The Alchemical Precepts of the Emerald Tablet
by A. C. George
The Emerald Tablet, for all its condensed form, is the quintessential foundation text of Esoteric Alchemy. It has undeniably influenced the proliferation of Hermetic wisdom in Europe since its translation into Latin during the Late Middle Ages. Regardless of its historic and cultural framework, this document, in my view, is a summarized exposition of psychophysical dynamics of human esoteric potential. In other words, the arena of transformation described is the human body itself. The agent of transformation is something that acts upon our embodied nature.
In esoteric practices, it is important to remember that everything is a function of awareness. The body is, therefore, not just an aggregation of cells, tissues and organs, but our experience of embodiment. This includes feelings, sensations and unbiased, unconditioned thought-forms comprising our state of being. The occult corpus calls this the subtle body, distinguished from the gross or coarse/dense body representing our objectified material nature. To explore this possibility, we examine the precepts this highly condensed document offers us. The primary source for this analysis is a recent translation from Arabic.
First Precept- Above and Below Establish Each Other: In most translations the reference appears to be the relation between the heavenly and terrestrial domains- the lofty (spiritual) and the grounded (material) reality frames- which are identified as self-similar. Let us look at this in terms of the subtle body reference frame. The domain represented by the head leads to stimulating the transformation potential in the lower body (abdomen and pelvis), and conversely the latter stimulates the former. In Tantric terms, the crown (Shiva) and root (Shakti) centers of the human frame mirror each other and conduct the same power of transformation. In terms of alchemy practices known in China (used in Taoist traditions especially), we can speak of the relationship between the upper and lower cinnabar fields.
Second Precept- The Singular Principle: A single principle underlies all creation and is the reason behind the first precept and all the processes of manifestation. This singular principle, moreover, is the foundation of all esoteric accomplishment, magic and “supernatural” manifestation. In some translations, this is called the one mind, in others the one thing or simply unity. To get a handle on what this is, let us call this essence and label it X. This is a mystery, but one to be cultivated- fermented, if you will- as well as embodied and applied. The singular principle X is the crux of the work of the sun and the central theme of the Tablet. It is a universal presence, and enters the field of human embodiment in a specific manner. The next precept sheds light on what that is.
Third Precept- Generators and Carriers: As X enters human embodiment it is literally born (again) in us, and it takes root to grow and mature. In this process it, therefore, has both parents and carriers (nurturing agents). The paternal sun fertilizes and impregnates the maternal moon that gives birth to it. The vital breath, labeled wind carries- and according to some versions of text nourishes- it within its matrix. Then earth, the densest aspect of the subtle frame, nurtures and nourishes it as if it were its nurse. The universal force X in this manner fulfills its nature in the subtle incubation chamber of our material being. This dynamic is coherent with traditions of alchemy both east and west.
In alchemy, the sun corresponds to the anima principle. European Alchemists likely used the term in the Christian sense, meaning soul;the individualized and immanent essence of our self-awareness and felt sense of personal being. We tend to associate this with the emotions of the heart. The moon represents the spiritus principle, which is closer to the idea of mental will or the power of consciousness. It became associated with mental activity, and the head. As a feminine and receptive dynamic of awareness, the moon is the receiver of spirit, the essence of consciousness and the mover of mind. The sun represents the heart as the center of identity and our sense of self, the very power of physical embodiment. While we can visualize both of these concepts in terms of wind/breath, the latter is an independent representation of life force, similar to eastern concepts such as prana and chi, both connected directly to respiration. Finally, earth is the sphere of the elements as forces behind the functioning of the physical body, whose belly/womb is the abdominal area. It is the most formative and densest dynamic of the subtle body- closest to physical function and still being non-corporeal. This is the alchemical corpus.
If we combine the principles, we get an interesting glyph as shown below. This is a glyph of the planet Mercury, only with a dot in the circle. This Mercury is a representation of the human subtle body where the three principles enter a working synthesis. We are speaking here of an awareness frame or state of being. The alchemical term is AZOTh. Alchemists say that all we need is AZOTh and Fire to accomplish the Work, while Renaissance occultist John Dee depicted this notion in his Hieroglyphic Monad.
The solar principle associated with the heart- the heart-felt awareness frame is our center of identity as an experienced felt sense as opposed to a mental conception. This is projected into the head to fertilize the receptive (contemplative) nature of the mind to fortify the sense with consciousness. Using the breath (wind)- specifically the sensation of inhale and the power of attention, we guide this amplified felt sense at the level of the belly where the elemental nature of our being nurtures it. We find parallels with Chinese internal alchemy practices, dealing with the transformations taking place in the lower cinnabar field.
Fourth Precept- Relation between X and Earth: Earth is where the singular principle actualizes its nature and potential. As indicated above, earth in the context of subtle body experience likely denotes the central abdominal area (navel), corresponding to the oriental lower cinnabar field. Here we nurture X, according to the previous precept, while it finds its perfected manifestation according to this one.
Within this earth, and via the activity of X, we extract/cultivate a certain fire. The text tells us that this is tantamount to the subtle being separate from the gross. The fire is itself an aspect of X, itself a universal principle of creation. Our work is to own, individualize and awaken its potential in our being. Although of the subtle body, the localized earth is still denser and static, whereas fire is mobile and energized. Interestingly, there are also similarities to the Tibetan esoteric practice known as Tummo.
Fifth Precept- Extraction and Circulation of Subtle Fire: The power of X resides in the lower cinnabar field where we focus in a manner to extract the subtle aspect from the denser one. Fire then comes out of it, and through the power of our attention, we lead it upward through the body (presumably through a vertical path parallel to the spine), reaching the head where it absorbs the higher consciousness of the lunar (contemplative) consciousness in the form of spiritual light. This it brings to the lower regions to illuminate and further catalyze AZOTh, and our transformation.
The text declares X as a power or force that overcomes all things subtle and penetrates all things gross. This is a power of awareness, not to be confused with a mental formation, or an abstraction of consciousness. We can loosely call it consciousness energy, a cultivated version of the prime dynamic that marked the beginning of our process. It is likely similar to the power of consciousness known as śakti in yoga traditions when married to the awakened individualized universal consciousness associated with śiva.
One Arabic translation affirms that the microcosm and macrocosm are the same, hence insinuating that the human frame of embodiment is indeed our frame of operation. A shorter translation stops the cycle when it reaches the top and from there illuminates the world, very much akin to the Kundalini activation process.
In conclusion, this installment barely scratches the surface on how the process of inner cultivation is to take place. While there are marked similarities with other traditions known today, the Hermetic way is by not identical to them. Chinese inner work begins in the lower cinnabar field, and shifts cultivation to the chest area and then the head, all the while using attention to circulate the felt sense through specific pathways at or right below the skin. Indian systems have similar circulation practices, but most of these involve cultivating fire at the base of the spine and using contemplative focus to project it into the head and above. The cultivation practices implied in the Sepher Yetsira vary as well, as we shall see.
That being said, the information provided here and in other installments, outlines a possibility that allows one to view the texts, and alchemy as a whole, in a more tangible light, liberated from its cryptic allusions. In this manner, the aspiring occultist can grasp and apply the precepts into coherent practice. To that end, and since this exposition is insufficient as a practical guide, more will be posted on the matter in future installments. It is my hope that the information provided overall will contribute to bring the interested reader closer to realizing even greater accomplishments than those before us aspired.