As an acquaintance once pointed out to me, a fascination with esoterica naturally implies a concern with hidden details, minute features, and the multiplicities of symbolic meaning. In my own life, this emerges as a series of intense dives into a given subject. These dives are bolstered —if not fueled entirely—by my own neurological “divergences.” For some, this may translate to a tediousness and borderline obsession with minutia. In spite of this, many of the deepest esoteric truths I’ve known have emerged from this space.
So… I thought it would be engaging to closely examine imagery of a famous alchemical emblem, exploring some of its various appearances and iterations through an accompanying text. The emblem — often called Tabula Smaragdina Hermetis, or Tabula Hermetica (Hermetic Tablet)— is a complex and fascinating image. It is a symbol that appears often in alchemical imagery. I’ll travel in a non-linear order through the various appearances the emblem makes.
I believe these images are best supplemented with a text. For this task, I’ve chosen a work I recently engaged with a deep reading. The book is Brian Cotnoir’s incredible Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter. In The Poetry of Matter, Cotnoir examines the chosen emblem at length. For framing and context, Cotnoir discusses the emblem in light of his exploration of the alchemical Green Lion and its identity as “our vitriol.”
In a chapter devoted to this search for the identity of the Green Lion — or Leo viridis— Cotnoir says: “In continuing our search for the Green Lion, “our vitriol,” we find some direction in the following emblem. The emblem appears in Basil Valentine’s Azoth, Published in Paris in 1659.” Cotnoir shows us the following version of the emblem:
In the footnote for this passage, Cotnoir notes that:
“This emblem has been associated with the Emerald Tablet since 1588 and was joined to the text to elucidate or depict the teaching engraved on the Emerald Tablet. (S. Gentile and C. Gilly. Marsilio Ficino and the Return of Hermes Trismegistus.” Cotnoir goes on to point out, “These images also represented the Holy Roman Empire whose emblem is the double headed eagle, and Bohemia with the double tailed lion. This also illustrates how existing icons and images are appropriated to signify other meanings, perhaps parallel meanings”
In multiple sources, the emblem is captioned simply as the Tabula hermetica. For the sake of this article, I will call it the vitriol emblem. Before moving onward with Cotnoir’s survey, it will be enlivening to delve into some primary sources for the emblem.
Let’s begin with the emblem from pg. 52 of Basil Valentine’s Les dovze clefs de philosophie de Frere Basile Valentin … or, The Twelve Keys of Brother Basil Valentine. Here is the image:
This digitized version comes from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The manuscript is known as Mellon Alchemical MS 82. Note the slight variations from the first image — the two small spheres on the bottom are reversed, for example.
Basil Valentine is likely a pseudonymous name for a single, or a handful of, German authors. Some have gone as far as to claim that Basil Valentine was a “seventeenth-century hoax,” noting his absence from the rolls of the era. Therefore, it cannot be said with complete certainty who the author of the Azoth truly is. Scholars have pointed to German salt manufacturer Johann Thölde as the author of at least one title.
Yale lists Thölde as one of the manuscript’s creators in the material records for the manuscript. As of my current research, this image appears to be the earliest published appearance of the emblem. Whereas Cotnoir dates his incarnation of the emblem to 1659 by way of the 1976 Genova: Edition Anatatique of Azoth, ou Le Moyen du Faire L’Or caché des Philosophiques, this Yale manuscript is dated to 1624. This bolsters Cotnoir’s assertion that the emblem was in use prior to the Azoth from at least 1588.
The emblem shows itself again, well over a century from the previous image. This time it appears on pg. 80 of Das Buch der Weissheit zum langen Leben und vollkommenen Reichthum, roughly The book of Wisdom for long Life and complete Wealth. This manuscript also comes from the Beinecke Library. The German manuscript — called Mellon MS 152 — is dated c.a. 1790. A definitive author is unlisted.
In the manuscript, this version of the emblem is captioned, “Die hermetische taffel — Tabula Hermetica,” which translates to “The hermetic table.” A caption further above is hard to make out, but reads along the lines of “…fundament of world and universe…” This manuscript is extremely well preserved and the image easy to examine. Again, one can spot the differences from the previous emblems. For example — the pointed hands are missing on this version, while previously uncolored spheres now mark the emblem with a deep reds and blacks.
Still, commonalities abound. These are noted by Cotnoir. Recall that his analysis of the emblem is embedded in the context of the alchemical Green Lion. Of the emblem, Cotnoir says:
“We see in the upper center a goblet surrounded by the symbols for the seven planets/metals. The goblet stands on Mercury with the Sun and Moon both pouring something into the goblet. The Moon is on the right and the Sun on the left, with Venus and Jupiter beneath the Moon and Saturn and Mars beneath the Sun. In the center of the emblem is a ring that is linked to two shields. The shield on the right bears a double tailed lion rampant, perhaps the Green Lion, and the shield on the left shows a double-headed eagle…”
Flashback to Basil Valentine. Here is a close-up of the emblem from a 1660 edition of Les Dovze Clefs…:
Again, pay mind to the slight differences of each image, as the intricacies do not always match. Cotnoir goes on to say:
“Linked between these two shields and hanging from them is a third smaller shield emblazoned with a seven-pointed star. Surrounding this smaller shield are three objects. The object on top of the stellar shield is the Orb of the earth, on the left of the shield is an armillary sphere showing the equator and the ecliptic, and the object on the right represents the heavens…”
As a stylistic point, note again that these spheres appear reversed in both editions of Les Dovze Clefs. Cotnoir continues:
“…There are also hands emerging from the clouds between the cluster around the ring. Finally, around the circumference of the emblem us inscribed the following: Visita Interiora Terrae, Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which, roughly translated, means, “enter into the earth, rectify and you will find the hidden stone.” The first letters of the motto spell out V.I.T.R.I.O.L.”
So finally, V.I.T.R.I.O.L. makes its appearance as the textual ligament connecting the symbols of Leo viridis and our vitriol emblem.
Even more iterations of the vitriol emblem exist. The following colorful image of the emblem comes from Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer, aus dem 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Drittes und letztes Heft, or Secret figures of the Rosicrucians, from the 16th and 17th centuries. Third and last issue. The work is dated c.a. 1785-1788, and is sourced from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries Digital Collections.
There is a long German text under the image which I am unable to translate. However, a search for “Geheime Figuren,” will lead one to many results containing a rather lengthy but gorgeous poem from translated from Figuren explicating the symbolism in verse. The following translation comes from the Confraternity of the Rose Cross website. The beginning section reads:
“This picture, plain and insignificant in appearance, Concealeth a great and important thing.
Yea, it containeth a secret of the kind That is the greatest treasure in the world.
For what on this earth is deemed more excellent Than to be a Lord who ever reeketh with gold,
And hath also a healthy body, Fresh and hale all his life long,
Until the predestined time That cannot be overstepped by any creature.
All this, as I have stated, clearly Is contained within this figure.
Three separate shields are to be seen, And on them are eagle, lion, and free star.
And painted in their very midst Artfully stands an imperial globe.
Heaven and Earth in like manner Are also placed herein intentionally,
And between the hands outstretched towards each other Are to be seen the symbols of metals.
And in the circle surrounding the picture Seven words are to be found inscribed.
Therefore I shall now tell What each meaneth particularly
And then indicate without hesitation How it is called by name.
Therein is a secret thing of the Wise In which is to be found great power.”
Cotnoir’s culminating explanation sheds a tremendous deal of light on this poem:
“What is of interest here is the center shield with the star, the orb above it and the motto, all of which point to antimony, or more precisely top stibnite, an ore of antimony. The orb is the symbol for earth and for the metal antimony The shield below displays a star, the form that highly purified antimony takes, called by alchemists the star regulus of antimony. The motto has many levels of interpretation, one of which suggests taking earth, that is, antimony, and entering into it and purifying it, is the way to the philosopher’s stone and is another example of alchemy as ascent through descent. The rampant lion on the shield could be the green lion and the double-headed eagle on the left could be animated mercury. So going from left to right, we have the raw ore of antimony, the Green Lion purified to become the regulus, the pure heart of the lion (that is pure antimony, called the star regulus of antimony) and then ending with the animated mercury represented by the double eagle head. The anagram V.I.T.R.I.O.L. reinforces connection with the green lion through the original statement of Morenius That the “Green lion is glass.” Celestially speaking, Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, is the heart of the Lion. So if Regulus is the heart, stibnite, raw antimony ore, is the lion itself”
According to Cotnoir, this notion of “ascent through descent” permeates the entire Hermetic philosophy. Through it, our Lion is identified as raw antimony ore. The vitriol emblem itself reveals this through its varied yet consistent symbolism. While these symbols are captivating to appreciate in and of themselves, a deep knowledge of their meanings lends something valuable to one’s own practice — It transmutes appearances into understandings. Static forms transform into dynamic processes, and alchemy is enacted.
Cotnoir’s Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter is deeply fascinating, allowing one to approach alchemy with what feels like a fresh perspective. My copy occupies a space high on my main shelf. Drawing sharp distinctions between operative alchemy and the psychological aspect, next to nothing is said regarding Jungian interpretations. While the Green lion up until this point has been revealed by Cotnoir in its chymical guise, the book goes on to explore its deeper meanings and representations. To list them all here would be to detract from the book itself. Rather, I encourage readers to engage The Poetry of Matter for themselves.
In the book, Cotnoir describes alchemical practice as a “dialogue with matter,” in which physical work with matter refines and acts upon perception. The processes of consciousness and spirit. In this sense, according to Cotnoir, alchemy is like music – music serves as a perfect symbol and metaphor for notions of something like “uplift,” but it is also rooted in actual practice, mechanics, and the physical “manipulation of matter.”
I discovered through Ouroboros Press, the publishing effort of William Kiesel. It is directly available through Cotnoir’s own Khepri Press. Various fine editions are available ranging from collector hardcovers to hardy-bound paperbacks.
Writing in the About section of Khepri Press’s website, Cotnoir himself says, “Khepri Press was started in 2014 as a place to organize and distribute my work. It is a very small press dedicated to alchemical book arts. Some of this work is publishable and others may exist only in manuscript or object form – alchemical results or talismans.”
The general biography on Khepri’s page “Brian Cotnoir is an alchemist, artist and award-winning filmmaker. Author of The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy, The Emerald Tablet, and Alchemical Meditations, he is currently writing his next book, Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter. He has presented seminars and workshops around the world on various aspects of the alchemy.”
Khepri Press’ website can be found here.
Look here for a previous feature on one of Cotnoir’s alchemical zines.
[Alchemical and Rosicrucian Compendium (Selected Pages)]. 0AD. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2037856.
Basilius Valentinu, Gobille, Jean, fl. 1659-1690, engrave, Tholde, Johannes. Les Dovze Clefs De Philosophie De Frere Basile Valentin … Traictant de la vraye Medecine Metalique Plus l’Azoth, ou le moyen de faire l’Or cache des Philosophes. Tradvction Francoise. 1660. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2037990.
Basilius Valentinus, Thoelde, and Johann. Les Dovze Clefs De Philosophie De Frere Basile Valentin … Traictant De La Vraye Medecine Matalique. Plus l’Azoth, Ou Le Moyen De Faire l’or chaché Des Philosophes. Tradvction Francoise. Chez Ieremie et Christophle Perier, a la grand Salle du Palais, ioignant les Consultations, 1624. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2038037.
Cotnoir, Brian. Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter. Khepri Press. 2018.
Courtis, Jack. Interpretation and Explanation of the Tabula Smaragdina Hermetis in Commentaries on the Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Cofraternity of the Rose Cross. 1998. https://www.crcsite.org/rosicrucian-library/secret-symbols-guide3/
Das Buch Der Weissheit Zum Langen Leben Und Vollkommenen Reichthum. 0AD. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2037876.
Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer, aus dem 16ten und 17ten Jahrhundert: aus einem alten Mscpt. Zum erstenmal ans Licht gestellt: erstes -[drittes] Heft Altona: J.D.A. Eckhardt, in Commission in der Heroldschen Buchhandlung in Hamburg, 1785-
3 v. in 1 : col. illus. ; 40 cm. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/HistSciTech.GeheimeFiguren
Occvlta philosophia : von den verborgenen philosophischen Geheimnussen der heimlichen Goldblumen vnd lapidis philosophorum, was derselbige, vnd wie zu Erlangung dessen zu procediren, aussführlicher Bericht in einem philosophischen Gespräch verfasset : sampt der Schmaragd Taffel, Paraboln, symbolis, vnd 18. sonderbaren Figuren der hochberühmten Philosophen Hermetis Trismegisti vnd F. Basilii Valentini durch welche diese Kunst der philosophischen Goldblumen vollkomlich erkläret an Tag gegeben. Gedruckt zu Franckfurt am Mayn : Durch Johann Bringern. 1613. https://archive.org/details/occvltaphilosoph00herm
Stillman, John Maxson. Basil Valentine, a Seventeenth Century Hoax. Popular Science Monthly. 1912.