(Gr. soma, Ar. jism, La. corpus)

The term ‘body’ —in alchemical literature— indicates a number of different yet connected concepts: the first and most obvious of which is the physical Body of the alchemist. Such usage is generally intended to indicate that the body is the locus of/for the manifestation of the qualities of the soul (Gr. psyche, Ar. nafs, Heb. nefesh, La. anima). It is thus seen by the alchemists as both the locus of prostitutive bondage (often referred to as ‘faeces’) as well as the locus of creative freedom (often referred to as the ‘balm of life’), depending upon the state of the soul, as is indicated in the thirteenth point of the third of the Six Keys of Eudoxus:

The Balm of Life is hid in these unclean faeces; you ought to wash them with this Celestial water until you have removed away the blackness from them, and then your Water shall be animated with this Fiery Essence, which works all the wonders of our Art.

The term ‘body’ may also be used to indicate ‘form’ as opposed to merely the matter in which it may inhere. Thus the term ‘body’ can mean the material Body per se or the form of the soul which shapes and informs the body as indicated in the third paragraph of the Rosarium Philosophorum:

Matter and Form differ, for Matter suffers action but Form works and makes the Matter like itself. Therefore, Matter naturally desires Form, as the woman does the man, and the foul does the fair, so the Body embraceth the Spirit more freely that it may come to its perfection. Therefore, by knowing the Natural roots you shall the better make your work of them. Because I cannot in any other way express or explain our Stone, nor call it by any other name: it is manifest by that which went before, that our Stone is compounded of four elements, both rich and poor have it, and it is found in every place, it is likened to all things and is also compounded of Body, Soul and Spirit and it is altered from nature into nature even to the last degree of its perfection.

[see the glossary entry for soul to learn more about how the Soul is itself tripartite (having body, soul, and spirit)]

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    December 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    The term ‘prostitutive’ that is used above in the phrase ‘prostitutive bondage’ is a bit shocking. But that made me think about why it was used. That in turn sparked off a number of associations and lines of thought, such as the contradiction between prostitution which implies willing selling of oneself and bondage which implies coercion, the various prostitutes in the Bible ( such as the Whore of Babylon, and Mary Magdalene) and the implication in ‘prostitution’ that implies ‘the debased use of something designed for a higher purpose in return for lesser gains’.
    But perhaps I am reading too much into a simple word.

  2. December 19, 2010 at 9:51 am

    The psyche turned toward externals and absorbed in its sense of being a discrete self is ‘used’ by the forces of the world in a manner that is not consonant with its stature as an ‘image’ of God. The psyche turned toward the Source and having experienced the dissolution of the sense of being a discrete self is employed by the Source in a manner commensurate with its stature.

    The verb ‘to prostitute’, means: “to devote to corrupt for unworthy purposes; to debase; to use a thing in a manner contrary to its original intended use.”

    Thus, Mary Magdalene, as we first encounter her in the Gospels is indicative of the former state of the psyche, whereas after her moment of metanoia—when she bathes the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair—she becomes indicative of the latter psychic state.

    The first state was her own doing (relying as it did upon self-will), while the latter state was not her own doing (relying as it did upon the tingeing power of the White Stone (the Other-power of the Divine Essence in the person of ‘Christ’).

    The enlightened Christian Laywoman, Lilian Staveley, wrote well on this topic:


    As the loving creature progresses, he will find himself ceasing to live in things, or thoughts of things or of persons, but his whole mind and heart will be concentrated upon the thought of God alone. Now Jesus, now the High Christ, now the Father, but never away from one of the aspects or personalities of God…


    The Sufi Master Shah Waliullah of Delhi has also written of this:


    It has repeatedly been observed that the self is forever craving the satisfaction of its base desires for such things as sensuality or superiority and dominance over one’s peers. However, at times the individual restrains his self and opposes it, with the result that a fierce conflict arises within him. At the same time a great deal of bitterness is experienced; but when the dust settles and the agitation ceases, a wonderful light descends from the spirit and envelopes the seeker both inwardly and outwardly. This is a rare alchemy, with which most people are not acquainted.


    Rest assured you are not reading too much into a simple word.

  3. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    December 28, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    The explosion of meaning from a single term is awesome. Is this a characteristic of alchemical literature generally? Can you just pick any term and have it expand like this?
    It made me think of Indra’s net of jewels, each reflecting the other, and each reflection containing all the reflections, an endless universe of meaning.
    If alchemical books are like this, and this was not just a chance choosing of a meaning-laden term, how can one learn to read it so that the meaning comes out, and not just be gibberish?

  4. December 30, 2010 at 10:27 am

    The density of meaning in a single technical term is indeed capable of filling one with awe. Not *every* word in an alchemical text is capable of such judicious un-packing of meaning, but the majority of the technical terms can certainly yield much meaning if given due attention. And yes, the inter-dependence of the terms reveals startling dimensions: meaning within meaning.

    The best way to develop the capacity to unpack such terms as are found in alchemical texts is to experience the fruit of the Great Work so that one recognizes the text from the inside.

    The next best way is to have access to someone who has experienced the fruit (mentioned above).

    Short of that, a good dictionary (one that actually provides archaic and original meanings for terms) is very useful. Such a dictionary combined with broad familiarity of auxiliary literature (like the Aeneid and Odyssey, Greek Myths, Platonic and Neo-Platonic discourses, the Torah, the Gospels, the Quran with the literature of esoteric Islam, etc.) provides the necessary basis for un-packing meaning.

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