The Epistle of John Pontanus

by John Pontanus, translated (into more-or-less contemporary English) by an anonymous friend of the art.


[Note – I had long desired to present the ‘sudden’ version of the alchemical teaching on this site but despaired of recalling to mind a text with sufficient authority to use which did not require wearying circumlocution to make the teaching clear. I had nearly given up when lo and behold out of the blue a certain patron and practitioner of the art sends a very nice copy of Flamel’s Heiroglyphics, with ‘The Secret Book of Artephius’ and John Pontanus’ epistle on the same. For which: Thank you!]


I, John Pontanus, traveled into diverse realms and domains on my quest to know with certainty the Philosophers’ Stone. Thus journeying through all parts of the world, I have found only false Philosophers and deceivers. Ever studying the books of the wise, my doubt mounting, I [at length] discovered the truth: yet, notwithstanding [the fact that] I had knowledge of the matter in general, I [nevertheless] erred two hundred times before I found out the operation, practice and true material. I commenced my operations first via putrefaction of the body of the matter, which I continued over a period of nine months, but it came to naught. I placed it in the balneum–marie for lengthy periods, erring just the same. I took and placed it in a calcinating fire for three months, proceeding awry yet again. All manner and variety of distillations and sublimations mentioned—or apparently mentioned—by the Philosophers (Geber, Archelaus, and all the others) I have attempted, tried and have similarly found wanting. In brief, I tried to arrive at and perfect in every way conceivable the subject of all the art of alchemy, be this by manure, baths, ashes, or the thousands of other sorts of fire [or sources of warmth] mentioned by the Philosophers in their works, but nothing did I discover of any worth.

Comments: Here the author makes a bold and clever claim using the dependent clause ‘or apparently mentioned by the Philosophers‘ to indicate that he is not writing against the likes of Geber, but against common misunderstandings of the writings of the philosophers and also making the point that the philosophers mentioned almost always write regarding the ‘gradual’ method rather than the ‘sudden’ method. The so-called ‘gradual’ method is considered to be for those with considerable capacity and great leisure, for those who can devote themselves to the single-minded pursuit of the hermetic disciplina arcani which requires the ‘laying on of hands’ (and so is sometimes described as ‘manual’ or ‘co-operative’ work’). The ‘sudden’ method, on the other hand, is considered appropriate for those with lesser capacities and even less leisure, and does not require ‘laying on of hands’ (and so is sometimes described as ‘solo’ work).

It was for this reason that I set myself to the study of the books of the philosophers; for three years continually studying, among others, those of Hermes, whose brief words contain the whole mastery of the stone; though he speaks quite obscurely of things above and below, of heaven and earth. All one’s application and care must be only to know the correct practice in the first, second and third works. It is not at all the fire of the manure, bath or ash, nor any of the other fires of which the philosophers sing or describe for us in their books. What then is this fire which perfects and achieves the entire work from beginning to end? Certainly all the philosophers have hidden it; but as for myself, having been touched by a moment of pity, I would declare it and the accomplishment of the whole work.

Comments: So, we are to understand that after much study he discovered that the fire with which he alone could accomplish the work was not that of the ‘gradual’ method. In that method one is gradually purified of the gross impediments and then one is placed into a strong fire and the remaining work is accomplished suddenly as a result, whereas in the ‘sudden’ method, one suddenly experiences the gentle fire and the gross impediments are gradually burned away as a result. Both works rely on the same fire “which perfects and achieves the entire work from beginning to end”, it is only the ‘operation’ or ‘practice‘ that differs. These last two technical terms are very worth meditating upon.

The philosophers’ stone is one and unique, but hidden and veiled by a multiplicity of diverse names, and before knowing it you will have endured great struggle. By your own genius you will come to know it only with difficulty. It is watery, airy, fiery and earthy, phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. It is sulphur and equally quick-silver. It has several superfluities which, I assure you by the living God transform themselves into a sole and unique essence if there be only our fire. And whoever—believing such to be necessary—would subtract some thing from the subject, knows of a certainty nothing of philosophy. For the superfluous, unclean, foul, scurvy, miry and, in general, entire substance of the subject, is perfected into one fixed and spiritual body by means of our fire which has never been revealed by the wise, thus making it so that but few succeed in this art, imagining that some foul and unworthy thing must be separated out.

Comments: The philosopher’s stone, we are told, is only known after “great struggle”. This is a veiled reference to the Persian text entitled The Alchemy of Happiness by famed Muslim jurist and philosopher Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali, which text is the author’s own redaction of his more encompassing and challenging Arabic text entitled ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’ (Ihya’ Ulum al-Din) in which he speaks of the ‘great(er) struggle’ (al-jihad al-akbar) as a struggle against the self (or soul – nafs). After this, Pontanus describes all the superfluities (passing states of the soul while under the impression of various desires and their objects) before all is “by the living God” transformed into one “sole and unique essence”. And here, our author gets clever and disingenuous again, saying rightly that nothing is added or subtracted from the subject, but making it seem that the other philosophers err on this point. The other philosophers (Hermes and Artephius included) mention the need for separation and sublimation while Pontanus asserts that the reason “few succeed in this art” is that they imagine that “some foul and unworthy thing must be separated out”. There is only apparent contradiction here as our author well knows, but again he wants to make a distinction between true understanding of the works of the philosophers and the many and various misunderstandings, as also to point out the difference between the ‘gradual’ and ‘sudden’ methods. As mentioned previously, in the ‘gradual’ method, which is a method of intellect and discipline, an adept operator uses the laying-on-of-hands to remove the mote from another’s eye. This method of purification gradually removes the inania regna or mentis gaudia from the subject, and what is realized during this interior process must then find reflection in one’s thoughts, words and deeds which entails ‘great struggle’ against one’s conditioning. In the ‘sudden’ method, which is a method of affect and devotion (but not sentimentalism which is the death of true religion), a lay person relies on the commemoration (recollection or remembrance) of the Sole and Unique Essence of the one thing needful (una sola res) to accomplish the work of transformation such that ‘great struggle’ against the self is not required, just grateful and willing (but never willful) submission of that self to the fire. This entails realization and acceptance of the limitations of the self-nature and the hamartia and hubris involved in the exercise of self-will. In both cases, all superfluities are acknowledged to be adventitious stains and not inherent characteristics and so since they are not of the essence there is no need (or possibility) of separating them from it; be that as it may, in the former (‘gradual’) method, the fruit of the work is contingent upon successful purification of the accidents, scoria or superfluities, while in the latter (‘sudden’) method the fruit of the work is contingent upon the presence, acceptance and transcendence of the scoria.

It behooves us to now make apparent and enumerate the properties of our fire. If it agree with our matter in the way of which I have spoken, that is to say, if it be transmuted with the matter, then this fire burns the material not at all, nor separates anything from it, nor divides nor separates the pure and impure, as is told by all the philosophers, but converts the whole subject into purity. It does not sublime as Geber or Arnoldus, and all others who have spoken of sublimation and distillation, sublime. And it makes and perfects itself in little time. This fire is mineral, moderate [or even] and continual, and does not fume unless over-aroused; it has certain of the characteristics of sulphur, but is taken and originates elsewhere than in material forms. It ruptures, dissolves, and congeals all things; it similarly congeals and calcines; and is difficult to find by industry or artifice. This fire is the epitome and abridgement of the Work in its entirety, taking nothing else, or very little, and this same fire introduces itself and is of moderate heat; for with this little fire is the whole Work perfected, and all due and necessary sublimation achieved.

Comments: To ask if ‘our fire’ is ‘agreeable’ to/with ‘our matter’ is another way of asking whether the subject has been properly disposed to the fire. If such is the case, then the fire and the subject matter will become ever more united (“transmuted with the matter”), and it will not burn (that is, it will be a gentle heat: “My burden is gentle and my yoke is light”) which will not stir up any resistance (“resist not evil”) but will nevertheless (the moment faith/submission is true and complete) instantly and permanently transform the individual though the scoria are dissolved gradually. This method does not proceed by fits and starts, nor does it require the accumulation of perfection in qualities and attributes, rather these are bestowed from the Source, by grace and not by industry, the moment we have seen and acknowledged the limitations of the self, forsaking it and its ways and giving up that self to the desire of the ‘one thing needful’ (una sola res) spoken of by the wise. When one has re-collected or re-membered the one thing such that one has forgotten the self, the superfluities cannot defile the self for there is no longer a self to which they may attach, or which may become (or remain) attached to them.

Those who read Geber and all other philosophers shall never come to an understanding of it though they live one hundred thousand years; for this fire cannot be discovered except by the sole and profound meditation of the mind, following which one will understand the books, and not otherwise. Error in this Art, consists only in the acquisition or otherwise of this fire which converts the whole material into the stone of the wise. Study, then, this fire, for had I myself found it at the first I should not have erred two hundred times regarding the true matter; because of which [experience] I am no longer surprised that so few arrive at the accomplishment of the work. They err, have erred and ever will err, due to [ignorance of the fact] that the Philosophers have placed their true agent in but one single thing, which Artephius alone named, but speaking only for himself. Had I not read Artephius, and had not penetrated and understood [what I had read], I would never have arrived at the accomplishment of the Work.

Comments: This is another reference to al-Ghazzali’s Alchemy of Happiness wherein it is related that “meditation is for three things: a spiritual insight, a state, and a task. The task follows upon the state, the state follows upon the spiritual insight, and the spiritual insight follows upon meditation.” and also: “Know that a human being is created in darkness and in ignorance. He is need of a light … the light of spiritual insight, and this light of spiritual insight appears during meditation.” He also writes: “…meditation, consideration and contemplation have been commanded [by God]. All of these are meditation.” It is also worthwhile in this context to remember what San Juan de la Cruz taught: ““Seek in reading/ And you will find in meditation/ Knock in prayer/ And it will be opened to you in contemplation.” Pontanus tells us in a very straightforward manner that (as regards the ‘sudden’ method) the fruit of lab-oratory work allows one to understand the books, and not necessarily the other way around. So this fire is the key of the work; the one thing needful. So necessary is the certain knowledge of this fire that it is the very thing that distinguishes those who succeed from those who err. It is worthwhile to meditate on the terms lab and oratory.

Here, then, is the practice: take the matter and, with all due diligence, grind and pulverize it with a philosophic contrition next placing it upon the fire within the furnace. The degree and proportion of the fire must also be known, to wit: the external fire should only arouse [or dispose] the matter; and in but little time this fire, without putting a hand to it in any manner, will assuredly realize the work in its entirety, for it will purify, corrupt, engender and bring to perfection the whole working, making to appear the three principal colors—the black, white and red. And, by our fire, the medicine will multiply, not only in quantity but also in virtue, if joined with the matter in its first estate.

Comments: Here our author informs us to take the subject matter and grind it down into powder with a philosophic contrition. The qualifier, ‘philosophic’, is used to indicate that this is not a discussion of the popular notion of a ‘guilty conscience’ per se, but a more technical and philosophic understanding of contrition which Wilmshurst, after Atwood, described as “the metaphysical rubbing against or together of two unreconciled elements; e.g. the mind’s consciousness of transgression and ‘sin’ self-revealed in the presence of the divine light made manifest within oneself, would set up such a metaphysical ‘contrition’ of the two as would result in the moral state known as penitence and the physical concomitant of tears.” In the Alchemy of Happiness it is written that “if accompanied by Divine Grace, the one who submits to the Will of God will be receptive of positive dispositions … and able to avoid negative dispositions but only on the condition that others benefit from the positive dispositions one has attained. This, then, makes it obligatory on the one who has submitted to the Will of God to come to know and act upon the commands that underlie the relationship of self to others (adab).” Pontanus then tells us that the fire (or light) accomplishes the whole work without the laying-on-of-hands. The first estate of the matter (that is, before it is ever manifest) is simple (sole and unique, whole and undivided) and white (pure) to begin with. When we find the manifest subject matter, it appears complex (mixed and divided) and black (covered with a matrix of adventitious stains). Through submission the light manifests and we see the darkness (of the stains) for what it is, superfluity. In the sudden work, even with the stains remaining we are made aware of the whiteness of the sole and unique essence. But virtue consists in acknowledging this original unity even when it is manifest in multiplicity, letting neither unity nor multiplicity veil one another. So, as the whiteness emerges from within, and the stains gradually dissolve, we not only become white, but as we live from that new self (which has given up the old), we exhibit more and more the red (indicative of integration of above and below, unity and multiplicity, shared virtue become virtue shared.

Search out, therefore, this fire with all the strength of your mind and you shall attain the goal you have set for yourself; for it is this that brings to completion all stages of the work, and is the key of all [the works of the] philosophers, which they have never revealed in their books. If you consider well and deeply what has been discovered above you will know it and not otherwise. Thus, moved by a spirit of pity, I have written this; but, and that I satisfy myself, as I made mention above, the fire is in no wise transmuted with the matter. I wished to speak this and to warn well the prudent concerning these things, that they spend not in vain their money, but know in advance what it is that they seek and, by this means, arrive at the truth of the Art; not otherwise.

Comments: The first sentence is a reference to Matthew 22:37 (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”), for it is this sole and unique thing that brings everything to completion. Contrary to Pontanus’ disingenuous assertion, the alchemystical philosophers do often mention this ‘key’ in their books (as for instance in the extraordinarily clear Sophic Hydrolith), but few profit from the mention. When our author states that he wishes to make it clear that “the fire is in no wise transmuted with the matter” he is merely repeating what he mentioned earlier regarding nothing being added or subtracted from the subject matter. The fire is the source, the original form and substance of all things. It is also that which dissolves all things, that into which all things are resolved and that from which the subject re-emerges purified and re-formed. Despite all this, the fire is in no way altered at any phase of the process.

If it has not yet become clear, the ‘sudden’ method follows the statement in Matthew 6:22, to wit: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” whereas the ‘gradual’ method follows the statement in Hebrews 12:4-7. Wilmshurst, after Atwood, affirms regarding the ‘sudden’ method that “no segregation in an isolated community was essential, no erudition in the philosophy of the sages and mystical wisdom of the Mystery-cults, no forced spiritual growths artificially induced by the arcane science of adept[s] … Life, lived where one stands, was henceforth to serve as one’s preparation for the knowledge of divine things and as one’s purgative discipline for advancement therein … placed at the disposal of all according to their respective capacity and recipiency”. It is to the latter clause we would direct your attention: there is value in meditating upon the technical terms ‘capacity‘ and ‘recipiency‘.

God keep thee.

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    May 31, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Dear James,

    Thank you for this excellent post! It seems strange however that it is those of considerable capacity and great leisure who benefit most from the “gradual method” which, moreover, requires the “laying on of hands,” while those of lesser capacities and less leisure benefit from the “sudden method” which does not need the laying on of hands.
    I am aware as I ask this that the modern bias and tendency is to judge that “the faster is the better” and that this may not in fact be true here, but — if it is appropriate to ask — why is it the case that the sudden method is most appropriate for those of lesser capacity and little leisure (which is to say, most of us)?


  2. James Raedan
    June 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    This is a very good question. Thank you for asking.

    To answer well would require more time and space than this format permits. Be that as it may, it is incumbent upon us to give some answer.

    The gradual method requires much learning (knowledge of classical Greek technical philosophic-religious terms) to acquire the necessary theory from the ancient textual remains—primarily from the theurgic writings of Hellenistic adepts like Iamblichus; or knowledge of Latin, Arabic and chemistry to acquire the same knowledge from the more recent hermetic/alchemic texts of Europe and Arabia; access to, or procurement of, a library containing such rare texts; sufficient leisure to devote oneself to the hermetic artifice; secluded land, safe from prying eyes, set aside for the performance of the theurgic rites; an adept agent with experience of the Rubedo who is in possession of the ‘powder of projection’, ‘tingeing stone’ or ‘elixir’; powers of will capable of intromitting subject(s) such that their senses close to the outer and open to the inward world. Said adept must also possess subtle perception suitable for looking into the subject to see any and all impediments and must likewise have the wisdom to guide subjects in the removal of said impedimenta and to assist them to know and live in the external world in a manner conforming to what has been opened to them in the inward. The subject(s) must possess sufficient will power and moral capacity to follow the leading of the guide and to live that life to which they are led to become aware. While those subjects who might become agents themselves will also need to acquire the knowledge, power, capacity, wisdom and sanctity which alone make one capable of performing that function. Truly a tall order.

    For the sudden path, which has been called “child’s play” (ludus puerorum) and “woman’s work (opus mulierum) the requirements—and they are not a thing to be slighted for they have also been called the most difficult things in the world—are complete faith, sincerity, earnestness and submission; an ever-growing awareness of the limitations of the self-nature and self-will and our complete dependence upon (and gratitude for) grace (the functional aspect of perfect wisdom and absolute compassion) from that which is greater than that limited self, encompasses and penetrates it, and is never absent from it (in terms of space, time and virtue).

    It is not ‘truly’ a matter of greater or lesser capacity, per se—remember, when speaking of the hermetic artifice we are talking about a work which was primarily the preserve of men of two classes: the clergy and the nobility. On the other hand, women, children and the poor as well as those lacking discipline and learning and those with great passion and little leisure also needed a way of transformation suitable to their capacities and mode of living.

    The so-called ‘solo’ method which involves sudden illumination followed by gradual clarification and the so-called ‘co-operative’ method which involves gradual clarification followed by sudden illumination are not two completely separate operations requiring completely different capacities, so much as one operation ultimately requiring the development of the same capacities and leading to the same result, but differing as regards the order of development and the fullness and timing of completion. The ‘gradual method’ is intended to accomplish the entire work, step by step, in this very life between cradle and grave, whereas the ‘sudden’ method is intended to properly disposes the matter, but does not necessarily complete the clarification before death. Yet, of the two operations, the ‘solo/sudden’ is the more sure. What’s more, in valid traditional lineages, even those engaged in the ‘gradual’ method are advised to simultaneously work with the ‘sudden’, while those engaged in the ‘sudden’ method are advised to eschew the ‘gradual’.

    So, the ‘sudden’ method is the more encompassing: it is suitable for all classes of people; it can be pursued while living a full life in the world or when in seclusion; it is given a more prominent place during times of great social unrest and disorder since it disseminates true religion out of the cloisters (which can be made targets of political, social, and religious pogroms); and it is the fall-back practice even for those of great capacity. There is also the fact that adepts of great capacity have not felt it beneath them to operate wholly through this method. Indeed, some say it is the only method suitable to our place and time and the people who must live and work in the here and now.


    The term ‘sudden’ should not necessarily be understood to mean ‘fast’ just as the term ‘gradual’ should not necessarily be understood to mean ‘slow’.

    Slow and fast are a matter of the state of subject and how open the subject is to amelioration, whereas sudden and gradual are a matter of method. For instance, a subject whose state is that of ‘silver’ may be transformed to ‘gold’ quite rapidly through the gradual method especially in the case of great openness/readiness, whereas a person whose state is that of ‘lead’ may not experience much in the way of transformation of their state via the sudden method for quite some time (beyond that of basic disposition) especially where openness/readiness (basic trust) is lacking.

  3. June 30, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Hello James, I would also like to thank you for adding this important post, it has been somewhat of a revelation to me.


  4. brkkuroi
    October 17, 2013 at 10:22 am

    How do you distinguish and monitor in one’s self between devotion and affect and sentimentalism?

  5. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Do a search on this site for “affect” and have a look at the results. Then follow whatever unexpected lead you might find, think for a little bit, then report back.

  6. brkkuroi
    October 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Okay, I did a search on the site using the word “affect” I found one reference to “unfeigned affection” which was to be directed to the Creator and Lord of All. Then I kept reading and found the phrase “affective soul”. In my understanding, it seems that the difference between devotion and affect on the one hand and sentimentality on the other has to do with one word: attention. “Sentimentality” is attention directed towards the “self” and the self’s objects..Rumi put it this way,”You turn to me not out of Love but to feel your own emotion.” From my readings of the term “Soul”(as the phrase that I found ‘affective soul” includes the word “soul”) the soul can either be turned towards the multiple objects that it sees and experiences outside OR the attention of the Soul can be turned towards its Source. The Soul, potentially and latently.remembers and is drawn to its Source through Desire which is correctly oriented. The key seems to be attention which is based on affection.

  7. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    brkkuroi, I think this is a good reply. That Rumi quote comes from the story of the lover who read sonnets to his mistress instead of embracing her, and your use of it is apropos. (If you find where Idries Shah uses it, you may find the passage surrounding it deserving of another read, too).

    As well as a difference in orientation (as you correctly indicated), sentimentality is also, and only, a surface-level emotion which is unable to alter your being, whereas the right quality of “Desire which is correctly oriented” has the function of reducing the “veils,” “scoria” or “superfluities” that maintain our delusion of a separate self. Sentimentality, again, being shallow is easily mis-directed into fanaticism, wishful-thinking or romanticism.

    James has said that “sentimentality is surface level and does not change the being, just the object of attention. Like a person who converts from one religion to another without any change in state, just the outer trappings change. Or like one who exhibits infatuation when this is compared to one who truly loves another. The infatuated person may think what they are experiencing is love and may display seemingly great devotion to the object of the infatuation, but in a life-or-death situation may be unwilling or unable to lay aside their life, pride or wealth for that object whereas the true lover would do so without a second thought.”

    Emotions of love, awe, admiration, or reverence are not in themselves transforming, and indeed, James has remarked that “Plato warns against engaging in affective states devoid of mind, for by so doing we lose the ‘eye of the soul’.” One can engage in “spiritual” practices that induce all sorts of feelings, but only when there is a preparation of being and a precise alignment within can there be effective transformation. Part of that precision is learning the “taste” of these different qualities of being.

    Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy Heart [Rational Soul], and with all thy Soul [Affective Soul], and with all thy Might [Sensitive Soul].

  8. brkkuroi
    October 24, 2013 at 11:53 am

    I have spent a good deal of time trying to determine the difference between the various souls above and this is what I have come up with: The Rational Soul corresponds to the Nous: the sensitive soul would correspond to the feelings and desires that we share in common with animals, and the affective soul would be the virtues that come from disciplining and directing the feelings and emotions of the sensitive soul so that they can come under the direction of the the Nous. In other words, the affective soul would be a bridge between the the sensitive soul and the nous, and thus would have characteristics in common with both. Is this accurate? I am trying to make your explanation workable for me.

  9. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 26, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    brkkurui, another good question.

    Nous is higher than the Rational Soul, Nous is the Transcendent Spirit (also called the Intellect), the light to which the Heart turns to become ‘en-lightened.’ The Heart is the Rational Soul, that which is capable of turning ‘up’ (‘inward’) or ‘down’ (‘outward’), receiving influence and impression from the Spirit, or conversely from the world of sense and matter. The sensitive soul is also called the vital soul or spiritus (note the lower case) and in its un-refined state is rather aimless and chaotic. It has been described as a cloud, amorphous, without any coherence of its own, attracted and repelled by the things around us. It takes up for a time the shape of whatever physical part is attracting our interest. When we eat something delicious, for example, it becomes a temporary ‘soul’ in the shape of a mouth. This quality is admirably described by the properties of mercury:

    “For, in the beginning, as we know, mercury is quite unstable, moving to and fro without aim or purpose. So this ‘mercury’ is not the ‘Mercury of the Sages’ but the spiritus – the lower, vital or sensitive Soul; the heart attached to the creation.”

    The sensitive soul is also called the vital soul, because of the power inherent in it:

    “Lastly, we are told that the contra-natural fire is that which has the power of binding and unbinding and this is the vital heat of the spiritus used in service of the self or in service of the Spirit.”

    The sensitive soul is related to the loins and vitality; the Rational Soul is related to the middle region and energy; the Intellect is related to the head and Spirit.

    The ‘affective soul’ refers to a particular quality of functioning of the Heart, when fire is operative there.

    Here, too, are some orienting extracts from elsewhere around this site:

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

    “Rational soul” however occurs many times throughout the site, especially in the definitions Soul and Spirit, and in Basil Valentine, from which this quote comes:

    For though a body may be vitalized by a spirit, yet it need not, therefore, be fixed, unless, indeed, it possess a rational soul, that strong bond between body and spirit …

    Our Sufi parent tradition defines ‘The Heart’ as:

    An incorporeal luminous substance located midway between the Spirit and the Self [or Soul, i.e nafs]. It is the means by which Humanity verifies Reality, and sages call it the Rational Soul. Its Inner aspect is the Spirit, while its vehicle and external aspect is the Animal [or vital, lower] Soul, which mediates between Heart and Body.

    So what we have here is a schematic representation of the various layers of our being — and it must be reiterated that such a scheme is expedient, ie only a way of speaking for certain purposes, with no intrinsic reality in and of itself. And one must keep in mind all the various terms which the alchemists use alternatively — and they do this not only to confuse the ‘unworthy’ but to develop in the learner a certain quality of concentration and attention that allows them to maintain all these things in the mind at the same time.
    So at the core of everything is the Transcendent Spirit, at our most interior is the Intellect/Nous/Spirit, next to which is the Heart/Rational Soul, the mediator between the Spirit and the spirit/vital spirit/animal spirit/pneuma/spiritus, which itself is the link to the physical body.
    Again this is only a way of speaking about relationships, such as ‘male’ and ‘female’, ie active and passive.
    But if you keep this schema in mind as you read the various definitions and so on, I think you will find they begin to make a lot more sense.

    And, by the way, it is not just “our” explanation. This description (bearing in mind the caveat about over-reification, and remembering too that many many different terms are used for the same thing, and the same terms for different things) can be found in very similar forms from the east coast of Asia to the west coast of Europe. Shah Waliullah of Dehli, for example, when referring to what we call here the “spiritus” or the “vital spirit,” uses the terms “breathing soul,” “natural soul” or “airy body.” In referring to the Heart, he also uses the term “Rational Soul.” The “Nous” or “Transcendental Spirit” is called by him the “Angelic Spirit”.

  1. March 5, 2014 at 7:52 am

Make a sincere, earnest, concise and cogent inquiry.

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