An Analysis Of The Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part III: The Piteous Gate and A Dark Albedo

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Sometimes, readers, life is challenging. It can seem at times that we have been dropped on this planet for reasons unknown, to suffer needlessly in ways which might never have been. And yet, life and its pains are the very grounds of consciousness. Without a period of bleak unconsciousness, we would not have the opportunity to forge our higher consciousness; and I write here, not of the bleak unconsciousness of death, for we will see in the realm of the Book of the New Sun, there is no death—and I suspect the same is true of our own existence, which appears, externally, to be so very fragile. There is only the journey of the soul, upward, ever upward. But to do that, one must forge one’s soul.

If Book I of BOTNS represents the deep, dark, often unconscious nigredo, and the Guild is like the material world whose oubliettes are packed with damned, unconscious souls, then Severian’s emergence from that guild and into the open world represents an initial shift in his reality, but nothing is truly different yet. His worldview has not been fully altered. The facts that he has known are still basically true; he has simply been alienated from them in a psychic sense. His mind is beginning to connect with a vast number of archetypes by the end of book one—and they tend to repeat themselves in a series of patterns or ‘layers’ as one goes deeper, with one form replacing another in what I find to generally be a more abstract and therefore esoteric symbol. Therefore, when the Old Man, a more mundane Mercurial archetype, disappears from the scene when Severian loses track of Baldanders and Talos, Jonas sweeps in to take his place as a more purely neutral and purely Mercurial Mercurius, if that makes any sense to you.

One might picture one’s interactions with archetypes as a person ascending or descending a spiral staircase, or perhaps a strand of DNA; at each floor, we reach the same arrangement of doors, but of a greater height or depth. Similarly, we encounter archetypes in patterns. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Jung described this order as generally Shadow > Wise Old Wo/Man > Anima/Animus > Puer Eternis/Puella Eternia. However, this is not necessarily so, and not necessarily evenly dispersed as the pattern repeats. As the pattern repeats itself in variations, either more or less conscious than their predecessors, the archetypes become increasingly altered and esoteric, but still of the same stuff. Note that there is indeed a resemblance to the pattern of DNA in terms of its repeating-yet-varied combinations of the 4 nucleobases, GATC. Much as DNA is a language, so too are the archetypes, and much as there is a 5th, ‘hidden’ nucleobase used by RNA, so too is there a ‘hidden’, 5th archetype, which is, in both cases, ‘U’. (A very interesting pun you’ve got there, universe.)

Therefore, in the list of characters upon which I’ve previously touched, Dorcas is a brand of anima/great mother, yes, but as we discussed, she is also a child; she is a temporary puella, not a proper eternal girl, partly because she represents, as discussed, the previous conscious state of mind (or persona) which will retire eventually to give Severian full control of psychic forces and the operation. But, from the time she is resurrected until the point at which we find her jaded in Thrax, she is a happy, ethereal, somewhat inflated persona, for the start of the operation always leaves us breathless. We will note that when our placeholder puella leaves, we will meet a more proper puer eternis, and with some very tragic consequences—but that is for Book III. For now, I will point out a chain of evolution of a less-spoilery (but still pretty spoiler-y) manner by demonstrating to you briefly how the Spirit Mercurius takes many guises throughout the book. First, from Jung:

Often the old man in fairytales asks questions like who? Why? Whence? And whither? for the purpose of inducing self-reflection and mobilizing the moral forces, and more often still he gives the necessary magical talisman, the unexpected and improbable power to succeed, which is one of the peculiarities of the unified personality in good or bad alike. But the intervention of the old man—the spontaneous objectivation of the archetype—would seem to be equally indispensable, since the conscious will by itself is hardly ever capable of uniting the personality to the point where it acquires this extraordinary power to succeed. For that, not only in fairytales but in life generally, the objective intervention of the archetype is needed, which checks the purely affective reactions with a chain of inner confrontations and realizations. These cause the who? Where? How? And why? To emerge clearly and in this wise bring knowledge of the immediate situation as well as of the goal. The resultant enlightenment and untying of the fatal tangle often has something positively magical about it—an experience not unknown to the psychotherapist.


There is equally a connection with the unconscious when the old man appears a dwarf. The fairytale about the princess who was searching for her lover says: “Night came and the darkness, and still the princess sat in the same place and wept. As she sat there lost in thought, she heard a voice greeting her: ‘Good evening, pretty maid! Why are you sitting here so lonely and sad?’ She sprang up hastily and felt very confused, and that was no wonder. But when she looked round there was only a tiny little old man standing before her, who nodded his head at her and looked so kind and simple.” In a Swiss fairytale, the peasant’s son who wants to bring the king’s daughter a basket of apples encounters “es chlis isigs Manndli, das frogt-ne, was er do i dem Chratt haig?” (a little iron man who asked what he had there in the basket). In another passage the “Manndli” has “es isigs Chlaidli a” (iron clothes on). By ‘isig” presumably “eisern” (iron) is meant, which is more probable than “eisig” (icy). In the latter case it would have to be “es Chlaidli vo Is” (clothes of ice). There are indeed little ice men, and little metal men too; in fact, in a modern dream I have even come across a little black iron man who appeared at a critical juncture, like the one in this fairytale of the country bumpkin who wanted to marry the princess.

In a modern series of visions in which the figure of the wise old man occurred several times, he was on one occasion of normal size and appeared at the very bottom of a crater surrounded by high rocky walls; on another occasion he was a tiny figure on the top of a mountain, inside a low, stony enclosure. We find the same motif in Goethe’s tale of the dwarf princess who lived in a casket. In this connection we might also mention the Anthroparion, the little leaden man of the Zosimos vision, as well as the metallic men who dwell in the mines, the crafty dactyls of antiquity, the homunculi of the alchemists, and the gnomic throng of hobgobins, brownies, gremlins, etc. How “real” such conceptions are became clear to me on the occasion of a serious mountaineering accident; after the catastrophe two of the climbers had the collective vision, in broad daylight, of a little hooded man who scrambled out of an inaccessible crevasse in the ice face and passed across the glacier, creating a regular panic in the two beholders. I have often encountered motifs which made me think that the unconscious must be the world of the infinitesimally small. Such an idea could be derived rationalistically from the obscure feeling that in all these visions we are dealing with something endopsychic, the inference being that a thing must be exceedingly small in order to fit inside the head. I am no friend of any such “rational” conjectures, though I would not say that they are all beside the mark. It seems to me more probable that this liking for diminutives on the one hand and for superlatives—giants, etc.—on the other is connected with the queer uncertainty of spatial and temporal relations in the unconscious. Man’s sense of proportion, his rational conception of big and small, is distinctly anthropomorphic, and it loses its validity not only in the realm of physical phenomena but also in those parts of the collective unconscious beyond the range of the specifically human. The atman is “smaller than small and bigger than big,” he is “the size of a thumb” yet he “encompasses the earth on every side and rules over the ten-finger space.” And of the Cabiri Goethe says: “little in length / mighty in strength.” In the same way, the archetype of the wise old man is quite tiny, almost imperceptible, and yet it possesses a fateful potency, as anyone can see when he gets down to fundamentals. The archetypes have this peculiarity in common with the atomic world, which is demonstrating before our eyes that the more deeply the investigator penetrates into the universe of microphysics the more devastating are the explosive forces he finds enchained there. That the greatest effects come from the smallest cause has become patently clear not only in physics but in the field of psychological research as well. How often in the critical moments of life everything hangs on what appears to be a mere nothing!

In certain primitive fairytales, the illuminating quality of our archetype is expressed by the fact that the old man is identified with the sun. He brings a firebrand with him which he uses for roasting a pumpkin. After he has eaten, he takes the fire away again, which causes mankind to steal it from him. In a North American Indian tale, the old man is a witch-doctor who owns the fire. Spirit too has a fiery aspect, as we know from the language of the Old Testament and from the story of the Pentecostal miracle.

–Jung, Carl, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, “The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales”, pgs 220-224

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So you can see why I sort of start to sound exasperating or cagey after awhile when I can’t give more of a categorization than “Wise Old Man” or “Spirit Mercurius”, which the Wise Old Man is but a manifestation of. There are infinite subcategories for all of these archetypes—as many subcategories as there are people, practically—and you can always sub-divide to make things easier. There is the traditional Old Man as represented in Masters Gurloes, Ultan, and Malrubius, as well as Father Inire and Rudesind the Curator, are all these helpful, querying old men who give Severian a token, however abstract it may be as in the case of Father Inire’s second/third(/fourth?)hand conversation with Domnina and his nature as an invisible, guiding hand. (As an interesting sidenote, before I reached this story in the book I was writing The Disgraced Martryr Trilogy and was about a book into the process of following the adventures of a protagonist named Dominia, in a story also involving esoteric symbolism and black holes. Discovering the name of Thecla’s friend at that point was almost frightful! It is clear to me that Mr. Wolfe and I are both creatively tapped into something interesting, if I may be so presumptuous.) ‘Inire’ is the Latin verb for ‘to begin’; the Autarch explains the second time Severian meets him that Inire was ‘called’ by the first Autarch, Ymar to build a Secret House within House Azure.

Then, in the giant Baldanders and his homunculus, Dr. Talos, we see an uncombined duality; two aspects working together but still clashing by their nature even though they are a pair; one would do well to think of the Eastern conception of Yin and Yang, and the concept of duality in general when it comes to the combination of opposites in alchemy.

The next step in the process is Jonas, who is described as a raggedy, aging man (I am really spoiling the most awesome reveal of the whole series, in my opinion, so if you haven’t read it you should just skip ahead; honestly, I’m reluctant to go into details about Jonas’s arc just because it’s so great to experience) with a metal arm; we will discover later that this metal arm is only a symptom of his inner nature, which is that he is a cyborg whose spaceship crashed on Urth and who was forced to rebuild himself with human parts. A shepherd’s parts, specifically, which renders this half-machine, half-man also a Christlike symbol; although, if Severian is to be the Increate’s Black Lamb, perhaps Jonas’s capacity as shepherd serves to hasten Severian forward on his journey.

We will also meet the green man, who is a sort of old man or senex in that his very nature is one of time. He is from the future, green due to photosynthesis, and will eventually prove important in helping Severian and repaying his acts of mercy.

There is also another old man; different from the Wise Old Man, and yet often so similar as to be identical. This is the senex, and he is sometimes difficult to call his own archetype, for what he really is is an outmodded state of consciousness and therefore little more than grounds for the puer or other figure of consciousness. This Saturnine archetype is the portion in need of renewal. Unlike the outmodded persona which must step aside during the operation and give control to these mysterious psychic energies which might make them uncomfortable, the Saturnine archetype must die, or be utterly transformed in a miraculous and healing way. This shift of psychic energy is often indicated in books, plays and films by an ascension to a throne, a sacred marriage, the emergence or restoration of a world, etc. The symbols are limitless and Gene Wolfe manages to use a great many of them, but the clearest time this happens—the moment Severian individuates, or creates the Stone, in alchemical terms (the discovery of the Claw, in this case)—is the moment when he takes on power from the Autarch far into the future of Book IV. We will see a transmission of a talisman then; but for now, we see the Autarch only in glimpses throughout the series, as the androgyne who introduces the women at House Azure and as himself when Severian is wandering through House Absolute—notably, after Jonas has left him. There is generally only one Wise Old Man on the scene at a time, unless he is part of a set as in the case of Talos and Baldanders. The androgyny of the Spirit Mercurius is one of its most notable traits and one which we will cover in a later essay, because this one is already starting to run long.

For now, when last we left off, Severian was separated from his crew at the Gates of Nessus and therefore took up his journey with Jonas. Have I pointed out the exceedingly obvious pun, yet, of Severian’s status? He is not a proper torturer at any point in the book; he is a journeyman. Like Odysseus the Wanderer, his true duty is not to reach his destination; it is to engage in his journey and elicit the flow of symbolism required to initiate psychic growth and change.

Before his journey truly begins, however, he must leave Nessus; and the Gates of Nessus are a most interesting thing to behold.

The sides of the gate rose high above us, pierced at wide intervals by windows of some material ticker, yet clearer, than glass. Behind these windows we could see the moving figures of men and women, and of creatures that were neither men nor women. Cacogens, I think, were there, beings to whom the avern was but what a marigold or a marguerite is to us. Others seemed beasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks. I asked Dr. Talos what these creatures were.

“Soldiers,” he said. “The pandours of the Autarch.”

[…]”Within the Wall itself, Doctor?”

“Like mice. Although it is of immense thickness, it’s honey-combed everywhere—so I am given to understand. In its passages and galleries there dwell an innumerable soldiery, ready to defend it just as termites defend their ox-high earthen nests on the pampas of the north. This is the fourth time Baldanders and I have passed through, for once, as we told you, we came south, entering Nessus by this gate and going out a year afterward through the gate called Sorrowing. Only recently we returned from the south with what little we had won there, passing in at the other southern gate, that of Praise. On all these passages we beheld the interior of the Wall as you see it now, and the faces of these slaves of the Autarch looked out at us. I do not doubt that there are among them many who search for some particular miscreant, and that if they were to see the one they seek, they would sally out and lay hold of him.”

Jonas, then, engages in the conversation, and offers some history:

“In the old times, the lords of this world feared no one but their own people, and to defend themselves against them built a great fortress on a hilltop to the north of the city. It was not called Nessus then, for the river was unpoisoned.

“Many of the people were angry at the building of that citadel, holding it to be their right to slay their lords without hindrance if they so desired. But others went out in the ships that ply between the stars, returning with treasure and knowledge. In time there returned a woman who had gained nothing among them but a handful of black beans.”

“Ah,” said Dr. Talos. “You are a professional tale-teller. I wish you had informed us of it from the beginning, for we, as you must have seen, are something of the same.”

[…] “—she displayed the beans to the lords of men, and told them that unless she were obeyed she would cast them into the sea and so put an end to the world. They had her seized and torn to bits, for they were a hundred times more complete in their domination than our Autarch.”

–Wolfe, Gene, The Shadow of the Torturer, pg 208-209

(Before we go on, just a quick shout out to the fact that Dr. Talos himself notes the affinity with Jonas, who, as a Spirit Mercurius like himself, is also a receptical of creativity and stories. I have noticed that the Spirit Mercurius in fiction tends to slyly call out his own iterations; it even happens in my novel, The Lightning Stenography Device, which is incidentally 99 cents until April 7th, 2018. Click here to grab your copy!)

So we have an interesting origin story which also introduces us to the origin of House Absolute; we also see the toxic nature of the primitive anima, who is often tied in fairy tales to the toxic aspect of the unconscious, represented in this case as the Gyoll’s poisoned water. Unlike the purified, holy ‘river’ which runs through the universe, the chthonic and earthbound Gyoll is literally toxic, and presumably gained this toxicity from the events being described in the story, however metaphorical it may be.

Jung describes in Archetypes and in Mysterium Coniunctiuonis how the anima and the unconscious she represents generally begin in a state requiring purification, like a maiden being guarded by an evil dragon, or, in one fairy tale recounted by Jung’s student, von Franz, a princess poisoned while on the cusp of becoming a bride. I have described this particular archetypal situation in detail in my essay on the Bible’s Book of Tobit, wherein a young man must rescue his bride-to-be from the clutches of a demon who has killed 7 husbands and must be expelled with the smoke of innards extracted from a fish. So there is a cure to the toxicity of the anima/animus when first we meet it; it just requires some ingenuity, and usually the guidance of the Spirit Mercurius in the form of anything from an angel to a cyborg.

Why is the unconscious so toxic at the outset of the operation? Society, mostly, and projection, partly. When all things are fully unconscious when first we encounter the conscious, it is all cloaked in shadow; indeed, no matter how distinguished the archetypes become, we would do well to think of them as ‘all shadow’, as Jung once snapped at his pestering disciples. However, there is the shadow we know, in the sense of a thing which is not us but which we yet comprehend, and the shadow we don’t, which is, the thing which is not us but which is yet cloaked in darkness; and until we know the dragon, until we see it and get a sense of its size and shape, it is terrifying. Consider the parable of the blindfolded men made to feel an elephant. Even once their blindfolds are removed, the elephant is still not them; an animal is still a shadow of a man. It is only a more explainable and understandable shadow once we can see it and put all of its strange parts into context.

Now, as to the Wall, and Nessus; walls generally demark two psychic states. As the waters of the Gyoll are that poisoned part of the unconscious which flows through the conscious psyche and threatens us with our own lack of understanding, the Wall is like the barrier of perception which separates our vision of reality from actual reality, the source reality found in the unconscious, itself. Severian passes from the materialist prison of the Guild into a twilight state of semi-consciousness in which he must make the decision to become fully conscious by the defeat of Agilus; only once he makes the decision to fully embrace an introverted worldview does he emerge from the poisoned-yet-Imperishable city and into the vast world of the unconscious, which, much like the archetypes, has increasingly esoteric layers of his own; and, as each time we understand a layer it becomes conscious to us, so too do each conscious layer reveal or imply another, more deeply unconscious layer of understanding, like the sephira of the Kabbalah Tree of Life.

Last time I mentioned how Severian’s journey is one up the tree of life, but perhaps it is better to be thought of as a journey down, since it ends in both the manifestation of a new physical world (Malkuth) and a complete book series for Mr. Wolfe. Literary characters, figures of imagination, these are as good as angels in terms of their closenes to God, for they are suspended on nothing that we can see or know and yet are beings of pure creation; so, in theory, when using the Tree of Life to analyze a book, one should begin from Kether and navigate down until we reach the physical manifestation of the work in our world. Indeed, one could satisfyingly outline the books by describing them in either alchemical steps or sephira, with Book I bearing similarities to the womb of Binah on the left before Severian must make the choice to follow the path to the right side of the Tree, Book II’s fusion of Thecla into Severian resembling the embrace of the feminine wisdom of Chokhmah, Book III’s tragic series of failures the sometimes self-sacrificial loving-kindness of Chesed, and the Book IV’s ascension and military rallying in every way the picture of Netzach. (I don’t think I need to explain to readers why Yesod is associated with Urth!) While it is deceptive, of course, to boil sephira down to methods of categorization when they really describe psychic experiences of the divine, we would do well to remember that all literature describes psychic experiences of the divine in various ways. (And, as always, when I say ‘the divine’, please don’t take exception if you’re an atheist; I only mean that great, unknowable source of the Highest Reality, which on the Tree of Life is called Kether, or Ein Sof—Severian’s Inreate.)

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So it is fitting, essentially, that the Wall should be between Binah and Chokhmah, for transitioning from the Pillar of Severity to the Pillar of Mercy is a difficult and distinct task; Severian, and anyone who makes the decision to transition from a negative state of mind to a positive state of mind must re-program their brain’s wiring from the ground up. Likewise, the Wall is necessary between the conscious and the unconscious, for if we did not have the Wall, we would be like the schizophrenic whose mind is unbounded within spacetime and forced to act as an open receiver for any transmission that might be happening by. The symbol of the walled city appears in Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland, as well, although in that case the city is a stiff kind of eternity in which the creation of reality through the escape of our unnamed protagonist is the desirable condition; the City Imperishable of Nessus implies that the stultified condition of eternity itself is curable, and indeed it is, for we will later see its highest, holiest form in the state of Yesod. While Murakami’s work finds no solution but to bounce back and forth between oscillations of the linear time-bound universe and the condition of Eternity, Wolfe’s work implies that there is an even higher, more incomprehensible state of Eternity than the comprehensible Eternity of Yesod; therefore, and therefore introduces a ‘y’-axis to the ‘x’-axis of perpetual death and rebirth of a physical kind each time the universe is destroyed and re-created.

And as for the Wall, full of windows and cacogens? We will do well to remember that the cacogens are really hierodules in disguise; there are no demons in the world of Severian, only holy slaves in disguise who house themselves within the walls of the imagination to both monitor those who come and go to the unconscious like archetypes present in the mind’s dream-space. The cacogens are the ultimate symbol of the nature of the unconscious: it is the most beautiful face ever seen, hidden beneath a monstrous mask which is itself also concealed. Only once one strips first the mundane mask, and then the toxic mask, will the truth be revealed.

The final point of interest with Nessus’s wall comes from the name of its gates, and the directions. To reach the city by going north and entering through the southern gate is to pass through the gate of Praise; we are not told at which direction Sorrowing is set, if it is a cardinal one, but it is presumably also a southern-facing gate. To exit in a southern direction is to take the Sorrowing route; and yet, to exit in a northern direction is to exit through the Piteous Gate, where Severian loses contact with his friends and gains Jonas.

What is happening? Jung has some extremely (and I do mean extremely) relevant things to say on the subject in Aion, specifically in an essay on the prophecies of Nostradamus. Now I see you already rolling your eyes, reader, but stick with me, because we’re not going to get into the rambling prophecies. You just read on and enjoy having your mind blown.

That a usurper from the North would seize power is easily understood when we consider that the Antichrist is something infernal, the devil or the devil’s son, and is therefore Typhon or Set, who has his fiery abode in the North. Typhon’s power is triadic, possessing two confederates, one in the East and one in the South. This power corresponds to the “lower triad.”

Nostradamus, the learned physician and astrologer, would certainly have been familiar with the idea of the North as the region of the devil, unbelievers, and all things evil. The idea, as St. Eucherius of Lyons remarks, goes back to Jeremiah 1:14: “From the north shall an evil wind break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land,” and other passages such as Isiah 14:12:

How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north.

The Benedictine monk Rhabanus Maurus says that “the north wind is the harshness of persecution” and “a figure of the old enemy.” The north wind, he adds, signifies, the devil, as is evident from Job 26:7: “He stretcheth out the north, over the empty space, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.” Rhabanus interprets this as meaning that “God allows the devil to rule in the minds of those who are empty of his grace.” St. Augustine says: “Who is that north wind, save him who said: I will set up my seat in the north, I will be like the most High? The devil held rule over the wicked, and possessed the nations,” etc.

The Victorine monk Garnerius says that the “malign spirit” was called Aquilo, the north wind. Its coldness meant the “frigidity of sinners.” Adam Scotus imagined there was a frightful dragon’s head in the north form which all evil comes. From its mouth and snout it emitted smoke of a triple nature, the “threefold ignorance, namely of good and evil, of true and false, of fitting and unfitting.” “That is the smoke,” says Adam Scotus, “which the prophet Ezekiel, in his vision of God, saw coming from the north,” the “smoke” of which Isiah speaks [Isiah 14:31: “Howl, O gate, cry, O city, all Philistia is thrown down, for a smoke shall come from the north, and there is none that shall escape his troop.”]. The pious author never stops to think how remarkable it is that the prophet’s vision of God should be blown along on the wings of the north wind, wrapped in this devilish smoke of threefold ignorance. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Hence the “great cloud” had “brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze.” The north wind comes from the region of fire and, despite its coldness, is a “Ventus urens” (burning wind), as Gregory the Great calls it, referring to Job 27:21. This wind is the malign spirit, “who rouses up the flames of lust in the heart” and kindles every living thing to sin. “Through the breath of evil incitement to earthly pleasures he makes the hearts of the wicked to burn.” As Jeremiah 1:13 says, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” In these quotations from Gregory we hear a faint echo of the ancient idea of the fire in the north, which is still very much alive in Ezekiel, whose cloud of fire appears from the north, whence “an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.”

–Jung, Carl, Aion, pg 100-103

A piteous gate, indeed! We may stop by the glamorous beauty of House Absolute on the way north, but let us never forget that Severian will indeed meet Typhon by going north, and not long after he will reach the source of the smoke—the never-ending war with the Ascians.

The great Catholic problem is the problem of evil, for Catholics are taught that it is not God who causes evil, but free will; this is obvious brainwashing, for Yahweh is the most violent and vengeful character in the entire Bible and is only purified into the loving God of the New Testament by the death of His Lamb. Marie-Louis von Franz summarizes, “According to Jung, in “Answer to Job,” the great problem is that in the Christian teaching, all wrong comes from man and everything positive comes from God; the fact that God Himself created the snake in Paradise, which seduced man, is swept under the carpet. That God might look at His own shadow and take the guilt upon Himself, instead of accusing man, has never occurred to teachers of the Christian religion.”

This is in large part the problem facing Severian. In his journey, he will come to see two faces of the Increate: the Black Hole which will eventually consume earth, and the White Fountain which elicits all matter at the dawn of time in a cosmic ejaculation. The dual nature of the Increate is reflected by the struggle between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the war between the Ascians and the Autarch (or Erebus and Abaia, if you prefer) is a powerful symbol of this problem. Existence is a perpetual war of opposites from which alchemy, Buddhism, and all other esoteric flavors of faith seeks escape. This recognition is often achieved in the religious sort by the realization that the smoke of evil is, truthfully, emitted from that same burning fire of God. And, lest we forget, Severian, a messiah, wears a cloak of fuligin; the color darker than black, the color he uses to describe a black hole, and a color which causes him to frequently be called, and mistaken for, Death. At the outset of his journey, Severian, like all of the Increate’s works for the immortality of the human soul, are shrouded in a cloak of entropy and death which need only be removed to reveal the true face of the operation. If we need more proof of that (and a better segue into Saltus), we need look no further than yet another Jung essay—one which we will revisit several times in the future, called “The Fish in Alchemy”.

It is curious how often the medieval symbolists give diametrically opposed interpretations of the same symbol, apparently without becoming aware of the far-reaching and dangerous possibility that the unity of the symbol implies the identity of the opposites. Thus we can find certain views in alchemy which maintain that God himself “glows” in this subterranean or submarine fire. The “Gloria mundi,” for instance, says:

Take fire or unslaked lime, which in Philosophers say grows on trees. In this fire God himself glows in divine love…Likewise the Natural Master says regarding the art of fire, that Mercurius is to be decomposed…and fixed in the unquenchable or living fire, wherein God himself glows, together with the sun, in divine love, for the solace of all men; and without this fire can the art never be brought to perfection. It is also the fire of the Philosophers, which they keep hidden away and concealed…It is also the noblest fire which God created upon earth, for it has a thousand virtues. To these things the teacher replies that God has bestowed upon it such virtue and efficacy…that with this fire is mingled the Godhead itself. And this fire purifies, as purgatory does in the lower regions.

The fire is “inextinguishable.” “The Philosophers call this fire the fire of the Holy Ghost.” It unites Mercurius with the sun “so that all three make but one thing, which no man shall part asunder.” “Just as in three God the Father, God the Son, and god the Holy Ghost are united, [i.e., as] the Holy Trinity in three Persons, and there yet remains the one single true God, so also the fire unites these three things: body, spirit, and soul, that is, Sun, Mercurius, and Soul.” “In this invisible fire the mystery of the Art is enclosed, as God the Father, Son, and Spirit in three Persons is verily included in one essence.” This fire is “fire and water at once.” The Philosophers name it the “living fire”in honor of God, “who mingles himself with himself in the living water.”

Another treatise says of the water that it is the “hiding place and dwelling place of the whole treasure.” For in its midst is the “fire of Gehenna” which “contains the engine of the world in its own being.” The fire is caused by the “primum mobile” and is kindled by the influence of the stars. It never ceases its universal motion and is continually lit through the “influence of celestial forces.”

It is an “unnatural” fire, “contrary to nature.” It puts bodies to the torture, it is itself the dragon that “burns furiously like hell-fire.” The life-spirit dwelling in nature, Phyton, has a double aspect: there is an infernal form of it, namely hell-fire, from which a hellish bath can be prepared. The treatise of Abraham Elezar speaks of Phyton as a “god.”

According to Blaise de Vigenere, the fire has not two but four aspects: the intelligible, which is all light; the heavenly, partaking of heat and light; the elemental, pertaining to the lower world and compounded of light, heat, and glow (ardor); and finally the infernal, opposed to the intelligible, glowing and burning without any light. Here again we encounter the quaternity which the ancients associated with fire, as we saw from the Egyptian conception of Set and the four sons of Horus, [and from Jung’s footnotes: They are also the sons of Set, in so far as Heru-ur and Set have one body with two heads.] and from Ezekiel’s vision of the fiery region to the north. It is not at all likely that Vigenerre was thinking of Ezekiel in this connection.

In the “Introitus apertus” of Philalethes the arcane substance is named “chalybs” (steel). This, he says, is the “auri minera” (the prima materia of the gold), “the true key of our Work, without which no skill can kindle the fire of the lamp.” Chalybs is a “spirit pre-eminently pure,” a “secret, infernal, and yet most volatile fire,” the “wonder of the world, the system of the higher powers in the lower. For this reason the Almighty has assigned to it a most glorious and rare heavenly conunction, even that notable sign whose nativity is declared throughout the Philosophical East to the furthest horizon of its hemisphere. The wise Magi saw it at the [beginning of the] era, and were astonished, and straightway they knew that the most serene King was born in the world. Do you, when you see his star, follow it to the cradle, and there you shall behold the fair infant. Cast aside your defilements, honour the royal child, open your treasure, offer a gift of gold; and after death he will give you flesh and blood, the supreme Medicine in the three monarchies of the earth.”

This passage is particularly interesting because it allows us to look deep into the world of the obscure archetypal ideas that fill the mind of the alchemist. The author goes on to say that the steel, which is at the same time the “infernal fire,” the “key of our Work,” is attracted by the magnet, for which reason “our magnet” is the true “minera” (raw mineral) of the steel. The magnet has a hidden centre which (with an archetic appetite turns towards the Pole, where the virtue of the steel is exalted.” The centre “abounds in salt”—evidently the sal sapientiae, for immediately afterwards the text says: “The wise man will rejoice, bu the fool will pay small heed to these things, and will not learn wisdom, even though he see the outward-turned central Pole marked with the notable sign of the Almighty.”

In the Pole is found the heart of Mercurius, “which is the true fire wherein its Lord has his rest. He who journeys through this great and wide sea may touch at both Indies, may guide his course by the sight of the North Star, which our Magnet will cause to appear unto you.” This is an allusion to the mystic journey, the “peregrinatio.” […] I would emphasize, by way of recapitulation, that the infernal fire is nothing other than the Deus absconditus (hidden God) who dwells at the North Pole and reveals himself through magnetism. His other synonym is Mercurius, whose heart is to be found at the Pole, and who guides men on their perilous voyage over the sea of the world.

–Jung, Carl, Aion, pgs 129-135


Let us note that steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, iron, of course, being the metal of Mars, and carbon being that blank canvas of all life and so a substitute for the vessel element of earth. When a magnet of iron and steel is attracted north, then, this is symbolic language indicative of a man imbued with Martial spirit as Severian will be when he is in Vodalus’s service. But who is that figure who merges with the spirit and soul in the fires of the North? Who is that figure who is androgynous, who pops up time and time again, who guides Severian on his journey and ultimately merges with both body and soul by joining Thecla in Severian’s body (And remember of course, that the shadow is projected onto the body in Dorn and many Catholic works; therefore this operation is truly the merging of shadow, for let us never forget the operation is truly for the sake of author, Gene Wolfe, for whom Severian is a shadow figure) amid the fires of war?

None other, of course, than the Autarch, whose blood is the wine of his people.

But, I can’t let us get ahead of ourselves! We need to take a quick examination of the events of The Claw of the Conciliator. And I do mean fairly quick; at this point we’ve cover a lot of what happens already. Salt in alchemy is part of an important triad which forms the basis of the work, that is, Sulpher, Salt and Mercurius. There are parallels between Alchemical Sulpher and the shadow or corrupted animus/a as we have discussed it, and there are parallels between Salt and the purified ego or anima. If the soul is eternally living, then it is already in eternity; but because the human mind experiences, at this point in time, a limited number of dimensions, eternity is veiled in the same way salt dissolved in water is not destroyed, so much as hidden. Aaron Cheak has an absolutely excellent essay on The Hermetic Problem of Salt available here; however, here is a little quote which I think helps us understand the importance of salt in the alchemical equation if we think of Severian’s pursuit of the feminine and how it is motivated so largely by the violent, masculine, Martian drives of Vodalus, the Guild, and the war to the north.

The ancient etymology of Aphrodite as ‘brine-born’ (from aphros, ‘seaspume’) is deeply mired not only in desire but also enmity, the twin impulses that Empedocles would call ‘Love and Strife’ (Philotēs kai Neikos). [31] Aphrodite, one learns, is born from the primordial patricide (and perhaps a crime of passion). Hesiod’s Theogony tells us how the goddess Gaia (Earth), the unwilling recipient of the lusts of Ouranos (Heaven), incites the children born of this union against their hated father. Not without Oedipal implications, Cronus rises surreptitiously against his progenitor and, with a sickle of jagged flint, severs his father’s genitals:

And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam (aphros) spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. […] Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess […] because she grew amid the foam. [32]

As will be seen, these two primordial impulses prove pivotal to the alchemical function of salt that is met in Schwaller—the determiner of all affinities and aversions. And if Aphrodite is connected to salt’s desire-provoking aspect, it will come as no surprise to find that her ultimate counterpart was associated with just the opposite: war and strife. As is well known, Aphrodite is paired with Ares among the Greeks (as Venus is to Mars among the Romans), but the origins of her cult are intimately bound to Ancient Near Eastern origins; [33] moreover, in her Phoenician incarnation (Astarte), she embodies not only eros and sexuality, but war and strife. Presumably because of these traits, the Egyptian texts of the early Eighteenth Dynasty saw fit to partner her with their own untamed transgressor god, Seth-Typhon—a divinity who, like Aphrodite, was associated specifically with sea-salt and sea-spume (aphros).

–Cheak, Aaron, “The Hermetic Problem of Salt”

Are you guys dying to get to Typhon as much as I am? Next essay, I promise. For now understand that the many, many references to salt throughout BOTNS and Urth are surely deliberate as they are psychologically important. It is in Saltus where Severian gets on the track of Vodalus, which causes him to bump into Agia, who causes him to run into the green man; do I have to point out the pattern, or are you seeing it? This is why, in part, I will be glossing over quite a lot of this particular book; the only way to sufficiently understand it is to experience it firsthand after you have been exposed to all of these alchemical symbols.

It is worth noting that Severian is lured away from Jonas by the hope that Thecla is still alive in a lie perpetuated by that noxious anima, Agia, and that Thecla therefore is responsible for Severian’s experience in the cave, where he discovers the light of the claw. Something large also stirs beneath the cave, and the cave here is a very powerful metaphor for the dark depths of the unconscious where we will find the stone, that noxious pit; the invisible beast is much like the elephant mentioned before. Note that even the most unconscious creatures he could meet, the Man-Apes, are able to cop to his healing abilities before he does; cognitive dissonance is very powerful when one has occult experiences, but deep, deep within ourselves, the primitive parts of ourselves are in touch with the truth. The truth is that there is an explanation to phenomenon we think of as ‘occult’; it is simply that we do not yet have the cultural or consciousness context to comprehend what we are experiencing.

claw 3

Yet again, Severian engages in another act of mercy by letting Agia go, and pretty promptly after that, both he and Jonas are kidnapped by none other than the followers of Vodalus, himself. Severian’s affinity to and previous help toward Vodalus saves his life; this is an important fairy tale motif that is emphasized over and over again, in myths, legends, stories, plays, and everything. Courtesy is key. If you meet a god in the disguise of a mortal and you are rude to them, you are staring down the barrel of an eternity stuck as a tree. I spoke last time of myths where gods are born from trees, but consider that the opposite may be true; if you piss the unconscious off, if you are rude to it and disrespectful and approach it with impure intentions, it will see you, and it will abandon you at best or ruin your life at worst. Severian comes frightfully near death; it is only because of his courteous act that he evades it. However, because he has chosen to join with these forces, rather than to fight them or be killed by them, Severian must engage in an act which some may find, if I may use a terrible pun, distasteful.

I believe I broached on the subject of sacred cannibalism in the Hannibal essay series; if not, shame on me. Sacred cannibalism has a long, long history of depiction throughout myth and fairy tale, ending right back up at the Catholic church’s weekly habit of light Sunday cannibalism if you agree with the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most notable example of cannibalism in ancient religion is, to my mind, the Cannibal Hymn of Ancient Egypt. Replace ‘Unas’, the Pharaoh’s name, with ‘Autarch’ or ‘Sleeper’ and it seems like something which comes out of Urth or Ushas.

The sky clouds over, the stars are cloaked

The vaults (of heaven) quake, the bones of the earth tremble

The planets are silenced

When they see Unas rise as a soul

As a god who lives on his fathers, who feeds on his mothers.

For Unas is a possessor of cunning, whose own mother knows not his name.


Unas’s nobility is in heaven, his power is in the horizon

Like Atum his father, his begetter.

While he fathered him, he is stronger than him.

The spirits of Unas are around him, his female spirits are under his feet;

His gods are above him, his serpents are on his topknot,

Unas’s lead serpent is on his brow—the one that sees into the soul, the scorching uraeus;

Unas’s neck is in its correct position.

For Unas is the bull of heaven, who rages in his heart and lives on the being of every god,

Who feeds on their organs when the come with their bodies full of magic from the Isle of Fire.

–Penguin, Writings From Ancient Egypt, pg 90

That the object of Severian’s initiatory cannibalism should be none other than Thecla makes the symbol all the more powerful. This is the moment where the soul and the spirit are merged; this is the moment where Severian adopts the characteristic of sacred androgyny, for he is no longer Severian, but also Thecla. The consumption of the beloved object is perhaps the ultimate archetypal display of love. It is not enough to conjoin with the lover in the conjunction of sex; the more powerful conjunction is the one of devouring, where the inner essences are merged into a new being. Severian’s world is dark, and his albedo is comparably dark; but it has joyous results, for he has the permanent companionship and comfort of his inner lover, whom he experiences in much the way a practitioner of the Art experiences the archetypes during active imagination.

Wouldn’t we love to go on, reader? But I’m sorry to say that there’s just not the space this week. We have followed Severian through the first two books, or part of them, at any rate, but there is still so much more to cover in Claw that I think we need a breather. Next week’s essay, which will touch on Dr. Talos’s play, Apu-Punchau, and the events of Book III, will be fairly intensive, even with this one considered; so why don’t you enjoy the break with a copy of my novel, The Lightning Stenography Device, 99 cents until April 7th and the #1 New Release in Amazon’s Alchemy category? Support the free essays of this blog by buying your copy, and come back in two weeks for essay number 3 in a project which is getting much longer than I ever anticipated. Thanks as always for reading!

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