Soul

(Gr. psyche, Ar. nafs, Heb. nefesh, La. anima)

The term ‘soul’ is extremely important because it is incumbent on all practitioners of philosophical alchemy to occupy themselves with the observation and operation of the soul. The alchemical texts themselves are nevertheless very confusing to the uninitiated due to the many polyvalent terms and their change in application depending upon the context in which they are used. Unless otherwise specified, the term ‘soul’ in our explication of alchemical texts, refers to that which is called the individual or terrestrial soul as opposed to the universal or celestial Soul. However, in the texts themselves —and this is a good example of the difficulties involved— the terrestrial soul, when contemplating the celestial soul, is sometimes referred to as celestial inasmuch as it then participates in and partakes of the qualities of the celestial soul. It is at such times ‘impressed’ with the form of the celestial soul through the activity of the individual or terrestrial intellect or spirit, even as the celestial soul is impressed with the form proper to it through the activity of the universal or celestial intellect or spirit. Sometimes a distinction is then made between the celestial (or universal) soul of natural things and the super-celestial and divine soul of the truly human being.

It must be pointed out that the term ‘soul’ is used in more than one sense in alchemy; the term is used to refer to the vegetative or growth-causing part of a living being, the so-called animal or sensory-motive part, and, if the being be human, the rational or spiritual part. The term ‘soul’ can also refer to the totality of these three parts.

Generally speaking, the alchemists refer to the mineral, vegetable and animal souls as well as the human, rational, or spiritual soul. This corresponds more or less with that system (of the souls) which relates to the four worlds of the Zoharic Kabbalah.

  • Nefesh – mineral soul – Asiah [the World of Action];
  • Rua’h – vegetable soul – Yetsirah [the World of Formation];
  • Neshama – higher animal/human soul – Beriah [the World of Creation];
  • Hayah and Ye’hida the spiritual souls – Atsilut [the World of Emanation].

However, in other texts, the souls are given simply as vegetable, animal and human.

The first two parts of the soul — the so-called vegetable and animal souls— (or the first three parts in the system that includes the mineral) comprise the non-rational Soul; the third part —or rational part of the soul— (the fourth part in the alternative system) taken alone, or the totality of the three parts (or four parts) taken together, comprise the rational or ‘human’ soul.

To further add to the confusion, the vegetable, animal and rational souls may be respectively referred to as the mineral, vegetable and animal souls. Minerals ‘grow’ in the bowels of the earth and thus can answer to the growth-causing aspect of the vegetable soul. Vegetables have movement (though not ambulation) and thus can answer to the sensory-motive aspect of the animal soul, especially since in their growth they seek the light. While the animal can answer to the human because the human is, after all, a rational animal.

As if that was not confusing enough, the term ‘mine’ (from which we derive the term ‘mineral’) can refer to the body (or the form impressed upon inert matter so as to order its elemental chaos into a more or less orderly state) as the proximate locus of all embodied spiritual qualities; or the divine spirit/intellect from which the minerals and metals (forms) are ultimately derived. The usage is dependent upon whether one is looking at the ultimate truth or the apparent truth of the matter.

The normative life of the unregenerate human animal is considered to be in opposition to the life of the truly human being; it is thus viewed as being upside-down in this world. This is why you have some alchemists discussing the mineral as being the lowest aspect associated with the body, with vitality, and with the lumbar or sacral area. This, in part, has to do with the notion of ‘seed’ which in horizontal, external, or animal generation springs from the loins; but in vertical, internal, or spiritual generation springs from the spirit or intellect. Others discuss the mine or mineral aspect as if it were the latent spiritual germ associated with essence and located in the head. It is said that the head cannot be awakened without first awakening the heart, and this is so, but this leads to further confusion because the heart is variously said to be the proximate locus of the soul, or of the spirit or even a synonym for the rational soul. However, since the head is only awakened by first awakening the heart, it follows that the spirit (the active individual intellect) is only awakened into activity by first awakening in the soul the desire for union with it.

This mutability of terms is seen in the various ways ‘sulphur’ and ‘mercury’ (or ‘quicksilver’) are employed. Some alchemists explicitly refer to mercury as soul, others as spirit. So also for sulphur. In ‘Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul’, Titus Burckhardt mentions this:

Having in mind that Sulphur in a certain sense corresponds to the Spirit and Quicksilver to the Soul, confusion may arise from the fact that almost all the alchemists call Quicksilver a spiritus (‘spirit’), while some of them (for example, Basil Valentinus) compare Sulphur to anima (‘soul’). This contradicts what has been said above only in appearance; for in the language of these authors anima signifies the immortal soul, thus the essential and immutable ‘form’ of man, while the expression spiritus does not mean the transcendent spirit or intellectual agens, but the ‘vital spirit’, that subtle power which unites the individual soul with the body and the corporeal world as a whole. The vital spirit corresponds to Quicksilver because it is only partially and loosely attached to the sphere of the ego, and thus represents a still formable materia … The reason for the double meaning may be that spiritus like ruh (and also the hebrew ruah) recalls the movement of the air or of the breath (the Arabic for wind is rih). On the one hand this can represent the creative breath of the Universal Spirit and on the other the mobility of the ‘vital spirit’ and its connection with the subtle ‘atmosphere’ of this world. It is taken in by beings as is the air in breathing. It is the constant nourishment of the subtle ‘body’ of their vital powers.

In the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius we read:

The present follows closely upon the past, and the future closely upon the present. Just as the Body, once it has gained Perfection in the womb, goes out, likewise the Soul, once it has gained perfection, goes out of the Body. For just as a Body, if it goes out of the womb imperfect can neither be fed nor grow up, likewise if the Soul goes out of the Body without having attained Perfection it is imperfect and lacks a Body; but the perfection of Soul is in the knowledge of beings. Just as you will behave towards your Soul when in the Body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the Body.

From this you may understand the many and various warnings regarding separating the mineral or metal from its mine, or the immature fruit from the tree, as Flamel warns in his Summary of Philosophy:

So long as it is not separated from its mine, viz. its argent vive, but is well kept, (for every metal which is in its mine, the same is an argent vive) then may it multiply itself – for that it has substance from its mercury, or argent vive, but it will be like some green immature fruit on a tree; which, the blossom being past, becomes an unripe fruit, and then a larger apple. Now if any one plucks the unripe fruit from the tree, then its first forming would be frustrate, nor would it grow larger nor ripe; for man knows not how to give substance, nourishment, or maturity, so well as internal nature while the fruit yet hangs on the tree, which feeds it with substance and nourishment, till the determined maturity is accomplished.

Alchemy is based upon an understanding of the tripartite or trimorphic nature of the soul. The alchemists teach us that even though the soul has many parts or phases of its being, it is nevertheless a unity working toward one single end. The vegetable soul serves certain specific functions as well as serving as food or sustenance for the animal soul. Without the benefit of the vegetable soul’s vital forces, the animal soul would not be able to generate the energy necessary to perform its functions. Similarly, the sensory-motor functions of the animal soul promote the functioning of the rational or human soul. The animal soul can use the sensorium to strip the gross elements from the forms of the material objects upon which it gazes and convey the subtle (fine) form to the imagination. The role of these subtle objects within the womb of the imagination is one of the many things which alchemists are uniformly reticent to discuss without layers of subterfuge. Occasionally one will hint at the function of the imagination which is to prepare the rational soul to receive the universal or celestial forms from the spirit or intellect. The light of the intellect impresses intelligible forms upon the rational soul when this soul has been properly prepared by art (clarified and made malleable) so as to effectively receive them. The rational soul cannot act directly upon the subtle objects of the imagination; hence the need for the intellect. The role of the intellect in all this, in case this is still not clear, is as an agent for ordering the chaos of the ‘matter’ of the subtle corporeity. This sets the animal soul free from preoccupation with the body and from reification of the objects of sense, and helps cultivate the powers of the rational soul which are necessary if conscious knowledge and real knowledge are to merge successfully. Alchemists promote the view that the intellect is one with its objects (forms), for they consider the knower and the known to be one single thing. This is suggestive of the fact that the highest human state is one in which unity with the universal or super-celestial is attained. The effects of this state of union are described as incomparable joy, happiness, and rest, and this is often referred to as the ‘pearl’ (Latin, unio) of great price.

In his Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby, Eirenaeus Philalethes writes:

Know, then, that it is called a Stone, not because it is like a Stone, but only because, by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of Fire as successfully as any Stone. In species it is Gold, more pure than the purest; it is fixed and incombustible like a Stone, but its appearance is that of very fine powder, impalpable to the touch, sweet to the taste, fragrant to the smell, in potency a most penetrative Spirit, apparently dry and yet unctuous, and easily capable of tingeing a plate of metal. It is justly called the Father of all miracles, containing as it does all the elements in such a way that none predominates, but all form a certain fifth essence [Quintessence – jR]; it is thus well called our gentle metallic Fire. It has no name of its own; yet there is nothing in the whole world whose name it might not with perfect propriety bear. If we say that its nature is Spiritual, it would be no more than the truth; describe it as Corporeal, and the expression would be equally correct; for it is subtle, penetrative, glorified, Spiritual Gold. It is the noblest of all created things after the Rational Soul, and has virtue to repair all defects both in animal and metallic bodies, by restoring them to the most exact and perfect temper; wherefore is it a Spirit or Quintessence.

Here, the author was correct, though somewhat disingenuous, in stating that “It is the noblest of all created things after the Rational Soul. ” The ‘Stone’ of which the text speaks is that perfect tincture which is derived from the intellect through the office of the rational soul. It is the form, or ordered substance of that soul perfectly fixed.

Hermes in the Definitions, speaks of this as well:

Nous [intellect – jR] is the invisible Good; Soul a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of Body. A Body is composed of the four qualities, as a well-tempered composition of warm, cold, dry, and wet: of the igneity of Fire, the frigidity of Air, the aridity of Earth, and the humidity of water. Breath is the Body or column/sheath of Soul.

The labor and fruit of alchemy, then, is most cogently and concisely rendered in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ where Jesus is made to say:

If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ Say to them: ‘It is a movement (soul) and a rest (spirit/nous/intellect).’

[see the glossary entry for spirit to learn more about how the relationship between soul and spirit)]

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    September 3, 2011 at 12:07 am

    You say that the term the ‘mine’ can refer to the body, or to “the form impressed upon inert matter so as to order its elemental chaos into a more or less orderly state.”

    Can you please say more about the latter, as I find it difficult to understand what you mean.

  2. September 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Form, as understood by the Alchemists, is not so much ‘matter’ as that is understood in materialistic science, rather it has more to do with ‘shape’, ‘image’ and those subtle characteristics which can be sensed but not grasped. As is common with alchemy, the term ‘form’ has more to do with function than with substance (which is why Burckhart describes it as a “tissue of powers”).

    One’s form should be ‘simple’ (rather than complex), unified rather than composite, but this is only possible when one’s formative influence is simple. This is why Jesus is made to say in the New Testament:

    “Let thine eye be single, and thy whole body (form) shall be full of light.”

    We are what we do, and we are constantly remade in the image of our ‘maker’ – which, though initially ‘God’, is now whatever fleeting yet defining desire is able to re-order our sensorium and physical material (making it conform to our state of being).

    Here, in brief paraphrase, is how D’Espagnet speaks of this in his Enchyridion:

    “There seems to have been in the beginning a threefold way of the information of the first matter [prima materia]… as in the Empyrean heaven where the light first seized upon the matter, then the [lightsome] form, having as it were an infinite virtue, did swallow up its matter and translated it into a nature almost [completely] spiritual and free from any accident [this involves the making of ‘gold’ -jR].
    But where the virtues of the form and matter did not meet in an equal poise and a just equality, according to which the Aetherial heaven and Celestial bodies are informed, there the action of the light, whose force in acting is of the greatest power, did proceed [only] so far – that it did reserve its matter from all original blemishes, as also from the loathsome infection of corruption after a wonderful sort, by illumination and attenuation, and this is to be accounted as a truly perfect information [this involves the making of ‘silver’ -jR].
    The third way of informing matter is that in which a weaker form remains, as it often happens, though after diverse ways in this our Elementary region, in which the appetite of the matter, which is an evidence of weakness and imperfection, luxuriating and lavishly springing out from its basis and root, cannot be sufficiently satisfied by reason of its remote distance from its former principle. Neither can this weakness be cured [without a return to its basis, root and former principle- jR]. Hence the matter, not being fully informed according to its desire [since it is changeable and unstable -jR], languishes under the desire of a new form, which being attained, it does bring to it, as to its husband, the dowry – a large wardrobe of corruption and faults. This sullen, perverse, wrangling and inconstant matter, does always burn for new beds, greedily wooing all forms which it longs for, if absent, and hating them, if present [this involves the making of ‘copper’ and the other ‘base’ metals’ -jR].”

    So, the ‘informing’ power of Light describes the spiritual or essential property of a being when intimately related to the Source or First Principle; while the term ‘mixts’ or ‘accidents’ describes the manifest ‘form’ in relation to the objects of the psyche and the sensorium as well as the physical matter of the body to which the form and physical and psychic sensoria are bound.

    The distinction between the ‘lightsome’ form (which is related intimately to its Source and/or becomes regenerated through the equilibrium of the essence and accidents) and that ‘loathsome’ form (which suffers from a lack of poise in ‘mixtion’ – an inharmonious proportion of essence and accidents) highlights how the tissue of spiritual powers becomes manifest in human vessels where the essence has been covered over by a matrix of adventitious defilements of diverse kinds due to an externally directed sensorium and an insatiable and inconstant desire.

    Again D’Espagnet:

    “Those elements which formative Nature makes use of in her mixtions, and in making bodies … because their parts have a correspondence proportionable with the parts of the world, and have a kind of analogy with them, we may call them by the same names: the more solid parts, Earth; the moister, Water; the more spiritual, Air; the inborn heat, Natural Fire; the hidden and essential virtues, a man may safely term Heavenly and Astral Natures, or the Quint-Essence, and so every mixed body may by this analogy triumph in the title of Microcosm.
    He that did appoint the First Element for the generation of bodies, alone knows how out of it to make all particulars, and to resolve them, being made, into it again.
    Let not them therefore refuse the Light, who working about the Element of Nature, either in the production of some body from it, or the resolution of some [body] into it, lest they create their own trouble, since this Element is from the Source, [which is] altogether unknown to all our art and not compassible by our endeavors.
    The Element of Nature [note the singular usage- jR] may be termed the most simple portion of the First Matter [or prima materia], distinguished by its uniquely different qualities, constituting a part of the essence in the material composition of mixt bodies.
    By the Elements of Nature [note the plural usage- jR] are denoted the material principles, of which some have a greater purity and perfection than others, according to the greater Power and Virtue of that form that gives completion. They are, for the most part, distinguished according to their rarity or density, so that those that are more fine [as opposed to gross -jR], and approach nearer to a spiritual substance, are therefore more Pure and Lightsome, and so are the more fit for motion and action.”

    Again D’Espagnet, this time from his Arcanum:

    “The Elixir’s perfection consists in a strict Union and Indissoluable Matrimony of Siccum and Humidum so that they may not be separated, but the Siccuum may flow with moderate[d] heat into the Humidum abiding every pressure of Fire…
    Because in the Elixir the strength of Natural Fire is most abundantly multiplied by the spiritus infused into the Quintessence, and the naughty accidents of bodies which beset their Purity and the true Light of Nature with darkness, are taken away by long and manifold sublimations and digestions; therefore Fiery Nature freed from its fetters, and fortified with the aid of Heavenly strength, works most powerfully being included in this our Fifth Element: Let it not therefore be a wonder if it obtains strength not only to perfect imperfect natures, but also to multiply its force and power. Now the fountain of multiplication of His beams begets all things in this our Orbe, and multiplies generated natures by infusing a multiplicative virtue into the seeds of things.”

    And that is about as explicit as we want to get about this very powerful aspect of practical Laboratory WORK. Let him who hath the Lynx’s eyes see clearly in this mirror.

  3. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    September 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    “We are what we do, and we are constantly remade in the image of our ‘maker’ – which, though initially ‘God’, is now whatever fleeting yet defining desire is able to re-order our sensorium and physical material (making it conform to our state of being).”

    I don’t think I have ever seen a more clear description of both our problem and our solution!

    And as a mirror it is very uncomfortable indeed. Yet the hope is all there: to whom do we turn, with whom do we ally ourselves. Let us not refuse the light!

    Many thanks for these and all your other answers.

  4. September 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    You are most welcome. One can profitably recall here that wonderful story by Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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