Things on earth, especially the metals in the earth, are in touch with the gods; they bear mythical messages. There is a spirit in the iron, in the lead, a spiritus rector, a guiding principle that teaches the artisan (Hillman 477).
It is not the artist alone who creates the masterpiece. Materials, brought forth from the earth, also contribute to the work. As with alchemy, art is never an objective work of the artist upon the materials. The materials are close to the gods and have a voice in how they are transmuted. I am reminded of Michaelangelo and the manner in which he chose a block of marble. He saw the finished sculpture in the marble and then sought to free it from the confines of the stone. The marble, in touch with the gods, called to Michaelangelo, bidding him to enter into a participation mystique so that a great masterpiece might be revealed to the world. It was a cooperative undertaking, as is all art. Paint and canvas, also in tune with the gods, communicate their potentialities to the artist in the painter’s magnum opus. Musical artists experience this too. I have written several articles about Jimi Hendrix, how he and his guitar cooperated together in the creation of that revolutionary, alchemical sound. As Thales said, “all things are full of gods.”
The knowledgeable alchemist knew these things and endeavored to participate with the various metals and solutions in the bringing forth of the Philosopher’s Stone. In each type of material, there is a god and a message for the alchemist. Notice that Hillman says, “they bear mythical messages.” These assertions are not to be taken literally. We are in the realm of the imaginal here, the mythopoeic.
Hillman says the “subtle body” of the metal, not the literal mineral, is what the alchemist focused his attention on. The subtle body possessed qualities that the alchemist attempted to release so they could be contributed to the creation of the Stone. For instance, Hillman says that iron is “strong, penetrating, purposeful” (Hillman 477). These are characteristics that are desirable and needed for the Great Work. On the other hand, one must not become possessed by the spirit of the iron, for that would bring out its shadow qualities: rigidity, mental strain, hostility, and a tendency to rust.
The alchemical process can be compared to that of the refiner “releasing essence from dross” (ibid.), transmuting the metals into a more improved state. This is desired by the metals, for they have a “slumbering wish to transmute to a nobler state” (ibid.). The refining process aims for a purer constitution of the metal, such as “sterling” silver, or 24-carat gold. The metals have aspirations of returning “to the higher condition from which they have fallen” (ibid.). Indeed, the metals’ origin is with the gods.
In keeping with that sacred principle of Hermeticism, as above, so below, the earth’s major metals, lead, tin, iron, gold, copper, mercury, and silver each correspond to one of the seven primary planets:
Moon > Silver
Mercury > Mercury
Venus > Copper
Sun > Gold
Mars > Iron
Jupiter > Tin
Saturn > Lead
Belief in a linkage of these seven metals with the ‘seven planets’ reaches back into prehistory: there was no age in which silver was not associated with the Moon, nor gold with the Sun. These links defined the identities of the metals. Iron, used always for instruments of war, was associated with Mars, the soft, pliable metal copper was linked with Venus, and the chameleon metal mercury had the same name as its planet (Kollerstrom).
How did the various metals come to be identified with particular planets? Why does Jupiter correspond with tin, or Saturn with lead? In the next installment, I will explore these questions.
Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.
Kollerstrom, Nick. The Metal-Planet Affinities – The Sevenfold Pattern. The Alchemy Web Site .
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