Angels in the Incense Altar: Psychoactives in Earth Magic and Early Alchemy

by Lorna Johnson

by Lorna Johnson

The following essay has been written by Kevin Murray and is published here with his kind permission. Please find his contact details at the bottom of this page.

Through a paradigm of sympathetic magic, ancient alchemists sought to animate statues, turn lead to gold, and perfect their own existence. They sought the living transformation of their own souls in sympathy with the transmutation of base elements, but originally, their quarry was the Elixir of Immortality. They hunted for it on the earth; in the myriad of abundant plant forms. The original alchemist was the shaman: “he who ‘sees’, because he is endowed with supernatural vision” (Eliade, Forge 19). “His capacity as a visionary, as well as his ‘science’, comes to him, at least in part, from a mystic solidarity with heaven” (Eliade, Forge, 20), and his first inspiration came through the medium of the Earth-mother, the way of plants. While the fire of the forge mediated the transition of elements, eventually ushering in the age of iron, industrial smelting, and the Philosopher’s Stone, in its earliest days, the furnace was the body.

In this essay I will examine the role of psychoactive plants, potions, and incense in the formations of alchemical practice through Western civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to Alexandria. Certain plants contain profoundly transformative powers; their accounts are legion, and their effects are recognizable. As such, they demand a more explicit consideration in the early histories of alchemy and Western esotericism. Once more, the original elixir of immortality was likely a plant which conferred hallucinations or visionary states, and throughout human history there have been records of such substances with their sacred and profane uses.

I will also examine the writing of the great scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, to provide a contextual account of the ancient paradigm of thought which informed archaic humans in their magico-religious practices. In The Forge and the Crucible, Eliade suggests that the roots of alchemy may never be known for certain, but he suggests that these elusive origins are invariably found within pre-historic, shamanic practises – the domain of plant magic. Numerous scholars have attempted to posit the origins of magico-religious practice to the plant hallucinogens, such as the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, mycologist Gordon Wasson, or the philologist John M. Allegro, but the validity of many of these sources has been contested and the publishing details fall short of the requirements for this essay. In my research, I have endeavored to verify all primary sources and operate within the boundaries of peer-reviewed, scholastic publications. While I have only presented a snapshot of the available research on these subjects, I am compelled to point out the incredible depth of research that has been done by these men regarding the role of psychoactive plants and early religious movements, though their work has been dismissed in an a priori fashion by some religious scholars without a rigorous scrutiny of their premises and theories. By this examination, I hope to frame an alchemical tradition in transition from the shaman to the smith and show the legitimacy of some of these claims regarding psychoactive plants, as they offer the most cogent explanation for mystical experience, alchemical inspiration, and esoteric transmutation in history.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which may be the oldest literary record in the world, dates back to the Eighteenth century in Mesopotamia where the “Old Babylon” version was inscribed on stone tablets. It contains a cataclysmic flood, a prototypical garden of Eden, and an early alchemical quest for a plant of immortality. This record displays themes of transmutation of the spiritual essence in humans by magical plant medicines. It states: “’see this marvelous plant. By its virtue a man may win back all his former strength. I will take it to Uruk of the strong walls; there I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be “The Old Men Are Young Again”; and at last I shall eat it myself and have back all my lost youth’” (23). Gilgamesh unfortunately loses the plant to a snake which sloughs its skin, thereby forcing him to reconcile himself to his own mortality. This elevates the tale to the status of allegory, but the kernel remains: A substance existed in the minds of the ancient Mesopotamians which could confer immortality and defeat death. This theme arises in one form or another throughout alchemical history, likely beginning with the ancient Vedic god-plant Soma, but finding its next flush in the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, which was called Khemia by the Greeks (Berlant 276).

In Egypt, we find accounts of one of humanity’s most ancient, magico-religious systems. “Homer makes it the homeland of ‘potions, some helpful when mixed, but some harmful’ (qtd. in DWE ). Alchemical ingredients were circulated and traded as medicines, sacraments, funerary sacrifices, and fetishes. “The making of aromatic oils and certain blends of incense (like the famous kyphi) was a sacred art, as we know from Exodus (ch. 30)” (Luck 438). This industry was controlled by the priestly caste, and by all accounts, innovations were ongoing and business was booming. As Luck states: “The oldest extant tract on alchemy, the Papyrus Ebers, a sixty-eight foot roll discovered in the necropolis of Thebes [1500 BCE], sometimes called the oldest book in the world, it is an important document for iatrochemistry, that is, the medical use of chemistry or alchemy. It contains more than eight hundred prescriptions and recipes” (Luck 436).

Along with magic oils and portions came some of their most interesting ingredients: Inscribed on the tomb walls of the Egyptian Pharaohs were the Blue lotus Nymphaea caerulea, the opium lettuce Lactuca verosa, and the opium poppy Papaver somniferum – all psychoactive plants. “Psychopharmacologists link Egyptian plants found in the various Greek writings and Egyptian medical papyri with the soma/haoma of the [Indian/Persian] ancient world and Peganum harmala, which is still used as a magical incense to this day” (Dannaway 487). Since most mechanisms of illness were attributed to the caprice of gods, Stephen Berlant argues that early Egyptian priests were also physicians, trained in both spiritual matters and herbal lore; “Hence, Egyptian medicine and religion were inseparable” (Berlant 276).

Once more, citing numerous scholars, Berlant suggests that this ancient relationship to psychoactive plants extended to the rituals of the Pharaohs, and that the White, Red, and Double Crowns of Upper, Lower, and unified Egypt (under King Narmer) refer to the sacramental use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. This theory may be supported by the writings of Plotinus, who wrote that magical power lay in correspondences between external and internal objects; “For example, between a plant and a human limb . . . both being considered to stand under the dominion of the same astral influence” (DWE 309). Consider the following passage from the “Cannibal Hymn” of the Pyramid texts, which described instructions on magic rituals which were for the Pharaoh’s eyes alone:

“He has taken the hearts of the gods,/ He has eaten the Red Crown, he has swallowed the Green One,/ Wenis feeds on the lungs of the Wise Ones,/ He is satisfied by living on hearts and their magic./ Wenis rejoices (?) that he devours the śbšwwhich are the Red Crown;/ Wenis flourishes, their magic is in his belly,/ The dignities of Wenis are not taken from him,/ He has swallowed the intelligence of every god./ The lifetime of Wenis is eternity, his limit is everlastingness.” (qtd. in Faulkner 98)

In this passage, the ascended Pharaoh hunts the “gods” as he once hunted cattle on earth. “By devouring the bodies . . . he becomes possessed of the powers and qualities of his victims” (103). Faulkner argues that human cannibalism is not consistent with archaeological records, though the mummies themselves would become magical ingredients in some cases. In particular, the identity of the śbšw is in question, as they are ‘in’ or ‘with’ the Red Crown (103). Since green was typically the colour of plants in Egyptian history, and considering the fact that there was an established practice of wearing edible plants (such as the opium poppy crown of the Nile God Hapi), and due to presence of numerous glyphs representing the wearing and transportation of mushrooms in the Tassilli-N-Ajjer and surrounding regions of the Sahara, Berlant argues that these points implicate the Amanita muscaria and Psilocybe species of mushroom (278). The practice of sympathetic magic in ancient Egypt held that ingesting an animal would confer the qualities of the beast to the diner, and nowhere is this fact so apparent as in the ingestion of masculine, phallic power plants by the Egyptian Pharaohs, as they offered correspondent similarities and magical intoxications which related to the priests’s own organs.

Once more, there is evidence of fourteen day ‘crown’ cultivation techniques on barley that were recorded in Cheops and the Magicians (280). It also cannot be overlooked that the scarab, as a symbol of the sacred dung beetle, would be a perfect candidate for its association with the mushroom, as they tend to spawn from fertile cow and bull patties. It is also well known that the underworld god Osiris was associated with the Apis Bull. In addition, breads and beers of eternity have been attributed to the immortality-bestowing Eye of Horus, which grew around the great lake of Sekhet-hetep. Finally, the association with the sun, qualities of inner light, and immortality-bestowing powers are also held in common with the ancient Vedic god-plant Soma, long suspected to be the Amanita muscaria mushroom by researchers like R. Gordon Wasson (286-287). Berlant argues that there is ample evidence that the ancient Egyptians were adept at mushroom cultivation techniques, and numerous other scholars have pointed to references like the “One-legs” of the Indus valley, the “Cover-foots” of ancient Greece, the “Single-Eye” of Soma, and the “Thunder-mushrooms” of Doaist China (“Lightning” 90). Mircea Eliade suggests that the Mesopotamians were sophisticated horticulturalists, as “artificial fertilization and grafting of fig trees” (Forge 34) were well established. Wasson further suggests that the thunderbolt symbol has emerged in history as a result of the hallucinogenic mushroom since it arises suddenly, like thunder,  by a combination of elemental factors, such as a lightning storm which temporarily fertilizes the earth to the appropriate conditions (“Persephone” 62). The proportional relationship between thunderbolts and fungal growth is also noted by Plutarch and Theophrastus.

The presence of the hallucinogenic mushroom in ancient Egypt offers a satisfying explanation for alchemical prototypes since they presented ancient people with a powerful source of transformative intoxication, but many other psychoactive plants of considerable potency were also present during the ancient reign of the Pharaohs, such as the Syrian Rue. Before the anointing oils, exotic alcohols, and the magic potions, it is important to note the history of Egyptian incense for its alchemical powers. This incense, according to Frederick R. Dannaway, a Daoist scholar, may be “the most primary mode of altering consciousness in the ancient world” (485). He writes:

“In caves or in nomadic excursions, the fire’s magic warmed, protected and cooked and later gave dominion in metallurgical explosions of culture as smith guilds formed, pounding out tools and weapons. The dead were burned, their spirit mingling with the heavens in wafting smoke. The shaman, standing    between the two worlds, was the master of the fire, inhaling the smoke for ecstatic trances and bathing in the smoke for healing and the power to heal. Cults formed around the hearth and later separate sacrificial altars evolved to allow ever more formalized rituals centred upon the mysteries of the flames.” (Dannaway 485)

In the Cannibal Hymn, Egyptian incense magic is described: “The fire is laid, the fire shines;/ The incense is laid on the fire, the incense shines./ Thy perfume comes to Wenis, O incense;/ The perfume of Wenis comes to thee, O incense./ Your perfume comes to Wenis, O gods” (qtd. in Faulkner 102). This passage suggests the union of opposite powers which are called forth by apostrophe, or a direct, magical address to the pyramid of Wenis and the spirit of the incense on the brazier. Materials like the mildly hallucinogenic frankincense, myrrh, benzoin, mandrake, arsenic sulfide, and Peganum harmala or Syrian Rue were among the ethnic heritage of the region – all products of the Incense Road which connected the Mediterranean to Egypt, India and the Holy Lands.

The Road is considered by some scholars to be the oldest trade route in history. Spices, herbs, rumour, and alchemical knowledge were exchanged, thereby uniting the area in a syncretic, magical practice. There were many options for magical and religious offerings at the time, and the notorious hemp incense and cannabis (among others) are featured prominently in the writings of Herodotus: “Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and creep under the felt coverings, and then they throw the seed upon the stones which have been heated red-hot: and it burns like incense and produces a vapour so think that no vapour-bath in Hellas would surpass it: and the Scythians being delighted with the vapour-bath howl like wolves” (75).

Following the Fourth Dynasty in Egypt, the priest’s monopoly on sacred alchemical technology had spread and profane magic was being practiced more widely. While the temple arts of alchemy, theurgy, and ritual may be termed ‘religious’ when performed in or around the sanctified pyramids, the surrounding countryside offered ‘magical’ possibilities for the Early Egyptian and Middle-Eastern craftsmen, farmer, and scribe classes, who most likely learned alchemical arts from the Priests. They began a thriving trade of materials along the Incense Road, “because magic is, in so many ways, an imitation of religion on a different level. The magus adapted for his own purposes techniques that had worked for the priests” (Luck 480). Dannaway suggests that the incense cults of ancient Israel were a compelling example, as the nomadic group shared an “entheogenic heritage with Persia in such crucial texts as the Book of Ezra, which sheds much light on foreign influences on Jewish cultic practices” (486). Their practices were similar to the accounts of the Scythians mentioned above, as they also offered holy psychoactive incense and smoke in a ritual fashion, similar to the Jews who offered and inhaled holy incense in closed tents. Incense practices are mentioned in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Kings, and was also associated with the presence of the vaporous, feminine Shekinah and the Lord, who descended as fire to the furnace. Scriptural provisions against the profane mingling of “strange incense” with sanctified incense (ktoret) figure prominently in the Old Testament and take on the air of a religious allegory, while the resulting metallurgy is mentioned in Exodus 30 (486).

As George Luck points out, the smoke itself was the epiphany; the incense burner offered the hierophany. The smoke was inhaled by the shaman/priest and his client as well, offering visions in a trance state which were often accompanied by musical accompaniment, though Yahweh could accept or deny the offerings by bestowing grace or punishment (483). This incense practice also featured prominently among the pagan Orphics, who pioneered some early synergies of substances like frankincense, myrrh, storax, and saffron. Once more, the ur-myth of Orpheus, which recounts a shamanic dismemberment by Titans and a resurrection by Zeus, hearkens back to the myth of Osiris, who underwent similar trials and was resurrected by Isis.

“Euripides, writing of the Orphics, says that they ‘go into ecstasy honoring the smokes. . .’ and the smoke is the ‘means to achieving frenzy.’ The Orphic communes speak of Orpheus’ mystical regimen as including a special diet of ‘smoke’ (incense inhalation)” (Dannaway 487).

With Moses (1391 – 1271 BCE), we see a full innovation of psychoactive incense magic by the nomadic Hebrew tribes raised in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids. Both “the holy anointing oil and the sacred incense described by Moses were almost certainly psychoactive . . . and enabled the priests to ‘see God’ or to hear God’s voice. It may [also] be assumed that Moses had learned the composition of these substances from the Priests of Egypt” (Luck 439). The sacred tabernacle (made from the DMT containing acacia wood) enclosed the Altar of Incense, and Moses’ intoxicated brother officiated as the alchemist-intermediary on Mount Sinai. The Jews at the time were considered Saturnian, “their airy nature meant they were particularly sensitive to aromas, mists, fumes, and smokes. Thus the fumigation instructions accompanying many of the Orphic Hymns” (DWE 397) were employed to invoke deities and their attendant demons in the celestial hierarchy; “A solar demon for instance would be drawn to the eighth Hymn to Helios, which was sung to the smoke of incense and manna” (DWE 365). Even the mother of Alexander the Great participated in Orphic intoxication rituals (Russell 50), and the pursuit of altered states of consciousness was culturally sanctioned by the broader society.

In some ways the Old Testament is a story of sacred and profane incense practices; it is the “story of this mysterious incense in combat with strange barbarian smokes. The wandering Hebrews followed a pillar of smoke by day, and a fire by night” (Dannaway 486). The solution to the problem of sacred and profane coals on the altars is linked by scholars with the development of a prototypical Hebrew priesthood that was charged with maintaining the knowledge of appropriate offerings (487). Some of the more common psychoactive substances available at the time were acacia, styrax (benzoin), cannabis, Hyoscyamus niger (a type of nightshade), and Syrian Rue (487). However, “As the nation of Israel replaced its tent of meeting with the temple after pleading for a monarchy, the Altar of Incense and its attendant rites were diminished [I Kings 1 3 ; II Kings 23]” (487).

With the founding of the First Temple, Solomon attempted to redeem the practice of incense offerings by command of God, and in II Chronicles 7, it states that “the clouds of smoke that were the ‘glory of the Lord’ were so thick that the priests could not enter” (Dannaway 487). Solomon wrote many books on the magical power of herbs and plants, but according to J. B. van Helmont – a Medieval alchemist and perhaps the first biochemist – they were lost during the “reign of his son Rehabiam, when a prophet ordered these books to be burned out of a fear that the Jews would forget their God” (qtd. in DWH 504). However, competing prophecies were also at play that would result in the burning of incense priests, as they were believed to have desecrated Jahweh’s altar by presenting smoke to pagan gods like Zeus.

With the establishment of the Jerusalem Temple, Zeus was introduced as a god for worship by Antiochus, and in Rome, Jahweh was associated with Jupiter. Yahweh was also known as Iao, Io, or Aeio in late Antiquity: a god of sorcerers (Amzallag 389). Dionysius, god of wine, revelry, ritual madness, and ecstasy, was also known as Iao, suggesting a syncretic relationship between the two. Once more, “in Thrace . . .[there was] a syncretism between the cult of Yahweh and Sabazius (the Thracian Dionysius), in which Jews and pagans belonged to the same community” (Amzallag 390). Dionysius was often symbolized by the airy bellows or a copper-encased length of wood. Amzallag considers the Jahweh/Dionysius to be an early ‘”ether-god’” (402). Citing the instances of the term elohim in the Old Testament, Nissim Amzallag suggests that these prophets – Elijah, Moses, Elisha, and Samuel – were honoured as human theophanies: they were able to transmit the divine voice.

Farther along the Incense Road other psychoactive rituals were occurring as well. The Lesser and Greater Mysteries of Eleusis – “where incense was always burning” (Dannaway 488) – were magical initiations to honour the goddesses Demeter and Persephone and likely began from an agrarian cult in the 1600s [BC]. For 2000 years, the yearly rites ensured the renewal of spring and employed a psychoactive elixir that bestows immortality: the kykeon. Its ingredients, barley, water, and mint, are suspected to have been prepared with an ergine solution from the ergot akaloids present in the fungus which affects barley. It would have provided a structurally sound but weaker form of lysergide (Webster, Perrine, and Ruck 13). Meanwhile, at Delphi, the ritual fumigants of the ash-pyre were a potent blend of laurel, nightshade, myrrh, and frankincense, but they have been also associated with cannabis, opium, ivy, Indian soma, “unmixed wines,” and the powerful thorn apple seeds Datura stramonium, also known as Jimson Weed (Dannaway 488). These fumes were considered essential for provoking the trance of the Oracle.

While we can locate the plant hallucinogens in each of these accounts of early Western societies, these records tell us little to nothing about the paradigmatic experiences the ancient Hebrews or Eleusians were having, save for the angels by the incense altars, and the same may be said about the effect of the kykeon, save that its imbiber saw the shining sun at night.  An examination of the historical and theoretical context is required to ground our understanding.

Mircea Eliade cites the influence of the Eleusian Mysteries, the Dionysians, the Orphics, and other esoteric cults for their impact on alchemicy, and states that the practice was likely seen as a spiritual intercourse between the Earth-mother and archaic peoples: “It is known that the essence of initiation into the Mysteries consisted of participation in the passion, death and resurrection of a God . . . The meaning and finality of the Mysteries were the transmutation of man. By experience of initiatory death and resurrection, the initiate changed his mode of being (he became ‘immortal’)” (Forge 149). Immortality was hard won, however, for all creative acts, even those which resulted in immortality, are associated with a sacrifice. There is a price to be paid, an exchange of one form of life with another: “It is known that every initiation comprises a series of ritual tests symbolizing the death and resurrection of the neophyte” (Forge 150). The Lesser Rites of Eleusis required a lengthy fast and intense psycho-spiritual work, and it only cost the life of a pig to gain admittance. Incense rituals involved a sacrifice of plant life, while the Heart-scarab ritual of Egypt and the Mysteries demands the mummification and dismemberment of its patron. These rites bear remarkable similarities to shamanic traditions world-wide, in which the actor is mutilated in some way by spirits while in a trance state. This, according to Eliade, is the “fundamental pattern of all primitive civilizations” (Forge 150). A symbolic sacrifice is made from the sympathetic substance of the body acting in harmonious engagement with the cosmic order. This pattern of death and rebirth is intimately tied to the annual vegetative cycle, but whether the ritual is performed through furnace, fire, magic potion, incense burner, ash-mound, or temple brazier, “These [ritual] pieces of apparatus are at the very centre of a return to primordial chaos, of a rehearsal of the cosmogony” (Eliade, Forge 169).

This rehearsal was based on the assumption of a basic correspondence between humans and the cosmos. Ancient orgies and other complementary acts mimicked the regeneration of life by seasonal cycle, just as sacred objects were elevated according to their similarity with human appendages, often sexual. It allowed people to actively participate in the regeneration of time (Forge 39). Sacred Mesopotamian rivers were rooted in the organs of the Great Goddess, while in Babylon the word “river-source” refers to a vagina, while the origin of the word Delphi is uterus; “caves and caverns were compared to the matrix of the Earth-Mother” (Forge 41). The Tigris is related to the star Anunit, while Egyptian regions were named after celestial fields. Once more, “all the Babylonian cities had their archetypes in the constellations: Sippara in Cancer, Nineveh in Ursa Major…” (Eliade, Myth 8). The temple of Solomon was also built on a divinely revealed blueprint, as were the Indian royal cities; all emerge from a celestial realm of Platonic, ideal forms, in “the age of gold (in illo tempore)” (Myth 9).

As Eliade suggests, the purpose of these complicated rituals was to create a harmonic double, a mimetic form of the idealized, celestial or supernatural world. By partaking of the winter solstice rituals at Eleusis, Demeter and Persephone manifested as true nature goddesses, and the attendants fulfilled their roles in the renewal of the vegetative cycles. By erecting psychoactive incense altars in the desert, the ancient Hebrews mimicked “Settlement in a new, unknown, uncultivated country . . . [which was] equivalent to an act of Creation” (Myth 10). Once more, as in India, where the erection of an altar to Agni constituted legal possession of a territory, these rites grounded the wandering Hebrews in their colonial quest. This magico-religious ritual served to repeat the divine act of creating order from chaos.

In the Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade describes each of these acts as an activation of the symbolism of the centre, a magico-religious renewal of the Sacred Mountain. Moses mimicked this form when he oversaw the ritual at Mount Sinai. The Egyptian Pharaohs erected pyramids, and the wandering Hebrews established transient incense altars. In each case, these acts took on archetypal significance as they created an axis mundi, a symbolic centre, and a “meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell” (12). Ancient Jerusalem and Zion were considered to be literal mountain tops, which is why they were not destroyed in the mythical flood. Solomon’s temple was considered to be founded on the “mouth of the tehðm” (15). This tradition was well established in the region, extending to Mesopotamia’s Mount of the Lands, and in Canaan, Mount Gerizim was considered the “navel of the earth” (13), upon which eternal Paradise was located. “The centre, then, is pre-eminently the zone of the sacred, the zone of absolute reality” (17). As Frank J. Korom suggests:

“The center can take a myriad of forms. In mythical geography, the landscape itself can be conceived of as a sacred space. But sacred space can also be materialized in cultic objects such as the churinga  of certain Australian aboriginal groups, or it can be manifested in “hierocosmic” symbols such as “world trees” or “cosmic pillars.” Finally, sacred space can be interiorized within the human body, as in the case of the meditations of an Indian yogi” (107).

Eliade posits that every act of creation effectively mimics the creation of the world, and this creation occurs at the symbolic centre of the world, and the “consecration of the centre occurs in a space qualitatively different from profane space . . . also by the transformation of concrete time into mythical time” (20-21). Thus, the spiritual arbitration performed by Egyptian priests was an imitation of Thoth during the primordial act of creation when he created the world with his word. The orgiastic rites of Dionysius and the initiation of Orpheus also mimicked sacred gestures. The Eleusian Mysteries corresponded with the sacred time in which, according to the Homer, “Demeter lay with Iasion on the newly sown ground, at the beginning of spring” (qtd. in Myth 25). Eliade points out that these rituals are more than just mimicry of the hierogamy of heaven and earth, however: “the principal consideration is the result of that hierogamy, i.e. the cosmic creation” (24). These ritual acts are considered as literally taking place in divine time, and the sympathetic repetition of ritual is seen as a direct yet paradoxical participation in the original creative event itself – It is not simply a metaphor. Human activities, whether violent, orgiastic, intoxicated, or solemn, were justified by their relationship to the divine time, ab origine – when the world was created. “As for the magical and pharmaceutical value of certain herbs, it too is due to a celestial prototype of the plant, or to the fact that it was first gathered by a god” (30). Indeed, for ancient religious humans, the entire world was potentially sacred, and in general, space could be differentiated between the real and the formless expanse beyond it. “For it is the break in space that allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation . . . If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded” (Eliade, Witchcraft 21-22). Thus the history of Rome began with the foundation of the city upon a new cosmogony at the centre of the universe, and the city plan reflected the celestial blueprint. This practice was upheld by every level of society, from slave to king, and even the nomadic tents of the wandering Hebrews were set with central poles which represented the axis mundi, the world tree, while the sacred incense altar offered the hierophany, and the smoke revealed the reality of sacred time. By these rituals there arose a paradoxical vision, the coincidentia oppositorum, by which the sacred reality becomes revealed in the profane. Eliade suggests that this is most often accomplished with the use of heat.

The differentiation of sacred and profane spaces is a creative, magico-religious act: “He who obtains magical heat vividly demonstrates that he belongs to a superhuman world” (Eliade, Rites 87). Eliade suggests that the entire reason why a neophyte shaman, priest, or practitioner eats psychoactive plants, drinks magical potions, or consumes smoke has less to do with the effects of the substances themselves than it does with the potential increase of inner heat. This heat allows for the mechanism of the rite to take place, by “initiatory structure and signification” (Witchcraft 89), and by these methods “the profane man is being dissolved and a new personality being prepared for birth” (89). Through this image of sacred, transformative fire, we may also begin to chart the transition from archaic societies to industrialized ones. The early shamans were masters of heat and smoke and they achieved transmutation within their own bodies as furnaces, but their prominence was eclipsed by the later smiths who externalized the transformation process in their forges. From the discovery of copper smelting techniques around the 3500 to 4000 BCE, archaeological records show a slow accumulation of metallurgical technology as humans delved deeper into the womb of the earth-Mother. Minerals grow just like plants, ripening and evolving, and these smith shamans did their part in facilitating the celestial harvest (Eliade, Forge). As Amzallag suggests: “a perpetual fire burned in the temple of Dionysius at Thebes . . . [and is] associated with the worship of Yahweh” (393). As mentioned above, the earliest images of Yahweh refer to him as an ether-god, invoking the vital breath of the fire. Once more, he was also associated with serpents:

“(a symbol of copper smelting), by the biblical metaphors depicting him as a smelter, by his affinities with other gods of metallurgy, by his ‘origin’ from Seir (the Canaanite are of copper metallurgy) . . . the smelting of copper ore in a furnace was construed as an act of creation of matter. In this context, smelters were considered as men with demiurgic powers, transformed into ‘demi-gods’ with the help of the god.” (404-405)

Eliade suggests that the Eleusian mysteries, like those of Dionysius, take place here and now. The ceremonies began with purifications of the profane self through ritualized intoxication, and then the actual moment of Demeter’s divine agency is revealed in the process. Divine wheat grows instantly and magically during the sacred ritual, as did the vines in the rites of Dionysius. The plant miracle takes place vividly, immediately, reflecting the fact that the neophyte has overcome time and “attained to another mode of being; he became equal to the Gods, was one with the Gods” (112). Time, as it normally is conceived, is arrested symbolically so that the literal, sacred time may emerge. When considering the powerful influence of certain psychoactive plants like the hallucinogenic mushroom or the Syrian Rue in these rituals, this cessation of profane time and the destruction of the profane ego takes on a concrete dimension, as temporal hallucinations are a common occurrence with even the lowly wild hemp, as they must have been with the formidable power of a full-blown ergine solution such as the kykeon. This provides a crucial clue for understanding ancient accounts of the Hebrews who worshipped Yahweh and experienced him as both awesome and terrifying.

The ancient vision of the hassidim “proclaimed Yahweh sole Lord of History . . . Evil is engendered by man’s disobedience” (Eliade, History 268). Yet by the apocalyptic literature, we see that Satan is a member of Yahweh’s court. Once more, two opposing ages, the kingdoms of both God and Satan, are evoked. Yet the eschatological vision foretells of a time when the coming Messiah will reconcile the division and Yahweh will triumph and overthrow Satan and his demon army. In the Homeric Hymns, the Goddess Demeter suckles the child Demophoon with liquid ambrosia and yet also hides him in a fire. She is both nurturing and malevolent; she makes the child immortal but at the same time she casts him to the ground. She cries “Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evil” (qtd. in Eliade, Writings 65). But perhaps the clearest example of the coincidentia oppositorum is expressed in the Egyptian Coffin Texts: “Whether I live or die I am Osiris,/ I enter in and reappear through you,/ I decay in you, I grow in you” (qtd. in Eliade, Writings 193). Each of these examples expresses the paradoxical nature of the coincidence; a hierophany is presented to the devotee from which the sacred may be revealed – a revelation made all the more tangible by the alchemical influence of psychoactive materials ingested in the furnace of the body, transmuted into magical, transformative heat.

This aspect of primal unification is an essential scene in archaic religious life. It is rooted in the most primal forms of anthropomorphism and personification. Eliade suggests that aeroliths were the first manifestations of ‘sky fire,’ – a celestial/earth unity – that took on religious significance to the faithful, who saw them as “first forms” (Forge 20). Meteorites figured prominently in the ancient world, including the Ka’aba at Mecca, the Pessinus in Phrygia and the Artemis at Ephesus, to the cone of Heliogabalus at Emesus. Eliade argues that they were often associated with fertility goddesses like Cybele as they fell from the sky to fertilize the earth, and hence the symbol of the thunderbolt arose and was eventually attributed to Zeus, Indra, Yahweh, Soma, and Dionysius. As Eliade puts it, “It is the idea of life which, projected onto the cosmos, sexualizes it” (Forge 34). It is also this basic sexual unification of primal energies which creates the mystical union of opposites within alchemical thought.

Once more, this coincidentia oppositorum has a profound expression in alchemical practice. Hence, the alchemical symbol of Oroborus – the snake which eats its own tail – provides a compelling image with which we can visualize the mystical process. This symbol originated in ancient Egypt from various sources, but is expressed in the tale of Atum: “I am Atum, the creator of the Eldest Gods,/ I am he who gave birth to Shu,/ I am that great He-She,/ . . .  I took my place in the space of my will,/ Mine is the space of those who move along/ like those two serpentine circles” (qtd. in Primitives, 25). This tale of Atum from the Coffin Texts describes a self-created, bisexual god who is associated with both the creation of the gods and the inevitable destruction of the world and its return to the watery firmament. In alchemy, this unification is described by the Physika kai Mystika, one of the first major alchemical texts to arise from the Hellenistic era, which detailed the ritual composition of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone is “achieved by causing matter to pass through four phases, named, from the colours taken on by the ingredients: melansis (black), leukosis (white), xanthosis (yellow) and isosis (red) . . . with innumerable variations . . . [this formula] is retained throughout the whole history of Arabian Western alchemy” (Forge 149). Even the great Cleopatra, who invented the alembic received instructions from Comarius on the marriage of bride and groom, or masculine and feminine elements:

“From now on I shall tell you clearly where the elements and plants lie. But first I shall speak in riddles. Climb to the top of the ladder, up the mountain . . . And see: in the middle of the mountain, underneath the arsenic, there is its bride . . . Look, scientists, and understand! Here you have the fulfillment of the technique of bridegroom and bride having been joined and becoming one.” (qtd. in Luck 452)

This central sexualization of the base ingredients provides the most fundamental fact of early alchemy and is carried on through the ages in alchemical literature, most notably in the 1616 publication of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, where the bridegroom offers four potential paths of spiritual transformation. It is interesting to note the internalization of alchemical processes by the time of the Wedding’s publication. Whereas the original forge may have been the shaman’s fire or belly, it evolved into the smith’s forge, finally finding its position as an esoteric meditation. This process mimics that of ancient India, where ritual fire sacrifices became transformed into the inner fire sacrifices of Yogic discipline.

In conclusion, the history of Western alchemy begins with early psychoactive plant rituals and an embodied, psycho-spiritual transformation of their users. The effects were metaphorical: Those who participated in these rituals became immortal; they turned into gold. These powerful experiences opened up the minds of archaic smith-specialists to the possibility of inner alchemy, in which the transformation of plant substances became sympathetically related with the transmutation of base elements. The mythical Philosopher’s Stone would eventually become both the means and the goal of the chemical process, but at the core, the discipline is highly spiritual: “the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of Nature, while at the same time working to ‘make’ himself” (Eliade, Forge 50). Eliade suggests that Nature’s main intention is to refine and ripen elements into the most perfect metals: “all ores will, in time, become gold” (Forge 50). This is why the eventual end of the transformative process of the marriage of masculine sky and feminine earth elements results in the ‘golden’ son, the colour of Indian immortality and Egyptian kings. “The natural transmutation of metals into gold is inscribed in their destiny. The tendency of Nature is to perfection. But since gold is the bearer of a highly spiritual symbolism . . . a new idea is coming into being: the idea of the part assumed by the alchemist as the brotherly saviour of Nature” (Forge 52). I humbly submit the early use of potions, incense, and plant hallucinogens as an often overlooked but essential ingredient in the process, as the ritual use of these substances likely provided the essential inspiration by the primal transformation of states in the conscious mind of early alchemists and shaman-priests.

You can reach Kevin Murray here: contact@kevinmurray.ca

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6 Responses

  1. Daniel Williams says:

    Some things never change.

  2. Daniel Williams says:

    Some things never change.

  3. Damian Z says:

    Absolutely astonishing. Great article Mr. Murray.

  4. Damian Z says:

    Absolutely astonishing. Great article Mr. Murray.

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