century, such distinctions between magic and alchemy seem to have been minor if they existed at all.

So this is a context that must be kept in mind when we read Vaughan. Angel magic, Kabbalah, the influence of the heavens, Biblical exegesis, the interpretation of dreams … all of this is as much part of Vaughan’s worldview (and his alchemy) as the Elixir Vitae and the Philosopher’s Stone. And this may be the reason for the interest of Atwood, Waite, and others in his writings and a clue as to why Rexroth insists that Vaughan, above all other alchemists, “gives the show away.”

The second feature of Vaughan’s work that stands out immediately is his piety. He makes constant reference (and reverence) to God. While sexual allusions are found in greater abundance in Vaughan than in any other alchemist of the time, his Christian allusions and citations of Biblical and Apocryphal sources are nearly as great, if not greater. This combination of religious and sexual imagery is another element the writings of Vaughan share with Tibetan and Indian forms of alchemy.

The third feature is one we have already discussed at some length, and that is the “intentional language” aspect of his work. The coding is in place, and he uses many of the standard alchemical terms such as mercury, sulfur, and salt; eagles, lions; distillations; First Matter; etc. along with flowery, almost hyperbolic language. (0ne can see the attraction he had for Waite, whose love of purple prose and arcane terminology was satirized painfully by Aleister Crowley in the occult novel, Moonchild.) But there is steel beneath the insistent piety of Vaughan’s prose; he does not suffer fools gladly, or at all. He is at times sarcastic, humorous, humble, impatient, angry.

Vaughan was only twenty-nine when he published this, his first work on alchemy.6 His last work—Euphrates—was published when he was only thirty-four. While both Thomas and his brother Henry had a lifelong interest in hermeticism starting when both were children, it should be remembered that the English Civil War had intervened in their lives, with both brothers serving in the army under King Charles

    1. Thomas had been rector of a small parish, a position he lost due to his Royalist allegiance. His had been an eventful life leading up to the year he published this first book on alchemy yet Anthroposophia

Theomagica is a work full of confidence and self-assurance in a most impossible and inaccessible subject.

It begins with a dedication to the Rosicrucian Society, the “Most Illustrious and Regenerated Brethren R.C., Elders of Election.” Immediately we understand something of Vaughan’s sympathies. He admires the Rosicrucians, or the idea of the Rosicrucians, who were publicized as healers, alchemists, and men of high moral and ethical standards who were dedicated to the renewal of society and civilization. These were Christians, as their name implies, but they were mystical Christians with links to the Islamic world through their founder. Their names were unknown to the public. They were forbidden to identify themselves, and forbidden to use their knowledge to gain wealth or power, but only to heal.

Their founder, Christian Rosenkreutz, was said to have derived his esoteric knowledge from the East, most probably Syria and Arabia (“Damascus” is mentioned, as well as “Damcar,” which recently has been tentatively identified as Dhamar, a city in present-day Yemen which was a center of Sabaean activity7 at the time). Their symbol was the rose and the cross, which coincidentally (or not) is found on the coat of arms of the leader of the Reformation himself, Martin Luther. The rose is also an important symbol in Islam, especially in Sufism and other forms of Islamic mysticism. It is possible (though of course not proven) that the combination of rose and cross was meant to convey the Islamic-Christian composition of its members and its beliefs. Realizing that the first known alchemical literature in the West has its immediate origins in the Near East may be further evidence of this association. Note also the fact that the earliest known manuscript of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes is found in the Arabic language, in a manuscript of Geber the ninth century C.E. alchemist (Jabir ibn Hayyan, 721-815 C.E.), with a putative earlier version in the Kitab sirr- al haliqa (Book of the Secret of Creation).

The Rosicrucian ideal was as political as it was esoteric; its

popularity was due to its opposition to tyrannical forms of government and religion, an opposition that was implied rather than shouted, yet it was composed (or so it was claimed) of the intelligentsia of Europe. This was in the aftermath of the intellectual ferment created by the leading lights of the fifteenth century Florentine Academy—Ficino,

della Mirandola—and extending through Reuchlin, Kircher, Agrippa, Trithemius, et al. with their focus on Platonism, Hermetism, and the Kabbalah. As noted earlier, it would be Thomas Vaughan who would publish the first English language translations of the Rosicrucian manifestos.

There are those, such as the English alchemist Archibald Cockren, who claim that Vaughan was a Rosicrucian.8 This, of course, is impossible to prove. It may be that Vaughan was trying to attract the attention of the Society with his dedication; but as it is almost certain the Rosicrucians (as such, as described in the famous manifestos) did not exist Vaughan would have been disappointed in this attempt.

… I can assure thee here is nothing affirmed but what is the fruit of my own experience. I can truly say of my own, for with much labour I have wrung it out of the earth, nor had I any to instruct me.9

In these dedicatory lines in Euphrates he admits that he was trained by no one. There was no mentoring alchemist, no elderly mage to guide him in the ways of alembic and retort, no secret society of wise philosophers. Whatever he knew about alchemy, hermetic philosophy, and magic he found in books. Indeed, in his Preface to the English language translation of the Rosicrucian Manifestos, he writes, “… lest the reader should be so mad as to entertain a suspicion that I am of the 0rder.”10 This would seem to argue against Cockren’s contention that he was a Rosicrucian, except perhaps in spirit: and that may be where true Rosicrucianism is to be found.

There is a certain degree of romanticism associated with the idea of a secret cabal of enlightened persons operating behind the scenes to make the world right—the Ascended Masters of the Theosophical Society or the Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn—and who is to say that this romantic ideal has not inspired others to attain that same degree of selfless passion, becoming in the process carriers of the Rosicrucian mythos if not the actual initiations?

Therefore we can see Vaughan’s work as the result of a man struggling with an intellectual endeavor for which there are no reliable sources, no competent teachers. There is only the beautiful and seductive promise contained in a literature of the fantastic, the obscure, the gothic, the politically and religiously transgressive; yet it is a

promise that Vaughan knows to be true. He has seen it, touched it, been touched by it, and during his marriage to Rebecca he comes as close as ever to solving the alchemical riddle and, in fact, makes an important discovery on the very day Rebecca dies, which also happened to be his birthday. This juxtaposition of birth and death is a leitmotif through all of the alchemical literature—from the meetings of Tantric circles in cremation grounds in India, meetings that included ritual forms of sexual intercourse, to the many illustrations in European alchemical treatises of dead and buried kings and queens rising from their graves. The effect—of performing the act that leads to conception and birth in a place where the dead are cremated—is that of the collapsing of time to a single point.

During the process of teaching himself how to read the “book of Nature,” he learned the alchemical language well enough to identify many of the substances otherwise discussed under code names, and understands the alchemical process so well he can relate it to Biblical scenarios. There is a “chicken and egg” dynamic here, however. 0nce one has a grasp of the essentials in alchemy one can then apply this knowledge towards an “initiated” reading of Biblical sources and make further discoveries based on interpreting the Biblical allegories as alchemical instructions. Vaughan’s selection process, rooted as it is in the chemistry as well as the philosophy, seems insulated against this rather surrealist approach to the material, however. He uses Biblical sources more as “proof texts” to illustrate his points rather than as sources of specifically alchemical knowledge.

He finishes his Dedication to Anthroposophia Theomagica with a reference to “the Spirit, the Water, and the Blood,” an obvious Christian reference but one which has Platonic and alchemical (as well as Tantric) significance. He is signalling here that he understands the interpenetration of religion and alchemy, even where Christianity is concerned. It is reminiscent of Christ’s first transmutation, the changing of water into wine, and his last transmutation, that of wine into his own blood. Christ, of course, is a kind of alchemist not only because of the transmutations he effects in the Gospels but also the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, as well as his own eventual death and resurrection. His baptism at the hands of John the Baptist also can be considered an

alchemical act, the purificatio at which event the Spirit descends from above. Vaughan does not expand on any of this, however, but simply drops it in without further clarification.

Then, as he begins his text proper with a section entitled “The Author to the Reader” he begins with another curious allusion, one which Waite himself interpreted curiously.

God in love with His own beauty frames a glass, to view it by reflection. But the frailty of the matter excluding eternity, the composure was subject to dissolution. Ignorance gave this release the name of death, but properly it is the soul’s birth and a charter that makes for her liberty. She hath several ways to break up house, but her best is without a disease. This is her mystical walk, an exit only to return. When she takes air at this door, it is without prejudice to her tenement.11

This is a rather roundabout way of describing the soul and its relationship to the body, specifically the ability of the soul to leave and to return to the same body at the moment of a “mystical union.” Waite calls it “… the well-known mystical state of figurative death which is the threshold of union …” and goes on to say “The psychic substitutes are many, within and without those states which belong to pathology … It will be seen that this is realisation in mind; but the true attainment is in love.”12

Vaughan goes on for a few more pages, talking about various ideas concerning the soul and its characteristics according to various philosophies of the past. It is a kind of critical “review of the literature” concerning the soul, what it is, how it behaves. It is Waite’s reaction to this initial statement about the soul’s “mystical walk,” however, which must have grabbed Rexroth’s attention, for all its talk of “figurative death,” the “threshold of union” and the “true attainment is in love.”

The sense of Vaughan’s statement is that the soul can leave the body but still return to it; it does not signify literal death. Waite understands this to mean that Vaughan is really talking about the “figurative death” that he claims is a “well-known mystical state.” As this first work of Vaughan has the state of man “after death” as its subtitle we would do well to look at Waite’s claim by a little more closely.

The idea of a mystical death as taking place on the “threshold of union” can be understood as that loss of ego and sense of self that

occurs in a deep trance, when the soul is believed to have left the physical body (or, at least, to be unconstrained by it), and comes close to an encounter with the divine. In this state one is still conscious but lacks all self-awareness; it seems that one’s identity, if even for a moment, ceases to exist. In a Biblical context, Jacob experiences his famous Ladder while sleeping with his head on a stone; and angels appear to Saint Joseph—the spouse of Mary, the mother of Jesus—on three separate occasions, always when Joseph is asleep. Thus, sleep as a mimic of death can lead to dreams and visions, and also a confrontation with the divine.

Among non-mystics, however, it is also known as la petite mort, the “little death” that occurs immediately after orgasm to some persons at some times. It is a state similar to a loss of consciousness. Is this the context within which Waite understood the passage? It may be so, since he refers to the “threshold of union” as being attained “through love.” This is both mystical and erotic, as recent scholarship on analogies of death to sex has shown, and becomes even more pronounced in a later treatise (the Magia Adamica), where Vaughan refers to the Mors Osculi—the “kiss of death”—as the sleep of Jacob that culminated in the vision of the Ladder:

Now to return to Jacob, it is written of him that he was asleep, but this is a mystical speech, for it signifies death—namely, that death which the Kabalist calls Mors Osculi, or the Death of the Kiss, of which I must not speak one syllable.13

Waite’s footnote to this passage states, “The state of mystical death and the Kiss of the Shekinah.”14 Thus these concepts—at least insofar as Waite is concerned—are linked: mystical death, the Mors Osculi, the “threshold of union,” and “attainment in love.” To raise the stakes, Waite equates the Death of the Kiss with the Kiss of the Shekinah. The Shekinah refers to the divine Presence in post-Temple literature, and definitions and characterizations of the Shekinah multiplied among the Kabbalists and Jewish mystics, to the point where the Shekinah is now referred to as the “Bride of the Sabbath” in Jewish religious ceremonies. The Kiss of the Shekinah is understood to be a sweet, peaceful (permanent) death and is not normally equated with the temporary mystical death to which Vaughan and Waite refer. Unless by emphasizing the feminine aspect of the Shekinah as a Bride desiring to

re-unite with God we have a possible Tantric scenario consistent with reports of the Tantrikas meeting in cremation grounds to conduct sexually-oriented rituals to bring them to the “threshold of union” with the divine. In that case, all of the above inferences and allusions by both Vaughan and Waite begin to make sense.

This association with mystical death, the kiss, the Shekinah, and a possible erotic subtext is very suggestive of what Rexroth saw in the Vaughan oeuvre, and current research in the subject seems to bear him out.