July 18th, 2010

The Gulf Holocaust: An Alchemical Sublimatio

“For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming into birth.” Arthur O’Shaughnessy

A week after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion I scanned the above emblem of the swimming King, added the black blotches of ‘oil’ and printed the picture on paper to prop on my desk and contemplate. The illustration is from the legendary Atalanta fugiens series, by the 16th century alchemist Michael Maier, and like most alchemical imagery, the scene seems lifted from a dream or nightmare.  A forlorn king, removed from his throne, floundering and bellowing for help. How does his story end?


A metaphorical link between Maier’s drifting King and the Gulf Coast holocaust — the largest ecological disaster in the United States’ history — seems obvious. But what has Maier depicted? What stage within alchemy’s many elaborate processes is this one? Is there a clue for us to follow in the brew. And how does that formula turn out?

It’s best to start at the beginning.

Aside from being the precursor to the science of chemistry, what is alchemy exactly? Listen to Jungian analyst Nathan Schwartz-Salant‘s description from his book The Mystery of Human Relationship:

“The alchemist’s belief in a unity or Oneness of process is based on the notion of an ‘essence’ which pervades all creation and which connects qualities as opposites. All of alchemical thinking is concerned with opposites, states we know in our psychological being as mind and body, love and hate, good and evil, conscious and unconscious, spirit and matter, left-brain and right-brain function … Somehow, the alchemist had to recognize the opposites inherent in any process and then to unite them. A spiritual sense of Oneness plays a vital role, for a kind of illumination is often necessary to ‘see’ opposites, an act of discovering order in chaos.”

And yet one can not achieve essential realization, the ‘spiritual sense of oneness’, without first suffering alchemy’s marriage of opposites. As Jungian astrologer Liz Greene notes, the materialist stumbles when confronted with alchemy’s strange fusion of physical and psychic, which “does not differentiate between inanimate matter and inner states. Physical gold and psychic gold are the same in alchemical writings, and base matter is likewise both inside and outside the alchemist. We have, on a rational level, split the physical realm from the psychic since the Enlightenment, and have accepted this split as a statement of truth about the nature of reality.”

A.H. Almaas, in his book Essence, goes further than Schwartz-Salant. He asserts that the sought after sense of wholeness or ‘oneness’ can be approached directly, not just through sustained metaphorical perception, but experienced viscerally, palpably — as one’s very being-ness. Being expressed as the personal essence:

“Outsiders think that when alchemists use the term sun, they must be ‘referring to some kind of mental or spiritual process or perception.’ This is both true and untrue. It is true in that they are referring to essential perception. It is not true in that the alchemists actually mean sun — the physical sun in the sky — but a distinct essential reality that the word sun describes better than any other word…The human organism is a miniature universe. This is true in so many way that most people would be completely astounded if they were to see this reality for themselves. The outsider can think of the alchemical language only as symbolic, because this is easier to accept than the actual truth of alchemy…The individual has to be steeped in the direct knowledge of essential development in order to understand alchemical texts and to see that alchemy is literally the science of inner chemistry, or the science of dealing with inner substances.”

This awakened way of ‘seeing’ is at the heart of all spiritual, contemplative and meditative practices. It is a literal approach to the essential that involves all of our centers of perception, the interplay of each organ within the miniature universe that is the human being. A conscious application and blending of the treasure trove of forces, impulses and instincts entwined within the unconscious married to the brilliant light of awareness. And those making the effort — attempting the marriage — can be considered modern day alchemists.

The Painful Prima Materia


The alchemical adventure begins with the prima materia — the shit.

Crude oil is a kind of shit. As science writer Jonathan Golob puts it: “Crude oil is the decay of things that died a long time ago — the end product of millennia of digestion (biological and chemical) in the absence of oxygen. The resultant chemical brew carries the taint of previous life—with all manner of complex organic compounds close enough to their living doppelgängers to wreak havoc on the still mortal.”

Liz Greene describes the alchemical ‘shit’ like this: “Whatever the mess is, the crisis, the issue that forces the individual to begin to question his or her real nature — that is the prima materia.” Work with the prima materia commences the alchemical opus. At the end one hopes for the lapis:  The creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. The wisdom. The essential or enlightened state. The Gold. From shit to gold. It’s quite a journey.


War, terrorism, ecological disasters are literal — albeit accidental or distorted — manifestations of the various alchemical processes as they appear within any sociopolitical system.

And nature subjects us to collective alchemical experiences regularly — earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other indigenous natural phenomena. Regardless our relationship to the processes, be it personal or collective, the same clash and eventual merging of opposites are at play. And from the destruction arises a potential for yet another opportunity to align with the Philosopher’s Stone — contact with essence, that which can sustain us through the flux of life’s dilemmas and disasters.

To marry the opposites involves a mixture between the four primary elements: Fire, water, earth and air. And each of these elements are mirrored individually, in a unique stage within the alchemical process: The calcanatio (burning), solutio (drowning), coagulatio (solidifying) and the most mysterious process of all, related to air, the sublimatio.

The sublimatio is a process of volatilizing and elevating a condition so as to view it through a different facet of understanding. This is generally achieved by rising above the transformed prima materia, and from this new height, coming into contact with the divine — the untainted, the original or Platonic forms — the “yet to be made manifest”. This contact with the archetypal or essential realm has a curative and cleansing effect.

Consider the most cogent, disturbing images of the Gulf tragedy. The pictures of the spreading spill taken by satellites miles above the earth. Those images link us directly into the effects of the sublimatio. The sense of being above the disaster fosters a crystalline objectivity. Too, the birds coated in crude have become mascots — creatures of the air with their ability to fly high above the land and sea — they too are symbols of this particular alchemical process.


The sublimatio is sometimes considered a final, cumulative phase within the opus. The swimming King depicted in Maier’s illustration is the beginning gesture towards the eventual ascension. Meaning, the King must go beyond drifting. He must submerge, marry and die — initiating the sublimatio in the process. End of story?

Well, no. Like Noah’s white dove, following the death phase there arrives a visitation by spirit, a symbol of fresh possibilities or innovative approaches. And this bodes well for a new global attitude towards the planet and our relationship to natural resources. But we’re ahead of our story.

The Astrology of the Alchemy

“What is being revealed is a systemic breakdown
of a collective that has grown so out of touch with reality
that if it were a person it would be diagnosed as mentally ill.” — Jessica Murray

The April 20 explosion that initiated the Gulf cataclysm occurred almost to the day of the exact opposition between Saturn and Uranus. I’d written earlier about the sociological havoc associated with this transit, especially in light of the United States’ ongoing economic meltdown and the acceleration of corporate anarchy, hallmarks of Pluto’s transit through Capricorn (the collapse of the reality matrix) — the ingress of which dovetailed with the start of Saturn and Uranus’ five-series opposition.

Saturn’s conjunction or opposition to any of the transiting ‘transpersonal’ planets  — Uranus, Neptune or Pluto — coincides with a specific alchemical phase becoming active on the geopolitical stage. Psychologically, Saturn represents the ego’s primary defense mechanism, a limiting but organizing principle that holds the instinct-driven id in check. Within a government or state, Saturn is the rule and law of consensus reality and keeps chaos in check. The transpersonal planets are aligned with an evolutionary dynamic — or as A.H. Almaas defines it: an enlightenment drive — that challenges a system (or ego) to evolve beyond Saturn’s familiar perimeters.

Saturn’s 2001 opposition to Pluto — the planet associated with the survival and death drive, a Phoenix-like death/rebirth cycle that mirrors alchemy’s fiery calcanatio — concluded with 9/11 and the sulphurous hole of Ground Zero. With Saturn’s 2005 opposition to Neptune, a watery planet aligned with the dissolving power associated with the alchemical solutio, we lost a city and a culture during hurricane Katrina. And presently, during Saturn’s last set of movements with Uranus, we are entering a pre-stage that initiates the airy sublimatio. The exalted vision, a phenomena associated with the Promethean, light-bearing planet Uranus. A force that challenges the constraints of time (Saturn), while increasing the desire for greater revelation and freedom.

The Appearance of Spirit in the Sublimatio

Death within the alchemical process is a mysterious transition phase, not a conclusion. It corresponds with a returning of the opposites to their essential oneness. A return to Source. In alchemy the King and Queen meld and transform into the hermaphrodite, a creature which symbolizes the completed unification, a unification that can only take place through the mysterious process of death.


In the twenty woodcuts that comprise the Rosarium, one of Western alchemy’s most familiar collection of alchemical images, the various stages of the sublimatio are presented like this: The hermaphrodite, the merged King and Queen, is portrayed dead on a slab, but above the corpse a little winged creature flies upward and out of the panel.

As it vanishes a peculiar dew, or heavenly fluid, begins to form above the dead body. The dew begins to drip moisture onto the motionless corpse and then, in the next panel of the Rosarium, the winged creature is shown returning to the hermaphrodite (above). As Liz Greene notes about this phase: “Something is being activated up above, out of the frame of the picture. The soul has flown upward and is opening up the capacity for symbolisation, or, to put it another way, the capacity for imagination.”

Astrologically, the sublimatio is aligned with Mercury, Jupiter and Uranus — the three planets associated with the ability to imagine a new vision or mode of creative expression within any existing system. Green notes: “All three planets are connected to our capacity to formulate symbolic pictures and concepts. They translate life from concrete experience and emotional identification into meaning, through symbols, insights, and maps.”

The ongoing and final phase of the Saturn opposition to Uranus and Jupiter (the two planets had been conjunct through most of the Gulf disaster) indicates the final phases of the sublimatio becoming active. You could say that our little winged creature has left the picture and we are awaiting a new set of operating instructions: a new set of insights to be applied as the dynamic Grand Cardinal Cross of 2012 begins to activate. Astrologer Jessica Murray has written a comprehensive essay on this potent astrological event and the epochal transits which bookend it. I recommend investing the time and exploring your own set of ‘operating instructions’ that her essay might inspire.

Returning to Maier’s image of the drowning King. I can’t help but correlate the King’s predicament with the United States’ fading hegemony as Daddy or Big Mama (we are a Cancer nation after all) to the globe. But our King of the World status is eroding — a slow decay running in tandem with Pluto’s current passage through Capricorn; that earthy sign being representative of whomever or whatever is at the top of the world’s food chain. It’s true that governments across the globe are being impacted by various shakedowns, but for the US, a country that has held fast to aggrandized entitlement, the Pluto in Capricorn transit is particularly pernicious. Too, the transit coincides with the US’s Saturn and Pluto return, both of those planets moving back to their place of origin in the nation’s natal chart. An emphatic wake up call from the cosmos.

In essence, the US is suffering a protracted nervous breakdown. A persistent sense of crisis that commenced with the obliteration of the World Trade Center in 2001. Required reading is Jessica Murray’s detailed expose Soul-Sick Nation: An Astrologer’s View of America, a book that forgoes astrological jargon and dissects America’s birth chart with the precision of a skilled psychoanalyst. A dominant theme is her outline of the powerful Jupiter/Sun conjunction which squares Saturn at the midheaven in the US birth chart. An aspect that mirrors a country suspended in perpetual adolescence, reluctant to reign in its motto of “Bigger is better” and “More is never enough”. Murray explains this as America’s inability to understand the interplay between expansion and contraction. Maturity and youth. Controlling others and self-discipline.

The Return of Maturity and Reciprocal Awareness


A major danger in the alchemical art is the breaking of the alembic, the glass vessel that contains all of the various potentially volatile mixtures the alchemist combines. Water, as the Koran reminds us is where all life originates and returns. Water sustains and contains life on earth, and could be considered our alembic and ‘container’. The Gulf tragedy is akin to a breaking of the vessel, the mixing of fire, water, steam and shit — into one horrifying spectacle.

We’ve made a ‘hole in the world’, as activist Naomi Klein calls the disaster, and reached an ecological tipping point. If there is a chance that human beings might alter their attitude that the earth is a static, lifeless rock that is to be mined and exploited for profits, this ecological disaster might introduce the moment. Could the literalness of the symbol become more emphatic? How broken and shit-steeped must our modus operandi become before we incorporate a new vision, the promise of the sublimatio. Liz Greene writes: “The purpose of the sublimatio is to release new life, cleansed of the corruption and cynicism of the old. This is the purpose of all alchemical deaths; they lead to births.”

As Saturn, Uranus and Pluto move into their dynamic jurisdictions — Uranus (revolution) challenging Pluto (the power elite) and Saturn (the law) — the astrological stage is set for the final phase of the Grand Cardinal Cross of 2010, with each planetary ‘player’ representing a different crack in the geopolitical infrastructure. Occurring within the zodiac’s cardinal signs, we can anticipate an agitated, impulsive, perhaps violence-driven call to action. Murray notes the importance of learning to cultivate a radically new, mature viewpoint:

“I have suggested that the spiritually oriented approach to the Cardinal Climax years is one that deliberately cultivates a viewpoint that goes beyond fear. Neither is passive incredulity an appropriate response at this point: none of the global challenges being heatedly discussed right now — by the U.N., by the media, by concerned citizens amongst themselves — is new or surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. We are seeing conditions long in the making rendered obvious for the sake of wrenching the collective into a new consciousness. Our goal must be to get in touch, on a gut level, with the fact that the breakdowns we see around us are signals of incipient breakthrough.”


We are now experiencing, within the confusion and death state of the sublimatio, a kind of Promethean infusion. The movement of light — new consciousness and awareness — into a conscious interplay with an exhausted sociopolitical paradigm. With this might come a realignment with one of G.I. Gurdjieff’s central tenets, the principle of Reciprocal Maintenance. We live in a mutual relationship with our planet. “Everything is dependent on everything else, everything is connected, nothing is separate.”

We do not exist to gobble, control or dominate mindlessly — mechanical slaves to the instincts. Gurdjieff reminded us of our requirement to “give back,” to replenish and offer gratitude for the gift of life. Humankind is just one ‘position’ or node within the great scale of Being. All creatures are sustained equally by the life force that gathers and moves above and below them.

In his book Alchemy of Light, the Sufi writer Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee reminds us:

“We do not fully recognize that an era is ending, and that we are all entering the unknown. The future will not be shaped solely by the familiar forces we believe to be governing our present world. Other forces are constellating now that we do not yet know or understand, and that we cannot manipulate to our own ends. Can we acknowledge that we live in a world we cannot control that is vaster and stranger than our present culture and conditioning allow for? Are we prepared to be present in such a world, one that is alive and full of magic and serving purposes beyond our own private concerns and desires? Are we willing to be a part of its awakening?”

The Uranus Jupiter correspondence to the sublimatio indicates an amplification and dissemination of light, channeled constructively through Saturn’s existing network of systems and structures. Active awareness that feels fresh, pristine but also crystalline and sobering. The heart’s wisdom aligned with the mind’s discerning, discriminating awareness. Our love of freedom (Uranus) harmonizing with the laws of constraint (Saturn), a marriage of opposites that is necessary for our species to continue to evolve.

Alembic image above: © Robert M.Place: The Ace of Vessels card from Robert M. Place‘s dynamic The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed.

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