Sophia or Divine Wisdom
The Feminine image of Divine Wisdom or the Holy Spirit is the presiding image of alchemy. The alchemists called themselves the Sons of Wisdom. Sometimes she is named Anima-Mundi, sometimes Sophia, Sapientia or Lady Alchymeia.
Alchemists who were kabbalists knew her as the Shekinah, the Bride of God, the divine ground of the phenomenal world. All these images point to the hidden wisdom of nature which the alchemists took as their guide although they also knew that their work was contra naturam – against nature – because it went against the attitudes and instinctual habits that were so hard to overcome. They saw themselves working with nature, assisting the release of spirit hidden within her forms.
But they knew that Divine Wisdom represented far more than what we call nature. We are connected with each other and with planetary and cosmic life through an immense and complex web of hidden relationships that science is only beginning to discover as they try to fathom the mystery of dark matter and the 95% of the invisible universe that still eludes their understanding.
The feminine archetype has always been associated with the earth, with nature and with soul — not soul in a personal sense but soul as the unseen dimension of reality and the great connecting web of life.
For many thousands of years this cosmic matrix of relationships was personified by the image of the Great Mother and later by specific goddesses like Hathor and Isis in Egypt. Later it was carried by the image of Divine Wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, by the Shekinah of Kabbalah and by the Cosmic or World Soul of Plato and Plotinus; still later, in the Middle Ages, by the image of the Black Madonna and the Holy Grail—the mysterious vessel or stone that was described as the source of all abundance.
For many centuries in a European culture that was deeply repressive of the Feminine, alchemy secretly carried the image of this disowned aspect of the Divine.
Alchemists had visions of a cosmic woman and knew her to be a living force and divine presence, pouring out the waters of love and illumination on humanity.
Perhaps this is why Dr. Marie–Louise von Franz says in her commentary to the alchemical text called the Aurora Consurgens,
Alchemy lays upon the man the task, and confers upon him the dignity, of rescuing the hidden, feminine aspect of God from imprisonment in matter by his opus, and of reuniting her with the manifest, masculine deity.
In memorable words, Wisdom speaks to the alchemists, saying, “Understand ye sons of Wisdom, Protect me, and I will protect thee; give me my due that I may help thee.”11 One of the most powerful and profound statements of alchemy, this is a message for our own times when the instinctive desire to protect nature and serve the life of the planet is arising in so many of us.
The Sacred Marriage
4000 years ago in the courtyards of the great temples on the banks of the Nile the Sacred Marriage of goddess and god was celebrated. The theme of the Sacred Marriage has come down to us in myth, in fairy tales like Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty, and in the Biblical Song of Songs. Alchemy sets the supreme quest for the treasure in the context of a marriage between the solar and lunar aspects of the soul, the fiery gold of the masculine element and the volatile silver of the feminine one, a union between our mind and our soul, our head and our heart, between the solar king and the lunar queen. This marriage also unites the invisible dimension of the subtle world of spirit with the material world of our experience, rendering the latter transparent to spirit. The Sacred Marriage is the age-old image of this mysterious double union. The alchemists called the consciousness that was the fruit of this inner marriage Stellar Consciousness —signifying that they had become reunited with the invisible cosmic ground that is the foundation of the phenomenal world.
The alchemists said that in order for consciousness to be transformed from base metal into gold, both king and queen have to undergo a process of dissolution and transformation. The alchemists associated the king with the sun, with gold, sulphur and the colour red. The king today might be identified with the limited consciousness we associate with our rational mind which may be entirely bound to the perception of reality offered by our senses and is unaware of a deeper dimension of reality or a deeper dimension of the psyche. The king formulates many goals but these goals may be unrelated to anything pertaining to the realm of spirit.
The images they associated with the queen are the moon, silver, quicksilver (mercury) and the colour white. The rose, the lily, the dove and the swan were also associated with her. Her nature is described as volatile, liquid, watery, changeable. Translated into the inner world of the psyche, the queen is our instinctual soul, whose focus is the heart. At the archetypal level, she represents the cosmic dimension of the Anima-Mundi, the hidden soul of nature, the matrix of our creative energy and the womb of our imagination, which derives ultimately from the Soul of the Cosmos. In relation to the tradition of Kabbalah, the queen represents the Shekinah. Just as the awakened and transformed consciousness of the king is represented by the ‘Young King’, so the awakened and transformed consciousness of the queen is personified by the ‘Young Queen’. Their union creates the child of the awakened, integrated consciousness symbolized by the alchemical gold and the other numinous images of the completion of the Great Work.
To awaken the consciousness personified by the king to the values associated with the wisdom of the soul, he has to undergo a symbolic death, vividly described by the shamanic initiation. He makes a descent into the watery realm of the soul, the realm of the emotions, feelings, instincts that has never been associated with anything of value and that has been both feared and despised and has consequently remained largely dissociated from consciousness during the solar era. He comes to know the queen intimately, becoming aware of his feelings not as something inferior to his rational mind, but as something like his own mother, something that he has been born from, emerged from, and can now unite with consciously as his bride—the feminine and royal counterpart of himself.
By descending into this dimension, overcoming his suspicion of and contempt for it, and surrendering his desire for control, the king develops respect for mysteries he is not aware of and does not yet understand. He develops insight; he develops wisdom; he develops humility and compassion. The queen as the personification of the soul is also transformed as the king enters into a conscious relationship with her. She is no longer forced to remain in a neglected, isolated state. She is no longer in thrall to the deficient values and limited perception represented by the Old King; nor is she any longer bound by the powerful unconscious drives of blind instinct to which he also was bound. The values of the heart begin to be heard and strengthened. Feeling begins to function in a more conscious related way as both king and queen are transformed. As in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, the king discovers a new relationship with the queen as she becomes his beloved and bride. Where before there had been a hedge of thorns separating them, now king and queen are joined together in the bridal chamber of the soul. This alchemical union works a profound transmutation of both, resulting in the birth of the child of the new consciousness. Both have to undergo a process of fragmentation, dismemberment, reconstitution and regeneration described by the different stages of the alchemical Great Work. In relation to the man or woman of today, this descent is essential for them both, since woman has been educated in the same way as man, has absorbed the same values and been imprinted with the same ideas and may give the highest value to the masculine value and the rational mind, knowing nothing of the deeper dimension of the soul and the invisible dimension of reality.