Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’
Have you ever walked into the other room and forgotten why you went in? Or been in the middle of a presentation for work or school and forgotten your next line? Though modern science has investigated and standardized the human information processing system that encompasses remembrance and recall, the concept of Memory and its importance was recognized very early on in human culture.
Without memory, much of everyday human interaction is meaningless. We operate within a system of recognized social queues and norms, and we cooperate best with those people and sub-systems which are most familiar to us. We all recognize that green means go and red means stop. And we know to trust our family and friends rather than the random stranger lurking on the street. We know these things, because they are embedded as part of our memories. We build up our knowledge base cumulatively utilizing memory. And thus, any new creations and inspirations can be tied into our ability to do this. The anthropologists of the past several decades have worked to formalize our understanding of this concept (Tomasello, etc). But it was recognized long ago, most famously by the ancient Greeks who cast memory into the personified form of the goddess Mnemosyne, and the bright ideas built off of memory became her inspirational daughters, the Muses.
Mnemosyne was a Titaness, one of the many deities representative of the earlier pantheon of the Indo-European Greek mainland which was supplanted by the more famous Olympians. Legend has it that for nine passionate nights, Zeus was allowed to forget about his troubles and stress as new divine ruler of the world by remaining in the arms of Mnemosyne. And from their union, nine months later, the nine Muses were born at the oracular springs of Pieria. These sacred waters were probably a prophetic pilgrimage site for those seeking to gain the favor of Mnemosyne and the ability to either remember or to forget. Mnemosyne holds sway over both of these qualities. She is said to control the River Lethe and subsidiary waters in the Underworld which grant forgetfulness of one’s previous life or continued remembrance of it into the next.
But she was not just honored for otherworldly role, but for the power she could imbue in her adherents in the mainstream world. Kings and politicians particularly sought her favor. And as the mother of the nine Muses, she was constantly evoked alongside her daughters. Indeed, it is likely that the Muses themselves were all initially aspects of Mnemosyne herself, which over time, became divisible and separated out as distinct deities of their own. When Homer so evocatively calls upon The Muse at the start of his Odyssey (“Sing to me of the man, Muse, that man of twists and turns drive time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy…Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will –sing for our time too”) it is likely early versions referenced Mnemosyne as a conglomeration of all the innnovative aspects which later became attributed out to her children. The oral nature of Homer’s work entails additions and alterations along the way. The singular general term ‘Muse’ as opposed to naming one of the specific deities, most likely Clio, Muse of History, implies higher levels of generalization or else a different entity than that which classical audiences would have assumed. The phrase ‘daughter of Zeus,’ though included in modern translations, is representative of a later alteration or addition to the text from periods whereby the relationship between Zeus and the Muses is more formalized. It may initially have said nothing of Zeus whatsoever, or else specified a different relationship to him.
The cosmology of Mnemosyne and her creative kiddies is most explicitly outlined in Hesoid’s Theogony or ‘Birth of the Gods:’
“(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden
the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their
songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were
aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet
sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the
loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as
it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the
homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice,
celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from
the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the
gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the
goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin
and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the
gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men
and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,
– the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.
(ll. 53-74) Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns
over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the
son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For
nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed
remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the
seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were
accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose
hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a
little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are
their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them
the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they,
uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all
and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely
voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet
voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about
them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their
feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in
heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt,
when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he
distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared
(ll. 75-103) These things, then, the Muses sang who dwell on
Olympus, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Cleio and
Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsichore, and Erato and
Polyhymnia and Urania and Calliope (3), who is the chiefest of
them all, for she attends on worshipful princes: whomsoever of
heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and
behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and
from his lips flow gracious words. All the people look towards
him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he,
speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great
quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because
when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set
right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle
words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as
a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the
assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men. For it is
through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers
and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is
he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth. For
though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and
live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a
singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of
men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he
forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but
the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
(ll. 104-115) Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and
celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever,
those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night
and them that briny Sea did rear. Tell how at the first gods and
earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its
raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above,
and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and
how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours
amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded
Olympus. These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses
who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them
first came to be.”
Though Mnemosyne’s magickal powers were not preserved, her divinatory nature and her control over knowledge, remembrance, and the transitioning soul entitle her a role as a goddess for witches. Knowledge is power. And knowledge is created by Memory, which is ruled over by Mnemosyne.
As the United States collectively pauses to celebrate the memory of those we have lost in times of battle, it is fitting that we also celebrate our own ability to remember them. And perhaps wonder what lives they have moved on to now, and what memories they will retain of their former glory.
If you want to learn more about mythical and historical figures like Mnemosyne and delve into the deeper more fabulously magickal realms of the Witches of Antiquity, now is your chance! The Sacred Mists newest class, History of Witches in the Western World , is now open for enrollment. Created and taught by yours truly, the class utilizes the mythical, literary, and historical biographies of witch-figures to explore the history and anthropology of magick from prehistory through to the last century. I hope to see you around its digital hallowed halls!
Initial Image is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lamp of Memory or Mnemosyne. Completed in 1877, the canvas’ frame is inscribed with the phrase “Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul/ Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.”
At its most basic level: alchemy is a philosophy. It advocates the idea that things are changeable. That they are transmutable from one form to another: from base to gold, solid to liquid, young to old and back again. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when the practice of alchemy was at its peak; alchemy came to be applied not just to natural elements such as metals, but to nature and people as well. For several centuries, ‘Alchemy’ became the category under which magickal transformations were shelved. Alchemy was both an early form of science and a continuing form of practical magick. Indeed, the work of the alchemists of the 16th -18th centuries formed both the basis for the modern study of chemistry, as well as the foundation of traditional high magick as we know it today. The studies perpetuated by these same alchemists also continued the tradition of philosophic, mathematical, and supernatural studies of the Pythagoreans and practitioners of Qabbalah who had tread the same transcendental pathways over the previous centuries. Despite the pseudo-scientific reputation that alchemy often receives in modern pop culture, it is a very real and very important part of the magickal traditions which are carried on today by all esoteric forms of worship categorized under the ‘New Age’ umbrella.
Alchemy is by no means a unified discipline. There is not codified set of facts which one would learn in order to become an alchemist. Alchemy was more a spiritual and educational pursuit than it was a strict science of any uniform kind.
True, alchemists gleaned their knowledge from studying the works of their predecessors and being mentored by them. True, also, that some universities included forms of alchemy amongst their curriculum. Brotherhoods of scholars interested in esoteric learning formed, and among their subjects was alchemy. But despite these forms of learning, none of these men and women were necessarily learning the same curriculum. Even with the advent of the printing press, not all the books on alchemy were disseminated by each alchemist, nor were all the branches of alchemy studied by every practitioner. Each alchemist had his own agenda: using alchemy variously to heal, to make gold, or to find youth. Alchemy was an intellectual movement that walked in different spheres of life, spanning the society of its times. By the Seventeenth century, it connected the fraudulent drunk on the streets with the scholars of the university; the highest echelons of late Renaissance society at the royal court with the witch on the pyre: all with a common philosophical idea which worked towards a variety of their purposes.
Indeed, alchemy operated much like the study of magick today perpetuates itself. Witches, wiccans, and pagans alike are deeply devoted to a pursuit of learning esoteric knowledge, but not everyone from each path chooses to learn the same thing. It is ultimately a personal quest, a search for knowledge in order to achieve a personal transformation.
Alchemy as a Science
Before we delve deeper into the more easily recognized esoteric accolades of this lost art: let us look at the more scientific side of alchemy, of alchemy as a system of trial and error which was propagated in the universities of the time and by some of its greatest academics. Alchemy was a precursor to the science which we recognize today as fact. And though science may seem the antithesis of magick, they are really just part and parcel of the same thing.
Initially, alchemical knowledge was collected informally and without passing through the conventional educational institutions which had sprung up in Europe since the Dark Ages. Paracelsus, sometimes considered the greatest alchemist of the Renaissance, never completed his university studies. He collected his alchemist’s secrets by travelling and observing folk remedies he combined with metallurgical practices. But with science’s new interest in the idea of a scientific method, which alchemy was already utilizing: alchemy became employed by some of the greatest minds of the time, at some of the greatest of the universities. In fact, the two great libraries, the Bodleian at Oxford and the Ashmolean at Cambridge respectively, were based off of the alchemical collections of Duke Humphrey and Elias Ashmole. Even the great Sir Isaac Newton is considered an alchemist for his research into ancient Egyptian hermeticists and through later connections made by alchemical groups like the Rosicrucians. But he also saw the science in alchemy and used some aspects of his laboratories at Cambridge University to study it. Sir Fancis Bacon is likewise called an alchemist for his association with esoteric societies, like the Rosicrucians and Freemasons and his literary endeavor The Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, which he wrote in honor of the marriage between Frederick V of the Rhineland Palatinate and Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England, who, incidentally were all also wrapped up in alchemical studies of very differing kinds. Bacon’s works set up the Baconian method that we today know vernacularly as the aforementioned ‘scientific method.’ Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, began his education as an alchemist; though did not continue to teach alchemy once he himself became a professor.
Outside of England, particularly in the Northern and Central areas of mainland Europe, alchemy was also finding a niche among scholars. The Danish antiquarian Doctor Ole Worm was given papal permission to collect so-called oddities, which came to include various texts and items of a magickal nature, later inspiring H.P. Lovecraft to include him in his twentieth century work Necronomicron. Some were not so lucky in support for the new science, like Theodore Zwinger, ~a professor of medicine at the University of Basel was penalized by the University for inclusions in his teachings work done by Paracelsus. But unlike the University of Basel, others, like the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. championed alchemy and supported multiple alchemists on its faculty and taught alchemical methodology in its classes on chemistry and anatomy.
The leading doctors, the mathematicians and physicists of the day; all studied the ratios of alchemy and its history out of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The scientific method alchemy had long been unintentionally advocating became recognized as the basis for all modern experimentation and creation. The study of alchemy in schools or independently by professors of these schools working outside their professional capacity helped shape the minds of generations of men and women, leading up to the modern science of today.
Alchemy & The Witch Hunts
Despite this flourishing of alchemy among academia, it was a subject best approached with care. By the sixteenth century, some elements of alchemy’s esoteric studies had unfortunately come to be associated with the dark arts of witch craft and sorcery. The logic of the Burning Times decreed that how else would these men and women know the secrets of the universe unless the devil himself had whispered them into alchemist’s ears? Alchemists devised erudite languages and metaphors to transcribe their secrets in, ones they hoped that would not create alarm among their witch hunting neighbors. But they were not always successful and some alchemists were branded witches and sorcerers for their naïve scholarly endeavors. And many were persecuted alongside the wisewomen, innocents, and political victims who fell prey to the Witch Trials or Burning Times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Bookmakers who published grimores of alchemy were particularly susceptible and often had to move towns to avoid an uprising against their shops.
The mighty Catholic Church was particularly skeptical of the new alchemical sciences that were springing up. For they threatened previously held notions of God and man and their relationship to the universe, which in turn threatened the church’s power. And if alchemists weren’t careful to make provisions for the Church’s scrutiny, they faced severe consequences. Sir Isaac Newton cleverly combined church sanctioned theology with his science, for instance, to explain his theory of gravity, Newton wrote, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” He justified his science in the eyes of the church, but others were not so clever or else refused to concede. The scholar Giordano Bruno was sentenced to burn at the stake for refusing to recant his alchemy-based theories regarding ideas about the transmutation of the soul and the transubstantiation of the Catholic Mass. He was charged with the practices of divination and witchcraft, both of which had technically been outlawed under church law since the ratification of church doctrine at the Council of Nicea in the 4th century in continuation of earlier Roman laws. However, until the Burning Times, few cases were executed under such charges.
While many of the alchemists charged for witchcraft during the Burning Times may never have actually practiced direct magickal acts (only studied magickal/scientific topics), others most likely did engage in acts some might call Dark Arts. Giordano Bruno and his one-time mentor the British royal advisor John Dee may have darker and more occult areas of alchemy. Often these pursuits focused on communication between the spirits and bordered on necromancy. Dee was at one point kicked out of Prague by Pope Sixtus V for committing acts of black magic in the city.
Along with these Dark Arts and the politically motivated Church persecution, alchemy earned an even worse reputation from the slew of fraudulent schemers who pretended to be alchemists to con people out of money and goods. These faux-alchemists would practice simple chemical tricks, rigged to make it appear they could produce gold out of charcoal or other such feats to trick wealthy and gullible lords out of money. This was such a widespread stigma of the day that Dante Aligheri immortalized it in his social commentary of the day, The Divine Comedy, by placing the alchemists on the tenth level of Hell in his Inferno.
Alchemy in Power
Despite the stigma attached to alchemy, there are many historical instances of European princes, kings, and queens participating and encouraging alchemy from both ends of the spectrum (i.e. as a science and as magic). Many rulers had alchemists as their advisors or as their doctors. Johann Friedrich Helvetius was the personal physician to William of Orange of the Netherlands, Johann Joachim Becher to Leopold I of Austria, Ole Worm to the skeptic Holy Roman Emperor Christian IV, and his predecessor Rudolph II went through a whole series of doctors with an alchemy sideline. Rudolph also utilized alchemists as his advisors, most notably, that king among alchemists, Michael Maier. Maier also spent some time at the court of James I of England. Queen Elizabeth II depended on her spy John Dee. And according to the social commentary inherent in the theatre of the day, James I of England (VI of Scotland) kept three alchemist witches as military advisors. These ‘advisors’ and James’ interest in the occult were included in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Holinshead histories.
Some rulers went beyond their advice and medical attention and are suspected by historians of studying alchemy themselves. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I personally ransacked a Benedictine archive in Rome looking for an ancient treatise on alchemy believed to be hidden within. Queen Barbara, the wife of Sigismund Vasa III of Poland is accused by history of being not only an alchemist, but a witch. James I of England and Rudolf II of Hungary delved deep into the arcane as rulers and alchemists. James I of England wrote his own Daemonologie in 1597, a witch-hunter’s guide written by a man perhaps too close to his subject to be perfectly free of the taint of magick. He was careful to lightly persecute others in his realm suspected of witchcraft and the like to avoid church persecution himself (though as leader of the aforementioned church, it was easy to get away with). The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II set up a veritable playland for alchemists and other scientists of the day, which included an observatory, various labs, and libraries of grimoires. He himself was said to participate in alchemical experiments and work closely within the commune of scholars he had collected. His personal goal was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a stone which, once created, would continue to spill forth an elixir of youth and the ability to turn things into gold.
We cannot really know today just how much the alchemists and the philosophy of alchemy had on the rulers of this time period, or of how much their appreciation of what this arcane subject influenced their judgments and rulings over their respective countries. Nor can we really know what was known by the public at the time regarding the alchemy activities related above, or if they would have even wanted to know. All of these leaders made allowances for church dogma in order to avoid persecution. But were they actually religious beyond this façade? It is difficult for the historian to know or even to judge correctly. Regardless, we can at least state that alchemy must have had at least some influence over them.
The history of alchemy is representative of a myriad of magickal movements and motivations. It is symbolic of both the persecution of magick and the championship of it. It represents both the veracity of knowledge gained and of the deception man is capable of using such knowledge for. It embodies the advancement of the human mind and the human race, of our wonder for the mysterious, and our quest to discover and control the laws of nature and the gods. The use of alchemy, pseudo-science that it may be considered now, encouraged the growth of other sciences still seen as legitimate. It inspired advancements in other fields, seeing the growth of library science in the modern age, and was the muse for multiple works of widely regarded literature. It was a profound step on man and woman-kind’s journey towards enlightenment. And it and its alchemists should not be forgotten. For we today are their descendents. The research scientists in labs, the doctors, pharmacists and nurses in their hospitals, the astronomers looking up at the night sky, the chefs in their kitchen, the students at their books: in our desire to learn something more, we are all alchemists.
Want to learn more about historical magickal movements and the witches behind them? Keep your eyes peeled for History of Witches in the Western World, a new class from the College of the Sacred Mists on the Witches of Antiquity. Coming later this year!
Cobb, C. & Goldwhite, H. 1995. Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum Press.
Fernando, D. 1998. Alchemy: An Illustrated A-Z. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Moran, B.T. 2005. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rice University. The Galileo Project.
Note: Image at top is William Fettes Douglas’ The Alchemist (1853).