Alchemy is violent; the motto of Solve Et Coagula demands dissolution before rebuilding, tearing apart before putting back together. This idea applies to the material world as well as the spiritual realm; before the psyche can grow, it has to be ripped asunder.
This would appear to be a central theme for plate ten of the Splendor Solis.
This image is set in a city, whereas all the other plates until now have been in the countryside. A wild haired man holds a sword in his right hand, and the golden head of a man in his left. At his feet lies the beheaded, dismembered body of a naked man. The text that accompanies this plate tells us that it is a reproduction of a vision:
Rosinos relates of a vision he had of a man whose body was dead and yet beautiful and white like Salt. The Head had a fine Golden appearance, but was cut off the trunk, and so were all the limbs; next to him stood an ugly man of black and cruel countenance, with a bloodstained double-edged sword in his right hand, and he was the good man’s murderer. In his left hand was a paper on which the following was written: “I have killed thee, that thou mayest receive a superabundant life, but thy head I will carefully hide, that the worldly wantons may not find thee, and destroy the earth, and the body I will bury, that it may putrefy, and grow and bear innumerable fruit.”
The Alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis recounts a similar vision of dismemberment in his text, The Visions of Zosimos
He answered me in a weak voice saying, “I am Ion, Priest of the Adytum, and I have borne an intolerable force. For someone came at me headlong in the morning and dismembered me with a sword and tore me apart, according to the rigor of harmony. And, having cut my head off with the sword, he mashed my flesh with my bones and burned them in the fire of the treatment, until, my body transformed, I should learn to become a spirit. And I sustained the same intolerable force.”
And again I fell asleep for a while and while I was mounting the fourth step I saw one with a sword in his hand coming out of the east. And I saw another behind him, holding a disk, white and shining and beautiful to behold. And it was called the meridian of the Sun and I approached the place of the mortifications and the one who held the sword said to me, “Cut off his head and sacrifice his meat and muscles part by part so that first the flesh may be boiled according to the method and that he might then suffer the mortifications.”
In the frame of the picture two smaller picture panels are inserted. On the left is Poseidon, he is seated in a chariot that is being drawn by water horses as a woman in a boat looks on. The panel on the right also a female figure, also riding in a water chariot, as mermen look on.
From an alchemical elemental viewpoint, two things are clear: Water, from the images in the reliefs, as well as the city by the river, and Air, which is related to the sword. The beheading has parallels in Tantra, specifically in the form of the goddess Chinnamasta:
In many commentaries on Chinnamasta, the notion of ego-dissolution is often discussed; the act of cutting off of one’s head is metaphorically an act of giving up one’s ego. Might this be the intent of plate 10?
Let’s reconsider the note in the killer’s left hand:
“I have killed thee, that thou mayest receive a superabundant life, but thy head I will carefully hide, that the worldly wantons may not find thee, and destroy the earth, and the body I will bury, that it may putrefy, and grow and bear innumerable fruit.”
This might be an argument for giving up worldly pleasures; this might even be an argument for giving up the very idea of self-hood. Whatever the intention of the artists who created this image, one thing is clear:
Proceeding on the quest will always come at a cost, physically and/or psychologically.
Luckily for the progressing alchemist, hot tubs follow dismemberment.
Until then, stay whole, and don’t lose your head.