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The constellations of the zodiac in alchemy /4

by Alessandro Orlandi

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In our examination of the bas reliefs in the gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris we reached the sign of Virgo, near the entrance. Now we need to depart again and start the journey from the opposite part of the portal, examining the two bas reliefs referred to the sign of Libra. We will move back towards the entrance of the cathedral whilst examining the following signs. As it happened for the first six signs of the zodiac, the second series of six signs as well is preceded by two "external" bas reliefs that resume the sense of the journey awaiting the adept. The first one represents Abraham (see image 16) about to sacrifice his son Isaac, whilst an angel holds his hand. The second (see image 17) shows us Nimrod near the Babel Tower, represented in the action of throwing a javelin towards the sun. The first bas relief tells us that the alchemist must give himself completely to the work, the flesh of his flesh, just like a father would give a son to God, any will directed to the outside, any form of thought. The second shows us how the alchemist must defend the athanor by rejecting anything that comes from the "exterior sun" as hostile to his Work. Even the things that he used to worship as exterior objects or entities must now be rejected and refused.

Images 16 and 17


"The substance we seek is like the substance from which we want to obtain it. Nothing extraneous enters our Work, it doesnít accept and receive anything that comes from elsewhere".

Huginus a Barma, Saturn�s kingdom transformed into the Golden Age

"When Eve was still with Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more".

Gnostic Gospel of Philip

"The mind must be restrained in the heart till it comes to an end; that is knowledge, that is liberty; all the rest are extensions of the tiesÖ Water in water, fire in fire, ether in ether, no one can distinguish them; likewise a man whose mind has entered, attains liberty. Mind alone is the cause of bondage and liberty for men; if attached to the world, it becomes bound; if free from the world that is liberty".

Maitreya Upanisad, VI, 3

The start of the sign of Libra coincides with the fall equinox, the moment of the year when the hours of darkness exceed the hours of daylight. This elementary fact connected to the apparent journey of the sun in the sky and the change of seasons, has two different interpretations. Letís remind ourselves that when talking about the sign of Leo we drew a separation between the profane and the hermetic meaning of this sign. This separation is amplified and becomes decisive in the sign of Libra. Indeed, if we follow our traveler, the ray of hermetic sun, without applying to it the alchemic "artifice" in the signs of Leo and Cancer, we might give its usual meaning to the astronomical phenomenon of fall equinox; once surpassed the apex of the hours of daylight in Cancer, by the law of enantiodromia the hours of darkness in the signs of Leo and Virgo will slowly advance and now, in the sign of Libra, they will exceed the hours of daylight. This status will lead us to associate Libra with a series of natural phenomena, such as the sunset, the decline which all things are destined to, but also the point when our energies dispersed in the world in the shape of projections have become stronger, more powerful than those we keep inside us as "radical humid". From this point of view it is understandable why Libra is associated with the relation with the outside, with others, with those that during our lifetime we choose as partners. If, on the contrary, that traveler has animated the Virgin Land, activating the Mirror of Art, the sign of Libra will show us the access of the adept in a new dimension of being, the beginning of the second part of the Opus alchemicum; to say it as the alchemist Irenaeus Philalethes the access to the closed palace of the King. The traveler now knows that the obstacles that hinder manís journey, preventing him from achieving what he thinks he wants, are nothing but the reflections of his ignorance of himself. The world is a faithful mirror where the Gods that we were not able to recognize appear to us as beggars in rags. In the sign of Libra the knowledgeable man receives the manifestation of his "external soul", the part of himself that consciously or unconsciously he has tied to what surrounds him. It is the highest expression of the power of Venus; to connect light and heat of the sense to the forms of the world. And again, the problem of facilitating exterior and interior marriage, of knowing what the love or hatred for external entities moves and transforms inside us manifests itself in this sign. Libra symbolizes the meeting of every being with what corresponds to him on the outside; if the result of this meeting is a harmonious relationship or a harsh clash depends on his degree of consciousness. Other teachings on the Libra might be drawn from the myth mentioned by Plato in the Convivium; here he says that at the beginning of time men were spheres and complete beings; then they were cut into two separate halves and since then each half desperately seeks its complementÖ The symbology of this sign is also connected to the ability of the artist to grasp the link between the whole and one of its parts, the character of a man through a negligible detail of his behavior. This extraordinary ability of the esthetes to "see" allows them to perceive the disharmony, the sign of negativity and disagreement at their first manifestation; they can weigh the light feather as if it was already the heavy rock it will become. Finally, this sign is associated with the ability to settle contrasts, to find mediation between opposites.

Letís now examine the two bas reliefs referred to the Libra.

Images 18 and 19 [1]

In the top bas relief there is a seated woman who carries in the scroll an athanor (almost completely abraded) and holds in her right hand a stone on which all her attention is focused. In Amiens the scroll contains a crown and a tree and the woman holds a bullís head. In Chartres the scroll contains a crown and the woman holds a scepter.

In the bottom bas relief (similar except for little differences in Notre Dame, Chartres and Amiens) a man is about to enter the door of a palace. On the ground there are a pair of shoes and a cape.

What is the mysterious palace the man is entering? If, as we have said so far, Libra represents the exterior forms "interiorized", then the access into the palace represents the acquisition of the ability to perceive the "subtle" aspects of reality and interact with them. The Stone that the woman holds in the top bas relief can exercise its power on the world. The crown or the scepter, as well as the tree of life, present in the bas reliefs in Amiens and Chartres, mean that the first Work has been carried out and the alchemist, seized mercury, sulfur and salt, can start the cooking of the "compound". The Bullís head in medieval symbology was related to the Pillar Joakim in the Temple of Solomon, viz. to stability, to white and the Moon. Fulcanelli also pointed out that many authors stated that the Work must start in the sign of Taurus to show that the first Work in White must be finished and the Stone must be steady (in agreement with the fact that in astrology the Moon is exalted in Taurus). Therefore the Bullís head shows here that the first Work in white has been accomplished and that the six couples of bas reliefs that we are going to examine are referred to the second Work in red, whose purpose is to make the Stone active, to give it Strength. Indeed this second series ends with the sixth top bas relief which represents a lion, symbol of the other pillar in the Temple of Solomon, Boaz, the Strength, linked to the color red and the Sun. Leo and Taurus also surmount the two pillars at the entrance of the western portal of Chartres, exoteric symbols of the evangelists Luke and Mark. The two pillars of the Temple of Solomon therefore represented the achievement of respectively the first and second Works, Stability and Strength, supporting the entrance to the inner Temple. Fulcanelli described the character that is about to pass the door of the palace as the Adept ready to pass the door of the Mysterious Palace (the World) "after the discovery of the agent that operates the recrudescence, reanimates the corporifications and makes dead metals alive". He also says that this character was in ancient times green colored and he represented the solvent, whilst the Palace was red. The shoes and the cape that the man puts down at the entrance seem to indicate that in order to be accepted inside he must depose his profane personality, the clothes used to dress and that made him recognizable outside, the social identity; the shoes represented the vehicle that guided him towards earthly goals in the life previous to the moment of initiation, of the achievement of the first Work. The cooking of the "compound" in the hermetic vase is therefore preceded by an initiatory death, a total renunciation to his profane identity.


"What kills life doesnít die, what gives life doesnít live".

Chuang Tzu

"Now if you wish to learn easily consider this not only in regard to people but also in regard to all animals and plants, and in short to whatever has birth, let us see about all, just as all things are generated, whether opposites are generated out of their opposites, when there happens to be such, beauty opposite to the ugly and justice to injustice, and countless others having them. Then let us consider whether it is necessary to whatever has an opposite to be generated from anything else but itself or out of its oppositeÖ.Now you also tell me, he said, this about life and death. Do you not say that living is opposite to being dead?
- I do.
- And are they generated out of each other?
- Yes.
- Then what is generated out of the living?
- The dead, he said.
- And what out of the dead?
- It is necessary, he said, to agree that it is the living. Out of the dead then, Cebes, living things and living beings are born? It appears so, he said".

Plato - Phaedo - XV e XVI

"A nature revels in another nature, a nature conquers another nature, a nature dominates another nature".

Papyrus of Ostane

In the symbolism of the sign of Scorpio is hidden the secret that Nature jealously guards; that of death and generation. We have seen that in the sign of Libra man is faced with his "external soul". If this confrontation is destined to become an initiatory marriage or a "profane" marriage will depend on the consciousness acquired in the previous signs. In the sign of Scorpio there is the occurrence of a phenomenon that appears more like a miracle than an ordinary event; the light, the energy, the attention that irradiated from the Self reawakens in the surrounding world, in all that had previously been object of projection and emotional investment, in the "external soul", in the thought-forms solidified in the previous journey up to becoming light, energy and attention of what is outside the Self.

This is what happens to a pregnant woman when the embryo takes shape in her womb.

The sense of identity transmigrates from "here" to "there", from the source to the objects of projections, from the conscious part of man to his body of dream or Double, from intentions to actions, from the lover to the loved one. In agreement with this the Scorpio is put in relation with the ability to influence or manipulate other people, with inheritances of any sort, with sex as a generating activity, with the creating force of artists and those who can infuse "life" to their work, with the Shadow, the nightly side that accompanies every man, with the ability to establish a contact with the world of the dead, with Occultism and paranormal faculties. Finally, which is what interests us the most, the possibility to animate the thought-forms through our energies. It is considered as the nightly abode of the planet Mars. In Scorpio the vital energy, the solar ray that we are chasing in its journey through the Zodiac flows towards the outside, towards the Other.

Therefore the sign is also connected to death, disaggregation, putrefaction, self-destruction.

Here the crack between the "initiatory" and the "profane" interpretation of the signs of the zodiac widens up. Letís imagine crossing Cancer, Leo, Virgo and Libra, carrying out the artifice mentioned before, that is the "reversal" between Cancer and Leo and the recognition of oneís own projections. The Scorpioís transformation will consist of a proper initiation, similar to that undergone by shamans before acquiring their powers, dismembered in a thousand pieces, torn apart in the objects of projections and then magically reconstituted and reborn to a new life, characterized by the acquisition of the Double, of the part of themselves that lies dismembered in the world, mere support, "coat-rack" of projections. Obviously we are not talking about the psycho-analytical concept of the term "projection", but we are immersed in the magical thought, in the conviction that there is a real energetic connection between man and his "external soul" [2].

In the "profane" interpretation of the sign this experience of dismemberment will be a proper death experience, "waking up" and reflecting oneself in the objects of projections without recognizing oneself, which means to try and recompose oneís own face when it is reflected in the fragments of a mirror broken into a thousand pieces. In the "initiatory" interpretation of the sign putrefaction and dismemberment take the meaning of purification, alchemic separation of the noble part of man from the dirty perishable part. The following reintegration is a resurrection, a regeneration from which man comes out with the awareness that the whole universe lies asleep in the depth of his art.

Letís now talk about the bas reliefs in Notre Dame and the other gothic cathedrals.

In Notre Dame and Chartres the top bas relief shows us a woman carrying in the scroll a winged gryphon; in Amiens the scroll represents a dromedary.

In the bottom bas reliefs in Notre Dame a man meets a crowned king, in Chartres a similar image shows us the meeting between a man and a figure with royal clothes, represented whilst one gives the other something. In Amiens a man appears to be asking a prelate for advice [3].

Images 20 and 21

The dromedary is the animal that can walk a long time, crossing the desert, without ever needing to drink water. This shows us what awaits the adept, the alchemist. At this stage of the cooking of the compound, the reference to drought means that we must find the strength to continue our work without the need to reflect on the outside, without seeking confirmation of the results obtained (and this corresponds to the hermetic closing of the alchemic Vase mentioned by texts; from the social point of view, the "crossing of the desert" that is part of any initiatory journey). Fulcanelli interpreted the gryphon as the emblem of the joining between fixed and volatile, of the conjunction between Sulfur and Mercury and he recognized in the bottom image the reanimation of the Mercury and the slow melting of the philosophical Gold. Indeed, one of the two figures is interpreted as "the old", viz. Mercury; the other, the King, represents the Sulfur that must meet with the Mercury to grant it fixity and "stop" its miraculous qualities. Keeping in mind what we said about Scorpio, one of the possible meanings that Mercury can take is to represent our Double energetic which from dismembered and volatile becomes joined and aware of itself.

The gift that Sulfur gives Mercury is the ability to see the subtle aspect of things, a whole universe invisible to the profane that opens up in front of the dazzled eyes of the initiate.


"If we look up and consider with intelligence the signs of the Heavens and look down and enquiry the features of the Earth, we will know the relations between darkness and light. Going back to the beginning and pursuing things until the end, we will know the doctrines of birth and death. The joining of seed and strength operates things, the departure of the soul produces alteration; from this we will know the status of the spirits that depart and of those that come back. Through this man becomes simile to Heaven and Earth, he is not in contrast with them. His wisdom includes all things and his sense arranges the whole world. [Ö] He enjoys the heavens and knows the destiny, thus he is free from worries. He is happy with his state and he is genuine with his benignity. Thus he is able to practice love".

I Ching, Ta Ciuann (The Great Treatise) chapter IV

"He dissolves his bonds with his group. Supreme good fortune. Dispersion leads in turn to accumulation. This is something that ordinary men do not think of".

I Ching, 59, Dispersion, changeable line

"He who thus knows, knows everything. All regions bring him gifts. He sees himself similar to the universe: this is the practical condition Ė this is the practical condition".

Chandogya Upanishad, II, XXI, 4

In the signs of Libra and Scorpio we have seen how there can be a "profane" putrefaction that leads the principle of identity to fragment itself like the drops of mercury among the objects of projections; we have also seen that there is an "initiatory" putrefaction. The latter, through dismemberment and rebirth, reanimates the Double, the subtle body that lay unaware of itself, dispersed in the world like the body of Osiris after Seth dispersed it, after dismembering it into fourteen parts.

In the sign of Sagittarius this "philosophical child" develops as an independent being, which must establish its own relationship with the universe that surrounds it. It is a status of things very similar, indeed specular, to what we have seen in the sign of Gemini; there it was a matter of differentiating oneself establishing categories of interpretation necessary to discriminate the couples of opposites and compare things among them, establishing a "subjectivity", an individual way to perceive oneself in relation to the world and the world in relation with oneself.

In Sagittarius, on the contrary, inside and outside are dissolved. The Philosophical Child, the Double reanimated in the sign of Scorpio must reorganize the chaos according to the Cosmic Order and let each of its parts be grasped by what corresponds to it. He is called to glimpse to the invisible law written in the cosmos and in the rhythms of Nature and to model himself on that law.

Many little actions contribute to form a great visible effect, multiple droplets of water make the flow of a river and uncountable particles of air can create an impetuous wind; likewise every archetype, every general principle is manifested through its thousand exemplifications. Therefore in order to grasp the archetypes of birth and death in their numinosity, whilst they manifest themselves impersonally in the world through the laws of Nature, it will have been necessary to experience first many little "personal" births and deaths, becoming aware of the vital cycle of our projections. An archetype can therefore take life and "descend" in us only after many of its concrete manifestations. The ascent towards the archetypes, towards spiritual realization, towards the non individual contents of the Self, can occur only one way: through a total and unconditional descent in the most material and concrete dimensions of our existence. In order to know what a river is we need to experience the drops that make it; in order to live the Mystic Love we must have loved with passion and known the rapture of senses and the suffering of the end. The true high mindedness belongs only to those who have experienced and recognized in themselves the lowest and most animal drives.

The way to recognize "universal directions" and obey the Law inscribed in their tissue is two-fold and ambiguous, apparently contradictory. It is necessary to go through the most material and concrete aspect of existence to be able to reach the spiritual essence mentioned by the mystic, the philosopher and the enlightened. For this reason Sagittarius is represented by the image of a Centaur, half man half animal, connected to both Earth and Heavens, in the action of throwing an arrow upwards. He is called to harmonize and integrate his celestial and spiritual side with his bestial and terrestrial side, because each of these natures is strictly connected to the other and makes it possible. For these reasons the sign of Sagittarius is associated with mysticism and religion (from religo Ė to join together), philosophy, law and morals, physical or mental travels towards what is far away [4]. From the point of view of the link between causes and effects we can also say that in Sagittarius the effects of individual actions are realted to those of collective actions, as it happens when an individual vote contributes to elect a member of parliament. Thus individual thought-forms are pushed towards collective thought-forms that correspond to them, result of the interaction among many people. They are the so-called "eggregore". If the symbolic constellation we are talking about is the result of an unconscious journey, if between Cancer and Leo has not been put in place the "artifice" we mentioned earlier, then the Shadow enclosed into the objects of projections will measure with the universal directions and the effects will be delusions of grandeur, hypertrophy of the self, exaggeration and hyperbole, authoritarianism, presumptions, rash generalizations and hasty and unrequested judgments on not well known issues, acquiescence towards the prejudices of oneís own environment considered as Universal Rules. Man will be experienced by thought-forms rather than him experiencing them consciously and he will unconsciously put himself at the service of the eggregores generated by them.

Letís now talk about the alchemic stage indicated by the two bas reliefs that correspond to this sign of the zodiac. In the three cathedrals of Notre Dame, Amiens and Chartres the first bas relief represents a woman carrying a scroll with an oak (or olive) branch. In Notre Dame the woman also holds a piece of wood, a slat, in the other hand. In the second bas reliefs in Notre Dame there are two boys fighting, dropping a vase and a stone. In Amiens a man and a woman fight and drop respectively a vase (or perhaps a sack) and a spindle with a distaff. Finally, in Chartres, a man and a woman fight and drop a vase and a stone and behind the womanís back there are a spindle and a distaff [5].

Fulcanelli interpreted both the branch and the slat as coming from an oak tree; he stated that this is about the construction of the Philosophical Vase, which Flamel compared to Cadmusís endeavor, who nailed the snake Python (the snake of "individual directions" of the soul!) to an oak tree and which many authors compare to the re-animation of the dead branch of an old oak tree.

Images 22 and 23

Here individual existence clashes with the Nomos, the Divine Law, in the mysterious interaction established between the Self and its Double. By touching his own center, man gets in contact with the Anima Mundi, he finds in himself the echo of the closest things and the farthest galaxies. From this clash and the following integration between Self and Double, the alchemist simultaneously obtains the Vase and the Stone that he will need in order to carry out the Second Work. In the image on the right the two boys drop indeed a vase and a stone. Speaking of this bas reliefs Fulcanelli mentioned the "action of the pontic water on the rough matter and realization of the animated mercury", viz. the construction of a Vase able to contain the paradoxical nature that the Stone has now acquired. The spindle and the distaff, on the other hand, take us back to the mythological figures of the Moirai and the Parcae [6], the goddesses that according to the Greeks spun the destiny of men. Could it be that the alchemist here gets in contact with the forces that shape destiny?



1. The virtue here represented is Perseverance; the vice is Inconstancy. The lower figure is interpreted as a monk leaving the convent. (^ back to the main article)

2. For the study of this concept I suggest to read James Frazer, The Golden Bough. I developed this idea in Dioniso nei frammenti dello specchio [Dionysus in the mirrorís fragments, Note of the Translator], op. cit. Chapter IV, Líanima esterna: la musica e il mondo alla rovescia [The external soul: music and the reversed world, Note of the Translator]. (^ back to the main article)

3. The virtue represented here is submission; the vice is rebellion (the meeting with the king or the prelate is interpreted as rebellion to the authority). (^ back to the main article)

4. Sagittarius is also Jupiterís daytime abode, the planet that rules the processes of integration and widening of the conscience. To be able to see and follow its star is perhaps the only gift that every Traveler receives since the beginning of his journey on the earth. (^ back to the main article)

5. Here the virtue represented is harmony (the branch is in this case interpreted as an olive branch) and the vice is disharmony. (^ back to the main article)

6. The same goddesses that showed Perseus the Way to reach the secret cave where Medusa and her sisters were hiding. (^ back to the main article)

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This article comes from Esotericism Readings

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