The Mystical Side of Oscar Wilde

Awhile back I downloaded the audiobook version of The Picture of Dorian Gray from Librivox to listen to on my commutes to and from work. I enjoyed the audiobook version of the novel – the reader reads clearly and has interesting voices for each character. But I was disappointed with it for one major reason: it was missing the preface!

First and foremost, this blog entry emphasizes the importance of the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. I want to show how the themes from the preface run throughout the novel. I discuss also some ideas from a couple Masonic and Golden Dawn rituals and their symbolism, touching on Rosicrucianism to elucidate my ideas along the way. I then carry this into a discussion of symbolism in general and the symbols in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.


Oscar Wilde was a brilliant man, even at a young age. For an oral exam at Oxford, he was asked to translate passages from the Greek New Testament to English, and he translated the passages with ease. When the proctor was satisfied with his work and asked Wilde to stop, Oscar Wilde reportedly asked if he could continue translating more passages, because he “really wanted to know how the story ended.”

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Masonic Square and Compass

At Oxford, Wilde joined a Masonic Lodge, and his Masonic career primarily spanned the four years he spent at Oxford between 1874 and 1878. However, he seemed to really take a liking to it. In November of 1876, when he was 22, Wilde was perfected into the 18th degree of the Rose Croix – The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. He wrote to a friend in 1877:

I have got rather keen on Masonry lately, I believe in it awfully – in fact would be awfully sorry to have to give it up in case I secede from the Protestant Heresy. Hunter Blair had to give it up for this reason.

Letter from Oscar Wilde

The Rose Croix

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An alembic used for distillation, made of two retorts

The full title of the Rose Croix degree is “Eighteenth Degree, or Sovereign Prince of Rose Croix de Herodem and Knight of the Eagle and Pelican.” Herodem is the name of a mountain where the first chapter of this degree was held, the White Eagle is symbolic of philosophic mercury sublimated, and the Pelican is sometimes an emblem of Christ, who shed his blood for mankind. In alchemy, a pelican is another term for a circulatory still, which can be used to continuously distill a substance. Normally an alembic’s distillate goes from the retort to another vessel where condensation will happen. In a pelican, the distillate is run back into the retort to be continuously distilled.
Left: Circulatory still, also called a pelican
Right: A pelican tearing at its own breast

In the opening ceremony of the Rose Croix degree, the Master asks, “What is the hour?” The Senior Warden responds:

It is the moment that the veil of the temple was rent when darkness and consternation covered the earth; when the stars disappeared and the lamp of day was darkened; when the implements of masonry were lost and the cubic stone sweat blood and water; that was the moment when the great masonic word was lost.

The Master replies:

Since masonry has sustained so great a loss, let us endeavor, by new works, to recover the lost word, for which purpose we will open this Chapter of Rose Croix.

When the candidate being initiated enters, the Master repeats the goal to recover the lost word to the candidate. Three columns stand in the room – named after the three Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – and the candidate has to circle the room, stating the name of each pillar aloud as he passes it. After circling the room seven times, the candidate states his obligation, and the Master gives the candidate a black apron and ribbon and asks the candidate to follow him to the West to search for the lost true word.

The crew do some more circling, and eventually the candidate is led into a room meant to symbolize hell. The Master tells the candidate that the horrors he sees in this room are a mere faint representation of the horrors he will suffer if he breaks their laws or infringes the obligation he just took. Afterward, there is another exchange:

Master:    From whence came you?
Candidate:    From Judea.
M:        By what road have you passed?
C:        By Nazareth.
M:        Who conducted you?
C:        Raphael.
M:        What tribe are you of?
C:        Of the tribe of Judah.
M:        Take the initials of each of these words; what do they form?
C:        J . N . R . J .
M:        My brethren, what happiness! The word is recovered! Give him light.

They sing a hymn together, and then:   

    Master:    Approach, my brother, I will communicate to you our perfect mysteries.

The candidate is then given the password, “Emmanuel” – a name that means “God is with us.”

The name Judea, the first answer the candidate gives the Master, is a Greek and Roman adaptation of Judah, and it refers to the territory originally occupied by the tribe of Judah. JNRJ is equivalent to INRI, which exoterically in Latin stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaerum, or “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”

This phrase is important to esotericists, because the phrase has an esoteric counterpart acronym: Igne Natura Renovatur Integra – Latin for “by fire, nature is renewed” or “all of nature is restored by fire.”

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn - Wikipedia
The Rose Cross

The four letters INRI also appear on the Rosicrucian symbol of the Rose Cross, which appears on many Golden Dawn materials as well as on the back of Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck. The letters appear on four large leaves radiating from behind the center of the cross. The I is in the upper left, N upper right, R lower left, and another I in the lower right. Above each respective letter is an astrological symbol Virgo, Scorpio, Sol, and Virgo again. 

These four Latin letters INRI correspond to the Hebrew letters Yod, Nun, Resh, and Yod. Yod, which means “hand,” is attributed to the Hermit and Virgo in the Hermetic Qabalah; Nun, which means “large fish” is attributed Scorpio; Resh, which means “head,” is attributed to Sol; and Yod again, hence the appearance of the four astrological symbols in the Rose Cross figure.

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo Duquette – Witchery Online Store
Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, by Lon Milo DuQuette

In his book on the Thoth Tarot, Lon Milo DuQuette says that these letters tell the story of an Egyptian solar myth. Apophis, the chaotic form of the god Set, usually depicted as a serpent, kills Osiris, and Isis searches for his body, split into pieces. The phallus cannot be found, and Isis’ sister Nephthys uses magic to construct one. Through magic, Osiris is resurrected. This brings the birth of Horus.

This is sort of an echo of, or maybe a Golden Dawn conflation of, the myth of Ra’s descent into the underworld and subsequent rebirth every morning, symbolic of the rising Sun. This cycle is repeated every day and every spring.

This is how INRI becomes IAO (Isis, Apophis, Osiris) – the name of the supreme God of the Gnostics, and who embodies the formula of life, death, and rebirth. In Magick, Aleister Crowley states that IAO is

the principal and most characteristic formula of Osiris, of the Redemption of Mankind. “I” is Isis, Nature, ruined by “A”, Apophis the Destroyer, and restored to life by the Redeemer Osiris.

Crowley says that these principles are also expressed by the Rosicrucian motto:

Ex Deo nascimur. (From God we are born)
In Jesu Morimur. (In Jesus we die)
Per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus. (Through the Holy Spirit we revive)

Next, DuQuette goes over the three gestures or signs associated with the trio of Egyptian gods, which are taught in the Adeptus Minor 5=6* Ritual of the Golden Dawn:

  • The Mourning of Isis – body turned slightly, right arm up and elbow squared in the shape of an L, left arm down and square, right leg turned slightly
Thelemapedia: The Encyclopedia of Thelema & Magick | Ritual Signs
The Sign of the Mourning of Isis
  • Apophis and Typhon – hold arms up like a V, head slightly back
Thelemapedia: The Encyclopedia of Thelema & Magick | Ritual Signs
The Sign of Apophis and Typhon
  • Osiris Risen – crossed arms over chest in an X, head bowed, almost like you’re lying in a coffin
The Sign of Osiris Risen

These signs spell L.V.X. – an important symbol in the Golden Dawn. LUX is compared to orgone and libidinal energy in Israel Regardie’s Complete Golden Dawn, and, of course, the word LUX is Latin for “light.” DuQuette continues after the descriptions of the gestures to make an interesting point about magical symbols. He says:

Magical tradition informs us that, on the material plane and in normal waking consciousness, symbols are symbols and living things are living things. On the magical plane and in visionary consciousness, symbols are living things and living things are symbols.

DuQuette explains this to us because he wants to impress upon us the importance and power given to symbols in the magical tradition, and indeed the Hermetic Rose Cross stores an immeasurable amount of power.

The Golden Dawn Chief and his Adepts have a conversation in the Adeptus Minor Ritual relevant to our matter here, and very similar to the opening of the Masonic Rose Croix ritual:

Sign of the Closing of the Veil
Sign of the Rending Asunder of the Veil

Chief:         Mighty Adeptus Major, by what sign hast thou entered the Portal?
Second:    By the Sign of the Rending Asunder of the Veil. (gives it)
Chief:        Associate Adeptus Minor, by what sign has thou closed the Portal?
Third:        By the Sign of the Closing of the Veil. (gives it)

Then the Adeptus Major and Adeptus Minor spell a Hebrew word: Peh, Resh, Kaph, Tau. They call this word the “Veil of the Sanctum Sanctorum,” or the Holy of Holies. This is Paroketh (פֹרֶכֶת), which is a Hebrew word meaning “veil.” The mystic passes through Paroketh to receive his solar rebirth initiation. The rending of this veil signifies the ability to see the spiritual realities of their corresponding objects, almost like an allegory.


In an essay called “An Esoteric View of the Rose-Croix,” the Right Worshipful Brother Leon Zeldis writes that, “All Masonic rituals are based on allegory…” and I happen to agree. In fact, all rituals are symbolic in some way.

An allegory is defined in William Harmon’s Handbook to Literature as:

A form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons, places, and actions in a narrative are equated with meanings outside of the narrative itself. Thus, it represents one thing in the guise of another-an abstract in that of a concrete image. By a process of double signification, words represent actions and characters, which, in turn, represent ideas.

The term “double signification” reminds me of a few lines in Henry Adamson’s Mirthful Mournings on the Death of Master Gall, written sometime around 1630, where he mentions the Masonic word:

For what we do presage is not in grosse,
For we be brethren of the Rosie Crosse;
We have the Mason word and second sight,
Things for to come we can foretell aright.

I see the phrase “second sight” as a sort of nod to what Leon Zeldis wrote in his essay – that there’s a double meaning in certain images, and Masons concerned themselves greatly with not just their own symbols, but the philosophy of symbol. The symbols in the rituals point to invisible spiritual truths and in turn help us rise beyond mere symbol to see both the symbol and the spiritual reality at once, almost like the double vision of William Blake’s system.

In the first act of Wilde’s first play, Vera; or, The Nihilists, written in 1880 near end of Wilde’s involvement with Masons, the President asks a group of conspirators (C):

    President:         What is the Word?
    First C.:  Nabat
    P:            The answer?
    2nd C:    Kalit
    P:            What hour is it?
    3rd C:    The Hour to suffer
    P:            What day?
    4th C:     The day of Oppression
    P:            What year?
    5th C:    The year of Hope
    P:            How many are we in number?
    6th C:     Ten, Nine and three

This call and answer style is popular in masonic rituals, and this scene is a combination of elements taken from the Rose Croix ritual and the Freemason’s Mark degree. The Mark degree is the degree which tells the story of the discarded stone.

When Wilde was sentenced to prison for his crime of sodomy in 1895, Wilde’s name was struck from the Masonic books at both lodges where he participated.

The Preface

I want to go way back to where we started in this entry. I downloaded a Librivox recording of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I was surprised to see that the speaker skipped the preface. In my view, the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is extremely important to the meaning of the book and valuable to read, even without the context of the book to go with it. The Preface was published several months after the first edition, so that’s possibly why it was forgivably left out of the Librivox recording.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

Realism is fidelity to actuality in its representation, and the novel is the most popular medium for realists – the birth of the earliest realism came only after the birth of the novel. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is among the earliest examples of literary realism, a depiction of the ups and downs of a rather mundane individual, nicknamed Pip, making us think of the perhaps equally mundane pip on a playing card.

Romanticism, because it exhibited so many phases, is more difficult to define. Walter Pater, friend of Oscar Wilde, thought that the addition of strangeness to beauty (as opposed to the older idea that beauty meant order) was one defining characteristic of Romanticism. Another schematic explanation calls Romanticism the “predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules.” I happen to like this definition. Romanticism also exhibits characteristics like a love of nature, mysticism, and individualism.

Caliban is the name of the deformed native of the island of Prospero and son of Sycorax the witch in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Many critics have called this play an alchemical play, and, indeed, the Tempest is another name for a stage in the alchemical process. In the play, Prospero describes his mastery of “the liberal arts” as a prerequisite to his more “secret studies,” and it becomes apparent very quickly in the play that the tempest which begins its action is wholly controlled by Prospero’s Art, by mere theatrics.

The Tempest RSC 2016 | Peter Viney's Blog
Prospero and his spirit Ariel from the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s 2016 production of The Tempest

We learn that Prospero taught Caliban to name the “bigger light” (Sol) and the “less” (Luna), but Caliban seems to misunderstand and resent Prospero’s magic, as he is one of the only subjects of it.

Ralph Metzner, in a book called The Unfolding Self, says that one of the most important functions of symbol is to

induce or catalyze changes in our perception, feeling, or thinking.

His examples are a Buddhist monk meditating on a figure or symbolic image in order to experience changes in his consciousness. In some forms of psychotherapy, patients are encouraged to participate in something known as active imagination, to extend and develop meanings associated with images in dreams, and Jung emphasized the active, dynamic nature of symbols and their ability to work within us without our conscious recognition.

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn - Wikipedia
The Rose Cross

Speaking of powerful and dynamic symbols, I want to bring us back one more time to the Rose Cross image. In the center of the image, on the cross, is a rose, symbolizing Christ, whose petals are the twenty-two Hebrew letters, organized with mother letters in the center, double letters surrounding those, and single letters on the outside. In William Butler Yeats’ short story Rosa Alchemica, the narrator undergoes an initiation ceremony and says that the petals from the Rose Cross ceiling mosaic come alive:

Gradually I sank into a half-dream, from which I was awakened by seeing the petals of the great rose, which had no longer the look of mosaic, falling slowly through the incense-heavy air, and as they fell, shaping in to the likeness of living beings of an extraordinary beauty… I was able to distinguish beautiful Grecian faces and august Egyptian faces, and now and again to name a divinity by the staff in his hand or a bird fluttering over his head…

To Yeats, each petal on the Rose Cross rose is an ancient god that livens the human psyche. Similarly, one Russian poet put it like this:

The poet’s duty is to bring the World Soul out from mundane consciousness of humanity, to awaken Sophia from the prison of matter and give her a name.

The Meaning of Dorian Gray

The titular painting of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a painting that Basil paints of a beautiful young man named Dorian Gray. Dorian wishes that the painting would age instead of his physical body. Shortly after the wish, he meets Sibyl Vane, who performs Shakespeare in a working-class theatre. In Ancient Greece, a sibyl uttered the oracles and prophecies of a god. She was a voice of the gods, a connection to the divine, the prophetic words from on high. A vane is a device that is pushed by air to tell humans which direction the wind is blowing, and, similarly, a sibyl was a human pushed to speak by divine inspiration.

Dorian proposes marriage to Sibyl, and Sibyl’s brother, James, warns Dorian that if he harms his sister Sibyl, James will kill him. (Saint James is the patron saint of alchemy because of the tale of Nicolas Flamel, who went to Saint James’ supposed homeland to get help in deciphering the manuscript of Abraham the Jew.)

Dorian takes Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform Romeo and Juliet, also an alchemical play (though unlike The Tempest this is a tragedy, and not a tragicomedy). Head over heels for Dorian and unable to concentrate, Sibyl gives a bad performance in this play, and, embarrassed, Dorian tells Sibyl that her acting is her beauty; without that, she no longer interests him. Upon arriving home, Dorian notices that the painting has gained a cruel sneer – his wish has come true. Shortly after that, Dorian, feeling guilty and alone, decides to attempt to reconcile with Sibyl, but she’s killed herself. In response, Dorian locks up his portrait to hide his inner ugliness, and experiments with every vice throughout the rest of the novel.

Oscar Wilde purportedly said he’d like to be Dorian Gray, perhaps in some other age, but I’m not sure Dorian Gray is the type of character we should aspire to be. During my thesis defense, my thesis chair Dr. Anthony Flinn called The Picture of Dorian Gray a “sort of reverse-alchemy narrative” – and I agree. Rather than use Art to perfect his soul, Dorian Gray hides Art, a reflection of his soul, as it grows uglier. In the alchemical tradition, a practitioner transforms his soul through the Great Art, burning and boiling away impurities in the crucible of his mind. Dorian Gray, unwilling to change himself, instead selfishly changes his Art.

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