Alchemical Study Group – Two


(from the book)

Two. From one springs two, and thus a dynamic tension begins in all other numbers. Two is the number of duality, balance and symmetry. Virtually all cultures and religions around the world have twin gods or demons who are creators of the world, or guard the gates to heaven, the otherworld, the underworld or the Beyond. The number two points to the emergence of something new into consciousness; it stands just on the threshold, and is emerging from darkness into light. Thus, in myth and fairy tale, we find often find twins or pairs representing archetypes of transformation. In alchemy, two is the number of opposites, which must dissolve and recombine to create philosopher's stone. These are the king and queen, sol and luna, the masculine and feminine principles.

With two, time comes into being, for the number represents the rhythm of movement, an oscillation that brings time into our awareness.

Two is a feminine number, and is often personified by Goddess in her various attributes. In the Major Arcana, this is the High Priestess, ruler of the moon and keeper of the mysteries. In the Minor Arcana, two often represents dynamic tension and balance.


Two: duality

A fundamental duality of masculine and feminine forces permeates all alchemical material. This duality can be seen in various pairs of symbols: mercury and sulfur, white and red, volatile and fixed, moon and sun, king and queen. These symbols of duality appear throughout the Alchemical Tarot.

An important alchemical symbol of both duality and unity is the ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. The resulting circle expresses unity, but we can see duality in the manner in which the ouroborous is colored. In the alchemical text, the Codex Marcionus, one of the oldest renditions of the ouroboros shows a creature that is distinctly shaded -- the upper half, containing the head, is black and the lower half is white. If we think of the white tail as a phallus entering the feminine black upper half, then its life-renewing power stems from the sexual generation of its two parts.

A 10th-century Arab text, De Chemia, by Mohammed ibn Umail, describes a statue of Hermes Trismegistus presenting in his hands an engraved tablet revealing the secrets of alchemy. On the tablet are various symbols of duality, including several variations of the sun and moon, and the two birds described in the following quote from that text:

"Looked at schematically, the birds would be lying one over the over, each with its head to the tail of the other bird, one being winged and the other wingless. It was as though they wanted to fly together, or as though the wingless one was keeping the other back, that is the upper bird wanted to carry away the lower, but the lower bird held it back and prevented it from flying away. The two birds were bound together, were homogeneous and of the same substance and they were painted in one sphere as though the image of two things in one." (Rosarium Philosophorum, p. 109)

In this image of a winged and a wingless bird swallowing each other's tails, we can see a more differentiated form of the ouroboros. The two halves have become separate beings which devour each other. In later alchemical texts they take the form of two serpents or dragons, representing the volatile (winged) and the fixed (wingless).

The alchemical opus demands that the prima materia (the ouroboros) be cooked so that the fixed and volatile separate. They then are transformed into one another, in cycle after cycle, until they are purified.

"That which is volatile may be fixed of them by the means of policies but from hence that which is fixed may be made volatile, and again volatile fixed, and in this order the most precious secret is accomplished." (Rosarium Philosophorum, p. 90)

The alchemist Senior says that his wingless, fixed bird is red sulfur (masculine) and that the winged, volatile bird is the soul (feminine). We may consider the fixed as the liquid, which is being cooked, and the volatile as the vapor rising from the boiling substance. The vapor must be captured and condensed so that it can be revaporised in a continuous process called distillation. Alchemists would patiently distill a substance numerous times before it was purified enough for further operations.

Jung describes sulfur as an active, corrosive, evil-smelling substance; in folklore it is equated with the devil, who is described as leaving a sulfurous smell. However, in alchemy, sulfur is the lover of the bride, and is equated with the sun. These conflicting qualities successfully depict the driving, emotional, psychic life force called the libido.

Depression, as viewed by Jung, is a natural process of the psyche. He described it as an introverted psychic state in which the imagination is churned to bring out hidden fears and fantasies. If allowed its full course, it leads to an integration of this material--to calmness and understanding.

This is the natural process that psychoanalysis duplicates, and it is analogous to the alchemical cooking of the sulfur (libido) to extract the vapor (fantasies). It must be performed numerous times to approach a state of psychic wholeness, and find the true creative purpose behind the libido's seemingly demonic demands.

Alchemical psychic cooking can be seen in the Tower card in the Alchemical Tarot.

In later alchemical literature the masculine and feminine become personified as a king and a queen, who are brother and sister, as well as lovers. The 16th-century Rosarium Philosophorum contains a series of 20 illustrations, which at the start depict the king standing on the sun and the queen on the moon. In subsequent pictures the couple disrobe, enter a bath together and engage in sexual intercourse. This prolonged intercourse leads to a merging of their two bodies, until they leave the bath as a winged hermaphrodite, standing on the moon. The process is repeated, and once again they emerge as a winged hermaphrodite, this time surmounting a three-headed serpent.

The king and queen correspond to Jung's animus and anima, archetypes of masculine and feminine psychic forces in the unconscious. As mentioned earlier, the animus represents the male element in the psyche of a woman, and the anima the female element in the psyche of a man. Both sources of inner convictions and fantasies that can be unreasonable or destructive (sometimes the anima is referred to as a femme fatale and the animus as a Bluebeard). They can also be benevolent inner guides or beacons, leading one into the unconscious and to the Higher Self. As we saw in Chapter 1, they often appear in dreams as lovers or beckoning guides.

In the Alchemical Tarot, we see the union of the king and queen in the Lovers card, and the resulting hermaphrodite in the Devil card.