Saturday, November 26, 2005


The study of alchemical symbolism is in many respects similar to that of Christian symbolism in works of art and literature. The major difference, however, is that the key to the latter is well known while the key to alchemy has been lost [1]. Its re-discovery is not a matter of a single insight but rather of a meticulous and long-lasting comparative study of surviving texts and iconography. It is now fairly obvious that there were several "schools" of symbolism within European alchemy, sometimes overlapping, sometimes borrowing individual symbols from other systems, or even distorting the ideas of earlier writers. These schools should be clearly defined along with the kind of symbols used by them. Even though such "perfect" definitions may not reflect any actual alchemical workss, it would be very useful for reference in any future studies, as well as for the analysis of chronological and geographical spreading of alchemical ideas. Some of such widely defined groups of symbolism and differences between them can be easily seen but have not been properly described yet.
Many scholars stress the fact that most alchemical notions, such as the Philosophers' Stone or the Materia Prima, are denoted by a wide range of names and symbols, and give long lists of examples. But a really helpful kind of "alchemical dictionary" would be to analyze particular clearly defined symbols as used by different alchemical authors and find out their various meanings. A full study of this kind is obviously beyond the possibilities of any individual researcher so I decided to make a small beginning by an attempt to clarify the symbol of the Toad. I chose it because it is not as common as the Lion or the Eagle, and therefore requires less research, but at the same time it is quite distinct and well defined.

Any symbol appearing in an alchemical treatise should be studied from two points of view:

1. Its meaning in other symbolic systems of the period or earlier.

2. Its context in different alchemical treatises.

In the first case care must be taken not to refer to symbolism of the ancient Egyptians or Chinese, as over-enthusiastic occultists tend to do, but rather stick to medieval and renaissance Europe, with possible classical symbols that may have been known there. In the second case the special points to note would be the frequency (and therefore importance) of the symbol in question, whether it appears at the beginning or at the end of the process described, whether it is in a group of three, four, seven, or some other number of symbols, etc.

One of the earliest appearances of the Toad symbol in alchemical literature and iconography seems to be that in the works of George Ripley, in which it plays a very prominent, or even central, part. His short poem The Vision [2] describes an alchemical process veiled in symbols. The Toad first drinks "juice of Grapes" until it is so filled up that "casts it Venom" and "begins to swell" as a result of poisoning. Then the Toad dies in its "Cave" and the usual sequence of colour changes follows: black, various colours, white and red. Thus the Venom is changed into powerful Medicine.

The famous Ripley Scrowle has not been available to me in its entirety but from several published fragments [3] it seems that it presents a similar, though considerably extended, process of the Toad undergoing various chemical changes. It reappears in various points of this symbolic road, clearly suggesting continuity. In some versions the Toad is also the final symbol of the Philosophers' Stone [4].

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