Sound and Emblemata

January 19, 2011 § 5 Comments

Willi’s latest post brought to mind the long tradition of alchemy and music. From the very beginning alchemy and sound have been tied together, through Pythagorean concepts of the harmony of the spheres, through Plato’s continued exploration of these ideas, and into the Renaissance when opera was developed as an art form capable of fully expressing the alchemical and Hermetic drama through sound, vision and storytelling.

The metallurgical drama is just one of the many facets of the alchemical Work. As Dennis points out, the Work takes place on all levels of existence. In the ancient system each metal corresponds to a planet, which in turn corresponds to a specific harmonic frequency. All of which, of course, correspond to the earthly and human microcosms.

Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens is one of the most explicit examples of this. As Adam McLean details on his alchemy website, “Michael Maier’s alchemical emblem book Atalanta fugiens was first published in Latin in 1617. It was a most amazing book as it incorporated 50 emblems with epigrams and a discourse, but extended the concept of an emblem book by incorporating 50 pieces of music the ‘fugues’ or canons. In this sense it was an early example of multimedia.”

“The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9


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§ 5 Responses to Sound and Emblemata

  • The idea of the transformative power of music goes back to ancient Egypt with the idea of voice toning in magic and of course with the Pythagorean scale tuned to the planetary notes. I remember too Bach wrote one of his fugues with the intent to purify and transform the listerner.

  • David says:

    Khem Caigan, who was an assistant to the ethnomusicologist and archivist Harry Smith, told me about a device created by Charles Henry Allan Bennett, that’s currently housed at the University of Texas-Austin Harry Ransom Center I think, where light from a lamp passes through colored filters and is directed on mirrors attached to tuning forks that are excited by a series of solenoids.

    The light would then move around ritual diagrams on the wall while the practitioners intoned the holy names during the course of a ritual. It would be incredible to see the different ways that kind of design could aid in meditations on different alchemical and Hermetic correspondences.

    I’ve wanted to experiment more with these concepts, but I’m self trained in music and it’s all very folk. I found a website that details the Greek/Hermetic tunings for a 4 stringed lyre, and when I get the chance I’m going to play around with it on my 4 string tenor banjo and see what comes out.

  • Erika Harris says:

    I think cymatics belongs in this discussion, too:
    (if impatient, jump to 1:40).

    • David says:

      This is excellent, thanks Erika. Made me think of what Dennis referred to in terms of the Egyptian attribution of tones/words of power and their creative potential.

      The idea of using cymatics to create a lexicon for animal languages is really interesting. What we can’t understand in terms of our own phoenetics, the very images made by their sounds provides the ability to discover their “words.”

      It’s also amazing to me that, from the looks of it in those slides, the science of cymantics was as developed in the renaissance as it is now. The only difference being we can quickly map, compare and coordinate exploration via digital technology. Considering the discoveries of clockwork mechanisms from ancient Greece, and “computer like” inventions such as Raymond Lully’s mnemonic calculators, I wonder if we even have much of an advantage in that aspect.

      Judging from the legendary sources on the power of the sound/music/words, such as the Orphic mystery tradition, Joshua & Jericho, Taliesin in the Celtic tradition, it seems that this understanding may have been available to the ancients in a much more potent form. I get the sense that this is similar to what I’ve found in business, where working with digital media everyday I do things off the cuff because they are effective that are only later codified by “experts” after a decent chunk of money is spent and time wasted questioning what works. Or the examples of advanced chemical knowledge held by indigenous cultures that astound contemporary scientists. Wade Davis had to risk his life for the pharmaceutical companies to go down and initiate himself into the Haitian Voudon tradition to discover that zombification wasn’t a myth, it was a mytho-poetic technique that utilized the psychology of communal story telling and a very complex knowledge of naturally occurring chemicals to induce functional brain damage.

      Great find.

  • Ted Hand says:

    Khem Caigan is such a treasure. I love reading his helpful emails on the lists.

    Anybody who’s interested in the music of Atalanta Fugiens should check out the work of Joscelyn Godwin (his article on Maier in RC Enlightenment Revisited is one of the best places to start) who’s both a music professor and esoteric publishing heavy. When I spoke to him about the music of AF he told me that they aren’t super impressive as fugues–he paints himself into lots of compositional corners that a more sophisticated composer could have avoided–but that they are impressive efforts. Composing a fugue was one of the more ambitious musical problems of the time, so doing that many must have been a chore–and no wonder he falls into hasty traps! However, Godwin did say (or imply–paraphrasing from foggy memory) something about how he’s not interested in “entering into altered states of consciousness” and the music could well be interesting as a heady alchemical multimedia art work. Posed an interesting challenge to me as a young scholar trying to figure out how to write about this stuff, intimidated by the lack of interest even the best scholars show to what I consider some of the most interesting–if arcane–aspects of the material.

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