An Analysis of the Alchemical Tradition Behind BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Part V: The Aestivation Hypothesis and the Hierodules


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Sometimes, readers, art has a funny way of imitating life. Most people in the world write this off as some form of coincidence, but it is my personal experience that synchronicity is an organized, almost mechanical affair. It is predictable. Thus, when some particularly dramatic doings co-opted my time over the past month, I was not in the least surprised, because I was expecting to encounter some problem, some delay, in writing about the end of Sword of the Lictor. Why? Because it is such an ill-fated, unfortunate ending!

When last we left Severian, little Severian had just been killed, and his encounter with Typhon had ended with a glorious defenestration. He then meets a village of simple people, where he has one last earthly affair with the slave girl Pia, and has the Claw stolen from him. The gem, he is told, has been transported to the same castle which enslaves them, and which frequently demands sacrifices/test subjects.

Last time we discussed how the xanthosis is essentially the emergence of evil; the tumor which must be cut out to leave the stone behind. Baldanders, ever-growing, is like a great, walking tumor, and it is therefore fitting that he should be that known, friendly quantity which is revealed to contain the source of particular infection. When Severian arrives at the castle to free the Oannes-worshippers and retrieve his Claw, Dr. Talos is none other than the doorman.

This particular chain of symbolism represents far more than evil. It represents that thing for which Severian is so frequently mistaken; it is that thing which the mind confuses with evil, for it seems evil when we take it to be all there is from a materialist standpoint. Baldanders’ castle is a house of death; therefore, the battle with Baldanders is a battle with death. This makes it even more fitting that, before we see the battle with Baldanders, we will meet three entities who are called by the uninformed ‘cacogens’, and by the initiated, ‘hierodules’.

Let me take a moment to make a disclaimer of a different kind. Last time, we discussed some rather adult topics which I did not condone; similarly, this time around we are going to discuss theories about which I am, at the time of this writing, agnostic. I don’t want to be mistaken for a conspiracy theorist, nor do I wish to make—or encourage the reader to make—any logic-defying leaps. But in order to discuss the characters of Famulimus, Barbatus and Ossipago, we have to discuss the concept of aliens.

As a child, I ‘knew’ aliens did not exist. As an adult, I have begun recently (and I mean, very recently—within the past year or so) to open my mind to the concept as a philosophical tool, because, as the chaos magician’s axiom goes, “The map is not the territory.” ‘Angels’ are just man’s conception of something higher; so, also, are aliens. Following Arthur C. Clarke’s tongue-in-cheek sci-fi rule that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, all kinds of explanations are presented for present-day paranormal phenomenon. The mind of a science fiction author is better able than any of his peers to envision ludicrous devices which, created aeons in a future so distant it might as well not even exist, could somehow act upon the brains of human beings living at the beginning of time. I have written an essay called The Church of the Black Hole which has been submitted for publication in Anathema Press’s journal, Pillars, and if it does not end up published there I will publish it here, but it, and my forthcoming trilogy The Disgraced Martyr Trilogy, are essentially expanding upon and further defining some of the things which are implied in Wolfe’s tetralogy. One thing which I explore in that series far less than Wolfe in his is the concept of aliens, and perhaps that’s because I haven’t been contacted by them yet. Not to say that Wolfe has been, but his fictional aliens are incredibly ahead of their time.


To make this point, I would like to talk about two things: the Fermi Paradox, and its proposed solution, the Aestivation Hypothesis. The Fermi Paradox is a pretty simple question which boils down to, depending on the phrasing, “If the universe is infinite, where are the aliens/If aliens exist, where are they?” Granted, we, the backwater trailer park of the conscious universe if ever there was, might not exactly be a happening spot for extraterrestrial visitors: but one would think that at some point, somebody would have come up with something more concrete or objective than dreams which left the dreamer with weird little scratches on waking, or lights which seem to float in odd patterns.

This is where Robert Anton Wilson comes in. If ever was a man universally relateable, the late, great RAW comes dangerously close. His journey in Cosmic Trigger I is familiar to the occultist as it is harrowing to the human being; and its tragic climax will surely haunt even those readers who proceed no further down the occultist’s path. It is essentially the story of his initiation, and a kind of elongated bibliography designed to provide readers with one of a thousand possible branches into the Great Work. The book is important to read because it stresses the importance of open-mindedness, and it gives the mind much to chew on when it comes to the matter of paranormal phenomena. It opens with his psychedelic experiments, as Wilson begins both the compartmentalize his personality into its many facets (e.g., the Materialist and the Skeptic), and also begins to open his mind to the possibility that he does not know everything after all.

The strangest entity I contacted in those twenty-odd months of psychedelic explorations appeared one day after the end of a peyote trip, when I was weeding in the garden and a movement in the adjoining cornfield caught my eye. I looked over that way and saw a man with warty green skin and pointy ears, dancing. The Skeptic watched for nearly a minute, entranced, and then Greenskin faded away “just a hallucination…”

But I could not forget him. Unlike the rapid metaprogramming during a peyote trip, in which you are never sure what is real and what is just the metaprogrammer playing games, this experience had all the qualities of waking reality, and differed only in intensity. The entity in the cornfield had been more beautiful, more charismatic, more divine than anything I could consciously imagine when using my literary talents to try to portray a deity. As the mystics of all traditions say so aggravatingly, “Those who have seen, know.

Well, I had seen, but I didn’t know. I was more annoyed than enlightened.

But that was not to be my last encounter with that particular critter. Five years later, in 1968, the Skeptic read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, dealing with traditional Mexican shamanism and its use of the sacred cactus. Castaneda, an anthropologist, saw the same green man several times, and Don Juan Matus, the shaman, said his name was Mescalito. He was the spirit of the peyote plant. But the Materialist had seen him before he ever read a description of him. This was most perplexing to the Materialist.

A fairly plausible explanation is that Mescalito is an archetype of the collective unconscious, in the Jungian sense. He has been reported by many others besides Castaneda and me, and he always has the same green warty skin and is often dancing.

However, might we dare consider that Mescalito may be just what the shamans (who know him best) always say he is—one of the “spirits” of the vegetation? Too silly an idea for sophisticates like ourselves? Paracelsus, the founder of modern medicine, believed in such spirits and claimed frequent commerce with them. So did the German poet Goethe and the pioneer of organic agriculture, Rudolph Steiner— and the ideas of Goethe and Steiner, once rejected as too mystical, are currently being seriously reconsidered by many ecologists.

[…]A third model would be that Mescalito and all his kith and kin (the fairies and “little people”, etc.) are all extraterrestrials who have been experimenting upon us for millennia. This does not necessarily mean that they come here in spaceships. Consider the following speculations:

#1. Clarke’s Law (by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke):”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magick.”

Imagine a technology a hundred years beyond ours. A thousand years beyond ours. A milion years beyond ours. And then remember that many stars, which might have planets and civilizations, are literally billions of years older than our sun. There might be races in this galaxy advanced as 10 billion years beyond our technology.

An old Arizona joke asks, “How many apaches are hiding in this room? The answer is, “As many as want to.” Advanced communication technologies would be far more subtle than the stalking techniques of the Apaches. If Clarke is right even on a materialistic level, the only answer to “How many Advanced Civilizations are monitoring the events in this room?” must be “As many as want to.”

#2. Wilson’s Corollary to Clarke’s Law (by R. A. W.): Any sufficiently advanced parapsychology is even more indistinguishable from magick.

Consider the slow advance of parapsychology, despite entrenched opposition, during the past 70 years. Project it forward another hundred years. A thousand. A million. And imagine races in this galaxy 10 billion years ahead of us in this area.

Extraterrestrials with advanced psionic knowledge may have been experimenting on us and/or aiding our evolution and/or playing ontology games with us for millions of years, projecting any form they desire from Mescalito to the Lord God Jehovah, without ever leaving their home planets. If a salesman in West Virginia and a college student in Washington, D.C. can both share the same “hallucination” of faster-than-light UFO abduction to a planet called Lanalus where everybody goes naked, then maybe there is one interstellar broadcaster of such educational dramas.


–Wilson, Robert Anton, Cosmic Trigger pgs 23-25

The point being made here is, I think, important. I speak often in this blog of Jung and the archetypes and the unconscious, but it is important to understand that these terms of his are categorizations. These are measuring tools, like the lines of rulers. They are not definitions. When we say that a character has the qualities of Mercurius, or the senex, we are not saying that Mercurius and the senex are the be-all, end-all form. They are categorizations of a kind of psychic truth. Even the word ‘unconscious’ reveals the nature of the thing: it is a thing which is, at this point in human history, indescribable. We have no cultural context where we can found this concept and so, until further notice, it is called ‘the unconscious’. We should perhaps strive to consider it a working title for something greater; something which will be revealed to us in time, much as the solution to fully grasping the aliens of BOTNS—and the concept of aliens in our own reality—was not introduced until fairly recently.

This most compelling solution of the Fermi Paradox, the Aestivation Hypothesis, was proposed in 2017 by Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong and Milian M. Cirkovic. The idea is that we do not currently see aliens active in the universe because they are hibernating (aestivating) in preparation for a time when the universe is cooler, and have been since very early on in the universe’s timeline. On the one hand, this makes a reasonable amount of logical sense, but then again, it doesn’t, because if you move forward in time far enough, there is very little energy available. However, more can be done with what energy there is, because cooler temperatures allow for more efficient computations.

I think I’m going to pull my hands off of this concept because it is just so in-depth and with so many byroads that I would yet again have to expand the length of this essay series, and would probably have to devote an entire essay just to the hierodules. But I recommend that you, reader, take some time to roll a joint and watch Isaac Arthur’s video on the Fermi Paradox, “Sleeping Giants”, available here on Yotube. Because, as you watch, many things about Famulimus and company begin to click. Namely: The aestivation hypothesis makes the most sense when it is applied to an entropic species like the hierodules, who move backward through time.

Both the giant undines serving Abaia and the hierodules are described as entropic entities, who oftentimes only interact with Severian in the past because he mentions their prior interactions to them in what he perceives to be the future: from their perspective, however, our future is their past. The undines, water-dwellers from out of space, do not have the problems which the hierodules have. In the early part of Sword, Cyriaca, the woman dressed as a pelerine, describes a creation myth which is highly relevant. The story describes how ‘the race of ancient days’ (men from around our time period, probably) reached the stars, and ‘bargained away the wild half of themselves to do so’, becoming a culture of rationality and logic. They built a race of mechanized people to help them take care of the petty things in life, the building of cities, for instance; but these mechanized people began to develop their own consciousness, and became resentful of their masters. They responded to this resentment by distracting mankind from his logic and space-travel by re-introducing metaphysical knowledge and esoteric secrets into their daily life, producing works of art and writing which were once done away with, and granting each human his own invisible companion to serve as a guide. When the machines begin to die off, going unreplaced, as humanity has lost the knowledge which allowed their creation, the humans who hold this esoteric knowledge fear that the knowledge will also die, and they begin to write stories (much like Book of the New Sun) which encode, in varying levels of clarity, these secrets. After an autarch gathers all these books together to burn them, he has a dream that all of life is dying, and seals the books in a library instead of destroying them; a guardian is then selected, one at a time, to send these ideas into the world.

Assuming this tale has merit, it may imply that the hierodules of Yesod are not aliens in the conventional sense; rather, they are descendants of humanity, perhaps descended from the many sailors who journeyed into space during a time when beneficent machines, such as early models like Jonas or late models like Ossipago, were in mankind’s service. Ossipago, who was presumably created in the eternal state of Yesod and then released backward through time with his traveling companions, may well be the textbook example of an aestivating entity: if he is indeed created with technology from Yesod, then he would be capable of quantum computations and feats so advanced that surely the temperature of the universe early on in its existence would simply be too hot for him to function.

It is noteworthy that when Severian meets Famulimus, Ossipago and Barbatus, the room is freezing cold. “It was so cold in the room that I drew my cloak closer about me, though I felt sure that the present deceptive calm could not long endure.” (Sword, pg 181) When we see their room on the ship in Urth, it is relatively sea-themed; hailing as they do from Yesod, which is less a place and more a state of existence, a society which is a kind of techno-eternity, the hierodules are likely used to a colder climate, and Ossipago, who is a machine, would need things to be as cold as possible to function properly. Their conversations are being had in real time so far as Severian is concerned, but Famulimus, who speaks only elegant verse, reveals her true (and beautiful) face to him on their first/last meeting, saying, “Though you see us, we will not see you more. Our friendship here begins and ends, I fear. Call it a gift of welcome from departing friends.” (ibid., pg 184)

Therefore, Famulimus reveals early on their nature as entropic beings. They might have conversations which seem to us to be running forward in time, but they are moving backward in it from the human perspective. Baldanders claims with disgust that hierodules live only “a score of years, like dogs”, and Barbatus says that “ages are aeons to us”. Yet, what is a score of years to a being from a higher dimension of existence, for whom time flows backwards, and for whom ages are aeons? Pretend that a hierodule lives forever, from the human perspective: for sake of argument, it has a potential life-cycle which overlaps the potential life-cycle of the universe.

The principle expressed by Wolfe is that of an oscillating universe; that is, a universe which repeats over and over. The hierodules, likewise, are encouraging Severian on his journey and speculated by some readers to be responsible for the entire scheme of destroying and re-creating the universe, which, well, they may be on to something there. Theoretically, the hierodules may be working their way backwards through a chain of universes by ‘waking up’ at the end of the universe where energy is most efficient but less available, and then ‘putting themselves to sleep’ nearer to the beginning of the universe, when energy is freely available but temperatures are too hot to allow advanced computations. They are essentially creatures which thrive in periods of maximum entropy: but that does not make them, or their intentions, evil. Famulimus explains, “There is a mark they use upon some world, where sometimes our worn ship finds rest at last. It is a snake with heads at either end. One head is dead—the other gnaws at it…the living head stands for destruction. The head that does not live, for building. The former feeds upon the later; and feeding, nourishes its food. A boy might think that if the first should die, the dead, constructive thing would soon triumph, making his twin no like himself. The truth is both would soon decay.” [ibid. pg 178]

Therefore, two plausible Fermi Paradox solutions are presented in Book of the New Sun. The first explanation is that aliens do not exist in our present time because we have not yet evolved to become them, by first colonizing the stars, and then forgetting we ever colonized them (or perhaps we have, and forgot); and the second explanation is that aliens, regardless of whether or not they are our descendants, are an entropic species which perceives the flow of time in the reverse of our own. Their “deaths”, therefore, would clearly not be deaths, but only a kind of sleep from which they are awakened by the flow of time. This, naturally, is true of our deaths, too; but it is far easier to see from the backwards-flowing perspective. This would also explain why the hierodules, though they have access to spaceships which are essentially time machines, are never concerned about encountering themselves or creating time paradoxes. Their duplicates have reached the beginning of time and are already hibernating, awaiting the time of their creation at its end.


What is amazing to me is that The Book of The New Sun was published between 1980 and 1983; the aestivation hypothesis was just proposed in 2017, last year at the time of this writing. With Cosmic Trigger I published a few years prior and Carl Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection out since 1973, Wolfe was writing in a time when enthusiasm and curiosity about the possibility of extraterrestrials was at a clear peak. Yet there were few who might have the vision or imagination to envision a race moving backward in time; and when the mechanics of the aestivation hypothesis are combined with what we know about the hierodules, the result is a mind-blowing and very compelling explanation for just what the species disguised as cacogens are really up to.

It is significant that Talos introduces Severian to the hierodules, because it is the creations of the imagination which urge the magician toward something higher. Alchemy and metaphysics lead to science fiction. There is also an interesting similarity in the name ‘Famulimus’ to the word ‘famulus’, “the servant of a magician”; and of course it is Famulimus with whom Severian bonds, because she is revealed to be female. Much as we will see his judge (and part time guardian angel) Tzadkiel will eventually appear to him in the form of a woman, the hierodule who reveals to him the true nature of cacogens is also revealed as a female entity.

Their relationship with Baldanders also resembles the relationship of the machines with the humans in Cyriaca’s story: they explain, “That man you call Baldanders lives to learn. We see that he hoards up past lore—hard facts like seeds to give him power. In time he’ll die by hands that do not store, but die with some slight gain for all of you,” and, “Those [machines] he found, or constructed for himself. Famulimus said that he wished to learn, and that we saw to it that he did, not that we taught him.” Likewise, earlier in the conversation, Talos objects that the townspeople will loot Baldanders’ massive cache of ancient lore and lose or destroy it, but the hierodules do not seem particularly concerned by the notion, because they wish for that lore to be disseminated.

Something very funny happens to the mind when one is deeply involved in alchemical, extraterrestrial or other metaphysical experimentation. I mentioned at the beginning of this week’s essay the concept of synchronicity; as a magician practices his magic, as the occultist reads more about the occult, as the reluctant skeptic allows that there may be something to all of this after all, he or she will begin to experience an increasing amount of synchronicities. Both the volume and the significance of these coincidences will increase, apparently due to the phenomenon known to normies as “selective attention”, which is a very poor explanation for a phenomenon the movie Repo Man called “plate of shrimp”.

A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate of shrimp” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.

–Miller the Janitor, Repo Man

By the way, if you haven’t seen Repo Man, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s definitely on the list of “essays to be done in the future”, but it has an odd kind of rhythm when paired with Book of the New Sun. Just look at this other quote, also from Miller:

There ain’t no difference between a flying saucer and a time machine. People get so hung up on specifics they miss out on seeing the whole thing. Take South America for example. [In] South America, thousands of people go missing every year. Nobody knows where they go, they just, like, disappear. But if you think about it for a minute, you realize something. There had to be a time when there was no people, right? Well where did all these people come from, huh? I’ll tell you where. The future. And where did all these people disappear to? [Otto: The past?] That’s right! And how did they get there? Flying saucers. Which are really..? Yeah, you got it, time machines. I think a lot about this kind of stuff.

–Miller the Janitor, Repo Man

And South America, no less! The setting of Book of the New Sun! Strange things afoot at the Circle K, my friends. In point of fact, I forgot about that second quote until I was looking up the first; this is an excellent example of the kind of synchronicity I am trying to get at, namely “research synchronicity”.

Research synchronicity is an awesome phenomenon which Marie-Louise von Franz describes as being increasingly common with Jung, especially in his advanced years: routinely, whatever citation he needed at a given moment would simply fall into his lap. The mechanics of this synchronicity are personified (or perhaps, in the world of BOTNS, caused) by the hierodules’ relationship with Baldanders. They do not give him his knowledge, his literature, his machines: they only “see to it that he learns”. Talos quite viciously denies that the hierodules have ever done anything at all for them. How might they guide Baldanders’ learning without flat-out giving him or doing anything for him? Through synchronicity. How are they controlling (or gently encouraging) synchronicity?

“The past cannot be found in the future where it is not—not until the metaphysical world, which is so much larger and so much slower than the physical world, completes its revolution and the New Sun comes.”

–Cyriaca to Severian in Sword, pg 41

“Ages are aeons to us. My friend and I have dealt with your race for less than your own lifetime.”

Barbatus to Severian in Sword, pg 178

They have dealt with the human race for less than Severian’s own lifetime because they are moving backward in time, and their awakening will soon be triggered by the end of Urth and the coming of the New Sun, which is the end of Severian’s lifetime on the planet of his birth. However, being from the eternal state of Yesod and perhaps being rooted in the metaphysical world mentioned by Cyriaca, the hierodules have two advantages: the advantage of knowing the future perspective, and the advantage of a sort of “top-down” perspective.

Human beings are arguably fifth dimensional creatures. After all, one must be positioned a dimension above the dimension one is observing, and since we can observe the fourth dimension, time, we are technically rooted in the fifth dimension, which we might call ‘perception’, since, like all dimensions, our perceptions can be altered by many different circumstances and decide how we in turn measure and react to the world. Like the heptapods of Arrival (which is analyzed on an essay in this blog) the hierodules are potentially rooted in the seventh dimension, which would free their perception from the illusion of linear time and allow them to examine the world as an eternal unit. The tunnels being opened by the Green Man and eventually Severian are a seven-dimensional method of moving through the the first four dimensions by taking a shortcut through the sixth dimension.

(For the curious, Tzadkiel would then represent an entity rooted in the ninth dimension, and the river running through eternity which he sees in Urth could be considered a very compelling symbol of the eighth dimension, which, as the sixth allows for passage through spacetime, instead allows passage through realities. As for the tenth dimension: only the Increate could possibly comprehend that.)


Therefore, even if their time flows backwards, the hierodules have access to ships which can move through time (we will see these in Urth) because the ships themselves are angels like Tzadkiel. With technology like this, any one particular aspect of human time would be nothing to influence; and if the metaphysical sphere of this seventh dimension is infinitely huge from the perception of a fifth dimensional entity, it would be physically impossible for a fifth dimensional being with the perspective of a flatlander to notice anything amiss. Severian himself mistakes the flight of a rocket ship for a vision of a floating castle, and many guildmembers tend to interpret the radio communications between the Guild towers to be mysterious or demonic voices. If, in his time, he cannot fully comprehend or at least name the devices which perform these miraculous acts, how could we explain the technology required to influence synchronicity?

Baldanders, therefore, is, for all his depraved evil, a fine example of the alchemist who buries himself in lore, creates his own doctor, and allows his quest to be guided by synchronicity triggered by beings far, far beyond him. Baldanders also represents, with his entire character, the problems of Book of the New Sun. He is death, he is evil, he is materialism with no metaphysical appreciation, he is a slaver of human beings and it is even implied that he is a pederast. Most of all, he unapologetically, shamelessly tortures those humans who are sent to his lab; Severian at one point sees a vivisected pregnant woman whose image haunts him, and who makes him realize he has transformed from the torturer he used to be. Therefore, if Typhon was, at least partially, the embodiment of Severian’s troubled relationship with sex, Baldanders is the embodiment of all his evil; and not just his evil, but the evil of all the world, and of the Increate.

There is also something to be said for the comparison of Baldanders to the body in previously-mentioned alchemist Gerhard Dorn’s treatises, as well as the Catholic notion of the body. Consider the meditations of St. Ignatius, which are a glimpse into a very tragic self-relationship.

As a brief side note before we go on, I strongly recommend all magicians and occultists study these exercises, as even if one does not have a Catholic background, they can be reverse-engineered to reveal the mechanics of active imagination in the Jungian sense, and have much application for really any faith or non faith. You could even have a conversation with Carl Sagan this way.

This is a mental representation of the place.

Attention must be called to the following point. When the contemplation or meditation is on something visible, for example, when we contemplate Christ our Lord, the representation will consist in seeing in imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate. I said the material place, for example, the temple, or the mountain where Jesus or His Mother is, according to the subject matter of the contemplation.

In a case where the subject matter is not visible, as here in a meditation on sin, the representation will be to see in imagination my soul as a prisoner in this corruptible body, and to consider my whole composite being as an exile here on earth, cast out to live among brute beasts. I said my whole composite being, body and soul.

I will ask God our Lord for what I want and desire.

The petition made in this prelude must be according to the subject matter. Thus in a contemplation on the Resurrection I will ask for joy with Christ in joy. In one on the passion, I will ask for sorrow, tears, and anguish with Christ in anguish.

Here it will be to ask for shame and confusion, because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.

–The Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

That The Book of the New Sun is by now an act of alchemical active imagination is, I hope, implicit, but what it reveals about the Catholic relationship to the self is really pretty tragic. Once the abstract shadow of sexuality is dispensed of, the relationship with the body absolutely must be healed and purified. All books are reflections of their author’s psyche, but alchemical active imagination works as a kind of literary voodoo doll by which the author may overcome maladapted perceptions: first by observing and distinguishing them (solve), by examining and transforming them in the four steps of the alchemical process, and by re-integrating them (coagula) in a healed form. (This means, of course, that there are technically more than four steps to the alchemical process; but the addendums, which free and utilize the stone, will be covered in our essay on Urth.)

Thus, it is fitting that Baldanders is not killed during their prolonged conflicts: he escapes into the waters, where he will spend the rest of his days until such time as he must warn the Autarch of the impending crisis. However, the loss seems more Severian’s than the giant’s: the gem of the Claw is shattered, and Terminus Est is tragically destroyed in what was certainly my most heart-breaking loss in the whole tetralogy. Yet, there is hope, for amid all this ruin, he finds the Claw itself not destroyed, but rather revealed: he discovers the thorn which has waited all this time within the gem, and has given it its name.

To be honest, if part of the reason I was delayed on this essay was because of the unnamed synchronistic events which left me feeling a little like a man with a broken sword and shattered holy relic, another element in the delay (outside of the massive progress made on an unrelated short story) arises from the fact that, for my money, Citadel of the Autarch just…isn’t quite as amazing as its predecessor. It’s not that Citadel isn’t a great book; but it’s very hard, at least, in my personal opinion, to top the many events and references in Sword. With the Jungle Book sequence, Typhon and the reveal of Baldanders, along with that bitterwseet (mostly bitter) ended, Sword proved for me both the most exciting and the most memorable book in the series. Beside it, Citadel pales: realistically, its sequence of events are, “Severian is in a hospital and listens to a bunch of short stories”, “Severian meets a time-traveling hermit who then disappears”, “Severian wanders around in the fog of war and then becomes Autarch through no real doing of his own”, “Severian spends time in prison”, and then finally, “Severian is rescued by the Green Man, who drops him off with a recreation of Master Malrubius and leaves him with a religious experience.”

It is, to put it in a way which sounds judgmental but isn’t, almost a book’s worth of denouement; but I am not sure that is unfair of me to say, as Wolfe wrote the series all at once, and the books do not tend to end like parts of a series of individual books so much as abruptly tied up sections of the same book divided into four—more pleasing to editors and salable to readers. So given the length of the first four books and the fact that the Autarch’s interaction with Severian is not a conflict at all, one should view the tetralogy as one massive, four hundred thousand word book which climaxes with the defeat of the villainous Baldanders. Everything after that is inherently denouement, in that it resolves the concerns set out through the first parts of the book in a post-climax way. He essentially retraces his steps: he returns the Claw, ascends the Phoenix Throne, discovers the new Claw, and returns to Nessus.

To put it another way, once the body is capable of being healed by better self-perception, and the shadow is at last perceived as a separate force being projected upon the body, the spirit is able to move on: the way has been cleared, an empty space has been made, for the Phoenix Throne to be taken.


Of course, before one can ascend as a renewed Phoenix, one must linger among the ashes. Therefore, it is appropriate that, when Severian finds the Pelerines and is sufficiently recovered from his fever, he should be sent on a journey to persuade the holy hermit, Master Ash, from his house, as the Autarch’s forces are being pushed back.

(I would also like to take a brief moment to comment on the very interesting concept of the Ascians. A language which is not a language, but rather a collection of axioms, offers very interesting problems, because language is theoretically the vehicle of consciousness, and that which allows the mind to both explore and distinguish itself. However, the language of the Ascians has no equivalent of “I”. There is only the State, and its patriotic Servant: therefore, the Ascians are the true epitome of unconsciousness, and a kind of entropy which arises simply because no order can arise if there is not an observer. This is echoed in Master Ash’s fable about the Ascians, where he describes a man who sells his shadow and is driven out of wherever he tries to stay, because no one believes he is human: a man who has no shadow, and a man who has no reflection, is a man who is incapable of becoming conscious.)

In alchemy, the symbol of ash is closely related to the symbol of Sulphur. The Alchemical Triad of Mercurius-Sulphur-Sal has been underrepresented in this essay series up until this point, partly because I have written on the subject extensively in the past, but partly because it is utilized in such subtle ways throughout Wolfe’s work that it is better to leave it off until we reach Famulimus, Barbatus and Ossipago, who, being extraterrestrials which present as feminine, masculine and androgynous/robotic, respectively, could be thought of as personifications of Sal, Sulphur, and Mercurius in that order. They are an order of magnitude more abstract than the rest of the characters of Wolfe’s psyche, who are from Urth, which is not necessarily our Earth in a past or future that we know, but rather our Earth in a different oscillation. Therefore, it is the Earth/Urth of Gene’s mind; but its extraterrestrial realm is like his soul, and these three are sacred foundational beings which are derived from the extraterrestrial—and, eventually, celestial—connections to the human mind.

  1. Sulphur

Because of the singular role it plays in alchemy, Sulphur deserves to be examined rather more closely. The first point of interest, which we have already touched on, is its relation to Sol: it was called the prima materia of Sol, Sol being naturally understood as the gold. As a matter of fact, Sulphur was sometimes identified with gold. Sol therefore derives from Sulphur. The close connection between them explains the view that Sulphur was the “companion of Luna.” When the gold (Sol) and his bride (Luna) are united, “the coagulating sulphur, which in the corporal gold was turned outwards [extraversum], is turned inwards” (i.e., introverted). This remark indicates the psychic double nature of Sulphur (Sulphur duplex); there is a red and a white sulphur, the white being the active substance of the moon, the red that of the sun. The specific “virtue” of Sulphur is said to be greater in the red variety. But its duplicity also has another meaning: on the one hand it is the prima materia, and in this form it is burning and corrosive (adurens), and “hostile” to the matter of the stone; on the other hand, when “cleansed of all impurities, it is the matter of our stone.” Altogether, Sulphur is one of the innumerable synonyms for the prima materia in its dual aspect, i.e., as both the initial material and the end-product. At the beginning it is “crude” or “common” Sulphur, at the end it is a sublimation product of the process. Its fiery nature I unanimously stressed, though this fieriness does not consist merely in its combustibility but in its occult fiery nature. As always, an allusion to occult qualities means that the material in question was the focus of projections which lent it a numinous significance.

In keeping with its dual nature Sulphur is on the one hand corporal and earthly, and on the other an occult, spiritual principle. As an earthly substance it comes from the “fatness of the earth,” by which was meant the radical moisture as prima materia. Occasionally it is called “cinis extractus a cinere” (ash extracted from ash). “Ash” is an inclusive term for the scoriae left over from burning, the substance that “remains below”—a strong reminder of the chthonic nature of Sulphur. The red variety is thought of as masculine, and under this aspect it represents the gold or Sol. As achthonic being it has close affinities with the dragon, which is called “our secret sulphur.” In that form it is also the aqua divina, symbolized by the uroboros. These analogies often make it difficult to distinguish between Sulphur and Mercurius, since the same thing is said of both. “This is our natural, most sure fire, our Mercurius, our Sulphur,” says the “Tractatus aureus de lapide.” In the Turba quicksilver is a fiery body that behaves in exactly the same way as Sulphur. For Paracelsus Sulphur, together with Sal (salt), is the begetter of Mercurius, who is born of the sun and moon. Or it is found “in the depths of the nature of Mercurius,” or it is “of the nature of Mercurius,” or Sulphur and Mercurius are “brother and sister.” Sulphur is credited with Mercurius’ “power to dissolve, kill, and bring metals to life.”

This intimate connection with Mercurius makes it evident that Sulphur is a spiritual or psychic substance of universal import, of which nearly everything may be said that is said of Mercurius. Thus Sulphur is the soul not only of metals but of all living things; in the “Tractatus aureus” it is equated with “nostra anima” (our soul). The Turba says: “The sulphurs are souls that were hidden in the four bodies.” Paracelsus likewise calls Sulphur the soul. In Mylius Sulphur produces the “ferment” or “soul which gives life to the imperfect body.” The “Tractatus Miceris” says: “…until the green son appears, who is its soul, which the Philosophers have called the green bird and bronze and Sulphur.” The soul is also described as the “hidden part [occultum] of the Sulphur.”

In the sphere of Christian psychology, green has a spermatic, procreative quality, and for this reason it is the colour attributed to the Holy Ghost as the creative principle. Accordingly Dorn says: “The male and universal seed, the first and most potent, is the solar Sulphur, the first part and most potent cause of all generation.” It is the life-spirit itself. In his “De tenebris contra naturam” Dorn says: “We have said before that the life of the world is the light of nature and the celestial Sulphur, whose substrate [subiectum] is the aetheric moisture and the heat of the firmament, namely Sol and Luna.” [Ed.: Does this statement, “Celestial Sulphur, whose substrate is the aetheric moisture and the heat of the firmament,” sound like a rudimentary salute to the Autarch, whose heart is the shrine of his subjects?] Sulphur has here attained cosmic significance and is equated with the light of nature, the supreme source of knowledge for the natural philosophers. But this light does not shine unhindered, says Dorn. It is obscured by the darkness of the elements in the human body. For him, therefore, Sulphur is a shining, heavenly being. Though this Sulphur is a “son who comes from imperfect bodes,” he is “ready to put on the white and purple garments.” In Ripley he is a “spirit of generative power, who works in the moisture.” In the treatise “De sulphure” he is the “virtue of all things” and the source of illumination and of all knowledge. He knows, in fact, everything.In view off the significance of Sulphur it is worth our while to take a look at its effects as described by the alchemists. Above all, it burns and consumes: “The little power of this Sulphur is sufficient to consume a strong body.” The “strong body” is the sun, as is clear from the saying: “Sulphur blackens the sun and consumes it.” –Jung, C.G., Mysterium Coniunctionis, pgs. 111-114

Note the symbol of the uroboros popping up again, as it did before, and note Jung bringing up the same concerns I’m sure we all feel: mostly, that Mercurius and Sulphur are conceptually very similar. At least, they have much in common. However, Sulphur, as we see in the above excerpt, is more generally masculine; white Sulphur is more akin to Sal, and therefore is not the kind of Sulphur we’re discussing; and Mercurius is generally androgynous, so, if one would prefer, it may be easier to think of Sulphur as Mercurius in its masculine aspect. In this case, that masculine aspect is Severian; and his visit with Ash heralds that his burning is reaching its apex.

Although he be present but briefly, Master Ash is an “anchorite”, or religious recluse, but he is also, quite possibly, one of the “original”, most highly developed men of knowledge depicted in Cyriaca’s story—we must recall of course that Cyriaca was dressed as a Pelerine, and that the hierodules move backward in time, therefore the stories they have brought and the stories men have made about them are actually stories of the distant future and probably Severian’s time—and that is indicated most strongly by one comment of Severian’s:

He carried a candle as thick as my wrist, and by its light I beheld a face that was like the faces of the Hierodules I had met in Baldander’s castle, save that it was a human face—indeed, I felt that as the faces of the statues in the gardens of the House Absolute had imitated the faces of such beings as Famulimus, Barbatus, and Ossipago, so their faces were only imitations, in some alien medium, of such faces as the one I saw now[…]The man’s skin was fine as a woman’s too, but there was nothing womanish about him, and the beard that flowed to his waist was of darkest black. His robe seemed white, but there was a rainbow shimmering where it caught in the candlelight.

–Wolfe, Gene, The Citadel of the Autarch, pg 281

Of course, Severian will later come to understand that Ash is a descendent of Urth’s refugees in the future, after the floods have come and ice has crept down to cover all of the world; therefore, when he is removed from his eternal house into the past, he no longer exists, and this may also be because the future in which he lives no longer exists due to Severian’s ascent to the throne and the bringing of the New Sun. Ash can only exist in a world with a Ragnarok, an end of days, and although the flooding accompanying the New Sun seems an end of days, it is really a renewal: those few men remaining are wheedled down like the men aboard the Ark, and when the waters recede, there is a new world, a new people, and Urth no more, but Ushas. Ash’s dissolution, while rather sad, is a signpost of Severian’s guaranteed success. It also gives a glimpse into Ash’s nature as part of the divine First Couple (the last couple, if stories are disseminated from the hierodules), being part of the Norse paring of Ask/Vine, Adam/Eve, or Urth’s Meschia/Meschianne. Therefore, in his pairing, his role as a figure of consciousness is all the more clear: for the male component generally represents consciousness and the female component generally represents matter, but the symbol of a great ash tree around which there curls a vine is like that white column of consciousness which both requires to grow and is supported by the curling vine of DNA. Severian’s vision early in the series of the vine is a heralding of his journey toward the Increate, but his encounter with Master Ash is a development of that symbol which signals the work is reaching its completion.

It is undeniable that all number of daily events activate genetic markers in the body’s blueprint; recent studies have indicated that infants are affected by their mother’s diets even before conception, for instance, indicating that certain genes are turned on or off given external circumstances and specific stimuli. One must wonder, then, what is happening in one’s DNA when one’s consciousness is expanded in this way we are discussing. Mankind’s often ill-fated search for the ubermensch always ends up muddying the waters with superficial qualities like hair or eye color, or even brand of morality. The real ubermensch, however, is the conscious man; it is the man of the future like Master Ash, who has accumulated knowledge sufficient that he sees science and religion are “the same something”.


The meeting with Ash leaves Severian adrift, and he soon thereafter enlists in the cavalry, an act which causes him to be wounded and rescued by none other than the Autarch, whose eyes are the lights of the Commonwealth. And what an Autarch he is! My favorite character in the whole book, by far, and rather cartoony, although, like all Mercurial entities, a trickster and man of many disguises. The androgyne who ran the brothel of House Absolute (or whose clone, perhaps, ran it), the Autarch is depicted in robes which are yellow; the color of xanthosis. As an aside, Wolfe sometimes breaks up the reptition of ‘yellow’ by referring to them as the more detailed ‘saffron’, which carries symbolic significance, for the Greeks held saffron to be a symbol of death; its color resembles the color of dead skin, it is said, and even as far as Japan, the goddess Izaname is associated with saffron and said to wear saffron robes. Defeating Baldanders is an overcoming of the body’s gross and temporary nature, an overcoming of physical death and evil; but accepting the Alzabo vial of the Autarch is an acceptance of what overcoming death means on a psychic level. The creation of the stone and the immortality it brings is a phenomenon represented in Urth by the ascent to the Phoenix Throne, and as you can bet, our boy Jung has some things to say about the Phoenix:

According to the Ancoratus of Epiphanius, the phoenix emerges from his ashes first in the form of a worm:

When the bird is dead, indeed utterly consumed, and the flames are extinguished, there are left only the crude remnants of the flesh. From this there comes forth in one day an unseemly worm, which puts on wings and becomes as new; but on the third day it matures, and after growing to full stature with the aid of the medicines found in that place, it shows itself, and hastens upward once more to its own country, and there rests.

–Ibid., pg 334

In the myth of the phoenix as reported by Pliny we again meet the worm: “…from its bones and marrow is born first a sort of maggot, and this grows into a chicken. This version is repeated in Clement of Rome, Artemidorus, Cyril of Jeruslaem, St. Ambrose, and Cardan. In order to understand the phoenix myth it is important to know that in Christian hermeneutics the phoenix is made an allegory of Christ, which amounts to a reinterpretation of the myth. The self-burning of the phoenix corresponds to Christ’s self-sacrifice, the ashes to his buried body, and the miraculous renewal to his resurrection. According to Horapollo (4th century), whose views were taken over by later writers, the phoenix signifies the soul and its journey to the land of rebirth. It stands for the “long-lasting restitution of things”; indeed, it is renewal itself. The idea of apocatastasis or restitution (Acts 3:21) and re-establishment in Christ (Ephesians 1:0, DV) may well have helped the assimilation of the phoenix allegory, quite apart from the main motif of renewal.

–Ibid., pg 336-337

As the prima materia is also called lead and Saturn, we should mention that the Sabbath is co-ordinated with Yesod, as is the letter Teth, which stands under the influence of Shabtai (Saturn). In the same way that Mercurius, as a volatile substance, is named the bird, goose, chick of Hermes, swan, eagle, vulture, and [phoenix, Yesod (as well as Tifereth) is called “pullus avis” also “penna, ala” (feather, wing). Feather and wings play a role in alchemy too: the eagle that devours its own feathers or wings, and the feathers of the phoenix in Michael Maier. The idea of the bird eating its own feathers is a variant of the uroboros, which in turn is connected with Leviathan. Leviathan and the “great dragon” are names for both Yesod and Tifereth.

Yesod is a part of the whole, and the whole is Tifereth, who is named the sun. The feet of the Apocalyptic Son of Man, glowing as if in the fire, may have a connection with Malchuth, since the feet are the organ that touches the earth. The earth, Malchuth, is Yesod’s footstool. Malchuth is also the “furnace”, “the place destined for the cooking and decoration of the influence sent down to her by her husband for the nourishment of the hosts.”

–Ibid, pg 445-446

Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get back to the rest of that last passage in the next essay.

As for the rest of the symbols, Citadel is extremely straightforward. The significance of feathers and geese and eagles is all echoed in the story of the angel overlooking the barnyard battle; Severian’s lame foot is like the lion having his paws clipped off, an action which is a necessary replacement for his death. Because, in truth, he has died in Book of the New Sun very many times; the story begins with his death, in a way, when he drowns in the Gyoll and is saved only by the miraculous appearance of an undine. The importance of quantum immortality in Book of the New Sun cannot be understated; it is the method by which the soul is allowed to grow unhampered to its fullest potential. Like the diamonds in the Vedic story of Indra’s net, where each diamond reflects the infinite of other diamonds, each consciousness is on a journey which reflects the others. All that we have ever seen or experienced has been stored within us; therefore, the hierodules are able to recreate, with perfect accuracy, Master Malrubius and good Triskele, in time to guide Severian to the religious revelation that all ground is holy ground, and that he himself is a holy entity. St. Malrubius may be Master Malrubius’s namesake, but the ‘ruby’ of his name is more than a passing coincidence when we begin to understand the importance of homophonic synchronicities in writing of this sort. This is the red figure whose emergence heralds the rubedo, like the red face of the dying sun Severian so often admires; it is therefore appropriate that his encounter with Malrubius comes mere moments before he discovers (‘christens’, if you will) the Claw of the Conciliator, which is revealed to be little more than one of many thorns extending from a rose bush. With the rose being the pure symbol of all that is good and holy of the self, it is appropriate that Severian, servant of the Increate rather than the Pancreator, snaps off, not a flower, but a thorn.

The rest of his journey is fairly straightforward, and we are left with a letter announcing the coming of Father Inire, and the poignant symbol of Severian following his old footprints back to the Atrium of Time, to meet Valeria. If valor is the courage and strength we show in the world, alchemical valor is a kind of power which is granted by the stone. It is the confidence which weds the alchemist as he practices his art, and it is the comfort nature grants him that he might never be alone. It is a kind of immortality, or the result of it; the immortality which the Devil tempts Christ to demonstrate, but which cannot be demonstrated by the human being. Rather, alchemical valor is demonstrated by the divine, for the human being to observe. From this, the human receives protection. Valeria, eternally youthful until Severian frees her from the Atrium of Time to marry her, is a gift which is given by Triskele, who, if we draw similarities from The Book of Tobit and a great many alchemical tests, is symbolic of the Logos; and it is Valeria who shall rule in Severian’s stead as he journeys through space and time, maintaining the integrity of Urth until her husband will return to allow its death. But even then, he will not die; and neither will Urth: both, we will discover, are simply changed.

Thanks as always for reading, and come back in the next few weeks for the final essay in this series, covering Urth of the New Sun. To fill the time between now and then, be sure to get hooked up with your copy of my psychedelic novel, The Lightning Stenography Device, which blends science fiction, horror and fantasy into a book the likes of which you’ve never read before. And let’s hope that, since I’ve reached Severian’s ascent to the Phoenix throne, I’ll have a better week!

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