Tag Archives: Allegory

Hermetic Rebirth and the Cave of Initiation


Hermetism is often and wrongly confused with Gnosticism, which similarly originated in Egypt in roughly the same era. For present purposes, a few salient points of contrast will suffice. Like the God of Stoicism, the Hermetic God was omnipresent and omniscient through the material cosmos. In Gnosticism, by contrast, God was transcendent, and the physical universe was an evil place created by an evil Demiurge (van den Broek 1998). Hermetic ethics celebrated the divine within the world; Gnostic ethics were abstemious, ascetic efforts to escape from the world (Mahé 1998).

There were also differences in their valuations of visions. Jonas (1969) drew attention to the fact that the motif of heavenly ascension was originally intended, for example in Jewish apocalyptic literature, as an objective reality, but was subsequently transformed into an allegory of the mystical path. The mystical appropriation of the ascension motif was complete by the second century era of the Alexandrine Christian fathers, St. Clement and Origen (Danielou 1973).

The allegorical tradition was also present in the Gnostic literature of Nag Hammadi, although in a slightly different manner. Referring to experiences of visions in general, The Exegesis on the Soul 34 stated: “Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself….This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father” (Robinson 1988:196). For the Gnostics, as for the Alexandrine fathers, ascension was one among several literary tropes that could signify mystical experiences of highly varied manifest contents.

So far as I know, the Hermetic system was the earliest in the West to propose a mystical initiation, consisting of multiple experiences, that is simultaneously a journey through places and a series of changes in the ontology of the self. Its ascension to the sky compares with Jewish and Christian apocalypticism; but its division of ontological states compares with Neoplatonic distinctions among sensibles, intermediates or divisible intelligibles, and indivisible intelligibles.

This sequence, which can already be discerned in Iamblichus, was eventually formalized by Proclus as three mystical stages of purgation, illumination, and union. However, the Hermetists slotted imaginals into the middle position that Neoplatonism limited to empirically demonstrable arithmeticals and geometricals.

This substitution brought Hermetism to a position on visions that differed from the reductive skepticism of Neoplatonism, which treated visions as ideas that were misrepresented by the senses in the form of images.

The Hermetic position also differed from the pure projections that Gnostics held visions to be. For Hermetists, the imaginal was not a projection whose ever various and impredictable content becomes increasingly pure as one’s mind purifies in its progress toward God. The imaginal was instead topographical, an actual and predictable itinerary in a visionary topos that had ontological integrity and coherence.

Although The Discourse was not transmitted to the West in the Corpus Hermeticum, the Hermetic concept of ontologically distinctive locations along an itinerary has been integral to Western esotericism for centuries. Because the Hermetic tradition survived without apparent interruption from late antiquity to be taught at least as late as eleventh century Baghdad, it is not surprising that a series of initiatory experiences were portrayed as an itinerary across nine mountains in Suhrawardi’s Treatise of the Birds (1982).

Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154–1191)

To Suhrawardi, Sufism also owed the introduction of the ‘alam al-mithal, the “world of imagination” (Rahman 1964). The notion of an initiatory itinerary in the world of imagination was formalized, or at least made less esoteric, in the Sufism of Najm ad-Din al-Kubra (Merkur 1991:223, 234-35); and its passage from Islam to western Europe may be assumed.

Interestingly, Widengren (1950:77-85) demonstrated that the ancient motif of ascension to an audience before a heavenly god was replaced, in the Arabic Hermetic literature, by the motif of entering a subterranean chamber where Hermes sits enthroned, holding a book in his hand. Widengren suggested that the descent of Balinas (the Arabic Apollonius of Tyana) to acquire the Emerald Table of Hermes, along with variant narratives, blended the motif of an initiatory ascension with the motif, found in Egyptian and Hellenistic tales, of the discovery of a book in a subterranean chamber.

An illustration from an old collection of stories translated from Ancient Eyptian Literature. This scene depicts the character “Setna”, emerging from a tomb where he gambled to win a magical papyrus, known as the Book Of Thoth, the reading of which would empower him with all knowledge. Setna was based on a real person, Prince Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses II, who was a Holy Man of the highest order (Sem Priest) and credited as being a great magician. (It was this character from Ancient History that I give all credit to for embarking on my own Hermetic Journey – Jaq) Setna/Prince Khaemwaset

The motif of the cave of initiation, which found its widest audience through the tale of Aladdin in the 1001 Nights, may also have been influenced by Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs (Taylor 1969), in which a passage in Homer was allegorized as an image of the cosmos. Whatever its sources, the motif of an alchemical initiation by means of a subterranean itinerary is earliest attested in the writings of medieval Arabic Hermetists.

By this route, the motif of ascension in late antique Hermetism was likely historically antecedent not only to such celebrated European alchemical motifs as the Cave of the Philosophers, but also to the climactic encounters in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1796) and Ferdinand Ossendowski’s Beasts, Men and Gods (1922).

Engraving from Baro Urbigerus Besondere chymische Schrifften, 1705.

Source: Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth

The Discourse on the 8th and 9th

The Corpus Hermeticum

Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154–1191)


The lost children of Hamelin | Maria J. Pérez Cuervo

“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 child­ren born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.” The town of Hamelin hasn’t forgotten this loss. The street where, supposedly, the children were last seen is called Bungelosen­strasse: street without drums”. Even so many years after the event, no one is allowed to play music or dance there.

Oral tradition preserved and enriched the story until the Brothers Grimm included it in their compil­ation of German legends, Deutsche Sagen (1816–18). In the Grimms’ version, mediæval Hamelin is hit by a plague of rats. A seemingly hero-like figure appears, in the shape of a mysterious stranger dressed in red and yellow clothes. He promises to rid the town of the vermin, and the townsmen promise him money in exchange. The rat-catcher has a strange, almost supernatural gift: he plays a tune on his pipe that lures the rats into the river Weser, where they all drown. But, blinded by their greed, the townsmen refuse to honour their promise and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper leaves the town, plotting his revenge. When he returns to Hamelin, he wears the attire of a hunter. He plays a melody that hypnotises the children, who follow him to the mountains, never to be seen again. The cruelty of the denouément strikes us doubly, because it surpasses our expect­ations. What initially looks like a classic ‘Overcoming the Monster’ plot turns into a nightmarish tale of disproportionate revenge.


The main difficulty when trying to trace the roots of the legend is the lack of primary sources. The earliest surviving reference to the tragedy of Hamelin is a note in a manuscript copy of the Catena Aurea of Heinrich von Herford (c.1370), generally referred to as the Lüneburg Manuscript. According to both this manuscript and the inscription found in the Rattenfängerhaus, the events took place on 26 June 1284. There are, however, reports of scholars who accessed earlier documents that are now lost. Dutch physician and demon­ologist Johann Weyer mentioned in the fourth edit­ion of his Delusions of the Devil (1577) some of the historical sources that contained mult­iple references to the tragedy of Hamelin: “These facts are thus written in the annals of Hammel and are religiously guarded in the archives. They are to be read also in the sacred books of the Church, and to be seen in the painted panes of the same; of which fact I am an eyewitness. Besides, as confirmation of the story, the older magist­racy was accustomed to write together on its public documents: ‘in the year of Christ and in that of the going out of the children’, etc.” [1] Weyer was probably referring to the book of statutes of Hamelin, Der Donat, (c.1351), or to a collection of local historical documents called the Brade.

The Market Church in Hamelin exhibited another piece of the puzzle, a glass window dating from the 1300s depicting the stranger dressed in multicoloured clothes taking away a crowd of children dressed in white. The window was destroyed in 1660, but it inspired a 1592 watercolour by Augustin Von Moersperg that preserves its essence and represents the main geographical elements of the legend – the town, the river Weser, and the mountain, with a dark entrance to a cave.

The Black Death

Although neither the Lüneburg Manuscript nor the glass window suggest that rats played an important part in the Hamelin events, folklore has assimilated the figure of the Pied Piper with that of a rat-catcher. The first surviving reference to rodents appears in the 16th-century Zimmern Chronicle (c.1559–65), followed by Weyer’s aforementioned Delusions of the Devil, both written almost three centuries after the tragedy. If the rats were most likely a later addit­ion rather than an original element of the Hamelin episode, they gave depth to the tale and resonated in the popular imagin­ation thanks to a play of macabre symbolic associations. The image of a rat-infested mediæval town instantly brings to mind thoughts of the plague. Plagues and epi­demics have had a continuous impact on the collective imagination, taking us back to the Ten Plagues of Egypt in Exodus: biblical plagues were a punishment from God. The Piper, able to defy the curse with the power of his music, is thus invested with supernatural abilities.

In mediæval representations, Death presented himself as a skeleton wearing a colourful pied attire, a jester who always laughs last (perhaps the reportedly widespread fear of clowns – see FT226:34–41 – might even derive from this image). The Pied Piper thus becomes the lord of the rats, the Black Death (known at the time as the Great Death or simply the Pestilence) personified, and the one responsible for taking the lives of the 130 children of Hamelin.

Associations of the Piper with the Black Death aren’t limited to the subtext of the tale. The plague has also been used to contextualise the story; Jacques Demy’s 1972 film, featuring singer/songwriter Donovan as the Piper, is a good example. However, the peak of Black Death in Europe was between 1348 and 1350, that is, more than 64 years after the date of the children’s disappearance if we follow the Lüneburg Manuscript’s chronology.

City of lost children

In the earliest accounts of the Hamelin events, we are told that the children were “lost”, but not necessarily dead. The Brothers Grimm, at the end of their version, add that “some say that the children were led into a cave, and that they came out again in Transylvania,” a conclusion retained by Robert Browning in his 1842 poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The terms from the Lüne­burg Manuscript used to describe the place of the children’s disappearance (Calvary, Koppen), have been interpreted in different ways. Historian Hans Dobbertin assimilated the word Calvary, place of the skull, to the word Koppen, meaning head. In the Bible, Calvary or Golgotha was the place of the execution of Jesus – a mountain or a hill. This might suggest that the children of Hamelin were executed, or perhaps the word Calvary is merely used to describe the skull-like shape of a hill, like the biblical Golgotha.

Scholars such as Heinrich Spanuth, Jürgen Udolph and Dobbertin have sugg­ested that the Piper could have been an emissary sent by the ruling nobility to promote a campaign for the colonisation of Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or the Teutonic Lands to the East. The expression “children of Hamelin” could have been a general term for all the inhabitants of the town who listened to this brightly dressed “recruiting sergeant”, and their exodus a response to politico-economical factors.

In this light, the story of the Pied Piper might be seen to bear certain similar­ities to that of the Children’s Crusade, an extraordinary series of events that purportedly took place in 1212. In both episodes, the border between history and myth is a porous one. The Children’s Crusade appears in mediæval sources, but historians now question its authenticity. The crusade was said to have been led by a child shepherd named Nicholas, from Cologne, Germany, who preached that the purity of children would allow them to conquer the Holy Land; the legend says that they starved and died along the way.

The piper as a trickster

The scarce and enigmatic reports of the loss of an entire generation in Hamelin reverberated down the centuries. Literal interpretations of the story present the Piper as a kidnapper or a psychopathic pederast. This vision has endured in popular culture (even the 2010 remake ofNightmare on Elm Street suggests that there are some similarities between the characters of Freddy Krueger and the Piper), but its underlying idea was first expressed five centuries ago, in the work of German physicist and Humanist Jobus Fincelius (De miraculis sui Temporis, 1556), who believed that the Piper was the Devil in disguise: “Of the Devil’s power and wickedness will I here tell a true history. About 180 years ago, on S. Mary Magdalene’s Day, it came to pass at Hammel on the Weser in Saxony, that the Devil went about the streets visibly in human form, piped and allured many children, boys and girls, and led them through the town-gate towards a mountain”. [4] This idea is repeated in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), where the Piper turns up as an example in episode two, A Digression of the nature of Spirits, bad Angels, or Devils, and how they cause Melancholy.

The 19th century romanticised the figure of the Pied Piper, just as it did other outsiders –the pirate, the gypsy, the bandit. Goethe’s 1802 poem Der Rattenfänger, clearly inspired by the Hamelin legend, presents the rat-catcher of the title as “the bard known far and wide, / The travell’d rat-catcher beside; / A man most needful to this town”. Along similar lines, the most popular retelling of all is Robert Browning’s 1849 poem, where the children of Hamelin are happy to leave a town governed by greedy, dishonourable adults. The Piper, the “travell’d rat catcher” of Goethe’s lines, arrives in Hamelin offering a fresh start for a new generation.

Appropriately setting the figure of the Piper to music (and why so late?), Goethe’s poem would, in turn, be adapted by Rom­antic composer Schubert and, later, Hugo Wolf. The Romantic take on the Piper contains an idea that has proved unsurprisingly appealing to musicians: the transformation of youth by a mysterious outsider who has inherited the musical skills of Orpheus or Pan  – a theme that’s been revisited by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Megadeth and even ABBA.

Over more than 700 years, the Pied-Piper of Hamelin has become an archetypal Trickster figure (see FT175:40–41; 185:53–55). The Trickster is known for challenging the establishment, breaking the rules and spreading anarchy. In his dual nature, he can be seen as malignant or mischievous, but he is also a messenger of the gods and an agent and symbol of transformation. The Pied Piper, like the Trickster, is a shape-shifter who wears a number of different masks – the psychopath, the hero, the rebel… even Death himself. Like Shakespeare’s Puck or Barrie’s Peter Pan, he spreads a net of enchantment, leading our children to the Otherworld. Whether this Otherworld was a new land to colonise, an altered state of consciousness or the realm of the dead remains a mystery.

[note: this is an abridged version of the original article – please follwo the link for the full article]

[note too! I can’t find a credit for this image of the Pied Piper, but I love his cloak here! If anyone knows the source of the image, please let me know and I’ll add it – Jaq]

Source: The lost children of Hamelin | Maria J. Pérez Cuervo

We are bees of the invisible… Rilke from a letter to Halewicz


“We are bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the invisible, to store it in the great golden hives of the invisible.”

Rilke often refers to the invisible, especially in his Duino Elegies, which he wrote during a particularly mystical period of his life. In a letter to his Polish translator Witold Hulewicz in November 1925, he wrote: ‘We of the present are never satisfied by the world of time…transience everywhere plunges into the depths of being…it is our task to print this temporal, perishable earth so painfully, passionately and deeply into ourselves, that its essence is resurrected again, invisibly, within us…the Elegies show this, the work of endlessly converting the visible, tangible world we love into the invisible vibrations and tremors of our own nature…’

He was quite passionate about the “Temple within” and the interior life, whereas he saw the outside world as transitory and fragile.

In another letter, written in 1925, commenting on his Elegies, he wrote: “‘…the Angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we perform, appears already complete.’ [..] ‘that being who attests to the recognition of a higher level of reality in the invisible – Terrifying, therefore, to us because we, its lovers and transformers, still cling to the visible’.

Here are some good links on Rilke’s work and his letters




I became a little (more) obsessed with Rilke after reading a chapter focusing on his work in this book:

(edited to include more details from comments)

originally posted 2012


Visualization in Medieval Alchemy – alchemy as a science and an art aimed at the transformation of species

In Arabic classifications of science and philosophy, which were adapted in the twelfth century, alchemy was defined as a sub-branch of natural philosophy (scientia naturalis), sharing this definition, above all, with medicine. Thus, about ten years after the first translation of an alchemical text into Latin (Morienus, De compositione alchimie), Dominic Gundissalinus described alchemy as belonging to physics in his De divisione philosophiae (ca. 1150).[6] It was a science and an art aimed at the transformation of species

In the thirteenth century, representatives of Platonically-oriented cosmology and natural science such as Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) defended a systematic use of geometrical representation. Following Grosseteste, “all causes of natural effects must be expressed by means of lines, angles, and figures, for otherwise it is impossible to grasp their explanation”.[24] The corresponding theory of knowledge was neo-Platonic and Augustinian. The intelligible order underlying the physical, corporeal world was thought to be apprehensible by the divine part of the soul, by the ‘eye of the soul’, and geometrical figures (as well as number patterns) were used as ‘ladders’ leading to eternal truths.

The early fifteenth-century Aurora consurgens marks a further step in the elaboration of pictorial metaphors combined with glass vessels. The oldest and most spectacular copy of this document dates from the 1420s (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, ms. Rh. 172). On a purely pictorial level, an inventive and high-quality artist developed a core of recurrent alchemical metaphors that relate to human and animal procreation, the dismemberment of bodies (symbolizing calcinations and putrefaction) and motifs such as the eagle and the dragon, which denote mercury as a volatile and as a solidified substance, respectively.[75] In and around glass vessels, the artist metaphorically depicted stages of operation relating to the alchemical art of transformation as well as cosmological and philosophical principles of the art, such as “two are one” and “nature vanquishes nature”. Two or more principal metaphors are frequently combined within a single picture, reflecting the increasing use of chains of metaphors. For instance, one of the illustration combines the motifs of Mercury decapitating the sun and the moon with a vase filled with silver and gold flowers

Figure 11: Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, ms. Rh. 172, fol. 27v. Aurora consurgens (ca 1420-30). Mercury in the form of a serpent decapitating the Sun and the Moon. Gold and silver flowers in a vessel on the fire.

For the full article from which these extracts were taken, go to the link below

Source: HYLE 9-2 (2003): Visualization in Medieval Alchemy

Max Ernst – La femme 100 tetes




“Max Ernst’s collage book “La femme 100 têtes”, originally published in 1929. directed by Eric Duvivier
The book consisted of a surrealist picture per page, with a little legend. But the story depended on the ability of the reader to interpret the collages, and was not relying that much on the legends. The book was about a woman who was living among ghosts and ants, and was an allegory of the immaculate conception.”

Writing Against Captivity: Phillis Wheatley’s Illimitable Imagination

“One of her most interesting poems, ‘On Imagination’, employs art as a means of freeing the mind and the muse, conceptualized as a figure she calls Fancy. Her poem proposes an alternative hierarchy where Fancy acts a deity that enjoys unfettered freedom, despite the tight poetical structure of the heroic couplet form, likely read in the works of the near-contemporary and widely read British poet, Alexander Pope. In ‘On Imagination’, Wheatley constructs a liberated world outside of slavery, flying on the wings of Fancy, another word for the imagination, to free herself from the bonds imposed by Winter, an allegorical figure representing slavery.”
Follow the link for full article – Jaq

Interesting Literature

By Laura Linker

Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), an eighteenth-century black slave taught to read by her owners, composed over 100 poems in her lifetime, many of them drawing on the Bible as a source of infallible authority. The first slave to publish a book, Wheatley often urges America to repent of its participation in the slave trade. (She was also the originator of ‘Columbia’ as a term for America, which she invented in her 1776 poem ‘To His Excellency George Washington’.) Steeped in western canonical authors, including Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton, she draws on classical and religious allusions to challenge legal and social limitations that denigrate slaves, adopting established poetical forms only to use them as sites of resistance. Her poetry demonstrates remarkable technique and learning.


One of her most interesting poems, ‘On Imagination’, employs art as a means of freeing the mind and the muse, conceptualized as a figure…

View original post 732 more words

Lily and the Pyramid of the East by Jaq White

Here’s a little autobiographical story I wrote back in 2002; I labelled it an allegorical, metaphysical fairy tale. Make of it what you will!


Echoes of Gilgamesh in the Jacob Story


Echoes of Gilgamesh in the Jacob Story  – Esther J. Hamori

“It was popular for some time to seek apparent Near Eastern parallels to bibli-cal narratives. The methodology employed was at times problematic, and conclusions were often overstated, as similarities between texts explicable in any number of ways were attributed to direct relationship.
For some biblical texts, of course,there is stronger evidence for Near Eastern influence. I propose that this is the casein regard to one text for which a Near Eastern counterpart has not previously been suggested: the story of Jacob’s wrestling match in Gen 32:23–33 (Eng. 32:22–32).There is reason to believe that the Israelite author knew some form of Gilgamesh,and particularly the scene of the wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
The case presented here is not simply one of a shared motif or logical group-ing of elements, but one of an unexpected and striking series of correspondences
“The final outcome of the match is shared by the two texts as well. In each casethe victor is blessed by his attacker. It should be noted immediately that this is nota usual context for a blessing. As Westermann has observed, this is in fact the only place in the Tanakh in which a blessing is acquired through a struggle.

Furthermore, the two blessings are similar in both form and content. Jacob’s attacker declares: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with human beings, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). This can be divided into two parts. First, the divine opponent makes a declaration regarding the identity and legacy of Jacob in relation to God; second, he affirms that Jacob has prevailed over all others. Enkidu’s blessing of victorious Gilgamesh follows the same pattern: “As one unique your mother bore you, the wild cow of the sheep-folds, Ninsunna! Your head is extolled above men; kingship of the people Enlil hasdecreed for you” (P 234–39). Again, the first statement is in regard to the identity and legacy of Gilgamesh in relation to his mother, the goddess; the second statement affirms that Gilgamesh prevails over all others. In both cases, the force of the blessing is clear: the hero will continue to prevail as the divinely appointed father or leader of his people.”

Full Paper: http://www.academia.edu/1213087/_Echoes_of_Gilgamesh_in_the_Jacob_Story_JBL_130_2011_625-42

With thanks to History of The Ancient World

Masters of Fire: Italian Alchemists in the Court of Philip II



“Also present at Philip’s court, and presumably a member of
Fioravanti’s circle, was an Italian aristocrat named Lorenzo Granita, a
native of Salerno. Fioravanti claims that Granita, who he says was the
equal of Ramon Lull, Arnald of Villanova, and John of Rupescissa,
showed Fioravanti a method for making a philosopher’s stone that would
transform any metal into the finest twenty-two carat gold. Fioravanti
does not claim that Granita actually made gold in his presence; instead, he
reports, Granita showed him a manuscript containing a Spanish poem that
held the secret of the philosopher’s stone.

Fioravanti, according to his
own admission, stole the manuscript and reprinted the verses at the end of
Della fisica so that anyone might learn how to make gold.
The poem has been recently studied by Elena Castro and José
Rodriguez, who identify it as the product of an adept from Valencia called
Luis de Centelles and written between 1550 and 1560. Although
Fioravanti calls the work a “recipe” for making gold, it is in fact an
elaborate allegorical poem that uses the analogy of courtly love to
symbolize an alchemical process that results in the “perfection” of matter.
The theme of the poem is the devotion of the poet to a woman—“who
dwells in the heavens and is, without doubt, the daughter of the Sun”

(Toma la dama que mora en el çielo | ques hija del sol sin duda ningua)—
which symbolizes prime matter. Just as, through a series of displays of

devotion, the poet’s love ascends and is perfected, the poet-alchemist

submits matter to a series of alchemical manipulations and converts it into
something ideal and perfect. The symbolic “matrimony between man and
woman” (matrimonio de hombre y muxer) becomes a metaphor of the
alchemist operating on matter. Strongly influenced by the alchemical
writings attributed to Ramon Lull and Arnald of Villanova, the poem
describes a progression of operations that parallel those detailed in the
Testamentum of pseudo-Ramon Lull—solutio, ablutio, congelatio, fixatio,
and multiplicatio—leading to the elixir, a “medicine” of transmutation and
universal healing It is far from clear whether Fioravanti understood
these obscure allegorical verses, for he made no effort whatsoever to
explicate them. Nevertheless, he could not conceal his enthusiasm for
having discovered—or, as he admitted, stolen—the secret that all the
alchemists had been looking for.”

Full article (pdf) http://www.williameamon.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Masters-of-Fire.pdf