The writings of the alchemists seem to anticipate this situation. By remaining obscure and vague, they resist all attempts at popularizing. To be sure, the word “alchemy” is used frequently to describe everything from beauty treatments to fruit juices, and in some modern esoteric literature the term is loosely used to define any attempt at transformation, no matter how casual. When the words “alchemy” and “tantra” are combined, as they are in this book—many people will assume they already know what it’s all about: using sex as a means to alter consciousness. 0r something.

When the actual literature itself resists easy interpretation, the tendency to use it to support any interpretation can be overwhelming. There is too much work required in order to accomplish the Great Work: too much learning, too much practice, too much meditation on the process itself. So the Work is devalued to the point where it means little more than achieving inner peace, or more frequent orgasms. 0r something.

Yet the green language of the alchemists and the twilight language of the Tantrikas all point to the possibility of achieving much more than these evidently worthy goals. The language itself points to a hidden treasure beyond the comprehension of the average person, because the average person—all persons—are artifacts of this treasure, living icons of the invisible. When we proceed to decode the work of Thomas Vaughan, we will demonstrate this assertion using his own words. By the time we get to that point, however, we will have a grounding in the language used by the Chinese and the Indian

alchemists, because that will give us the key we need to unlock the secrets of Vaughan’s work, also of his life, and possibly even his death.

  1. R.S. Bucknell and Martin Stuart-Fox, The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey (UK), 1986, 1993, p. 33.
  2. Some of this was discussed in my Tantric Temples: Eros and Magic in Java.
  3. Eliphas Levi, The Mysteries of the Qabalah:The Occult Agreement of the Two Testaments, Weiser, York Beach (ME), 1974, 2000.
  4. In Magia Adamica, lines 484-502.
  5. Ibid., and in Anthroposophia Theomagica, lines 1333-1337, “But shall I not be counted a Conjurer seeing I follow the Principles of Cornelius Agrippa, that Grand Archmagus, as the antichristian Jesuits call him? He is indeed my Author, and next to God I owe all that I have unto Him. Why should I be ashamed to confess it?”
  6. Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists: A history and source book, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 57.
  7. Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986, p. 184.
  8. Hans Dieter Betz, Antike und Christentum, Gesammelte Aufsätze IV, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1998, p. 164.
  9. Fulcanelli, Le mystere des cathédrales, Jean Schemit, Paris, 1926, pp. 17-18.
  10. Louis Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Thorsons Publishers, London, 1972, p. 42.
  11. David 0vason, The Secrets of Nostradamus: A Radical New Interpretation of the Master’s Prophecies, HarperCollins, New York, 2001, see especially chapters four and five and appendix five.
  12. Edward C. Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vai ava-Sahajiyā Cult of Bengal, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, p. 124.
  13. Dimock, p. 125 fn.
  14. For instance, Christian K. Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology and Transgression in the Indian Traditions, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013.
  15. R.S. Bucknell and Martin Stuart-Fox, The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey (UK), 1993.
  16. From Fu Jinquan, Sizhu Wuzhen pian, cited in Wang Mu, Foundations of Internal Alchemy: the Taoist Practice of Neidan, Golden Elixir Press, Mountain View, 2011, p. 5.
  17. Isabelle Robinet, The World Upside Down: Essays on Taoist Internal Alchemy, Golden Elixir Press, Mountain View, 2011, p.22. (emphasis in original).
  18. See my remarks concerning “procedural knowledge,” below. 19 Robinet, p. 37.
  19. Robinet, p. 37.
  20. See for instance Fabrizio Pregadio, Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2006, p. 3, where he cites the Baopu Zi in this regard. This is the same text referenced by Kenneth Rexroth in his Foreword to The Works of Thomas Vaughan, op. cit., p.7, where it is rendered in the older Wade-Giles system of transliteration as Pao P’u Tzu. The actual citation reads: “I received those texts with oral instructions that cannot be written down.”
  21. Sallustius, On the Gods and the World, Chapter III., translation by Gilbert Murray. The older, Thomas Taylor, translation uses the English word “fable” instead of “myth.”
  22. Carlo Ginzburg and Anna Davin, “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” in History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), 0xford University Press, pp. 5-36.





That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above, for the performance of the wonders of the 0ne Thing.

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes

Invert nature and you will find that which you seek.

— Maria the Jewess1

To begin a study of the work of Thomas Vaughan we should address ourselves to those influences that were in closest proximity to him, those that had the greatest effect on his worldview and on his esoteric philosophy. We know what these influences are because he tells us quzite openly:

But God having suffered his Truth to be obscured for a great time, did at last stirr up som resolute, and active spirits, who putting the Pen to Paper, expell’d this Cloud, and in some measure discover’d the Light. The Leaders of this brave Body were Cornelius Agrippa, Libanius Gallus, the Philosopher, Johannes Trithemius, Georgius Venetus, Johannes Reuclin, called in the Greek Capnion, with severall others in their severall Dayes.2

Some of the names on this list will require clarification, such as Libanius Gallus and Georgius Venetus. Agrippa and Trithemius are well-known and will be discussed below. Johannes Reuchlin (1455- 1522), of course, was the famous expositor of the Kabbalah whose De arte cabbalistica (1517) and De verbo mirifico (1494) are classics of Christian Kabbalah. Reuchlin defended charges that were made by the Church against the Jews, and argued for greater study of Hebrew in German universities. He had also been acquainted with Pico della Mirandola (see below) who probably inspired him to study Hebrew and the Kabbalah.

Franciscus Georgius Venetus (1460-1540) was another Christian Kabbalist who authored several books on Hermetic philosophy and Kabbalistic studies. His De harmonia mundi totius (1525) and In scripturam sacram problemata (1536) were written in response to Pico della Mirandola’s Kabbalistic theories.

Libanius Gallus, however, takes us to Trithemius and a controversy surrounding the identity of this mysterious individual to whom Vaughan refers as “dark” in his Anima Magica Abscondita: “Now for your further instruction hear also the dark disciple of the more dark Libanius Gallus,” as a reference to Trithemius as the “dark disciple.” Trithemius introduces Libanius as an important sage and magician who visited him at the monastery at Sponheim of which Trithemius was the Abbot. According to Trithemius’s own account, Libanius himself had been the student or disciple of one Federico Cordova of Majorca, a multi-lingual hermit philosopher and magician of great renown. However, there is no evidence that either Libanius or Federico ever existed outside of the imagination of Trithemius himself.

Noel L. Brann, a historian who specializes in Trithemius, seems to take the story at face value,3 but another author4 takes exception to the whole tale and accuses Trithemius of invention. We do not need to go into detail here on this controversy except to say that Vaughan himself evidently believed the story—why wouldn’t he?—and counts Libanius as one of the “brave Body” along with Agrippa, Reuchlin, etc.

Johannes Trithemius, mentioned previously for his work on cryptography, was an active ceremonial magician. He was not an armchair philosopher and resisted the more passive occultism of the Florentine Academy, which was caught up in the intellectual excitement of discovery involving the Platonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic texts they so admired. Trithemius believed that these texts were instruction manuals meant to be worked with more actively. They contained the secrets of nature and were meant to be used as vehicles for uncovering the mysteries, communicating with angels and demons, and for gaining dominance over not just the material world but the spiritual world as well. Trithemius kept magical diaries, only a few of which managed to survive his death, thus documenting his experiments along these lines.

As for Cornelius Agrippa, we will have more to say about this giant of occult literature in the following pages. Agrippa and Trithemius were aquainted, and both were heavily involved in the study of ceremonial magic, drawing from the same Hermetic and Kabbalistic sources we have been discussing. What is odd, in fact, is that Thomas Vaughan counted these ceremonial magicians and Kabbalists among

his most important influences. Where, we wonder, are the alchemical authors who influenced or instructed him in the Art?

Origins of European Alchemy

Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.

— Maria the Jewess5

European alchemy is said to have originated in the Near East, in Egypt and Palestine, in the third century B.C.E. at the earliest, according to documents attributed to pseudo-Democritus (said to flourish in the first century C.E.). But such documents were also often connected with Bolos of Mendes (in Egypt) whose works are dated much earlier, to the second century B.C.E., and later to the fourth century C.E. Gnostic writer Zosimos of Panopolis. He indicates that alchemy began with the writings of the second century C.E. Maria the Jewess (in Palestine).

The author known as pseudo-Democritus was linked—most probably erroneously—with Democritus of fourth century B.C.E. Greece, the philosopher who is credited with having proposed the atomic theory of the universe. Legends have it that Democritus learned alchemy from the Persian magician 0stanes, and traveled to India in search of additional knowledge. These legends of the original Democritus became conflated with an alchemical author who came at least two centuries later about whom virtually nothing is known, unless he and Bolos of Mendes are in fact the same person. Pseudo- Democritus is known to have written at least four books on alchemy, one of which specifically on gold-making. None have survived intact but they have been reconstructed from Greek and Syriac sources, most recently in a definitive edition by Matteo Martelli.6

The enigmatic Maria probably flourished about the same time as Bolos of Mendes, in the second century B.C.E. based on textual evidence. Zosimos referred to her as one of the “ancients,” and “the first,” which lead some historians to wonder if she was not in fact an older source. As the documents which bear her name no longer exist, except in quotations and excerpts by others, it is difficult to determine further details about her life with any degree of certainty. But what there does remain of her work is important and compelling, for it is obviously the bedrock of so much that would appear in later years under the general rubric of “alchemy.” In fact, a common kitchen and laboratory implement—the bain-Marie—bears her name, as its

invention is attributed to her. In fact, her writings—as they have survived—were replete with descriptions of laboratory equipment, how they should be designed and constructed and “hermetically” sealed. Her descriptions of the alchemical process are also the template for the kind of coded language we have already discussed, language that would appear in the texts of the medieval and Renaissance alchemists.

We begin this discussion of the Hermetic component to Vaughan’s alchemy with Maria the Jewess because she was the first Western alchemist of whom we have any real evidence, and a woman in a field that seems to have been dominated by men. She was also connected to the Hermetic mysteries through a document that bears her name, the Dialogue of Mary and Aros on the Magistery of Hermes.

A small Latin treatise, and probably from an Arabic or Greek original, it was published in the late sixteenth-century. 0f uncertain provenance, it links the legend of Maria the Jewess with Hermes the Egyptian. In this document, which is in the form of a dialogue between Mary and a King Aros (“Horus”), several methods for making the Philosopher’s Stone are discussed, always with reference to Hermes. This text may be a later invention of a writer who wished to emphasize a connection between Maria and the popular rebirth of Hermetism7 that was taking place in Europe at the time.

Thus in Michael Maier’s work—Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum, published in Frankfurt in 1617 at the height of the Rosicrucian furore that began with the publication of the Fama and the Confessio in 1614 and 1615, respectively—Maria the Jewess is depicted in collegial proximity to Hermes Trismegistus.8 They may have been united in popular imagination simply due to their antiquity and their reputations as sources of wisdom.

Hermes was considered by the Greeks to be their cultural equivalent of the Egyptian god Thoth; both were gods of learning, wisdom, writing, and the esoteric sciences. This acknowledgment that the Egyptian god and the Greek god were identical indicates a profound universalist sentiment that contributed to the kind of syncretic philosophy that is the hallmark of Hermeticism. By the third and fourth centuries, C.E. even the Arabs and Persians had incorporated Hermes into their cosmologies. Later, Islamic writers identified

Hermes as Idris and as Enoch, and thus as one of the Prophets.9 In fact, much of what medieval and Renaissance Europe knew about Hermes came from Arabian sources that had been translated into Latin. This can be considered the origin of the Traditionalist philosophy or the philosophia perennis based on the theories of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and others of the Florentine Academy who argue there is an underlying “true” philosophy beneath all apparently different cultures and religions. What better signifier of this theory than the transitory and transitional figure of Hermes, who is also the Lord of the Crossroads as evidenced by the ancient structures called herms?

The herm was a plain rectangular post with the head of Hermes at the top. In many cases, male genitalia were added. This post was usually found at the boundaries of property or towns, and its purpose was ritualistic (as guardians of these liminal spaces) or as boundary markers, or both. The use of the herm dates to at least the fifth century

B.C.E. and indicates the ancient association of Hermes with crossroads. This may be due in part to the connection between the Greek god Hermes and the planet Mercury.

Mercury is the messenger of the gods, often depicted with a winged helmet and with wings on his ankles. Mercury is the fastest-moving planet in the solar system and this may have suggested not only speed, but a special position vis-a-vis the other gods as someone carrying information back and forth through the cosmos. Mercury was also depicted carrying the caduceus: a wand with two (sometimes winged) serpents entwined around it, an object that has since become the symbol of medicine: an aspect of the alchemist’s art that is represented by the elixir vitae. It is this multivalent nature of Mercury/Hermes that lends itself so well to descriptions of the Philosopher’s Stone—which is equally multivalent, and has an inextricable link to Mercury, not only in Hermeticism but also in Indian Tantra and alchemy, as we will see.