In his book Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Titus Burkhardt writes of the chemical marriage: the marriage of gold and silver, which is symbolic of the integration and harmonization of one’s spirit and soul. In the mythic language of alchemy, the spirit is characterized as male and associated with the sun and gold, while the soul is characterized as female and associated with the moon and silver. In this alchemical ideal of the marriage of spirit and soul, the spirit descends to meet the soul and the soul rises to meet the spirit.
Exactly what the alchemists meant by “spirit” and “soul” is not completely clear. A defensible interpretation is that by “spirit” the alchemist refers to that aspect of our being that articulates with words, plans and sets goals, makes judgments – the part of our soul that we deem as the seat of reason and rationality. By soul, the alchemist refers to all the other aspects of our being including the part that gives rise to appetites, compulsions and emotions, and also the place of dreams and imagination.
The notion that the spirit should descend to the soul is rather foreign to Western spirituality. Generally in the Western tradition the role of spirit is to ascend. The spiritual realm is upward, celestial. The spirit governs the being, not through a descent to and cultivation of the soul, but by the repression of the body with its irrational appetites, compulsions and imaginings. Self-control and control of one’s appetites, emotions, and thoughts are the spiritual ideal in much of Western spirituality. Spiritual asceticism becomes a method of attaining this ideal. There are writings in these traditions that speak of the tremendous embarrassment felt by males in having a spontaneous erection – the ideal of complete control demands the control of even that.
The notion of the chemical marriage in alchemy is quite similar to the integration of yang and yin in Taoism, a tradition that has many similarities to alchemy. Rather than the spiritual ideal of the snow-white mountain peaks, Taoism posits a spiritual ideal of the valley. Lao Tse writes of the “Valley Spirit,” and posits a spiritual ideal not of upward rising tongues of fire, but the downward flowing of water. For the Taoist, that which rises will inevitably descend. In the ascent of the mountain, the spirit may seek to leave the mess and chaos that is so characteristic of the soul behind. But such ascent can only succeed briefly; we are bodily and soulful beings, and the spirit inevitably must come back to the raw fact of its dependency on the physical. The Valley, on the other hands, is more stable. It collects everything into itself. The waters from the turbulent mountain rush roiled and muddied to the valley. The Taoist contemplative does not seek to wrest spiritual clarity from out these turbid waters, but simply to come to a quietness wherein the waters of themselves become calm and clear. Then the clear waters can perfectly mirror the peaks.
A prominent Western myth is that of St. George and the dragon. In this myth, as with much Western spirituality, the spiritual goal is to kill the dragon. In alchemy, the soul is often associated with reptiles, and such reptiles as the snakes in the Caduceus of Hermes and the dragon of Chinese fable are favorable creatures. In the alchemical and Taoist systems, the ideal is to cultivate the dragon with its great power, which is to say, to cultivate the soul.*
The soul is the realm of Eros, to bring yet another mythic system into the discussion. Eros brings great pleasure, but also great turmoil to our life. For one who seeks self-control, Eros is a snake in the grass. For one obsessed by self-control, Eros is a dragon. For one who seeks to cultivate the soul, Eros is much as the myths portrayed him/her, a lovely but troublesome part of our being — a bringer of pleasure and depth, but also of turmoil and obsession. Cultivation of the soul is, above all else, cultivating a habitat for Love.
It is in relation to the erotic that Western spirituality, and particularly Christian spirituality, seems most badly to fail us. That a significant portion of the Catholic priesthood, who have vowed themselves to chastity, are found guilty of rather perverse sexuality, may well be viewed by that priesthood as just further evidence of what a horrid and powerful dragon they are fighting. From the alchemical point of view (and the Freudian), however, it is simply a mistake. While Eros, and the soul as a whole, is complex and troublesome, nothing in the soul is intrinsically bad – there is no weed in the garden of the soul that does not have a proper place and role within that garden. And a weed in its proper place is not a weed at all, it is a flower.
And here we return to a metaphor suggested earlier — the soul as garden and the spirit as gardener. The spirit descends to the garden of the soul to cultivate it — to find the proper place wherein each aspect of the soul can flourish. A flourishing soul is a fulfilled soul, a deeply content soul. A content soul fills the spirit with joy. And this is the reward and value of the marriage of spirit and soul spoken of by the alchemist – soulful contentment and spiritual joy.
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- Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, is the title of a book by Thomas More. More’s writing is deeply influenced by the psychologist James Hillman. Hillman has waged something of a one-man crusade to bring our restless spirits back to the soul, gaining allies like More, the poet Robert Bly, and Phil Cousineau along the way. Cousineau’s book Soul: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles is a particularly informative and enjoyable exploration of the soul’s realm. Hillman was influenced by Jung, who was highly influenced by alchemy. Paganism, nature religions, and religions of the Goddess also in their various ways work for the re-integration of spirit and soul.