Perhaps the oldest and most enduring of all myths is the Nekyia: the descent to and return from the underworld. There are innumerable iterations of the myth from nearly all cultures, manifesting in literature, art, music, psychology, philosophy, film, and graphic media. The myth catalyzes the revelation of the archetypal iconography of the imagination leading to a radical transformation of consciousness. This series focuses alchemical narratives in foundational works of the hermetic tradition.
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First Series: Origins to the Renaissance
This first session introduces the alchemical nekyia—a narrative journey evoking the archetypal iconography of underworld, seen as a temenos (a place of revelation and transformation). It also addresses the origins and transmission of alchemical ideas during Antiquity, with its synthesis of Egyptian mythology, pre-Socratic philosophy, and Platonism
Marie-Louise von Franz devoted the latter years of her life to the study of the Corpus Hermeticum Arabicum, a project that grew out of her extensive engagement with the Aurora Consurgence. The presentation focuses on the vision of Ibn Umail, illustrated by the spectacular text, and its adaptation and transmission in the scholastic alchemy of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.
We move to the 16th century Hermetic Renaissance exemplified by the Rosarium philosophorum— which provides images of the complete cycle of the alchemical nekyia, from descent to return—followed by the enigmatic and gorgeous imagery of the Ripley Scrolls, with its multiple variations on the central themes of the myth.
The presentation continues with a focus on one of the most famous and splendidly illuminated texts of the Hermetic Renaissance, The Splendor Solis, and the transition to the Rosicrucian era exemplified by the narrative and iconography in the work of Nicholas Flamel, with its synthesis of alchemy and the Christian Apocalypse.
Second Series: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and Romanticism
Dame Francis Yates was the first to explore the profound impact of hermeticism and alchemy on the politics, literature, and art of the 17th century, with a focus on the historical context of the Elizabethan Renaissance in England, and the Rosicrucian manifestoes in Europe. This session delves into the mysteries of perhaps the most extraordinary of all alchemical texts, the Atalanta Fugiens of Michael Maier.
This session focuses on alchemical and hermetic themes in brief selections from poetry of the Elizabethan era and early decades of the 17th century , and on to their survival during the Civil War and Restoration period, leading up to the Invisible College and foundation of the Royal Academy of Science.
The cultural transformations of the Enlightenment, or Early-Modern Era, involved the psychologicizing of alchemical mythologies in the secular poetics of Alexander Pope, whose Rape of the Lock acknowledges his debt to the French Rosicrucians. A century later, Goethe’s engagement with alchemy reflects the radical shift towards the Romantic era.
One of the secret undercurrents of the literature of the American Renaissance in the mid 19th century is the fascination with alchemy, which one finds in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne—most famously in his short stories “The Birth Mark,” and “Rappacini’s Daughter.” By the end of the century, the ‘Occult Renaissance’ came to full flower in the poetry and visionary writings of W.B. Yeats, in the circles of the Golden Dawn.
Third Series: Modernism(s)
At the same time that renewed interest in alchemy and hermeticism was being explored in both Freudian and Jungian circles, the great masterpieces of literary Modernism burst on the scene. For both Thomas Mann and James Joyce, the alchemical reduction to the elements, facilitating the creation of new and original forms, becomes a profound metaphor for the dynamics of poeisis, of central concern in Doctor Faustus and Finnegans Wake.
The reduction to the fundamental elements of aesthetic composition—geometrical figures like the rectangle, square, circle—is central to the dramatic emergence of abstraction in Modernist painting, and was undertaken by artists acutely aware of the theosophical hermeticism of the period.
Jung’s engagement with alchemy began in the late 1920s and dominated his late work, yielding such tomes as Mysterium Coniunctionis and Alchemical Studies from the Collected Works. At the same time that he was carving the famous Bollingen Stone, the great American Modernist poet H.D. was deeply immersed in the ‘occult’ themes that inform the poems she wrote during and after the Second World War: Trilogy and Hermetic Definition.
Leonora Carrington’s traumatic breakdown and incarceration in the Spanish asylum at Santander, in the early 1940s yielded an extraordinary psychological engagement with alchemical images and themes in her memoir Down Below, which is richly informed by the Surrealist obsession with hermeticism. This engagement became foundational in her other works (The Hearing Trumpet and The Stone Door) in her paintings (such as “The Garden of Paracelsus” and “The Burning of Giordano Bruno”).
Professor Evans Lancing Smith edited the first collection of Joseph Campbell s writings and lectures on the Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages, a central focus of his celebrated scholarship. Throughout his life, Joseph Campbell was deeply engaged in the study of the Grail Quests and Arthurian legends of the European Middle Ages. In this new volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, editor Evans Lansing Smith collects Campbell s writings and lectures on Arthurian legends, including his never-before-published master s thesis on Arthurian myth, A Study of the Dolorous Stroke. Campbell s writing captures the incredible stories of such figures as Merlin, Gawain, and Guinevere as well as the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths. Merlin s death and Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, for example, are not just vibrant stories but also central to the mythologist s thinking. The Arthurian myths opened the world of comparative mythology to Campbell, turning his attention to the Near and Far Eastern roots of myth. Calling the Arthurian romances the world s first secular mythology, Campbell found metaphors in them for human stages of growth, development, and psychology. The myths exemplify the kind of love Campbell called amor, in which individuals become more fully themselves through connection. Campbell s infectious delight in his discoveries makes this volume essential for anyone intrigued by the stories we tell and the stories behind them.
Evans has degrees from Williams College, Antioch International, and The Claremont Graduate School. He is the author of ten books and numerous articles on comparative literature and mythology, and has taught at colleges in Switzerland, Maryland, Texas, and California, and at the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht. In the late 1970s, he traveled with Joseph Campbell on study tours of Northern France, Egypt, and Kenya, with a focus on the Arthurian Romances of the Middle Ages and the Mythologies of the Ancient World. His books include:
His areas of emphasis include: Myth in Literature from Antiquity to Postmodernism; Arthurian Romances, and The Hermetic Tradition. He currently teaches: Myth and the Underworld; Alchemy and Hermeticism; Arthurian Romances and the Grail; Folklore and Fairytales; Theoretical Approaches to Mythological Studies; Cultural Mythologies; and Native Mythologies of the Americas.