The Alchemy of Mythology

Bilbo…often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. …You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.
— Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

I’ve often thought that our legends are like that.  Our myths are all so interconnected that, if you are not careful, following one will lose you in a vast maze where every belief somehow touches every other, leading you ever further in.

For instance:  In 1669, a German alchemist named Henning Brand discovered a substance that had the odd and miraculous property of glowing in the dark.  Because of this, it was given the Greek name of Phosphorus ( phos light + phoros bearing).  This would only be an isolated bit of trivia were it not for the fact that the name “Phosphorous” was already taken:  it was an ancient name for the planet Venus.

Alchemy was a huge and complex system of chemistry, astrology, mysticism, and cosmology that was supposed to hold the arcane secrets of the universe.  And, since Venus was among the most potent of the astrological symbols in alchemy, this selection of Phosphorus as the name for the magical new substance was a sure indication of how strongly the alchemists felt that with the discovery of this magical new glowing stuff, they were getting near the secret core of reality.  By that simple naming, a chemical discovery became connected to the vast network of beliefs embraced by alchemy.

But Venus was far more than just an arcane symbol for secret powers known only to the alchemists.  It was commonly called the Morning Star since Venus was the last star (well, planet, actually, but that’s what they called it) seen in the Eastern sky before the sun rose.  That’s the reason the Greeks called Venus Phosphorus, the “Bringer (or Bearer) of Light.”

But beyond that astronomy, it was also commonly believed among the educated that there was great astrological significance to both the last star and last sign of the zodiac seen before dawn on the vernal equinox.  It was obvious that they were soon lost to sight, devoured by the glare of the rising sun.  To the medieval mind, their consumption couldn’t be an accident or event without meaning.  That last star and sign were seen as sacrificed to bring about the dawn.  Since to a Christian the idea of sacrifice meant, above all, the sacrifice of the crucifixion, and since in Revelations Jesus says “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end….I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star,” Jesus was mystically identified with Venus, the Star of the Morning, sacrificed each day in imitation of His original sacrifice.

[For the really obsessive, who just have to know more about that “last sign of the zodiac” remark above, the precession of the equinoxes ensures that the sign of the zodiac sacrificed in the dawn changes every 2150 years as part of a giant time cycle lasting 25,800 years.  The signs go backwards, so the last few were Taurus, then Aries, and then Pisces, with Aquarius coming next. The last zodiacal sign fully seen before the dawn is said to characterize the age which the earlier one, the sacrificed one, brings about.  So, just to drown in symbology, it is thereby said that the Jews in the desert, by sacrificing to a Golden Calf, were committing a pagan act because they were worshiping the astrological Bull of Taurus, which was the sign sacrificed in that Age.  The sign of the coming age, Aries, was represented by Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed to bring on the one after that, the Age of Pisces, wherein he was called the Fisher of Men.  Finally, when the musical Hair talks about the Age of Aquarius, that is the coming age that will be brought about by the death of Pisces.  Enough for you?]

But back to our legends.  So far our chemical discovery has given us a link with all the complex cosmologies embraced by alchemy and astrology and we’ve added a connection to Christianity, with all its creeds and doctrines.  Now let’s jump back in time to the Old Testament, where Isaiah says about Nebuchadnezzar, the ruined king of Babylon: “Take up this proverb against the King of Babylon, and say, … How art thou fallen, from heaven,…, son of the morning!” (Isa. XIV).   That “son of the morning” is yet another pseudonym for Venus.  If you’re keeping count of linkages, we now have an element, a planet, Jesus, and Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon, all tied together.  Looking at it another way, we’ve connected chemistry, alchemy, astrology, and both the Old and New Testaments.

But we’re not done yet.

Right about the same time Henning Brand was discovering phosphorus, John Milton was writing Paradise Lost.  There, Milton tells the story of the downfall of the demon of “Sinful Pride,” whose army fought against God under the symbol of the peacock feather.  A little like Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the Inferno is interesting while Paradise is dull, it is hard not to feel a certain admiration for the defeated angel who defiantly declares that it is “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heav’n.”  The most beautiful of God’s angels, and His favorite, Milton calls him both the “Son of the Morning” and Lucifer.

But the name Lucifer was not an invention of Milton.  It is from the Latin and means luci light + fer to bear, or the “light bearer.”  I.e, exactly the same meanings as built “phosphorus.”  And, once again, it was a (Roman this time) name for the planet Venus.  So to a set of links connecting an element, a planet, Jesus, and Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon, Milton added Lucifer, a.k.a. Satan.

I added the name Satan because, in popular understanding of the Bible, Satan is identified with Lucifer as the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Beast, etc., and, above all, as the Snake in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve into sin and brings all the distress to the world.  What makes this connection interesting is that nowhere in the Bible is the serpent identified with Satan or anybody else.  He’s just a talking snake.  And, later on, when Satan actually is introduced in the Bible, he is not the Devil.  He’s just one of the angels whose job it is to take the J’Accuse role vis-a-vis mankind.  His name, Satan, is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary” and he has the adversary’s job of pointing out mankind’s faults.  You can see him in that role in what I think is the oddest of the Bible’s books, Job.

But legends carry a certain contagion and, over the years, Satan, the Adversary, morphed into the leader of the revolt of the angels against God, the one cast down into the Pit, eventually becoming Evil Incarnate.  It seems a bit of a hard fate for simply flirting with human mythology, but there it is.

For our next connection, we need to look a little further into the Garden.  Or, more specifically, at that tree.  The Bible tells us there were two trees that grew in the Garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were apparently entitled to eat Life, but not the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  For eating the Forbidden Fruit, mankind was cast from the Garden, acquired death as a heritage, hard work and pain as a lifestyle, and the Woman got the blame for it all.

A more pernicious set of heirlooms to fasten upon a cultural legacy would be hard to find, although it provides connections to yet another whole raft of legends and myths.  But aside from all the male chauvinism it has engendered, I’ve always suspected this story was the origin of the old Church’s pronounced antagonism for literacy and education for the masses.  Lucifer’s sin in the garden was to bring mankind enlightenment.  According to this thesis, it is not Money that is the root of all evil, but Knowledge.

[On the other hand, the apple, whose absence from the Garden is as conspicuous as Satan’s, had a happier fate.  It somehow became identified over the centuries as the fruit that started it all.  But, instead of being condemned forevermore, all those seductive representations of the evil Woman tempting Adam gave the apple a quite undeserved reputation as an aphrodisiac.  Mythology can be a fickle thing.]

Undeserved as it may be, Satan/Lucifer became identified as the one who talked Man into defying God.  From the Christian point of view, this disobedience tied mankind to Lucifer’s own great primordial rebellion, thus adding another layer of damnation to Man’s indiscretion in the Garden.  From the pagan point of view, however, the whole story automatically associated Satan with the familiar legend of another rebel: the Titan Prometheus.

Prometheus, whose name means forethought, was known as the Friend of Man.  In Greek legend, it was he who first taught man the many arts he needed to become civilized.  Realizing man still needed one thing above all else to begin to grow, he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man.  The gods feared that this would allow man to eventually rival the gods, so Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a rock where an eagle constantly ate at his liver.

In other words, Prometheus was the light-bearer who gave both the light of knowledge and the light of fire itself to Man.  In actual Roman mythology, the identity of Prometheus as the light-bearer was made still more clear.  Prometheus was, in fact, identified with the planet Venus, poetically at least, by calling him by the name of Eosphorous, meaning the dawn-bearer.

Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus, who fell in love with a beautiful woman called Pandora.  Epimetheus had a box of evil things which he instructed Pandora never to open.  In yet another let’s-blame-the-woman legend, Pandora opens the box and sets loose all the evils on the world.  (Incidentally, Epimetheus means after-thought, which I’ve always translated as “Ooops!”)

We could go on and on, since there is no natural end to the chain.  In this single example we have progressed from an element, to a planet, Jesus, Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon, Satan/Lucifer, the Garden, Adam & Eve, Original Sin, Prometheus and ended up at Pandora’s Box.  This means that by simply touching phosphorus we have automatically opened doors that lead to chemistry, alchemy, astrology, the Old and New Testaments, and both Greek and Roman mythology.  Like Bilbo’s Road, all of our myths and legends seem to connect together into a vast river system.  And although we may not be aware of it as a daily matter, the reality of our culture is that it seems to be impossible to touch on any of them however casually, without brushing against all the rest.

But this example actually began with an alchemist discovering something that allowed him to read in the dark.  Just to close our loop, let me say his new element fairly quickly found other uses.  Among them, it was discovered to be so extremely flammable that it became a handy product for lighting household fires.  No more flint and steel!  It was a bit dangerous to have around, though, and had to be kept wet until used, as dry phosphorus has the unhappy habit of spontaneously bursting into flame.  Eventually (1827) someone found a practical way to use phosphorus to light off some chemicals painted onto the end of a stick, thereby inventing that most basic of devices, the thing we call a match.

That’s not what they were called when they were introduced, though.  They called them either prometheans or lucifers.

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