The Xanthosis of Tobit: The Hidden Alchemy of The Bible’s Most Under-Appreciated Book
Have you ever read The Book of Tobit? If you’re a Protestant, the answer is probably no, because it was rendered apocryphal; if you’re a Catholic, the odds are higher, but it’s increasingly hard to find a practicing Catholic these days who’s actually read the book outside of what was proscribed to them in Sunday school. Considered non-canonical also by Judaism, it’s tucked away amid more popular Biblical books, coincidentally right on page 444 of my Catholic Bible. It is an excellent story which should be read by everyone, for it is not only a fantastic fairy tale in every sense, but it is a very useful tale to analyze in a Jungian sense, and most moving, indeed.
There are many superficial reasons to cite the text. What I am interested in is the manner in which the unconscious emerges in the works of men and women all across the globe; and, of course, one need look no further than the Word of God to see the unconscious at very fine work. The problem of course is that ‘look no further’ also tends to encourage people to stop looking after a certain point: to look at the work from a superficial aspect. Thus, the Book of Tobit is cited for its speeches on marriage, almsgiving, prayer and fasting, but these in and of themselves are symbols. Fairy tales are by their nature so densely-layered with symbolism that it is easy to be lured by them into a point of, well, missing the point; this is common with Shakespeare, the Bible, and any other symbol-laden text you might find, like Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or my upcoming novel, Albedo. Certain texts carrying certain messages pack themselves full of symbols because, when you work out the logic puzzle of what it is saying, there is a moment of sort of blissful revelation— of gnosis.
Now, before we go on, I want to disclaim the fact that I will use the term ‘fairy tale’ to apply to the Book of Tobit, which is a term I do not use dismissively. Indeed, I view fairy tales with the greatest respect; fairy tales contain the most important lessons man can yet hope to internalize, and function not only on a social level, but on the psycho-spiritual level which resonates with something beyond our conscious awareness. They are often the works of many stories combined into one over time based on oral retelling before they are finally recorded in one format or another; they often, also, bear archetypal similarities to other stories of their ilk. The Book of Tobit shares all of these traits; indeed, it appears for all the world as if two stories were woven together as commonly occurs in texts such as these, and the resulting lesson is an exquisite one.
So, what is the Book of Tobit about? Well, let’s retell it as a fairy tale to get the gist, out of order of the book but in the interest of the narrative order instead: Once upon a time, there was a man named Tobit, a member of the tribe of Naphalti who, like the rest of the Israelites from the northern tribes, were deported to Assyria. A pious man of God who refuses the cult of the golden calf and instead hurries to Jerusalem to give to the priests cattle and the first shearings of sheep, as well as grain, wine, olive oil, pomegranates, figs, “and the rest of the fruits to the sons of Levi who ministered at Jerusalem.” He would also occasionally save enough money to distribute it in Jerusalem, giving to “the orphans and widows and to the converts who had attached themselves to Israel.” Offering proper burial for his fallen kindred, giving food to the hungry and clothes to the naked, he was eventually condemned to death as a result of his burials, barely escaping and only able to return to his land and his wife when the former king of the region died. The King himself, Sennacherib, had been killed by two of his sons, and while they fled to the mountains, his third son ascended the throne; this son appointed a man named Ahikar as minister of treasury and chief cupbearer, and who should Ahikar happen to be but Tobit’s very nephew! Thus, Tobit is returned to his family— and almost immediately on his return, during Shavuot, he is forced to do that very thing which exiled him from home in the first place: he is forced to bury the dead. (As an aside, let us note that Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks falling between May 14th and June 15th, commemorates the day Yahweh gave the Torah to the Jews on Mount Sinai, but its primary function is to celebrate the wheat harvest, as outlined in Exodus 34:22, “You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.” This will be touched on in future article regarding the Saturnine role of Yahweh, but of course the harvesting, processing and usage cycle of wheat is a common metaphor for the soul.)
After retrieving the body for preparation for burial, Tobit eats by himself, and weeps, thinking of the prophecy of Amos against Bethlehem, “Your festivals shall be turned into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.” When the sun sets, Tobit digs a grave and buries the man, and his neighbors laugh and ask him and one another what he thinks he’s doing, committing the very crime for which he had been previously forced from his home. And then the real trouble starts:
That same night I washed myself and went into my courtyard and slept by the wall of the courtyard; and my face was uncovered because of the heat. I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films. I went to the physicians to be healed, but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by white films, until I became completely blind. For four years I remained unable to see.
And so we discover the central problem of our book’s main character, Tobit: he cannot see God in the world, for the Lord himself has blinded him with bird shit— indeed, one might even say Tobit’s initial trouble, his crime, was motivated by the will of God, for he was naught but doing the will of God by burying the dead. As a result of his blindness, Tobit’s wife Anna becomes the primary provider, doing weaving to make money; once in exchange for a piece of her weaving she is given a goat, which begins to bleat on her return home. Tobit convinces himself, a la King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale convincing himself of his wife’s non-existent infidelity, that Anna has stolen the goat, and he refuses to believe her explanation that it was given to her along with her wages. Anna, then, in the fight, either pleads him to be charitable with her, or shrewishly asks him where his previous charity has gone in the light of his blindness to God; either way, a similar meaning is brought across. Finally, as a result of the fight, in a bout of melodramatic fury and surely deep depression as a result of his blindness, Tobit pleads to God that he be killed rather than be forced to listen to ‘undeserved insults’.
Command, O Lord, that I be
released from this distress,
release me to go to the eternal
and do not, O Lord, turn your
face away from me.
For it is better for me to die
than to see so much distress in
and to listen to insults.
Assuming that God will answer his prayer, Tobit calls his son, Tobias, and tells him to go retrieve his money left in trust with Gabael in Media. He gives his child several pages’ worth of life advice, largely regarding almsgiving, proper burial, and fornication with foreign women, advising that Tobias take a wife from among his kindred. He also places great emphasis on properly paying wages to those who would work for him; and, as per usual, he is given the advice, “And what you hate, do not do to anyone.” After all of this, he finally goes on to describe to his son the money left in trust, and tells him to go and fetch it. Specifically, he says he left ten talents of silver, and goes on to say, “Do not be afraid, my son, because we have become poor. You have great wealth if you fear God and flee from every sin and do what is good in the sight of the Lord your God.”
At last, with his father’s commands in mind, he asks how he is to acquire the money and how, exactly, he is to get to Media, when he does not know the roads, has never been there, and GPS will not exist for several thousand years. Tobit suggests that he find himself a trustworthy man. Luckily for Tobias, however, the Spirit Mercurius is better than all of that; in the universe of our story, the archangel Raphael will play the same role played by Mephistopheles in Faust, or Woland in Master and Margarita. An angel is playing the same role as the Devil, who, lest we forget, is commonly described as a fallen angel, or simply as the angel of death. What I love about the Book of Tobit is its depiction of the archetype of the Spirit in the holy aspect, rather than the chthonic, and yet it is still much the same archetype.
Sent by God in response to Tobit’s earlier prayers, Raphael comes to Tobias in the guise of Azariah, son of Hananiah, one of Tobit’s relatives, all that Tobit will trust him and give him and Tobias his blessing for their working together, one would presume, and also to foster trust. Following the model I usually take, of the story as a microcosm representing a person writing it as a macrocosm in comparison, what we see are several things: first, the wounded/dying King, the Saturnine Tobit who is aged and blinded by the material; next the wife who causes all the problems with her weaving and her bleating goat, which operates as our inciting incident and as proof of the corruption of materiality which must be purified by the son; the son in question, Tobias, who, like so many children in fairy tales, represents the transcendent function in its efforts to renew the King; and the Spirit Mercurius, coming in the form of Raphael. One of the smallest, however, and most interesting details is mentioned only twice, at the beginning and end of the journey: “The young man went out and the angel went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them.”
The dog is, for me, one of the most interesting and intuitive symbols in the entire story. It appears out of nowhere and is of seemingly no consequence to those who are not reading into it, but those interested in symbolism of this type will think immediately of, say, the dog’s appearance following the Fool Tarot card, or the ties of the dog to Luna, or in alchemy. Jung, in Mysterium Coniunctionis, writes, “…[symbolic interpretation of] the dog entered Western alchemy through Kalid’s “Liber secretorum,” originally, perhaps, an Arabic treatise.” In the footnotes, he adds, “In the history of symbols the dog is distinguished by an uncommonly wide range of associations,w hich I will not attempt to exhaust here. The Gnostic parallel Logos/canis is reflected in the Christian one, Christus/canis, handed down in the formula “gentle to the elect, terrible to the reprobate,” a “true pastor.”” What is far more telling is when he references the Elenchos of Hippolytus, describing, “For the Logos is a dog who guards and protects sheep against the wiles of the wolves, and chases the wild beasts from Creation and slays them, and begets all things…But with the rising of the Dog-star, the living are distinguished by the Dog from the dead, for in truth everything withers that has not taken root. This Dog, they say, being a certain divine Logos, has been established judge of the quick and the dead, and as the Dog is seen to be the star of the plants, so is the Logos, they say, in respect of the heavenly plants, which are men.” And even if all of that were not true, we will note that in the second appearance of the dog in The Book of Tobit, an alternate translation (contained, at least, in my own Bible) sometimes describes it not as “and the dog went along behind them,” but rather, “And the Lord went along behind them.”
Previously, I have discussed the parallel of the Logos to alchemical Sulphur in the triad of principles, and alchemical Mercury, likewise, to Nous; the interpretation stands all the more here, with our trio of travelers, Tobias, himself, representing the Salt, as he is but a human man, made of matter, and the salt of the earth which is to be worked upon. Note also that our three travelers are, as per usual, on their way to a City; in this case, it is to acquire not gold, but silver, indicating that what is at stake here is balance of the feminine— indeed, we will note that the house of Tobit, from which Tobias comes, contains three figures rather than a complete quaternity of opposites, and there is a surplus of masculinity in the house in the form of Tobias and Tobit, with Anna, the third, being highly outweighed. This kind of imbalance indicates a disrespect, a lack of appreciation for the material, for the feminine, and indeed for the duties and creations of the feminine; Tobit, a man of God, has been blinded to the presence of God in the material world, and thus the products of the labors of his wife, a product which happens to represent fertility, corruption and, as in Pibechios (Berthelot, Alch. Grecs III, XXV, 3), goat’s blood is a synonym for divine water, it is therefore also a symbol of the unconscious trapped in matter and the sin implicit in matter, which must, then, be purified. Lest we forget, also, the nature of the ‘scapegoat’! What is required is a spiritualization of matter, in essence; a restoration of not just Tobit’s eyes, but also of the house, which, being representative of the macrocosm in this particular story, requires a quaternity of elements to be complete unto itself.
Not very long into their journey to Rages at Media, Raphael and Tobias camp alongside the Tigris river; when the young man goes down to wash his feet, a large fish leaps up from the water and tries to swallow his foot, but the angel instructs him to catch hold of the fish and hang on to it. This scene is the most important scene in the story and typical of the nature of the Spirit Mercurius in helpful guise— when from the waters of the unconscious there rises the monstrous fish which seeks to devour us, the Spirit steps in and instructs us in not only its capture, but its butchery. For the book goes on, “Then the angel said to him, ‘Cut open the fish and take out its gall, heart, and liver. Keep them with you, but throw away the intestines. For its gall, heart, and liver are useful as medicine….As for the fish’s heart and liver, you must burn them to make a smoke in the presence of a man or woman afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, and every affliction will flee away and never remain with that person any longer. And as for the gall, anoint a person’s eyes where white films have appeared on them; blow upon them, upon the white films, and the eyes will be healed.’” Tobias obeys, is noted as eating some of the fish and saving the remainder to be salted, and they soon reach Media, but I would like to take just a little bit of time to refer again to the work of Jung in his essay The Fish in Alchemy, in which he cites sources which describe similar processes.
Now these “Allegoriae” [Printed in Artis aruferae (1593), I, pp. 139ff.; Theatrum chemicum, V, pp. 64ff.; and Manget, Bibliotheca chemica curiosa (1702), I, pp. 494ff] are our earliest source for the alchemical fish symbolism. For this reason we may assign a fairly early date to the alchemical fish—before the eleventh century, in any case. There is nothing to suggest that it is of Christian origin. That, however, did not prevent it from becoming—through the transformation of the arcane substance which it had first represented—a symbol of the lapis, the lattter term denoting the prima materia as well as the end product of the process, variously called lapis philosophorum, elixir vitae, aurum nostrum, infans, puer, filius philosophorum, Hermaphroditus, and so on. This filius, as I have shown elsewhere, was regarded as a parallel of Christ. Thus, by an indirect route, the alchemical fish attans the dignity of a symbol for the Salvator mundi. Its father is God, but its mother is the Sapientia Dei, or Mercurius as Virgo. The filius philosophorum (or macrocosmi), otherwise the lapis, means nothing other than the self, as I have explained in a detailed examination of its various attributes and peculiarities.
The text containing the earliest reference to the fish runs: “There is in the sea a round fish, lacking bones and cortex, and having in itself a fatness, a wondrous virtue, which, if it is cooked on a slow fire until its fatness and moisture entirely disappear…is saturated with sea-water until it begins to shine.” “This recipe is repeated in another, possibly later, treatise of the same kind, the “Aenigmata philosophorum.” Here the “piscis” has become a “pisciculus,” and “lucescat” has become “candescat.” Common to both treatises is the ironic conclusion of the recipe: When the citrinitas (xanthosis, ‘yellowing’) appears, “there is formed the collyrium [eyewash] of the philosophers.” If they wash their eyes with it, they will easily understand the secrets of the philosophy.
I would point out to the astute readers as well the yellow nature of bile produced by gall; what we are seeing in the above quotation, then, is a sort of elaboration upon the recipe given Tobias by Raphael. That, then, settles what we shall be using the gall for— but what of the heart and liver? As our travelers at last reach the City, Raphael then tells Tobias that there is a woman there whom he is entitled to marry because she is his closest relative— her name is Sarah, and she is tormented by the demon Asmodeus (categorized in some non-canonical sources as a lust demon), who has killed each of her seven husbands before they were able to consummate the marriage. What we are seeing, then, is the Spirit Mercurius revealing to our traveler the anima, Luna, the true silver for which Tobit sent his son to the City, who herself must be purified. In the actual book as described in the Bible, Raphael is sent in response to both Tobit’s prayers for death, and Sarah’s prayers for death; and yet, death shall come to neither. Instead, the anima shall be integrated into waking, conscious life, and this shall be accomplished in the manner described by the angel, Raphael, who again urges that when he enters the bridal chamber, Tobias, who is the 8th husband and thus the completion of the set, representing both the total sum and the new beginning, the new whole, life, self, is to put the heart and liver of the fish upon the incense. The angel further advises “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made,” for she is, of course, the anima.
The list of fairy tales in which the anima is somehow tormented by, or even herself containing, an evil spirit is truly endless. The Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales describes the story of Faithful John, where the Mercurial spirit must suck poison from the breast of the anima during her wedding to the young king; Mary Magdalene herself was plagued by seven demons which were then exorcised from her by Christ; the beautiful Rapunzel is trapped up in a tower by the wicked and chthonic witch, etc. Being as she is, in so many ways, a representative of the unconscious, the anima is therefore in some lights dual-sided; being so often in the clutches of the dragon which must be slain, she is both that which lures and endangers as much as she is any prize. What must be burned to rescue her is the heart and liver of the fish— what is required, again, is not just passion, but purification, for the liver is the organ which purifies the blood, an organ with extraordinary healing capacities. It is the confrontation with the material burned up in the hermetic fire of the Logos which causes the emergence of the lapis, in this case representing in the feminine, and silver; Asmodeus is repelled by the fumes of the burning fish essence to Egypt, where Raphael follows him to bind him hand and foot. So the evil of the anima is not destroyed; rather, it is relegated to a barren and lifeless portion of the unconscious, one which represents oppression and subjugation in this context, and there it is bound so as to be, at least temporarily, contained. Tobias, then, is able to take Sarah as his wife, thus balancing the masculine and feminine elements of the macrocosm and, importantly, he spends after that a great deal of time in the house of his in-laws, thus forming with them an ascended, spiritual quaternity which will reflect the descended, material quaternity of Tobit’s house. This comparison, of the spiritual quaternity to the so-called gross quaternity, is evident in the fact that we find an excess of masculinity (consciousness) in the house of Tobit, and the house to which he travels has an excess of femininity (unconsciousness).
As the City represents, as all Inner Cities do, a kind of framework by which one navigates one’s psyche, the parents of the anima represent to Tobias the archetypal ideas of the Great Mother and Chthonic Father, though in this aspect he is only chthonic insofar as he, like all Princess’ fathers dubious of the success of the future Prince which he may well have to imprison, behead or otherwise take care of as a result of a failed task, orders the digging of Tobias’ grave just in case it is required, though of course it goes unused. Instead, a celebration is at hand, and his father-in-law insists that Tobias and Sarah remain with them as long as possible, to the point that Tobias points out his parents are surely worried— ultimately, the decision to return to an external mode of being and integrate unconscious contents with consciousness is one which must be made oneself, for the unconscious, no matter how warm and helpful it is, will not do that for one. After his in-laws let him go, loading him up with gifts and love and assuring him he always has a home with him, Tobias collects the silver (notably acquired after he has acquired the Lunar anima) and returns home to his anxious parents. “As they went on together, Raphael said to him, ‘Have the gall ready.’ And the dog went along behind them.”
Raphael then goes on to explicitly repeat that he is to smear the gall upon his father’s eyes, and that “the medicine will make the white films shrink and peel off from his eyes, and your father will regain his sight and see the light.” There is at least one person who has described to me difficulties understanding God’s grace— this is the nature of grace. Indeed, let us not forget the song “Amazing Grace,” which we have all heard so many times it has been rendered all but meaningless. But it is by the grace of God that we see the light of God in the waking world, and need not wait for any death to do so; Tobias does as the angel commands, blowing into his father’s eyes before he applies the medicine, an interesting detail both for the thematic connotations of the breath of life, and the airy nature of the Spirit Mercurius. Tobias then applies the gall, and peels the white films from the corners of his father’s eyes, and Tobit’s four-year blindness is cured. The family celebrates not only that, but the marriage of Tobias and Sarah, and Tobit’s mind quickly turns to the payment of Raphael— indeed, it is only when they begin to deal with the matter of his payment that Raphael calls to them and says, “It is good to conceal the secret of a king, but to acknowledge and reveal the works of God, and with fitting honor to acknowledge them…I was sent to you to test you. And at the same time God sent me to heal you and Sarah your daughter-in-law. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord.”
Here again we see the actions and intentions of Raphael are comparable with the aforementioned actions of the Devil in the first of the Alchemical Devilry Series, where we described the nature of the Devil’s test of Christ wandering in the desert— that is to say, the Spirit Mercurius has descended to test the mettle, test the nature, of Tobias. It is not a test of pass/fail, so much as a test of character, a test accomplished not through the seductive suggestions of the Devil in the desert, but rather with the expectation that Tobias obey the wisdom of his elders, as was advised to him by his father earlier in the story, and to pay fair wages for fair duties. The more important test, though, was the test of the journey, itself; for the journey of a fairy tale hero is, if nothing else, the grandest kind of test. It is the test of the psyche to see and understand itself— and, more than that, to make use of its understanding by banishing the demon, marrying the anima and relieving the blindness of our tarnished and aging conscious dominant function. By means of the fish of the unconscious and the guidance of the Spirit we may renew ourselves, find ourselves full up with silver which we then might distribute to those who have great need of it— and if we are very open-eyed, indeed, we may even take notice of the little dog which follows in our wake.
We’re aiming for, in two weeks, an analysis of Pynchon’s simple, beautiful, and elegant The Crying of Lot 49, and that means that this week’s essay was a little simplistic, and a little easy to arrive at. But Albedo is certainly coming right along, and in the meantime, I intend to keep you all entertained, and maybe open a few minds. Come back in a fortnight for our look at The Crying of Lot 49, and keep an eye out for more updates on Albedo.
M. F. Sullivan is the author of the transgressive DELILAH, MY WOMAN and is hard at work on both the psychedelic follow-up, ALBEDO, and a non-fiction book of essays. Click here to buy DELILAH, MY WOMAN in hardback or for ereaders!