Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy

Book Review: The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy
by Mircea Eliade (Harper Torchbooks 1971, originally 1956)

This was a nice read. Eliade is famed as a master of anthropology and comparative myth. His vast knowledge and ability to compare many myths, ethnic traditions, textual sources, and psychological effects, shines through. The book is chiefly about the rites associated with metallurgy, mining, smithcraft, and alchemy in various cultures. It is about – Homo Faber – the notion of man controlling the environment through tools.

The book begins with notions of the source of metals being the sky. In some places, especially where there is little or no mine-able iron known, early man made iron tools from meteorites, which they knew were sky stones. I guess this implies that they saw them fall. So perhaps there were times in the past where more meteors fell than nowadays. Indeed, these observations probably led to notions of a sky-vault made of stone or metal. Meteorites as black stones have been venerated as well in the Middle East. The black stone of the Goddess Cybele is said to have been a Phrygian meteorite as well as the famous Ka’aba stone of Mecca. Meteoric iron was used for tools before the discovery of ores and metallurgy. The place where a meteor struck was thought to be a site of the union of heaven and earth, of the Storm God and the Earth Goddess. Of course, meteorites are rare and then were considered more precious than gold. The true Iron Age began when man discovered smelting of magnetite and hematite. It is said that between 1200 and 1000 BC in the mountains of Armenia was the first known industrial scale smelting. (as of this book 1962 edition). It was worked before that like copper and bronze but smelting, especially in the high heat of furnaces made better weapons and implements possible. With smelting was the smith born. Although Eliade does not mention this – if smithing begins with smelting then the myths of the smiths in various cultures may not be as old as one normally thinks. For instance, if Prometheus stole fire from the forge of Hephaestus, then Hephaestus would have had a furnace before man had fire. Knowing that man used fire many millenia before the Greek Gods were conceived – anyway I speculate – mixing myth with reality, just a weird thought. But copper smelting dates back to 4000-3500 BC in Sumeria (but not widespread) and use of copper in Neolithic Europe a few thousand years before that.

Next we come to the mythology of the Iron Age. Iron is considered sacred in many ancient cultures. Iron, as well as the smiths who work it, sometimes has an ambivalent character where smiths are revered and despised, or revered in some places and despised in others. The tools of the smith: hammer, bellows, and anvil, also retain magical qualities in many traditions. Smiths forge tools that aid and weapons that destroy. In some places the smith is a civilizing hero. The Tibetan smith-deity Dorje Legpa (related to Dantsien San – the storm god) rides a goat and is associated with agriculture. The West African Dogon smith god brings grain from heaven for the people. The Buriat Siberian heavenly smith Boshintoj taught metallurgy to the people and all smiths are said to descend from his family. Muslim tribes in the Pamirs elevate the prophet David as the source of smithing and the smithy is sacred and used as a polace of worship when a mosque is not available. There is another famous smith associated with the first dynasty in Iran that I read about in the Shah Nameh: The Persian Epic of Kings. His leather apron was affixed to the end of a spear as a symbol of unity to those gathered to fight an evil king.  Eliade here gives the sequence of mythical images related to the storm god:

“the storm-gods strike the earth with the ‘thunderstones’; their emblem is the double axe and the hammer; the storm is the signal for the heaven-earth hierogamy. [sacred marriage] When striking their anvils smiths imitate the primordial gesture of the strong god; they are in effect his accessories. All the mythology woven around agrarian fertility, metallurgy, and work is, moreover, of relatively recent origin. Of later date than pottery and agriculture, metallurgy is set in the framework of a spiritual universe where the heavenly god, who was still present in the ethnological phases of food-gathering and small-game hunting, is finally ousted by the strong God, the fertilizing Male, spouse of the terrestrial Great Mother.”

Eliade relates these traditions to ritual marriage and blood sacrifice. Creation myths frequently involve the world created from the sacrifical body (usually a giant or monster) – Ymir, Tiamat, Purusha, Chaldean Bel etc. Thus he notes that in myth, creation is sacrifice. And based on this formula, humans sacrifice both humans and animals in order to reify the original sacrifice of the god or giant. There is an ancient Greek legend of the origin of iron being through sacrifice by two brothers of a third brother who was buried in the ground and became iron. In ancient Egypt iron was referred to as the bones of Horus.

Next there is some interesting discussion about myth and gender. Things are named male or female typically by the obvious looks and/or function. In terms of metals, iron is typically male while copper is usually female (also often associated with Venus and goddesses).  Sometimes certain types of iron are male – usually hard and black and other types female – usually softer and red. There is some interesting discussion as well about the rituals associated with early citrus tree grafting and artificial fertilization of date trees in the Middle East. It seems that any time man stepped into the creative process there were associated rites and taboos. Anyway the smelting kiln or furnace as female is rather obvious as is the Vedic fire altar as female. The triangle as symbol of the vulva may stretch back to Paleolithic times. The cave or mine into the earth was seen as the uterus. The ore was thought to be embryos. Mining involves bringing the embryos out early to hasten their development (by smelting in the furnace). Here man is taking things from the earth before they are fully developed so that he can speed up the development as their natural development takes much longer. Apparently, many cultures had notions of metals gradually transforming into other metals – usually from less valuable to more valuable/rare – ie. from lead to gold. This suggests the birth of alchemy. Men born from stones occur in many myths. Stones can be considered the bones of the Earth Mother. There are notions in Indian gemology of quartz crystal being unripe while diamonds are ripe. So again we have the natural ripening of the stones in the belly of the earth. There are rites in many cultures where metals and precious stones are planted and watered, or otherwise ‘fed’ (as in Cherokee quartz). So we see that Alchemy involves the ritualized ripening of metals. Traditional associations of metals with the planets are fairly intuitive. Bright Gold to the Bright Sun; Shimmering Silver to the Moon; Hard Iron to the war god Mars; Soft Copper to the Goddess Venus; Heavy Lead to the Enslaving Saturn. The conjunction of very ancient earth fertility traditions and Babylonian cosmology and astrology in early times in the city of Alexandria may well have sparked the early alchemical traditions.

Subterranean spirits exist in many ancient cultures. There is also much lore associated with early mining. Where to find deposits may be revealed magically. In China there is the story of the happy miner, Yu the Great, who heals the earth. Dwarves, some faeries, and great master-smiths often live under the earth.

The marriage of metals as well has a long history. Early it was copper and tin to make bronze. There are stories where sacrifices are needed to get metal to fuse properly to forge swords. The living human, or a suitable substitution such as an animal or body parts like fingernails and hair, ritually enables the fusing of metals in several ancient cultural paradigms. My son informs me of a similar myth in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition where a bell of seven metals is being forged and the gold is having trouble fusing, whereby a woman leaps into the forge to affect the transformation. This likely derives from very similar Chinese legends regarding the forging of a sword. Tempering a sword is considered a union of Fire and Water. Perhaps this is equivalent to one of the refining processes in Alchemy as well.

Guilds and secret societies built up around smelting, forging, and smithery in many cultures. This is true among the West African traditions as well as the Mesopotamian traditions. The Mesopotamians are noted for sword development. The smith, (or builder, potter, and agriculturist for that matter) intervenes in the cosmic rhythm of creation, and so must do it according to mythic tradition in order to be successful. The magical transformations of ores and metals into exquisite tools and weapons led naturally to ideas of the transformation not only of matter, but of the spiritual qualities of man, along the same general principles. Fire is the transformative agent. Magic power is described in many cultures as heat. So mastery of fire can be on the outer, material sense, or in the sense of inner spiritual experience. So we see that smiths are sometimes seen to be on the same magical level as shamans. There is a custom among the Buriat smiths and shamans where a person representing the smith-god Boshintoj would take in his hands a piece of iron being smelted. This is done even today. I know a Bon lama whose father or uncle  was a shaman and did a similar thing (without getting burned if I recall). Siberian shamans wear metal on there costumes made by smiths. The metal is said to repel evil spirits but is also representative of man’s mastery over fire. In Africa, the craft of metallurgy is presided over by secret societies. Sometimes the smith doubles as town chief. Among the Yoruba, Ogun, the war god, is also the first smith, and founder of the secret society.  In many myths (Canaanite, Egyptian, Indian, Babylonian, Greek, etc.) the  divine smith forges weapons so that the civilizing god (Baal, Horus, Indra, Marduk, Zeus, etc.) can defeat the chthonic dragon mother power (Yam, Set, Vritra, Tiamat, Typhon, etc). Some say that the Cyclops are one-eyed because they were smiths and lost an eye at work. Thor slays a magic serpent power with his hammer forged underground by dwarfs, who Eliade says are equivalent to the Cyclops (as well the Japanese smith-god is said to be one-eyed). It is thunder and lightning that are the weapons forged by the smith gods. So the storm powers, the sky powers, become venerated after this series of mythologies in the early Iron Age. In Ancient Greek lands there were secret guilds associated with smithery that later became the secret groups guarding the Mysteries. The Telchines, Cabiri, Kuretes, Corybantes ,and Dactyls all had legends as originators of iron-craft. Some of these became the priests of Cybele, others were guardians of the child Zeus. These groups were often far off in secretive places in the mountains. The dwarf master-smiths of Scandinavia lived inside the mountains. A smith race among the Dogon in West Africa were also said to have retreated to live within the mountains. The mastery of fire is also a motif of the warrior as well as the shaman, smith, magician, and yogi-ascetic. All enter initiation by fire, or healing through the fire of initiation. Even in some Christian imagery (especially in Gnostic versions of baptism by fire) we have Jesus, as well as the Devil, as a master of fire.

Next he investigates Chinese Alchemy and Taoism. The legends of the attainment of immortality here are tied strongly to alchemy and have many parallels to Alexandrian and the Alchemy of the Middle Ages. Early Taoist alchemists kept recipes and plant and mineral lore. The Herb of Immortality, or elixir of eternal youth, is a common theme and quest. The Taoist immortals are said to dwell in their grottoes within the calabash, or gourd, ie. the furnace/forge. Taoist yogic practices utilize the forge in the body center, dan tien. Gold and immortality were equated in Chinese Alchemy as in the West. Jade and cinnabar are also very magical in the Taoist versions. There are detailed relationships between Chinese Alchemy, Chinese Medicine, and Taoist Yoga. In the Yoga, the central region, the dan tien below the navel may be equated with the mystical mountain Ku Lun where the cinnabar fields dwell as embryos, in the earth, in the body – to be transformed in the furnace within. There is an idea of a – return to the matrix – or the materia prima – the primal material – into the ‘chaotic state’ – through meditation. The return to the matrix state is associated with embryonic breathing, or breathing by imitating the fetus in the womb. Stopping of the breath was also practiced, often as a method to immobilize the semen, a practice said to increase longevity. This is very similar to Indian yogic methods and who developed them first or influenced one another, if at all, is rather unknown.

Next we come to Indian Alchemy. Yoga and Tantra are intimately entwined with it. Alchemists and siddhas go hand in hand in India. The many yogic methods involve the transmutation of the body-mind. According to the famed Buddhist Alchemist and Mahayanist Nagarjuna, transmutation of matter (and mind) can be effected by both herbs and Samadhi (perfected yoga). Some researchers have tried to say that Indian Alchemy was influenced by the Middle Eastern Alchemy of the Arabs which derived from the Alexandrian tradition but Eliade and others refute this as Nagarjuna’s texts far predate contact with Arabs. Many Hindu Tantras talk about transformations with mercury and sulfur. Some of those may have been affected by Western or Arabian Alchemy. But in most all cases alchemy is associated foremost with yogic transformation more than the transmutation of matter.

Eliade talks a lot in the book about equating the transformation of the initiate of the mystery school to that of matter – in that matter itself becomes the initiate and is transformed by the same methods, both chemical and magical. He notes also some of C. J. Jung’s notions of alchemy as a psychological initiation process. The development of Alexandrian Alchemy involved a mixing of traditions, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and those of shamanic antiquity. Later, in the Middle Ages and Rennaissance, the Christian symbolism was added (or possibly even earlier in 3rd to 5th century CE times in Alexandria) to culminate in the traditions of the Freemasons and Rosicrucians who preserved much alchemical lore. The lore of the death and resurrection of Christ joined the lore of the Alchemists long ago coming from much earlier traditions of the dying and transformed god. The negredo, or black phase, in alchemy refers to the initiatory death, the reduction to the materia prima in the body of the mother – the embryo to be re-born. Apparently, Jung has done much work with the parallels between the resurrection of the Christ and the attainment of the Philosopher’s Stone. Like the state of Samadhi, the Philosopher’s Stone is imbued with the ability to transmute base metals into gold. The Arabians were reputedly the first to ascribe health giving properties to the Stone.

Next Eliade investigates a more modern equivalent to the myth of Homo Faber, or man improving on nature. Here he talks about the Industrial Age. Nowhere is the acceleration of time more prominent than in industrialization. He notes rather interestingly that all sacred notions regarding the work of manufacture have been stripped in the scientific age. He compares the beginnings of agriculture as the previous great upheaval in man’s way of life. The next great one he sees is that of industrialization of work. Both he regards as spiritual crises:

“The secularization of work is like an open wound in the body of modern society. There is, however, nothing to indicate that a re-sanctification may not take place in the future.”

Regarding the implications of the discovery and use of metals he says:

“Not only did the manipulation of metals contribute considerably to man’s conquest of the material world; it also changed his world of meaning. The metals opened for him a new mythological and religious universe.”

Of course, he says, agriculture was an even more profound change. Regarding Alchemy and mystical traditions he notes:

“Everywhere we find alchemy, it is always intimately related to a “mystical’ tradition: in China with Taoism, in India with Yoga and Tantrism, in Hellenistic Egypt with gnosis, in Islamic countries with hermetic and esoteric mystery schools, in the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance with Hermetism, Christian and sectarian mysticism, and Cabala,”

Finally in the book he goes through additional material in the form of relevant new papers and books written since the making of the 2nd edition of the book. This is a great book and it was fun to read from the works of the acclaimed master and I plan to read more from Eliade. Since my son is really into blacksmithing we are also having some good discussions and I intend to get him to at least read this review I have penned.

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