Crowley’s “The Ship” A Grand Premiere — A Mystery Play Revealed

Part I

Aleis­ter Crow­ley has writ­ten a great many won­der­ful works: poetry, erot­ica, mag­i­cal and Thelemic essays, nov­els, trea­tises on yoga and med­i­ta­tion, trans­la­tions of for­eign writ­ers, vol­umes of instruc­tional works, even a rhap­sody; he also has writ­ten a cou­ple of plays. One play in par­tic­u­lar, The Ship, was writ­ten some­time between 1909 and 1913, but was only pub­lished within the Equinox, vol­ume I, #10. It was never pro­duced while Crow­ley was alive, but remained like many of his writ­ings, avail­able to be read and pon­dered over. It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that The Ship found its way to a stage and an audi­ence. At the Ordo Tem­pli Ori­en­tis’ third National con­fer­ence, held in Long Beach Cal­i­for­nia, on August 11th this mys­tery play was finally pro­duced on stage.

Frater Kallah Adonai also known as Thelemite Chris Parker, dreamed of the day when he might be able to pro­duce this unusual two-scene pro­duc­tion. Since the National con­fer­ence was to be hosted by the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Thelemic com­mu­nity, the oppor­tu­nity sprang to the fore. Kallah Adonai’s mind raced with visual inter­pre­ta­tions for each scene, pos­si­ble cos­tume con­struc­tions and ways of mak­ing what Crow­ley, the cre­ative genius, meant by his stage direc­tions and how to make them become real­ized in an accept­able and pre­sentable man­ner. Crow­ley with a defin­i­tive flair for the dra­matic, and hav­ing not had the play pro­duced, was unaware of the dif­fi­cul­ties that might be pre­sented. Undaunted by these dif­fi­cul­ties, a cast was drawn together, a cos­tume designer asked to work a cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion, a stage designer pushed to cre­ate a stage with no prosce­nium arch, a light­ing direc­tor to cre­ate mood with no light­ing rail or foot­lights, and a music mas­ter to cre­ate every sound from the open­ing to the clos­ing. A colos­sal task, for the sake of only one or two per­for­mances, at most.

In a cur­sory read­ing of the script one may be left won­der­ing at what is meant by the entire exer­cise. It seems more than a sim­ple death and rebirth story. It is called The Ship, but a ship is never seen. The set is described more like a Tarot card than any every day set­ting. The char­ac­ters seem to be ran­domly selected (an Arab, a Chi­na­man and a Zulu) and lazily named (Julie and Julian, Joanna and Jov­ian). The char­ac­ters ask ques­tions as often as they reply with excla­ma­tions. It seems to be pre­sented as a mod­ern mys­tery, yet has an ancient Greek feel with a cho­rus resound­ing asides and glo­ri­ous adu­la­tions. Yet the play does leave one with a sense of rit­ual inspi­ra­tion, via a divine device with a soul­ful recount. The lan­guage is poet­i­cally spo­ken in rhyming cir­cles, yet it reveals a truth that is ever present and unending.

Since this was the first time that the play had been pro­duced, this writer was curi­ous to know what kind of insight each actor had received by embody­ing each char­ac­ter, and their insights on the pro­duc­tion in gen­eral. A greater insight and under­stand­ing was needed for a pro­duc­tion so para­dox­i­cal. To assist with this over­all inter­pre­ta­tion each of the actors was asked a series of ques­tions. How did it feel to play their part? Did play­ing their part strike any par­tic­u­lar note on a per­sonal basis? Did their char­ac­ter rep­re­sent in their mind any pos­si­ble anal­ogy mag­i­cally or psy­cho­log­i­cally? Did their char­ac­ter reveal a par­tic­u­lar truth or key aspect within the play? What were some of their over­all inter­pre­ta­tions of the pro­duc­tion as a whole? It was dis­cov­ered that mul­ti­ple lev­els of sym­bol­ism were to be found depend­ing upon the observer’s and participant’s mag­i­cal expe­ri­ence and level of Thelemic ini­ti­a­tion. Often only by exam­in­ing the parts, can one dis­cover the mean­ing of the whole; and only by suc­ceed­ing mag­i­cal expe­ri­ence can one under­stand the depth of each sin­gu­lar action.

Who is John the High Priest and what does he rep­re­sent? Chris Parker, who played the lead as well as directed and pro­duced the play, lent us his insight. John is “the aged king­ship, with upright power, yet weary.” It’s about “his will­ing yet still tragic sur­ren­der to the forces of dis­so­lu­tion, Zagreus dis­mem­bered, the body bro­ken, the host frac­tured that a par­ti­cle might be extracted, a seed planted, then Life at last. The Light extended, Life reborn, the Deed Divine. John is “our Lord in our­selves, whose name is Mys­tery of Mys­tery. Solve et coag­ula; the Angel and a hint of the Abyss to come. The life of every man and woman; birth, death and rebirth; cre­ation, their dis­so­lu­tion and their iden­tity. The First Mat­ter and the gold therein; descent into dark­ness per adven­ture to find the Light. Pour­ing the Sun into the Moon. Iacchos!”

When one reads the list of the play’s char­ac­ters, it becomes obvi­ous that some­thing spe­cial is meant by nam­ing the two women and the two war­dens names that all begin with the let­ter “J”. Soror Lilavati, who played Julia, had this expla­na­tion: The four J’s are actu­ally part of John. They rep­re­sent the man­i­fes­ta­tion of John’s con­scious­ness into the world of mat­ter, through the four worlds of Tetra­gram­ma­ton. With­out the four J’s, the ‘Shin’ of John and the for­mula of IAO they are just abstract ideas. The actions of the four J’s bring the Shin into all four worlds simul­ta­ne­ously, includ­ing Assiah. Sarah Sabolek, who played Joanna reminds us that “each char­ac­ter in the play rep­re­sents an aspect of our psy­cho­log­i­cal makeup.” Chris Parker clar­i­fied it even more by say­ing, “The priest, the shrine, the God, the Rite of Cre­ation, these are always present in the life of every per­son. The process cycles con­tin­u­ously whether we are con­scious of it or not.”

Who are Julia and Joanna and whom do they rep­re­sent? Again Soror Lilavati answers for Julia. Julia is “Isis in mourn­ing, or Isis as the mature Queen of Mag­ick, wife, and mother; the sec­ond ‘heh’ in tetra­gram­ma­ton; any of the Queens of the Tarot; and the Empress. I was over­come with an aspect of Isis, but it was not until after the Rose Dance that the full impact hit me. When I said “Alas, no life reposes,” real tears filled my eyes, and I was over­come with grief and sor­row in that moment. That moment opened a door for me into the Mys­ter­ies of Julia… Her joy in union with the Priest, the dark night of her loss, her hope for the dawn and fear that it would not come, her rap­ture in the rebirth of the young Priest who is both her son and her hus­band, the know­ing that she must ‘dare the dark again.’ Essen­tially, it is a par­tic­u­lar win­dow into the for­mula of IAO.”

Sarah Sabolek gives us a closer look at her char­ac­ter. “Joanna plays the inno­cent, the vir­gin; aspects of her are Persephone-like. She embod­ies a pure­ness, a sacred­ness within the shrine, and dur­ing the pro­duc­tion, she goes through the pas­sage of girl­hood into adult­hood. She is strong because she is pure. She is brave because she is inno­cent, and inno­cence can be a great strength. Joanna offers corn to John, as it rep­re­sents the body and the work of being. The offer of wine by Julia is the blood of life.” Joanna can­not offer that as she has yet to know the mys­ter­ies of the blood.

When asked what she thought about the play, Sarah con­tin­ued. “The play por­trays the story of rebirth. Immor­tal­ity is locked into mor­tal­ity, which guar­an­tees that the con­tin­u­ance of life is insured by its very demise. Crow­ley man­aged to fit so many sto­ries into one play. He man­aged to fit a cru­ci­fix­ion in with the story of Noah’s Ark, and rein­car­na­tion with the basic chang­ing of the sea­sons. Expe­ri­enc­ing the role brought all those great truths to a focused real­ity inside of me. Per­form­ing made it a part of my body. I mean there is a spec­trum of exis­tence out there to expe­ri­ence, but then to share it with so many magi­cians sit­ting in the audi­ence brought on a wave of that real­iza­tion even more powerfully.”

Anthony Torchia played one of the war­dens of the tem­ple of the Sun, Jov­ian. “Play­ing Jov­ian seemed to suit who I am at this point in my life. The insight I have is that even though Jov­ian failed to pro­tect John, the res­ur­rec­tion would not have been pos­si­ble with­out this fail­ure. So in real­ity he played his role exactly as needed to ful­fill the for­mula, and to label it a fail­ure is to miss the point. Each time John was res­ur­rected in our rehearsals, and par­tic­u­larly at the two per­for­mances [a pre­vi­ous per­for­mance was given a month ear­lier at a local book­store], I felt the uni­verse say­ing to me as force­fully as it could that THIS is the uni­ver­sal theme, and this for­mula is avail­able to be used every day of your life. The Sufis say that Allah recre­ates him­self every moment, and now I begin to under­stand this and real­ize its incred­i­ble value. The past is DEAD. Let your­self be reborn into the youth­ful, enthu­si­as­tic star that you truly are.”

Frater Seraphino played the other war­den Julian. “Basi­cally, the warders struck me as being akin to the chil­dren of the Mass, both mag­i­cally and in terms of stage pres­ence. I don’t think Crow­ley wrote this play to be per­formed. Instead, I think he wrote this play in order to tick off the Masons by allud­ing to the var­i­ous secrets of Masonry up to the high­est of their degrees. I sus­pect that he had the warders fill many dif­fer­ent bit char­ac­ters in the Masonic sto­ries (the grave dig­gers, the peo­ple hunt­ing the assas­sins, the guards of the tem­ple) that they sort of became the generic ‘Swiss army knife’ of the bit play­ers on stage.”

Soror Lilavati instinc­tively view­ing the tableau of the war­dens on stage added that, Jov­ian and Julian in white and black [respec­tively], uphold John much as the black and white pil­lars of Joachin and Boaz uphold the Tem­ple. John is able to man­i­fest because he is upheld by the two opposites.

The three Assas­sins per­haps bring on the most incon­spic­u­ous and com­plex inter­pre­ta­tions the play has to offer. Soror Lilavati and Kallah Adonai offered these analo­gies: the three gunas of Sattva, Rajas, Tamas; the three assas­sins in the Rite of Sol of Satan-Typhon, Scorpio-Apophis and Besz; the three char­ac­ters on the rim of the wheel in the Rite of Jupiter of Typhon, Her­manu­bis and the Sphinx; and also alchem­i­cally with the sub­stances of mer­cury, sul­fur and salt. All of which pos­sess the mag­i­cal for­mula for transmutation.

Tess Moon played a voice in the cho­rus as well as one of the three assas­sins, the Arab. “Being the Arab Assas­sin wear­ing red, my cos­tume was like the magician’s nat­ural gar­ment except the white under­gar­ment was replaced with a black one (an impure being, com­bined with the red becom­ing Self-Will.) The color red may also refer to Jupiter’s red spot, aka the Eye of Horus. It has also been visu­al­ized as the mouth from where the orig­i­nal ‘Word’ of cre­ation was uttered.”

Tess then makes a per­ti­nent anal­ogy of the three assas­sins, of Julia and Joanna and of John directly to the Sephi­roth. “The sun [John/Tiphareth] requires proper tem­per­ing by the ener­gies of Venus/Netzach [Soror Lilavati in green] and Jupiter/Chesed [Sarah in blue]. The assas­sins rep­re­sent Mercury/Hod [Dr. Bright in yellow/ orange], Mars/Geburah (me in red) and Saturn/Binah [Rick in black]. The order of the assas­sins Hod-Geburah-Binah was reflected within their dia­log and action, as in the tarot paths link­ing each to the sun god. Hod uses weapons that bind and scourge as in the Devil card. Gebu­rah passes judg­ment through the nails cor­re­spond­ing to fate, and Binah is the one who ulti­mately sac­ri­fices the inno­cent sun god. It is very much the ener­gies of the left pil­lar alter­nat­ing with the right pil­lar that cre­ate the cycle of the sun.

Tess lends a fur­ther insight; “also as humans, we encom­pass each of the arche­typal ener­gies rep­re­sented by the Sephi­rah. Ulti­mately, we are to become our Higher Self rep­re­sented by Tiphareth. The impor­tant thing is, that energy does not remain sta­tic. As we move through the paths back and forth through the Sephi­roth, we often expe­ri­ence these as pro­jected con­flicts with oth­ers, which requires change, com­pro­mise and new under­stand­ing. These changes always bring us back to Binah, by inte­grat­ing the new infor­ma­tion in a way that [causes] future responses to be changed and becomes Wis­dom. In the process, our Higher Self is ‘destroyed’ and goes through a process of Self-transformation we often save for our Reg­u­lar Selves. It is then up to our Reg­u­lar Self to con­tinue work­ing with the Devotional/Mystical Sephi­rah in order to bring our Higher Self ‘back to Life’ or ‘back into our Being,’ so to speak, since only through our Higher Self can we per­ceive (if only indi­rectly) the Divine Truth.”

Dr. Robert C. Bright played a voice in the cho­rus as well as the sec­ond of the three assas­sins, the Chi­na­man. “As the Chi­na­man I did think about the Chi­nese [or Ori­en­tal per­spec­tive] and what that might mean, but I didn’t have that deep of a con­nec­tion to it on that level. The racial aspect was de-emphasized and the alchem­i­cal aspect empha­sized. How did it feel to play this part ? A lit­tle scary because I must ‘kill and be killed,’ and I felt some sense of injus­tice because I did not kill the priest, I just gave him a whip­ping, and maybe I could have had a lighter sen­tence with bet­ter coun­sel. Their [the assas­sins] means of death related to the chakras, too. What also impressed me was the fact that the three assas­sins wanted the secret so bad that they were will­ing to risk death to get it, which is exactly what they would need to do. Also the yearn­ing for the light part, and the blind­ing blaz­ing forth from the des­e­crated tem­ple, par­tic­u­larly struck a recent famil­iar experience.”

Rick Gor­ton also played one of the voices of the cho­rus, the third assas­sin — per­haps the cru­elest, the Zulu. “For myself, I attempted to bring a sur­re­al­ism to my role as the Zulu. I had to por­tray a sense of sar­cas­tic evil; the epit­ome of being a Black Brother attempt­ing to lure my way into the tem­ple with my asso­ciates. When guile did not achieve my aim, force was attempted, then mur­der. Dur­ing the period after the assas­si­na­tion, I tried to give an impres­sion of des­per­a­tion, as the three of us assas­sins real­ize our even­tual fate. His­tor­i­cally, I drew an anal­ogy to Bru­tus, and the assas­si­na­tion of Caesar.”

The Cho­rus was made up of six peo­ple. The three actors who played the assas­sins helped to ful­fill three of these voices and the remain­der played by Soror Pela­gia Phosteres or sis­ter Cynthea Wilkes, sis­ter Angela Wix­trom, and Frater SivAnanda Sam­sara com­pleted the cho­rus. Dr. Bright thought maybe they por­trayed unini­ti­ated humans.

Cynthea Wilkes played a voice in the cho­rus and the voice in the west. “Being the voice of the west, it was asso­ci­ated with the flood waters. The atroc­i­ties of the assas­sins were the cat­a­lyst for the flood waters to rise. As far as the rest of the play, I feel the entire Man of Earth triad is rep­re­sented in the char­ac­ter of John, as if he were the Every­man ini­ti­ate. The assas­sins rep­re­sent the chal­lenges to doing your True Will. The four sea­sons are rep­re­sented by Julia (Spring), Joanna (Sum­mer), Jov­ian (Autumn) and Julian (Win­ter), to work together to bring John through his nat­ural cycle. In other words, Hye Kye. Let it flow, let it conceive.”

Angela Wix­trom also played a voice in the cho­rus. The cho­rus acted as a wit­ness to the work. It can be thought of as mankind becom­ing man­i­fest. At times drop­ping the mask and being true men and women. The Ship is about the incar­na­tion of man, of con­scious­ness being born from that; the slay­ing of Osiris, through the dark side of the moon.

Fr. SivAnanda Sam­sara played a voice in the cho­rus and the Keph-Ra Bee­tle. “Work­ing as the Keph-Ra Bee­tle was for me much more of a richer spir­i­tual expe­ri­ence than the cho­rus (which was more of an aca­d­e­mic and his­toric exer­cise). One of the tech­niques that I used was to mod­ify Crowley’s Liber Resh ado­ra­tion from the sec­ond per­son to the first per­son, in order to gain the proper focus, Kephra in my hid­ing and also unto me who art Kephra in my silence. After I had got­ten over the excitement-rush of being the sacred bee­tle for the play, I began to real­ize that I had per­son­ally neglected the under­stand­ing of the God Keph-Ra. My entire extent into the sym­bol­ism had been smash­ing Kephra bee­tles in order to hear them “POP” when I was trav­el­ing on my “Hajj” to Cefalu. I began to explore the var­i­ous nat­u­ral­is­tic attrib­utes behind the con­cept of the force of life being con­tained in the shit/manure [which this ani­mal rolls its eggs in to incu­bate them], but I had not yet com­pletely con­nected with the spir­i­tual aspect of this fact of Nature.

It was also note­wor­thy to me to keep in mind the for­mula of V.I.T.R.I.O.L. — Visita Inte­rior Ter­rae Rec­ti­f­i­cando Iuve­nies Occul­tum Lapidum, as an alchem­i­cal quest; uti­liz­ing also Jun­gian depth-psychological meth­ods of delv­ing com­pletely into the com­plexes and insan­i­ties of your own psy­che in order to find growth and strength from the res­o­lu­tion (rec­ti­f­i­cando) of sub­con­scious stress-points and issues/baggage. When I had piped the results of this analy­sis into the Yogic tech­niques of Pratyahara->Dharana->Dhyana-> Samadhi->NirvikalpaSamapati I was able to DEEPLY jos­tle loose any com­plexes. Jung called it the “Mis­ver­haelt­nis” or lit­er­ally wrongly-completely-state-of-holding or some­thing being held in a false rela­tion­ship or pro­por­tion with some­thing else; espe­cially in terms of complexes/interpretations in the psy­che uncon­scious. This is what had led me to avoid the con­tem­pla­tion of the Keph-Ra mys­ter­ies in the first place. As Crow­ley once stated it, and I para­phrase: ‘Sub­due thy fear and thy dis­gust of ALL THINGS soever, then behold! Who art when all but thou ART GONE thou cen­tre and secret of the sun?’”

“Crow­ley says some­where that the play The Ship con­tains all of the true secrets of Blue Lodge Masonry, i.e 1st through 3rd degree reg­u­lar Craft masonry. The body of the slain priest-king John being car­ried and held within a “grown-new” ship to be set adrift into the “sea that hath no shores” was a mas­ter­ful mar­riage of the Ashurbanipul-Ziggurat/SchneeWitchen(Snow White) — Crypt/Noah-Ark myth with the Krishna/Dionysus/Bacchus/Christ life and sub­se­quent death events. Their obvi­ous ini­ti­ated inter­pre­ta­tions can­not be here stated except that any O.T.O. ini­ti­ate of the Man of Earth degrees should rec­og­nize some sim­i­lar­i­ties (more in some degrees than in oth­ers) with the rad­i­cal analy­sis. The char­ac­ter of the Bee­tle, to me, was rather a syn­the­sis of the entire myth cycle con­tained within the seed of the God-form. My explo­rations made me real­ize and appre­ci­ate the beauty of the sym­bol of the Hawk-winged Bee­tle car­ry­ing the ulti­mate spark of the inti­mate fire sleep­ing within a shell of utter putre­fac­tion car­ry­ing it across the Abyss to a con­ve­nient place for its rebirth.”

Part II

Each of the actors in The Ship has related what their char­ac­ter was rep­re­sent­ing sym­bol­i­cally in the play. There have been those that related to a dif­fer­en­ti­ated part of the one self, a planet or Sephira, or that their part was anal­o­gous to other char­ac­ters as related and explored in sev­eral of Crowley’s Rites of Eleu­sis. Another aspect, the alchem­i­cal model men­tioned by Frater Kallah Adonai and Fr. SivAnanda Sam­sara, struck this writer par­tic­u­larly as hit­ting the mark for an expla­na­tion of the var­i­ous por­tray­als and for the over­all pro­duc­tion of the work. If the cast and crew mates of The Ship will per­mit me, I would like to share this anal­ogy more in depth.

The Great Work within the art of alchemy, as every great magi­cian and arti­fi­cer knows and as Crow­ley knew only too well, is work­ing with the rar­efy­ing process of chang­ing mat­ter to spirit and back again. It is the dual process of apply­ing equally the work­ing of the outer forces of nature upon the inner dimen­sion, and work­ing upon the inte­rior (plant, metal, man’s body and spirit), to pro­duce a trans­mu­ta­tion or rebirth of the orig­i­nal mate­r­ial. If applied to the Great Work upon met­als the alchemist names this result the Philosopher’s stone. If applied to the Great Work upon the self, philoso­phers call it the Stone of the Wise. On one level, one can work the alchemy of plants, on another that of met­als, and on another the soul of the indi­vid­ual. For Crow­ley, his lab­o­ra­tory notes were tran­scribed into what many philoso­phers had done before him, he had given a great truth lit­er­ary and poetic anal­ogy through the writ­ing of a mys­tery play.

For most, it will work best if you open to a copy of the play and are able to fol­low along, while I delve into the spe­cial­ized processes of alchemy as veiled through the verse that Crow­ley sets forth in The Ship. This is not meant to be another trea­tise on the sub­ject, but only to describe the most rudi­men­tary com­po­nents as relates to The Ship.

First, let me briefly describe one small sim­ple exam­ple of a trans­mu­ta­tion imme­di­ately avail­able to view in the open­ing scene. As one views the stage look­ing to the left are green trees, in the cen­ter the tem­ple of the sun, and on the right a heap of builder’s refuse. Why one may ask? It is a sim­ple and at once visual expla­na­tion of the nature of change, a fore­shad­ow­ing of the great work to come. The trees are the orig­i­nal, organic form– the “prima mate­ria.” The trees are changed into wood that becomes the tem­ple of the sun and then the refuge or the dross after the build­ing was com­pleted is left. We see at once a trans­mu­ta­tion of the trees into some­thing beau­ti­ful and amazing.

The trans­mu­ta­tion that takes place through­out The Ship is sim­i­lar in prin­ci­ple, but is pre­sented on another level. Through the ele­va­tion of the pri­mary mate­r­ial — the body of John, by the puri­fy­ing of the inner self, and an inte­gra­tion of the polar­i­ties within the soul or the self, the incar­na­tion of spirit occurs. This process, which unfolds in a series of char­ac­ter con­flicts, alle­gor­i­cally speak­ing, is the very alchem­i­cal process of the self in its Death-Rebirth expe­ri­ence, or the process of rein­car­na­tion. By the process of work­ing with the ele­ments within, the self trans­forms itself. This body or “ore” changes into some­thing greater than from which it began and in the end becomes the enlight­ened soul, or trans­muted “gold.”

Through suc­ces­sive alchem­i­cal oper­a­tions, as explained through the famous work known as the Splen­dor Solis (writ­ten by no doubt a pseu­do­ny­mous author nam­ing him­self Salomon Tris­mosin some­time in the 16th cen­tury), it explains the trans­for­ma­tion process involv­ing the incar­na­tion of spirit in mat­ter through a death-rebirth. The Splen­dor Solis is also accom­pa­nied by twenty-two suc­ces­sive illus­tra­tions that por­tray the work. In The Ship, amaz­ingly, the plot closely fol­lows this process. The soul of John, in his trans­mu­ta­tion must go through the seven gen­eral suc­ces­sive alchem­i­cal steps that met­als go through: cal­ci­na­tion, sub­li­ma­tion, solu­tion, putre­fac­tion, dis­til­la­tion, coag­u­la­tion & fix­a­tion. And we shall see how well this occurs within the play.

The play opens at the Tem­ple of the Sun and drawn upon the back­drop are seen two inter­sect­ing disks; the ter­res­trial (earth) and the celes­tial (all of the heav­ens), and at their cen­ter is a vesica. In the first illus­tra­tion of the Splen­dor Solis, is shown a shield of the sun, bring­ing the macro­cos­mic sun into the lower world of the earth. In the sec­ond illus­tra­tion is seen a ban­ner which says, “Let us go and seek the nature of the four ele­ments, which are all found within the earth.” In the plays open­ing scene the King is rest­ing, and behind the veil, Julia says, “Softly splen­did, to his rest steals the god­head to my breast!” And Joanna says, “Hid­den in the Holy veil, Thou and I pre­pare the rite…” John the sun, unites with Julia the mother earth and Joanna the moon. In the next Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion is seen a knight guard­ing a dou­ble foun­tain, which is poured the golden and sil­ver liq­uid, the sun and the moon, or the sul­fur and the mer­cury, and on his shield is writ­ten, “Make one water out of two waters.”

In the next illus­tra­tion is shown the meet­ing of the polar­i­ties of the lunar queen and the solar king. This rep­re­sents the King’s deci­sion to carry out the ensu­ing step of the process of cal­ci­na­tion in the soul, the will­ing­ness to burn away the ego.

The vesica is the door­way through which the trans­muted spirit will even­tu­ally find birth from the work­ing of this uni­fi­ca­tion. Both the play and the illus­tra­tions show that one must descend into the mat­ter and then rise up remade. “As above so below, and as below, so above.” The first four Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tions intro­duce the basic forces of what must be achieved, by first inte­grat­ing the polar­i­ties within. Out of the two will come the prod­uct of their union. This ground­work must occur before the self or the ore may pre­pare for its transmutation.

Next, enter a Chi­nese, an Arab and a Zulu. Alle­gor­i­cally, the con­flict that ensues rep­re­sents the acti­vat­ing forces, which bring on “a heat” or the cal­ci­na­tion of the ore. We must look beyond the National rep­re­sen­ta­tions and under­stand the basis at which Crow­ley chose these par­tic­u­lar men. It is eas­ily under­stood when viewed as the alchem­i­cal stages of heat and its suc­ces­sive col­orations. The Chi­nese rep­re­sents the yel­low­ing, the Arab the red­den­ing, and the Zulu, the black­en­ing. They are the salt, sul­fur and mer­cury of the soul. In another alchem­i­cal writ­ing called the “Turba” the heat­ing process is gen­er­ally explained. “Twice it turns black, twice also it turns yel­low and twice red.” This is exactly what hap­pens when the three men approach first Jov­ian and then Julian to obtain entrance into the shrine.

This heat­ing process is next rep­re­sented in the Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tions in seven sep­a­rate phases of the death and rebirth cycle, which we shall see, fol­low suit within the play. They can be divided up into the fol­low­ing: 1. the extrac­tion of the ore, 2. the arche­typal tree, 3. the death of the old king, 4. the meet­ing with the angelic spir­i­tual being, 5. the winged her­maph­ro­dite with the egg, 6. the behead­ing and dis­mem­ber­ing of the body, and 7. the bath of transformation.

The Chi­nese says upon enter­ing the stage, “I am the dragon brother of your priest and we come from north and south and east, to build your god a new and nobler shrine.” In alchemy, the sym­bolic lan­guage of call­ing the first heat, the alloy of cop­per and sil­ver made by warm­ing the two met­als with mer­cury, is called the “Dragon, ” and sig­ni­fies the begin­ning of the heat­ing process. In the first illus­tra­tion of the Splen­dor Solis, a youth is seen pour­ing a flask down a Dragon’s throat. The forces of John’s soul must now be dissolved.

In the next illus­tra­tion we see that the forces have been digested and trans­formed into three birds — the three assas­sins of John’s soul. The red bird is the expan­sive fiery ener­gies that are untam­able. The Black bird is the dark and decay­ing mate­r­ial of old per­cep­tions and habits. The White/yellow bird tries to medi­ate between the two. Thus the Chi­nese, the Arab and the Zulu work their scourg­ing, impal­ing and spear­ing upon John. The met­als sep­a­rately work upon the soul mate­r­ial and then burn them­selves into the next stage of the souls trans­for­ma­tion. The three met­als mostly fuse them­selves together. In the next illus­tra­tion is shown an eagle with three heads — the three assas­sins worked as one slayer, but in three dif­fer­ent ways.

In the sec­ond phase, the next Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion shows a tree unit­ing the earth and heaven, an anal­ogy for the process of the self, estab­lish­ing firm roots and grow­ing new branches. This shift is an etheric one. In order for the self to grow, the self must release its etheric force. John is tied to the white col­umn. His arms are out­stretched and he is cru­ci­fied, as upon a cross. From E.J. Holmyard’s book, Alchemy, he describes this anal­ogy. “The sym­bolic equa­tion of Christ with the philosopher’s stone may be explained as a pro­jec­tion of the redeemer-image, but with the reser­va­tion that the Chris­t­ian earns the fruits of grace from a work already per­formed, while the alchemist labours in the cause of the divine world-soul slum­ber­ing and await­ing redemp­tion in matter.”

John, the old king dies. In this third phase, the Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion shows the Old King sink­ing into the uni­ver­sal sea of the soul, sym­bol­iz­ing the hard­ened, con­tract­ing and rigid pat­terns within.

As the assas­sins declare to the women to open the shrine, the cho­rus reveals the fourth phase of the work. “In it all prin­ci­ples inhere; to it all ele­ments con­spire; from it all ener­gies revere, of it the inscrutable desire.” In the Splen­dor Solis is shown the four ele­ments and in its cen­ter an her­maph­ro­dite holds an egg, the fifth essence. Jov­ian and Julian stand by as Julia and Joanna open the door of the vesica and blind the assas­sins with a blaze of light. This light is the whiten­ing of the “ore,” the bright soul of the spirit released in a blind­ing flash, John in angelic form, the quin­tes­sence of the spirit. The assas­sins sink down to the rub­ble on stage, appro­pri­ately, as the work they have done, like the met­als they are, have done their work. In this phase, he has reached the turn­ing point of the trans­for­ma­tion. His etheric force has now become an astral soul.

In the next illus­tra­tion we encounter the sixth process, of dis­mem­ber­ment of the body. The ener­gies of the three met­als that have worked their process must now be trans­formed. A final sep­a­ra­tion of them must be irrev­o­ca­bly sep­a­rated from the body. In the Splen­dor Solis, a man is seen wear­ing gar­ments of red and white with a sword. (John wears a white robe now stained with blood.) The pic­tured philoso­pher must cut and dis­mem­ber the etheric forces that he has brought to bear. The three ruf­fi­ans are now put to their final deaths. This process of purifi­ca­tion is the sec­ond major step of alchemy, the sublimation.

At the final death of each of the ruf­fi­ans, the waters suc­ceed­ing rise. In Adam McLean’s com­men­tary on this phase of the Splen­dor Solis, he writes about this illus­tra­tion. “In the back­ground are seen peo­ple wel­com­ing the arrival of a ship with its long-sought cargo, a metaphor for the bring­ing of new forces into the work. Also is seen a tem­ple, a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of a spir­i­tual impulse and rep­re­sents the abid­ing, eter­nal foun­da­tion of the work in sub­stance. John’s soul now must sink into the uni­ver­sal sea within the soul.”

The Ship is the ves­sel, which trav­els over the sea as an alchem­i­cal flask for the soul. It car­ries this devel­op­ing ore of the self for a cer­tain period of time in order for this truth to “sink” into the sub­con­scious. The cho­rus peals, “Through the tem­pest, toward the dark, ploughs the fate-fulfilling bark, laden with the sacred ark.” In the next Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion, the philoso­pher sinks into a rest­less sea. The earthly body is dis­solved. This last phase of the death cycle is called the bath of trans­for­ma­tion, and it her­alds the begin­ning of the third major process in alchemy, the process of solu­tion. It is one of silence and of peace for the soul. In this alchem­i­cal process the gold is slowly ris­ing to form a red tinc­ture by a gen­tly heated water bath.

The cho­rus describes the fear that Julia and Joanna have in the open­ing of the sec­ond scene. “Dreams dilu­vian daunt the dar­ing daugh­ters that, devout in the hour of wastrel waters hither bore from its house of eld the shrine.” And, “the ocean labours; earth is awake; a mur­mured motion marks the end of the tragic theme.” Then the stage direc­tions read, “A great bee­tle emerges from the pool hold­ing in its mandibles the sacred Vesica! He advances, and affixes it to the Tree, just above the fork of the boughs.” This dra­matic por­trayal is the next major alchem­i­cal step of putre­fac­tion. The bee­tle is black, which rep­re­sents what the mix­ture in the ves­sel has turned into. It also sym­bol­i­cally rep­re­sents the nat­ural process of what this ani­mal does with its young, that of rolling the eggs along within a dung ball to allow the life inside to incu­bate until its proper time. This is also what hap­pens when the old seed in the soil decom­poses to make a rich loamy food for the next seed to ger­mi­nate. From the dark­ness of the uncon­scious mind, a new life is forming.

Through the alchem­i­cal process of this res­o­lu­tion there comes an inte­gra­tion of the three prin­ci­ples already men­tioned, the salt, sul­fur and mer­cury. In the Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion there is seen the iri­des­cence of the philo­soph­i­cal mer­cury and what is pic­tured is a peacock’s col­or­ful tail. In the play, a rain­bow is seen above the trees. Julia gets it right, “The seven colours glow upon the murk. This is the mid­most moment of the work.” This is the next major alchem­i­cal step, the dis­til­la­tion. The col­oration is caused by the ris­ing of the vapors from the body of the mate­r­ial. “The energy is con­stantly falling back down to nature’s trio of Sat­urn, Mer­cury and Mars, and then ris­ing again into the realm of the Moon and Venus,” says Mel­lie Uyldert in his Metal Magic.

In the play, the bier is brought before the tree. Julia dances about the body and roses fall from heaven. The body is then raised up and stood against the tree. Julia and Joanna raise their hands to heaven and invoke the pow­ers of reju­ve­na­tion under the moon. Despite their work to bring the body back to life, it does not stir. The alchemist must be patient; this is the crit­i­cal final point of the work. Every­thing hap­pens of its own accord. One can­not force or rush this final phase of Coag­u­la­tion. The final stage in alchemy is the process and for­ma­tion of the red tinc­ture of the solar forces, beau­ti­fully por­trayed by John get­ting cov­ered in roses.

In the Splen­dor Solis, the next illus­tra­tion shows a Queen hold­ing an orb in her right hand, a scepter in her left and she stands in bril­liant light. The white stone or philo­soph­i­cal salt is finally brought into con­tact with liv­ing ener­gies. Salomon Tris­mosin reminds us, “With­out the moon the whole mas­tery is in vain, for it is a metal­lic water which rejoices in the body and makes it alive.” As the dawn’s light so pre­vails, so does the new spirit of the trans­muted self come to rebirth. The young John now awakes and is reborn.

In the last Splen­dor Solis illus­tra­tion, the king is seen hold­ing the orb and scepter in his hands, and there he stands exalted, crowned and pow­er­ful. The sun is seen radi­at­ing out from behind him. The philo­soph­i­cal sul­phur of John, has reached its fully active pen­e­trat­ing aspect, hav­ing acted inwardly to reat­tach its radi­at­ing and life-seeking reaches of his soul. “This is the alchem­i­cal mar­riage, where oppos­ing prin­ci­ples are fused into a puri­fied and incor­rupt­ible whole,” says E.J. Holm­yard. John raises his hands and opens the vesica shrine. His inner soul, now trans­formed and lumi­nous, shines upon all who are around him and touches all who see it, as one may feel the radi­ance from a tran­scended being.

Lit­tle did I, or many of the actors and crew know when first read­ing The Ship, what Crow­ley was fully try­ing to present. What at first glance was seen as a short play about rebirth, had become a major lit­er­ary tableau for the story of the eter­nal soul in its evo­lu­tion of rein­car­na­tion via the vehi­cle of the superla­tive coop­er­a­tion of nature and man. “Mankind, matured from myr­iad wombs, is but the gar­den where it blooms.” As Tess Moon said, “It’s some­thing that can be for­ever contemplated.”

To close, I would like to share the clos­ing words of a rare Greek alchem­i­cal poem trans­lated by C.A. Browne.

“Thus he doth eas­ily release him­self by drink­ing nec­tar, though com­pletely dead; He poureth out to mor­tals all his wealth and by his help the Earth-born are sus­tained. Abun­dantly in life, when they have found the won­drous mys­tery, which being fixed will turn to sil­ver, daz­zling bright in kind, a metal hav­ing naught of earthy taint, So bril­liant, clear, and won­der­fully white.”


Crow­ley, Aleis­ter  The Equinox Vol I, No 10, Samuel Weiser Inc, 1972

Holm­yard, E.J.  Alchemy, Pen­guin Books, 1957

Uyldert, Mel­lie  Metal Magic –The Eso­teric Prop­er­ties And Uses Of Met­als, Trans­lated from the Dutch by Jane Fenoul­het Turn­stone Press, 1980

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