I’ve joined with the primary goal of discussing alchemical artwork and alchemical symbolism, and my membership was approved last night (at least relative to my time zone). Initially I wanted to include a piece of art I recently finished with my post, but last night I had a dream chock-full of alchemy-based symbolism and so I thought I’d start off simply by sharing that instead.

I’ve been picking apart this dream and its symbols for a few hours now (lots of down-time at work today), and while I’ve identified quite a few I’d be interested if anyone else out there who has studied alchemy notices anything I’ve missed.

The Dream

The framing of this dream is that this is a movie I am making, an experimental film with influences from alchemy and a research project I am currently working on. Throughout the making of the film in the dream I worry about being able to get the quality equipment to make it right.

The eye of the dream floats around like a camera, unsurprisingly, as I simultaneously view and make the movie.

The first scene shot is on the campus of UW-Milwaukee, where a confused young woman rushes around screaming for help, though no one takes notice of her. Her screams are sometimes not heard by the audience, at other times the screams are barely audible, muffled, and drowned by what would normally just be the background noise in the scene. Instead what would normally be the background sound is the forefront, and what would normally be forefront is muffled background noise.

At some point in time while watching/filming the scene I think that the way that this scene plays out is meant to illustrate that the young woman is not just a crazy homeless woman (though my mind makes the explicit connection that she could very well be mistaken for a crazy homeless woman at first), but the sound muffling reinforces the idea that no one can perceive her, and that she is ~ somehow ~ tangibly separate from the people and the world around her.

A bit later in the dream I hatch an idea to include a scene in this sequence where she runs out on the street in front of a bus only to have the bus drive through her, only to then counter that thought with another: Do I have the budget and/or ability to pull off such an effect?? I suppose clever editing and practical effect might be able to pull it off.

I recall vaguely debating what the young woman’s name should be. The name “Sam” stands out, so I’ll use it for this here.

Sam is dead, in a way left unspecified, and her death is revealed to her through an introduction to another character, her personal psychopomp, a man who wears circular sunglasses and has a drooping mustache and chin beard. His name is debated for a time by me, the dream still in the context of a movie. “Izra’il” is shot down as being too foreign to the Wisconsin setting, “Azrael” is dismissed as too on-the-nose, and so eventually the name “Izzie” is settled on, being a reference to the Angel of Death without directly stealing the name.

I recall a scene of Sam and Izzie lounging on the grass at UW-Milwaukee, with Izzie explaining a bit about death. Notably a phrase is remembered, “The worlds of the living and the dead are closer than you think.”

Apart from Izzie and another character who is introduced later, there are no other dead people seen, implying perhaps this is the girl’s personal journey. At the stage she is in, she is separate both from the living and the other dead, all apart from Izzie.

Izzie explains that death is about a journey, and the two take off seeking. They end up in Grant Park, specifically in Seven Bridges Trail. There they encounter a fire, slightly magenta in color, and Sam is drawn towards the flame in a manner described as like a moth to light, and sets herself (primarily her arms) alight by the fire and becomes horrifically burned. She
Izzie pulls her out. This is not normal fire, and cannot be doused with normal water. In fact, water itself will be burned by this fire. To douse this they need a special type of water (let’s just call it holy water for simplicity’s sake).

Izzie pulls an agonized, burning Sam into town to the apartment of his friend, Gregg. Who is Gregg?? No freaking clue, but he is able to prepare a bathtub full of holy water for them.
Sam is lowered into the water which douses the flames and even heals her wounds, regenerating lost body parts (even her hair, go figure). Her clothes were lost in the fire. Healing happens in reverse of the burning, her arms being the last to be healed.

Sam tries to get out of the tub to early, almost entirely healed but with nasty burns all along her arms, she tries to dart out of the door, but Izzie blocks the way. She wants to go back to the fire, and burn herself again. The experience was painful and horrible, but addicting, and she wants a second go at it. Izzie refuses this, calmly explaining the addictive nature of the fire, and tries to lift her up to return her to the water. In desperation she kisses him, trying to find some way to convince him to let her self immolate, but he remains steadfast and simply returns her to the water.

Izzie goes out of the room to talk with Gregg. At some point Sam escapes (somehow) and Izzie and Gregg follow after her, into a flooded tunnel system that is also Hell (echoing the earlier line, Izzie here is given the line of dialog “Heaven and Hell are closer than you think.”) Sam has been unable to find the fire again, and has descended into Hell to find another fire to burn her once more. She enters a vault filled with fire, but while she burns within it, the burning is not enough to satisfy her desire for self immolation, and a verse of mystic poetry comes to my mind “A lover is he who is chill in hell fire” (I have the source of this verse somewhere, but I can’t seem to pin it down right now), and the dream ends.

First, as to why the dream is framed as a movie I am making. While I have no experience, skill, or interest in filmmaking, I am interested in making artwork based on alchemy. So the dream likewise frames me as an artist making a piece about alchemy, albeit in a medium I am unfamiliar with.

Symbolism I've Noticed So Far

Sam and Izzie: I get the sense that the characters are the same exact person, just two different parts of that person’s soul post-death. This would be the parts that make up the common alchemy symbol of “the sun and the moon” or “the king and the queen”, with a masculine Izzie and a feminine Sam. I am reminded of a piece of Scripture on the subject of the symbolic meaning of the story of Adam and Eve: “Adam signifies the heavenly spirit of Adam, and Eve His human soul.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions) So in the context of the dream “Sam signifies the human soul of Sam, and Izzie her heavenly spirit.”

The Seven Bridges Trail: This is a real-world location, and one that I take my weekly walks in. I’m fairly certain in the context of the dream this location refers to two things specifically. First being the Seven Operations of Alchemy. Second being the Seven Heavens. This location is thus contrasted with the location of Hell, also found within the dream. The dream makes the equation between the concept of the Seven Heavens and the Seven Operations.

The Holy Fire and Holy Water: Speaking of the concept of the Seven Operations, here in the dream appear the first two: Calcination and Dissolution. Our protagonist is engulfed in fire (Calcination) and then immersed into a tub of water (Dissolution). To me the symbolism seems quite evident.

Further the Holy Fire is a seductive thing. It burns, but also draws people to it in an insane obsession. The Holy Fire, I believe, is symbolic of Eros, that is, the Love of God, with its seductive qualities. The dream seems to indicate this fire is both necessary to the Operations but also possesses dangers to it. This is comparable to what can be read in Attar’s Conference of the Birds which writes of the necessity of Eros “To enter it one must be a flaming fire - what shall I say? A man must himself be fire. The face of the lover must be enflamed, burning and impetuous as fire.” and also of the risks of the same “In this valley, love is represented by fire, and reason by smoke. When love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love; love has nothing to do with human reason.”

The dangers of Eros are also found in the Persian story of Majnun and Layla, where the character of Majnun is driven insane by love. Likewise Sam in this dream is a woman driven to insanity by love of the flame, even to the point of when she fails to find the heavenly fire, she seeks out hell-fire to burn her instead.

Finally of note regarding the Fire and Water, is an obvious theme of death-and-resurrection (also a common thing in alchemical art) with first the Calcination of Sam, which burns the character away, and then the Dissolution of Sam, which regenerates her body into rebirth.

However I had another symbol in mind during the dream when witnessing this, I thought what I was seeing was symbolic of the concept of “negation and affirmation”. This is a concept in Islamic mysticism (and found in some alchemical practices) as a metaphor for purification. You negate one part, and affirm another. This is seen as being embodied in the Shahada, the phrase “There is no God but God”, because within it there are two parts, the part of negation “There is no God” and the other part of affirmation “but God.” Sam undergoes negation in the Calcination operation, then affirmation in the Dissolution operation.

Hell: Hell continues the theme of the Alchemical Operations, as our protagonist seeks out hell-fire within a flooded tunnel. Water can often symbolize the unconscious mind in mystic or psychological symbolism, so we could have a symbol here of Sam (or the human soul of Sam) descending into the unconscious and Izzie (or the heavenly spirit of Sam) descending to pull her back out. While the dream ended before Izzie retrieved Sam, the event of him retrieving Sam from the waters of Hell would be symbolic of the third Operation: Separation. Compare to alchemist Basil Valentine’s Azoth of the Philosophers, where the Operation of Separation is in part symbolized by two white birds emerging from a fetid pool created from a dissolved crow.

“The worlds of the living and the dead are closer than you think.” and “Heaven and Hell are closer than you think,”: I’m pretty sure my subconscious derived these quotes by combining these two quotes together: “Those who have ascended have different attributes from those who are still on earth, yet there is no real separation.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha) and “There is no such great wonder in death, nor is Hell or Heaven what it has been described.” (St. Odran of Iona).

I believe the meaning of the first phrase lies in the fact that in the dream the psychopomp Izzie leads Sam through the first two of the Seven Operations of Alchemy (and seems like he’s trying to get her into the third operation by the end). The dream presents these as stages of the afterlife, but, of course, the Operations are something we can do in the living world as well. Thus the statement means that the world of this dream is closer to reality than I would otherwise think.

I believe the meaning of the second phrase refers to the dual necessity and danger of Eros, which I already went into above.

Sam’s Clothing: This is a bit of a weird one, but Sam’s clothing being the one thing not restored after being burned away reminds me of the common symbolism of the veil. Symbolically it is a thing that hides or obscures or holds us back, and it is commonly associated with earthly attachments holding one back. The burning away of the clothes, is thus symbolic of burning away earthly attachments, and Sam’s nudity in the dream going forward from this point is Sam Unveiled. It is also then an inversion of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In Genesis, earthly attachments lead to the two clothing themselves. In this one, burning away attachments leads to nudity.

And that's everything I can come up with about the symbolism in this dream at the moment. Again, I'd be interested to see if anyone has any ideas on the symbolism here that I might have missed.