The following is a presentation given in my Alchemy class (led by Dr. Evans Lansing Smith). It was intended to provide an analysis of a selected image from the Splendor Solis, an alchemical text by Salomon Trismosin and written in the 16th century. Naturally, I selected an image depicting the Muse (plate II-6):
Here we see the usual arts we associate with the Muse: painting, writing, music. But we also see architects, craftsmen and merchants. This is because the Muse is found not only in the arts but in every facet of human life that requires thought. Creativity and inspiration abounds in all activities and comes in many forms.
At the top of the painting, Hermes/Mercury is seen presiding over the realm of the Muse. Hermes is, of course, the trickster. He presides over speech and problem solving, for he is the messenger. He is also the god of liminal space: of creating and breaking boundaries.
Both Hermes and the Muse are in blue which, in alchemical symbolism, is the final color of the stages of transformation. It represents transcendence, the ascension of thought, the ascension of the spirit onto a higher plane – onto a realm of the unconscious and spiritual existence: the realm of the Muse. Hermes holds a sickle for death in one hand, the caduceus for life in the other. In some greek texts, Hermes’ caduceus casts light and is a golden beacon for the dead to follow as they descend in the underworld, which we well know is a metaphor of the unconscious (see Karl Kerenyi’s book Hermes: Guide of Souls).
In their book Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis, Henderson and Sherwood point out that also seen in the caduceus is a tension of opposites, as the two serpents circle the staff in ever widening revolutions, but still face one another. Seen on the wheels of Hermes’ chariot are symbols of the zodiac signs ruled by this trickster – Virgo and Gemini. In their analysis, Henderson and Sherwood focus on the twins. They too are a pair of opposites in unison. This theme may be so prevalent here to represent the unconscious and unconscious. I suspect it represents the always unclear communication between the two, giving us inspiration in the language of dreams, metaphors, and soul images.
In the center we have the Muse, herself. We see her trapped in the alembic (the inverted womb), emitting an aura of gold and blue, and standing on a field of gold (which in clearer images we can see is a golden head, possibly the severed head of the king from previous images), which I believe is indicative of the sacred union – the coniunctio which is a key part of creativity.
Here I must diverge from Henderson and Sherwood’s analysis. They claim that Hermes represent the Ultimate Self, but I have to disagree. In previous papers on the subject I identify the Muse as the Self, as an anima/animus image, be it abstract, projected, or personified (for definitions of this theory, see your hand-out).
Henderson and Sherwood also identify the Muse as the Sacred Feminine, but once more I differ. The Muse is both the Sacred Feminine and the Sacred Masculine. The creative power of the masculine is every bit as potent as that of the feminine, a theory which isn’t terribly popular these days. You can see hints of this in the gold, in which there is a man’s head that she is standing on, and in Hermes, himself. Possibly even in the roosters pulling his chariot. The gold field not only represents the masculine side of the Muse, but also as – I mentioned earlier – the sacred union. You cannot find inspiration without passion. Every alchemical process must have a catalyst, and love is what inspires creation. The love of what we do, the consuming passion that drives us in our pursuit. That is why, for those who have a projected or a personified muse, it often represents someone we love. A friend, a role model, a family member, or someone we burn for – for passion is red, it is fire (seen in the Laurie Lipton adaptation). That is why the Muse is not feminine only, as the classicists would have it. Nor must it be, as seen in the literal representations of the sacred union, restricted to man and woman. Creative energy comes out of Love, in all its forms. Therefore the man and woman in the alembic symbolizes not only union, but it also symbolizes the inherent androgyny of the Muse.
My interpretation of this images is that the Muse is the Soul Image, and Hermes is our psychopomp to help us communicate with it.
I am open to questions comments, and lively debate in the comments. Lynch mobs will be dealt with by my Igor.
Texts referred to in this presentation: