Today we reach plate 11, the final image in the seven parables series, which marks the halfway point for the Splendor Solis. The final parable is an image of a man sitting in a bath, with an attendant tending the fire beneath it with a pair of bellows. This plate is an analogy of the process of sublimation, the boiling of a substance. Following this comes the collection and purification of vapors, and a transformation back into liquid form. According to The Emerald Table, a work attributed to the very mysterious Hermes Trismegistus, this means that “it arises from the earth and descends from heaven; it gathers to itself the strength of things above and things below”.
We can see the process at work, the bathing man’s body is reddened from the heat, and the look on his face suggests discomfort as he boils away in the water. The dove perched on his head (an oft used symbol of sublimation, with many other symbolic linkages with Judaism, Christianity, and Paganism) has its wings spread as if it is about to take flight, its gold flecked body a representation of the rising vapors. Beside the bath sits an alembic flask where golden liquid has been collected.
On the balcony of the surrounding castle are a man and woman, the man leaning over the railing watching the alchemist in the bathtub, while the woman approaches with a flask in her hands. Beneath them are figurines of both Jupiter and Mercury, perched in alcoves of the building wall. They are both standing, pointing to the two gates. Two paths to enlightenment; one through the path of Jupiter (who in alchemy is represented by tin), leading to the divine forger, Vulcan (Greek: Hephaestus) who is hard at work, hammering against his anvil. Vulcan, the god who was deformed and ugly, and who became lame after falling from the heavens was the one who discovered fire (Prometheus only stole it). He learned the transformative power of fire and became the god of volcanoes and metalworking.
The second path, the one to which Mercury points, leads to the man in the boiling tub. Mercury is directly associated with his namesake substance, which is also known as quicksilver. Another association is with the Greek god Hermes, who in turn is linked with Egyptian deity Thoth. One path leads to fire, the other water; are these two gods showing us the wet and the dry path? These are two of the paths that are illuminated in alchemy.
The text of this final parable tells us: “OVID the old Roman, wrote to the same end, when he mentioned an ancient Sage who desired to rejuvenate himself was told: he should allow himself to be cut to pieces and decoct to a perfect decoction, and then his limbs would reunite and again be renewed in plenty of strength.” (Trismosin 33).
This reference refers to the stories of Medea, a mortal woman who possessed incredible magical strength, and who married Jason, of Argonaut fame. Jason asked if she could take some of his strength and life and give it to his aging father. Instead, Medea, aided by Hecate, spent 9 days and 9 nights scouring the world on a chariot of winged dragons to find the flowers and herbs she needed, and concocted a potion. After ritually killing her father-in-law, and removing the old blood from his body, she restored him back to full health and youth.
This image relates the ultimate cost of enlightenment, and the curse of growing up; all growth requires sacrifice. New life demands a little dying. Odin lost an eye looking for knowledge, hanging from a Tree of Knowledge (Yggdrasil). Adam and Eve fared worse, bringing mortality unto an undying world.
Is the slow path, the way of Jupiter, the best? Or are you better finding your alchemical transformation the quick way, which might leave you redder than a lobster, boiled away faster than you can be recondensed?
These are the questions every aspiring seeker must ask. They’re questions we don’t pretend to have answers to.
But we’ll keep asking, and we’ll keep looking for those answers as we wind our way through the remaining eleven plates of the Splendor Solis.
Until next time, keep looking. And if you find anything, let us know; because in the end, we’re all in this search together.