Wednesday, May 01, 2013

That Vulcan gave Arrows unto Apollo and Diana

What is more beautiful than the Quincunx, which, however one views it, presents straight lines.
- Quintilian

Just how Sir Thomas Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) has not been recognised as exemplary of literary writings influenced by hermetic philosophy remains a mystery. The  first page of Browne's discourse alludes to no less than six major themes, symbols and preoccupations associated with western esoteric traditions including hermeticism.

Opening with highly original proper-name symbolism featuring the patron "deity" associated with Paracelsian alchemy, namely Vulcan -including Browne’s study of comparative religion - employing highly original spiritual-optical imagery - speculating upon the Creation and life’s beginnings - citing Plato’s discourse the Timaeus, and finallyutilizing the potent alchemical symbol of Sol et Luna, Browne could not spell out the esoteric theme of his discourse louder if he tried.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps because of its esoteric theme, the reception and literary appreciation of  The Garden of Cyrus over the past three hundred and fifty years, has been little more than a potted history of the many prejudices, misapprehensions and hostilities surrounding the hermetic arts. Within twenty years of its publication, the theologian Richard Baxter opposed Browne's Neopythagorean and Neoplatonic vision, declaring to newly-ordained priests in 1678 -

'You shall have more.. solid truth than those in their learned Network treatises'. 

Though appreciative of the stoic gloom and doom of Urn-Burial, Victorians literary critics considered The Garden of Cyrus to be an aberration of the imagination. Walter Pater, a leading  Victorian literary critic complained of  Browne’s Platonic inclinations -

'his fancy carries him off it into some kind of chimeric frivolousness here'. 

Edmund Gosse was another who detested it,  petulantly stating 

'gathering his forces it is Quincunx, Quincunx, all the way until the very sky itself is darkened with revolving Chess-boards' 

Yet Gosse also conceded- 

'this radically bad book contains some of the most lovely paragraphs which passed from an English pen during the seventeenth Century'. 

Thus the publishing practice began, utterly against Browne's creative intentions, of dissecting his literary diptych and of publishing Urn-Burial separately, an erroneous trend which persists to this day. [1]

Literary critics however have rarely understood the pervasive influence of the hermetic arts, or the vitality of the esoteric, especially during the 1650’s decade. The decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell saw a ‘boom-period’ in the publication of esoteric literature, encouraged by a relaxation in printing-laws and the psychological Endzeitpsychosis of the era. There can be as few readers now, as in 1658, who have any idea of the artistic motivation behind Browne's penning a Pythagorean hymn in praise of the number five and Quincunx pattern during England’s short-lived Republic.The solitary  contemporary figure of the Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan (c.1621-65) however may have been alert to the hermetic content of Browne's literary diptych. Alluding to the dominant symbol from each respective Discourse  Vaughan defines Mercurius as -

‘our true, hidden vessel, the Philosophical Garden, wherein our sun rises and sets'.

In many ways The Garden of Cyrus with its mention of astrology, Egyptology, the philosophy of Plato and Pythagoras, the kabbalah, physiognomy and Paracelsus, is a condensed compendium of esoteric lore of interest to Browne. Its central chapter also features Browne’s contribution to the emerging new science. Dozens of sharp-sighted, detailed and meticulously recorded botanical observations are recorded.

Like other alchemist-physicians, Browne was fascinated with life's beginnings and observations upon embryology, germination and generation feature in the central chapter of the discourse.

The Garden of Cyrus opens with the Creation being likened to the alchemical opus - God operating as a demi-urge figure and cosmic alchemist.

'That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may pass for no blind apprehension of the Creation of the Sun and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbs, and shooting rays, of those Luminaries.'

This extraordinary cosmic opening, besides naming the Roman god nominated by Paracelsus as representative of the alchemical art and introducing the important themes of Light, optics and Space, also features Browne’s study of comparative religion. Browne detected that the ancient Greek myth which describes the god of fire Vulcan donating arrows, i.e. Light, to Apollo and Diana, as recorded in the Fabulae of Hyginus [2] was a Creation myth in which - just like in the Biblical account of the Creation - Light appears upon the fourth Day. (And God said Let there be Light. Genesis 1:3). The ancient Greek myth was in Browne’s view no blind apprehension but confirmation of the Biblical account of the Creation.

Browne reconciled the wisdom of antiquity to Christianity in exactly the same way as Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, by giving credence of a Prisca Theologia, that is, a belief in a single, true theology threading through all religions whose wisdom passed in a golden chain through a series of mystics and prophets, including Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato. In particular, the mythic Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity. Christianity appropriated hermetic teaching for their own purposes, proposing that Hermes Trismegistus  or ‘thrice greatest’ on account of his being the greatest priest, philosopher and king, was a contemporary of Moses. Such imaginative comparative religion not only justified the study of philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, but also sanctioned the antiquity, wisdom and superiority of the Bible to devout Christians. 

Proceeding from 'plainer descriptions' by 'pagan pens' Browne next acknowledges the primary source of another influential Creation myth, Plato's discourse the Timaeus.

'Plainer Descriptions there are from Pagan pens, of the creatures of the fourth day; While the divine Philosopher unhappily omitteth the noblest part of the third'.

With its myth of the lost civilization of Atlantis, description of the eternal, archetypal forms and proposal that the world was a living being or anima mundi Plato’s Timaeus, first translated in 1462 by Marsilio Ficino, wielded a near Bible-like authority amongst thinkers, artists and mystics throughout the Renaissance. The Timaeus was of particular interest and influence upon the imagination of alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike. Browne speculated upon the existence of the anima mundi in Religio Medici thus-

'Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) an universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato, and is yet of the Hermeticall philosophers; if there be a common nature that unites and ties the scattered and divided individuals into one species, why may there not be  one that unites them all?'  [3] 

Throughout his literary diptych, Browne displays an uncommon familiarity with Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher’s writings are well-represented in his vast library. Browne even calls the 'father of western mysticism' with the self-same phrase as Ficino and John Dee, describing him as the divine philosopher. (Divine pertaining to Plato’s theology rather than the modern term of adulation). The influence of Platonic thought looms large throughout The Garden of Cyrus, in particular the Greek philosopher’s advancing of the anima mundi or Universal Spirit permeating Nature. 

According to C.G. Jung -

'The alchemist thought he knew better than anyone else that, at the Creation, at least a little bit of divinity, the anima mundi, entered into material things and was caught there'. [4] 

Just as the diptych companion discourse Urn-Burial depicts the human soul trapped within the corporeal body, so too in The Garden of Cyrus Browne endeavours to demonstrate that the anima mundi or World-Soul is imprisoned in nature, alluding to the anima mundi or World-Soul on several occasions.

In the 'Great Work' of alchemy the initial dark nigredo stage is followed by the albedo or whitening phase and the light of illumination. While Urn-Burial represents the nigredo stage, its polar opposite and antithesis The Garden of Cyrus represents the albedo and growth of consciousness. According to Jung-

'By means of the opus which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or whitening is produced.' [5]  

Starting from the Garden of Eden Browne traces the ubiquity of the Quincunx pattern, firstly as a method of planting to the ancients. The Garden of Eden was a favourite symbol in Christian iconography of Paradise. Its early appearance in The Garden of Cyrus as representing the albedo stage of Browne's diptych, is confirmed by Jung's observation that-

'For the alchemists Paradise was a favourite symbol of the albedo, the regained state of innocence'. [6]

Gardens are often mentioned in alchemical literature. At their highest level they symbolize civilization and man's mastery of Nature, as well as being symbolic of pleasure, Nature's beauty, Order and Rationality, themes highly relevant to Browne's discourse. 

The densely-packed symbolism and imagery of the opening paragraph of The Garden of Cyrus also alludes to the potent symbol of the alchemical opus, the hierosgamos, or sacred wedding, or Conjunctio of Sol et Luna.  Sun and moon are among the most psychologically potent of all symbols, encapsulating nature's greatest division (male and female) as well as the active and passive, light and dark, and consciousness and unconsciousness. Browne’s usage of this commonplace symbol is another strong clue to the alchemical nature of The Garden of Cyrus. 

Mention of the alchemical conjunctio occurs several times in the discourse in images and symbols drawn from nature, mythology and esoteric literature.

There's also a Gnostic element in Browne’s literary mandala with its highly original usage of optical imagery of light and darkness.The basic mandala of Gnosticism and alchemy, the Ouroboros can also be detected as a template of the diptych. Throughout Urn-Burial  imagery of shade and darkness abounds. As the nigredo stage of the alchemical opus, the discourse is 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing' as Browne succinctly defines it. In contradistinction, throughout the pages of The Garden of Cyrus imagery of light including starry, astral imagery occurs. At its apotheosis, in its short revelatory rudebo the 'patron deity' of Vulcan  appears, before a final coda and a circular return of night, darkness and doubt concludes the discourse.

Developing his optical imagery in The Garden of Cyrus Browne in a rapturous, cosmic outburst, which concludes in a subtle, humorous observation.

Darkness and light hold interchangeable dominions, and alternately rule the seminal state of things. Light unto Pluto is darkness unto Jupiter. Legions of seminal Idea's lie in their second Chaos and Orcus of Hippocrates; till putting on the habits of their forms, they show themselves upon the stage of the world, and open dominion of Jove. They that held the Stars of heaven were but rays and flashing glimpses of the Empyreal light, through holes and perforations of the upper heaven, took of the natural shadows of stars, while according to better discovery the poor Inhabitants of the Moon have but a polary life, and must passe half their days in the shadow of that Luminary.

The concept of polarity (a word introduced by Browne into English language in its scientific context) is an essential component of much esoteric symbolism. The opposites and their union were a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike. Browne’s literary diptych, like all good mandalas of any psychological depth, is a complex of opposites or complexio oppositorum  in imagery, truths and symbols. It corresponds well to the polarity of the Micro-Macro schemata of Hermeticism in which the little world of man and his mortality (as in Urn-Burial) is mirrored by the vast Macrocosm of Eternal forms in The Garden of Cyrus

The alchemical maxim solve et coagula (decay and growth) also closely approximates the respective themes of the diptych. The Gnostic progression from darkness and unknowingness to Light and awareness using optical imagery has already been noted. 

The alchemical feat of palingenesis, the revivification of a plant from its ashes, as reputedly performed by the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus is another template upon which the Discourses may be considered to bear comparison. The funerary ashes of Urn-Burial burst into  flower in the botanical delights of The Garden of Cyrus

Browne’s hermetic vision of the interconnection of Nature via the closely related symbols of the Quincunx pattern, the  number five and the figure X  - identify The Garden of Cyrus, however much previously misunderstood is a quintessential work of Hermetic literature. The mission of its author is synonymous with the ultimate quest of alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike, namely, to redeem mankind from the dark prison of unknowingness (as portrayed in Urn-Burial) towards recognition of the wisdom of God, found in number, shape and archetype, all of which are transcendently delineated by the Quincunx pattern through Browne's Dedalian imagination. 

In an era of considerable psychological stress and uncertainty, the Quincunx pattern in The Garden of Cyrus assumes a spiritual, mandala-like significance, suggestive that Browne believed he had been permitted to glimpse into Nature's highest arcana and thus acquire the wisdom of the Stone of the Philosophers no less. Browne’s fixation with the Quincunx pattern may therefore be interpreted as none other than his recognition of a symbol of totality and wholeness - the Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists. As ever the foremost interpreter of alchemy in the 20th century, C. G. Jung places Sir Thomas Browne's creativity in clearer perspective, helpfully and tantalizingly Jung notes -

'The quinarius or Quino (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx) does occur as  as symbol of wholeness (in china and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely'. [7]

Crucially, in words utterly apt to Browne's creativity in The Garden of Cyrus C.G.Jung observed- 

Intellectual responsibility seems always to have been the alchemists weak spot... The less respect they showed for the bowed shoulders of the sweating reader, the greater was their debt.. to the unconscious. The alchemists were so steeped in their inner experiences, that their whole concern was to devise fitting images and expressions regardless whether they were intelligible or not. They performed the  inestimable service of having constructed a phenomenology of the unconscious long before the advent of psychology. The alchemists did not really know what they were writing about. Whether we know today seems to me not altogether sure. [8]

See also -


[1] American academic Stephen Greenblatt perpetuates this error in his recent edition 
[2] Section 140 in Hyginus Fabulae listed in 1711 Sales Catalogue page.13 no.35 
[3] Religio Medici Part  I Section 32
[4]CW 14 764 
[5] CW 9 ii: 230
[6]  CW 9 ii: 372.
[7] C. W.  18: 1602
[8] CW 16:497

This essay has been roughly hammered out in time for the anniversary of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. Both discourses have dedicatory epistles dated May 1st Norwich.


teegee said...

An excellent posting.
What I think is that Browne was interested in all the ideas of the leading minds and researchers of his time. You and I read and appreciate a lot of things that are not our own or wholly consonant with our own deepest beliefs, and we respect them as the output of a great mind. That is how I read the Garden of Cyrus first and ever since. The one of his works that appeals less to me is Religio Medici, because it has the odor of Apologia about it. I like the Urn Burial because it is his own fresh assessment of his own discoveries in his own environment; it is all his own, his own, both the coin hoards and his reading of Roman history.

Kevin Faulkner said...

Thanks Teegee,

And no-one has ever found a literary model or antecedent for 'Urn-Burial'.