(Gr. pneuma/nous, Ar. ruh, Heb. ruach/neshama)

Lay persons use the term ‘spirit’ with the greatest imprecision (with the possible exception of their use of ‘soul’ which also is greatly abused). Alchemical Adepts, however, use the term in several technically correct ways and readers must be able to determine precisely which usage is being employed at any given moment.

The terms Spirit and Soul are sometimes used interchangeably. Where this does not stem from complete ignorance of the technical distinctions involved, it is usually based upon the fact that the Soul is the proximate locus and sheath of the Transcendental Spirit, while the ‘vital spirit’ is the sheath of the Soul.

Let us take these two aspects of the term ‘spirit’ in reverse order.

The term ‘vital spirit’ refers to the latin spiritus —or ‘spirit’ with a lower case ‘s’. This is that spirit which is said to be the sheath of the Soul, binding it to the Body (specifically) and the material world (generally). The word for ‘spirit’, in a number of the language streams from which the alchemical tradition draws its technical lexicon, is closely related to the word for ‘breath’: pneuma (Gr), for instance, is a good example of this.

In the Definitions of Hermes it is said:

Breath is the column (or sheath) of the Soul.

This breath, vital spirit (or spiritus) is related to the so-called ‘animal’ or ‘lower’ soul. The Soul, through its ties to the external sensorium and its sense —engendered through its ties with the body— of being a discrete self, can become so entangled with its Body (the vital spirit as sheath of the Soul] that she is said to actually ‘become a Body’ herself. In alchemy this is referred to as premature ‘fixation’ and is considered to be a horrible fate (though, sadly, an overwhelmingly common one). This is mentioned in the Aphorisms of Urbigerus, where the Souls of the vulgar —under the beguiling enchantments of sense— are referred to as ‘corporeal’ and ‘dead’:

Such a Metallic vapour [spiritus -jR], congealed and nourished in the Bowels of the Earth is called ‘undetermined’ [unfixed -jR], and when it enchants the Serpent [animal soul] with the Beauty of its termined and additional Fire, it becomes known as the determined [fixed -jR] Green-Dragon of the Philosopher, and without true knowledge and right Manipulation of this nothing can be done in our Art.
This Green-Dragon [purified vital spirit -jR] is [or shares the same root as] the natural Gold of the Philosophers, [yet it is] exceedingly different from [that of] the vulgar, which is corporeal and dead, being come to the period of its perfection according to [lower -jR] nature [indicating that it has become prematurely fixed -jR], and therefore incapable of generating [spiritual fruit -jR], unless it be first generated itself by our Mercurial Water [radical humidity -jR], but ours is spiritual, and living, having the generative Faculty in itself, and in its own Nature, and having received the Masculine Quality [Spirit/Nous -jR] from the Creator of all things.

The substance of this vital spirit, when abused by the Soul for sensory gratification —the pursuit of external objects and aims— flows outward and is lost. This loss of vitality, energy and spirit is called ‘leakage’ and is considered a great waste (the condition of the soul leaking vitality, energy and spirit in this way is sometimes described as ‘leprosy’). The Soul that continues to waste her substance like this will become more and more tied to the bodily sensorium and the images derived therefrom. The Soul —through what amounts to starvation— will become corrupt [lose its original Form] and corporified [prematurely fixed] and, with the death of the body it too will eventually wither and die. Basil Valentine in the Introductory Tract to his Twelve Keys, speaks of the Soul which has a leprous body, calling it ‘Venus’ [copper] whose spirit is red [sulphurous and therefore Form-conferring], but whose subtle body is leprous and therefore cannot stand the test of fire and cannot serve as a proper fixative or support for higher spiritual states and stations.

Amatory Venus [the desiring soul -jR] is clothed with abundant colour, and her whole body is one pure tincture, not unlike the red colour which is found in the most precious of metals. But though her Spirit is of good quality, her [subtle -jR] body is leprous and affords no permanent substratum to the [prematurely -jR] fixed tincture [Spirit and Soul -jR]. Hence the Soul has to share the fate of the imperfect body, and when the body dies, the soul has to leave it, for its dwelling has been destroyed by fire, and it is without a house wherein to abide.

Jacob Boehme speaks of the same phenomenon in these words:

…all the planets and the stars run after the Heart [Rational Soul -jR], every one of them takes strength and virtue [Form -jR] from the heart, and makes for itself its own body … but look to your work and have a care of Venus, that she may not by tattling* bring her feminine nature into it: for she appears bright and fair, but is nevertheless feminine, and engenders a dark body, and quickly devours Sol [Spirit and Soul -jR]…

*note – ‘tattle’, from the Middle English tatelen: ‘to stammer’, is derived from an archaic Middle Dutch root, meaning: ‘of imitative origin’.

The vital spirit with its subtle body is referred to under a bewildering variety of terms: evestrum, astral body, brazen wall, brass, red sea, blood, the first adam, red earth, terra damnata, the body of alchemy, mummy, green lion, poisonous toad, venomous dragon, etc. The Ripley Scroll discusses the vital spirit in such terms, warning against letting the dragon [vitality] escape [leak].

On the ground there is a hill
Also a serpent within a well
His tail is long with wings wide
All ready to flee by every side
Repair the well fast about
That thy serpent pass not out
For if that he be there a-gone
Thou lose the virtue of the stone
Where is the ground you must know here
And the well that is so clear
And what is the dragon with the tail
Or else the work shall little avail

Where the colour red is used, it is sometimes indicative of the state of the passions in the blood. It can also indicate the form-conferring agency of the masculine principle [sulphur]. The colour green, on the other hand, is often used to refer to immaturity or the premature fixation of the soul and spirit with the body. It can also be used to indicate the point after cleansing the vital spirit when the red of the passion has been sublimated and there is some hope for success in the work due to renewal and circulation of vitality and less attachment to either sensory objects or the sense of a discrete ‘self’. This usage is indicative of a Spring-like burgeoning and quickening in the Soul.

The cleansing of the vital spirit is a major part of the black or gross work in alchemy which is also called the ‘work of vital purification’. Only after this cleansing has been accomplished and a certain modicum of ‘substance’ has been accumulated, can the ‘solution’ be attempted safely and with any likelihood of success. Again, the Ripley Scroll speaks of this quite clearly:

The earth on fire shall be put
And water with air shall be knit
Thus ye shall go to purification
And bring the serpent to redemption
First he shall be black as a crow
And down in his den shall lie full low
Swelling as a toad that lieth on the ground
Burst with bladders sitting so round
They shall to burst and lie full plain
And thus with craft the serpent is slain
He shall shine colours here many-a-one
And [eventually] turn as white [pure -jR] as whale’s bone
With the water that he was in
Wash him clear from his sin

The Transcendental Spirit, on the other hand, is related to the Rational Soul. In fact, it is the presence of this Spirit in the Soul that makes the Soul Rational. This is spoken of by Hermes Trismegistus in his Definitions:

The Living (beings) in heaven are constituted of fire and air, and those (which are) on earth [are constituted] of the four elements. Man (is) a rational living (being/soul), for he has Nous.

This Spirit, then, is the Divine portion of the Human continuum, for this Spirit is the individual Nous which puts the individual Soul in contact with the Universal Soul and Spirit.

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