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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