Alchemy and the Tree

Humans as a species are an animal that wonders. You might not think it, having gotten to know certain humans, but it's true: one distinginguishing feature of our breed versus, say, chimpanzees or dolphins is that we can look at a phenomenon and wonder why it happens. So deep that it may even be instinctual, we have a drive to find out not just what, but why.

We're also a pattern-matching animal. In that, we're like just about every higher-ordered life form on the planet, as it's a useful — perhaps a necessary — survival skill. Pattern matching helps us distinguish food from enemies from mates, thereby keeping us alive and reproducing.

Put those two features together, and we wonder about patterns: how is this pattern like that pattern? How are the two related? — And we're sure there must be a relation ... because really, what other purpose could the stars and planets possibly serve, than to form patterns for the purpose of regulating our lives?

So, having decided that Qabalah is a useful metaphor for describing the universe's creation and structure, we should obviously be able to relate it to other systems we've created for understanding the system(s) of the world. That's one reason we're sure that the Tarot, astrology, all that lot must surely have their appropriate resonances and associations with Qabalah. They're all patterns, and all patterns are related, right?

(In at least one sense, that's absolutely true. All of these systems are metaphors, stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. "The world" in these metaphors is itself a metaphor for "the insides of our own heads": we are each a Mind that seeks to understand itself and its relationship to the universe. So while the planets may not actually rule our lives, the attributes we assign to those planets are things that influence us, letting us use the planets as metaphors for the attributes.)

Alchemy is one such system, one whose origins (unlike some mystical and magickal systems) really do go back many centures. It's sort of a (warning! gross over-simplification coming!) mystical chemistry, combining elements of chemistry, astrology, religion, and occasionally good old wishful thinking. The "Alchemical Marriage" consisted of three basic elements, mercury, sulfur, and salt; and three mystical operations, a descent, an ascent, and a transformation, through which base elements were transmuted into a "perfected" state: lead into gold, humans into eternal life, you get the idea.

[Break in the article here ... more coming]

Among the Tree's many divisions are some groups of three: the three Pillars, and three Triads, where each Triad in turn is composed of three Sephiroth. We can view these trinities as an allegory of the three parts of the Alchemical working, the union of sulfur and salt through mercury, or as its three stages of descent, ascent, and transformation. (And, yes, also as the Holy Trinity, about which I say more in my writing about Neshamah.)

Too, as so many other parts of the tree map back into the Supernals, so do the pillars (naturally, as the Supernals are their source) and the triads themselves. So Kether in some sense contains the entire Supernal triad — but if you've read enough of these explanations you should have come to expect that.

The Book of Thoth talks about two of the Tarot trumps as a dyad that should be considered and meditated upon together: Art and The Lovers. In so saying, it cites the Alchemical maxim solve et coagula, dissolve — i.e., disassemble — and coagulate, join. The explanations of those cards have compelling arguments, but there's something missing. Alchemical operations have three parts, not two, so we expect to find a third card playing a part ... which one?

One of Crowley's justifications for Art and The Lovers as those two parts is that they also associate with opposite astrological signs: Art with Sagittarius (a fire sign) and The Lovers with Gemini (air). Then, to form a triad we would naturally want to look at signs square to those two: Pisces (water) or Virgo (earth). Both symbols have a certain attraction, but their associations place them in opposite directions. (Therefore both are correct! Remember that. It'll come in useful.) Pisces associates with Qoph, the Moon, and ... aha! Virgo associates with Yod, the Hermit.

Among other things, the Hermit is the very tip of Yod, the place where the Ineffable leaks out into Kether, the One. This, then, is our answer, because we have thus recreated the Supernal triad: the Hermit as Kether, the One, and the dyad of The Lovers and Art as Chokmah and Binah, respectively, the Two.

Looking at the symbolism shown in the dyad reinforces our view of them as Chokmah and Binah. They are two views of the Alchemical wedding, one from the active perspective and another from the passive — reason and emotion, light and dark, the very essence of Briah, the world in which division occurs.

(About the choice I rejected: in the Moon's defense, it, like Kether, is in the middle pillar. It is Yesod, the gateway to Malkuth, the physical universe. It also forms a useful triad and a boundary point: the manifestation of Matter, where Kether is the manifestation of All. So, as I said just a moment ago, both answers are right. Which answer you choose depends on what you intend to use it for.)

With the Hermit, the Lovers, and Art, we now have the three pillars accounted for, and the three Sephiroth of the Supernal triad. Now let's think about the three Triads. In my writings about those Triads, I remark that they account for three "souls", or in the case of the Supernals, a group of three souls. The group soul we call Neshamah, and say it is the super-conscious, the higher Self that sits above us and is our link to the Ineffable. The next we call Ruach, which we think of as our normal consciousness; and the next we call Nephesh, the subconscious — sometimes thought of as a sphere of demons, the place of our base desires and emotions.

But simply by saying emotions, we have named the key that maps this triad onto a pillar: Nephesh, Art, is the Cup of emotion, which places this group in the pillar of Severity. And in so saying, we notice that its balancing principle, the sword of reason, Ruach, the Lovers, is an obvious candidate for the pillar of Mercy. This leaves the Supernals exactly where we would expect: in Mildness, the middle pillar, associated with Kether.

So we see that the Alchemical working's three parts fall and three elements fall naturally into our three Pillars — which, by the way, we might also call Yin, Yang, and Tao — as do the three Triads themselves; and each Pillar is in turn contained within one Sephirah of the Supernal triad; and because of this the three Supernals are themselves contained within Kether. And so we come one step closer to realizing that after all, All is One.

One moment, please.
x Pages available here:
An Interactive QabalahThe Mother lettersSeven of Swords A Brief Introduction to QabalahNepheshSix of Swords Kether, the CrownNeshamahFive of Swords Chokmah, WisdomThe Veil of ParokethFour of Swords Binah, UnderstandingPermutations of the NameThree of Swords Daath, KnowledgeThe Three PillarsTwo of Swords QliphothThe ProfaneAce of Disks Chesed, MercyReflectionKnight of Disks Geburah, StrengthRuachQueen of Disks Tiphareth, BeautySefer Yetzirah, the Book of FormationPrince of Disks Netzach, VictorySeverityPrincess of Disks Hod, SplendorThe simple lettersTen of Disks Yesod, FoundationWhat is a Soul?Nine of Disks Malkuth, KingdomThe SoulsEight of Disks AlefThe Supernal TriadSeven of Disks BetThe FoolSix of Disks GimelThe MagusFive of Disks DalethThe PriestessFour of Disks HehThe EmpressThree of Disks VauThe EmperorTwo of Disks ZainThe HierophantAdjustment ChethThe LoversAeon TethThe ChariotArt YodAdjustmentThe Chariot KaphThe HermitDeath LamedFortuneDevil MemLustThe Emperor NunThe Hanged ManThe Empress SamekhDeathThe Fool AyinArtFortune PehThe DevilThe Hanged Man TzaddiThe TowerThe Hermit QophThe StarThe Hierophant ReshThe MoonThe Lovers ShinThe SunLust TauThe AeonThe Magus The Qabalistic WorldsThe UniverseThe Moon Atziluth, ArchetypesAce of WandsThe Priestess Briah, the CreativeKnight of WandsThe Star Yetzirah, the FormativeQueen of WandsThe Sun Assiah, the ActivePrince of WandsThe Tower The court cardsPrincess of WandsThe Universe The AcesTen of WandsHebrew alphabet transliterations The KnightsNine of WandsThe Triads The QueensEight of WandsThe Qabalistic Veils The PrincesSeven of WandsThe Name of Names, YHVH The PrincessesSix of WandsAlef The TensFive of WandsAyin The NinesFour of WandsBet The EightsThree of WandsCheth The SevensTwo of WandsDaleth The SixesAce of CupsThe double letters The FivesKnight of CupsGimel The FoursQueen of CupsHeh The ThreesPrince of CupsKaph The TwosPrincess of CupsLamed The 32 Paths of WisdomTen of CupsMem The AbyssNine of CupsThe mother letters Adam Kadmon, the Body of GodEight of CupsNun AlchemySeven of CupsPeh The Alef-Bet in Space and TimeSix of CupsQoph The Ari TreeFive of CupsResh The Astral TriadFour of CupsSamekh The double lettersThree of CupsShin The Ethical TriadTwo of CupsThe simple letters the Flash of LightAce of SwordsTau The Gra TreeKnight of SwordsTeth The 72 Hidden Names of GodQueen of SwordsThe Tree of Life The Tree of LifePrince of SwordsTzaddi The Hebrew alef-bet letter classesPrincess of SwordsVau MercyTen of SwordsYod MildnessNine of SwordsZain The Presence of the Most HighEight of Swords