance so great and clear...." This is written from unmediated access to the experience of the Stone. In King Arthur and the Grail (the best single introduction), Richard Cavendish writes:

    The Grail is clearly no ordinary object. It is surrounded with mystery; it is holy and it emanates blazing light. (p. 137) ... The Grail in Parzival is not remotely adequately explained as a symbol of humility [theory of R. S. Loomis, the eminence gris of Arthurian studies. JLL]. It is much closer to the Philosopher's Stone of alchemy, which is both a mysterious object of gigantic size and a spiritual state. The Philosopher's Stone was believed to turn anything it touched into gold, to cure all diseases and to confer eternal life and youth on its possessor. It also stood for the "golden" spiritual condition, the highest and most perfect conceivable, which was the state of union with God or virtually being God.

    Like the Grail hero, the alchemist trod his own path to salvation, independently of the Church, and consequently suspect. Alchemy first attracted attention in Western Europe in the twelfth century and Parzival was written early in the thirteenth. (p. 161)

I would say that Chretien preserves genuine first-hand testimony of the Mystery experience, but "blazing" is too strong a word. The Organic Light is soft and substantial, like nothing so much as luminous marshmallow. Cavendish makes the connection between the Gral and the Stone of the Wise, but attaches to it an inappropriate theological inference. The state of perfection associated with beholding the Gral—for no one could possess it—might be construed as "union with God or virtually being God," but this interpretation opens the old trap of deification, which was not the aim of the Mysteries, although inflation (to use Jungian jargon) was certainly a risk of initiation. (Jung stated that identification of the Self with God—in mystical terms, union with the Godhead—was and ever is the supreme spiritual realization of the human psyche, but it carries the risk of ego inflation. I would argue that the God-Self equation is nothing but ego inflation, no matter how you cut it.)

The Wisdom Light

The Pagan telestai did not seek to become God, although initiation made them in some measure God-like because they came to know the world as God knows it. Or more presicely, as the Goddess knows it. As explained in A Sheaf of Cut Wheat, they attained Her Mind.

Cavendish comes very close to an intuition of the Gral as the corporeal revelation of the Goddess: "whether the light shines from the Grail itself or from the maiden who carries it, is not absolutely clear" (p. 137). But neither he nor any other author writing on the Grail makes the direct identification of its luminosity with a divine feminine presence. When the Grail is associated with a "Divine Presence," it is assumed to be God, or Christ, due to the thick filter of Christianization laid on the legend. Nevertheless, all the archaic and folk-loric material that supports the Grail Legend points to the Great Goddess, not to the Father God or his only-begotten Son. In the Irish and Welsh sources of the Legend, the Grail was the magical cauldron of the underworld goddess, Keridwen, or Erui-Erin, identified bioregionally with Ireland (source of the arcahic levels of Grail material). For the archaic, participatory imagination, the jump from the goddess who guards the cauldron to goddess as cauldron would have been natural and effortless.

In her essay, "Sophia, Companion to the Quest," Grail scholar and Mystery revivalist Caitlin Matthews makes the important observation that the Quest for the Grail is "more concerned with the land than the glories of kingship," (At the Table of the Grail, p. 116. This remark is consistent with the above digression.) To put all this in Gaian terms, the Quest is concerned with the Earth and the powers of the living planet, rather than paternal rites of empowerment. Matthews makes pretty work of sorting out the garbled secret. Commenting on the dove emblem worn by the members of the Grail Family, she says:

    The dove has always been the symbol of divine compassion. It was a bird sacred to the Goddess and it passed into the panoply of the Shekinah where it symbolized God's Holy Spirit. Within Christianity the Holy Spirit's doubtful gender has been obscured by its symbolization as a dove: the promise of ultimate redemption, the perfect indwelling of God... However the Holy Spirit is theologically understood today, it stems from its origins as part of the Divine Feminine: the holy Motherhood of God. In this tangle of symbolism Christ has assumed the attributes of Wisdom. (Ibid., p. 123)

In other words, the attributes of Sophia. To the adepts of the Pagan Mysteries, the source of "radiance so great and clear" was neither the male God nor his offspring, Christ, but the Divine Sophia. Instead of divinity manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ—a theological dogma rejected by Sethian Gnostics as deviant —they experienced "Divine Presence" in the presence of the Earth itself, in the Goddess revealed as a humble planet. In Parzival and other Arthurian legends related to the Grail, the hideous hag Cundrie (the Loathly Damsel) announces the hero's mission, and is enigmatically identified with the Grail Maiden. In earlier Irish lore, a Cundrie-like faery is the first to offer the Grail and pose the test question, as explained in Gaia and Gnosis, One where we considered the Irish tale called The Prophetic Ecstasy of the Phantom. The "hag" represents nature, or the natural form of the Goddess, Her planetary body.

The Radiant Wisdom Stone is Sophia's supernatural body.

Numerous late alchemical and Rosicrucian engravings depict Sophia as Lady Alkimia, Lady Nature, or simply the Virgin, who is graphically identified with the Earth. She nourishes infant humanity on Lac Virginis, Milk of the Virgin—a metaphor for the Organic Light. (Emblem II in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier, 1618. Nutrix ejus terra est: "The Earth is its nurse.")

Comparison of the Organic Light to milk is widespread, not only in the European arcana but also in world-wide mythology. In a classic work of comparative mythology, Myths of Pre-Columbian America, Donald A. Mackenzie devotes a long chapter to the "The Milk Goddess and Her Pot," citing dozens of examples of a white goddess associated with "milk elixir" from sacred milk-yielding trees and plants. In many ancient cultures around the world, the primordial religious orientation of entheogenic shamanism afforded access to the Organic Light, but in the Mysteries access was systematically preserved for transmission through the generations by organized cells consisting of sixteen initiates, eight male and eight female. When this system was destroyed, the supreme mystical encounter continued in an erratic manner.

Grail literature drew on archaic Irish mythology (as R. S. Loomis has shown, extensively) which in many respects reflects shamanic experience of the Organic Light among the bards and seers of the Emerald Isle. Alchemical literature reflects the ambivalent mindset of those who had neither the Mysteries to guide them, nor ancient shamanic tradition with psychoactive plants to direct them to the presence of the Light, but were nevertheless erratically inspired and deeply mystified by a vague intuition that the mysterious Light existed, and could be accessed directly, given the right conditions.

First-hand testimony of initiation in the Pagan Mysteries has been preserved in the so-called fragment of Themistios: “The soul at the point of death has the same experience as those who are being initiated into the Mysteries. One is struck with a marvellous light.” In the Nag Hammadi material, revelation texts such the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (NHC VI, 6) attest to this experience and give unmistakable evidence that initiates received knowledge directly from the Divine Light. In that text the hierophant declares: “Rejoice over this revelation! For already from the Pleroma [the Godhead] comes the power that is Light, flowing over us. For I see it! I see the indescribable depth” (57.25-30).

The mysterious lost Light of the Pagan Mysteries was the Wisdom Stone, the radiance of the Grail.

I have proposed the term "Organic Light" for the soft white brilliance of the primary substance body of the Goddess Sophia, contrasted to her planetary body, consisting of the elements of the atmosphere and the terrestrial globe. In the Pagan Mysteries, it was forbidden to describe this Light in such an explicit manner, or to disclose that initiates received instruction directly from it. That was the secret vow that remained unbroken for thousands of years—but some vows are meant to be broken, eventually, so that the secret behind them can survive. All those who took the vow knew that in some future time it would be broken, but the power of that future disclosure depended on the vow being kept in the first place. It was simply not meant to be kept forever.

Organic Light, Divine Light, Mystery Light, Supernal Light—such are some of the terms for the Stone of the Wise, the luminous substance that confers intimate knowledge of the Goddess. To this list we can add Wisdom Light, the epiplany of Sophia. Access to this Light was the secret the alchemists protected, without knowing clearly and explicitly how to attain and maintain that access. But some alchemists did know. In Parzival there is evidence of surviving knowledge of first-hand experience of Sophianic illumination. Wolfram even offers a garbled version of the origin of the Gral-Stone: it is the lapsit exillis that fell from the crown of Lucifer when he plunged from Heaven. This motif recalls the plunge of the Goddess Sophia from the Pleroma. She is the supreme Luciferic figure, the divine Light-giver.

Atmospheric Mystics

In their voluminous writings, alchemists often give the impression of looking for something that is right in front of their noses, yet they cannot set eyes on it. The Mystery Light was, you could say, as clear as the gnosis on their faces, but still it eluded them. Wilhelm Reich was fond of citing some lines of Goethe:

What is the hardest things of all?
That which seems the easiest:
For your eyes to see
That which lies before your eyes.

Without benefit of being guided to the Organic Light, Alchemists scrutinized the natural light for signs of supernatural activity. Their scrutiny must have been extraordinary, because it allowed them to perceive the intimate operations of nature. They detected both oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere before these elements were observed with the aid of instruments and quantified in chemical language. Oxygen they called Prima Materia, the First Matter, because all that lives materially, even minerals, reacts to it before anything else. Today we know that oxygen is a highly reactive, unstable gas. The constant level of atmospheric oxygen at 20 percent is an anomaly of the Earth, making life possible. This observation is essential to the understanding of terrestrial homeostasis in Gaia theory, and, in fact, led to the formation of the theory.

"The Stone is projected upon the Earth, and exalted upon the mountains, and dwells in the air, and feeds in the river..." Thus runs the commentary for Emblem XXXVI (pictured above) in Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens, one of the most influential of 17th Century alchemical tests. The cubes on the road, in the water, and in the air, suggest how the mysterious Stone, though it is present everywhere, conceals itself in the natural elements: earth, water, air. (Its relation to fire is more complex and obscure.) Evidence of knowledge of atmospheric physics in not predominant in alchemical writings, but it is there nonetheless.

Gaia theory depends on our knowledge of the ensemble of atmospheric gases, defined and measured in modern terms, according to the advances made in chemistry since the 17th Century. But at the moment when modern chemistry emerged—signalled by the establishment of the Academia de Cimento in Florence in 1667—European alchemists were in the process of handing over what they knew to budding scientists who neither understood nor respected the secret art to which their materialistic science was heir.

Johann Baptiste von Helmont (1577-1644) was not only a prominent chemist of the 17th century, he was also an accomplished alchemist, one of the rare few to let it be known publicly that he had "attained the Stone." Von Helmont (on left) discovered the atmospheric gas carbon dioxide, which is breathed out by humans and absorbed by plants for conversion to oxygen. He called it gas sylvestre in reference to the Alchemical Tree, a primary symbol of the Art. Did von Helmont make this apt association by chance, or did he somehow know that trees absorb carbon dioxide? He ascertained the presence and action of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before it was detected and measured with instruments. But how?

Nitrogen, which is preponderant in the atmosphere at close to 80 percent, was also discovered by alchemists. They called it Azoth. Along with oxygen, we breathe nitrogen with every breath, but as it is an "inert gas," we do not normally sense anything from it. It is possible, however, to be somatically conscious of breathing atmospheric nitrogen. The effect is a kind of light delirium, comparable to the effect of nitrous oxide, "laughing gas." Psychoactive mushrooms can cause people who ingest them to become giddy and laugh hilariously. It is now known that the properties of such plants derive from their rare nitrogenous chemistry, making them exceptional among the millions of plant species on the Earth.

In 1988, writing in the Anthroposophical Journal The Golden Blade, I proposed that some European alchemists were "atmospheric mystics" who had "a rare infrasensory clairvoyance of the natural elements." By infrasensory I meant they were able to perceive what happened within their own senses, and, via that enhancement of sensory awareness, they achieved genuine objective knowledge of natural processes. Goethe, who drew deeply from the alchemical tradition, called the infrasensory faculty auschauende Urteilskraft, "the perceptual power of thinking." He undoubtedly experienced what he was talking about, for he was able to make verifiable discoveries in plant and animal morphology, and optics. Goethe ascertained that in the enhanced state thinking about what one observes merges with the processes operating in what is observed. When thought and perception co-operate in this manner, there is no need to mind-model or think abstractly about the phenomenon. In Goethe the Scientist, Rudolf Steiner aptly defined this method: "It does not summarize what is observed; it produces what is to be observed." In his lucid study of Goethe's method, The Wholeness of Nature, Henri Bortoft calls this method intensive perception.


Green Lion Eating the Sun. Rosarium Philosophicum.

The claim that alchemists perceived intensively and thereby acquired legitimate knowledge of natural processes can easily be dismissed by those who protest that I am reading all this nonsense into arcane material. Well, perhaps. But there exist parallel traditions which provide corroborating evidence that intensive perception is no delusion. Take yogic practices in Asia, for instance. To define alchemy as a sophisticated yoga of the mind and senses is perhaps too long a stretch, but several scholars have made the connection between alchemy and yoga. In The Alchemical Body, David Gordon White develops many parallels between Asian yoga and Western alchemy and shows that "oral transmission of the alchemical gnosis" (p. 149) was extensive, spanning East and West. In his classic book on the Tibetan yogi-saint Milarepa, W. Y. Evans-Wentz wrote:
    Milarepa was enabled to sustain life, although not without suffering, to which he was yogically indifferent, amidst the arctic-like climate of the high Himalayas, on simple and meagre food, in virtue of indomitable control of his physical body, and, not infrequently, with no other bodily sustenance than that derived, by an osmosis-like process, from air and water and sunlight, similar to the process whereby a plant produces chlorophyll (P. xii).

The reference to photosynthesis is striking. In the received literature of alchemy we find the image of the Green Lion eating the sun. The Green Lion is a naive symbol indicating how sunlight converts to chlorophyll and thus provides vital energy in the form of edible plants. This bizarre image represents both the power and product of photosynthetic conversion. It is possible that alchemists who created this image fed osmotically off the atmosphere, like Milarapa was known to do. (Those who do so today, and live without either animal or vegetable food, are called breatharians.) It is entirely conceivable that adepts who had intensive perception of nature also applied that faculty to their own mental, physiological, and metabolic processes. Many legends attached to the alchemists suggest that they arrived at a condition similar to that of Milarepa and other Asian adepts, seers of nature who command their own vital forces. European folk-lore reports that some alchemists lived with the most modest of means, and fed themselves minimally, rather like the ailing Grail Kings who were fed by a single thin white wafer served in the Grail.

Photosynthesis happens. Sit under a tree and see if you can observe how it does. Then try to imagine how anyone could make such an observation without the aid of instruments. The reality is, we participate in photosynthesis organically and metabolically, without knowing that we do, or how we do. This participation can be made conscious via the instrument that alchemists called the artifex, and I call the imaginal body. You imagine what is happening in your body, such as blood circulation, using an image, and then meditate on that image until you experience what is in fact already happening to you. The artifex, not the alchemist, achieves the Great Work. The imaginal body enables us to participate in what we initially picture, if we can picture it with sufficient depth and devotion. All that is done for us naturally and without our knowing, we can do with nature in full knowing.

The secret of the Art is to phase over by imaginal technique (the artifex) from being unconsciously inserted in nature to conscious engagement with nature, i.e., to coevolution. This was also one of the primary aims of the Mysteries whose adepts were dedicated to the Wisdom Goddess embodied in the Earth: Sophia.

Lux Naturae, Lumen Naturae

The record of Western alchemy contains a lot of dross and precious little gold. Yet where it does prove genuine, the Art reflects the experience of atmospheric mystics who used intensive perception to search the natural world for the supernatural presence of the Grail, the Wisdom Stone. In some few cases, alchemists did work from direct experience of the Organic Light. In most cases, however, they were not illumined adepts but devotees of nature who obscurely sensed the living wisdom of the Earth and sought to learn about it, if not from it. With the destruction of the millennial network of Mysteries, the time-tried method of instruction by the Light was not lost, but the continuity of the method was broken. Alchemists who pursued the Great Work had to rely on a hit-or-miss process of self-initiation.

Paracelsus distinguished two kinds of light: lux naturae, and lumen naturae. The first is natural atmospheric light. In an observation that scientists ignore at their peril, Wilhelm Reich noted that natural light does not come from the sun but is a local effect in the atmosphere. One could even say that the light that floods the livable part of the terrestrial atmosphere is a photochemical effect in the open air. That atmospheric light operates biochemically is, of course, a given in modern science, but the ability to participate consciously in photobiochemical processes is denied by science. The lux naturae was the primary medium of atmospheric mysticism. The Great Work was performed in the vas hermeticum, the planetary envelope.

The lumen naturae was the Grail Stone, the Elixir. Not atmospheric light, but the soft white luminosity of the primary substance body of the Goddess. The object of the Grail Quest was to access the Organic Light as generations of initiates had done in the Mysteries, but because many who undertook the Quest did not know what they were looking for, and had no one to guide them, the element of fantasy played into the Quest. Alchemists embraced the same goal as questers for the Holy Grail, but they did so in an entirely different environment: not in the wilderness or at the tournament ground or the king's table, but in their laboratories and cellars. Seeking to delve into the secrets of nature, they were regarded by the Church as heretics who colluded with the evil spirits believed to animate the natural world. They only half knew what they were doing, and most of that they had to conceal to avoid being persecuted for heresy.

European alchemy was to a large extent a chaotic exercise in fantasy, chimerical experiments, and wacky metaphysical speculation. Due to the close link between the Grail Quest and the Great Work, many motifs and symbols from one genre show up in the other. The cauda pavonis or peacock's tail represents the "psychedelic illumination" achieved at the end of the Work. With the epiphany of the Organic Light, all the colors of nature are seen differently. Objects appear to be nothing more than palpable stains in the White Stone, like water colors on plaster or soft chunks of colored glass embedded in alabaster. The cauda pavonis vision recalls Shelley's line from Adonais, "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the white radiance of Eternity."

The ruffled felt hat of the Fisher King displayed the ornate plume of a peacock.

jll April 22, 2006 Flanders




Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.