I started a podcast! This episode revisits a blog I wrote several years ago but takes the series of poems several steps further. In this episode I analyze the first five of the eleven poems. Part 2 will analyze the rest.
As always, I discuss Kabbalah, mysticism, symbol, language, and much more.
The first time I played Final Fantasy X was around 2002, when a friend let me borrow it one summer. I was hooked immediately. Since this first experience with it, I have played through the game countless times, spending many summers or weeks between semesters at college with one of my favorite games of all time. As I got further in my study of literature, mythology, and mysticism, I made connections between the traditions I was reading and FFX. I began to see the patterns and ideas behind FFX’s story that paralleled others, and it was a fascinating and liberating experience. When reading Joseph Campbell’s concept of monomyth, Jung’s explication of alchemy, and treatises in the Hermetic tradition, my mind has consistently turned to this game as an exemplar of these patterns and concepts. When I was young, I didn’t quite grasp the profundity of Tidus’ journey, and though I loved the gameplay and the narrative, I thought the story was some anti-church, anti-religion atheistic manifesto: the head church officials of Spira perpetuate Sin in the world by their faulty traditions, knowingly give the lives of Spira’s summoners and their guardians over to Sin, and keep the masses docile via a ban on technology, or machina. Of course, this is all true, but the story is much more complex. Final Fantasy X tells the story of a liberation of soul and spirit from bondage and contains dozens of brilliant uses of various mythological traditions, including Gnosticism and alchemy.
The word sin evokes strong feelings for both Christians and non-Christians alike. The koine Greek word which is translated sin in English is hamartia. Hamartia (ἁμαρτία) means, literally, “to miss the mark,” originally an archery term for when one misses the target, possibly evoking for some classicists an image of Cupid accidentally shooting earth-dwellers (or fellow gods) with arrows, infecting them with passion. In the Pauline epistles, the word for law is nomos, and Paul’s hamartia is an inborn principle in the natural, fallen human that gives humans a tendency toward defying the nomos (which is in place, given by God, to restrain these tendencies). Ultimately, for Paul, the death of Christ gave him a freedom from the nomos, not because he did not follow it anymore, but because he was no longer bound by it. That is, Christ’s death internalized the nomos for Paul, while it had put an end to hamartia. Of course, the word sin has come to carry a meaning far beyond the way the Greeks, and even Paul, used it, especially in Christian churches whose members are concerned with the operations of society and the actions of the individuals in that society, for fear these individuals will go to hell (Hebrew sheol, literally “grave”). Putting the reality of the Judeo-Christian hell aside, let’s move on to the topic at hand: Final Fantasy X. In the story, the people of Spira have named the gigantic monster “Sin,” a monster whom followers of Yevon believe is a punishment for their past transgressions.
In FFX, pilgrimaging summoners and their guardians attempt to destroy Sin and bring about a temporary Calm, only to keep a new Sin (necessary to remove the old one) remaining in Spira (whose name sounds like “spiral”). Unbeknownst to Tidus when he sets off on his journey with Yuna, the destruction of Sin necessitates two sacrifices: a sacrifice of the summoner him- or herself and a sacrifice of one of the summoner’s guardians. Although the summoner is lost forever, the sacrificed guardian becomes the new Sin. The cycle continues in this way, and it would have continued forever if not for the actions of Yuna and her companions in the story of FFX – where the summoner and her guardians fight and destroy the previous final aeon, Tidus’ father Jecht, rather than summoning a final aeon to swallow Jecht – and the summoner and guardian – up.
As some of you may know, aeon is used in Gnosticism to describe the emanations of God. The first of three Aeons in many systems is known variously as Sige (“silence”), Ennoea (“thought”), or Charis (“grace”), and is a perfect being. The next two emanations, one male and one female, are Nous (“mind”) and Aletheia (“truth”). These aeons dwell in the upper strata of Pleroma (that is, “the region of the light”); meanwhile, those that dwell at the lower end of Pleroma are closer to the darkness or material world. Though each system begins with the perfect being and ends in the material realm (darkness), different Gnostic systems have separate accounts of and names for the emanations. Furthermore, as Wikipedia explains, in Gnosticism, the
transition from immaterial to material, from noumenal to sensible, is created by a flaw, passion, or sin in an Aeon. According to Basilides, it is a flaw in the last sonship; according to others the sin of the Great Archon, or Aeon-Creator, of the Universe; according to others it is the passion of the female Aeon Sophia, who emanates without her partner Aeon, resulting in the Demiurge (Greek Δημιουργός), a creature that should never have been. This creature does not belong to Pleroma, and the One emanates two savior Aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit, to save humanity from the Demiurge. Christ then took a human form (Jesus), to teach humanity how to achieve Gnosis. The ultimate end of all Gnosis is metanoia [(Greek *μετάνοια*, or “repentance”)]—undoing the sin of material existence and returning to Pleroma.
That is, Gnostics in antiquity disagreed (at least superficially) about what exactly causes the transition from the noumenal to the phenomenal (or sensible) world. However, the solution for sin, for the tendency toward the material realm, was always the same – metanoia. Much like hamartia, the word metanoia has become much distorted also. To achieve metanoia, one need not enter into a sobbing fit in a confessional of a church or admit all one’s wrongdoings to one’s mother or principal, including that time you cheated on your homework in high school, as the word repentance may connote for some today. Metanoia simply means “changing one’s mind” – that is, it is something that is done inwardly to oneself, not outwardly. It is a shift in one’s mind away from darkness and toward the region of light: “Long hast thou dwelt in Darkness,” the Neophyte Ritual of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, dense with Gnostic thought, tells its initiates, “Quit the Night and seek the Day” (Regardie 126).
Anyway, each of Spira’s summoners has access to the pantheon of aeons, access to each of which is gained through prayer at a designated temple, only after completing an ordeal called a Cloister of Trials. Each Final Fantasy aeon is conceptually borrowed from a religious or mythological system, several of which are highlighted in Table 1 below.
Name comes from…
The sixth spirit of the Goetia, demon by day of the third decanate of Taurus, apparently a “good familiar, but tempts to steal” (Godwin 323).
According to Mathers, “a lion with the bellowing head of an ass.”
In Greek mythology, Ixion was summoned to the table of the gods, and hit on Hera. Jupiter tricked Ixion into sleeping with a cloud made to look like Hera, and was strapped to a flaming wheel that revolves around the world as punishment.
Probably human, but the fake Hera gave birth to the centaurs; hence, Ixion appears as a horse-like creature.
Behemoth is a land monster (as opposed to Leviathan, a water monster) in Hebrew mythology, mentioned in Job 40:15 and identified with the Devil in apocalyptic literature (e.g. Revelation).
Bahamut, certainly related to Behemoth, is also a large fish that supports the earth in Arabian mythology.
Chaos monster destroyed at the time of creation, sometimes a dragon.
Large fish, sometimes having the head of a hippopotamus or an elephant.
According to Borges, Bahamut is the large fish that Jesus beholds on the 496th night of the One Thousand and One Nights: “It carries a bull on its head; the bull bears a rock, and above the rock is an angel who carries the seven stages of the earths. Beneath Bahamut is an abyss of air, then fire, and beneath that a giant serpent called Falak.”
Of course, Braska’s Final Aeon is not borrowed from other mythologies; other than “Jecht,” (it is called “Jecht, l’Ultime Chimère” in the French version) the aeon doesn’t even have a name: it is wholly a fantasy, a chimera, of its summoner Braska’s imagination. Years after Braska’s summoning, once Sin had returned, Braska’s daughter and Jecht’s son set out to bring the Calm once again, continuing the cycle. In literature, and especially in the Bible, there is a figurative use of the father/son and father/daughter relationship that will be relevant here.
The father/son and father/daughter relationship in literature is a metaphorical one. The son of the father-son relationship is much like a disciple rather than a literal child that a father has birthed. Consider for a moment the following: when a mentor or teacher teaches someone an idea, the teacher gives “birth” to that idea in that person’s mind. Whole systems could be given birth in this way if the teacher is some combination of effective, careful, and crafty. Art, especially literature, uses this metaphor to a large extent; the first use that comes to my mind is Ezekiel 16:3, when the prophet speaks to Israel (who is metaphorically a woman – sometimes an adopted child of God, sometimes an adulterous lover of God – throughout the prophets):
Thus saith the Lord God unto Jerusalem: Thy birth and thy Nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite…
The passage continues to describe how the Lord God clothed her and raised her as his own, but the metaphorical parentage here is all we care about for now: the “father” of Israel/Jerusalem was culturally an Amorite. In the same vein, often in Western literature, the “father” of the hero should be taken doubly as a biological father and a spiritual father; the father is both the father of the body and of the mind or thought. For a mundane example, the late Northrop Frye has been called the “critical father” of contemporary critic Harold Bloom, and the anxiety of this relationship haunts Bloom in a way. Bloom, the “critical son” of the relationship takes a tremendous influence from Frye’s thought, and there’s certainly a debt and a bit of resentment in Bloom’s mind.
Tidus’ journey of reconciliation with his father takes the archetypal pattern of the “hero’s journey” myth, sometimes called monomyth. As Joseph Campbell describes, the journey (depicted as a cycle) may include any or all of the following, outlined in three acts: Act I, Separation; Act II, Descent and Initiation; and Act III, Return. First, the hero is called to adventure, and the hero usually refuses the call. Next, the hero meets his mentor and crosses the threshold. The hero goes through a series of tests, meeting allies and enemies along the way. Eventually, the hero approaches an “inmost cave” and faces a great challenge, the completion of which gives him a reward or boon. The story then focuses on the road back, when there is a breakthrough to the other side once again, a resurrection, and a return with a boon for the people. Each step and its manifestation in FFX are outlined below in Table 2.
Appears in FFX as…
Call to adventure
Auron’s call to Tidus and the appearance of Sin in Tidus’ Zanarkand
Meeting the Mentor
Tidus and the player meet Auron
Crossing the threshold
Tidus and Auron get sent to Spira through contact with Sin
Tests, allies, and enemies
Path to Zanarkand, the “tests” at the temples, the guardians, and the enemies (e.g. Seymour)
Approach the inmost cave
Enter into the belly of Sin
Defeat of Sin
The Eternal Calm
Tidus’ allies – Yuna and her guardians – have the option to collect sigils and crests to unlock their celestial weapons along the journey to the inmost cave. Each sigil and crest pair is named after one of the seven planets in Chaldean astrology. The table below lists each character and corresponding planet in the US English version of the game, ordered from closest to farthest from Earth.
Aside from being the only apparently moving sources of light in the sky, these seven planets were named and venerated, painted on Babylonian temples as a series of “planes” to the divine, and were thought to have influence over the fate of humans. The table above orders the planets by their apparent proximity to Earth, like a ladder up to the stars if we were living in a geocentric universe.
If you recall, the first three emanations of God in Gnosticism are the perfect being, then a male, and then a female emanation – grace, mind, and truth. This may remind some of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, whose first three Sephiroth (or spheres) are Kether (Crown), Chokmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Understanding). The last two of the three spheres on the Tree of Life, like the last two of the three emanations of God mentioned from Gnosticism, are masculine and feminine, respectively, the first providing the ability to conceive and the third providing the possibility for a thought to take a shape. The ten spheres of the Tree – which are emanations from God, and not necessarily of God – are depicted across three columns. In order after Binah, they are Chesed, Geburah, Tiphareth, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkuth.
In some Kabbalistic traditions (mostly those of the Hermetic flavor), practitioners attribute to each of the spheres along the Tree of Life a planet, and each of the 22 Major Arcana of the tarot to the connecting paths between them, as can be seen here. I should mention here that each of the Major Arcana cards are also attributed to a Hebrew letter, and additionally some are given a planet, a zodiacal constellation, or a classical element.
There exists a fantastic set of correspondences in FFX using the Tree of Life from Qabalah. As shown above, the characters’ sigils and crests correspond to the seven planets used in Chaldean astrology. In the game, there are certain places wherein only Wakka, Tidus, and Rikku may go (only these three members of your party can swim; the other members must remain behind). Do these three members’ planetary attributions bear a connection to their ability to swim underwater? You’ll notice that the corresponding Sephiroth of their planets (Mercury, Sun, Jupiter) on the Tree appear in a kind of diagonal line, beginning on the side of Mercy in Chesed and ending on the side of Severity in Hod. The paths connecting these three Sephiroth (and one adjacent) are attributed to the three earthy zodiacal constellations: between Hod/Mercury and Tiphareth/Sun lies The Devil/Capricorn (cardinal earth), and between Tiphareth/Sun and Chesed/Jupiter lies The Hermit/Virgo (mutable earth). The third earth card or sign, The Hierophant/Taurus (fixed earth) lies between Chesed and Chokmah, just above Wakka’s sphere. Most of you will be familiar with the hierarchy of the classical elements – in order, starting with the most subtle, they are fire, air, water, and earth. Naturally, the reason Wakka, Tidus, and Rikku are able to travel and explore under the “water” in the game is their earthiness.
(In his book on astrology, Aleister Crowley describes an aspect of the human psyche and calls it the Sensorium. The Sensorium is the part of the soul that stores sense perceptions and sends them back into consciousness. I think the Wakka, Tidus, Rikku trio is something like this aspect of the mind.)
Now, if this idea is applied to the story, we begin to see much more meaning in all of these attributions and connections. The first person Tidus (the Sun) encounters after his first contact with Sin (besides the dreams he has dozing by the fire), the first character he meets in Spira, is Rikku (Mercury). She comes to Tidus’ aid after Tidus lights a fire in what appears to be a dilapidated temple near Baaj. As the fire begins to go out, a fiend attacks, and Rikku comes to fight by Tidus’ side. Though she goes missing for a while, Rikku, like the planet, provides our hero with a wide array of technology (machina), perhaps paralleling the technology Hermes provides for Perseus when preparing to fight Medusa – winged sandals and a magical cap, symbolizing the human intellect and imagination. Appropriately, the first mission with Rikku is the recovery of a lost piece of technology from underwater: “Fa vuiht dra airship!” one of the Al Bhed exclaims (“We found the airship!”), a device that, like the winged sandals of Mercury for Perseus, later help Tidus fly (and it’s not a wonder the sphere of Mercury is called “Splendor” on the Kabbalistic Tree).
Naturally, Rikku, the technology expert, later provides the party with another great perk: alchemy. Rikku’s planet, Mercury, is named after the Roman God whose Greek equivalent is Hermes, and, according to tradition, Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-blessed) invented and spread the art of alchemy; hence the art is also called Hermetics, Hermeticism, or the Hermetic art. Superficially, alchemy is the transmutation of base metals, such as lead, into finer metals, like gold. However, occultists use the symbolism and practice of alchemy for their own purposes: transmutation of the soul and spirit. The lead of the operation is the soul in its original state; the gold of the operation is the soul perfected.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, mentioned above, utilizes both Gnostic and alchemical language (among other symbolism) in its lectures and rituals. C. G. Jung writes in his Psychology and Alchemy that the ancient Gnostic tradition, during the medieval era, adopted the guise of alchemy and survived through alchemical treatises, which, on the surface, appeared to be chemical and herbal instructions to make gold and powerful elixirs, but were subtle operations and instruction to make changes to the human mind. Similarly, Final Fantasy X‘s writers appear to have preserved Gnostic, alchemical myths in this guise, for others to chance upon and begin pilgrimages of their own. Though this essay may be complex, its content only scratches the surface of the deep alchemical allegory within Final Fantasy X, a mystery that awaits the revelation of a penetrating player.
In his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye outlines seven steps, stages, or sections of revelatory art. (The title of the book comes from William Blake – who called the Bible “the Great Code of Art.”) Frye’s “seven steps of revelation” are outlined as follows:
Genesis or Creation
Revolution or Exodus
Apocalypse or Revelation
When I read this, being the Harry Potter nerd I am, I was struck with a fascinating parallel between these steps and the seven Harry Potter novels and the themes in each:
Chamber of Secrets
Prisoner of Azkaban
Goblet of Fire
Order of the Phoenix
Of course, some of the parallels are obvious just by the names – particularly obvious are “wisdom” fitting with the themes and trials of Goblet of Fire (concerned much with Harry learning and using spells outside of the classroom) and “prophecy” with Order of the Phoenix (concerned with – gasp! – the prophecy) – and some of the others aren’t so obvious. One of the biggest reasons I see these parallels is the deliberately Christian themes in the last book of the series and the likeness of Harry Potter to Christ. A paragraph on each book should do well to establish at least a dim connection between the structures of these two tomes.
The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is, by necessity, about the genesis of Harry Potter as we know him: his birth, his legend, and his induction into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Admittedly, this parallel is necessary (how else would we get to know him?) but, given the parallels of the rest of the series and the seven steps of revelation, I drew the connection between the structure of the Bible and the structure of HP.
Chamber of Secrets focuses on a few important events: the creature lying beneath Hogwarts for years – the Slytherin legacy, Harry dealing with his likeness to Voldemort, and Voldemort’s control over Ginny Weasley. We are also introduced to Fawkes in this book – whose name comes from a radical revolutionary named Guy Fawkes who planned the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (executed in 1606), an effigy of whom is burned on “Guy Fawkes Night” (Etymology note: Guy Fawkes is where the American English word “guy” comes from – it once meant a poorly dressed person after Fawkes). Fawkes the Phoenix, like Guy, bursts into flame and is reborn again from the ashes upon Harry’s first meeting with him, and he comes to revive Harry after he rescues Ginny and defeats the basilisk (a revolution or exodus from the rule of Voldemort), effectively creating a revolution or exodus theme for this book.
The parallels between Prisoner of Azkaban and “law” are not as obvious. We are introduced to the notion of “law” in a few ways in this book: Harry blowing up his aunt, Sirius Black’s escape from Azkaban, and Buckbeak’s trial and execution. It should be noted that Rowling intentionally presents the notion of “law” very flimsily: Fudge and the Ministry do not punish Harry for breaking the law against underage magic, Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban, and the Ministry’s plans to kill Buckbeak are foiled (by a couple of thirteen year olds no less). Additionally, Cornelius Fudge personally escorts Harry from the Knight Bus into the Leaky Cauldron. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling establishes that lawgivers are not to be trusted and that sometimes matters delegated to the law – the Ministry – must be taken into your own hands.
Goblet of Fire represents a large turning point in the series (as, I think, it does in the Bible as well), in which magical “options” are presented to Harry for the first time. Based on the three tasks for the Triwizard tournament, Harry must learn spells in order to complete them. That is, he must procure wisdom based on the tasks before him. Of course, the “wisdom” for each task comes through Hagrid, Pseudo-Moody, Dobby, Cedric, and others, but Harry is presented with tasks and gathers wisdom (even becoming Hermione-like the night before the second task) nonetheless. Also, the Sphinx – traditionally a symbol of wisdom, truth, and mystery – and her riddle make this book scream “wisdom” to me.
Prophecy and Order of the Phoenix go hand-in-hand, of course, but I promised a paragraph for each, so here it goes. Voldemort seeks a prophecy contained in a glass sphere – “The Prophecy.” It is the prophecy that Sybil Trelawney made to Dumbledore just before Harry was born, and Voldemort, believing it, secured its reality by attacking Harry and his parents. Harry procures the sphere, but he and his friends are ambushed. The Dumbledore denouement of Order of the Phoenix reveals much to Harry and Rowling’s readers (in a chapter entitled “The Lost Prophecy”) with regard to the prophecy, which foretells Harry’s and Voldemort’s death in the last book of the series.
Admittedly, the connection between Half-Blood Prince and “gospel” is the stretchiest of stretches in this post. (This stretchiness is mostly due to space constraints and my fear of boring my readers. I’ll do my best, however.) In the book The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger makes a very compelling connection between Snape and one of Rowling’s biggest – though I would argue littlest-known – influences: Dante, the Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy. Granger, among other convincing evidence, connects Harry’s and his mother’s eyes with Beatrice, Dante’s muse. In short, Paradise of the Divine Comedy takes its readers through nine spheres of the Empyrean, or heaven: the spheres of Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Without going too far into the details, suffice it to say that in the esoteric alchemical tradition, the poet or artist traverses seven of these spheres to gain what some call “crystal vision” – vision of the Holy Trinity. That is, Snape becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and, if Snape is a Dante figure, Dante is in turn the teacher to Harry (a placeholder for Rowling, or her soul or some such thing) in this book. Snape’s book on potions, with hundreds of corrections and annotations to traditional potion-making (read: poetry- or novel-making) is Harry’s gospel, a symbol for Dante’s influence on her. This marks the “gospel” step of the seven steps of revelation. (Yeah, I know… weak. I wish I could go more into this one, and someday I probably will.)
Finally, we come to revelation or apocalypse and Deathly Hallows. Apocalypse comes from Greek, and it means “uncover, disclose, reveal”:
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal,” from apo- “from” (see apo-) + kalyptein “to cover, conceal” (see Calypso). The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos’ book “Apokalypsis” (a title rendered into English as “Apocalypse” c.1230 and “Revelations” by Wyclif c.1380). (Etymonline.com)
That is, the “apocalypse” (in the Bible and in Harry Potter) is an event very unlike the one we see in contemporary biblical exegesis (i.e. primarily eschatological). It is not a revelation for St. John only. It is a revelation or disclosure of information, an uncovering and symbolic rending of a veil, merely symbolized by death and cataclysm in St. John’s book. Indeed, in Deathly Hallows and in St. John’s Revelation, we are faced with death galore. The most remarkable death in Rowling’s series, of course, in an echo of Christ’s death on the cross, is Harry’s death in the forest. During his “death,” he travels to King’s Cross, and after he comes back, Voldemort uses crucio (“cross,” based on Latin crux, its genitive being crucis) on what Voldemort believes is Harry’s lifeless corpse. This is the point at which in the symbolist tradition the poet receives crystal vision, and at which Rubeus Hagrid is forced to carry Harry’s corpse (the transformed soul) back to Hogwarts.
I hope from this that the relation between – and indeed the revelation of – the Bible and Harry Potter have been highlighted as I intended. Thanks for reading.
“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.”
– Oscar Wilde, from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
Symbol means, in its etymological root,
literally “that which is thrown or cast together,” from syn– “together” (see syn-) + bole “a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam,” from bol-, nominative stem of ballein “to throw” (Etymonline.com)
What two things, exactly, does a symbol “cast together”? I hope to establish this and more in the following essay. What I hope to establish is that the two things that are “cast” together are matter and spirit – or material consciousness and a nonmaterial concept which exists somewhere deep in our psyche. That is a symbol is a sensible, material sign that stands for something that is not material, and it casts the two together.
Frithjof Schuon and others in the symbolist tradition chased what has been called throughout the history of the humanities the “perennial tradition” otherwise known as the “perennial Sophia.” (Therion indeed has a song about “The Perennial Sophia,” which you can – and should – listen to here.) The perennial Sophia is, Schuon says, the “transcendent unity” behind all religious traditions, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor of The Essential Frithjof Schuon, explains Schuon’s theory as such:
[Schuon] emphasizes perennial religion, or religio perennis, that he also calls the religion of the heart, which resides at the center of every particular religion and also at the center and in the very substance from which man is made. (Schuon 5)
In an essay on Sufism, Schuon explains that there is a “spirit” behind the “husk” of all the religions:
Behind the husk of the literal text [exists] a concrete and active spiritual presence which goes beyond the words and the mind. (Schuon 304)
The title of this blog entry, of course, comes from this essay by Schuon. Schuon refers to a fruit or a seed or a spirit that goes beyond literal text, past images and symbols and into somewhere ethereal. I will delineate in this essay two sides to the religions here analyzed: 1) the husk or shell (exoterism) and 2) the seed, fruit, or spirit (esoterism). Again, Nasr explains in the introduction to the massive volume:
Religion is like a walnut, to use the Sufi image, with both a shell and the core or fruit which can grow and possess existence only within the shell. The purpose of the shell is to protect the fruit but without the shell there would be no fruit. Likewise, the final end of religion is to guide man to God, to enable man to be delivered from the bondage of limitation which is the goal of esoterism here in this life and which even exoterism aspires to in future life. (Schuon 12; emphasis mine)
You cannot send a message without a vessel through which the message travels (without performing some sort of Star Trek Vulcan-esque mindmeld), and this shell or husk, once pulled or peeled away, provides access to the fruit within. This is what a symbol “casts together”: the sign (letters on the page), the shell (image) and the fruit (signified).
So where does the “husk” or “shell” come from?
When people write, they write what they know. If a person frequents the desert and rides camels, that person will write about deserts and camels, or in very near proximity to such. If one has never seen or heard of a camel, one can’t very much write about a camel. The authors of Judaic scriptures wrote about deserts, rivers, and temples which they knew very well. If the authors of the Judaic scriptures can conceive in their minds a green, flowery oasis, they might write about that too – and perhaps call it the Garden of Eden? –and use it as one of their symbols.The authors of the Christian scriptures wrote about shepherds, sheep, boats, Romans, Pharisees, and other familiar figures. When Rowling was a child, she wrote many stories about rabbits – not because she had one, but because she and her sister knew of rabbits and desired one very much. This rule rings true for religion and mythology and the perennial tradition as well.
And many alchemical operations, like religious and mythological tales, are symbolic, metonymic, allegorical, and at their core (their fruit?) spiritual. That is, they each tell a symbolic story of the perennial Sophia – explorations of psychic contents that are the same in essence but different in form. Yes, even within the same tradition the process takes a different form. The shell is, however, necessary.
It must be noted and emphasized that a majority of people – indeed most people – will not see the fruit of the story. They may catch glimpses of it or have a notion of it, but it takes a special kind of nature to perceive clearly the fruit or spirit. Therefore, the outer shell of the tale or mythology must be convincing and gripping enough to hold the attention of those who only see the shell. The exoteric tradition must be as compelling – or more compelling – than the esoteric one, and must survive in order to pass the esoteric side of the tradition on, as Nasr explains:
Exoterism is…absolutely necessary to make the attainment of [deliverance from bondage] through esoterism possible even when man lives in this world. Without the exoteric, no esoterism could survive and be efficacious. But also without esoterism religion would be reduced to only its external aspects without means of providing a way for those whose nature is such that they must follow the esoteric path in order to follow religion. (Schuon 13)
I urge my readers to, if they so desire, look within the symbols of religious traditions for the “transcendent unity of all religions,” and follow the path. It is said to be full of thorns, but “sublime”:
The Path by which to Deity we climb
Is arduous, rough, ineffable, sublime;
And the strong massy gates thro’ which we pass,
In our first course, are bound with chains of brass;
Those men, the first who of Egyptian birth,
Drank the fair water of Nilotic earth,
Disclosed by actions infinite this road.
And many paths to God Phoenicians showed;
This road the Assyrians pointed out to view,
And this the Lydians and Chaldeans knew. – Oracle of Apollo, from Eusebius
The series A Woman Young and Old echoes Yeats’ and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s cabbalist mythology of the Lower Self being rescued by the Higher Self and their interpretations of the myths of the Perseus and Andromeda arc. The Golden Dawn mythology explains that through the imaginative faculty the Higher Self liberates the Lower Self from dogma and strict materialism. The Lower Self is Andromeda, who tends toward lust and materialism, who does the dragon’s or serpent’s will. The Higher Self is the heroic Perseus, who, using the tools of the Nymphs to whom Hermes and Athena led him, instills inspiration and imagination into the Lower Self, freeing her from the chains of habit and philosophical materialism. Philosophical materialism is defined in this essay as the belief that all that can be known about the world can be known only through sense perception. Philosophical materialism stunts psychological and spiritual growth because the philosophical materialist lacks the imaginative faculty which can lead to such growth. The imaginative faculty is the ability in man’s consciousness to consider and perceive images and sensations that are not readily available in everyday experiences through the five senses. This essay aims to show that though most critics believe Yeats gave up on what they perceive as childish magical beliefs of the Golden Dawn after the Celtic Twilight, Yeats dedicates A Woman Young and Old to his experience with and knowledge of the mythology of the liberating imaginative faculty in the Golden Dawn system of magic, even borrowing their images and mythological interpretations. The mythology he disguises so easily in his later poetry (or clothes in the mythology of A Vision) appears also in his early prose and poetry, including “The Two Trees” – which contrasts the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (of the Garden of Eden myth).
Criticism on the series of poems in question – A Woman Young and Old – appears rather sparse, though with such a limited time and such a small scope for this essay, reading all of the available criticism on the series would still be impossible. From my research, however, I have discovered that no one critic has applied the Golden Dawn system of magic and mythology to this series of poems in particular. Carole Vopat authored in 1992 one explicatory article printed on the series of poems, titled “The Darker Vision of W.B. Yeats: ‘A Woman Young and Old,’” which borrows from a plethora of other sources, yet it is a wholly literal and thematic explication and analysis of the series and contains no spiritual or mythological interpretation and application. I aim to alleviate the lack of a spiritual and psychological interpretation of the series of poems by interpreting them using the Golden Dawn tarot, various primary and secondary Golden Dawn documents, other mythologies, and the structure of the Tree of Life in general.
In “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Fool,” Joan Weatherly poignantly explains that though many critics are quick to mention Yeats’ association with the Golden Dawn and his occult practices, the association is usually drawn to “be dismissed as a youthful dalliance which the mature poet outgrew with the Celtic Twilight” (112). Later, she explains that the tarot and the Golden Dawn were in fact essential to his poetry; especially important, she argues, is the concept of the neophyte Fool’s movement through phases of initiation into the understanding of occult principles. The Fool, Weatherly argues, symbolizes the “‘pure mind’ and the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ in which ‘those masterful images’ grew” and Yeats “employed [forbidden secrets of the Golden Dawn] throughout his career” (119). Illuminating Yeats’ uses of the tarot Fool in his various works in turn supports a mythological interpretation of A Woman Young and Old through the Golden Dawn’s cabbalism. The mythological interpretation of this series echoes the neophyte’s initation – a discovery of imagination, liberation from philosophical materialism, and a climb in consciousness up the cabbalistic Tree of Life.
Another useful critical article pertinent to this essay is Kathleen Raine’s “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn.” I subscribe, as does Raine, to the notion that
merely academic study of magical symbolism may be likened to the analysis of musical scores by a student who does not know that the documents he meticulously annotates are merely indications for the evocation of music from instruments of whose very existence he is ignorant. (Raine 112)
This assumes an ambiguity and abstractness to the study of the symbolic meanings of Yeats and other symbolist poets, though this essay will attempt to be as perspicuous and pragmatic as possible. Raine goes on in her article to highlight the ways in which Yeats makes use of the archetypal images of the tarot in his literature, explaining that these images are like “keys” that “awaken their sleeping counterparts in the mind” (134). Though she analyzes Yeats’ poetry using the tarot and other occult beliefs, there is no mention of the poems of A Woman Young and Old. This essay will borrow some of her tarotical and archetypal methodology of reading Yeats. Additionally, a particularly poignant quote from Yeats about the alchemical image of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood on page 145 will be used to illuminate the symbolical meaning of “Her Vision in a Wood” – self-sacrifice of the poet in an attempt to heal mankind.
Yasuko Suzuki in “Yeats’s ‘From the “Antigone’”: Desire and Loss” describes the last poem in the Woman Young and Old series in relation to Yeats’ three Oedipus plays. According to Suzuki, Yeats’ desire for a return to a “romantic heroic age” is reflected in the themes of the Oedipus plays and in the coda poems of both of the Young and Old series. Suzuki argues that “Yeats must surely have felt encouraged and hoped…that he might yet, through his poetic drama, elevate the Irish people to embrace the legends, folklore, and literature of their past and thereby recover the heroic Romantic age” (49). If the final poem of A Woman Young and Old is a (somewhat morose) call for the heroic age (and it seems it is), then, as will be shown in this essay, the rest of the series is a mythological outline of Yeats’ own experience awakening that mode of thinking, that spiritual and heroic age, in his own consciousness.
Yeats assures of this fact – that poetry is a quarrel with one’s own psyche – in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. To quarrel with one’s psyche in writing is to write poetry: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Later in the same paragraph he talks of how one awakens the imaginative faculty – a gift from the figure of Hermes – in our minds: “He can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed wanderer” (Per Amica V). For Yeats, in order to make inner changes and achieve spiritual growth, we must awaken the imagination and strive for the greatest imaginable empathy. Hermes’ gifts must be the winged sandals and the helmet of Hades (which grants invisibility to Perseus). Here and throughout his work, Yeats alludes to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s interpretations and uses of various mythological systems. The systems of Rosicrucian, Egyptian, Greek, medieval and Renaissance magic all find their place in the system of the Golden Dawn, and thus we see that Hermes plays a role in rescuing the materialist human, instilling him with imagination and sympathy.
In his book Yeats and Alchemy, Gorski analyzes at one point the ways in which Yeats treats imagination and sympathy with regard to the magical and poetic tradition. Gorski explains that
although Yeats thought the previous two centuries were primarily a barren intellectual age cut off from the passionate depths of the unconscious, he found in Blake an anomalous flowering of the symbolic imagination. “He [Blake] had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, ‘the body of God,’ ‘the Divine Members,’ and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sin commanded by Christ” (E&I 112). (Gorski 22-3)
For Yeats, the goal of the mythology to which he subscribed (a syncretic, inclusive one) was a development of the imaginative and therefore sympathetic faculty. As one climbs to greater rungs or steps of awareness along the path outlined in many traditions, one achieves a sympathy for all mankind, both sinful and righteous. We can see this mythology reflected throughout Yeats’ work, and especially, as we will see, in A Woman Young and Old. The mythological figures in the series can be easily equated to symbolic figures in the Golden Dawn magical tradition, and that is where this argument of this essay begins.
The Lovers card of the Golden Dawn tarot shows a scenario much like the one described in Yeats’ “Her Triumph,” and, after having seen the card, to not attempt some association between the poem and the various figures in the series and the image on the card and the figures therein (Perseus and Andromeda) would be absurd. The tarot card shows a naked woman with her hands fettered to a large rock on a small rock platform, which rises just above sea level, and a dragon threatens her from nearby in the waters just below. From above, a man, a Perseus figure, descends equipped with helmet, sword, and shield. His helmet bears a pair of wings, and his shield bears the symbol of the sun, from which twelve rays emanate. “Her Triumph” recreates much the same scenario: the title character of the series, the woman, was at one time similarly fettered and under threat of a dragon figure; the woman “did the dragon’s will” (1) until her “Saint George or else a pagan Perseus” (10) who “mastered” the dragon-rings came and “broke the chain and set [her] ankles free” (9). Indeed, the tarot trump (with which Yeats was familiar) and “Her Triumph” imagine for their audience the same scenario: Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Poseidon’s sea monster. Though both imagine the same scenario, the connection does not end there.
The imagined scenario symbolizes for Golden Dawn members a psychological transformation that is to them magical in nature. In a description of the tarot trumps compiled in Israel Regardie’s The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, G. H. Soror Q. L. explains that the card symbolizes the “impact of inspiration on intuition, resulting in illumination and liberation – the sword striking off the fetters of habit and materialism, Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the Dragon of fear and the waters of Stagnation.” MacGregor Mathers similarly describes the signification of this image in his short treatise on the tarot:
[The Lovers] is usually described as representing Man between Vice and Virtue, while a winged genius threatens Vice with his dart…[but] I am rather inclined to the opinion that it represents the Qabalistical Microprosopus between Binah and Malkuth, while the figure above shows the Influence descending from Kether. It is usually considered to mean Proof or Trial; but I…suggest Wise Disposition as [the card’s] signification. (MacGregor Mathers 7)
MacGregor Mathers and other cabbalists define the Microprosopus (from mikros “small” and prosopon “face”), equivalent to a symbolic Virgin Mary, as the nine Sephiroth on the Tree of Life below Kether (that is, Chokmah through Malkuth), and thus M. Mathers precludes only one Sephira from his interpretation of the female figure from the scenario. The figure from above is the influence from the topmost Sephira on the Tree of Life, Kether, that doesn’t merely conquer the unvirtuous, but conquers the unspiritual, materialistic consciousness. The figure from above, Yeats’ Perseus, conquers the dragon’s will to liberate the Microposopus figure – the title figure of Yeats’ A Woman series – from the earthly fetters to “stare astonished at the sea” (“Her Triumph” 11). With the figures of the series identified as figures of consciousness and imagination in a cabbalistic mythological context, it will be apt to begin interpreting the cabbalistic climb of the Tree from the beginning of the A Woman Young and Old series, after a brief summary of the system of the cabbala.
I use the term “cabbala” with a ‘c’ because Yeats uses this spelling throughout his essays and other writings. Though this term traditionally concerns the purely Christian application to the mythology contained in the Tree of Life, I will use this term universally throughout this essay despite the Greek and hermetic mixture of symbols throughout the series here analyzed. The Tree of Life of the cabbala maps or outlines the “potencies and potentialities” of human consciousness, and each of ten Sephiroth, the spheres of these influences, represents steps toward a fuller mastery over consciousness. The Sephiroth are organized in three columns, the first Sephira, Kether (the Macroprosopus – “big face” – or Crown), being placed at the top of the middle pillar. The second Sephira Chokmah (Wisdom) is placed just below on the right-hand pillar, and Binah (Understanding), the third, is placed on the left-hand pillar opposite this one. The fourth, Chesed (Mercy), is placed a row below the second and third on the right-hand side, and the fifth, Geburah (Severity) returns back again to the left pillar. From here, the sixth Sephira Tiphereth (Beauty) rests in the central column in its own row. Netzach (Victory), the seventh, is below on the right-hand side of the Tree in a new row, and the eighth, Hod (Splendor), returns again to the left-hand column. Yesod (Foundation) is placed in the center column below the seventh and eighth spheres of influence, alone in a row directly above the final sphere, Malkuth (Kingdom), where in the mythological system the human consciousness naturally resides. This Tree of Life, this spiritual growth and ascension is reflected in Yeats’ image of the “winding stair” in the collection in which A Woman appears. Belief in the cabbalistic Tree of Life can be glimpsed throughout Yeats’ poetry, though reference to it appears most explicitly in “The Two Trees.”
A cabbalistic interpretation of the Judaic Garden of Eden myth lies at the base of “The Two Trees.” The tree in the first stanza is the Tree of Life (the cabbalistic one) and the tree in the second stanza is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrasting a “union and separation from the divine source” (Gorski 39). The tree in the first stanza of “The Two Trees” is described as a “holy tree” (2) that we may seek and find if we “gaze in [our] own heart[s]” (1). To gaze in our own hearts is to gaze on our own psyche, our own consciousness, and cabbalism seeks union with the unconscious potencies of our mind. The other tree, however, the Tree of Knowledge, contains the “ravens of unresting thought” (34) and is seen only through the “bitter glass [mirror]” (21) that “the demons, with their subtle guile, / lift up before us when they pass” (22-3). Gazing at the outer, bitter Tree of Knowledge makes our “eyes grow all unkind” (39) while looking within for the tree makes “our eyes grow full of tender care” (19). This bitter glass is the strict materialism to which the dragon’s will in “Her Triumph” refers; it is the outer weariness that contrasts with the inner, divine source that can be known through the ascension of the Tree of Life, an ascension that is portrayed for us through veiled symbolism in A Woman Young and Old.
The first poem of the series, “Father and Child,” represents the beginning of the cabbalist’s mythological journey up the Tree of Life that begins in Malkuth. At the beginning of the cabbalist’s journey, a discovery of Mask – a tutelary spiritual being, in spiritual traditions the Holy Guardian Angel, and Christ as the shepherd in the Christian cabbala – appears halfway up the Tree of Life, in Tiphereth. This Mask is symbolized in the series as the woman’s “face…/ Before the world was made” (7-8), and guides one to the discovery of the fullness of the self, symbolic of a pull in one’s psyche toward individualization, Yeats’ One, and away from the collective psychology, Yeats’ Many. This is the same figure that descends from the clouds in Yeats’ “Her Triumph” and the image on the Lovers of the tarot, the figure MacGregor Mathers called the “Influence descending from Kether” (7). This figure, the Higher Self, comes to save the Lower Self from the dragon or the sea monster in the mythology of the Golden Dawn and represents a finality in liberation from the materialist mindset. When the woman (the Lower Self) achieves this influence, she achieves the imaginative faculty and a more conscious life and, indeed, a voice.
An image of the cabbala appears with a male figure and a female figure laid over the top in the twenty-eighth folio of the Cypher Manuscript, which was used in the founding rituals and mythological beliefs of the Golden Dawn. On either side of the supernal triad (Kether, Chokmah, and Binah contained in a circle above the male’s head) appear the Hebrew words “Elohim” on the left – one of the many names of God – and “Aima” on the right – meaning “mother.” The man appears with a cross figure behind him, his left hand rests in Chesed, and his right hand rests in Geburah. His genitals are positioned directly in the center of Tiphereth. Netzach and Hod lie on opposite sides of his thighs, and his feet rest in Yesod. The woman’s head lies just below Yesod, as if the male figure stands on the crown of her head, and Malkuth rests directly over her stomach. Analogy between this image from the MS. and A Woman Young and Old comes easily: the male’s genitals residing in the sphere of influence which the Lower Self discovers first explains the sexual nature of the arc of the poetry.
In “Father and Child” the Microprosopus does not have a voice: she only “hears [her father] strike the board” as he denounces her desires for the Mask figure in this short poem. This signifies that the father disapproves of the use of the Microprosopus’ imagination. The woman is in the first stages of the climb toward spiritual growth in this poem, the first phase of the moon in Yeats’ Great Wheel in A Vision. The father figure denies the woman a voice and desires to keep her in the primary phases, the Many, in which she is a product of circumstance. She sets her sights on a male figure, however: the Higher Self or Mask, whose “hair is beautiful” (7) and “Cold as the March wind his eyes” (8). To achieve spiritual growth, she must exercise her imagination, but her father denounces her association with the male figure.
In “Before the World was Made,” the woman looks for her true face in the mirror, symbolizing her search for self-knowledge and her spirit within her. In “mirror after mirror” (5) the woman looks “for the face I had / Before the world was made” (7-8). She escapes from the oppressive captivity of the father and is now able to perform self-reflection and achieve self-knowledge and therefore spiritual growth. In the magical tradition, magicians use a mirror for the practice of scrying. Scryers use mirrors to see spiritual visions, visions that arise from the subconscious and the imagination. Though mirrors, crystals, or other gazing devices are usually used, Bill Whitcomb notes that “anything which one can focus the sight upon, yet does not produce a definite image, may be used as a blank matrix in which the mind may impose its own order” (Whitcomb 536). Literature or scripture may be used, where the imagination is given to wandering toward the spirit, as in George Herbert’s “The Holy Scriptures I”: “Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasse, / that mends the lookers eyes: this is the well / That washes what it shows.” This is not to say that the conscious mind imposes this order – it’s quite the opposite. The magicians set their imaginations loose upon a blank matrix – mirrors, scripture, or other objects of concentration – and give their minds or imaginations a will of their own to discover the true spirit behind their nature. Using her imagination through scrying (or reading), the woman (at this point a symbol for the Microprosopus at its lower aspects) climbs the Tree of Life toward her Higher Self to eventually achieve consummation – Yeats’ Unity of Being – at Tiphereth.
The consummation comes at the fifth poem of the series, “Consolation.” The antimonies of Malkuth (the collective psychology marked by outward, material consciousness) or the early primary phases and Tiphereth (an individualization marked by gazing inward at one’s own true spirit) or the middling antithetical phases, though opposite, console one another. Similarly, in Yeats’ A Vision, when the Will reaches the fifteenth phase, the personality’s Mask is then in Phase 0, its complete opposite, which is “where the crime’s committed” (11) and where “[t]he crime can be forgot” (12). When the will of the Microprosopus in the Golden Dawn mythology reaches Tiphereth, there is similarly a “little death” at that point: the Golden Dawn places the tarot card “Death” on one side of Tiphereth and the card “Justice” on the other. On the Justice card, there are scales, symbolizing a balance of chance and choice.
After consummating, after the “little death” of sexual release, a balance comes, portrayed in “Chosen” (named such, perhaps, because of Yeats’ concept of unity of chance and choice). The balance is a realization that the Lower Self – marked by circumstance – and the Higher Self – marked by choice – are one. The woman appears to have been divining, or scrying, on the Zodiac for her love, so that she could imagine and move toward her Higher Self (the male in the stories): “The lot of love is chosen. I learnt that much / Struggling for an image on the track / Of the whirling Zodiac” (1-3). After lying with the male, the woman desires to stay with him in “Parting.”
In “Her Vision in the Wood,” the woman achieves a state of self-sacrifice in attempt to “cover / Whatever could recall the lip of lover” (7-8). This covering is a covering of the written word with one’s spirit, in an attempt to bring others to union with their Higher Self. Yeats discusses this sacrifice in a pamphlet addressed to the Order of R. R. and A. C.:
The great Adept may indeed have to hide much of his deepest life, lest he tell it to the careless and the indifferent, but he will sorrow and not rejoice over this silence, for he will be always seeking ways of giving the purest substance of his soul to fill the emptiness of other souls. It will seem to him better that his soul be weakened, that he be kept wandering on the earth even, than that other souls should lack anything of strength and quiet….He will remember, while he is with them, the old magical image of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood; and when, his sacrifice over, he goes his way to supreme Adeptship, he will go absolutely alone, for men attain to the supreme wisdom in a loneliness that is like the loneliness of death. (qtd. in Raine 145)
The “magical image of the pelican feeding its young” is an alchemical image which is closely linked to Christ’s sacrifice for mankind on the cross. Adepts act as Christ, in that they sacrifice their perfected human existence in order to fill the souls of others. The woman in “Her Vision in the Wood,” like the alchemical pelican, tears the flesh of her finger off and lets blood, the “wine” that makes us think of the spirit of Christ, drip down. The dark then “changed to red, and torches shone, / And deafening music shook the leaves” (12-3), signifying the creation of poetry. The Adept here (Yeats himself), struck with every imaginable pang, cuts his own figurative flesh to share with mankind through poetry, which music so often signifies in Yeats’ work. For the woman, the blood is a figurative wine, but for the Higher Self, it is real blood, as she cries out: “I stared upon his blood-bedabbled breast / And sang my malediction with the rest” (23-4). The sacrifice is one that attempts to bring others up the mythological Tree of Life through the use of symbol and song. Although the woman wants to lead others to the unfoldment of their consciousness and towards living more fully, the last poem expresses at the same time this same desire but a failure, as Antigone falls into the dust.
The last poem of the series, as Suzuki argues, cries out finally for a spiritual and imaginative reinvigoration in the consciousness of humankind. The poem is a call to the path which Yeats outlines in the previous ten poems of the series. The apocalypse to which Yeats always points is a call to this path: a discovery of Hermes and his gift of the hermetic imaginative faculty; a journey through symbol and scrying upon mirrors, literature, and scripture; of feeling the highest influence from Kether and slaying finally the propensity toward materialist thoughts. In Yeats’ Antigone, Suzuki points out, his speaker “celebrates Love and invokes it to unleash its power to ‘overcome’ all things,” the same “terrible” Love which in Sophocles’ play the Chorus says “drives men to frenzy and madness” (Suzuki 112). This Love is a Love for the spiritual or Higher Self whose genitals the author of the Cipher Manuscript placed at the sphere of Beauty, Tiphereth, which Yeats calls phase 15 in his A Vision. Yeats calls in the last poem of A Woman Young and Old for this love to
The rich man and his affairs,
The fat flocks and the fields’ fatness…
Overcome Gods upon Parnassus. (1-6)
This is indeed an apocalyptic call for spiritual reinvigoration and the discovery and reorganization of the unconscious influences in one’s mind, and to discover the Higher Self upon one’s climb through these influences. The rich man and his affairs is associated with the materialism and desire for power so prevalent in the west. Susuki goes on to explain that though Yeats desires a cultural renaissance and for Ireland to achieve again the romantic heroic age, Yeats is “forced to acknowledge sadly the irreversibility of history, and so he chooses to conclude The Winding Stair and Other Poems with the finality of Antigone’s death” (58): “Pray I will and sing I must, / And yet I weep – Oedipus’ child / Descends into the loveless dust” (14-6). Though he calls for a spiritualization of humanity, he realizes that in his old age he has not succeeded; Antigone descends into the dust, without frenzy, without the ability to overcome and consummate with the Higher Self as Yeats appears to have done through the cabbalistic Golden Dawn mythology.
As can be seen, Yeats calls throughout his poetry for his readers to ascend the Winding Stair which symbolizes spiritual growth. This growth is marked by a reinvigoration of the imaginative faculty, through which we can overthrow the gods and achieve an excellence and perfection of selfhood, free of unconscious influences (which are the gods). The cabbalists’ climb up the Tree of Life in their consciousness allows them to experience life more consciously and more fully as they “Overcome Gods upon Parnassus; Overcome the Empyrean” (“From the ‘Antigone’” 6-7). The Golden Dawn embodied this hermetic, cabbalistic mythology, and Yeats borrows from it extensively in his poetic symbolism. Despite what critics may say about Yeats’ early involvement with magic, spirits, the Golden Dawn, and other occult practices and strange beliefs, these beliefs are and were essential to his poetry. It is often remarked that “had Yeats produced nothing beyond the nineties he would today be unknown” (Weatherly 119) but without these beliefs from Golden Dawn’s mythology of expansion of consciousness, the tarot, alchemy, and all else, as Weatherly says, “many of the great twentieth-century poems might not have been” (Weatherly 119-120). In order for him to build up his own mythological and symbolic system, he had to borrow and conjoin various systems from traditions of Greek mythology, poetry, and drama, Pythagorean and Paracelsian alchemy, astrology, hermetic qabalah, Christian cabbala, Egyptian mythology, and Blake’s poetry to create a syncretic, Yeatsian whole.
The map presented to us in Yeats’ poetry for psychological expansion is difficult to grasp, even ethereal and insubstantial. Yeats’ work does point to something though, which can be contemplated and uncovered for individuals in their own individual imaginations. The growth in spirit to which he calls is an interplay and synthesis of many symbolic narratives, like faeries dancing around in our imaginations. If this mythology does affect consciousness, whatever synapses these faeries fire may be powerful indeed. Yeats’ maps and models, taken from the syncretic mythology of the Golden Dawn and other traditions, guide the student of hermeticism in this transformative process, sometimes called the Path of the Serpent of the system of the cabbala.
Want to see more blogs like this? Check out my “Recommended Reading” at the top of this page.
Gorski, William T. Yeats and Alchemy. New York: State of NY UP, 1996.
Grimal, Pierre. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1991.
MacGregor Mathers, Samuel Liddell. The Tarot: Its Occult Signficance, Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc. San Francisco: Weiser, 1969. PDF.
Raine, Kathleen. “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn.” The Sewanee Review 77.1 (1969): 112-48. JSTOR. Web. 14 May 2013.
Regardie, Israel. The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. Tempe, AZ: Falcon, 1994.
Suzuki, Yasuko. “Yeats’s ‘From the “Antigone”’: Desire and Loss.” The Harp 15 (2000): 47-58. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2013.
Weatherly, Joan. “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Fool.” College Literature. 13.1 (1986): 112-21. JSTOR. Web. 14 May 2013.
Whitcomb, Bill. The Magician’s Companion: A Practical and Encyclopedic Guide to Magical and Religious Symbolism. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999.
“It is no stone; it is in every man & in every place, & at all seasons, & is called the end of all philosophers.”
– Pseudo-Aristotle to Alexander, ca. 12th century or earlier[i]
The inspiration to write this blog entry came to me a few nights after I read Lawrence W. Principe’s book on alchemy, The Secrets of Alchemy.[ii] Principe, a historian of science with two PhDs, has an impressive breadth and depth of learning, to be sure, but his survey and evaluation in his book of the use of alchemy during and after the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century occult revival, its use in literary works over the course of its history, and the hermetic tradition in general are imbalanced and myopic.[iii]
Mary Ann Atwood, Principe says, was the first to suggest that man is “the true laboratory of the Hermetic Art” in A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. Principe claims that this interpretation and description of alchemy – as an esoteric, pseudo-religious tradition whose aim is the transformation of the human body and mind – is “simply wrong.”[iv] Principe provides no evidence to support this claim other than another (baseless) claim that Atwood is the originator of the idea that alchemy was and is a “self-transformative psychic practice” and that her beliefs are merely a product of the craze for Mesmerism in the 1840s.[v]
I will address Principe’s disregard for Atwood and her claims by showing that Atwood is not the originator of the notion of alchemy as a psychic transformation, and that both an “inner” or “occult” tradition and an “outer” or “material” tradition existed centuries before her publication. Indeed, Atwood gained the ability and desire to create discourse about alchemy in this way through Mesmerism and the subsequent cultural craze for it (that is, its principles gave Atwood and her father the necessary framework and awareness to conceive in a new way what alchemists had been disguising as alchemical doctrine for centuries).
Atwood is not the originator of the dualistic “inner vs. outer” or “esoteric vs. exoteric” view of alchemy. (In fact, the notion of traditions having an esoteric and an exoteric side to them originates with teachings as early as Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Lucian, but more on this in my next blog entry.) In the literature of the English alchemical tradition, there are many instances of the acknowledgement of an underlying doctrine beneath alchemical terms, but the most striking example of this is in Patrick Scot’s The Tillage of Light. In the first few pages of this short treatise, Scot outlines the purpose of his short piece – to elucidate the “allegoricall sense” of the philosopher’s work:
[…] we are heare to consider, specially what nature and art can doe, either joined or severed, in reducing of mettalls to the perfection and multiplication of millions, by projection of an Elixar upon unrefined metalicall substances, and whether the phylosophers perfection is literally to bee understood of a material Elixar, or whether Urim and Thummim, aurumdei, Ezekiellscoals of fire, quintessence, and Phylosopherselixir are meant of multiplication of gold by art, or whether Alchemists have wrongfully enforced these titles upon the Phylosophers worke, which are onely to be understood in an allegoricall sense.[vi]
Later, Scot expresses one of the basic tenets of so-called “spiritual alchemy”:
Man is the Microscosmos, or abridgement of the Creation; the Philosophers worke is the abridgement of mans Formation. As the World was made of two severall parts, the one intelligible, sensible, and corruptible, the other, untelligible, insensible, and incorruptible: So man was made the middle peece of both, and perfection of the Intellectual parts, which hee hath meanes of the body…[vii]
And, in the last few pages of his Tillage, Scot concludes:
…all [the Alchemist’s] Ignitions, Calcinations, Dissolutions, Amalgations, Circulations, Sublimations, Fixations, and Multiplications, otherwise then in a spirituall sense, are but borrowed words of Art, Smoake to ruine craz’d estates, or trumpery to uphold Mountebanckes upon the charges of the more curious then wise.[viii]
To summarize, Scot claims, in the middle of the seventeenth century, 1) that alchemy and the alchemical process are to be understood allegorically and spiritually, 2) that anyone who interprets the “art” otherwise gives their attention to mere trumpery, or worthless ornamentation, and 3) that the alchemical process is an “abridgment” of the “formation” of the human being. Principe’s analysis of Atwood, then, is proven wrong by this one example, as it is clear that, to Scot, the human body is the alchemical vessel and the alchemical process is a spiritual process; Atwood was not at all the originator of this idea. However, I will provide one more example.
A second example of a strong delineation between esoteric and exoteric meanings in the alchemical tradition comes from a Polish alchemist named Michael Sendivogius, who published The New Chemical Light in 1608. The delineation appears in the first several pages of the preface:
…I dedicate the following pages, which embody the results of my experience, to the sons of knowledge, that by a careful study of the working of Nature they may be enabled to lift the veil, and enter her inmost sanctuary. To this final goal of our sacred philosophy they must travel by the royal road which Nature herself has marked out for them. Let me therefore admonish the gentle reader that my meaning is to be apprehended not so much from the outward husk of my words, as from the inward spirit of Nature. If this warning is neglected, he may spend his time, labour, and money in vain. Let him consider that this mystery is for vise men, and not for fools.[ix]
That is, the meaning that Sendivogius desires his readers to take from his work is spiritual, and, similar to the warning in Scot’s Tillage, if his meaning is taken too literally, the reader may “spend his time, labour, and money in vain.” Again we see a distinct and intentional separation between the spiritual meaning and the “outward husk” of alchemical teachings, contrary to Principe’s claims.
Though these are the most prominent and blatant examples (in my opinion) of a clear delineation between an inner or esoteric and an outer or exoteric alchemical tradition centuries before Atwood, there are dozens more examples of this delineation, including in works by Geoffrey Chaucer (from whose works Principe selectively quotes), John Gower, and Elias Ashmole. However, we must establish that one side of the tradition is neither primary nor greater than the other side. I do not doubt that both traditions simultaneously circulated the western scientific and occult traditions, commingling as one and the same but in reality having strikingly different aims. One tradition was symbol and allegory disguised as the transmutation of metals; the other was material and literal, with aims to achieve unfathomable riches. However, the spiritual side did exist long before Atwood and Mesmerism, and to say otherwise is myopic and inane.
“For is not our art cabalistic,” asks Artephius [ca. 1150], “and full of mysteries? And you, fool, believe we teach the secret of secrets openly, and understand our words according to the letter; be assured, we are not envious, but he that takes the philosophers’ saying according to the outward sense and signification has already lost the clue to Ariadne, and wanders up and down the labyrinth, and it would be of the same benefit to him as if he had thrown his money into the sea.”[x]
I can only assume that to Principe, Atwood’s ideas seem far-fetched and far-removed from his conception of alchemy because of his unfamiliarity with the symbolist tradition in literature, of which the esoteric alchemical tradition is certainly a part. I should also mention that despite his position, I found Principe’s book very valuable.
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[i] Wilder, Alexander. New Platonism and Alchemy. 1869. pp. 27-28.
[ii] Principe, Lawrence W. The Secrets of Alchemy. 2012.
[iii] Principe also dismisses psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s life’s work by merely revealing his association with the occult tradition by the mention of the title of his doctoral dissertation. However, despite Principe’s unintentionally misleading nearsightedness, I am grateful he was able to include a broad survey of the “esoteric” side of alchemy at all, given his scientistic education, specialization, and perspective.
[iv] Principe, 97. Seriously, that’s his argument.
[v] Ibid, 96.
[vi] Scot, Patrick. The Tillage of Light. 1623. p. 4.