The Ouroboros and the Unity of Matter - H J Sheppard

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Information about The Ouroboros and the Unity of Matter - H J Sheppard

Published on March 1, 2014

Author: accipio



"Apart from its occasional occurrence in the pictographs of the Neolithic Age in Western Europe (ca. 4000-2500 B.C.), the symbolic serpent is a common feature of the mythologies of the Near East and of India; it persisted throughout the early and later Mystery Religions of Greece and Rome and is also encountered in the literature of early Christianity and of Gnosticism..."

Source: AMBIX Volume 10, Number 2, June 1962, pp. 83-96.

THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY 83 Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY: A STUDY IN ORIGINS By H. J. SHEPPARD· THE appearance of the serpent in general symbology and in primitive religious cults is so widespread and of such great antiquity that attempts to locate a single origin seem unlikely to meet with very much success; indeed, psychological considerations apart, the most that might be expected with any degree of confidence is to trace the probable derivation of a particular form of serpent symbolism. Apart from its occasional occurrence in the pictographs of the Neolithic Age in Western Europe (ca. 4000-2500 B.C.), the symbolic serpent is a common feature of the mythologies of the Near East and of India; it persisted throughout the early and later Mystery Religions of Greece and Rome and is also encountered in the literature of early Christianity and of Gnosticism. Closely related to present purposes is the significance or the symbol in one of the oldest of the Greek Mysteries-the oracular tradition which prevailed at Delphi. There, the Pythia, prophetess of Apollo, is depicted seated on a tripod and bearing on her knees a serpent: this, it was popularly believed, signified the fact that a dragon from the centre of the earth was the sender of the pneuma (spirit), the generator of enthusiasml . . The Mystery Religions were, of course, particularly prominent in GrecoRoman times, and Clement of Alexandria records that the serpent, as the pneumatic animal, became a symbol of the sexual union of God with man; to enter into man God took the'form of a serpent. The conjunction was symbolized in ritual by the placing of a snake in the bosom of the initiate2• Porphyrius, too, mentioned a similar manifestation of the symbolic activity of the serpent in which, upon a man's death, his soul departed from the body in the guise of a serpent3• (Alchemical references to the Stone that contains a spirit (pneuma) are occasionally met with; the spirit was said to be mercury and its seed ' was symbolized by the Ouroboros.) The use of the symbol in both early Christian apocryphal literature and Gnosticism continued the custom; it is hardly surprising, then, to meet it in the texts of alchemists who practised in the contemporary ambiance prevailing in Hellenistic Egypt. I • Warwick School, Warwick. 1 F. Hauser, jahreshejte d. osterr. a1'chiiol.Instit., J913, XLlJI, 4~. 2 Clement of Alexandria, Protreptic14.t;,II, 3 Porphyrius, V ita Plotini, TI. 16.2.

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry H. J. SHEPPARD The particular form which the alchemical symbol took was that ot the Ouroboros, or serpent devouring its tail; as such, it is usually accepted as symbolizing in general the essential Unity of Matter and in particular the Work which had neither beginning nor end. Unfortunately, neither the early alchemists themselves nor the many later commentators gave any explicit reasons for its adoption for such purposes; hence it is hoped to remedy this in the present study by indicating from the probable origin of the Ouroboros Cl:lld the history and significance of accompanying inscriptions that its employment was entirely in ~eeping with both the exoteric and the esoteric aims of alchemy as it developed. ALCHEMICAL REPRESENTATIONS OF THE OUROBOROS The earliest mention of the Ouroboros in connexion with alchemyis contained in the Leyden Papyri V and W (ca. 250-350 A.D.)4, though here the associations are magical rather than alchemical and call to mind the simple inscriptions of the tail-eating serpent engraved upon the so-called Abraxas stones of the Gnostics6 (fig. I). Hellenistic alchemical texts are known from the copies embodied in the many manuscripts compiled from the loth century onward. Of these, three are of major importance : St. Mark (Venice) 299 (ID-IIth century), Paris 2325 (13th century) and 2327 (I5th century) the latter seemingly a fuller copy of the original upon which 2325 was based. They contain most of the Hellenistic texts known today and apparently formed the main source from which the contents of other manuscripts were drawn8• The four illustrations of the symbol which will now be described have been selected from the manuscripts and are in order of increasing complexity of design rather than in chronological order of provenance according to the manuscripts. FIG. 2.-MS St. Mark 299 (folio 188 verso). Forming part of a page of apparatus and D1YStical esigns entitled Chrysopoeia (Goldmaking) of Cleopatra, d it isa simple figure of the serpent devouring its tail; in the centre is the inscription EV 'TO ,"av-the One is the All. J & vide M. Berthelot, Paris, I889,PP.9, 18. Int.,oauction a l'Etude de la Chimie des Anciens et au Moyen-Age, . 6 idem., Les O.,igines de l'Alchimie, Paris, 1885, p.62; A/te., C. W. King, The Gnostics and thei., Remains, London, 1887, pp. 213-3°3 and illustrations on p. 103 and Plates C and M. 6 F. Sherwood Taylor, CIASurvey of Greek Alchemy", J. Hellenic Stud., Part I (1930), pp. 111-113. The illustrations depicted in figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the present study appear together with other drawings from Greek MSS in Berthelot, Int.,oduction.

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY FIG, FIG. 2 " FIG. 3 85 I

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 86 l(~t H. J. SHEPPARD O~Ht FIG. XT-V-CO-mllL FIG. 4 5

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY 87 FIG. 3.-MS Paris 2327 (folio 196). The serpent is composed of three concentric rings. The outermost is scaly, with 'head and three ears depicted in bright red, while the eye is white with a black pupil. The middle ring is also scaly and coloured yellow, while the inner one, bearing tour feet, is portrayed entirely in green. According to the description in the manuscript the four feet represent the basic elements, or tetrasomia, and the three ears the sublimed vapours (possibly sulphur, nlercury and orpiment)'. Folio 279 of the same manuscript shows another serpent, this time composed of two circles only (in red and green). FIG. 4.-MS St. Mark 299 (folio 188 verso). This, again, forms part of the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, but is obviously a stylized re'presentation of the Ouroboros. It consists of three concentric circles, the central one of which enclosesthe' symbols for gold, silver (bearing a tail) and mercury. The outer ring contains the inscription, *'Ev TO 'lTav Ka~ 0'" atJ7'ov TO 'ITO-V Kal €~s- aVT6 TO 'TTav lea.l El JL~ EXO" TO '1Tav ovo€v Ern-tV TO wav. (One is All and through it is All, and to it AU, and if it has not All, All is nothing). In the inner ring is inscribed Els- EUTI.V 0 ocPl.S- 0 EXWV TOV LOV /LETa 0150 uvv8£p,aTa. (One is the Serpent having its venom according to two compositions.) FIG. 5.-MSS Paris 2325 (folio 82) and 2327 (folio 220). This stylized representation is a later variant of fig. 3 and consists of two concentric rings with inscriptions. In MS 2327 (folio 220) the symbols of the metale;are missing. Outer inscription: €V TO 'TTav Bt' OV TO wav (Ka~ St' aVTOV TO 'lTav) Kat EV aVTcp TO 'lTav. (One is All through which is All and in it All.) . .. .,. . N,l. ~" ~, 8' ,, Inner InscnptIon: EIS Ern-tV 0~ O'f'tS- 0 EXWV To.. oVO O'VV Ep..aTa Kat TOV tOV. (One is the Serpent having the two compositions and the poison.) Also, in MS 2327 (folio 80), is yet another variant, without the concentric circles, but bearing the same axioms in red. There appear again the signs for gold, silver and nlercury, accompanied by those for lead and cinnabar (or the Egg). The inscriptions are probably degenerate forms of those present in Fig. 4 ; the outer one is incomplete, while the inner must be a confused version of that in the Chrysopoeia, which doubtless served as a model for later copyists. The significanceof these inscriptions will be considered later. THE ORIGIN OF THE OUROBOROS The Ouroboros was not, of course, confined exclusively to alchemy, for as a '1 vide J. M. Stillman, The Story of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, New York, 1924 (reprinted recently), p. 172. .

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 88 H. J. SHEPPARD form of the encircling serpent it was equally prominent in contemporary astrological, Gnostic and apocryphal texts. We might, then, expect to find in these some pointer to the origin of the symbol. The first indication of this comes from the Hellenistic astrologers, who assigned the symbol to the ninth, starless sphere of the planets and the zodiacthe sphere which enclosedthe heavens and the earth; and Franz Cumont, whose authority in such matters cannot be dismissed lightly, considers that it is a derivative of the draco caelestis, or celestial serpent, the dragon of the Babylonians and Chaldaeans, and controller of solar and lunar eclip~es8 .. If this be so, we seem to be dealing with that same dragon of outer darkness which separates this world from the outer-Leviathan, the dragon of the Old Testament9, which must be annihilated before the lowerworld can be redeemed. This is recalled in the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (ca. 4th cent. A.D.): Outer darkness is a huge dragon with its tail in its mouth; it is outside the world and surroundeth it completely"lo. In the apocryphal Acts of the Apostle Thomas (3rd cent. A.D.) there are again allusions to the tail-eater: "I am the offspring of the serpent nature ... son of him ... who encircles the sphere ... who is around the ocean, whose tail lies in his mouth"ll. This, too, may be likened to the dragon Leviathan, depicted so well in the Ophitic diagram described by Origen12; there, the orbit of the dragon circumscribes seven spheres, those of the seven planetary powers. In the same Acts occurs the "Song of the Apostle Judas Thomas in the land of the Indians", commonly known as "The Hymn of the Pear]". The Pearl sought after lay Hinthe middle of the sea which is encircled by the snorting serpent" -again, the encircling serpent of chaos, the evil principle of matter. The journey in search of the Pearl symbolized the descent of the Saviour into matter in search of the SOUP3. H 8 F. Cumont. "De dracone caelesti", in Catal. Cod. astralag. Graecorum. VIII (Brussels, 1929). pp. 194ff. • vide Book of Job. 10 G. R. S. Mead (trs.), Pistis Sophia. London, 1896, sec. 319, p. 320. 1!. Acts of the Apostle Thomas, para. 32; vide H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston, 1958, p.116. 12 Origen. Contra Celsum, VI, 25. 35; a very good description is to be found in H. Leisegang. La Gnose, Paris, 1951, p. 117; also, A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums, Leipzig, 1884, pp. 277 ff. 13 Jonas, Opecit .• p. 113; also J. Doresse, Les Livres Secrets des Gnostiques d'Bgypte, Paris. 1958, p. 102.

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY 89 A like theme from the Jewish apocryphal Acts of Kyriakos and Julitta is mentioned by Reitzenstein14: the hero, in his travels, encounters a dragon, liKing of the worms of the earth, whose tail lies in his mouth ... the serpent that led astray the first Adam". In all these references the serpent or dragon appears to be founded upon Leviathan, and, as Cunlont suggests, may be of Babylonian or Chaldaean origin. However, another reference in the Pistis Sophia and alluded to by Schmidt, must be taken into account: "But the disk of the sun was a great dragon, vith its tail in its mouth, which ascended to seven powers of the left and was drawn. by four powers in the shape of white horses"15. This suggests a different origin, situated not in the realm of the Prince of Darkness, but in the Kingdom of Light; the Ouroboros is nov assimilated to the sun's sphere-Phanes-Heliosand becomes a symbol of solar pantheism, the culminating phase of astral religion16. Here it must be noted that Schmidt regarded the Pistis Sophia as the vork of the Syrian sects known as Barbelo-Gnostics; but the original text is written in Sahidic, a Coptic dialect, and the presence of Egyptian influences in the Pis tis Sophia shows clearly that whatever the origin may have been, the lork was of some importance in Egypt. At any rate, the serpent was associated on occasion with both Darkness and Light. As to the identification of the sun with the serpent, a likely suggestion comes from Macrobius, who likened the setting and rising of the sun-ageing and rebirth-to the sloughing of the snake's skin (rejuvenation); the origin of the symbol he ascribed to the Phoenicians17• Dubious confirmation of this comes indirectly from another source, the enigmatical Sanchuniathon of Beirut18, who, it is said, believed the serpent to be the longest-lived animal because, in casting its skin, it continually renewed its youth. Here, then, is a plausible reason for the adoption of the Ouroboros as a symbol of the life-span of the Cosmos, the Aeon: its power of rejuvenation and growth, 14 R. Reitzenstein, Das iranische Erlosungsmysterium, Bonn, 1921, p. 77. 15 C. Schmidt, ]{optisch-gnostische Schr~ften (in Griech. christl. Schriftsteller, 13). Leipzig, 19°5, chap. 136.P. 262, 24. 16 vide P. Wendland, Die hellenistisch-romische K ultur in ihren Beziehungen zu ] udentwJ'l und Christentum, Tubingen, 1912, I, Part 2, pp. 158 fl. 17 Macrobius, Saturnalia, I, 20. 3 and I, 9. 12. Philo of l1yblos (42-117 A.D.) also discusses the nature of the serpent, Fragmenta Historicorum Graeco1"l,f.'nz C. Muller, Paris, (cd. 1849). III, p. 572. 18 Sanchuniathon of Beirut was a legendary figure said to have existed in the reign of Shamsi Adad V (9th cent. B.C.). References to him come from Philo of Byblos, Ope cit.

H;. J. Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 9° SHEPPARD its longevity, ended by self-devouring, accord well with the idea of a Cosmos which is rejuvenated every spring but ends by consuming itselfl9• As far as the assignment of the symbol to either the Babylonians or Phoenicians is concerned, the secondhand nature of the evidence certainly leaves much to be desired-though, like Leisegang20, the present writer formerly 21• However, the possibility that Egyptian mythology inclined to its acceptance might shed some further light on the provenance of the symbol suggested itself and reference to a recent important publication by R. Rundle Clark22 showed conclusively that the tail-eater vas a common symbol in early Egyptian life. The earliest references to cosmogony are found in the so-called Pyramid Texts23 of the 6th Dynasty (ca. 2350-2250 B.C.). Though there appear to be no earlier written references to an original Primeval Serpent, we find an interesting allusion to the manifestation of the Creator-Spirit: til am the outflow of the Primeval Flood, he who emerged from the waters. I am the Provider of Attributes serpent with its many coils, I am the Scribe of the Divine Book which says what has been and effects what is yet to be"24. The serpent, creator of multiplicity, here symbolizes the God-Spirit assigning to everything its essence, or Ka. It symbolizes creation by word-or, as Rundle Clark says, the belief that the universe in its variety is based upon the realization of the commands of a designing and conscious mind25. The continuing significations of the symbol may be followed in the Coffin Tests of the 7-Ioth Dynasties (ca. 2250 B.C. onwards). Many references to a Primeval Serpent occur: for example, in Thebes it was Kematef26 (Uhe who completed his time"), while in other regions it was Sito (USonof Earth"). Often, 11 The idea of self-devouring, adopted by the Stoics, evidently derives from the Herakleitean doctrine of the creation of the Cosmos from the element fire and its return to that state at the end of the Cosmic cycle. 10 H. Leisegang, "The Mystery of the Serpent", The Mysteries (Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks), London, 1955, p. 218. 21 H. II J. Sheppard, "Gno::lticismand Alchemy", AMBIX, VI, NO.2, 1957. R. T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, London, 1959. II The Pyramid Texts, apparently composed by Heliopolitan priests, form the largest single collection of religious compositions from the period under discussion. S& Rundle Clark, 16 idem., p. 51. II idem., p. 50. Ope cit., p. 50.

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY 9I the world, referred to as Hermopolis, was symbolized by a huge serpent biting its tail27• In chapter 87 of the Book of the Dead we read ItI am Sito dilated with years, ~ die and am reborn every day, I am Sito, who dwells in the farthest regions of the world 28. Thus is affirmed the everlasting cyclic nature of Sito. As we have already noted, the Serpent was "Scribe of the Divine Book". In a hymn from the CoffinTexts it is clear that the creative word, or Logos, was uttered by the serpent who is God and is yet within his own coils: II ItI bent right around myself, I was encircled in my coils, one who made a place for himself in the midst of his coils. His utterance was what came forth from his own mouth"29• In a sense, then, God is now separate from the serpent. But, in the Book of the Dead it is revealed that, at the end of time, the world will revert to the primary state of undifferentiated chaos and Atum, or Re, the Supreme God, will again become a serpent30• The cycle will have been completed. At least two pictorial representations could be cited in confirmation of these ideas: the inner coffinof Zepi, in the Louvre, shows the tail-eater as a symbol of the Cosmic Ocean surrounding the world; and, again, a mummy-like figure on the innermost shrine of Tutankhamun is ringed above and below by two encircling serpents-the serpents of Sky and Earth31• The earliest first-hand references to the tail-eating serpent thus appear in Egypt somewherearound 2300 B.C. Whether these antedate allegedBabylonian and Phoenician examples, assuming the latter attributions to be true and not merely part of the Hellenistic tendency to attribute ancient wisdom to Oriental sources, cannot at present be decided; certainly, the difiusionist school of anthropologists, as represented by the late Prof. G. Elliot Smith, would have welcomed it as yet further evidence of the diffusion of cultural elements from Egypt to surrounding countries32• From the connotations of the symbol it does, indeed, seem probable that it was the early Egyptian form which was adopted by both Gnostics and alchemists of Greco-Roman Egypt, though, of course, it is possible that there may yet be found earlier references among the cuneiform inscriptions of Mesopotamia which await decipherment. :n Rundle Clark, 28 idem., p. 211 Ope cit., p. 240. idem., p. 51. 241. ~o idem., p. 52. 31 idem., p. 8I, fig. II. 32 G. Elliot Smith, The Diffusion of Culture, London, 1933, passim.

H. Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry INSCRIPTIONS J. SHEPPARD ASSOCIATED WITH THE OUROBOROS The simplest inscription is, of course, Ev 'TO 'TTav-the One is the All. It is clearly a formula expressing unity in diversity and has pantheistic implications which, one suspects, might be attributed to Stoic influence. But in origin it is anterior to the Stoics, as reference to the pre-Socratic fragments will readily show. The early philosophers of the Ionian school (6th cent. B.C.)-Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes-were preoccupied with the problem of identifying the basic substrate out of which everything was fashioned. Later, however, other questions arose-in particular, the way in which the manifold varieties of individual existence arose out of the basic One and were again resolved into the One. The first to speak categorically on this matter appears to have been Xenophanes of Colophon (ca. 570-460 B.C.)33. An observer of nature, he sensed beneath the diversity of phenomena an underlying unity in both matter and spirit, and in his works one might, then, expect to find the earliest literal expression of the Unity of the All. As in the case of the other pre-Socratics, the extant fragments of Xenophanes'writing must be sought in the works of later reporters. Of the latter, Theophrastos of Eresos (4th cent. B.C.) is probably the most important source from which were derived the opinions of Xenophanes; for example, Diels suggests that Cicero's attribution to Xenophanes of the expression "unum esse omnia" ('that all things are one') was almost certainly based on Theophrastos34. The Neoplatonist Simplikios (6th cent. A.D.) also quotes an expression of ,~ OE , " *' ~ ,I. , Th eoph ras t os: J-L,av T1]v apx:rJv 7'I'TOI. EV 'TO ov Ka, .... 'TTav ,!j€Vo~avovs'TOV KoAoepc1JVI,oV 'TOV IIapJ-LEvlSov 8t8auKaAov trTTo'Tl8EU8al cPTJu,v <> 8EoeppaU'Tos. ('Theophrastos says that Xenophanes of Colophon, the pupil of Parmenides, assumes that there is one first principle, or that being is one and whole')35. Again, the excerpt from Hippolytos (3rd cent. A.D.): AEi'E' 8€ •.•••. O'TI. EV 'TO 'TTav ECl'TI.V ('he says that the whole is one'); and, likewise, that from Galen (2nd cent. A.D.): 'TO Elva" 'TTav'Ta EV ('the fact that all things are one')evidently derive from Theophrastos.37 33 E. Zeller, Outli'nBs of the History o/Greek Philosophy (trs.), London, 1931, pp. 249 fie 34 H. Diels, Doxogr. gr. 36 idem., 'Vorsokr. frag. enides is patently false. 36 Diels, Doxogr. gr.p. 37 idem., p. 604, 18. III, 3. 112, 2. I, 40, 25; the statement that Xenophanes was a pupil of Parm.- 565,24.

THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER IN ALCHEMY 93 Taking the wording of Theophrastos, Norden suggests a metrical reconstruction for the original expression of Xenophanes: EV SE TO 'ITO-Vor EV Se TO. , Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 'lTaVTa. ('the Whole is One' or 'All Things are One')38.Now, Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd cent. A.D.) has preserved a fragment, reputedly Orphic, which may well relate to a yet earlier source--one upon which Xenophanes could have drawn: EV 8E TO. 'lTetvTa T€TVKTat, EV cP Tc18€ 'lTetvTa KVKA€tTat, IItip Ka~ vSwp Kal yata. ('All things are one in which all these things revolve, fire and water and earth'.)39. Another possible hint of an origin earlier than Xenophanes is provided by ' ~, ,,.., ,J.. ,. , " , 8 PI a t 0: TO O€ • • • • • • tEI'''8' l€aTtKoV € VOS) a7T0 J:!IEVO~aVOVS TE Kat ETt 'lTpoa EV a.P~c1fLEVOV, c1Js EVOS OVTWS TWS 7Tc1VTWV KaAovfLEVWV OVTW 8t€~EXETa, TOtS fLV8ots. ('The Eleatic school, beginning with Xenophanes and even earlier, explain in their accounts that what is called 'all things' is really one;)40. The formula 'The One is the All', or modifications of it, thus go back at least to the time of Xenophanes; the evidence for an ,earlier, Orphic, origin, is interesting, though somewhat tenuous, in the light of the single excerpt from Plato. Of the preservation of the maxim and its appearance in Hellenistic times there are abundant examples, notably in Gnostic and Hermetic writings contemporary with the alchemical inscriptions. To quote only two, we find in the Poimandres: EV EUTt. TO. 7TetvTa. (All things are one)"l, and again, in a Gnostic apocryphal work referred to by Clement of Alexandria': EV ~V TO. 'lTc1VTa. . (All things were one)42. The affirmation of Cosmic Unity was, then, widespread by the 2nd century A.D.; the two elaborations of E TO 7T0-V in Figs. 4 and 5, and the more mysterious serpent motif, with its degenerate form, are examples of its' earliest appearance in alchemy. The elaborations of the theme 'The One is the All' are self-explanatory, but the serpent inscription requires interpretation. The cyclic nature of the Unity IS E. Norden, Agnostos Tkeos, Stuttgart, 1956, p. 247. It Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, p. 259. co Plato, Sopk., 242 D. C1 Poimandl'es, 12, 8. This is part of a series of texts purporting to convey religious and philosophic teaching-in this case, in apocalyptic form as revealed to one who had attained the highest state of Enlightenment (the state of "Hermes, Thrice Greatest"). The date is uncertain, but somewhere around 200 A.D. vide R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres: Studien zur griechisck-agyptischen und fruhchristlichen Literatur, Leipzig, 1904; also A.D. Nock-A. J. Festugiere, Corpus Hermeticum, I, Paris, 1945. U ope cit., III, p. 52~ •.

94 H. J. SHEPPARD Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry of All is dualistic-the separation of the All out of the One, and the ultimate return of the All into the One-hence it seems likely that allusions to two compositions of serpent poison, or venom, are symbolic ot the two parts of this cycle, thus stressing the ambivalence of the symbol. COSMIC UNITY AS THE BASIS OF ALCHEMY In its various manifestations the Ouroboros emphasised the cyclic nature of that which it symbolized: the idea of a growth, or regeneration, ending in a reversion to the primary state. In the illustrations from Hellenistic alchemy this was qualified by the inscriptions confirming and stressing the rise of multiplicity from the undifferentiated, followed by the return of the diverse forms into the One. It should be noted that the present writer accepts the premise that the term 'alchemy' may be properly applied to the bulk of the texts collated by Berthelot. This is not to overlook the existence of Chinesealchemy which arose at an earlier date; but one fact, ignored by some commentators, can scarcely be discarded-whereas Chinese influence upon the later European alchemy seems to have been negligibleor non-existent, there is in the European texts a constant recurrence of ideas and symbolism derived from the Hellenistic works and Gnosticism. However, our present concern is not with the origins of alchemy but with the accord between certain Hellenistic conceptions (some of middleeastern origin) and the underlying nature of alchemy.. To understand the nature of alchemy we cannot, as was formerly attempted, separate the exoteric and esoteric aspects, a course which indicates a complete misconception of the subject. What has to be grasped is the fact that certain fundamental concepts-the idea ot a prima materia, the Unity of Matter, Cosmic correspondences, the development of opposites, etc.-of early appearance in Greek philosophy, persisted, to reappear vigorously in the eclecticism which marked the period during which alchemy In the closing stages of Hellenistic philosophy many streams of thought contributed: late Stoicism, Neopythagoreanism, Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. But it was a syncretism in which the members blended together and modified each other in such a fashion that it is difficultto weigh accurately the contribution made by any individual theory. Here, it may be noted, the sanle problem is encountered in Gnosticism: while the main trend of thought is abundantly clear, the relative roles played by the contributing schools of philosophy and by oriental mysticism are difficult to assess with any degree of accuracy. The assumption that there existed a prima materia was variously formulated by the early pre-Socratics--e.g. water (Thales), the Unlimited (Anaximander),

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry THE OUROBOROS AND THE UNITY OF MATTER 95 IN ALCHEMY fire (Herakleitos), etc. By late Hellenistic times, when alchemy arose in Egypt, it would seem that a modification of Thales' notion-what might better be termed 'liquidity' rather than 'water'-became the prima materia. Proximate materials of readily fusible nature were accepted just because they easily yielded a liquid fornl, e.g. lead is mentioned in the Physika kai Mystika of Pseudo-Demokritos as the source of the first matter. Fusion brought about a blackening (melanosis), the colour itself being indicative of formlessness43. The concepts of Cosmiccorrespondencesand the Unity of Matter are closely linked-the former specific, the latter a generalization. Correspondence, the belief that the world of man, the microcosm, reflects in all its aspects the behaviour of the outer world, or macrocosm, is widely manifested, e.g. the influence of the seven planets upon the seven metals, upon the seven main body organs and upon plants and precious stones44. This notion of sympatheia was of oriental origin and its introduction into Hellenistic philosophy is almost certainly attributable to the Stoic Poseidonios (I35-5I B.C.), though admittedly it is nowadays felt that much of the oriental influences earlier ascribed to him have been somewhat exaggerated45. The importance of sympatheia in the pract~cal work of alchemy has been discussed by the present writer earlier in this Joumal46 and will not be repeated here. The Stoics adopted the earlier conception of the Unity of Matter but built it up into a vast pantheism in which they conceivedthe Divine interpenetrating everything in such a way as to admit of no essential differencebetween God and the Cosmos-both were of the same essence. To this there is abundant testimony: the early Stoic Cleanthes (ca. 300-220 B.C.) affirmed that "there is one soul interpenetrating the whole Cosmos, by ,'participation in which we, too, become endowed with a soul"47. Likewise, Alexander of Aphrodisias (ca. 200 A.D.) records that Chrysippus (280-207 B.C.) "lays it down that all existence is brought into a unity by the penetration, as it were, of spirit through it all, whereby it is both drawn together and remains compact, and the whole is harmonious within itself"48. 43 A. J. Festugiere, La, Re1:elation d'Hermes Trismegiste, occultes, Paris, 1950, p. 235. I: Astrologie et les Sciences U idem, Chap. VI, passim. 45 K. Reinhardt, Kosmos u. ~"ympathie: Neue Untcrs. -aberPoseidonios, Munich. 1926. 41 H. No. J. Sheppard, "The Redemption Theme and Hellenistic Alchemy", I, 1959. 47 Diels, Doxogr. gr., 654, 30. 48 Alex. Aphrod., De 1IIIixt., 142• AMBIX, VIII,

Published by Maney Publishing (c) Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry H. J. SHEPPARD That the same idea was widespread at the time Hellenistic alchemy arose is clear from yet another Stoic source, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.): "There is one universe, consisting of all, and one God through all, and one substance, and one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings, and one truth"49. And again: "The world is one living organism, with one substance and one SOul"50. It follows, then, that there was thought to be correspondence between God, Cosmos and man; man, as part of the Cosmos, was in sympathy with it as a whole. His salvation (salvatIon of the part) meant recognition of his place and fulfilment of his function in the whole. Operations carried out on one plane of Cosmic existence-the transformation of matter, in the case of exoteric alchemy-was essen~ially interference in the life of living substances. Cosmic Unity involved the participation of God; thus it came about later that Christian alchemists symbolized the changes undergone in the alchemical process in terms of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. On the esoteric side the importance for the alchemist lay in the complementary process-=-the obtaining of personal redemption as a result of participation in a process carried out on the mineral plane. Just how this occurred is not particularly clear; the witnessing of experiences undergone by proximate materials as they were· transformed, first to prima materia, then through succeeding stages to the state of perfection, in some way induced in the operator a mental condition appropriate to that possessed by one who had shared in the experiences of a religious initiation. The attainment of this condition was akin to the receiving of inner illumination, and in this respect alchemy resembled Gnosticism; why the adept should feel the urge to seek his redemption in this way is, perhaps, better sought in terms of the depth psychology of the late C. G. Jung. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS For assistance in the translation of the Greek texts quoted the writer is much indebted to his friend F. Davey, M.A.; grateful thanks are due also to R. Rundle Clark, M.A., of the University of Birmingham, for so courteously allowing the reproduction of many translations of Egyptian texts contained in his excellent Pork HMyth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt". U 60 Marcus Aurelius, Camm., IV, 40; VII, 9: ct. V, idem., IV, 40. 21. VI, 38.

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