Jesus said: “Let him who seeks
continue seeking until he finds.
When he finds,
he will become troubled.
When he becomes troubled,
he will be astonished,
and he will rule over the All.”
The Gospel of Thomas, verse 2
…and as long as you do not have the wisdom,
die to become,
you will only be a sad guest on this dark earth.
He who wants to enter the divine realm,
first must enter his mother’s body,
and die herein.
Carl Gustav Jung said: ” He who looks in the mirror of the water, first sees his own image. He who looks at himself, risks to meet himself. The mirror does not flatter, it shows accurately what is reflected in it, namely that face that we never show the world because we hide it by the persona, the mask of the actor. This is the first test of courage on the inner path, a test, which is enough to frighten most people, because the encounter with oneself belongs to those unpleasant things, one avoids as long as one can project the negative onto the environment.”
The acronym V.I.T.R.I.O.L.U.M., used in alchemical literature, is formed by the Latin expression “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam”, what means “Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying you will find the hidden stone which is the true medicine”.
Thus we are invited to descend into the earth, into the underworld, or the unconscious. The earth is the symbol of physical man. Man needs to become conscious of his inner world, who he is, what he is doing, what his motives are, and so on. Once attention is directed inwards, a whole new world opens: the underworld of Hades, the dark realm of shadows and monsters.
This descent is also called ‘regressus ad uterum’, ‘the return into the uterus’, a term often used in initiation rites. It is a symbolic return to a particular primal state of being that every man is carrying in his collective unconscious. Deep inside man, in the darkness of his psyche, are the causes or origins of man’s actions. Therefore the ‘regressus ad uterum’ is a necessary condition to enter the moonlit area of death, and subsequently experience rebirth. Terra Mater, Mother Earth, has always been connected with birth, with the connection between man and woman (=the conscious and the unconscious), from which new life springs up after death.
Primitive people performed their initiations in darkness or under the ground, like in caves. In Egypt initiations were performed in the pyramids or in underground crypts of the temples. In Persia it was mostly in caves, with native Indians is special huts. The Mythras mysteries were conducted in temples built underground. The initiation itself was symbolized by the penetration of the belly of the Great Mother, or of the body of a sea monster or wild animal.
In Greek mythology Orpheus descended into the Hades to look for Eurydice (=symbol of his lost soul). The Indian god Krishna descended into the hells to look for his six brothers (=the six chakras, Krishna being the crown chakra). There is a legend that after his death Jesus descended into the realm of Satan to save the soul of Adam (=the pure man).
In alchemy, the entrance into the unconscious is represented by the entrance into caves, by reports of travels to the underworld or strange parts of the world. Another important representation is the king who is taking a bath. The conscious is the king, and the bath or bath water is the unconscious. By bathing he enters into the unconscious. In alchemical terms he is being permeated by the water (aqua permanens) or quicksilver.
Another symbol is the ‘coniunctio’ (conjunction) or ‘conceptio’ (conception) that primarily takes place in water, in a spring or a fountain. The queen then represents the feminine, water, the unconscious.
The descent into the unconscious is not without dangers. In the psychological sense it can result, for example, in schizophrenia. In mythology the hero penetrates the underworld to fight monsters and demons. The Great Mother appears to him in the image of a terrible being, often as the Ruler of Death. For his courage and bravery, the Great Mother, as goddess of fertility, offers him great knowledge and wisdom.
In alchemy, when working with (symbolic) metals, lead is used as initial material. The alchemists say that in lead there is a demon that can cause insanity. Lead as a metal is under the rulership of Saturn, the god of melancholy, who causes ailments and devilish visions.
Lead, the most impure metal, needs to be transformed into the pure metal, gold. In general, lead means impurity, the impure body, or impure man.
After the alchemist has entered the earth, he must rectify (rectificando). What does this mean? A text from the modern syncretistic Taoism: “That is why Buddha Jou-lai (Tathagata), in his great mercy, has revealed the method, the alchemical work of Fire, and taught people to rectify their true nature and fullness.”
‘Rectificando’ in the middle of the acronym VITRIOLUM means ‘to put right’ in the moral sense, to reinstate the true nature, the purification of negative emotions and so on. It is to straighten that what has grown crooked during our lives. The alchemist must purify himself of all ‘dirt’, of all his ‘dross’. He has to wash ‘the body’ to ameliorate and improve it. The metals have to be purified from the ‘external, impure and destructive elements’. The metals here can be seen as the emotions.
In the outer circle is the Latin sentence of vitriolum.
The sun and the moon are the opposites in man that have to be united. The chalice is the alchemical ‘vas’ or vat, symbol for the body. The planetary signs represent different stages of the alchemical process. The double eagle is Mercury, the lion is Sulfur and the star is Salt, the three ingredients of the process. The left globe with clouds is the microcosmos; the right globe with the stars is the macrocosmos.
Taoism stresses the importance of purifying the egotistic tendencies which distance man from his eternal nature. A man who strives for the Tao must give up all lusts and desires, and become a child joining the Tao. By this purification rebirth happens. Therefore an alchemist has to shy away from the masses, and start the process of ‘meditatio’, self-reflection, in silence.
Buddhism also teaches purification. Man can reach salvation by disconnecting himself from the temporal things that make him stray off the true path. He sees that life is temporal and is by itself not satisfying. Man is unsatisfied because his desires are limitless. He has to unchain himself from his desires.
Going into the unconscious also means to go into the collective unconscious we all share. In Greek mythology there was Tartaros, a name originally used for the entire underworld. Tartaros is the psychic world deep in man where all those nasty emotions reside, like the lust for murder and destruction, thirst for blood, fear, hate, revenge, the lust for power, melancholy and so on. It is not easy to admit to oneself, but they all reside in ourselves. Because we don’t like it, we have cut ourselves off from being aware of this dark realm. We have repressed all our dark emotions into this deep realm of Tartaros. This is the heritage of man, dating from ancient times.
The task of man is to feel and be responsible for all his emotions, not to repress them, but to change and transmute them into higher feelings. Repression chains man to the very objects of repression, but purification will transmute them positive elements bringing him closer to his true essence. As long as we do not take up the Great Work, pain and misery will disturb our lives. We have to face the mythical monsters in the depths of our unconscious and shed light on them. As they are part of being human, we cannot discard them, but we can control them, master them, learn from them, and transform them into servants of the Divine. The monsters are not monsters by themselves. They are just characteristics of human nature that have become distorted. We can rectify them and make them shine in their original beauty.
This task is not for the would-be initiate. It is only for the brave who dare to face the darkness of the soul. Many will fail in their courage and return home. Thus the pilgrim is not going on an easy path, as the world of pleasure is not his anymore. He has chosen the path of Arete (=goddess of Virtue), leading him to many dangers and difficult paths, in solitude and starvation, but eventually he will become immortal. He who will lose life, will gain it.
If you are really determined
to find Tao,
you can do that even when you are in a city
and have a high position in worldly affairs.
That is not contradictory.
The work is easy and close by,
the secret is so simple,
that, if it were disclosed,
laughter would be all around.
The stilling of the heart
is the true alchemy
which turns mercury into silver.
While common man
looks to blame other people
and blame fate,
looks for the fault
In alchemy the dragon corresponds closely with what Carl Gustav Jung called the Shadow. The Shadow is the name for a collection of characteristics and impulses which could be conscious, but which are denied. At the same time we recognize and see them in other people. Some examples of the Shadow are: egotism, laziness, intrigues, unreal fantasies, indifference, or being obsessed by money and possessions. The Shadow is the inferior being in us that desires what we do not allow ourselves because it is uncivilized, because it is incompatible with society’s rules and with the image of our ideal personality. It is all that what we are ashamed of.
The dragon always resides in caves, and thus in the earth, the underworld, and the unconscious. When the dragon leaves his cave he devours virgins. It is our inner emotional dragon that destroys our virgin consciousness, as when he appears in the conscious, expressing negativity, like envy, jealousy, hate and so on.
The dragon is never satisfied. He ever wants more treasures, more virgins. Is this not a true image of common man? Consciousness and alertness are enchanted by the dragon. The mythological dragon has the power to enchant, to hypnotize with his voice the brave knight who dared to challenge him. The dragon can also impose riddles in which the knight gets lost.
To the right we have the alchemist with a dark face what relates to the first phase of Nigredo during which the dragon is killed, that is transformed by the penetration of the secret fire (the arrow) of the archer. The drawing is based on the myth of Apollo who killed the python of Delphi. The lion is the image of the animal passions.
If we want to save the pureness of consciousness (=the virgin), then the dragon has to be killed. Actually this expression is not quite right. In a few tales where the dragon is conquered and made tame, he is penetrated by a lance with an iron point. Iron was always regarded a special metal, as it was found in meteorites. As the metal associated with Mars, iron has an active, destructive force. The lance, as a phallic symbol, is the alchemical ‘secret fire’. The penetration of ‘the body’ (here the dragon) with a lance is the penetration of physical matter with the alchemical fire. In the same manner the Greek god of the sun, Apollo, penetrated the Python of Delphi, with arrows, and let the Python rot away next to the temple. Since then this place is called Pytho (=putrefaction). Putrefaction is the first phase of the great Work.
The dead dragon undergoes a transmutation. The dead dragon is not an end, but the beginning of the Great Work. From the dead dragon, vapors and volatile substances arise, often seen in alchemical images. In other terms, the earth is partly being transformed into water, it ascends as vapor.
Some sources say that in the head of the dragon is a stone, a clear reference to the rough stone, or ‘prima materia’ (=first matter).
Killing the dragon also refers to a cosmic happening. It is the penetration of the ‘prima materia’ as primal ocean, or primal chaos by the secret fire or the divine spirit. The fiery serpent emanated fire and light into the primal waters. When the dragon (or serpent, as the cat of Ra the sun god cut off the head of the serpent Apophis), is killed, the original chaos ceased and the process of cosmic evolution started.
In Greek mythology the hydra of Lerna was also a kind of dragon with similar symbolism. Hercules killed the hydra in the second of his twelve works. The hydra of Lerna lived in a swamp, the residence of primal instincts, passions, lusts, desires. Anyone who gets involved with these emotions gets into a swamp in which he drowns. Therefore Hercules shot fiery arrows (the alchemical fire) to get her out of her hiding place. First he cut off the hydra’s heads, but they grew back. A energetic approach is not the right way. Then his nephew Joales comes to rescue. He starts to singe the cuts with flaming tree trunks, so new heads cannot be formed. It is a systematically, patient, reflective and profound attitude that is required.
When the alchemists talk about the Green Dragon then they are talking about the universal spirit that is present in everything, it is not the same as the dragon of the underworld.