From Eros to Rebis: Sensuality of Alchemical Engravings
05 januari 2022 
40 min. read

From Eros to Rebis: Sensuality of Alchemical Engravings

What do you imagine hearing of alchemy and alchemists? Alchemy is a mother of today’s chemistry and a child of human curiosity and naivety, as different adepts spent years trying to turn lead into gold or produce the elixir of life. Bearded men in medieval clothes operated with flasks and liquids to get the dark red piece of glass that Harry Potter miraculously discovered in his pocket by the end of the book. 

Hokusai's Ama Diver

But what if we tell you that the red stone or the scarlet lion or Adam or Christ or rebis is as much a stone as Hokusai’s ama diver is the wife of a fisherman? What if we tell you that the last known alchemist lived not in medieval times but in the XXth century? Well, enough questions, let’s reveal some answers!

Conjunction of Metals, Rosarium Philosophorum, black and white edition.

Fig. 1. Conjunction of Metals, Rosarium Philosophorum, black and white edition. According to Adam McLean, the text was originally printed as the second part of De Alchemia Opuscula complura veterum philosophorum…, Frankfurt, 1550. It contained a series of 20 woodcuts (scan from Eugene Canseliet’s Alchemy, 2012, p. 43).

Alchemical Mercury as a mother of metals

Fig. 2. Alchemical Mercury as a mother of metals (Basil Valentine ‘Azoth’ Series, colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Philosophers observing the conjunction of metals.

Fig. 3. Philosophers observing the conjunction of metals. The nuptial bed resembles a coffin. The black blanket is the symbol of the first stage of the work (Vatican Pal Lat 1885, alchemywebsite.com).

Rectified Sulfur and Mercury are about to embrace

Fig. 4. Rectified Sulfur and Mercury are about to embrace (All-Wise Doorkeeper Series, colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com).

The Earth and the Stone

The word ‘alchemy’ and the discipline under this name allegedly originate from ancient Egypt (khmi meant the fertile black soil opposing the red sands of the desert). The knowledge came to Europe from Arabic lands (the al- particle points at the Arabic adoption of this phenomenon). The Egyptian roots may be indirectly proved by the conceptual meaning of alchemy, as the process has its’ true beginning at the stage of the metaphorical death of ingredients (the Nigredo stage). The mortification and posthumous existence of the substance played a crucial role in the mythology of Egypt, resulting in the famous Book of the Dead. 

Brown-red granules

According to historians Jacques Sadoul and Albert Poisson, who analyzed lots of alchemical treatises, the sought-after stone was a powdery product that consisted of brown-red granules. There may be many versions of why alchemists called the powder a stone. They could do it to mislead the greedy seekers of fortune. Or, they treated it as a stone because, symbolically, it was a fruit from the tree of life, the essence of all things, and, of course, the ground for the eternal Civitate Dei (The City of God) inhabited by immortal souls. 

Proto-science

As Hermes, the mythological parent of alchemy, said in his Tabula Smaragdina, ‘Páter ómnis thelésmi totíus múndi est hic’ (The father of all perfection in the whole world is here). There’s an opinion that pretentious proto-science was left in medieval centuries with all its’ metaphors and symbols. Nevertheless, the notion that the transmutation of metals is possible is grounded in a belief that all things consist of the same matter. Today physicians know it as energy. Manipulations with energy and the smallest particles of the elements cause the change of substance. The possible evidence is allotropy or the ability of chemical elements to exist in several different forms (the most well-known example is diamond and graphite, the modifications of carbon).

Copulating King and Queen want to produce the royal child.

Fig. 5. Copulating King and Queen want to produce the royal child. They are observed by four elements (Alexander Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism. Taschen. 2003. P. 442)

Putrefaction, the first stage of the work that follows the conjunction

Fig. 6. Putrefaction, the first stage of the work that follows the conjunction (Alexander Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism. Taschen. 2003. P. 443)

Mary of Egypt by José de Ribera

Fig. 7. Mary of Egypt by José de Ribera (Wikipedia.org)

Ancient and Modern Adepts

As Giammaria Gonella claims, the most ancient writings on alchemy trace back to the 2nd century B. C. The first author who left evidence of the so-called magnum opus or the Great Work (the process of making the stone) was the Egyptian philosopher Bolos of Mendes. He assumed that everything consists of the same matter, which is fluid and changeable or mercurial. The notion that every object in the universe is a result of metamorphoses of one substance allows us to understand why protean Hermes or Mercury was later regarded as the patron of alchemy. Speaking of great names in science, we usually mention males: Newton, Copernicus, Galilei, etc. 

Sexual Metaphors

When it comes to alchemy, among the founders were also several women: Mary of Egypt (fig.7), Isida, Theosebia. Allegedly, Mary of Egypt was the one who invented sexual metaphors to describe the process of transmutation. The most famous figures of alchemy were medieval and renaissance natural philosophers like Paracelsus, Flamel, and Ramon Llull. Already in medieval times, alchemy, or royal art, was banned by the church as there were many con artists among alchemists. At the age of Enlightenment, the discipline became unpopular due to the widespread mechanistic view on nature, though the hermetic tradition still existed. The number of adepts reduced as well as the amount of new literature on transmutation. 

Fulcanelli

The most famous modern representative was a man known as Fulcanelli, who lived in Paris and published writings on alchemy in the 1920s. One of his most famous works, The Mystery of the Cathedrals (1926), analyzed architectural elements of Notre Dame de Paris. According to Fulcanelli, bass-reliefs and sculptures of the cathedral contain information on magnum opus. The only apprentice of this alchemist, Eugene Canseliet, reports that his mentor was born in 1839. In the 1930s, Fulcanelli disappeared and emerged in different places from time to time. One of his remarkable appearances happened in Paris in 1937, when he was supposed to be 98 years old. That time he secretly communicated with French chemists and physicians trying to warn them on the use of nuclear energy.

The operator depicted as a sower observes the conjunction of metals, Bonacina Beineke’s manuscript

Fig. 8. The operator depicted as a sower observes the conjunction of metals, Bonacina Beineke’s manuscript (alchemywebsite.com)

The figures embodying metals are about to shape the hermaphrodite or rebis.

Fig. 9. The figures embodying metals are about to shape the hermaphrodite or rebis. The winged woman symbolizes volatile mercury. The woman transfers her qualities to the man and vice versa, so they become one. Viridarium chymicum, 1624 (Alexander Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism. Taschen. 2003. P. 224).

Plato with a Plough

Alchemy is full of paradoxes. Adepts define it as the cultivation of the heavens (we can see the figure of a sower in some engravings, fig. 8, 9). Reading their treatises, we notice that they operate with chemicals, namely, mercury and sulfur. At the same time, they add to these terms the word philosopher’s: philosopher’s Mercury, philosopher’s Sulfur. Thus, real substances acquire Platonic connotations as they become ideal concepts of themselves. 

Mercury and Sulfur

At the most abstract point, the interaction of Mercury and Sulfur shapes the universe, as these ingredients are associated with man and woman, active and passive principles. Mercury is the wet, cold, volatile mother of metals. Sulfur is their dry, stable, solid, inflammable father. Interestingly, some adepts used this concept of inflammability in their names (Flammel – flame; Fulcanelli – vulcanic). Moreover, the gothic architecture, analyzed by Fulcanelli, is known as Flamboyant.

From Eros to Rebis:

Fig. 10. The philosopher making a symbolical draft on the brick wall. The wall probably embodies the athanor. The large sphere is a macrocosm. The triangle is trinity (body, soul, spirit). The square is four basic elements (earth, water, air, fire). The red circle is a symbol of the man and woman’s conjunction, Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens, 1617 (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com).

Illustration on Tabula Smaragdina

Fig. 11. Illustration on Tabula Smaragdina (“Its’ father is the Sun and its mother the Moon”), Mylius version of ‘Donum Dei’ Series, colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com.

Mercury and Sulfur are often depicted as two dragons

Fig. 12. Mercury and Sulfur are often depicted as two dragons (Mercury is winged) shaping the circle of Ouroboros. Flamel illustrations from the 18th century book by Abraham Eleazar, Uraltes chymisches Werck, Erfurt, 1735. (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Ideal Shape

The terms Mercury and Sulfur didn’t mean natural mercury and sulfur. They often were used to describe the qualities of other metals and substances. If an object was dry and solid, then it was said to contain a lot of Sulfur. If it was cold, wet, liquid, then it had a lot of Mercury inside. Some natural philosophers supposed that to restore the balance of opposing principles meant to take the object back to its’ ideal shape, to re-make it in accordance with god’s initial plan of creation. 

Yin and Yang

The concept of two major elements constituting the world resembles Chinese Yin and Yang. Yin is black and female, while Yang is white and male. The most curious detail is the small white and black circles inside each area of the large Yin/Yang mandala (fig. 13). The Yin side is depicted with a white circle, and the Yang side with white, which symbolizes the presence of the opposite principle in the heart of every side. 

Spiritual alchemy

Spiritual alchemy, teaching us about the inner transformation of the operator rather than about manipulations with chemicals, states that every human carries inside their opposites: a man keeps in his soul a female image and woman – male. The alchemist must find and wake this inner figure to accomplish the Work.

Decorative print of Yin/Yang mandala

Fig. 13. Decorative print of Yin/Yang mandala

The lion (Sulfur, King) and the dragon (Mercury, Queen)

Fig. 14. The lion (Sulfur, King) and the dragon (Mercury, Queen), ancientmedicine.org.

The lion and the eagle composing the symbol of eternity, Basil Valentine ‘Azoth’ Series

Fig. 15. The lion and the eagle composing the symbol of eternity, Basil Valentine ‘Azoth’ Series (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Dragon and Tiger by Kuniyoshi

Fig. 16. Dragon and Tiger by Kuniyoshi (morimiya.net)

Between Lions, Tigers, and the Moon Rabbit

Besides the conceptual resemblance, both traditions use similar symbols for two principles. In Chinese philosophy, Yin is a tiger, and Yang is a dragon (fig. 16). In alchemy, there are a lion and a dragon, but the correlation is inversed: a winged dragon (or an eagle) represents Mercury, and a lion, connected with the Sun in the zodiac, signifies yellow Sulfur (Fig. 14, 15). 

Bestial Symbols

Like the terms for principles of the universe and ingredients of the Work, these bestial symbols had many meanings depending on the context, which will be discussed later. We also should mention that alchemy wasn’t specifically a Western phenomenon. Chinese and Japanese people knew and practiced it as well. 

Moon Rabbit

Some historians and devotees of the hermetic tradition claim that Western alchemy tended to be spiritual and theoretical, while its’ Eastern equivalent was more pragmatic as the purpose of local adepts was to produce the elixir of life. In the Asian mythology, the Moon Rabbit spends days pounding the potion for the Moon goddess Chang’e.

Izanagi and Izanami

Mythological parents of Japanese ethnos and the creators of the islands, Izanagi and Izanami, can be considered a local variation of the Yin and Yang principle. Their sexual activities were frequently depicted in shunga, as well as the sexualized alchemical process became an object for many engravings in hermetic compendiums. 

Jeweled Spear

To some extent, the creation of Japanese land follows the well-known alchemical motto ‘Solve et Coagula’ (dissolve and coagulate). Izanagi put the jeweled spear in the waters of the great ocean, and droplets from the tip, coagulating during their fall, became the land.

Izanagi and izanami keisai eisen

Fig. 17. Izanagi and Izanami, Keisai Eisen ca. 1839 

Copulating Izanagi and Izanami look at bird

Fig. 18. Copulating Izanagi and Izanami look at birds, ca. 1900s 

Mr. Man and mrs. Woman, Hokusai, Manpuku Wagojin

Fig. 19. Mr. Man and mrs. Woman, Hokusai, Manpuku Wagojin series

Anima Mercury, Thurneisser Series

Fig. 20. Anima Mercury, Thurneisser Series (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Spiritus Sulphur Thurneisser Series

Fig. 21. Spiritus Sulphur (Thurneisser Series (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com). Wings may relate to the smoke which burning sulfur emits

Alchemical trinity: Sulfur and Mercury

Fig. 22. Alchemical trinity: Sulfur and Mercury in a form of the hermaphrodite holding Y letter as a symbol of rebis and Sault as a priest conducting a wedding ceremony, Michael Maier Symbola aurea mensae series, 1617 (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

From Two to Three, From Eros to Christ

The Great Work counts three stages: nigredo (the work in black), albedo (the work in white), rubedo (the work in red). The alchemical marriage we speak about in the current article takes place before the opus in black. The red man or philosopher’s Sulfur/Sun copulates with the white woman or philosopher’s Mercury/Moon to produce the royal child. We’ve already discussed the conceptual meaning of these terms. But what did alchemists imply? Which ingredients must we mix to get the powder? Are they mercury and sulfur indeed? 

Mercurial Vapor

Many determined seekers of easy fortune poisoned themselves with mercurial vapor and died in flames of sulfur. They often lost everything, including their minds, but they never managed to produce magical granules. Some of the natural philosophers we know today as the founders of medicine reportedly succeeded in the magnum opus, e. g. Paracelsus. Historian Kenneth Johnson reports that this ‘flamboyant’ doctor died at the age of 47 in the ‘White Horse’ tavern in Strasbourg. But how could die the owner of panacea? 

Alcoholic Intoxication

Well, Johnson suggests that Paracelsus overdosed on the tincture. The situation gets clear if we consult the book of Albert Poisson, where the potion is said to be a mixture of powder and alcohol, so Paracelsus apparently died of alcoholic intoxication. By the way, this adept was among those who wrote about the third element of the Great Work that they called Sault. No one from the “A” echelon mentioned this component before, which might finally make you suspicious of the alchemical doctrine but things become quite logical if we keep in mind that alchemy is more philosophy than science (well, even science is determined by society, culture, and politics, so modern scientists are not really far from their ancestors). It was the pagan roots of the discipline that provided the ground for the concept of duality. 

Alchemical Trinity

Medieval and renaissance adepts talking about the alchemical trinity were Christian mystics, which resulted in the shift of the paradigm. In their view, Sault was an analog for the Holy Spirit. It connected Mercury and Sulfur, the Father and the Son. But the concept of the chemical couple was still popular. In this case, Sault was treated as a priest performing a wedding ceremony. Like Mercury and Sulfur, philosopher’s Sault wasn’t the common sault. 

Purified Gold

Some of the riddles from the treatises imply that it was poisonous Arsenicum (who knows, maybe this Sault caused Paracelsus’s death?). And finally the answer to the main question of this paragraph: what’s hidden behind the red man and the white woman? Albert Poisson suggests that these elements were purified gold (from which they extracted Sulfur) and silver (from which they extracted Mercury), as many adepts emphasize that only silver and gold can help in the Great Work. Gold was rectified by antimony and silver by lead (which was described by metaphorical images of bathing King and Queen sometimes surrounded by the wolf (antimony) and the old man (lead), fig. 24). 

Heated Hermetic Vessel

To extract Mercury and Sulfur from rectified gold and silver, alchemists dissolved the substances in acids. For gold, they used aqua regia (chloroazotic acid), so it looked similar to natural sulfur. Silver was dissolved in azotic acid and resembled mercury. This process was symbolized by lions eating the Sun or the Moon. When Mercury and Sulfur were extracted, the stage of conjunction, or the marriage of metals in a heated hermetic vessel, began. Eros was followed by Thanatos as lovers died after the copulation and the mixture turned black or ‘rotten.’ 

Weirdly Blended Pagan Cults

Their death was the first step of the Work. Then matter gradually became grey and white, being washed by the moisture of condensation. This stage was called albedo and corresponded with the theme of the resurrection of Christ. The final stage was characterized by the reddening of the granulated mixture. As we see, alchemy weirdly blended pagan cults with Christianity and suggested a sophisticated route through Eros to Thanatos, through Thanatos to Christ.

Christ walking out of his tomb as a symbol of Albedo

Fig. 23. Christ walking out of his tomb as a symbol of Albedo or the Work in white from Rosarium Philosophorum (flickr.com)

Sulfur and Mercury depicted with a wolf

Fig. 24. Sulfur and Mercury depicted with a wolf (antimony) and Saturn (lead), Basil Valentine, The Twelve Keys series. The first key, “Rectification of the King and Queen” (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com).

Bathing King and Queen, Rosarium Philosophorum

Fig. 25. Bathing King and Queen, Rosarium Philosophorum (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com).

Solidonius series, scan from Eugene Canseliet’s Alchemy

Fig. 26. Rectification of metals frequently is depicted as undressing of man or woman. Solidonius series, scan from Eugene Canseliet’s Alchemy, 2012, p. 81

Red man (Sulfur) and white woman (Mercury) in a flask. Pandora series

Fig. 27. Red man (Sulfur) and white woman (Mercury) in a flask. Pandora series (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Join the Brother & the Sister

As philosopher’s Mercury and Sulfur were associated with the Moon and the Sun to underline their connection with silver and gold, their mythological embodiments were twins Diana (Artemis) and Apollo, born by Leto, the daughter of Titans. The two natural principles or elements metaphorically related to each other as they were made of the same matter. Some adepts called it Great Mercury (not to be confused with philosopher’s Mercury) or the initial principle. The statement about the only materia prima for all things was the reason why the motif of incest appeared in alchemical texts and engravings. A similar ground for incest was in the Old Testament as human history began with only two persons and their children. One of the most prominent books containing the alchemical theme is Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing, 1617). It was written by Michael Maier, the German physician, amateur composer, and counselor to Rudolf II. The book consists of 50 emblems produced by Matthias Merian, 50 epigrams, and 50 fugues for three voices. Thus, Atalanta Fugiens is the earliest example of a multimedia work of art. The fourth epigram of the emblem entitled Join the Brother with the Sister and give them a cup of love tells us about the marriage of a brother and a sister (Apollo and Artemis, gold and silver):

To multiply the world with human race,
The brother did his sister close embrace:
Let therefore one the other friendly wed,
That they may act as man and wife in bed:
First to incite, prepare a cup of the best,
And then they both will freely do the rest.
(furnaceandfugue.org)

The mysterious cup reminds us of drunken Lot and also of Tristan and Isolde. The conjunction of Hermes and Aphrodite depicted in the 38th emblem technically is incestuous too. The hermaphrodite was a symbol of rebis (‘the dual thing’), which was a name for the philosopher’s stone, a result of gold and silver’s conjunction.

Emblem 4 from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens,

Fig. 28. Emblem 4 from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, 1617 (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Emblem 38: Rebis is, as Hermaphroditus, produced from the two mountains of Mercury and Venus

Fig. 29. Emblem 38: Rebis is, as Hermaphroditus, produced from the two mountains of Mercury and Venus (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com).

Emblem 34: He is conceived in baths, and born in the air, and being made red walks upon the waters

Fig. 30. Emblem 34: He is conceived in baths, and born in the air, and being made red walks upon the waters (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

The sign of Mercury from Hermaphrodite Child of the Sun and Moon Series

Fig. 31. The sign of Mercury from Hermaphrodite Child of the Sun and Moon Series (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

The Sign Symbolism

All alchemical metaphors can be understood in many ways. It’s easy to get confused by Great Mercury, philosopher’s Mercury, and the Mercury of philosophers (yes, some people say these two are different substances). In the 17th century, alchemy blended with cabbala and became more speculative. Occultists like John Dee meditated and reflected on alchemical signs. The sign of mercury is the most apparent material for such an exercise. It consists of the circle of the sun crowned with the moon and supported by a cross designating four basic elements (earth, water, fire, air). This way, we can conclude that the sign of the patron and the initial principle of alchemy embodies, among other meanings, the duality of Sulfur and Mercury/Yin and Yang presiding over the elements, or the marriage of metals performed by the forces of nature.

Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 30:

Fig. 32. Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 30: Luna is as requisite to Sol as a hen to a cock (colored by Adam McLean; alchemywebsite.com)

Sources: Albert Poisson. Theories and Symbols of Alchemists; Giammaria. This Unknown Alchemy; Kenneth Rayner Johnson. The Phenomenon of Fulcanelli; furnaceandfugue.org; alchemywebsite.com; Wikipedia.org

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About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
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