Four is an important number in alchemy; it contains the basic elements which constitute creation, and it is the understanding of creation with the intent of reshaping it that the alchemist aspires to. However, the preceding orders of being are always still at play, which includes the primary dynamic of polar opposites, which can be called male and female, yin and yang, animus and anima (for Jungians), or in the case of the symbolism of the Splendor Solis, Solar and Lunar. This is the central leitmotif of the fourth plate in this ancient, illustrated grimoire; the opposition of two equally matched forces, both of which are as conflicted as they are required. This theme also runs through the images at the bottom, which recall some interesting mythic reflections on duality.
Let’s start with the language, since words matter: At the top we find the word “Particularia“, which can mean individual objects, or parts of a whole. The latter notion finds its amplification at the bottom of the plate, where we find the words “Via Universalis, Particularbus Inclusis“, which indicates that the path to the universal contains all of its parts. Two irreconcilable forces find unity in a common alchemical goal – wealth, power, or in this case, the creation of timeless art, take your pick.
On the left, we find a Lunar being, looking to her right. Underfoot is the moon; upon her streams a banner that proclaims “Lac Viviaum“, the milk of life, which in the accompanying text of the Splendor Solis is defined as Lac Virginis, the milk of the Holy Virgin. In alchemical terms, this is both a phase of the trans-formative process, as well as a form of spiritual nourishment. To her right, we find her opposing counterpart, a Solar being standing on the sun, bearing an equally cryptic banner: “Coaguala Masculinum“; to coagulate the masculine.
Now, to understand this, we have to take into account one of alchemy’s primary dictums: solve et coagula: the alchemical process involves dissolution then reintegration, dissolving then reforming. Is this plate suggesting that the coagulation, or re-integration of the solar (or the masculine, to use antiquated terminology) requires the feminine, lunar “Lac Viviaum“, the (feminine) milk of life?
Perhaps the answer is hiding in plain sight, right at the bottom of the image.
From left to right are three images that carry both mythic and historic truths. However, they have to be read as a story, not as individual plates.
We start at the left with a defining moment from the Iliad, Homer’s tale of the destruction of Troy. Here we see Achilles battling Hector; two heroes locked in a battle that must – and will – end in tears. The dangers of uniting sun and moon, male and female, lover and the unlovable? It seems to fit right into the theme of this plate.
In the next frame, we see Alexander the Great and his army, looking across a river unto a castle. This is no ordinary castle; it bears the banner of the Basilisk, and the Basilisk is no ordinary creature. Greek for “little king”, this mythical creature could cause death at a glance. This was a creature of such epic stature that the purported father of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus, claimed its ashes could transform silver into gold, a fetish that many an alchemist was drawn towards, as was (apparently) Alexander. Yet in the next pane, Alexander finds something completely different.
A man in a bathtub.
No ordinary man, not at all. A man who spoke truth to power, a man who laughed at the folly of wealth. A man who claimed to be a citizen of the world, not of any city, state or nation.
A man who mocked Plato, and walked in daylight with a lamp, proclaiming that he needed it lit just to find one honest man. He never did.
A homeless philosopher who was known to sleep in vases…or in some cases, a bathtub.
Diogenes was his name, and the point of his appearance here is that it undermines all of the worldly quests of alchemy.
You can start in battle (Achilles and Hector), you can go in search of power, wealth and glory (the Basilisk across the river), and what do you find?
Your own shadow. The man in the bathtub who openly mocks you (historically, this is true. Diogenes was famously a critic of the Macedonian warlord).
Diogenes, the Twitter that backfired two millennium before the internet. Diogenes, holding the mirror to all of our baser flaws, all of our craven desires and instincts. That’s what Alexander the Great finds, after crossing the river, looking for his Basilisk.
No gold, no mythical beast, just an unwelcome self-reflection.
Perhaps some of our leaders would do well to study this plate. Perhaps we all could.
Because in the end, the real message of this image, as I understand it, is that the secret of alchemical transformation isn’t conquest, the Greeks paid heavily for the murder of Hector. Alexander didn’t find his treasure trove; instead, he found everything about himself that he didn’t like (the Jungian shadow), in the form of bathtub comic. It’s only by coming to the table as equals, distinct, but in unity, that change can happen. Sol and Luna; solve et coagula.
Of course, this is all just conjecture. Look at the image and find what you can.
And just so you know, I’m not running for office in 2020. Alchemy taught me better than that. Plate number four of the Splendor Solis, on the other hand, is at least worth a write-in vote. Love your partners, and peace until the next installment of the Splendor Solis.