Friday, January 27, 2023

'One face of Janus holds no proportion to the other'.

January, the first month of the year, takes its name from the early Roman King Numa (753-673 BCE) who nominated it after Janus in his reorganization of the calendar. One of the most ancient and highest divinities of the Roman world, Janus is usually depicted with two faces, one on each side of his head, sometimes one youthful and one aged (above). The two faces of Janus meant that he viewed both the past and the future as well as guarding doors and gates. As a god who is associated with beginnings and endings, war and peace and transition from the past to the future, Janus, like all the Graeco-Roman gods has potent psychological symbolism. 

Allusion to Janus can be found in each of the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne's major literary works for, in common with other 'alchemystical' philosophers, he discerned that profound psychological truths are embodied in classical myths. Browne's life-long citing of the Roman god Janus is a superb example of his proto-psychology; in fact its justifiable to say that the rudimentary beginnings of modern-day psychology were born from psychological literary symbolism such as Browne's. Furthermore, he himself possessed Janus-like qualities being well-versed in Classical antiquity as well as 'predicting' the future of the New World of America, notably in his miscellaneous tract known as 'A Prophecy concerning the future state of several nations'. As ever,  new interpretive insights can be acquired by modern readers of Thomas Browne when viewed through the prism of Carl Gustav Jung's  advanced study of comparative religion. Highly influential to the present-day, the Swiss psychologist firmly believed that -  

'The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly than, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept;' [1]

Intriguingly, C. G. Jung (1875-1961) cited the title of Browne's Religio Medici (1643) on several occasions in his voluminous writings. 

'For the educated person of those days, who studied the philosophy of alchemy as part of his general equipment, - it was a real Religio Medici'.  [2]

In his self-portrait and spiritual testament Religio Medici, the newly-qualified physician Thomas Browne confesses to the paradoxical nature of his philosophy. Alluding to the primary attribute of Janus, he frankly admits-

'In philosophy where truth seems double-faced there is no man more paradoxical than myself, but in Divinity I love to keep the road. [3] 

A few paragraphs later Browne utilizes highly original proper-name symbolism, stating -  

'yet I perceive the wisest heads stand like Janus in the field of knowledge'. [4] 

in other words, the true intellect respects the wisdom of the past as well as advancing knowledge for future generations. 

The agenda of Browne's subsequent publication, the encyclopedic endeavour known as Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) was to challenge and refuted many of the superstitions and folk-lore beliefs prevalent in Browne's day in favour of reason, experience and 'occular observation'. This included a rejection of medical cures by means through amulets or 'magical' stones, of which the physician wittily remarks-  

'he must have more heads than Janus, that makes out half of those virtues ascribed unto stones and their not only medical, but magical properties, which are to be found in Authors of great name'. [5] 

The Roman god Janus is also employed by Browne as a literary 'conjoining' symbol which ingeniously unites his philosophical discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of  Cyrus (1658). Thematically structured upon the metaphysical templates of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) and highly polarised in their imagery, respective truth and style, Browne's twin Discourses remain unique in World literature. Its in Urn-Burial the gloomy, stoical and funerary half of the literary diptych, that the learned physician laments -

'We cannot hope to live so long in our names, as some have done in their persons, one face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other'. [6]

in other words, everyone has either a greater or lesser proportion of their life remaining which no-one can ever know with certainy as to when they have arrived at the equidistant point of their lives. The past and the future are unequal in the lives of all through unknowingness of lifespan.

Janus is also encountered in the esoteric discourse The Garden of Cyrus. With typical subtle humour Browne declares-

'And in their groves of the Sun this was a fit number, by multiplication to denote the days of the year; and might Hieroglyphically speak as much, as the mystical Statua of Janus in the Language of his fingers. And since they were so critical in the number of his horses, the strings of his Harp, and rays about his head, denoting the orbs of heaven, the Seasons and Months of the Year; witty Idolatry would hardly be flat in other appropriations'. [7]

Ever helpful to his reader, Browne adds an explanatory foot-note- 'Which King Numa set up with his fingers so disposed that they numerically denoted 365'.  i.e. Numa reformed the Roman calendar.

A primary source of information about Janus can be found in Ovid's Fasti (Festivals). Over a dozen books by  the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE - 17 CE) including Fasti as well as several editions of his most famous work Metamorphoses are listed as once in the combined libraries of Thomas Browne and his eldest son Edward.[8] The opening page of Ovid's Fasti narrates firstly of how the poet encounters and questions Janus, the poet reminding his reader that there is no equivalent to Janus in the Greek pantheon of gods -

'Yet what god am I to call you, biformed Janus ? / For Greece has no deity like you'.

Janus subsequently informs the poet of his origins and attributes thus-

'The ancients (since I'm a primitive thing) called me Chaos. 

Then I, who had been a ball and a faceless hulk,

Got the looks and limbs proper to a god.

Now as a small token of my once confused shape,

My front and back appear identical....

Whenever you see around, sky, ocean, clouds, earth,

They are all closed and opened by my hand.....

Just as your janitor seated by the threshold

Watches the exits and the entrances,

So I the janitor of the celestial court

Observe the East and West together'. 

The celestial 'janitor' who has the power to open and to close is defined as the god of mysteries in general by Ovid who recounts one of the few surviving myths known of Janus. Ovid tells of a deceitful nymph called Carna whom many lovers pursued, but  all in vain.  

'A young man would declare words of love to her,

And her immediate reply would be:

''This place has too much light and the light causes shame.

Lead me to a secluded cave, I'll come''.

He naively goes ahead; she stops in bushes

And lurks, and can never be detected.

Janus had seen her. Clutched by desire at the sight,

He deployed soft words against her hardness.

The nymph, as usual, demands a more remote cave,

Trails at her leader's heels and deserts him.

Fool ! Janus observes what happens behind his back

You fail; he sees your hideout behind him.

You fail, see, I told you: as you hide by that rock,

He grabs you in his arms and works his will.

'For lying with me,' he says, 'take control of the hinge;

Have this prize for your lost virginity'.  [8]  

Hinges are integral and often ornate components of many medieval Church doors (above). Its interesting to note in passing that the joints of fingers, wrists, elbows,  shoulders, knees and ankles in human anatomy are hinge-like in their function, while the colloquial phrase 'to be unhinged' alludes to mental instability. 

The primary attributes of Janus are hindsight, the ability to learn from past events and foresight, the ability to anticipate future events. These attributes may have contributed in no small measure towards the continuity of Roman civilization on both an individual and collective basis. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 -180 CE) in his stoical Meditations (listed as once in Browne's library) gives Janus-like advice his reader-

'Look closely at the past and its changing Empires, and it is possible to foresee the things to come'. [9] 


During the Renaissance the gods of the Classical world were radically reinterpreted and given attributes they never originally possessed. The humanist scholar and promoter of hermetic wisdom Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) reinterpreted Janus as a symbol of reintegration, declaring him to be 'for 'celestial souls - 

'In ancient poetry these souls were signified by the double-headed Janus, because, being supplied like him with eyes in front and behind, they can at the same time see the spiritual things and provide for the material'.  

Browne was a pioneering scholar of comparative religion, that is, the study of religious beliefs, their doctrines and symbols, alongside their spread and influence in the world. Assisting him in this study were the six modern languages he was fluent in, as well as Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Although at times misguided in his study, notably by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) whose books are well-represented in his library and to whom he somewhat slavishly believed, nonetheless his tolerance and broad-mindedness, paved the way for future scholars. As stated earlier, Janus is exclusively a Roman god without Greek equivalent. It was not until the eighteenth century that the British philologist Sir William James (1746-94) detected linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Latin which indicated that Janus originated from the Indian elephant-headed god Ganesh. Its highly probable that Roman merchants who travelled to India for luxury goods such as saffron introduced and modified the Indian god to the Roman world.

Late in his life Browne wrote, though never published, an advisory for the benefit of his children. Christian Morals is Browne's last known written work. Published posthumously (1716) its  an equal testimony to Religio Medici in his adherence to the Christian faith; nevertheless mention of alchemy and astrology along with Hermes Trismegistus can also be found within its pages. The name of Janus occurs no less than four times in Christian Morals, primarily in the guise as a moral figure advising the reader to learn from hindsight and to develop  foresight in their life.  

Browne firstly links the temple of Janus in ancient Rome whose doors were shut during peace-time and open during times of war to individual temperament. He cautions his reader to - 'keep the Temple of Janus shut by peaceable and quiet tempers'  [10] 

Next, he advises that when in doubt one should opt for virtue-  

'In bivous theorems and Janus-faced doctrines let virtuous considerations state the determination.' [11] 

The stoic moralist also instructs his grown-up children to- 

'Let the mortifying Janus of Covarrubias be thy daily thoughts''  [12] 

adding the explanatory footnote -  'Don Sebastian de Covarrubias writ 3 Centuries of moral emblems in Spanish.  In the 88th of the second century he sets down two faces averse, and conjoined Janus-like, the one gallant beautiful face, the other a death's head face, with this motto out of Ovid's Metamorphosis Quid fuerim quid simque vide'. ('See what I was and what I am now'). 

Lastly, Browne juxtaposes Roman mythology to Biblical scripture in vivid imagery, declaring- 

'What is prophetical in one age proves historical in another, and so must hold on unto the last of time; when there will be no room for prediction, when Janus shall lose one face, and the long beard of time shall look like those of David's servants, shorn away upon one side.'  [13]  

The Old Testament book of Samuel recounts that- 

'Wherefore Hanun took David's servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away'. [14]

The Biblical figure of King David is now believed to have lived circa 1010–970 BCE. Its worthwhile remembering that the King James Bible (1611) with its soaring strophes, rhythmic cadences and striking parallelisms was the predominant influence upon Browne's spirituality. Freshly translated  from Hebrew by a host of scholars, the text of the King James Bible was, in all probability, the first book which young Thomas learnt to read as a child, and subsequently a powerful influence upon his literary style as an adult.

Browne's own Janus-like ability to 'foresee' the future is testified in a memoir by the Reverend Whitefoot. The Heigham-based priest was a close friend of Browne's from the newly-qualified physician's arrival to Norwich in 1637 until 1682 when Browne upon his death-bed gave 'expressions of dearness' to his long-time friend. Reverend Whitefoot's memoir includes the character testimony-  

'Tho' he were no prophet, nor son of a prophet, yet in that faculty which comes nearest it, he excelled, i.e. the stochastick, wherein he was seldom mistaken, as to future events, as well publick as private; but not apt to discover any presages or superstition'. 

Even greater testimony to Browne's ability to prognosticate the future can be found in the miscellaneous tract known as 'A Prophecy concerning the future state of several nations'. Imitative of the opaque verse of Nostradamus, Browne's 'Prophecy' consists of a series of couplet verse 'predictions' several of which on America. In Browne's proper-name symbolism America is invariably equated with the new, exotic and unexplored, a good example occurring in Pseudodoxia Epidemica in which he describes his encyclopaedic endeavours as, 'oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of Truth'. At least three 'predictions' in 'A prophecy concerning the future state of several nations' are remarkable - 

* 'When Africa shall no more sell out their Blacks/ To make slaves and drudges to the American Tracts'.

* 'When America shall cease to send out its treasure/But employ it at home in American pleasure'.

* 'When the new world shall the old invade/Nor count them their lords but their fellows in trade'.

Browne's 'prophecy' concludes thus-

'Then think strange things are come to light/ Where but few have had a foresight'. [15]

In conclusion, Thomas Browne's life-long penchant for utilizing Janus as a symbol is illuminated by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung who considered Janus to be - 

'a perfect symbol of the human psyche, as it faces both the past and future. Anything psychic is Janus-faced: it looks both backwards and forwards. Because it is evolving it is also preparing for the future'.  [16] 

I've written before about the many ideas shared between Browne and Jung. Not only does one of the earliest recorded usages in modern English of the word 'archetype' occur in Browne's hermetic vision, The Garden of Cyrus but the archetype of 'the wise ruler' itself is sketched through highly original proper-name symbolism. King Cyrus, Moses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Solon, Scipio, King Cheops, Hermes Trismegistus and Augustus are all cited in the discourse as exemplary of 'the wise ruler'  archetype.  

Nowadays the phrase 'two-faced'  more often than not is used as a pejorative term, however, from his deep study of the Ancient world to his anticipation of 'future discoveries in Botanical Agriculture', there's a good case to be made for Thomas Browne to be lauded as the Janus-faced sage of Norwich. The learned physician-philosopher's assessment of our own increasingly uncertain times was one which was, 'not like to envy those that shall live in the next, much less three or four hundred Years hence, when no Man can comfortably imagine what Face this World will carry'. [17] What is certain however is that centuries before C.G. Jung, the proto-psychology of Thomas Browne utilized Janus as symbolic of the human psyche. And just like the Roman god Janus, whose name is remembered in the month of January, we too continue to look back to the past and forward to the future in order to define our identity.


[1] Collected Works of C.G.Jung vol. 13  Alchemical Studies (1967) para. 199
[2] C. W 10:727 
[3] Religio Medici Part 2: Section 8
[4]  Ibid.  Part 2 section 12
[5]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica.  Book 1  Chapter 5
[6]  Urn-Burial Chapter 5
[7]  The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 1 N.B. 'Flat' here means empty or boring.
[8]  Ovid's Fasti  6 lines 100 - 128. Listed in Browne's library p. 16 A no. 15 
[9]  Marcus Aurelius Meditations 7:27 Listed in Browne's library p. 14 no. 68
[10]  Christian Morals Part 2 : Section 12
[11] Ibid. Part 3 Section 3
[12] Ibid. Part 3 Section 10.  Sebastián de Covarrubias (1539–1613) was a Spanish lexicographer, cryptographer and chaplain. An edition of his 'Emblems Morales de D. Sebast. de Cavarrubias' published in Madrid in 1610 is listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Thomas Browne's library on page 42 under Libros Espannolos no. 4 (Quarto).
[13] Ibid  Part 3 Section 13 
[14] 2 Samuel 10:4 KJV
[15]  Miscellaneous Tract no. 12
[16] Collected Works of C.G. Jung vol. 6. Psychological Types (1921)  para. 717
[17]  from 'A Letter to a Friend'.

Books consulted

* Sir Thomas Browne The Major Works Penguin 1977 edited with an Introduction by C.A. Patrides
* Thomas Browne Selected Writings OUP  2014 edited with an Introduction by Kevin Killeen
* Ovid Metamorphoses Penguin  1955 trans. with an Introduction by Mary M. Innes 
* Ovid Fasti Penguin 2000   
* Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance - Edgar Wind 1958, revised edition OUP 1980
* A Facsimile of the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward's        Libraries. With an introduction, notes and index by J.S. Finch pub. E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1986
* 1658 edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica  with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended. 

See also 


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

'In the bed of Cleopatra' - Thomas Browne's Egyptology


Lasting over three thousand years, the civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated the minds and imagination of numerous artists and thinkers including the English physician and philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82).

 Though little acknowledged, Browne was a keen Egyptologist; mention of the mummies, pyramids and hieroglyphics of Egypt weave throughout his literary works, in particular, the discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) which are conjoined and united to each other through literary symbolism allusive to ancient Egypt. 

Thomas Browne's study of ancient Egypt was multi-faceted; as a doctor he took an interest in its medicine, as a devout Christian he knew that the Biblical books of Genesis and Exodus are set in ancient Egypt; and as a scholar of comparative religion he was familiar with the names and attributes of the Egyptian gods; but above else its from his adherence to Hermetic philosophy that Browne's life-long interest in the Land of the Pharaoh's was sustained. For, in common with almost all alchemists and hermetic philosophers of the 16th and 17th century, Browne believed ancient Egypt to be the birthplace of alchemy and where long lost transmutations of Nature were once performed. And indeed the early civilization skills necessary in baking, brewing and metal-work, as well as cosmetics and perfumery, were all once close guarded secrets. Ancient Egypt was also believed by hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike to be the home of the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus, inventor of number and hieroglyph and the founding father of all wisdom subsequently passed down in a golden chain of prophets and mystics culminating in Christ. 

Just as fans of the pop singer Elvis Presley (1935-77) often collect all kinds of American memorabilia, so too in the 16th and 17th centuries followers of Hermes Trismegistus avidly collected artefacts believed to be of Egyptian origin, and read literature which claimed to be by the Egyptian sage. 

Browne's adherence to Hermetic philosophy is writ large in his spiritual testament and psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643), the newly-qualified physician declaring - 'The severe schooles shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a portrait of the invisible.' [1]

Its however more with an eye towards dentistry and with characteristic humour that Browne in the consolatory epistle A Letter to a Friend informs his reader  - 

'The Egyptian Mummies that I have seen, have had their Mouths open, and somewhat gaping, which affordeth a good opportunity to view and observe their Teeth, wherein 'tis not easie to find any wanting or decayed: and therefore in Egypt, where one Man practised but one Operation, or the Diseases but of single Parts, it must needs be a barren Profession to confine unto that of drawing of Teeth, and little better than to have been Tooth-drawer unto King Pyrrhus, who had but two in his head'.

Browne's knowledge of Egyptian medicine was acquired through reading the Greek historian and traveller Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BCE)  whose Histories was the solitary source of information about ancient Egypt for centuries. [2] In Browne's day there was a well-established trade in mummia. Because the skills in Egyptian mummification appeared to preserve the human body for the afterlife in an extraordinary way, the crushed and pulverised parts of Egyptian mummies became popular remedies for all manner of disease and illness. Often mixed or contaminated with bitumen, in reality mummia was of little medicinal value. Thomas Browne for one, deplored its usage in medicine, declaiming in Urn-Burial -

'The Egyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become merchandise, Miriam cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams'.

Browne's interest in ancient Egypt developed through his friendship with an Oxford contemporary, John Greaves (1602–1652). John Greaves was a professor of astronomy, a mathematician and antiquarian who visited Cairo in 1638 in order to measure the Pyramids of Giza and as such he's credited with conducting the first scientific survey of the great Pyramid of Giza. Greaves' book Pyramidographia, or a Description of the Pyramids in Egypt (1646) is referenced a number of times in subsequent editions of Browne's encyclopaedic endeavour, Pseudodoxia Epidemica which was first published in 1646.

The two Oxford University alumni shared their interest in ancient Egypt over many years. Even after Greaves' death in 1652,  when amending the fourth edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica  in 1658, its with his old friend in mind that Browne, noting of an experiment, informs his reader that-

'we have from the observation of our learned friend Mr. Greaves, an Egyptian idol cut out of loadstone, and found among the mummies; which still retains its attraction though probably taken out of the mine about two thousand years ago. [3]

In essence, Browne justified the study of so-called pagan, pre-Christian antiquities and beliefs in exactly the same manner as the Italian Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), by giving credence to a Prisca Theologia, a single, true theology which threads through all religions and whose wisdom was passed down in a golden chain of mystics and prophets which included Zoroaster, the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, and the Hebraic figures of King Solomon and Moses. For devout Christians the Hebrew prophet Moses in particular was a strong link in this golden chain, Browne for one believing Moses to be 'bred up in the hieroglyphicall schooles of the Egyptians' [4]. But above all others, it was Hermes Trismegistus, the first and wisest of all pagan prophets who was revered. Modern scholarship has now determined Hermes Trismegistus to be a composite figure, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Theuth or Thoth with the ancient Greek god of revelation, Hermes. Christianity duly appropriated hermetic teachings for their own agenda, proposed that Hermes Trismegistus  or ‘thrice greatest’ on account of his being the greatest priest, philosopher and king, was a contemporary of Moses who anticipated the coming of Christ. Such imaginative comparative religion not only justified the study of philosophers such as Plato but also sanctioned the antiquity, wisdom and superiority of the Bible to devout Christians.

Throughout his life Browne was attracted to all kinds of unusual, hidden or secret forms of knowledge, including the triumvirate of astrology, alchemy and the kabbalah. It must nonetheless have surprised many English readers of his European best-seller Pseudodoxia Epidemica which debunked folk-lore and superstitions, to discover its pages included a whole chapter entitled Of the Hieroglyphicall Pictures of the Egyptians. In an earlier chapter of his popular, up-to-date work of scientific journalism, Browne names many scholars from antiquity and the Renaissance-era of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, endorsing above all others,  the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-80).

'The Hieroglyphical doctrine of the Egyptians (which in their four hundred years cohabitation some conjecture they learned from the Hebrews) hath much advanced many popular conceits. For using an Alphabet of things, and not of words, through the image and pictures thereof, they endeavoured to speak their hidden conceits in the letters and language of Nature. ........the profound and mysterious knowledge of Egypt; containing the Arcana's of Greek Antiquities, the Key of many obscurities and ancient learning extant. Famous herein in former Ages were Heraiscus, Cheremon, Epius, especially Orus Apollo Niliacus: who lived in the reign of Theodosius, and in Egyptian language left two Books of Hieroglyphicks, translated into Greek by Philippus, and a large collection of all made after by Pierius. But no man is likely to profound the Ocean of that Doctrine, beyond that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus'. [5]

Athanasius Kircher has been defined as ‘the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe’. Like Browne he disseminated and popularized much new scientific knowledge, including recent discoveries confirmable to early scientists in the field  of optics and magnetism. The English musicologist Joscelyn Godwin describes Kircher thus -

'Kircher was a Jesuit and an archaeologist, a phenomenal linguist, and at the same time an avid collector of scientific experiments and geographical exploration. He probed the secrets of the subterranean world, deciphered archaic languages, experimented with alchemy and music-therapy, optics and magnetism. Egyptian mystery wisdom, Greek, Kabbalistic and Christian philosophy met on common grounds in Kircher's work, as he reinterpreted the history of man's scientific and artistic collaboration with God and Nature'. [6]
Kircher believed that Egyptian paganism was the fount of all other beliefs and creeds whether Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Chaldean or even Indian, Japanese, Aztec and Inca. His greatest work, the three door-step size volumes of Oedipus Egypticus are over 2000 pages in total and a triumph of  the printing-press, taking over five years in completion (Rome 1652 -56). In Oedipus Aegypticus the Jesuit priest sets out to explore the esoteric traditions and theosophical systems of Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Hebrew Kabbalah. Just like the Norwich doctor, Athanasius Kircher had an insatiable curiosity and fascination with obscure or esoteric learning which are listed in the introduction to Oedipus Aegypticus as - ‘Egyptian wisdom, Phoenician theology, Hebrew kabbalah, Persian magic, Pythagorean mathematics, Greek theosophy, Mythology, Arabian alchemy, Latin philology’.

Kircher's Oedipus Egypticus includes an engraving of the Bembine Tablet. (illustration above). 

The Bembine Tablet was named after Cardinal Bembo, an antiquarian who acquired it after the 1527 sack of Rome. Its an important example of ancient metallurgy, its surface being decorated with a variety of metals including silver, gold, copper-gold alloy and various base metals.  The Bembine Tablet was the Rosetta Stone of its age. Many antiquarians attempted and failed to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs from it. It has long since been identified as a syncretic Roman work dating from circa 250 CE, and a copy or imitation of a much earlier ancient Egyptian artefact, and is not, as both antiquarians believed, a work originating from ancient Egypt whatsoever. In the final analysis the Bembine Tablet continues to ask more questions than it answers.

The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne and his son Edward's libraries lists no less than seven titles by Kircher including Oedipus Egypticus. Browne's enthusiasm for the latest and greatest of his favourite author's books, which he acquired when first published, spills over into his own esoteric work The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Its as a pioneering scholar of comparative religion that Browne discusses the Egyptian Ankh symbol as seen in the Bembine Tablet. The Egyptian Ankh symbol is the most frequent and easily recognisable symbol of all Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sometimes referred to as the key of life and symbolic of eternal life in Ancient Egypt, the Coptic church of Egypt inherited the ankh symbol as a form of the Christian cross.

'We will not revive the mysterious crosses of Egypt, with circles on their heads, in the breast of Serapis, and the hands of their Geniall spirits, not unlike the characters of Venus, and looked on by ancient Christians, with relation unto Christ. Since however they first began, the Egyptians thereby expressed the processe and motion of the spirit of the world, and the diffusion thereof upon the Celestiall and Elementall nature; implyed by a circle and right-lined intersection. A secret in their Telesmes and magicall Characters among them. Though he that considereth the plain crosse upon the head of the Owl in the Laterane Obelisk, or the crosse erected upon a picher diffusing streams of water into two basins, with sprinkling branches in them, and all described upon a two-footed Altar, as in the Hieroglyphics of the brasen Table of Bembus; will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality in them.

The key phrase, 'will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality', is a classic example of how hermetic philosophers such as Browne 'christianized' so-called pagan civilizations as anticipators of the coming of Christ. Browne's objective,  like Kircher's, was to reconcile the wisdom of antiquity with Christianity. A good example of how such syncretic thinking operated can be seen in Kircher's synthesis of the Egyptian zodiac to the Greek zodiac. (Below).

Browne's own alchemical experiments are fleetingly alluded to in the penultimate paragraph of The Garden of Cyrus. Its concluding sentence invites Freudian interpretation, however the Cleopatra which he names relates to alchemy. 'Cleopatra's art' was one of the many names by which alchemy was once known. Very little is known of Cleopatra, a Greek alchemist other than she's believed to have lived in Alexandria circa 200-300 CE and is mentioned by the Arabic writer Kitab al-Fihrist circa 988 CE. Cleopatra the alchemist is credited with the invention of the alembic, and with quantifying alchemy by working with weights and measures.  

Browne's highly poetic imagery is suggestive of the alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the reviving of a plant from its ashes to blossom once more, which the radical Swiss alchemist Paracelsus claimed to have performed and which Browne seems to have not succeeded in -

'and though in the bed of Cleopatra, can hardly, with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose'.

Part Two

In the foreword to Mysterium Coniunctionis; 'An inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in Alchemy', the seminal psychologist C. G. Jung informs his reader  that - 

'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [7]

I've written before about how Thomas Browne's diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus exemplify the Nigredo and Albedo stages of the alchemical opus - of how the two Discourses are opposite each other in respective theme, imagery and truth. The dark and gloomy doubts, fears and speculative uncertainties upon Death featured in Urn-Burial are mirrored by cheerful certainties in the discernment of archetypal  patterns in The Garden of Cyrus - of how the two works fulfil the template of basic mandala symbolism with their metaphysical constructs of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) and of the many polarities which they display such as - World/Cosmos, Earth/Sky, Accident/ Design, Decay/Growth, Darkness/Light, Conjecture/Discern, Mortal/Eternal and of course, Grave/Garden.  

The concept of polarity (a word Browne is credited with introducing into the English language in its scientific context) is a vital construct of much esoteric schemata. The opposites and their union, as C.G. Jung noted, were a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike. Browne’s literary diptych is, not unlike the human psyche,  a complex of opposites or complexio oppositorum (complex of opposites). Unique as a literary diptych, it corresponds to the polarity of the Microcosm-Macrocosm schemata of Hermeticism in which the microcosm little world of man and his mortality, (Urn-Burial) is mirrored by the vast Macrocosm and the Eternal forms or archetypes (The Garden of Cyrus). The polarity of the alchemical maxim solve et coagula (decay and growth) also closely approximates to the diptych's respective themes, as does the diptych's imagery which progresses from darkness and unconsciousness (Urn-Burial)  to Light and consciousness (Garden of Cyrus). The previously mentioned alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the revivification of a plant from its ashes which the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) claimed to have performed, shares close semblance too. The funerary ashes of Urn-Burial burst into flower in the botanical delights of The Garden of Cyrus

C.G. Jung stated that whenever a complex of opposites occur, a unifying symbol, capable of transcending paradox, sometimes emerges. Its far from improbable that Browne found in his study of ancient Egypt two such symbols which he subsequently embedded in his Discourses namely, the Egyptian god Osiris and the Pyramid. As the literary critic Peter Green noted, 'Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact'. [8] 

Osiris was one of the most important gods of Ancient Egypt. He plays a double role in Egyptian theology, as both the god of fertility and vegetation and as the embodiment of the dead and resurrected king. Osiris is utilized in Browne's proper-name symbolism in Urn-Burial  as an example of how Time devours even the names of the gods themselves - 'Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osyris in the Dogge-starre'.  However, in The Garden of Cyrus the Egyptian god Osiris assumes a more important role, as the god of vegetation and growth who is assisted by his secretary, the great Hermes Trismegistus. In a short paragraph in which the game of Chess, Pyramids, Egyptian gods and  astronomy coalesce in an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness association, Browne exclaims -

'In Chesse-boards and Tables we yet finde Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, farre different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, and might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sunne and Moon'.

C.G. Jung noted how Egyptian theology influenced Christianity thus-  

'The Osiris cult offers an excellent example. At first only Pharaoh participated in the transformation of the god, since he alone "had an Osiris"; but later the nobles of the Empire acquired an Osiris too, and finally this development culminated in the Christian idea that everyone has an immortal soul and shares directly in the Godhead. In Christianity the development was carried still further when the outer God or Christ gradually became the inner Christ of the individual believer, remaining one and the same though dwelling in many'. [9]

Though little recognised, Browne's literary diptych is united through the symbol of the Pyramid. In Urn-Burial the  burial chamber of the Pharaohs is condemned as a foolish endeavour in wanting to be remembered for eternity.  The Christian moralist in Browne declaiming - 'Who can but pity the founder of the pyramids ?'  and - 'Pyramids, arches, obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory, and wilde enormities of ancient magnanimity.' 

But as C.G.Jung observed, only the symbol is capable of transcending paradox. In The Garden of Cyrus, the Pyramid is once more encountered, only this time as a geometric shape, evident in optics and botany, and one of the Eternal Forms of Plato. 

In summary, Browne's life-long study of ancient Egypt, at times misguided, was nonetheless pioneering. Though little known as an Egyptologist, he can be placed, alongside Kircher, as one of Europe's earliest Egyptologists. Furthermore, his diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are conjoined and united through psychologically dynamic proper-name symbolism derived from Browne's life-long interest in Ancient Egypt.  


Header photo -  Double-headed Sistrum fragment of Hathor 26th dynasty (663-526 BCE) Faience approx 8 cm. Sainsbury Centre, UEA SC 920

One of the most recent realizations of Ancient Egypt occurs in the  music of Philip Glass ( b. 1937) composer of the opera 'Akhnaten'  (1983) - 'Window of Appearances' 

See also

On esoterism in 'The Garden of Cyrus'

Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne

Books consulted

 *  Browne: Selected Writings. ed. with an introduction and Index by Kevin Killeen Oxford 2014 

* Herodotus : The Histories. Penguin 1954

* Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man the Quest for Lost Knowledge

     - ed. J. Godwin  Thames and Hudson 1979

*   C.G. Jung Collected Works Vol. 14 Mysterium Coniunctionis  

 *  'Egypt' BBC DVD  2005

 * 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of T. Browne and E. Browne's libraries

*    Author's 1658 edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus


[1] Religio Medici  Part 1:12

[2] Book 2 of Herodotus The Histories includes his observations on Egypt.

[3]  'In his learned Pyramidographia'  Browne marg.  of 1658  3rd or 4th edition of P. E.  Bk 2 chapter 3  

[4] R.M. Part 1:34

[5] P.E. Bk 2 ch. 3 

[6] Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man the Quest for Lost Knowledge  J. Godwin. 1979

[7] C. W vol.14  Mysterium Coniunctionis Foreword

[8] Sir Thomas Browne Peter Green -Longmans and Green 1959

[9] C.W. Vol.9 part 1: 229

This one for M. with thanks for encouragement.  

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 which are famously alluded to in the David Bowie 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

Constructing a jigsaw may be viewed as a reduced or simplified form of the alchemical opus. To begin with,  the jigsaw builder, just like the alchemist,  dedicates themselves for an unknown duration of time, often in solitude, sometimes facing self-doubt or a sense of futility, even risking sanity, 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 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'. [5] 

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. Completed May 2022

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

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

The Table of the Muses.  USA Springbok 1968. Completed November 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's 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.

From 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 revealed to be exemplary 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 seventeenth 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 the prism of C. G. Jung's understanding of alchemy. First 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 abstract and meditative 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, their beauty inviting contemplation. In India there's a dance known as the nyithya dance which is named the mandala dance, while in the French choreographer Maurice Bejart's interpretation of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, a mandala is formed by dancers with a sacrificial victim at their centre (below).

In his 'The Alchemical Mandala: A survey of the mandala in the western esoteric traditions' (1989) Adam Maclean (b.1948, Glasgow) the leading British authority on alchemy, 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 for very long. Urn-Burial has been lauded throughout the centuries for its stately, ornate Baroque flourishes of prose.  The strongly Christian and stoical half of the diptych 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 traumatised psychologically 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 Paracelsian medicine, physiognomy and the kabbalah. The discourse also features Browne's highly original proper-name symbolism, often originating from Biblical and Ancient world sources; its central chapter is crowded with numerous sharp-eyed botanical observations, botany being an essential pursuit for physicians in Browne's 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.  

Frank Huntley 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 with 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 '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  which are named in Urn Burial. 

In contradistinction to the Job-like suffering of the Nigredo, the albedo or 'Whitening' of  the alchemical opus represents a return to innocence. Closely associated with Biblical accounts of the Creation and  Paradise, we can confidently view The Garden of Cyrus as representative of the Albedo stage of alchemy. Browne opens The Garden of Cyrus with the Creation, and etymological understanding of Paradise,  before 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