Thursday, June 09, 2022

The joy and alchemical play of jigsaws

During the pandemic of 2019-2022 many people worldwide discovered the joy of jigsaws. Faced with restrictions in social activities and confined indoors during lockdowns the opportunity to escape from uncontrollable events and immerse oneself in a puzzle enticed many. Consequently,  the past two years has seen a boom in the manufacture and sale of jigsaws globally in order to supply an unprecedented demand.

It was the Englishman John Spilsbury (1739-69) a London cartographer and engraver who is credited with inventing the jigsaw puzzle. Spilsbury created the first puzzle sometime in the 1760's as an educational tool. He affixed a map  of the world to wood and hand cut each country out using a marquetry saw. Spilsbury's 'dissected maps' were used as teaching aids for geography.  The technical name of the jigsaw enthusiast as a dissectologist originates from Spilsbury's 'dissected maps' as does dissectology, the study of jigsaws. Because the word 'dissection' has an unfortunate association to surgery, the Anglo-Saxon of  'jigsaw builder' is preferred nomenclature here.

Scenic postcard views of mountains and lakes along with lighthouses, windmills and castles have long been the staple diet of jigsaws. The fantasy castle of King Ludwig of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein Schloss, the artistic inspiration for the Disney Castle logo is often reproduced as a jigsaw puzzle, as are the romantic destinations of Paris and Venice. Michael Ryba's interpretation of King Ludwig's castle and relationship to the German composer Richard Wagner is wittily expressed in the Heye brand 2000 piece puzzle entitled 'Bavaria' (below).

Established in Poland in 1985 the Trefl brand of puzzles have a matted finish with chunky, tactile pleasing pieces. Below-  Dolomite mountain range, Italy.  Trefl 500 pieces


Its good to see that the Falcon brand includes a puzzle of the Norfolk Broads, an extensive network of shallow lakes and rivers in Eastern England. Incidentally, the Norfolk Broads are alluded to in David Bowie's song, 'Life on Mars' (1973) - 'See the mice in their million  hordes/From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads'. Norfolk-based jigsaws include - Cromer beach and pier, Norwich market place, windmills (below) and Sandringham House, residence of Queen Elizabeth II  (1926-2022).  

The earliest jigsaw puzzles were hand-cut from wood and expensive to make, needing skilled workmanship for each individual jigsaw. The 20th century saw the rise of manufactured, mass-produced cardboard puzzles. The popularity of the jigsaw puzzle during the 1930's Depression as an inexpensive form of entertainment can be gauged from the novelist Daphne du Maurier's best-selling gothic love story Rebecca (1938). In du Maurier's fictitious first-person narration, jigsaws are flexible as metaphors, expressive of comprehension and error, along with revealing identity. 

In  Rebecca Du Maurier's anonymous narrator states-

'What he has told me and all that has happened will tumble into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle'.

'The jig-saw pieces came tumbling thick and fast upon me'.

'They were all fitting into place, the jig-saw pieces. The odd strained shapes that I had tried to piece together with my fumbling fingers and they had never fitted'.

'The jig-saw pieces came together piece by piece, and the real Rebecca took shape and form before me'.[1]

Georges Perec (1936-82) was a film maker, essayist and author of the acclaimed novel 'La vie, mode d'emploi' (Life: A user's manual). Jigsaws are integral to the very structure as well as the central story of Perec's novel. Its narrative moves from one room to another, the reader learning about the residents of each room, or its past residents, or about someone they have come into contact with, thus building a picture of an instant in time. La Vie, mode d'emploi  is an extraordinary novel, containing painstakingly detailed descriptions and hundreds of individual stories. 

The central story of Perec's Post-modern masterpiece concerns itself with the Englishman Bartlebooth who devotes ten years acquiring the skill of painting in water-colours, then ten more years painting every harbour and port he visits while on a world-cruise. Each of Bartlebooth's finished water-colours are methodically dated and posted to a jigsaw maker in Paris. Upon returning to Paris, he devotes the remaining years of his life attempting to complete every jigsaw made from his paintings in precisely the same chronological order of his travels. 

In the preamble to La vie mode d'emploi Georges Perec makes a pertinent point about jigsaws, namely, that its how a jigsaw is cut which makes it easy or difficult to complete. 

'Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not matter whether the initial image is easy (or something taken to be easy - a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a colour photograph of an Austrian castle) or difficult (a Jackson Pollock, a Pisarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle), its not the subject of the picture, or the painter's technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; and an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty, ranging from the extreme of easiness - for edge pieces, patches of light, well-defined objects, lines, transitions -to the tiresome awkwardness of all the other pieces (cloudless skies, sand, meadow, ploughed land, shaded areas etc.) [2] 

Its interesting to note that the logo of the world-wide collaborative project known as Wikipedia consists of an incomplete globe made of jigsaw pieces. The incomplete sphere symbolizes the room to add new knowledge as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

Many sub-genres of puzzles exist. Sentimental and kitsch depictions of puppies, kittens, cakes and cottages abound in jigsaw reproductions as well as art-works such as Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus', Monet's 'Poppies'  and Bosch's 'Garden of Heavenly Delights'. The  primitive artwork style of Charles Wysocki (1928 - 2002) whose work depicts an idealized version of American life of yesteryear and Thomas Kinade (1958 - 2012) a painter of pastoral and idyll scenes with warm, glowing colouration (Gibsons brand) are both well-loved by American jigsaw builders. Puzzles composed purely of brand labels are also popular in America, a  long lasting aftereffect of the 1950's when advertising companies gave away free puzzles with their products.

Featuring the comic art-work of Graham Thompson (b. 1940), the so-called Wasgij puzzle (the word 'jigsaw' spelt backwards) challenges the jigsaw builder to have eyes at the back of their head in order to construct a mirror or 'what-happened-next' picture of the action depicted, a far more difficult task than simply referencing a box top picture.  

Remembering the trauma of the world-wide health crisis in the past two years its little wonder that comic jigsaws retain their popularity. The prolific Dutch cartoonist Jan van Haasteren (b. Schiedam, Netherlands 1936) has now supplied Jumbo puzzles with over 200 titles. Haasteren's artwork is instantly recognisable, not least for the same characters re-appearing in his puzzles. These include - a crook and tax official, Police Officers,  a mother-in-law, Santa Claus, a cat and mouse, an octopus and crab, along with his trade mark, a Shark fin. 

In Haasternen's 'Winter Sports' (below) various activities associated with snow and ice are depicted.  Its a typically busy, crowded scene of masterful draughtsmanship,  reminiscent of a canvas by Breughel. 

The  British artist Mike Jupp (b.1948) is a best-seller of the Gibsons brand of jigsaws, a British family business since 1919. Mike Jupp became a freelance artist in 1974, moving into film and TV design in 1980. He spent some time in Holland before he relocated to America where he became a storyboard artist and scriptwriter. In the late 1990's Jupp applied his talent and sense of humour to creating designs for jigsaws. Jupp delights puzzlers with his I Love series, where he captures the comical and silly side of everyday life. Almost every inch of I Love Spring includes some kind of cheeky humour. There can also be seen - an International Worker's march, Druids, a Maypole dance, Morris men, a Wedding and Hell's Angels. In the foreground of I Love Spring (below) a young man falls off his ladder when spying a girl in a bubble bath. 

The French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Loup (1936-2015) studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Lyon and worked as a cartoonist in Paris from 1969 until his death. A prolific contributor to a wide variety of magazines and publications, Loup was also an architect and a jazz pianist. In his 'Apocalypse 2000' (below) Loup humorously mocks the fears and apprehensions associated with millenarian expectation including, an alien spaceship invasion, a falling meteorite, an earthquake and a plague of frogs. Many differing reactions to the World's End can be seen - Holding a playing card a man prepares to commit suicide, a woman prays on her knees, a priest thrusts a crucifix at a hairy demon who rolls around laughing at him, Hare Krishna followers chant, others are seen screaming or running away. Drinkers in a bar look on, slightly perturbed at all they're witnessing. 

The cartoonist Loup along with the Argentinian cartoonist Guillermo Mordillo (1932-2019) were both widely published throughout the 1970's. Their artwork is featured on a handful of Heye puzzles, one of the most exciting of all puzzle manufacturers in the artistic scope and range of their jigsaws.   

Recent study at the University of Michigan, USA, has found that jigsaws improve visual-spatial reasoning along with IQ. They also help reduce memory, relieve stress and lower blood pressure and heart-rate. Scientific research also suggests that the simple satisfaction of placing a puzzle piece in its correct place, releases a micro-dose of the 'feelgood' neuro-chemical' dopamine which is associated with well-being and happiness. An even bigger 'feel good' chemical reward is released upon completion of a puzzle. 

Long acknowledged as sharpening cognitive faculties through the correct identification of shape and colour, requiring hand and eye coordination through dedicated sessions of time, jigsaws teach and develop patience, concentration and logical thinking. When finally completed they reward their builder with a  real sense of achievement and improved self-esteem. Whether of kittens or puppies, a favourite place visited, a comic cartoon or Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper', a completed jigsaw remains the builder's very own accomplishment. In an age of ubiquitous electronic entertainments its an achievement  which is made through finely-tuned hand and eye coordination in conjunction with the much under-valued virtue of patience. 

       The alchemical play of jigsaws

Jigsaw building can be viewed as a kind of reduced or simplified form of the alchemical opus. To begin with, just like the alchemist, the jigsaw builder dedicates themselves for an unknown duration of time, often in solitude, sometimes experiencing self-doubt or a sense of futility, even risking sanity seemingly, in order to complete a 'Great Work'. Hope and despair are experienced by both alchemist and jigsaw builder alike in their endeavour to make the invisible become visible. 

Ancient alchemical texts frequently warn the adept of the many difficulties and dead-ends to beware of during the 'Great Work'; so too the jigsaw builder can expect setbacks, even disaster if their work-space is tampered or interfered with. The vision shared by alchemist and jigsaw builder upon completion of their task is one of unity, created from the chaos of the massa confusa or unsorted heap of puzzle pieces.

It was the seminal Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961) who first identified distinct similarities between alchemy and the creative process. Jung's observations on the spiritual and psychological meaning of creativity are applicable to the artist more than passive jigsaw builder, nevertheless his following remark invites comparison with jigsaw building - 

'the first part was completed when the various components separated out from the chaos of the massa confusa were brought back to unity in the albedo and "all become one". [3]

The dark, initial state which the alchemist called the nigredo stage was also known as the massa confusa or chaos, the not yet differentiated, but capable of differentiation disorder which the adept gradually reduced to order and unity. Hidden and invisible within the chaos of the massa confusa lay the vision of unity which the alchemist aspired to make visible. For the jigsaw builder, contained within the thousand piece heap, which on first sight can arouse despair, there lays invisible within, the vision of a completed jigsaw.

The alchemical discourse The Garden of Cyrus by the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) has a number of associations to the jigsaw.  Long viewed as one of the most difficult puzzles in the entire canon of English literature, most readers of The Garden of Cyrus have struggled and floundered attempting to piece it together, thwarted by the combination of its esoteric theme, dense symbolism and the near breathless haste of its communication. Very few have ever completed Browne's jigsaw puzzle of an essay, yet alone stepped back upon completion to admire the beauty of its hermetic vision.

Composed from numerous 'stand-alone' notebook jottings, not unlike solitary pieces of a puzzle, Browne cites evidence of the inter-related symbols of  Quincunx pattern,  number 5 and  letter  X  in topics equal in diversity as jigsaw subject-matter, including- Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion, mythology, ancient world plantations, gardening, generation, geometry, germination, heredity, the Archimedean solids, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology and astronomy, in order to prove  to his reader the interconnectivity of all life. Predominate themes of the discourse include - Order, Number, Design and Pattern, all of which are related to jigsaws.

Fascinated by all manner of puzzle throughout his life, whether hieroglyph, riddle, anagram or mystery in nature,  Browne in The Garden of Cyrus connects the quincunx pattern found in mineral crystals in the earth below to star constellations in the heavens above; thus a primary objective of  his discourse  ultimately is none other than advocation of intelligent design. In Browne's hermetic vision, the cosmos itself is a fully interlocking jigsaw, designed through the 'higher mathematics' of the 'supreme Geometrician' i.e. God.

If anything however, its perhaps more the art and design of the jigsaw cutter which Browne celebrates. He's credited by the Oxford Dictionary as the first writer to use the word 'Network' in an artificial context in the English language, (in the full running title of the discourse, The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the ancients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered).  The frontispiece to Browne's discourse resembles some kind of grid cutter for an unusual jigsaw or a gaming board for Go or Backgammon.

Its Latin quotation reads -'What is more beautiful than the Quincunx, which, however you view it, presents straight lines'.

Browne also mentions various leisure-time activities in his discourse. Archery, backgammon, chess, skittles and knuckle stones are all fleetingly alluded to as examples of pleasure and play. 

Upon completion of a puzzle, sooner or later its broken into separate pieces and returned to its box awaiting to be completed once more,  a cycle not unlike the cycle of birth, death and rebirth  or 'Eternal Return' which alchemists alluded to in their writings, including Thomas Browne at the conclusion of his discourse.  

'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven'.

One particular jigsaw shape  of interest to Browne in his quinary quest is the so-called 'dancing man'  or 'T-man' piece with its 4 + 1 structure (below left). Its a reduced form of ' Square man' by the Roman architect Vitruvius of the human form as drawn by the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci in his Vitruvian man (below, right) which is alluded to in The Garden of Cyrus thus -  

'Nor is the same observable only in some parts, but in the whole body of man, which upon the extension of arms and legs, doth make out a square whose intersection is at the genitals. To omit the phantastical Quincunx in Plato of the first Hermaphrodite or double man, united at the Loynes, which Jupiter divided. [4]

Adding in a little referenced footnote - 'elegantly observable in the Mesopotamian silhouette figurines, not unlike conjoyning tiles found in parlour amusements amongst us'.[3] 

One is tempted to speculate that Thomas Browne's allusion to 'conjoyning tiles' may be some kind of precursor to the jigsaw puzzle, pre-dating fellow Englishman John Spilsbury's 'dissecting maps' by a full century. 

In any case, the technical inventiveness in manufacture, the wide variety of artistic subject-matter and development of skills such as shape identification along with the therapeutic qualities of jigsaw puzzling would doubtless have been approved of by Browne.  With his predilection for the microscopic in nature one imagines the seventeenth century physician-philosopher engaged in the challenge of constructing a miniature jigsaw, employing his 'occular observation' with tweezers and magnifying glass in order to construct  it ! 


Top - Wooden 60 piece puzzle of elephant. Wentworth. Completed  January 2022 

'Bavaria' Ryba, 2000 pieces Heye. Completed July 2022

Dolomite Mountains, Italy, Trefl 500 pieces, Completed  March 2022

Norfolk Windmill and river Falcon 500 pieces. Completed Feb. 2021. 

Winter Sports by Jan van Haasteren Jumbo 1000 pieces. Completed  February 2022

'I Love Spring' by Mike Jupp Gibsons 1000 pieces. CompletedC May 2022

'Apocalypse 2000' by Jean Jacques Loup Falcon 1000 pieces. ompleted  June 2022

Colour Wheel. 1000 pieces. Made in China. Completed September 2022

N.B. The Wikipedia  entry on puzzles has numerous links to articles about jigsaws.


[1]  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier  First published by Victor Gollancz 1938 chapter 20.

[2] George Perec  La vie mode d'emploi  First published in France in 1978 by Hachette/ Collection P.O.L. Paris and in Great Britain in 1987 by Collins Harvill 

[3] C.G. Jung Collected Works  Vol 14.  Mysterium Coniunctionis  An enquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy translated by R. F. C. Hull 1963 paragraph 388

[4]  Thomas Browne : Selected Writings edited by Kevin Killeen Oxford University Press 2014 . Quote from chapter 3 of The Garden of Cyrus 

[5]  An unpublished footnote from a source equal in veracity to Fragment on Mummies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Dr. Browne and the alchemical mandala

When first appraised as a two-in-one, unified work, literary critics declared Thomas Browne's discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) to be 'a paradox and a cosmic vision' and 'one of the deepest, complex, and most symbolically pregnant statements upon the great double theme of mortality and eternity'.

However, when those perceptive comments were made, almost 300 years after the first  publication of Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, Browne's relationship to Western esoteric traditions had been little, if ever, discussed. Its only relatively recently that the many misapprehensions and prejudices which once surrounded Western esoteric disciplines such as Hermetic philosophy and alchemy have evaporated, primarily through  the demise of Christianity as the dominant arbiter of spiritual values.

Primarily through the ground-breaking scholarship of writers such as Frances Yeats and Adam Maclean in Britain, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman in America, and above all others the Swiss psychologist, C. G. Jung, we now possess the analytical tools necessary to understand and appreciate the vital influence which Western esoteric disciplines once wielded upon 'alchemystical' philosophers such as Thomas Browne. 'Though overlooked by all', Browne's discourses, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are now revealed to be supreme works of Hermetic philosophy in the canon of English literature.
A quick perusal of the many esoteric titles listed as once in Browne's library swiftly dispels the notion that the philosopher-physician's interest in Western esotericism was merely casual, nor is there any reason to believe he ever deviated from his declaration in Religio Medici (1643) that-

'The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible'. [1]

And in fact Browne makes allusion and reference to concepts associated with Western esotericism in each and every one of his writings. 

Composed during the 17th century, the 'Golden Age' of alchemy, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus tick each and every box required of a mandala. Their polarity and symmetry, alongside their visual imagery, as well as the multiplicity of geometric forms and numbers encountered in The Garden of Cyrus permit a confident identification of Browne's diptych as forming an alchemical mandala, ingeniously crafted and unique in Western Literature. Crucially, Browne's discourses Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus engage the reader in the mandala's highest function, as art objects of great beauty, inspiring contemplation and capable of imparting spiritual wisdom to a receptive beholder.  

This essay discusses how Sir Thomas Browne's two discourses are structured upon templates associated with mandalas, namely circularity, symmetry and polarity. It concludes with a look at the historical background influencing Browne's creative motivation in writing two philosophical discourses and analysis of  the symbol of the Quincunx;  both of which take on new meaning when viewed through C. G. Jung's understanding of alchemy. Firstly however, its worthwhile clarifying what exactly a mandala is. 

The word 'mandala' originates from a Sanskrit word meaning 'disc' and many mandalas are circular in shape. Defined also as a geometric configuration of symbols which can be used as a spiritual guidance tool, mandalas are universal, they can be found not only in Tibetan Buddhist religious art, but also in Christian iconography, as well as the iconography of Western esoteric traditions such as alchemy, astrology and the kabbalah. Although usually associated as visual art-works, mandalas are not exclusively visual. The German composer J.S. Bach's late musical work Die Kunst der Fuge  (The Art of Fugue BVW 1080) with its  meditative and abstract, yet thematically related canons and fugues, is in structure, content and function an aural representation of a mandala [2]. In nature many species of flower have radiating, wheel-like petals and circular centres, making them mandala-like in structure with their beauty inviting contemplation. In India there's a dance known as the nyithya dance which is named the mandala dance, whilst in the French choreographer Maurice Bejart's interpretation of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, a mandala  is formed by dancers with their sacrificial victim at its centre (below).

In 'The Alchemical Mandala: A survey of the mandala in the western esoteric traditions' (1989) leading British authority on alchemy, Adam Maclean (b.1948, Glasgow) discusses over thirty mandalas taken from the iconography of 17th century European alchemical literature. Each Western esoteric mandala is accompanied by the author's insightful knowledge of alchemy's rich and complex symbolism. Maclean notes that Western mandalas are an important but neglected aspect of art history which urgently require the attention of scholars and historians. From his generous reproduction of all three mandala variants in Andrea Libavius' Alchemia (1606) conclusive evidence of the seventeenth century funerary monument known as the Layer monument was cemented in 2013 [3].

Returning to the dominant themes and imagery of Urn Burial and the Garden of Cyrus. Inspired by a recent archaeological discovery in Norfolk, Urn-Burial opens with a survey of the burial rites and customs of various nations, highlighting Browne's comparative religion studies. Imagery of darkness, night, sleep and the invisible pervade its pages. Life's ending's and beliefs about death are sombrely surveyed, and Browne the doctor reminds his reader of their mortality, the inevitability of their death and the unlikeliness of their being remembered very long. Urn-Burial has been lauded throughout the centuries for its stately, ornate Baroque flourishes of prose. Whilst being the strongly Christian and stoical half of the diptych it also includes mention of ghosts, spirits, vampirism and even altered states of  spiritual consciousness. Urn-Burial has been described as a threnody to the dead of the English Civil war. At a time when England's population was estimated to have been a little over 5 million its estimated that over 200,000 lives were lost in the seven year period of the English Civil war (1642-49). Exceeding anything England has ever experienced to the present-day.  English society was further psychologically traumatised when living under the experimental, Puritan Republic of Cromwell (1650 -59).

In complete polarity, The Garden of Cyrus examines life's visible beginnings, including germination and growth in botany. Its hasty in style and playful in tone, whilst also repeatedly demonstrating the ubiquity of the number five and the Quincunx pattern in art, nature and religious symbolism. Imagery involving Light, optics and growth crowd its pages. Overtly hermetic in content,  its alludes to several esoteric disciplines which  Browne subscribed to, including Paracelsus, physiognomy and the kabbalah. The discourse also features Browne's highly original proper-name and place name symbolism, often originating from Biblical and Ancient world sources; whilst its central chapter is crowded with numerous sharp-eyed botanical observations, botany being an essential pursuit for physicians at the time. 

Just how The Garden of Cyrus hasn't been positively identified as a literary writing influenced by hermetic philosophy before now remains a great mystery; its very first page features major themes, symbols and preoccupations associated with western esoteric traditions. Opening with the patron "deity" associated with Paracelsian alchemy, namely Vulcan, featuring Browne’s study of comparative religion, employing highly original spiritual-optical imagery, speculating upon the Creation and life’s beginnings, citing Plato’s discourse Timaeus, (the supreme authority for Hermetic philosophers) and finally, conjuring the potent alchemical 'coniunctionis' symbol of Sol et Luna, Browne could not spell out the esoteric theme of his discourse harder if he tried.  Little wonder  that for three and a half centuries its pages have baffled most and delighted few, such as the Romantic poet, Coleridge for example. [4]

Browne reconciled the wisdom of Western esoteric traditions such as alchemy and the kabbalah to Christianity in exactly the same way as the vanguard Renaissance advocates of esotericism, Marsilio Ficino (b.19th October 1433- d.1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494); by giving credence to a Prisca Theologia, a belief in a single, true theology shared by all religions and whose wisdom is passed on in a golden chain through a series of mystics and prophets which included Moses and Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato. In particular, the mythic Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus or ‘thrice greatest’ (being the greatest priest, philosopher and king) was appropriated by Hermetic philosophers as a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christ. In reality the writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum  attributed to  Hermes Trismegistus originated from the early Christian era, and not before, as believed. Such imaginative comparative religion sanctioned the study of pagan philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, and justified the Bible's antiquity, wisdom and  superiority to devout Christians.  

It was Frank Huntley who is credited as the first to identify the circular nature of Browne's discourses. Huntley saw evidence of Browne's creative intent of the circle uniting his two Discourses in the penultimate paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus where imagery  involving night, darkness, sleep and death returns; thus Browne's essay on life's beginnings, The Garden of Cyrus unites with Urn Burial with its thematic concern of life's endings and imagery of darkness, night and sleep. Huntley viewed this return of Urn-Burial's theme and imagery as evidence of  Browne utilizing imagery of the tail-eating snake of alchemy, known as the Ouroboros, shaping his twin Discourses' overall structure [5]. Browne had reflected upon the tail-eating snake or Ouroboros in his medical essay A Letter to a Friend  (c.1656) -

'that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho' Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it. 

The conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus uses imagery distinctly allusive to the Ouroboros. Browne reassures  his  reader,  both contemporary and future, of a return to social and political stability.
'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven'.                                                                                                                               
An early visual realization of the Ouroboros has the motto Hen et Pan (One is All) inscribed at its centre (below). The Ouroboros was adopted by Gnostics of the early Christian era and later by Renaissance alchemists as symbolic of their art and its considered to be the basic mandala of alchemy. Note how in the Gnostic illustration below duality or polarity is highlighted through the use of black and white, not unlike what is termed the basic mandala of eastern esotericism, the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol.

One of C.G. Jung's greatest achievements was his discovery that at its deepest strata human consciousness is undifferentiated, thus symbols originating from civilizations remote to each other in time and geography nevertheless often display striking similarities. The symbols of the Greek Ouroboros (above) and the Chinese Yin Yang symbol (below) express the self-same duality or polarity, and balanced view of the total forces of good and evil, life and death.

If Urn-Burial  with its grave meditations upon human mortality and death can be said to be the gritty and dark underbelly of Browne's literary serpent, then The Garden of Cyrus with its repeated demonstrations of 'how God geometrizeth and observeth order', is surely the decorative, designed upper half of Browne's Ouroboros. And indeed, along with the menagerie of birds, insects and animals mentioned in The Garden of Cyrus  several species of snake are included, thus -

 'A like correspondency in figure is found in the skins and outward teguments of animals, whereof a regardable part are beautiful by this texture. As the backs of several Snakes and Serpents, elegantly remarkable in the Aspis, and the Dart-snake, in the Chiasmus and larger decussations upon the back of the Rattlesnake, and in the close and finer texture of the Mater formicarum, or snake that delights in Ant-hills; whereby upon approach of outward injuries, they can raise a thicker Phalanx on their backs, and handsomely contrive themselves into all kindes of flexures: Whereas their bellies are commonly covered with smooth semi-circular divisions, as best accommodable unto their quick and gliding motion'.

C.G. Jung noted that -The image of the circle was regarded as the most perfect form by Hermetic philosophers  since Plato's Timaeus, the prime authority for Hermetic philosophers'. And of the circular figure of the Ouroboros he stated - 'In the age-old image of the ouroboros lies the though of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.  The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings to life, fertilizes himself an gives birth to himself.  [6] 


The Labyrinth is closely related to the mandala in several ways. Unlike a maze, a Labyrinth offers no alternative route, its unicursive path however, always leads to a centre, a feature common in many mandalas. Symbolic of pilgrimage during the Medieval era, labyrinth paths were laid out in ground plans of monasteries, cloisters and churchyards and walked as symbolic of ascending towards salvation. Walking their twisting turns, one loses track of direction, time and the outside world, calming the mind and inducing contemplation. Walking a labyrinth is therefore not unlike physically stepping into a mandala for spiritual exercise. 

The earliest of all known Western mandalas originates from Ancient Greece, namely, the Cretan Labyrinth of Knossos along with Homer's descriptive account of Achille's shield in The Illiad. Both are featured in The Garden of Cyrus. 

Throughout the Renaissance the study of numismatics provided easy access to the ancient world for collectors such as Browne. Coins from the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, supplied the antiquarian with a wealth of information. A numismatic depiction of the Labyrinth of Knossos sparks Browne's creative imagination in chapter two of The Garden of Cyrus, 

'And, though none of the seven wonders, yet a noble piece of Antiquity, and made by a Copy exceeding all the rest, had its principal parts disposed after this manner, that is, the Labyrinth of Crete, built upon a long quadrate, containing five large squares, communicating by right inflections, terminating in the centre of the middle square, and lodging of the Minotaur, if we conform unto the description of the elegant medal thereof in Agostino'. [7]


One of Western civilization's earliest mandalas originates from the poetry of the ancient Greek author Homer (circa 500 BCE). Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, not unlike Browne's discourses, are also a two-in-one literary work, the masculine theme of the Trojan war in The Iliad  differs starkly to the adventures and affairs of the heart of The Odyssey, with its hero Odysseus endeavouring to return to his wife, Penelope. Both of Homer's epic poems are mentioned in Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. Its at the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus that Browne alludes to the weaponry of the Greek warrior Achilles, shortly before delivering his scientific credentials -

'Flat and flexible truths are beat out by every hammer. But Vulcan and his whole forge, sweat to work out Achilles' his armour'

Homer’s long and detailed description of the  Achilles' shield  of over 100 lines is utterly mandala-like in concept. Angelo Monticelli's visual realization of  Achilles’ shield (circa 1820) divides the shield into five concentric rings. From its centre it depicts the whole universe, with constellations and planets, as well as human life, including a wedding, a marketplace and tribunal. Wartime is represented by a victim of a siege, peacetime by sowing, a harvest and dancing. The stream of Oceanus encircles the land mass. The twelves signs of the zodiac and Apollo riding a chariot of four horses can be seen at its centre. [8]

In alchemy the primordial symbolism of colour is represented by the colour schemata of Nigredo and Albedo (Blackness and Whiteness) . There's a strong case to be made for Urn Burial as a symbolic realization of the Nigredo stage of alchemy. As the first of four stages in the alchemical opus, the Nigredo  (Blackness) represents the psychological state of melancholic gloom and despair which the adept faced beginning the alchemical opus.  The historical circumstances in which Urn-Burial was written,  its many grave and sombre meditations upon Death, mortification, putrefaction, embalmment, funerary urns and monuments,  its repeatedly condemnation of the vain-glory of  being remembered after death as a futile hope,  makes it utterly exemplary of the Nigredo . Browne's poetic phrase, 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing' encapsulates the Nigredo stage of alchemy, which  C. G. Jung  describes thus-

'the Nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a journey to the underworld as Dante experienced it'. [9] 

It should come as no surprise that several of the 'Soul Journey's of Classical literature are named in Urn-Burial, for mandalas often symbolize the spiritual journey of the soul. Homer's Voyage of Ulysses, Plato's myth of Er, the Roman poet Macrobius' 'Dream of Scipio' and Dante's descent to the Underworld are all works of ''Soul Journey' literature  named in Urn Burial. 

In contradistinction to the Job-like suffering of the Nigredo, the albedo or 'Whitening' the alchemical opus represents a return to innocence. Closely associated with Biblical accounts of the Creation and of Paradise, we can be confident in interpreting The Garden of Cyrus as representative of the Albedo  stage of alchemy. Not only does Browne open The Garden of Cyrus with the Creation,  he then swiftly moves onto Paradise, speculating on the location of the Garden of Eden. According to C.G. Jung -

'By means of the opus which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or whitening is produced.'  [10]

'For alchemists Paradise was a favourite symbol of the albedo, the regained state of innocence'. [11]

The Hamburg based physician and hermetic philosopher Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605) synthesized symbolism from Christianity, the Kabbalah and the mystic Rose of alchemy to form the mandala reproduced in his Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae  of 1595 (Above).

The gordian knot of  how and why  of Browne's creative motivation in writing two 'conjoyned discourses remained uncut for centuries. In  a typical self-depreciating manner, Browne states simply of the relationship between his two Discourses-

That we conjoyn these parts of different Subjects, or that this should succeed the other; Your judgement will admit without impute of incongruity; Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave.

This solitary clue far from explains Browne's creative motivation for the multiplicity of polarities or complexio oppositorum  in his diptych Discourses. 

There's a multipicity of opposites or polarities in Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus their primary thematic polarities being Time and Space, Darkness and Light, Decay and Growth, Invisible and Visible, Accident and Design, Conjecture and Discernment,  Microcosm and Macrocosm among others, as well as oppositional imagery and literary style. Such distinctive polarity alerts those familiar with basic tenets of Western esotericism,  for polarity features strongly in nearly all esoteric schemata. One of the basic maxims of alchemy, solve et coagula for example, which exhorts the alchemist to 'dissolve and coagulate'  loosely approximating to the biology of decay and growth, is itself a polarized maxim which corresponds to the dominant themes of each Discourse respectively, Urn Burial being a meditative soliloquy on decay and life's endings, whilst The Garden Of Cyrus lyricizes upon life's beginnings and growth. 

C. G. Jung's radical interpretation of the psychological importance of alchemy did much to alleviate  prejudices against Western esoteric traditions. When he died in 1961 the publication of his collected writings gathered apace. The very title of Jung's late magnum opus work, Mysterium Coniunctions: An enquiry and synthesis of the psychic opposites in alchemy', first published in 1963, has relevance to the psychic opposites of melancholy in Urn-Burial and cheerfulness in The Garden of Cyrus. In its foreword Jung trenchantly states - 

-'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [12]
The growing popularity of Jung's psychology throughout the 1960's was such that he was included in the  pantheon of writers, artists, poets, pop and film stars assembled in Peter Blake's photomontage artwork for the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club. (1967). The British singer/songwriter David Bowie (1947-2016) also paid homage to Jung in his  1973 song 'Drive-in Saturday' ('Jung the foreman/prayed at work').

Amusingly, there's a slender connection between the 'fab four' landmark album Sgt. Pepper to the phantasmagoria of The Garden of Cyrus in as much as both can loosely be defined as psychedelic art-works (that is, in the original Greek meaning of the words, Psyche Mind/Soul + Delos 'Clear, manifest'). The rapid, near kaleidoscopic procession of examples from art, nature and religious mysticism related to the Quincunx symbol in The Garden of Cyrus has indeed a psychedelic dimension. Throughout its pages the active imagination of the alchemist in operation is visibly manifest. Little wonder therefore  that The Garden of Cyrus has astonished and bewildered countless readers for centuries. 

Concluding this digression of loose associations to psychedelia in general, its also in The Garden of Cyrus that Browne introduces the medical word 'Hallucination' into the English language.

Thomas Browne possessed the ability to lucid dream, that is, the ability to manipulate and control the fantasy world of dreams at will.  He informs his reader of this ability in Religio Medici  

'yet in one dream I can compose a whole comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests, and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof. Were my memory as faithful as my reason is fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams'.  [13]

Browne's gift of lucid dreaming is of great significance in the light of C.G. Jung's observation that,

'with the help of dreams, the unconscious produces a natural symbol technically termed a mandala which has the functional significance of a union of opposites, or a meditation'.  [14] 

C. G. Jung's ground-breaking study of alchemy illumines interpretation of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as an alchemical mandala. Structured upon the basic templates of life, namely Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) there's a multiplicity of polarities, or  'oppositional conjunctions'  in Browne's 'twin' discourses in their subject-matter,  imagery , truth and even literary style. Any serious scholar of esotericism would immediately be alert to this fact, for polarity plays no small part in almost all esoteric schemata; the alchemical maxim solve e coagula (decay and growth) the declaration of the mythic Hermes Trismegistus of, 'As above, so Below,' the time-honoured schemata of the Renaissance of Man as Microcosm inhabiting the vastness of the Macrocosm, the alchemical colour symbolism of Nigredo and Albedo (Black and White) all utilize polarity in their symbolism and are fundamental templates to Browne's 'twin' discourses. Indeed,  its from his study of magnetism that Browne, a vigorous coiner of new words, is credited with introducing the very word 'polarity' into the English language. Fundamental imagery involving Darkness in Urn-Burial and Light in The Garden of Cyrus pervade the respective pages of Browne's discourses. 

According to C.G. Jung the opposites play a decisive role in the alchemical process [15] In his view, 'the real subject of Hermetic philosophy is the coniunctio oppositorum [16]. One simply cannot think of a better examplar of a Hermetic philosopher delineating polarised opposites in highly original optical-spiritual imagery than Browne in his alchemical mandala. 

The Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman for one, explains why polarities such as Light and Darkness exist in alchemical literature thus- 

'The linking of light and darkness sets the stage for a fundamental and recurring theme in both alchemy and Jungian psychology, namely, the coniunctio oppositorum, the unity of opposites, a bringing together of light and darkness into an illuminated vision'.[ 17]

Johannes Daniel Mylius (c. 1583 – 1642) was a composer for the lute and writer on alchemy. The mandala reproduced in his Opus medico-chymicum dated 1618 (above) synthesizes symbolism taken from the Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, avian symbolism and mythology. At its centre there stands an alchemist in a grove of trees representing the planetary metals. A raven symbolizing the Nigredo and the Swan  representing the Albedo in the lower hemisphere along with a celestial choir in its upper hemisphere are only visible once the page  unfolded. 

The 1650's decade saw the greatest volume of esoteric literature ever published in England. Many important esoteric titles were translated or made available in English for the first time under the liberalisation and relaxation of printing press licensing laws during the Protectorate of Cromwell. The antiquarian Elias Ashmole tested the waters of this new liberalisation in order to publish in 1652 his anthology of British alchemical authors, the Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, a copy of which is listed as once in Browne's library. It was followed by Cornelius Agrippa's influential Three books on Occult Philosophy and by Thomas Vaughan's translation of the Fama and Confessio of the Rosicrucian Fraternity. Incidentally, the spiritual alchemist Thomas Vaughan (c.1621-65) who knew of, and admired Thomas Browne, may have had the diptych Discourses in mind when alluding to the dominant symbol of  each Discourse he declared Mercurius, the patron 'deity' of alchemy, to be, 'not only a two-edged sword, but also our true, hidden vessel, the Philosophical Garden, wherein our sun rises and sets'. And a copy of Vaughan's evocatively titled A Hermetical Banquet drest by a Spagyrical cook (1652) is listed as once in Browne's library. [18]

It must have been nigh on impossible for an avid bibliophile such as Browne to be unaware of this publication trend throughout the 1650's decade. And the temptation to add his own influential voice to the chorus of esoteric literature which poured forth from England's printing presses, must surely  have  inspired him. This creative urge, along with experiencing extreme psychological distress from the uncertainty and vulnerable social status of being a defeated Royalist with a profession to protect in order to support his large family, may well have induced Browne, consciously or unconsciously, to construct his own personal mandala, for according to Jung-

'the Mandala encompasses, protects and defends the psychic totality against outside influences and seeks to unite the opposites and is an individuation symbol'. [19] 

Individuation symbols such as those produced by the mandala were in Jung's view spontaneous products of the psyche which arise whenever the psyche is in crisis and in need of transforming or protection. C.G. Jung observed that alchemical symbolism frequently incorporated geometric forms stating -

Alchemical symbolism has produced a whole series of non-human forms, geometrical configurations like the sphere, circle, square, and octagon, or chemical configurations like the Philosopher's Stone, the ruby, diamond, quicksilver, gold, water, fire, and spirit (in the sense of a volatile substance). [20] 

Urn-Burial focusses almost hypnotically upon the symbol of the Urn or Vessel which in alchemy was the womb-like matrix where the Philosopher's Stone incubated. ('Incubation' being yet another Of Browne's neologisms).  In complete contrast The Garden of Cyrus is jam-packed with symbols, geometric forms, numbers and hieroglyphs - the triangle, square, hexagon, pyramid, Egyptian Ankh, the letter X as well as the Quincunx pattern , all of which are utilized by Browne in his demonstration of the interconnection of the worlds of art, nature and religious mysticism. For Jung such symbols were none other than variants upon the foremost symbol of the psyche, the mandala , writing - 'Empirically the self appears spontaneously in the shape of specific symbols and its totality is discernible above all in the mandala and its countless variants'. [21] 

C. G. Jung was a keen scholar of comparative religion. He became familiar with the Quincunx symbol from his long study of alchemy. Originally, little more than a unit of measurement  of 5/12th in the Roman era, the Quincunx gained its esoteric associations when the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) named it as an aspect of both astronomy and astrology. Kepler's books are well-represented in Browne's library. [22] 

Although its unlikely that C. G. Jung knew of The Garden of Cyrus other than from hearsay, Browne's discourse being utterly untranslatable,  nevertheless he did know that -  'The quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx ) does occur as a symbol of wholeness (in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely.' [23]  

Jung even utilized the Quincunx pattern for his own purposes, stating in an essay, 'Their union in a quincunx signifies union of the four elements in a world-body' [24]. Astoundingly, in 'Flying Saucers: A modern myth' (1958) Jung likens the Quincunx to be, 'a symbol of the quinta essentia which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone. [25] 

As the centrepiece of Browne's mandala, the Quincunx pattern is thus a symbol of totality and wholeness, representing the achievement of Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists. As Jung succinctly observed - 'The self is a complexio oppositorum itself'. [26]  

Browne's creative motivation in penning his twin discourses is to share his psychological understanding of the Self, the true Philosopher's Stone, in order to provide his reader with an unique spiritual text. His alchemical mandala is both a portrait of himself personally with his hobbies of archaeology and botany and of the Collective Self, with all the irrational fears and inspired ideas we share; it operates upon the reader primarily through the effects of synergy, which is defined as - the interaction of two or more agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects'. 

Like all good empirical scientists, Browne knew that simply by juxtaposing object A with object B, a new perspective upon each object is gained, inasmuch as differences and similarities are heightened whenever objects, or indeed whenever philosophical discourses are placed within close proximity to each other. As C.G. Jung puts it - ''A judgement can be made about a thing only if its opposite is equally real and possible'. [27]

Its the resultant synergy from reading these two quite different discourses which generates Browne's alchemical mandala and which effectively operates upon the reader. The individual reader's conscious and unconscious association of Browne's highly original, home-grown symbolism, their comprehension of his many Classical and Biblical references along with receptivity towards the dominant themes of each respective discourse which contribute towards psychic realization and activation of Dr. Browne's alchemical mandala.

To repeat, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus adhere to mandala symbolism in their circularity and symmetry as well as their frequent usage of symbolism. Crucially,  they engage in the mandala's highest function - as art-objects of great beauty worthy of contemplation and which remind their beholder of their own 'soul- journey' and place in the cosmos, thus bestowing spiritual enlightenment.

Augmenting and summarizing in Adam Maclean's words- 'Hermetic philosophers such as Thomas Browne can be said to be pioneering proto-psychologists who were open to their inner worlds and perceptions which they 'projected' onto outer symbols, in doing so they discovered a universal language which transcended words to communicate their experience of the soul's architecture. Thomas Browne's ability to lucid dream is a vital contributing factor in this alchemical act of active imagination.  If we choose to contemplate the symbolism of alchemical mandalas, whether they are visual, auditory or couched within literary works such as Thomas Browne's two philosophical discourses, they can lead us deep into the mysteries of our inner world. Thus, far from the received wisdom of Urn Burial being a gloomy antiquarian essay, with an essay on gardening appended, in order to bulk out for the printer, as was once believed, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus can be conceptualized as an alchemical mandala, capable of unlocking the mysteries of the soul's architecture. [28]     


[1] Opening quote from Heideman M.A. 'Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus' A Paradox and a Cosmic Vision'  University of Toronto Quarterly, XIX 1950 . 

Next -  Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Their Work, No.108 1959)  followed by Browne  Religio Medici 1:12

[2] Recommended recording : Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) - Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi 2011

[3] See Wikipedia    The Layer Monument 

[4] Collected Works of C.G. Jung vol. 11: 92

[5] Huntley,  Frank . Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, Ann Arbour 1962

[6]  Collected Works  11. 92 and Vol 14 :759

[7]  Agostino's book is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's Library p. 38 no. 5.  The full title of Agostino's book  is - Ant. Agostini Dialoghi intorno alle Medaglie, Inscrissioni & altre Antichita Romanze tradotti di Lingua Spagnola in Italiana da D Ottav. Sada, e dal Medisimo accresciuti, con Annot. & illustrati con disegni di molte Medaglie &c. Rome 1650. 

[8]  Link to Book 18, lines 478-608 of Homer's Iliad  .

[9] C. W. 14: 93

[10] C. W.  vol. 9 ii :  230

[11] CW ?   373

[12] CW 14 Foreword

[13] Religio Medici  Part 2 Section 11

[14] CW 11:150

[15] CW 12:557 

[16] CW 11: 738

[17] The Soul's Code James Hillman  Bantam 1991

[18]  A list of esoteric authors in Thomas Browne's Library

[19] CW 10:621 

[20]  CW 11:276

[21] CW 9ii:426 

[22]  See  1711 Sales Catalogue  page 29 no. 18  S.C.  page 29 no.34  S.C. page 28. no. 13

[23] C.W.  10:737

[24] CW 11:190

[25] CW 18:1602

[26]  CW 11: 92

[27] CW 11:247

[28]  Adam Maclean's words adapted from 'The Alchemical Mandala'.

See also   

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing

Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

The statue in alchemy

Books Consulted

Thomas Browne: Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. OUP  2014

Adam Maclean  -The Alchemical Mandala : A Survey of the mandala in the western esoteric traditions

James Hillman - The Dream and the Underworld pub. Harpur 1979

James Hillman - Pan and the Nightmare pub. Phanes 1989 second edition 2002

C.G. Jung Collected Works vol.  11 Psychology and Religion

C'.G. Jung  - CW 9 part one   - 'Concerning mandala symbolism' 

C.G. Jung - Collected Works vol. 14 Mysterium Coniunctionis   

1711 Sales Catalogue of Edward and Thomas Browne's libraries -J.S. Finch pub. Brill Leiden 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Coincidence - A Window on Eternity

'The depths of our psyche we know not, but inwards goes the mysterious way. In us or nowhere is eternity with its worlds: the past and the future'. -  Novalis

Many people world-wide have experienced some remarkable coincidence in their lives and yet coincidence, in particular, meaningful or significant coincidence, remains a little understood phenomenon. Although the word 'synchronicity' has now become a fashionable word to describe significant coincidence, few these days know that it was coined by the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961)  to define his psychological theory on meaningful coincidence. 

Long before C.G. Jung however, the seventeenth century hermetic philosopher and physician Thomas Browne (1605-82) also held an interest in coincidence, introducing the word to English readers in his medical essay A Letter to a Friend. Browne was fascinated with the phenomenon of coincidence enough to make it the very framework of his esoteric discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Throughout its highly compressed and dense imagery, Browne's ringmasters in rapid procession a multiplicity of evidence of the coincidence of the number five and the Quincunx pattern, firstly in art, then in nature, notably botany, to spiritual symbolism and finally to the 'Quincunx of Heaven'.   

New  insights into the phenomenon of coincidence can be gained through juxtaposition of the ideas of C.G. Jung with those of Dr.  Thomas Browne. The subject of coincidence is one of a number of interests the two physicians shared. Both men maintained a medical practice throughout their lives, both engaged in deep analysis of themselves and their dreams, both studied comparative religion and read alchemical literature closely, sharing an interest in the pioneering Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493 –1541) along with his foremost advocate, Gerard Dorn (c.1530-84). And finally, both were interested in unusual psychic phenomena such as coincidence or synchronicity, as Jung termed it. 

One of the most accessible books on C.G.Jung is his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) in which Jung narrates of his relationship to his one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud, his psychology and 'discovery' of the archetypes, his world-wide travels, visiting and hearing the dreams of various indigenous peoples along with his highly original interpretation of alchemy, as well as the many extraordinary coincidences which he experienced in his life-time. 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections is prefaced by a verse composed by the English poet Coleridge. Selected by Jung's secretary Aniela Jaffe to describe the Swiss psychologist, Coleridge's notebook verse is in fact about someone he greatly admired, none other than Thomas Browne ! A remarkable coincidence first detected in 1996 when beginning what is now a quarter century of Brownean studies. Coleridge's verse reads - 

He looked at this own Soul 
With a Telescope.What seemed
all irregular, he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.
C.G.Jung's major writing on coincidence  'Synchronicity:An Acausal Connecting Principle'  was first published in 1952 . Its useful to be clear on the meaning of the word 'acausal' in the title of Jung's essay, which like the word 'asymptomatic', meaning without showing symptoms, acausal means without any known or perceived cause. Jung states- 

We do know at least enough about the psyche not to attribute to it any magical power, and still less can we attribute any magical power to the conscious mind.....The great difficulty is that we have absolutely no scientific means of proving the existence of an objective meaning which is not a psychic product. We are, however, driven to some such assumption unless we want to regress to a magical causality and ascribe to the psyche a power that far exceeds its empirical range of action. [1]

Jung's essay on coincidence, which he terms Synchronicity, includes a long statistical analysis of astrological data of married couples and a chapter on the forerunners of Synchronicity naming Kepler, Paracelsus and Pico della Mirandola, among others, who speculated upon the phenomenon of coincidence, each of whom were once well-represented in Thomas Browne's library.

C.G. Jung found confirmation of his ideas on synchronicity in the Chinese oracle of the I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. Consisting of 64 Hexagrams made through casting coins or yarrow-sticks which are read as either broken or whole, Yin or Yan, each of the 64 configurations of the I Ching has a highly philosophical verse attached to it. Readings of the I Ching naturally stimulate  the possibility of synchronicity. In Jung's view -

The Chinese mind, as I see it at work in the I Ching, seems to be exclusively preoccupied with the chance aspect of events. What we call coincidence seems to be the chief concern of this peculiar mind, and what we worship as causality passes almost unnoticed. ....Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinese mind deals with the coincidence of events.   [2]

Unlike the Greek-trained Western mind, the Chinese mind does not aim at grasping at details for their own sake, but at a view which sees the detail as part of a whole...The I Ching, which we can well call the experimental basis of Classical Chinese philosophy, is one of the oldest known methods for grasping a situation as a whole and thus placing the details against a cosmic background - the interplay of Yin and Yang. [3]

Called by short-sighted Westerners a "collection of ancient magic spells" an opinion echoed by modernized Chinese themselves, the I Ching is a formidable psychological system that endeavours to organize the play of the archetypes, the "wonderous operations of nature" into a certain pattern, so that a "reading" becomes possible. it was ever a sign of stupidity to depreciate something one does not understand.   [4]

Hexagram 27 of the I Ching (above) is named The Corners of the Mouth. Providing Nourishment. 
Its accompanied by the verse -

Perseverance brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment.
And to what a man seeks
To fill his own mouth with.

Jung concludes his essay on Synchronicity, defending his hypothesis thus-

'Synchronicity is no more baffling or mysterious than the discontinuities of physics. It is only the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could even occur.... Meaningful coincidences are unthinkable as pure chance. But the more they multiply and the greater and more exact the correspondence is, the more their probability sinks and their unthinkability increases, until they can no longer be regarded as pure chance, but for a lack of a causal explanation, have to be though of meaningful arrangements... Their 'inexplicability' is not due to the fact that the cause is unknown, but to the fact that a cause is not even thinkable in intellectual terms  [5]   

*   *   *  *  *

Marie-Louise von Franz (b. January 4th 1915 - d. 17th February 1998) was one of C.G.Jung's most gifted followers (above with Jung). She first met the Swiss psychoanalyst in 1933 when aged 18 and subsequently became his lifelong collaborator, translating important alchemical manuscripts for him until his death in 1961. Von Franz was one of Analytical Psychology's most original thinkers. In 2021 on January 4th, the date of Marie-Louise von Franz's birthday,  the first volume of von Franz's collected works was published, with a projected plan for the subsequent 27 volumes to be published in the following 7 years until 2028. 

Like the British broadcaster, writer, politician and chef Clement Freud (1924 - 2004) grandson of Jung's one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Von Franz was immune from Christianity's prejudice towards gambling, and once stated in her informal  and intuitive lectures- 

'If you are a gambler, and I hope you are, then you know that one is always torn between two possibilities - either to have a system, or to trust to what I would call the unconscious, and what another gambler would call his god of luck, Lady Luck or whatever'. [6]

Thomas Browne in his early years, also enjoyed the thrill of game play. In his spiritual testament  Religio Medici he declares-

'Tis not a ridiculous devotion, to say a Prayer before a game at Tables; for even in sortilegies and matters of greatest uncertainty, there is a settled and pre-ordered course of effects; 'tis we that are blind, not fortune: because our eye is too dim to discover the mystery of her effects, we foolishly paint her blind'.[7]

According to von Franz-

'Gambling is one of the greatest of human passions. The fascination with it, in my view, comes from the fact that what one ultimately comes in contact with here is one's own unconscious, the secret of synchronicity, and thus with the creative activity of God or divine destiny'.. [8] 

In his European best-seller Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne, like many devout Christians of his age then and now, attributed fortune and chance to the 'hand of God.' 

Fortune, that serpentine and crooked line, whereby he draws those actions his wisdom intends in a more unknown and secret way; This cryptick and involved method of his providence have I ever admired, nor can I relate the history of my life, the occurrences of my days, the escapes of dangers, and hits of chance with a Bezo las Manos, to Fortune, or a bare Gramercy to my good stars:....... Surely there are in every man's life certain rubs, doublings and wrenches which pass a while under the effects of chance, but at the last, well examined, prove the mere hand of God:   [9]  

It is however, the human mind or psyche which concerns the psychologist when examining the phenomena of coincidence.  

In  a series of lectures collected under the title of  'Synchronicity and Divination' von Franz states- 

'By introducing the concept of synchronicity, Jung opened the door to a new way of understanding the relationship between psyche and matter.... a completely unresearched area of reality.

One cannot speak of alchemical symbolism without referring to Jung’s important - if not most important - discovery of the synchronicity principle, that is, his discovery that symbols produced spontaneously by the unconscious through the actions of the archetypes tend to coincide in a meaningful way with material occurrences in the external world, constituting an exception to the causal determination of all natural processes still widely espoused by natural science. This points empirically to an unobservable cosmic background, which imparts order to psyche and matter at once.

Marie-Louise von Franz was also one of the first to elaborate in depth upon fairytales, recognizing the wealth of archetypal material they contain as well as their mapping of the trials, dangers and rewards of the individuation process, that is, the hazardous journey in becoming a whole and integrated individual. A typical, astute remark and observation of her's being -

'In European fairytales, the wizard generally represents the dark aspect of the image of God which has not been recognised in the collective unconscious.' [10]

One motif in fairy-tales is the valued item which is returned through unexpected, coincidental ways. In Hans Christian Anderson's The Tin Soldier, a one-legged toy soldier is discarded, and after many adventures is swallowed by a fish. By a remarkable coincidence after the fish is caught and sold at market and prepared by a cook,  the toy soldier falls out of the fish, returning to the home of the child who owned him.    

The mystery of coincidence remained of interest to Sir Thomas Browne in his old age. In his Museum Clausum (circa 1673) a bizarre list of lost, imagined and rumoured to exist, books, pictures and objects, there can be found the item of -
A Ring found in a Fishes Belly taken about Gorro; conceived to be the same wherewith the Duke of Venice had wedded the Sea. [11]

Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is surely his greatest contribution to the literature of coincidence. In what is one of the most idiosyncratic of all writings in English literature, Browne utilizes the coincidence of the number five along with its various derivatives, notably the Quincunx pattern, in order to demonstrate order and the myriad of interconnections in the universe. 

Number has defined as the most primitive instrument of bringing an unconscious awareness of order into consciousness, and in The Garden of Cyrus Browne's fascination with Pythagorean numerology is given full vent, supplying his reader with evidence of the coincidence of the number five in subjects as diverse as Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, Comparative religion, the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world plantations and gardening, geometry, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least in numerous botanical  observations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity, 

In the opening of the third chapter of The Garden of Cyrus Browne adjusrs his focus from 'sundry works of art' to 'natural examples'. He seems surprised that the 'elegant ordination' of the Quincunx pattern which is 'elegantly observable'  seems to have been 'overlooked by all'.
'Now although this elegant ordination of vegetables, hath found coincidence or imitation in sundry works of Art, yet is it not also destitute of natural examples, and though overlooked by all, was elegantly observable, in several works of nature'.

Unsurprising in this cheerful, light-hearted and playful half of Browne's diptych discourses, pastimes and games are alluded to including chess and backgammon, archery, skittles and knuckle-stones as well as singing and music-making. 

*  *  *

Since earliest time the uncertainty of life has inspired humanity to devise a number of ways to predict  the future. In bibliomancy a random verse from the Bible is selected as advice, in hydromancy, the ripples and reflections of water are interpreted, and in belomancy, the flight and resting place of arrows is consulted. But perhaps the strangest of all divination methods must surely be gastromancy in which the rumblings and gurglings of the digestive tract and stomach are interpreted as if the speaking voices of spirits. 

Browne alludes to the little known of esoteric art of Geomancy in The Garden of Cyrus, a divination technique and schemata which like the Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching involves a schemata based upon chance, but far less developed and rudimentary, with only 16 configurations to the I Ching's  total of 64 configurations.

Geomancy (from Greek of Geo earth and mancy divination) is a method of divination which interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. The most common form of geomancy involves interpreting a series of 16 figures formed by a randomized process followed by analyzing them.

According to Von Franz, 'Geomancy is a "terrestified" astrology. Instead of taking the constellations of the stars and using them for divination, one makes the constellation of the stars oneself on the earth (Ge means earth) and then proceeds as in astrology. [12]

Geomancy was one of the most popular forms of divination throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In England it was practiced by Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and John Heydon (1629 – 1667).  It would appear that Browne also took an interest in Geomancy. He owned one of the very few books written exclusively on the subject, a copy of the little-known of Henry of Pisa's Geomancy is listed as once in his library. [13]   

Its in a series of queries challenging his reader, slowly building to the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus  that Browne alludes to geomantic formations thus- 

'Why Geomancers do imitate the Quintuple Figure, in their Mother Characters of Acquisition and Amission, &c somewhat answering the Figures in the Lady or speckled Beetle ?' 

The five points of the quincunx  can be seen in  the geomantic configurations of aquisitio and amissio (above) as well as albedo and rubedo, two stages of the alchemical opus. The two terms aquisitio and amissio mean gain and loss respectively. They are both equal values as a minus and plus and  are associated with both the quincunx pattern and the number ten ( 5+5 = 10 -5 = 5). 

Browne's Garden of Cyrus can be interpreted as representing the 'whitening' or albedo of the alchemical opus; its apotheosis the short-lived red hot Rubedo of the alchemical opus. The other half of the diptych Urn-Burial equates to the black despair and melancholy of the initial Nigredo stage of the alchemical opus in its subject-matter and imagery. [14 ] 

Digressing slightly, another alchemical polarity which corresponds well to Browne's diptych discourses is the Massa confusa and the Unus Mundus of alchemy. With its procession of Time and successive civilizations, allusion to grieving, bereavement, the passions and the vain-glory of humanity, Urn-Burial can be said to portray the Massa confusa, loosely translated as Ball of Confusion, the initial, Nigredo-like stage of the alchemical opus. Likewise The Garden of Cyrus with its persistent demonstration of the archetypal patterns of Geometric design, the Platonic Forms, Number and  Order, are all indicative of the interconnectiveness of the Universe, and point towards the Unus Mundus or One  World of alchemy. 
Its in his vastly underrated essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656 pub. post. 1690) which is packed full of case-histories and medical gossip concerning health, disease and illness, that Browne makes an astounding analogy, likening coincidence to the tail-eating snake known as the Uroboros. Citing 'the Egyptian Hieroglyphick of Pierus', (pictured below) Browne states-

'that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it'.

The symbol of the uroboros is in many ways the basic mandala of alchemy. Originating in ancient Egypt,  Greek depictions of it stress its duality or polarity through contrasting colours. The words Hen to pan 'Everything is One', are inscribed in its centre.

As a symbol of Eternal Return or Recurrence, Thomas Browne surely knew of the complex symbolism of the uroboros involving Time and Space. His associating it with the phenomena of coincidence is quite remarkable. It was the Brownean scholar Frank Huntley who first noted that Browne's diptych Discourses of 1658 are uroboros-like in their  circular construction

C.G. Jung noted - In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the though of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.  The uroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the uroboros that he slays himself and brings to life, fertilizes himself an gives birth to himself. [16]


Although the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered coincidence to only be meaningful to those to whom it happens, here's a few personal ones, several of which seem to be connected with books, unsurprisingly. On arriving at the North Sea, commencing reading an Aldous Huxley novel, within a minute the words 'North Sea' on its page. Showing a book on flower symbolism to a lover with the same name as the author, recovering from the shock of a gas-boiler 'boom' to sit down and begin a new chapter of Charles Dicken's 'David Copperfield' entitled 'I take part in an explosion'. Listening to music on earphones in a park, the  word 'Michael' is sung, a split-second later someone calls out the name 'Michael. But perhaps most intriguing of all,  daily living a coincidence for 25  years. My home address is identical  not only to the date of birth but also to zodiac sign, albeit by substitution of Latin astrological nomenclature to Saxon. (Aquarius/Waterman).  

At its very lowest level detection of a coincidence affirms that an an individual is being attentive and aware, able to observe the world around them, possessing a good memory, and able to make connections about the world around them. 

From personal experience I can confirm that coincidences often occur when an emotionally charged situation arises. An aura of the numinous is often attached to them. It is also sometimes when the archetypes are activated that coincidences can occur. Near endless in number the dominant archetypes in Jungian psychology include the lover, the old wise man, the great mother, the helpful animal, the trickster and death. Coincidences can occur when the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious meet or collide.

At present synchronous events can be seen as reminders that we are far from understanding everything about humanity's place in Time and Space, or of the human psyche. As C.G Jung states- 'Consciousness is too narrow and too one-sided to comprehend the full inventory of the psyche'. [16]  Coincidence, in particular meaningful coincidence, serves to  remind us that we neither fully understand ourselves, nor our relationship to Nature, on either a collective or an individual basis. As if nodal points on an invisible Network of Time and Space, (incidentally, Thomas Browne is credited as the first to use the word 'Network' in its meaning of an artificial construction) or black holes in deep Space which puzzle science, synchronicity and meaningful coincidence are windows which can open to eternity.  


*  Thomas Browne: Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. OUP  2014
* Synchronicity An Acausal Connecting Principle C.G.Jung  pub. RKP 1972
*  The I Ching or book of Changes Cary F. Baynes pub. RKP. 1951
* Alchemical active imagination -Marie Louise von Franz pub. Shambala 1997
* Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louise von Franz pub. Shambala Press 1999 
* On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz pub. 1980 Inner City 
* The Feminine in Fairytales - Marie-Louise Von Franz pub. Spring Publications 1988

[1]  C.G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition of I Ching
[2]  CW 10 968/973
[3]  C. G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition 
[4]  CW 14:401
[5] On Synchronicity
[6] On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz 
[7] Religio Medici Part 1 : 18
[8] p.67 Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louis von Franz
[9]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 17
[10] Miscellaneous Tract 12 Item 20 of 'Antiquities and Rarities of Several Sorts'
[11] The Psychological Meaning of Redemption motifs in Fairytales - Von Franz
[12] On divination and Synchronicity- Von Franz
[13] 1711 Sales Catalogue  p.30 no. 11 H. de Pisis Geomantia Lugd. 1638 
[15] CW 14: 
[16] CW 14:759

This one for the Jungian blogger, Ms. Monika Gemini with thanks for her insights and virtual company over the years. 

Postscript - Norwich's local newspaper, the EDP published an article featuring historical photographs of the statue of Sir Thomas Browne on January 27th. Link to photos of statue of Sir Thomas Browne