"Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche ad within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass; the Glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose Oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it.
Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.(Lit is such a light) in houses, which Allah hath permitted to be raised to honour; for the celebration, in them, of His name: in them is He glorified in the mornings and in the evenings".
Koran (Surah XXIV, 35,36) [Translation from Quran.al-islam]
"Jason snatched the golden fleece from the oak, at the maiden bidding [Medea, Note of the Translator]; and she, standing firm, smeared with the charm the monster's head, till Jason himself bade her turn back towards their ship, and she left the grove of Ares, dusky with shade".
Apollonius Rhodius – Argonautica (Book IV) [Translation from The Internet Classics Archive]
Let’s start by making a consideration on "the bodies of man" . In the text that follows we will not go into what different cultures, such as western, Hindu, Buddhist, Tibetan or ancient Egyptian have said on the "subtle bodies" of man. We will stick to the traditional idea of a man made of body, soul and spirit, which in the alchemic texts we sometimes find identified respectively with Salt, Sulfur and Mercury. Here we would only like to attract the reader’s attention on the fact that when we talk about soul or spirit our usual and instinctive differentiation between "internal" and "external" appears totally illusory .
We have already said that we intend to follow the journey of the 12 signs of the zodiac from the point of view of the "traveler". The sign of Aries is the archetype of any possible beginning and it draws its symbolic meanings from the legend of the Golden Fleece, from the lamb carried on the shoulders by the god Hermes, from the sacrifice of the lamb to announce or to propitiate a period of resurrection and renewal. How should we imagine this igneous and immaterial ray coming from an invisible sun?
We must admit that this is quite an abstract idea and apparently far from any practicality. The closest concepts in the mystic Christian thought are Grace and Pentecost.
Grace doesn’t depend on us but it is given to us; it is difficult to express in words what it means, just like when we have a brilliant idea there is a pre-verbal stage where that idea manifests itself as a sudden intuition, not yet communicable to other people. We might say that when we are finally able to represent an idea through language, we have "embodied" it, made it tangible, but we also limited its potential. How did that idea generate inside us?
Plato tried to answer this question with the myth of the cave: the ideas that we have of the world are nothing but shadows of invisible, immortal and unchangeable archetypes that we see on the walls of the cave where we are enclosed (the body) and we, after all, do nothing but "remembering" what our soul already knew…We might apply this intuition to the will and impulses that lead us in
life, and even to the new energies and drives that animate us or the events that change our destiny; the will and impulses belong to us, just like the ideas that we have on the world. Nevertheless we know nothing of their origin, the mysterious source where they come from.
In the ancient pagan Mysteries that source was considered sacred to Dionysus, god of desire and spring lymph, of the reawakening of the sleeping Nature, mystic groom that welcomes the maidens deceased in the netherworld, but also phallic and licentious god, god of mazes, bull, snake and wild goat offered to sacrifice, god of wine and possession, tragedy and masks. Aries, the sign of the zodiac where light manifests itself, is connected to the vernal point, to the instant when the hours of light exceed the hours of darkness, in virtue of a mysterious telluric force that drives the lymph in the tree trunks and leads animals to mate.
In the Pentecost, on the other hand, the Spirit descends on the Apostles, taking the aspect of a flame and gives them wisdom. This is also a disembodied principle which, from the moment when it is linked to body and matter, is translated into knowledge of things that we ignored beforehand, such as the gift of languages, wisdom or the ability to heal the sick. Both Grace and Spirit, we need to highlight, don’t have individual, personal character, but they acquire it after connecting with matter and body.
The activity of the alchemist has been described as "spiritualization of the matter and corporification of the spirit". It is true that the practical aspect of the Opus alchemicum requires that we operate on concrete matter, with a suitable vase and a suitable fire. But there is also mention of the gathering of "celestial dew", an invisible principle of a spiritual nature that must enter the Work in order for this to start, for the alchemic manipulations to have any effect on the matter used in the Work. This gathering, according to the Mutus liber by Altus and according to other alchemic books, must be carried out between the signs of Aries and Taurus. In his Mysteries of the Cathedrals Fulcanelli examined the 12 couples of bas reliefs engraved on the sides of the central door of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (also present with some variations in other French cathedrals such as Chartres or Amiens) and he interpreted those bas reliefs as indications of the stages of the Opus alchemicum. We will use here those images, although we don’t always agree with the interpretation given by Fulcanelli . The first series of six couples of bas reliefs is preceded by two "external" bas reliefs, which are traditionally interpreted differently; the first one is "Job’s derision" and the second, of uncertain interpretation, is "David that searches a stream to find the five stones that he will need to kill Goliath".
Assuming that the bas reliefs refer to the alchemic Work, in the "Job’s derision" there are three friends who pity him and don’t recognize him, whilst his wife seems to be scolding him. In the bas reliefs underneath an old man supported by a staff is represented; at his feet there are a bow and two arrows and in front of him there is a tree underneath which an underground stream flows (Image 1)
Images 1 and 2
The two images that we have just described should resume the journey traced by the first six couples of bas reliefs; the first, "Job’s derision" talks about the destiny facing the man who consecrates himself to the Work, not to be recognized, to be subjected to the disapproval and rejection of the community he is part of, to set on a solitary journey. The second refers to the mysterious source that the alchemist must find in order to start the alchemic work. We will examine the first six couples of bas reliefs, talking about the zodiacal signs going from Aries to Virgo, following a journey that starts on the left side, looking at the cathedral, and continues towards the inside. Every time we associate a sign to a couple of bas reliefs, we will interpret the top bas relief as an indication of the instrument to use in the Work in that zodiac sign and the bottom bas relief as an indication of the operation that must be carried out. The first couple shows at the top a woman carrying an emblem with a dove , at the bottom a horse trying to unsaddle its rider (see images 3 and 4) .
Images 3 and 4
Now we can go back to our topic: the dove is the descent of what we called Spirit, Grace or «Rays of invisible Sun», which joins with the matter and the vulgar body. The image also refers to the fact that when we have that «celestial dew» available, or nostoc, and we want to join it with a particular matter useful for the Work, we face serious problems. In actual fact the alchemist must take on two distinct jobs: separate the spirit from the «vulgar» body which he spontaneously connected to and then join it to the «philosophical body» that he will need for the Work. The resistances that he will face will be: first, to separate the horse-spirit from the rider-body; second, to join the horse-spirit with the rider-secret-body. Both in separating and in joining he will find difficulties; first the resistance of the rider to be separated from the horse, then the resistance of the horse to be joined with a new rider…
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«…I remembered a story that I heard long before from certain of the merchants and travelers, and persons in the habit of journeying about, - that in the mountains of the diamonds are experienced great terrors, and that no one can gain access to the diamonds, but that the merchants who import them know a stratagem by means of which to obtain them: that they take a sheep, and slaughter it, and skin it, and cut up its flesh, which they throw down from the mountain to the bottom of the valley: so, descending fresh and moist, some of these stones stick to it. Then the merchants leave it until midday, and birds of the large kind of vulture and the aquiline vulture descend to that meat, and, taking it in their talons, fly up to the top of the mountain; whereupon the merchants come to them, and cry out at them, and they fly way from the meat. The merchants then advance to that meat, and take from it the stones sticking to it; after which they leave the meat for the birds and the wilds beasts, and carry the stones to their countries. And no one can procure the diamonds but by means of this stratagem.»
One thousand and one nights – The voyages of Sinbad [Translation from Bartleby.com]
Many of the cults that preceded our era were characterized by the divinization or the sacrifice of a bull. This was true for the cult of Mithras (this cult, deeply connected to astrology, was so widespread in the Roman Empire until the 2nd century A.C. that Ernest Renan stated that if Christianity hadn’t been born, the humankind would have been Mithraic), the cult of Attis and Cybele, the cult of Osiris, the cult of Dionysus (which was also evoked as axie taure, sacred bull) and the killing of a bull was also connected to the Cretan legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur .
We can often see on the façade of churches and temples two pillars surmounted respectively by a bull and a lion. Rather than referring to two of the four evangelists, the pillars symbolize the two columns that supported the entrance to the temple of King Solomon, Joakim and Boaz.
The Joakim pillar was referred to Taurus, the Moon, Stability, whilst the Boaz pillar referred to the Sun, Leo, Force. We will have other chances to talk about the pillars Joakim and Boaz in relation to the second series of six couples of bas reliefs, connected to the signs from Libra to Pisces. For the moment we can only say that one of the ideas to connect to the sign of Taurus is stability. In actual fact, at this time of the year the light, the vital energy that barged in on Earth in the sign of Aries, seem to be indissolubly connected with the matter, making it shinier; the conflict between spirit and matter that we observed in the sign of Aries seems sedated, the spirit steadily settled in the shells chosen to manifest itself. Therefore this part of the zodiac is the most suitable to express the attachment to what we acquired, our body, our identity, the things we learnt, what we possess. In other words, all that a psychoanalyst would call "the force of identifications". Nevertheless, referring to what we said in Aries, in the instance when this acquisition of the spirit from the matter was doubted by the alchemist in order to rejoin the spirit to another Philosophical Subject, the sign of Taurus will mark the extreme self-sacrifice. As far as the abandonment of identifications is concerned, it is necessary to be prepared to sacrifice, literally to "consecrate" the energy we put in the things we love, separating every projection, every identification from its material object, meeting a proper ‘loss of oneself’, a renunciation to all that supports identity. As far as the alchemist’s work is concerned, between Aries and Taurus, it is a matter of separating that "ray of the invisible Sun" we mentioned from its ‘vulgar’ shell, and then join it steadily to the body destined to it. The sacrifice carried out certainly corresponds to a precious acquisition for the alchemist; he now has a magnet that can attract the sulfur that was freed in the first operation and that can be joined to a new body. He has become aware of the work necessary to extract the Salt of Philosophers. Perhaps in the ancient Mysteries the ritual sacrifice of the bull had precisely this meaning: to abandon all the identifications connected to the body and the profane identity and be reborn to a new status. In Mithraism it was believed also that all the riches of the earth were originated by the blood of the celestial bull sacrificed by the god Mithras, which would then fertilize the land.
Let’s see what the second couple of bas reliefs tells us on the subject (see images 5 and 6).
Images 5 and 6
In the top part a woman carries an emblem representing a snake that wraps around a staff, in the bottom part a man carries a mirror in one hand and his eyes are looking away, whilst he faces the cornucopia he holds in the other hand .
The staff and the snake represent, according to Fulcanelli «the Mercury at its first stage, wrapped around the staff of corporal sulfur». We can briefly mention here  that Mercury, Sulfur and Salt are three fundamental principles for the work of the alchemist and that Mercury, volatile, leads man’s attention towards his goals; Sulfur, fixed, must be freed from the chains of a body that imprisons it; Salt comes from the incorruptible residue of a suitable body subjected to the action of the alchemic fire. It is not difficult to find a deep resonance with what we said on identifications and the «ray of the invisible sun». The mercurial snake wrapped around the staff is that steady bond that must be sacrificed, broken in the Bull, in order for the snake to attach itself to another subject. The man diverting his eyes from the mirror – the mirror of incarnation – and looking at the horn of Amaltheia, the cornucopia, is turning his back to his own identification (the mirror) to direct himself towards a source of true and inexhaustible wealth. In front of him a tree, variously interpreted as a tree of life or tree of knowledge of good and evil…
What is also interesting is the variation of the lower bas relief present in the cathedrals of Amiens and Chartres; instead of a man with a mirror and a cornucopia there is a man taking something edible, perhaps cheese, to his mouth. Here the accent is on nourishment and the image seems to tell us: "look at what you eat to support yourself", of course with a both material and subtle meaning.
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«Because when there is duality, as it were, then one smells something, one hears something, one thinks something, one knows something. But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one see and through what, what should one smell and through what, what should one taste and through what, what should one speak and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one think and through what, what should one touch and through what, what should one know and through what? Through what should one know that owing to which all this is known? This self is That which has been described as ‘Not this, Not this’. It is imperceptible, for It is never perceived, undecaying for It never decays; unattached, for It is never attached; unfettered – it never feels pain and never suffers injury. Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower? So you have got the instruction, Maitreyi. This much indeed is (the means of) immortality; my dear.»
Brhad aranyaka Upanishad IV-5 [Translation from Advaita.it]
«Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name»
Genesis II-19 [Translation from Biblegateway.com]
The sign of Gemini corresponds, in the cycle of the becoming, to the period when the beings orient themselves in the world, establishing individual directions, at the emerging of couple of opposites that will later define both the face of the Self and that of the Other from Self. Each man unconsciously builds his own personality clinging onto a reference system and tracing a difference between «internal» and «external».
That reference system will be the result of the way he used the power to give a name to what surrounds him. The formation of personality is expressed through the creative action hidden behind every cognitive process. It is the status which we need to «go back to» consciously with initiations. Everything is at the fluid state, the structure taken by thoughts and the images superimposed to reality can be modified quickly and easily. Consistently with this, the sign of Gemini is considered as the abode of Mercury and it is also associated to the original environment, to the brothers , to the individual reference system, to respiration, language and studies meant as quick appropriation of the specific idioms for the various disciplines and, finally, to the various mercurial activities such as play, commerce, drama, medicine, transformism, fraud, language learning, writing, small trips, all that is related to information and transfer of news from a place on Earth to another.
From the point of view of the Opus the sign of Gemini represents the operation of «rectifying»the path that leads our attention from the inside to the outside. Only this operation will allow us to entrap and fix the Mercury that alchemists called ‘servus fugitivus’, unconsciously used by everyone to know and perceive, but elusive without the use of the alchemic art. This mysterious body, that alchemic salt that the alchemist has already identified with the sign of Taurus, must be purified and strengthened in order for it to become a powerful magnet able to attract and fix the universal Spirit. The top bas relief  connected to this stage shows us a woman that carries the emblem of a salamander burning in the fire. In the cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens the salamander is replaced by the burning phoenix, hieroglyph of the resurrection from one’s ashes. Also, in Amiens the woman carries in a hand the image of the burning phoenix, in the other a feather. In the bottom bas relief it is represented a man that removes the veil that covered a set of scales (in Amiens there is a woman with a mirror in her hand; in Chartres a man and a woman holding their right hands, the dexterarum coniunctio that characterized marriages in ancient times).
Images 7 and 8
The fixation of Mercury is only possible if we can connect the «fugitive servant» to the mysterious body that must be used in the Work. In order for this to happen it is not sufficient the sacrifice we mentioned for the Taurus; the Mercury must be purified, freed from any impurity through fire. A hint on the nature of the hermetic fire to use in this enterprise, called by alchemists (for example by Pontanus in the Epitre du feu philosophale ) «fire against nature», is given by the lower emblem; the alchemist discovers the scales and its weights. Perhaps these two bas reliefs could lead us to give a different meaning to the two statements engraved on the front of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, which we mentioned in the first part: «Know thyself» and «Nothing in excess». We always remember the first aphorism, but perhaps the second one is even more important…
Fulcanelli tells us clearly that the unveiling of the Scales (Libra, Note of the Translator) expresses the discovery of the weights of art. The phoenix and the feather in Amiens remind us also of the heart and feather through which Thoth, Anubis and the Goddess Maat weighed and evaluated the souls of the deceased in the Egyptian netherworld.
Finally we should mention the alchemist Huginus a Barma which, in Saturn’s kingdom transformed into gold writes: «Unless we invert the order of Nature, you will not generate gold that was not silver before (…) Nothing extraneous enters our Work, it does not admit and receive anything that comes from anywhere else».
Isaac the Dutch in his Œuvre vegetable, on the contrary, tells us: «Saturn contains inside itself the righteous Gold (…) this gold can be extracted on condition that all the impurities are rid of, viz. feces; in this case it is called purged. The outside is brought inside, the inside is manifested outside; this is the reason for its red color, for this it is called the righteous Gold».
1. On this topic see my articles "Man and his bodies" (with A. Camici) and "On thought-forms", published on Lex Aurea, respectively issue 38 and issue 21. (^ back to the main article)
2. On this topic see G. Cocchiara Il mondo alla rovescia [The world upside down, Note of the Translator], Boringhieri, Turin 1965 (his theories are clearly inspired by those expressed by De Martino in The world of magic); J. Frazer, The Golden Bough (in particular the chapters dedicated to the ‘external soul’) and A. Orlandi, Dioniso nei frammenti dello specchio [Dionysus in the mirror’s fragments, Note of the Translator], Irradiazioni, Rome 2001 (the chapter dedicated to the external soul and the upside down world). (^ back to the main article)
3. In the religious interpretation bas reliefs are considered as emblems of vices and virtues (see for example the Speculum maius by Vincent de Beauvail or Emile Male, L’art religieux au XIII siècle). Fulcanelli sometimes seems to completely misunderstand certain elements of the bas reliefs (for example a hare is mixed with a ram) but it is not clear if the misunderstanding is involuntary or intentional and conscious in order to lead the reader to think about certain points that he could not explain. (^ back to the main article)
4. These two bas reliefs, not represented in Fulcanelli’s Mysteries of the cathedrals, are mentioned by the alchemist Esprit Gobineau de Montluisant in a work also dedicated to the alchemic meaning of the bas reliefs of Notre Dame: Explication trés curieuse des énigmes et figures hiéeroglyphiques, physiques, qui son au grand portail de l’église cathédrale et métropolitaine de notre-dame de Paris. (^ back to the main article)
5. Fulcanelli and Esprit de Montluisant state that it is a crow, but Emile Male, Vincent de Beauvais and all the historians of art agree that it is a dove (humility opposed to pride). The comparison with similar bas reliefs of other gothic cathedrals, better preserved, and with the analogue representation on the stained glass of cathedrals is decisive. (^ back to the main article)
6. Traditionally the top bas relief represents Modesty, the bottom one Pride. (^ back to the main article)
7. I have developed these topics elsewhere, see Dioniso nei frammenti dello specchio [Dionysus in the fragments of the mirror, Note of the Translator], Ed. Irradiazioni, Rome 2003, chapter 7. (^ back to the main article)
8. Traditionally the top bas relief represents the virtue of Prudence, the bottom one Folly.
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9. For a more exhausting dissertation on these three principles see my articles: La Vergine, l’anima e il sale filosofico degli alchimisti [The Virgin, the soul and the philosophical salt of alchemists, Note of the Translator], Lex Aurea n.5; Il Mercurio volgare e quello filosofico [Vulgar and philosophical Mercury, Note of the Translator], Lex Aurea n.11; Sul fuoco, il solvente e lo zolfo degli alchimisti [On fire, solvent and sulfur of alchemists, Note of the Translator], Lex Aurea n.18. Also see the chapter dedicated to the symbol of the snake in Dioniso nei frammenti dello specchio [Dionysus in the fragments of the mirror, Note of the Translator], op.cit.
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10. Of the two Twins (Gemini, Note of the Translator) of the Zodiac, Castor and Pollux, one was mortal and the other immortal. When Castor died, the gods established that the two Dioscuri would spend a day in Tartarus and one in Olympus (the succession of day and night, wake and sleep). They descended from Gorgophone, "she who slew the Gorgon", daughter of Perseus. (^ back to the main article)
11. Traditionally the top bas relief represents Chastity, the bottom one Lust. (^ back to the main article)
12. According to Pontanus such fire melts the things of Nature transforming them into dry water. (^ back to the main article)