Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bringing Down the Light: Mirra Alfassa

Mirra at age 7 (Wikipedia)

Part One
     Before she was recognized by Indian Philosopher Sri Aurobindo as an incarnation of the Goddess, ”The Divine Mother”, Mirra Alfassa was a mystic, artist, wife, mother, and Hermeticist. The philosophical foundation of alchemy comes from the teachings of Hermes and Thoth (1). The basis of these teachings is the Emerald Tablet of Hermes (see below).

   Mirra’s journey began in 1878 when she born in Paris to an Egyptian mother and Jewish/Turkish father. Both were from banking families, so Mirra had an affluent childhood. Yet her destiny lies not with materialism, but as mediator between earthly and subtle realms. Her full name at birth was Blanche Rachel Miriam (Mirra) Alfassa. She had one brother: Matteo Maurice Alfassa.

      At age five she had an experience with a consciousness which manifested as a luminous force around her head. That brilliance remained with her the rest of her life (2). She became a visionary mystic, developed pronounced empathetic qualities, and a strong bond with Nature. She could feel the pain and joys of others acutely. She was often visit by non-corporeal beings. Her extreme introversion caused her family to consider her as “retarded” (3). Though she had started formal education later than other children, by age ten she had advanced to the head of her class.  She excelled in academics, music, art, and tennis.  At 12 she started spontaneously practicing yoga. By age thirteen, she had dedicated herself to the service of humanity. At fifteen, she entered the Academie Julien, an art school in Paris.

      Through her teens and early twenties, she continued having mystical experiences. Searching, she studied Eastern Philosophies and the spiritual aspects of occultism.  From 1896-1907, she became part of the Paris art circle with artists Rodin, Matisse & Monet, and writer Emile Zola. Six of her own paintings were exhibited in the Salon de la Societe Nationale de Beaux-Arts, Paris from 1903-1906(4).During this period, she also met and married painter Henri Morriset, a student of Symbolist Gustave Dore. Together, they painted murals on the altar of the Church of St. James of Compostelia in 1898 (5). She gave birth to her only child this same year: Andre Morriset.
The House at Tlemcen

   She did not connect with a spiritual group until she was 20, when she joined a group founded by Hermeticist Max Theon: Groupe Cosmique. (Theon was also a well respected member of of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.) Mirra was with Groupe Cosmique almost 3 years before she  visited the Theon estate in Tlemcen, Algeria (which borders the Shahara) in 1906. She became an apprentice to both Max & Alma Theon.  Mirra continued studying with the Theons until 1907. She was 27. At this point, it was recognized that she had mastered the techniques of her teachers. In 1908, she and Morriset divorced. 

       In 1910,Mirra attended a talk given by author & adventurer Alexandria David-Neel (Magic and Mystery in Tibet, among others)  and they became close friends.  In a 1969 interview, Alexandria David-Neel said this about Mirra; In spite of her great love and sweetness, in spite even of her inherent ease of making herself forgotten after achieving some noble deed, she couldn't manage to hide very well the tremendous force she bore within herself. (6)

         Mirra’s home became a salon for Spiritual seekers from all over the world. Alexandria David-Neel was there often. Mirra founded a group called I’Idee’ Novelle (The New Idea).
       In 1911, Mirra married lawyer Paul Richard, whom she had met while in Groupe Cosmique. Paul had already been working with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, and it is through him that Mirra would meet the man that would declare her an incarnation of the Divine mother. In PART TWO we will explore Mirra’s life with Sri Aurobindo and her amazing legacy.

Sources and Credits
     (1) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy by Dennis William Hauck/2006 page 22
     (2) On The Mother: the chronicle of a manifestation and ministry, by K. R. Srinivas Iyengar/1994         page 5
     (3) IBID page 6
     (4) IBID page 847
     (5) IBID page 847

Article; India’s (Jewish) Mother, Michelle Goldberg:
House at Tlemcen:

The Emerald Tablet of Thoth
  1. [It is] true, without error, certain and most true,
  2. That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, to perform the miracles of the one thing.
  3. And as all things were from the one, by means of the meditation of the one, thus all things were born from the one, by means of adaptation.
  4. Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon, the Wind carried it in its belly, its nurse is the earth.
  5. The father of the whole world [or "of all of the initiates"?] is here.
  6. Its power is whole if it has been turned into earth.
  7. You will separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, sweetly, with great skill.
  8. It ascends from earth into heaven and again it descends to the earth, and receives the power of higher and of lower things.
  9. Thus you will have the Glory of the whole world.
  10. Therefore will all obscurity flee from you.
  11. Of all strength this is true strength, because it will conquer all that is subtle, and penetrate all that is solid.
  12. Thus was the world created.
  13. From this were wonderful adaptations, of which this is the means. Therefore am I named Thrice-Great Hermes, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
  14. It is finished, what I have said about the working[s] of the Sun.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sun Be’ur: Taoist Inner Alchemy

Sun Be'ur lived from 1119-1182 in the Shandong Province of China (near the Yellow River).  She was married and had 3 children (1).  During her lifetime she achieved mastery over inner alchemy. Her teacher was Taoist master Wang Chungyang. He transmitted the lineage to her directly before he died, so she could carry on the tradition. As a Taoist priestess, she founded the Purity and Tranquility School (2). Later in life she moved to “Grotto of the Immortal Lady Feng”. In doing so, she inherited a female lineage.  She achieved enlightenment through her Taoist practices. It is said that she ascended bodily to heaven when she died. Sixty years after her death she was considered the only female of the Seven Immortals (3). 
Sun Beur achieved the following through her life and practice:
   *Wife & Mother
   *Holder of 2 lineages
   *Spirit communication
   *Founder of a Spiritual School
   *Alchemical Master

Refining the Spirit
“The relic from before birth
Enters one's heart one day.
Be as careful as if you were holding a full vessel,
Be as gentle as if you were caressing an infant.
The gate of earth should be shut tight,
The portals of heaven should be first opened.
Wash the yellow sprouts clean,
And atop the mountain is thunder shaking the earth.”
By Sun Bu’er
Translation by Thomas Cleary (3)

(1)  Women in Taosim, by Catherine & Livia Kohn ( PDF Document)

(3)Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women , by Thomas Cleary/1996, page 31

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mary Sidney Herbert: Alchemist Extraordinaire

The blossoming of spiritual alchemy (Natural Philosophy) in a given culture or society is a reflection of the peoples dialogue with the Imaginal Realm. This is the realm of the muse, myth, dreams, inspiration, and archetypes. This is why we see a flourishing of the arts and humanitarian efforts surrounding successful alchemists throughout the ages. In my personal commitment to following the image of Reindeer Woman through my blogging process, I came to realize the importance of the Imaginal Realm for all of humanity. It is the interface of human consciousness with the Imaginal Realm that leads us towards a truly beneficial relationship with all life.

     After coming to understand recent events of my life through the lens of spiritual alchemy, I became intrigued by women alchemists. I have always looked for the feminine practitioners of every spiritual tradition and, sadly, their importance has been often overlooked. Even though alchemy is one of the most publicized subjects in the book market (1), there is not a single book dedicated to the history of female alchemists!

     I pulled out my texts, searched through Google books, search library databases, & read what other women who walked before me posted on their blogs and websites. I found mention of many women alchemists, but very little documentation. I found them in all periods of history and in almost every culture.

     For the sake of this essay I am going to focus on one extraordinary woman: Mary Sydney Herbert: Countess of Pembroke, who lived in England from 1561-1621. I don’t feel I can give the amount of space needed in this essay to fully recount her influence on culture. I will try to show you what an amazing woman she was, especially during the historical period in which she lived.
     Mary Sidney was betrothed at 13 and married at 15 to Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. She became Lady Sidney, one of Elisabeth I’s most trusted ladies-in-waiting. She and her brother Sir Phillip Sidney were very close. Together they created the most influential literary circle in England, The Wilton Circle (2). Named for Mary’s estate, The Wilton House, their mission was to create great works of English literature. Her brother Phillip died when she was 27, and she proceeded to manage the Wilton Circle herself. The Wilton Circle inseparably linked to the legacy of Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare’s works contain alchemical allegory (3). 
      It was also at the Wilton Estate that Lady Sidney had her alchemical laboratory. Her lab assistant was Adrian Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh’s half brother.  Sir Walter Raleigh was instrumental in founding the colony of Virginia, named after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.  Gilbert was also responsible for designing and maintaining the elaborate gardens at Wilton. He used the principles of geometry to create a harmonious atmosphere.

     Other alchemists in her chemistry circle included:
   *Dr. John Dee (Elizabeth I’s own spy: the original 007, court astrologer, polymath and navigator)
   *Giordano Bruno (Bruno’s work Spaccio was dedicated to Sir  Phillip Sidney (4) )
   *Sir Francis Bacon (statesman, scientist, author)
   *Thomas Digges (Knight of the Garter, astronomer, inventor)
   *Sir Edward Dyer (Knight of the Garter, courtier, poet)
   *Sir Thomas Smith (Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, Chancellor of the Order of the Garter)
    *Lady Mary Wroth (Mary’s niece, poetess.  Ben Johnson dedicated his play “The Alchemist” to her)

    There were many others who moved through the Wilton Literary Circle that also were alchemists. I am only using names I can find direct sources for. I wish there had been more documentation of the woman in this circle, but execution for witchcraft made keeping such records dangerous in the England of Elizabeth I and James I.

    Mary Sidney's alchemical interests were focused toward philosophy, the creation of medicinal tinctures and the search for “Universal Medicine” to help elevate and transform humanity to its highest potential. The alchemical philosophy involved the training of the mind to transmute negative circumstances and thoughts into creative growth. The laboratory wasn’t just used to create medicine, it was used to reflect back or mirror the alchemist’s mental state. An understanding of astrology and natural cycles were also important.

     Along with her alchemical interests here are some other fascinating facts regarding Mary Sydney Herbert:
   *She was fluent in French, Italian and Latin. (5)
   *She had the most extensive library in England (followed by Dr. John Dee).
    *She was a writer in her own right.
    *She was the most powerful woman in England at the time, except for Queen Elisabeth.
    *She financed New World exploration and was a founding member of The Virginia Company. (6)
   *She is one of 7 contenders for the authorship of the works of  Shakespeare…. but that is a tale for another day! (7)

Some Sources:

Photo 1 : Alchemedia
Photo 2 : Sketch by F.O. Morris

Mary Sidney & Alchemy:

Mary Sidney & the Authorship Question:

Women in Alchemy:

(1)     The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, Dennis William Hauck/2008
(2)     Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, Robin P. Williams 2006/page 30
(3)     Chemical Theatre, Charles Nicholl/1997
(4)     Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, by Frances A. Yates  1991/page 219
(5)     Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a woman write Shakespeare?, Robin P. Williams 2006/page 98
(6)     IBID, page 103 
(7)     IBID, whole text