At the moment there are a number of ways to study alchemical emblems.
Perhaps still the best respected is the approach of Carl Jung
, especially in his
Psychology and Alchemy
which has a many reproductions of alchemical and related emblematic imagery.
Here Jung interprets
alchemical emblems within his all-embracing psychological theory. For those interested in depth psychology
this approach is invaluable, but it does not provide interpretations within the alchemical context, and
one has to be a believer in the Jungian doctrines to fully work with his and his followers approach. One has
to feel happy about relying on the dreams of a few people, Jung's analysands and colleagues to interpret
key alchemical symbols. Jung and his followers, Marie-Louise von Franz in particular, nevertheless have
provided a channel of insight into alchemical imagery and their work has opened up alchemical ideas to
a wide audience. It is essential to study the Jungian works on alchemy as they throw much light up
how it is possible to interpret this imagery for the modern mind.
The Western Esotericism approach
. This relies on seeing alchemy (and its symbolism) as part of a Western
Esoteric tradition. This was an idea emanating primarily from the Theosophical circles at the end of the 19th century which
envisaged that there was a coherent tradition in Europe over many centuries of a kind of esoteric secret doctrine. This linked together such disparate ideas as magic, tarot cards, kabbalah, freemasonry and such like things, and brought alchemy into this strange fusion. A mass of literature emerged from this approach, all of it built, unfortunately, on entirely erroneous foundations. In this approach alchemical emblems were placed side by side with tarot cards and magical diagrams, and they are seen as part of the same intellectual/spiritual current. Unfortunately this seems still to be the prevailing doctrine or paradigm for discussing alchemical ideas, despite it being entirely based on belief and not on a true study of the history of alchemy. This approach will lead one round in circles, especially now it has become completely fused with a kind of New Age syncretism which links all these subjects to Druidism, kundalini, Taoism, crop circles, and other such matters entirely alien to alchemy. It is important to understand this approach and to see its limitations and errors.
is to try and read alchemical symbols entirely within an alchemical context
, indeed, to resist the seduction of
interpreting an alchemical emblem by some tradition or idea outside alchemy itself. Although some alchemists were interested in kabbalah and this can be seen in their work, most were not. So one steps away from the truth if one tries to interpret alchemical emblems as a form of kabbalah, finding sephirotic associations. No alchemical writings mention tarot cards, so it is entirely artificial to give a tarot interpretation of alchemical imagery. Eastern ideas such as kundalini were unknown in the West till the 19th century, hundreds of years after most alchemical emblems were created, so it is nonsense to see kundalini ideas in alchemical imagery. I did this myself back in the 1970's and 80's, so I know how easy it is to deceive oneself.
For me, it is important to try to find the truth about things, and not to be seduced by ideas just because they feel nice and comfortable. To get to the truth about alchemical imagery one must try and see the symbols in the same way as did the alchemists who created them. Now some people will say, how can this be done, it is surely impossible? Well this is not impossible for musicians who play early music. They have to play a piece written in the 16th century in a style that keeps it in the correct context. Many musicians are able to do this successfully, and so it is with our reading of alchemical imagery.
So my approach to the alchemical emblems is to try and contextualise the symbols correctly. I know this is not a popular way of proceeding as people are much happier with a more Jungian, esoteric, or New Age view. These may be more in harmony with the modern mentality, but they are wrong for emblems created three or four centuries ago. This means that I am to a great extent out on a limb, in the vanguard of a new approach, perhaps a bit in advance of those other people's views, which have been forged in the crucible of New Age ideas, rather than being based on seeking the truth about alchemical symbolism. This means many people currently reject my approach or believe me to be a limited thinker. Well only time will tell. All that one can say is that a viewpoint based on encountering the alchemical material itself directly will probably survive longer than a mere current fashion in thought.
I have been able to develop methods for reading alchemical emblems which does not require the importing of external ideas, or projecting of modern mentalities onto the material. If you want to try and understand what the alchemists were trying to say through their emblems, then you will find my approach gives answers and explanations. It is not a romanticed esoteric interpretation but one which tries always to find out the truth about these mysterious and challenging emblems.
I have already created three study courses outlining this new approach. The Foundation Course
outlines the main points of my method of working with emblems. The Study course on alchemical sequences
applies the same methods to a number of key alchemical series, while the Course on the Ripley scroll
exhaustively reveals what lies wrapped up in all the complex symbolism of the amzing Ripley Scroll.
If you want to join me in exploring this vast domain of alchemical imagery then it is best to begin by taking at least the Foundation Course. Then you will, at least, know how I work with emblems, even though you may still think me deluded. At any rate you will be exposed to a mass of interesting material.