visions of Zosimos of Panopolis

I must make clear at once that the following observations on the visions of Zosimos of Panopolis, an important alchemist and Gnostic of the third century A.D., are not intended as a final explanation of this extraordinarily difficult material. My psychological contribution is no more than an attempt to shed a little light on it and to answer some of the questions raised by the visions:


It is characteristic of any subjective dream interpretation that it is satisfied with pointing out superficial relationships which take no account of the essentials. Another thing to be considered is that the alchemists themselves testify to the occurrence of dreams and visions during the opus. I am inclined to think that the vision or visions of Zosimos were experiences of this kind, which took place during the work and revealed the nature of the psychic processes in the background. In these visions all those contents emerge which the alchemists unconsciously projected into the chemical process and which were then perceived there, as though they were qualities of matter. The extent to which this projection was fostered by the conscious attitude is shown by the somewhat overhasty interpretation given by Zosimos himself

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Even though his interpretation strikes us at first as somewhat forced, indeed as far-fetched and arbitrary, we should nevertheless not forget that while the conception of the “waters” is a strange one to us, for Zosimos and for the alchemists in general it had a significance we would never suspect. It is also possible that the mention of the “water” opened out perspectives in which the ideas of dismemberment, killing, torture, and transformation all had their place. For, beginning with the treatises of Democritus and Komarios, which are assigned to the first century A.D., alchemy, until well into the eighteenth century, was very largely concerned with the miraculous water, the aqua divina or permanens, which was extracted from the lapis, or prima materia, through the torment of the fire. The water was the humidum radicale (radical moisture), which stood for the anima media natura or anima mundi imprisoned in matter, the soul of the Stone or metal, also called the anima aquina

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This anima was set free not only by means of the “cooking,” but also by the sword dividing the “egg,” or by the separatio, or by dissolution into the four “roots” or elements. The separatio was often represented as the dismemberment of a human body. Of the aqua permanens it was said that it dissolved the bodies into the four elements. Altogether, the divine water possessed the power of transformation. It transformed the nigredo into the albedo through the miraculous “washing” (ablutio); it animated inert matter, made the dead to rise again, and therefore possessed the virtue of the baptismal water in the ecclesiastical rite. Just as, in the benedictio fontis, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the water and so divides it into four parts, so the mercurial serpent, symbolizing the aqua permanens, undergoes dismemberment, another parallel to the division of the body

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Just as baptism is a pre-Christian rite, according to the testimony of the gospels, so, too, the divine water is of pagan and pre-Christian origin. The Praefatio of the Benedictio Fontis on Easter Eve says: “May this water, prepared for the rebirth of men, be rendered fruitful by the secret inpouring of his divine power; may a heavenly offering, conceived in holiness and reborn into a new creation, come forth from the stainless womb of this divine font; and may all, however distinguished by age in time or sex in body, be brought forth into one infancy by the motherhood of grace” ( The Missal in Latin and English, p. 429)

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A Latin proverb says: canis panem somniat, piscator pisces (the dog dreams of bread, the fisherman of fish). The alchemist, too, dreams in his own specific language. This enjoins upon us the greatest circumspection, all the more so as that language is exceedingly obscure. In order to understand it [the language], we have to learn the psychological secrets of alchemy. It is probably true what the old Masters said, that only he who knows the secret of the Stone understands their words. It has long been asserted that this secret is sheer nonsense, and not worth the trouble of investigating seriously. But this frivolous attitude ill befits the psychologist, for any “nonsense” that fascinated men's minds for close on two thousand yearsamong them some of the greatest, e.g., Newton and Goethemust have something about it which it would be useful for the psychologist to know

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Moreover, the symbolism of alchemy has a great deal to do with the structure of the unconscious, as I have shown in my book Psychology and Alchemy. These things are not just rare curiosities, and anyone who wishes to understand the symbolism of dreams cannot close his eyes to the fact that the dreams of modern men and women often contain the very images and metaphors that we find in the medieval treatises. And since an understanding of the biological compensation produced by dreams is of importance in the treatment of neurosis as well as in the development of consciousness, a knowledge of these facts has also a practical value which should not be underestimated

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The central image in[“The Treatise of Zosimos the Divine Concerning the Art”], shows us a kind of sacrificial act undertaken for the purpose of alchemical transformation. It is characteristic of this rite that the priest is at once the sacrificer and the sacrificed. This important idea reached Zosimos in the form of the teachings of the “Hebrews” (i.e., Christians). Christ was a god who sacrificed himself. An essential part of the sacrificial act is dismemberment. Zosimos must have been familiar with this motif from the Dionysian mystery-tradition. There, too, the god is the victim, who was torn to pieces by the Titans and thrown into a cooking pot, but whose heart was saved at the last moment by Hera. Our text shows that the bowl-shaped altar was a cooking vessel in which a multitude of people were boiled and burned. As we know from the legend and from a fragment of Euripides, an outburst of bestial greed and the tearing of living animals with the teeth were part of the Dionysian orgy. Dionysius was actually called(the undivided and divided spirit)

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The principle that is personified in the visions of Zosimos is the wonder-working water, which is both water and spirit, and kills and vivifies. If Zosimos, waking from his dream, immediately thinks of the “composition of the waters,” this is the obvious conclusion from the alchemical point of view. Since the long-sought water, as we have shown, represents a cycle of birth and death, every process that consists of death and rebirth is naturally a symbol of the divine water

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The motif of ascent and descent is based partly on the motion of water as a natural phenomenon (clouds, rain, etc.)

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“Spirit” in alchemy means anything volatile, all evaporable substances, oxides, etc., but also, as a projected psychic content, a corpus mysticum in the sense of a “subtle body” ( Cf. Mead, The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition ). It is in this sense that the definition of the lapis as a spiritus humidus et aereus should be understood. There are also indications that spirit was understood as “mind,” which could be refined by “sublimation”

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In spite of the not always unintentional obscurity of alchemical language, it is not difficult to see that the divine water or its symbol, the uroboros, means nothing other than the deus absconditus, the god hidden in matter, the divine Nous that came down to Physis and was lost in her embrace. This mystery of the “god become physical” underlies not only classical alchemy but also many other spiritual manifestations of Hellenistic syncretism

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Since alchemy is concerned with a mystery both physical and spiritual, it need come as no surprise that the “composition of the waters” was revealed to Zosimos in a dream. His sleep was the sleep of incubation, his dream “a dream sent by God.” The divine water was the alpha and omega of the process, desperately sought for by the alchemists as the goal of their desire. The dream therefore came as a dramatic explanation of the nature of this water. The dramatization sets forth in powerful imagery the violent and agonizing process of transformation which is itself both the producer and the product of the water, and indeed constitutes its very essence

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The drama shows how the divine process of change manifests itself to our human understanding and how man experiences itas punishment, torment, death, and transfiguration. The dreamer describes how a man would act and what he would have to suffer if he were drawn into the cycle of the death and rebirth of the gods, and what effect the deus absconditus would have if a mortal man should succeed by his “art” in setting free the “guardian of spirits” from his dark dwelling. There are indications in the literature that this is not without its dangers

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The element of torture, so conspicuous in Zosimos, is not uncommon in alchemical literature. “Slay the mother, cutting off her hands and feet”.“Take a man, shave him, and drag him over a stoneuntil his body dies”.“Take a cock, pluck it alive, then put its head in a glass vessel”. In medieval alchemy the torturing of the materia was an allegory of Christ's passion

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For Zosimos and those of like mind the divine water was a corpus mysticum. A personalistic psychology will naturally ask: how did Zosimos come to be looking for a corpus mysticum? The answer would point to the historical conditions: it was a problem of the times. But in so far as the corpus mysticum was conceived by the alchemists to be a gift of the Holy Spirit, it can be understood in a quite general sense as a visible gift of grace conferring redemption. Man's longing for redemption is universal and can therefore have an ulterior, personalistic motive only in exceptional cases, when it is not a genuine phenomenon but an abnormal misuse of it. Hysterical self-deceivers, and ordinary ones too, have at all times understood the art of misusing everything so as to avoid the demands and duties of life, and above all to shirk the duty of confronting themselves. They pretend to be seekers after God in order not to have to face the truth that they are ordinary egoists. In such cases it is well worth asking: Why are you seeking the divine water?

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