(La. aqua/mare, He. mayim, Ar. mayia)

Of the term ‘water’ it is very difficult to speak; the term covers such a variety of concepts. Water is often spoken of as the source of all life. This usage derives from the Torah and Quran respectively, as in Genesis 1:20:

And God said: Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And again in Genesis 2:8–10 it is used to relate a teaching about the sundering of this one, whole, Universal Life:

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted …

And in Al-Quran, Al–Anbiyaa 3:30:

… the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder … We made from water every living thing.

Water is also spoken of as the ‘substance of desire’, appetence; a flux or flow toward a thing. It is desire that bleeds one of substance, yet it is also the direction of one’s desiring that may save one, as this quote from the Glory of the World makes plain:

Mercury is nothing but water and salt, which have been subjected for a long space of time to natural heat so as to be united into one. This is Mercury, or dry water [desire of the One – jR], which is not moist [ i.e. not indicative of desire for the many objects of sense or the results of the sensory faculties of the Soul –jR], and does not moisten anything [is not possessed of lesser desires which weigh one down, unlike the desire of the One which lightens and enlightens or elevates –jR]; of course, I do not speak of crude common mercury, but of the Mercury of the Sages. The Sages call it the fifth element [quintessence –jR]. It is the vital principle [essence, spirit jR] which brings all plants to maturity and perfection. The other quintessence, which is in the earth [vitality jR], and partly material, contains within itself its own seed which grows out of its soil. The heavenly quintessence comes to the aid of the earthly, removes the grossness of its earth, and brings the aforesaid seed to maturity [here is a discussion of the transmutations of vitality, energy, and spirit as well as a mention of the need to distill essence from sense – jR]. For Mercury, and the Celestial Quintessence, drain off all harmful moisture from the quintessence of the earth [desire of the One, free of all lesser desires and consolations, purifies the lower soul of the desires it has in common with the body and its senses – jR]. This Mercury is also called sulphur of the air, sulphur being a hardening [or fixing – jR] of mercury; or we may describe them as husband and wife, from whom issue many children [spiritual qualities – jR] in the earth [form – jR]. You must not think that I desire to hide from you my true meaning: nay, I will further endeavour to illustrate it in the following way. Common sulphur, as you know, coagulates common mercury; for sulphur is poisonous, and mercury deadly [the false sulphurs, or forms of the mundane self–willed life, prematurely fix the mercury of the lower soul and this is a terrible fate – jR]. How then can you obtain from either of them anything suitable for perfecting the other, seeing that both require to be assisted by some external agent? On the other hand, I tell you that if, after the conjunction of our fixed sulphur with our sublimed mercury, you sprinkle a mere particle of it upon crude mercury, the latter is at once brought to perfection. Again, you may clearly perceive that the quintessence of the earth has its operation in the winter when the earth is closed up with frost; while the Quintessence of the Stars operates in the summer time when it removes all that is injurious in the inferior quintessence, and thus quickens everything into vigorous growth. The two ‘quintessences’ may also be driven off into water, and there conserved.

The last sentence of this quote will no doubt give pause to all but the most alchemically well–versed. The two quintessences, which are indicative of fixed sulphur and sublimated mercury, the fixed and the volatile (and thus are a reference to the third–to–last sentence), if left unprotected and exposed to the elements would gradually dissipate, however, these subtle and delicate quintessences may be conserved in ‘water’ indefinitely. This is a very dark saying and requires one to understand several technical terms and concepts from our parent tradition. The first is the difference between ‘appetite’ and ‘desire’. Technically speaking, ‘appetite’ has to do with the sensory part of the soul, and ‘desire’ with the spiritual. Next we are required to understand that there are two types of imagination: the ‘false’ and the ‘true’. The ‘false’ is often termed ‘phantasy’, while the ‘true’ is ‘Imagination’ properly–so–called. There are also ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ knowledges. The ‘lower’ is variously referred to as ‘conscious knowledge’, ‘sensory knowledge’, ‘lower reason’, ‘thinking mind’, ‘information’etc. The ‘higher’ is variously referred to as ‘real knowledge’, ‘spiritual knowledge’, ‘higher reason’, ‘original mind’, and ‘knowledge’ (properly–so–called), etc. There are also ‘passive’ and ‘active’ imagination in several different types. For instance there are times when the sensory imagination (phantasy) is active and the spiritual Imagination is passive; also there are times when the spiritual Imagination is active and the sensory imagination is passive. We must also understand that there is both turbid and limpid ‘water’. ‘Information’, ‘appetite’ and ‘phantasy’ make the ‘water’ (here referring to the so–called ‘ether’, ‘brazen wall’, ‘red sea’, etc.) turbid, for they are strictly involved with the ‘lower mind’, ‘appetite’, and ‘phantasy’. ‘Knowledge’, ‘Desire’, and ‘Imagination’, however, leave the ‘water’ limpid (its original state), for they are strictly involved with the ‘higher Intelligence’, ‘Desire’, and ‘Imagination’ which strip meaning and essence from form. Or, perhaps more correctly, the appearance and presence of the One in the spiritual mirror of the higher part of the soul is not veiled by the dust of form(s) or images of the many.

One of our parent traditions (Tasawwuf) has a technical term ‘pool’ which indicates a locus within which divine meaning and essence may assume form through the office of the Imagination. In the first plate of the Book of Lambsprink this ‘Pool’ is referred to as a ‘Sea’ while ‘form’ is referred to as ‘Body’:

Be warned and understand truly that two fishes are swimming in our sea.
The Sea is the Body
The two Fishes are Soul and Spirit.
The Sages will tell you
That two fishes are in our sea
Without any flesh or bones.
Let them be cooked in their own water;
Then they also will become a vast [deep, limpid –jR] sea,
The vastness of which no man can describe.
Moreover, the Sages say
That the two fishes are only one, not two;
They are two, and nevertheless they are one,
Body, Spirit, and Soul.
Now, I tell you most truly,
Cook these three together,
That there may be a very large sea.

Ibn Al–Arabi, has mentioned this same thing in verse:

‘Pool’ refers to that waystation
where water is described as turbid,
and this is lower knowledge
specific to mortal man.
In its own essence
the water is limpid, not turbid,
and the deep water makes apparent
the turbidity within the shallow.
The cause of its motion
is reflection, which stirs it up.
So seek higher knowledge:
that which is beyond reflection!
When imagination comes
to someone through reflection
it binds knowledge to the world
of corporeal bodies and forms
Sometimes reflection delivers
knowledge from its forms
but nothing protects it [knowledge –jR] from harm.
So seek the Beloved through rememberance
not reflection, and enjoy the Beloved
completely pure from stain …
For She is the ease of whomsoever
burns for her
transferring her Lover from the
level of mortal man
lest her light
be tainted by the turbidity
of the pool.

The Treatise of the Pool (Al–Mawala Al Hawdiyya) by the Jewish Sufi Obadyah Maimonides deals extensively with this concept. Essentially, the Soul (moon, mercury) is a mirror that can reflect the clear light from the Spirit (sun, sulphur), or the obfuscating darkness of the world of sensory forms [usually a mix of both, the lower veiling the higher]. ‘Certainty’ is a technical term for the state in which we are not blinded by the multiplicity of the world of forms from knowing the essence and meaning these forms both reveal and conceal.

Getting back to our quote, the phrase “driven off into water, and there conserved” refers to ‘protecting’ the essence of knowledge by abstracting it from the forms which it assumes in the world. But this cannot completely protect essence from being veiled by sense. Love of the Beloved, on the other hand, which is a fire fanned by ‘rememberance’, brings one’s whole being and essential knowledge into the higher (deep) waters of the Spiritual part of the embodied Soul and away from the turbid (shallow) waters of the sensory part of the embodied Soul so that one can enjoy the Beloved free from all stain.

This all has to do with the fixing of the volatile and the volatizing of the fixed, which is discussed in both eastern and western alchemy as making fire descend and water rise. Water is heavy, and normally flows down. Fire is light and normally goes up. If we can turn this around and make water go up and fire come down we can cause fire and water to cohabitate/mate and obtain the benefit of both.

In The Inner Teachings of Taoism, by Thomas Cleary, the Taoist Adept Liu I Ming comments on a verse by the Alchemical Adept Chang Po Tuan in the following highly suggestive terms:

Our real knowledge is yang within yin; this is the ‘husband’. Our conscious knowledge is yin within yang; this is the ‘wife’. After the primal yang in people culminates [and fades – jR], acquired conditioning takes over affairs, and the real gets lost outside, as though it lived in another house and did not belong to oneself. Though one may have conscious knowledge, the wife does not see the husband; yin being without the balance of yang; this consciousness has falsehood in it. If the husband, real knowledge, is recognized and called back home to meet the wife, conscious knowledge, and taken into the privacy of the secret room, the husband loves the wife and the wife loves the husband; husband and wife mate [this is the first three months of Alchemical Winter –jR], sense and essence combine, so the primal energy comes forth from within nothingness and congeals into the spiritual embryo. Then, adding the work of [nine] months of incubation, when the energy is replete and the spirit complete, it emerges from the womb; there is a body outside the body, transcending yin and yang, untrammeled by natural process.

Just before the mention of the conservation of Real Knowledge (in the original quote now far above), there was a discussion of the fact that the quintessence of the earth operates when the alchemical vessel is hermetically sealed against the cold and ambient air of Winter (which season represents the ‘Black Work‘, or Nigredo), for with the vessel thus sealed, vitality, energy and spirit do not leak out through the senses but circulate within – dissolving the corporeal bonds, then sustaining and eventually multiplying the virtue of the seed sown in the black earth. The Quintessence of the Stars [the divine inpouring sometimes referred to as ‘fiery’ or‘dry’ water] operates when the alchemical vessel is hot and/or dry and thus open to the influx of heavenly powers (fire/sun, air/wind and water/rain) in the Spring (which season represents the consolations of the ‘White Work’, or Albedo – Autumn being reserved for the ‘Red Work’, or Rubedo). There is also a mention of alchemical projection near the end of the quote (when it mentions that if “you sprinkle a mere particle of it upon crude mercury, the latter is at once brought to perfection”).

The ‘seasons of the soul’ [or of Art –jR] are discussed in greater detail in the fourth parable of Aurora Consurgens:

You [the Beloved –jR] fecundate the Waters to give life to Souls. For Water is the nourishment of all living things, for when Water comes down from Heaven it plentifully Waters the Earth, and the Earth by it receives that strength which can dissolve every metal, wherefore it beseeches him saying: Send forth your Spirit [or blessing – jR], that is Water, and they [Living Souls – jR] shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the Earth, for He breathes upon the Earth and He makes it tremble, and He Touches the mountains and He makes them smoke. And when He baptizes with blood, and when He nourishes, as it is said: ‘He gave me to drink of the saving Water of Wisdom’, and again: ‘His blood is drink indeed’, for ‘the seat of the Soul is in the blood’, as Senior says, but the Soul itself remained in Water, which is similar in warmth and humidity, and therein consists all life. But when he baptizes in Fire, then he infuses the Soul and gives perfection to life, for Fire gives form and completes the whole, as it is said: ‘He breathed into his face the breath of life, and man, who was aforetime dead, became a Living Soul’. Of the first, second, and third the Philosophers bear witness, saying: ‘For three months Water preserves and nourishes the foetus in the womb [in Winter – jR], Air nourishes it for the second three [in Spring – jR], Fire guards for the third three [in Summer – jR]. The infant will never come to birth [ripen in Autumn – jR] until these months are expired, then it is born and quickened by the Sun, for that is the quickener of all things that are dead.

The seasons (with their rotations of elements and qualities) are also discussed in the Donum Dei:

…the year is divided into four parts, and so is our blessed work. The first is Winter – cold and moist, the second is Spring – hot and moist, and flourishing. The third is the summer time – hot and dry, and red. The fourth is the harvest – cold and dry, which is the time of gathering of fruit. This disposition colouring nature governs until such time as it brings forth ripe fruit at its pleasure. But now the Winter is past, the showers be gone away. For the flowers hath appeared in our earth in the time of Spring. But we go about the white rose for they made every imperfect or sick body to be turned into true silver. Therefore when thou seest the whiteness appearing above, in all parts, be sure that in that whiteness is there hidden redness. Therefore then you must draw out all the whiteness [superfluous moisture –jR] and decoct it until such time it be made thoroughly red.

Desire and the effects of desiring are often referred to indirectly, as when describing ‘thirst’ or ‘hunger’, as in Isaiah 29:8:

It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite …

And the state of being desirous of lesser sensory stimulation and gratification is also often referred to as a state of “superfluous moisture which kills the stone [and] which does not suffer the Coralline Rednesse to appear”, as we find in Atalanta Fugiens of Michael Maier:

The Stone of the Philosophers is likened to these, and especially to Corall. For as Corall [or Water-Stone of the Wise – jR] grows in the Waters and draws Nutriment from the Earth, so also the Philosophick Stone is concreted out of Mercuriall water and has taken thence whatever is worthy in it towards its own Augmentation, the Superfluous Moisture having expired.

Sometimes the effect of excess desire is spoken of as a desert, desolation or waste which cannot support life, ‘desolation’ being a fitting description for the state of the soul of one who has leaked all vital substance away through an externally directed sensorium; in such a soul the Tree of Life never comes to fruition for the soul then becomes barren, whereas once it was a garden. By draining off the superfluous moisture and sealing the alchemical vessel we turn the direction of the current around, we thus water the desert and make of the waste a garden once again. This is made perfectly clear in Revelations 22:1–2:

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bare all manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

Be that as it may, true to the hermetic trait of polyvalency of terms and concepts, and in light of the focus on prescribing medicine and measuring dosages, the terms and concepts of ‘desolation’ and ‘emptiness’ were not always seen as negative. Alchemists are fond of pointing out that every medicine is a poison, and every poison is a medicine. This being so, the soul can be overly desirous and take too much satisfaction and consolation from discursive meditations, spiritual locutions, etc. These things, which are fine and a sign of progress for those just beginning the WORK, are nevertheless a great hindrance and a sign of stagnation and decay for those further along. As is mentioned in Isaiah 28:9:

Whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.

San Juan de la Cruz, that ‘Alchemist of the Soul’, has commented upon this:

God also, by means of this dark and dry night of contemplation, supernaturally instructs in his divine wisdom the soul that is empty and unhindered (which is the requirement for His divine inpouring), which he did not do through the former satisfactions and pleasures. Isaiah explains this clearly … This passage (that one from Isaiah, quoted above) indicates that the preparation for this divine inpouring is not the former milk of spiritual sweetness or aid from the breast of the discursive meditations of the sensory faculties that the soul enjoyed, but the privation of the one [milk – jR] and a withdrawal from the other [breast – jR]. In order to hear God, people should stand firm and be detached from their sense life and affections, as the prophet himself declares: I will stand on my watch (with detached appetite) and will fix my foot (I will not meditate with the sensory faculties) in order to contemplate what God says to me.

Now, the term and concept ‘water ’ is also indicative of state. Water having multiple states just like creation itself: a solid state (ice), a semi-solid state (snow),a gaseous state (steam), and a liquid state (water). Abdul Qadir Gilani speaks to this and ties it in with concepts we have discussed elsewhere regarding the ‘equality of darkness and light in all things’:

The sum total of light, darkness, the elements water, air, and fire, and nature itself—is HE…
Just as HE is the Essence of everything, it is also HE who keeps each in a state distinct from all others…
Creation is like the snow. In other words, all creatures are representatives in the bodies in which they appear. But they are like snow which has no independent existence of its own. For the existence of snow is dependent upon the existence of water. And YOU [‘GOD’] are the water that gives rise to the snow, that is embodied as snow.
But when snow melts, its rule is over… Cleansing, which is the rule and fame of water, is realized when the rule of water has manifested itself [through the melting of the snow]…
Do not be veiled from [the incomparable beauty and beatitude of the Divine Essence] because of form or some other reason. That is, nothing should veil you from reality. For behind every veil of sight shines the light [of Unified Reality].

[see the glossary entry for form to learn more about the relationship between form and essence]

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