Great Work/ Great Rite: Common Symbolism in Alchemy and Witchcraft
Author: Dawn Phoenix
Few would argue that modern Witchcraft has its roots in many varied historical occult philosophies. One such system, commonly overlooked, is philosophical alchemy. Much of what remains from the original practitioners of this arcane art and science has been left to us encoded in allegorical pictures and laboratory notebooks.
Many noteworthy ideas survived alchemy’s hey-day and have made their way little changed into the modern era.
There is a tendency to think of alchemy itself as an early form of chemistry, and with good reason: it did beget the chemical sciences. Because one of the fundamental tenets (from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus) was “That which is above is like unto that which is below, ” practitioners studied the material world for glimpses into the world beyond.
This is not to say that all engaged in alchemical studies were of the occult bent. However, the great gulf we have built between philosophical and scientific understanding is a relatively novel one. (See, for instance, the works of Aristotle.)
In a nutshell, the goal of the alchemist was the search for a substance called the “Philosopher’s Stone, ” which had two important properties.
First, it would convert lead, the basest metal and a relatively valueless substance, into pure gold.
Second, with it one could produce the Elixir of Life, which cured all illness and rendered the one who possessed it immortal.
This was their Magnum Opus, or Great Work.
They recognized seven metals, each one associated with one of the seven (ancient) planets. Gold was associated with the Sun, and Lead with Saturn. Here we cross into the field of astrology for interpretation. Saturn is the planet of limitations and boundaries. This ranges from the restriction necessary for social order down to our personal detrimental proclivities.
In the medicine of the day, it was seen to rule over the melancholic humour. Melancholic individuals are often introverted ponderers and perfectionists with a propensity for becoming morose and depressed. It was thought that those too overbalanced in this humour would become caught up in their fears and despondencies.
The Sun was seen as the giver of life, the vitalizing force of all creation, as it provides the heat and light we require for our survival. Note that the Sun was also called “Sol” and “Soul” or the animating principle. Most importantly, then, it represents the self.
For this reason, when someone asks for your astrological sign, they are asking about the location of the Sun at your birth. The Sun is associated with the choleric humour, and an individual blessed with it will tend toward leadership, charisma, and personal empowerment.
The alchemist’s Magnum Opus was to seek out the means by which one could transmute one’s restrictions through the necessary stages towards the end of a refined and purified self. Some sources point to a process including conjunction, or the combining of two or more parts: putrification, or a “death” of some sort; purification, or the extraction of superfluous elements; and sublimation, which is sometimes seen as another stage of purification and sometimes as the reanimation of the formerly “dead” being. (For an example, see the Rosarium Philosophorum for the picture-poem “Sol and Luna.”)
Now a side step into the world of modern Witchcraft…
For many, the craft lends itself towards workings of self-refinement, and it is likely that this is so as a result of its connections to Hermetic Philosophy. If we are to recognize Divinity within ourselves, those things, which are less worthy of us or not true to our individual essences, will make themselves apparent. Whatever reason we may have had for initially stepping into the craft, we find ourselves journeying towards a greater commitment to our true selves.
The cycle the alchemist journeys through in the process of transmutation can be compared in many ways to the seasonal cycle of the Earth represented by the Great Lady and Her consort as a story of birth, consummation, and death plays itself out, world without end.
The Lord is born at Yule with the returning light of the Sun. Sometime in the spring (traditions vary) He joins with the Lady (who is always and ever the Triple Goddess) in the Great Rite. She is the receptive principle and He the projective. In accepting His power, She gives it form in the child who now grows in Her womb.
Following the natural progression of things, when it is harvest time He is cut down and makes the journey into the underworld (symbolically, the subconscious self) and becomes the Lord of that land. (In some traditions, the Lady also descends, albeit without being touched by death, as She carries in Her womb the principle of life itself.) At Yule, the Lord is born again of the Lady.
Is it the same Lord? Most would contend yes, and this is the pattern of reincarnation.
In fact, this same pattern is repeated in many different systems. In Ceremonial Magic, it is the IAO formula. Isis, representing all life, gives way to Apophis the Destroyer; Osiris is resurrection.
In Western Kabbalism, points on the middle pillar of the Tree of Life can be seen to represent the same. The great abyss, located between Tif’eret (the heart) and Keter (the crown), is home to Da’at, which, it is often said, may only be traversed through death.
Even in Christianity, the exalted state of Heaven, where one is purified of all sin, is generally unreachable until after death of the body has occurred. Some denominations even place that transcendence at a point of bodily resurrection at the end of time, when Heaven will come down to Earth. The Christ did not become exalted until after His death and resurrection.
Still, religion is comprised of both belief and practice, and practice is where systems diverge. Where the alchemist engaged in meditative lab work, the Christian in supplication, et cetera, what is the Witch’s practice for achievement of the Great Work?
This is a difficult question to answer, as different traditions render different ideas. Some simply don’t address the issue at large, on the grounds that every individual will require a dissimilar tact, and recommend spell workings fitted to distinct issues of personal growth the practitioner comes upon. Yet other traditions have specific methodologies for pushing through specific stages.
I would like to contend that there is one ritual, nearly universal to practitioners of the craft, which at its core is designed for exactly this purpose, though rarely is it acknowledged as such. Referring to the story of the wheel, and to the steps in alchemical transmutation, a common thread does emerge. That is, the conjunction.
In both the Great Work and the Great Rite, two things are joined, resulting in the production of a third. That third is both the Child of Promise and the purified self.
For it to be birthed, a process of death and reincarnation must be undergone. That is, for the newly purified self to come forth, that which has completed its tenure must pass away. The Child is then born of the womb, or the Philosopher’s Stone of the cauldron.
This Child is the Sun King, gold from dross, and the ego stripped of its limitations. It is also the promise of everlasting life, for the wheel of rebirth will ever renew.
In order to live forever, one must embrace death. Rebirth in this fashion is the Elixir of Life.
Practically speaking, this means that the formula of the Great Rite (whether actual or symbolic) may be drawn on for rituals of personal transformation, and need not be reserved as solely a celebratory rite.