The Alchemy web site on

Emblematic Meditation

by Adam McLean

The stream of mystery wisdom we know as the hermetic tradition, embraces many facets. It has a coherent set of metaphysical ideas that continue to make sense even within the currents of present day scientific thought, a spiritual psychology which recognises the importance of the process of change and transmutation very relevant to the present condition of the human soul, and an elaborate system of symbols which can still speak directly to us, and seem to be a map of archetypes etched into our innermost being.

When we begin to look at the material of the hermetic tradition we are quickly struck by the elaborate and beautiful emblematic engravings especially from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, such as those of De Bry, Merian and others, illustrating the works of Robert Fludd, Michael Maier, Mylius, Khunrath, etc, which now seem almost mandatory for inclusion in today's popular books on the 'occult' and related themes.

Only rarely in such present day popular books are the symbolic contents of these emblems addressed by any meaningful or sensitive commentary, and they are all too often used merely as a form of decoration, or to pad out an otherwise inadequate text. Although these emblems have within the last decade or so been rescued from neglect becoming recognised as some of the finest examples of the engravers art, I hope that they will not become too overexposed and familiar as to have their impact on the soul diluted. In my work with the Hermetic Journal and Magnum Opus books, I have focussed especially on these emblems and tried to provide meaningful commentaries rather than using them in a decorative way.

I believe these emblems are too important to be dismissed merely as fine examples of symbolic engravings. Indeed, if we work with them with any sensitivity, we will come to recognise that they possess a kind of inner life, a numinous quality. They are not merely symbolic keys to unlock the mysteries of hermeticism, but can be experienced as bearing a kind of living spiritual force that can still work in our souls today if we are preapared to contemplate them in the right way. In this short article I would like to suggest some ways in which we can work sensitively with this material.

Some Suggestions for working with Emblematic Meditation.

First of all it is important to get good examples of these emblems as so often small details in the symbolism will be found to be important. I prefer to work with them as individual emblems each on separate sheets of paper rather than bound up in a book as they are then free of any context or implication of hierarchy or sequence, and can begin to reveal their own internal architecture. The hermetic emblems are often found forming series as with Michelspacher (4), Rosarium (20), Pandora (20), Splendor Solis (22), Mylius (28), Maier Atalanta (50), Stolcius Hermetic Garden (160).

To begin with we should merely familiarise ourselves with the symbolism of the emblems we have decided to work with, rather than immediately trying to analyse their structure. For until we have fully breathed their complex net of symbols into our souls, initial intellectual analysis usually results merely in our unconsciously projecting our own ideas and preconceptions onto the symbols, rather than allowing them to unfold their being to us. There are quite a few writers who, rushing headlong into an interpretation, reveal their own preconceptions and philosophical outlook rather than truly encountering the inner ground of the emblems they seek to grasp. (A prime example of this is Johannes Fabricius in his book Alchemy : The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, in which many hermetic emblems are beautifully illustrated, but are interpreted only through the authors attachment to a Freudian psychological model, and his text often seems to overwhelm and ignore the essence of the emblems.) If we are to work with the emblems we should initially be aware that we have to guard ourselves against such projections.

The sheer density, enigmatic, and at times almost surrealistic nature of the symbols on the emblems allows them to echo back almost anything we care to project upon them. However, I believe we have to recognise that they are not merely mirrors in which we can narcissistically reflect our own philosophy and view of the world, but in fact they possess a living spirit that transcends such projections.

So with these points in mind, we must begin by trying to build up in ourselves an inner version of the emblem. Beautiful as it may be as fine lines etched on a copper plate and pressed into paper, the essence of an emblem stands outside its particular depiction. Our initial work then involves freeing the content of the emblem from the paper and dissolving it in our soul. Some of us will find copying or redrawing the emblem, and even colouring in its symbols a useful exercise at this stage. As we work in the right way with some series of emblems, we find we are developing a kind of dialogue with the symbols and that slowly they seem to be becoming a part of our inner life. In a sense we are breathing in their essence.

This process is best undertaken sporadically in response to our feelings and inspiration, rather than pushed too hard with the kind of discipline we might apply to learning a mass of facts about a subject, in order to write about it or pass some exam. I find that if I place the particular set of emblems I currently wish to work with, on the wall of my study, or just carry them around as a set of cards that I can bring out whenever I want and spread them on a table or on the floor, then after a few weeks of living with them in this way, even the most elaborate sequences unconsciously, without any stress or pressure, have become woven into my inner world. Indeed, only at the point where we hold its entire complex of symbolism within ourselves, can we begin to work in a creative experiential way with an emblem sequence.

Emblems are flat plates, usually square, rectangular or sometimes circular windows through which we glimpse an elaborate world of symbols. As such we are forced by the format to adopt initially the role of observers at a peep show. It is this format that in fact makes the emblems so powerful. In a sense they are esoterically protected. Profound esoteric exercises have been compressed into these emblems in such a way that they remain entirely harmless to those who are unable to find in themselves the inner resources to work with them and bring them to life, and resurrect them in the activity of their souls. This is not so true of some other methods of transmitting esoteric exercises, such as ritual or group meditations, which can often have an unsettling effect upon the unprepared soul. Rituals used in any public context, outside of a working group of esotericists, should be carefully designed and balanced so as not to unduly disturb any of the participants.

The esoteric content of the hermetic emblems are not so restricted because people initially view them from the outside as observers, and consequently intense and powerful esoteric material is found openly displayed and yet simultaneously hidden in these emblems. An emblem only comes alive, or active esoterically, when one steps through the frame of the picture and becomes a participant and not merely an observer of the symbolic peep show.

Just as the emblem steps towards us, freeing itself from the printed page and rebuilding itself in the imaginative pictures of our inner world, so if we are to truly make relationship with it, we in our turn must step into the sphere of action of the emblem.

[At this point I would like perhaps to expand somewhat the concept of an emblem. Although we can identify them as engravings, woodcuts or coloured drawings in manuscripts, in a sense the hermetic allegories found in various texts should be seen as paralleling emblematic material. Indeed, if we contemplate such an allegory in something of the same way suggested for the emblems, then we arrive at the same point where we bear the emblem or allegory living within our being and have to step into the symbolic action to give it life.]

We have to transform our emblem from a flat plate into a three-dimensional landscape of symbols within which we can stand. At this stage it will be found useful to begin meditating on the symbolic content of the emblem. Say we have chosen to work with a particular series of emblems and have reached the point where we have their symbolic content living within us. Occasionally, without necessarily any great preparation or ritual, we can slip into a visualisation of the emblems as windows upon a landscape of symbols, one after another in the order in which they were originally depicted. The first few occasions we might fail to get through the sequence without tiring, however, this doesn't matter and we should just repeat this short exercise say once a day for a week or so.

After a few sessions, this exercise should become more and more tedious as we are able to easily recall before our inner gaze each emblem in turn, and a point will be reached when we find our seeming good progress is disturbed (in a way in which it wasn't earlier) by symbols shifting around and getting muddled, even though we know quite well where each of the symbols ought to be the tableau. Unless we have had any indication in the meantime through warning dreams or intuitions, this is the point where we step decisively into the space of the emblem. Now our meditations should become perhaps less casual as we begin to explore this inner landscape of symbols.

At this stage I find it useful to provide a structure within which the emblem is free to unfold and yet is bounded and contained in the soul. For this purpose one can build the image of an inner walled garden say, or a mystical island bound by a calm sea, or a strong fortified castle or palace, an alchemical retort or vessel, or the enclosed sanctuary of a temple. The purpose of such a meditative container is to provide a space within which the emblem can unfold its symbols and allow us to explore them with a sense of inner security, in that we can at any moment in our meditation return into our inner garden, vessel, or sanctuary. If we chose not to use such a technique it is not really a problem for the experienced meditator, but some people find that the symbols in an emblem occasionally lead them off on trains of associations which leave them feeling uncomfortable or disoriented. Although this is not especially troublesome and will wear off in a few hours it can interfere with our everyday work and responsibilities, and such experiences in fact usually lead to people giving up their inner work rather than continuing to feel dissociated. This feeling is in fact a positive one, a sign that psychic energy is being developed by polarities being exchanged between archetypes. The discomforting aspect arises from it being initially misplaced and unintegrated within the existing patterns of our inner life.

It is not possible to go into great detail on meditative techniques and experiences in such a short article, but I hope given time to be able to write at length on these matters. We will find that there are four different levels of working with emblematic meditation.

Spiritual existential level - pure consciousness of being

Astral - energetic flow of psychic energy, drama

Etheric - weaving into life forces

Physical - encountering the emblem outside ourselves

In the first level we encounter the emblem in its physical manifestation as a pictorial image outside ourselves. We have to take this through our eyes and imprint it in our physical brain so it becomes in a sense a physical pattern within ourselves. However, when we build up an inner picture of an esoteric emblem we find something different occurs from the common process which we do all day long with mundane things we have to remember for our work or everyday life. The emblems contain carefully polarised and balanced symbols that stimulate and resonate with archetypal structures in us. In a sense they begin to send out roots and grow into our being, and at this stage we can say that they have come to life within us released from the dead outer image on paper. In present day esoteric parlance we can say that the emblems have permeated through into our etheric body. Those more attached to physiologically based models of the psyche could well describe this as the fact that the emblem has been transferred from a initial mere mapping of its physical characteristics onto visual memory in the brain, to a less localised pattern of energy ramified throughout our being, free to make associations on different levels. It could be pictured as the movement of the image from the localised receptors in the visual cortex till it becomes non-localised over the two hemispheres analogous to the way all the information borne in a hologram can be found at every point in its two dimensional plate.

It does not really matter just how we chose to describe this process to ourselves intellectually, the experience of the emblems coming to life within us remains the same. The next stage of stepping into the frame of the action, can be described in esoteric language, as experiencing the substance of the emblem working in our astral body. It involves relating to the symbols and letting them communicate with us, and at this stage the symbols can dramatically metamorphose, weaving around themselves emotional currents. The emblem often temporarily takes the form of an inner dramatic action, and we will sometimes have the sense of receiving communications or messages from some deep underlying part of ourselves. The symbols begin to speak to us. This process can be disturbing to inexperienced meditators, and it is best if the exercise is pursued with certain safeguards or techniques (for example the meditative container of the safe inner sanctuary). I will be describing some of these methods in a later article.

The best safeguard is to have a kind of map or model of the process we are undertaking. This gives us an inner vantage point or centre from which we can temporarily withdraw to consider the significance of some inner event experienced in emblematic meditation. Some present day esoteric exercises use a technique of "pathworking" which is underpinned by the kabbalistic Tree of Life system, so that at almost any point one can gain some understanding of what is happening in an inner experience by mapping this onto the Tree of Life and looking at the correspondences.

Of course the Tree of Life system does bear within it certain underlying philosophic and religious structures which may make it unsuited to those individuals who do not wish to work within this Kabbalistic current, and it is not in itself essential for such pathworking or inner journeys. There are other systems for understanding inner polarities and archetypal forces which arise out of the hermetic alchemical tradition and are equally valid. In the longer term I hope to be able to articulate and describe such a map of inner work which can be used to find our way easily through the experiences gained in meditation on hermetic emblems.

This stage of moving the emblem from the etheric to the astral realm within us can give rise to dramatic and exciting experiences, and perhaps the biggest danger here is that we cannot readily digest these experiences, and that they rattle around inside our souls making making us feel quite uncomfortable. Such imaginative experiences are inevitable in this kind of inner work, indeed this stage involves the development of just this inner ability of being able to inwardly digest polarised astral energy thrown out by the archetypal symbols. If we persevere then eventually we will come to gain this inner ability, and can then become more inwardly free of the emotional currents generated by the archetypes living within us, which are stimulated by resonances from such emblems.

We are then free to move to a final stage of inner work with an emblem in which we encounter the spiritual being that resides there. Esoteric exercises are in essence merely vehicles for incarnating spiritual being. They are devised to have definite forms which reflect in outer physical symbol, etheric and astral substance, a spiritual principle which has a core or essence we can describe as having an immanence of 'being'. The emblems we are heirs to in the hermetic tradition were devised by people experienced and adept in a wisdom of the spiritual ground of consciousness. Each emblem sequence has had woven into its symbolic web a reflection of some spiritual essence, and it is only when we are able to touch upon this level that we can truly say we have encountered the being of an emblem.

Hermetic emblems thus bear within them seeds of being that can tinge and transform our innermost essence. When we are able to absorb them in our lower vehicles through such meditative work, like drops of quintessence they subtly transmute our souls and make us glow with inner spiritual life. The wise adepts of the hermetic tradition have left to us their most precious treasure, their tincture and philosophers' stone, revealed and yet still hidden from us until we resurrect them within our being through inner work.