Alchemical Study Group – Three


(from the book)

Three. From the tension of the opposites of two comes release in the number three. Marie-Louise Von Franz termed three "a perfect number" that brings "dynamic actualizations" of the One, or Monad, into our consciousness. Thus, it represents activity, forward motion, the generative force, creative power, and multiplicity. Three is the Beyond, which exists in addition to the I-You dynamic tension of two. It is the beginning of three demential reality.

Three also is the number of harmony, sufficiency, prudence, friendship, peace, virtue and temperance. Three is the number of stories, which must have a beginning, a middle and an end. In mythology, folklore and fairy tales are the recurrent motif of the triad: three wishes, three sisters, three brothers, three chances, and blessings and charms done in threes. Goddess's influence over time is expressed in the Three Fates, who rule over the past, present and future. From time comes wisdom.

Three is also is expressed in the threefold nature of man: body, mind and spirit. The name of the mythical author of the Hermetica, Hermes Trismegistus, means "Thrice-greatest Hermes." In the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) of the Kabbala, three is expressed in the Three Mothers, Aleph, Mem and Shin, which form the foundation of "all others." Aleph, Mem and Shin are letters of the Hebrew alphabet which mean, respectively, "breath" or vital spirit; "seas" or water; and "life-breath of the Divine Ones" or "Holy Spirit." In Christianity, three is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, or spiritual synthesis. In alchemy it is salt, sulfur, and mercury, which are body, spirit, and soul.


Three: triplicity

The integration of the ego with the unconscious can be symbolized as a marriage or union with the animus or the anima, which can lead to the hermaphrodite, an image of the Higher Self. With the introduction of the Higher Self, the alchemical couple now develop a third force, which completes the triangle mentioned earlier in the quote from the Rosarium. The theme is further expanded in the following quote from the Rosarium (Alchemy: an Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, p. 126-128):

"Philosophy hath three parts ... Sol, Luna, and Mercury."

In Jabir's 8th-century symbolism, sulfur is masculine (spirit) and mercury is feminine (soul). Gnostics claimed there were three parts to an individual: body, spirit (mind), and soul; alchemists later added salt (the body) to Jabir's couple. In the above quote, however, we can see that the gender of the chemical symbols can differ greatly from one text to another -- particularly that of mercury. Here mercury is clearly the hermaphrodite or the Higher Self which is both masculine and feminine.

In mythology Mercury (Hermes in Greek), as messenger of the divine world, was able to take on any form; therefore, he was able to change his sex, making him a manifestation of the anima, animus, or both. Priests of Hermes in Cyprus wore artificial breasts and women's clothing, similar to the practice of Siberian and Eskimo shamans. This may be interpreted as the priests' attempt to identify with their anima, and thereby make contact with the unconscious, or as their identification with the hermaphroditic god. The word "hermaphrodite" itself is a combination of the name of Hermes with his sometime lover, Aphrodite, suggesting a sexual connection similar to the images in the Rosarium.

Mercury, as a symbol, is as quick and elusive as the god himself. In another quote from the Rosarium, we can see that even in the same text he changes meaning from one statement to another:

"The Body is Venus and the Woman; The Spirit is Mercury and the Man; the Soul is Sol and Luna. The Body must melt into first matter which is mercury." (Rosarium Philosophorum, p. 26)

Here the body refers to the physical, which is seen as feminine. Mercury, the spirit -- which in the 16th century referred to what we would call the mind -- is masculine. The soul (self), being hermaphroditic, is seen to have a masculine and a feminine part symbolized by the two luminous bodies. By differentiating them, we see that four parts can be drawn out of our triangle.