The Gold-Bug & Alchemy of the Imagination

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In the esoteric as well as the literary arts, the imagination is of paramount importance, as it is the image-creating faculty of the mind. Memory is related to imagination, and both are controlled by the hippocampus. The human imagination seems able to recreate sense perceptions based on semantic or factual abstractions from our episodic or autobiographical memory. Using this semantic memory, imagination represents something to the human mind that isn’t present to its senses. Perhaps you’ve never even seen the object, but only depictions or drawings, like a unicorn or a dinosaur. With a powerful imagination you can put yourself anywhere and give yourself anything – and the imagination doesn’t operate purely with our visual memory, but with all the senses.


Imagine a tree.

You may have imagined a Christmas tree, a fir tree, or maybe a pine, oak, or banyan. You may have imagined no tree in particular. What kind of tree is it? Feel the rough bark of the tree and smell the sweet, earthy sap if there is any.

Next, imagine lightning. And now the boom of thunder.

Now a red rose. Smell its sweet fragrance. Feel its thorny stem.

Now imagine the word “wrong.” Can you?

You may have imagined someone committing a robbery or murder or some other crime that our society has deemed “wrong,” but these are examples of morally reprehensible actions, not examples of what we mean by “wrong.” “Wrong” cannot be imagined like tree, lightning, sword, or rose can.

There are plenty of words that are like this – they refer to inner human experiences. Words like justice, or beauty – all of these refer to abstractions or qualities related to human experience. They don’t have simple mental pictures like rose or sword. Or do they?

Interestingly, words like these, that have only an inner meaning, used to have symbolic correspondences. Justice means “uprightness,“ and beauty comes from a root that means “perform” and “revere.” The word wrong comes from an Old English word that means “twisted; crooked.” When it was used around the 13th century, and probably before that, the word wrong had a dual meaning – how we use it now to mean “immoral,” and also, simultaneously, “twisted.” The English word depraved is the same way, but it comes from a Latin word that means “of crookedness.” In a book called Worlds Apart, one of the characters stresses a point I’m trying to make here:

All, or practically all, the words in our own language that now refer to inner experience can be traced back to a time when they had an external reference as well–spirit, understand, right, wrong, sadness: it doesn’t matter which you take; you’ve only got to look them up in an etymological dictionary.

If you had the knowledge of the root of the word wrong when a minute ago I asked you to imagine it for me, and perhaps you did, you might have conjured up in your imagination wrong’s symbol – a crooked road, a crooked tree branch.

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A crooked road

When a word or phrase no longer carries its metaphorical weight, we sometimes call it a cliche. Words and phrases like this, though they have their symbols attached, lack the imaginative thrust that a symbol or metaphor can give. When someone “leaves no stone unturned” there are no stones being turned over at all; the phrase is now a cliche for the act of searching virtually everywhere we can for something. Here’s another example: if you say my blog is dry and dull, you’re using figures of speech to associate my writing with bread and bread knives, but my writing doesn’t resemble a bread knife at all. Dull is metaphorical – that is, not sharp, unable to cut – but we use it to describe a human experience. We all know the feeling of dullness and being bored, so it’s easy to see why it’s separated itself off from its metaphorical vehicle and become a normal everyday descriptor, a human feeling that has shed the shell of its material correspondence. It’s also apparent to me that this shedding of a vehicle is very similar to what happened with words like wrong or beauty – the word’s corresponding symbol has worn out its usefulness and has left our consciousness entirely.

Outside of art and literature, the purpose for writing is normally to describe the world. But literature uses language in a different way – as a way to associate our minds with the world, through figures of speech. This is where we get simile and metaphor.

We can say in a simile, like Robert Burns, that

My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June

Or we can say in a metaphor, like Anna in Disney’s Frozen, that

Love is an open door.

In writing classes, we’re taught to be careful of associative language in writing. If your purpose in writing is to describe the world to someone, using associative language is pretty tricky – calling love an open door is a bit of a puzzle when understood by the rational part of our brain, and we don’t want to confuse our reader or make her search for meaning too difficult. In the realm of the rational mind, love is not much like a rose, and it’s certainly not a door – a feeling is not an object. With a simile, you’re drawing an association between two things. With a metaphor, you’re throwing logic and reason out the window completely and saying one thing is another. If your purpose is to convince someone of your position on an issue, using a metaphor can offend the rational mind, and in argument and reason, the differences between two things being analogized are just as important as any similarities.

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Cover of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

The artist, however, uses simile and metaphor in the most uninhibited way, because, as Northrop Frye says, the artist’s job is not to describe the world as it is, but to show you a world that is completely absorbed by the human mind. The French symbolist Baudelaire, who first translated Poe’s works from English to French, called what the poet does with symbol “suggestive magic.” In a literary example, Holgrave, the artist and gardener of the titular house in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is a hypnotist, and hypnotism is much like a suggestive magic. Though he’s a hypnotist, when he accidentally hypnotizes Phoebe, rather than control and dominate her, the narrative explains, he wakes her up and lets her know that she was sleeping. We’ll come back to Poe and suggestive magic later. Let’s continue on figures of speech for a moment.

We said that in literature there’s simile – A is like B – and metaphor – A is B – but there’s also a third way of absorbing the world into the human mind with figurative language. This is by talking about B, and leaving A out of the picture entirely. This is usually called symbol. In symbol, there is an implied A, but the type of symbolism where A is too obvious, when a narrative approaches allegory, is generally seen as pretty bad, almost offensive to some people’s sense of beautiful art. A good symbolic poem or narrative is where we are perfectly happy with a decent B on its own, and we have to reach a little bit for the A, if we even choose to. The poet should tread a space where the superficial B and the depths of A coexist simultaneously in the poem. Let’s look at a poem as an example.

This is Christina Rossetti’s “Up-Hill”:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end. 
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend

 But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn. 

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door. 

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

Is the poem symbolizing something? That is, does Christina Rossetti, the poem’s author, mean one thing while saying another? Is it correct to say that she says B but really means A? It’s difficult to answer this type of question in the distinct affirmative or negative. Let me suggest, with Owen Barfield, that the truer it is to answer “yes” the worse the poem and the truer it is to answer “no” the better. Ultimately we desire that the way the poet expresses something in her poem to be the best possible way that thing can be expressed. The truer the symbol resonates, the better the poem.

Hawthorne’s allegorical short stories, such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Celestial Railroad” are in my view similarly too much allegorical. In many of his stories, Hawthorne clearly says one thing but means another. If he so clearly does this, why even say it in the only slightly more obscure way?

The Gold Bug

Considered an American Romantic, and a contemporary of Hawthorne, Poe is a symbolist, and Baudelaire, whom I mentioned earlier, translated Poe’s prose and poetry into the French language, influencing heavily the French symbolist tradition. However, Poe’s short stories are so well-disguised, so natural to most readers that most don’t see them as symbolic and would probably argue against them being symbolic tales – against there even being an A at all.

That’s why I want to talk about the short story “The Gold-Bug.” “The Gold-Bug,” on its surface, is a story about a man named William Legrand, his former slave Jupiter, and an unnamed narrator who seek and discover the lost pirate treasure of Captain Kidd. At its depth, though, “The Gold-Bug” is a meta-symbolic tale. It is a tale about the process of discovering the power of symbol, and of transforming the personality to a more perfect state.

Poe had a short stay at West Point Academy between July 1830 and February 1831. During this time, a man named Ethan Allen Hitchcock was the Commandant of Cadets, and Poe, as a cadet at the time, would have interacted with Hitchcock. Hitchcock, in a diary, described his years at West Point as “enlightening” and “like a transition from earth to Heaven.” Hitchcock would go on after his stint at West Point to publish volumes such as Christ the Spirit, and Remarks upon Alchemy and Alchemists: Indicating a Method of Discovering the True Nature of Hermetic Philosophy – where he argued for a symbolic interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, and, in the manner of Atwood, that

Man was the subject of Alchemy; and the object of the Art was the perfection, or at least the improvement, of Man.


The writings of the Alchemists are all symbolical, and under the words gold, silver, lead, salt, sulphur, mercury, antimony, arsenic, orpiment, sol, luna, wine, acid, alkali, and a thousand other words and expressions, infinitely varied, may be found the opinions of the several writers upon the great questions of God, nature, and man, all brought into or developed from one central point, which is Man, as the image of God.

In “The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance,” the article’s author traces the elements of esotericism we find in Poe’s short stories, mentioning alchemy, astrology, Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, gnosticism, and Freemasonry. Among the stories mentioned, however, “The Gold-Bug” is not discussed.

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Depiction of the skull-like golden beetle on the parchment

The “gold bug” of the tale belongs to the family scarabaeus, and the characters remark that the one Legrand found inside of a clam or oyster shell is totally new. Though the one they found is new, the golden scarab, or dung beetle, is a very old symbol. In Egyptian iconography, the beetle rolls dung, the dross, into a ball, and from this condensed fecal matter the Sun is born. Because of this association, the scarab is a symbol of resurrection and new life. In its earliest stages, in fact, I intended this blog entry to be all about the scarab or dung beetle. But as I thought more about how I could incorporate literature, I thought of “The Gold-Bug,” and as I did research I realized that an analysis of the story would be more effective for getting my point across.

Legrand and his former slave Jupiter find the scarabaeus and a piece of parchment along a beach. On the parchment is a skull, or “death’s-head.” Legrand wraps the beetle in the parchment for protection and later shows it to his friend, the unnamed narrator. The narrator incidentally subjects the parchment to heat from a fire, and this reveals more images and markings on the parchment – a drawing of a goat and a cryptographic message.

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Peter Stanimirov’s The Gold Bug

Unbeknownst to his companions, in a very short time, Legrand decodes the cryptographic message on his own, only telling the narrator later in the story. Legrand, his dog named Wolf, his former slave Jupiter, and his friend the narrator then go out to a forest to find a tree with a skull on its seventh branch. Swapping out a lead bullet in the decrypted instructions for the gold scarab, Legrand ties the scarab to a string and asks Jupiter to climb the tree in order to reach the skull. Once Jupiter reaches it, Legrand makes him dangle the gold bug, almost like a plumb line, through the left eye socket of the skull. They mark a spot on the ground from which they walk briefly, and they dig. They find nothing. Legrand then inquires with Jupiter about which side he thinks is his left. Jupiter indicates his right, so they repeat the plumb line process but this time through the real left eye of the skull. Upon digging after walking from this spot, the characters uncover a chest with a load of treasure.

In the treasure chest, the characters find jewels in a kaleidoscope of colors. Surrounding the buried chest, the characters find some number of skeletons – the narrator suggests there are a dozen. When they discuss their adventure later, Legrand explains how he solved the cryptographic puzzle. The word cryptography and cryptography as a symbol are relevant. The word “crypt” invites a whole host of meanings having to do with death, graves, and loss, and, beyond that, the word “crypt” means at its root “hidden vault or cavern,” inviting many more meanings into our imaginations.

Cryptography is the process of reading and translating signs into meaning. Much the way we as readers read and make meaning of Poe, Poe’s character Legrand makes meaning of a cryptograph, leading him eventually to a hidden trove of gold and jewels. The emptiness and deadness of a crypt and its contents reflect the relative deadness of a signifier. Without the human imagination to relate them to one another, signifiers are empty containers. Fortunately for the characters, the hidden cache they dig up is filled with all kinds of colorful gems. Like the characters, we as readers plumb the depths of Poe, who seems to have left more ciphers in the text than those that Legrand solves in the narrative.

Earlier, I asked you to imagine a tree. A tree is prominent in the climax of “The Gold-Bug.” The tree, perhaps more than any other symbol, has some of the most various of all meanings, perhaps due to the breadth of its geographic distribution. The tree’s form, with its roots planted in the earth and its vertically ascending trunk striving toward the heavens, is a symbol of the union between the terrestrial and heavenly realms. It is frequently used in mythology in this way, as a world axis. Especially in alchemy, the tree, also known as the arbor philosophica (the philosopher’s tree), symbolically links heaven and earth.

The tree Jupiter climbs is called the Liriodendron Tulipiferum. The real scientific name of the tree is Tulipifera, and I think Poe knew this. Ferrum is the Latin word for iron, corresponding to Mars, and the intentional botanical mistake seems to be a further hint toward the purpose, nature, and symbolism of the tree. It is meant to be related to alchemical iron, or Mars, and it is being mounted by Jupiter, or tin. The story’s description provides further hints, many of which I’m likely missing.

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Blossom on a tulip tree (Liriodendron Tulipifera)

In youth, the tulip-tree, or Liriodendron Tulipiferum, the most magnificent of American foresters, has a trunk peculiarly smooth, and often rises to great height without lateral branches; but, in its riper age, the bark becomes gnarled and uneven, while many short limbs make their appearance on the stem. Thus the difficulty of ascension, in the present case, lay more in semblance than in reality. Embracing the huge cylinder, as closely as possibly, with his arms and knees, seizing with his hands some projections, and resting his naked toes upon others, Jupiter, after one or two narrow escapes from falling, at length wriggled himself into the first great fork, and seemed to consider the whole business as virtually accomplished. The risk of the achievement was, in fact, now over, although the climber was some sixty or seventy feet from the ground.

Jupiter, who shares a name with alchemical tin, is instructed to climb to the seventh branch of the tree, making us think of the seven stages of alchemy. The planet Jupiter is called the “greater benefic” because it symbolizes in astrology and alchemy a process of inspiration, expansion, and growth.

In alchemical symbolism, the figure climbing the tree of the philosophers usually is either destructive knowledge (Melusina) or divine revelation (Mercurius). Jupiter acts as both in the story, as he leads his former master into error the first time he climbs, but eventually finds his way after the mistake is noticed.

Jupiter hanging the gold scarab attached to a string through the skull’s eye brings to mind a plumb line and bob, which masons used to use to measure the uprightness of a scaffold when crafting buildings. These plumb bobs were originally made of lead, and the switch of a lead object for the golden scarab creates a juxtaposition between lead and gold, drawing an association between the transmutation process and the search for the hidden treasure.

Legrand’s dog Wolf is also an alchemical symbol. In alchemy, the wolf is symbolic of antimony, the animal nature, and free spirit. Dogs share a common ancestor with modern wolves and are closely related to the gray wolf. Wolf the dog takes a minor role in Poe’s story, but he does help dig once the skeletons are visible in the pit.

In the pit, next to the treasure, lie several skeletons, and along with the death’s head symbol prominent throughout the tale, these bring associations of the nigredo, or mortification process of alchemy, with its themes of death and matter. This contrasts with the bright, colorful jewels in the hidden cache, which are the cauda pavonis, or peacock’s tale, which occurs after the nigredo stage:

In an instant, a treasure of incalculable value lay gleaming before us. As the rays of the lanterns fell within the pit, there flashed upwards, from a confused heap of gold and of jewels, a glow and glare that absolutely dazzled our eyes.

When they look through the treasure later, they find

Diamonds–some of them exceedingly large and fine–a hundred and ten in all, and not one of them small; eighteen rubies of remarkable brilliancy;–three hundred and ten emeralds, all very beautiful; and twenty-one sapphires, with an opal.

Additionally, elsewhere, in a parallel of the ablutio, or baptism of the elements, Jupiter takes a golden bath:

Jupiter’s countenance wore, for some minutes, as deadly a pallor as it is possible, in the nature of things, for any negro’s visage to assume. He seemed stupefied — thunder-stricken. Presently he fell upon his knees in the pit, and burying his naked arms up to the elbows in gold, let them there remain, as if enjoying luxury of a bath.

For a moment, Jupiter’s face gains a paradoxical paleness, and suddenly Jupiter is a figure of the reconciliation of opposites – black and white – and associated with the Roman god after which he is named – like the god of thunder and lightning, he is thunder-stricken.

The box, the narrator also notes, “had plainly been subjected to some mineralizing process–perhaps that of the bi-chloride of Mercury.” Mercury bichloride is highly poisonous and appears like a silvery salt, but more importantly, it brings to mind the two forms of Mercurius, described by Jung as

Mercurius Trismegistus

the divine winged Hermes manifest in matter, the god of revelation, lord of thought, and sovereign psychopomp…When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it, he means quicksilver, but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed in matter. Mercurius stands at the beginning and the end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and dies, to rise again as the lapis. He is the play of colors in the cauda pavonis and the division into four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the traditional brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novem, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught–a symbol uniting all opposites.

At several points in the story, Jupiter suggests that William Legrand’s behavior is due to being bitten by the gold-bug. The bite, he says, has infected Legrand with tarantism, a type of madness. This is referred to in the falsely attributed epigram of the story:

What ho! What ho! This fellow is dancing mad!
He hath been bitten by the Tarantula.
All in the Wrong.

When Legrand – whose name translates to “grand” or “great” in French, bringing to mind the Great Work, also known as the Grand Arcanum, of the alchemists – explains his apparent madness to the narrator, the narrator explains

“I was sure you were mad. And why did you insist on letting fall the bug, instead of a bullet, from the skull?”

Legrand replies that in trickster fashion, he misled the narrator. He says:

I felt somewhat annoyed by your evident suspicions touching my sanity, and so resolved to punish you quietly in my own way by a little bit of sober mystification. For this reason I swung the beetle, and for this reason I let it fall from the tree. An observation of yours about its great weight suggested the latter idea.

The madness affecting Legrand is more than a little bit of sober mystification, as the narrator compares him to a magical practitioner:

I had charge of a couple of dark lanterns, while Legrand contented himself with the scarabaeus, which he carried attached to the end of a bit of whipcord; twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjuror…

As confident conjuror and trickster, Legrand is both the obsessive practitioner of the Great Work and a Mercurius figure. His mad affliction is like a scarabaeus, a “gold bug,” symbolically related to the crayfish and lobster, also symbols of the initiate, carrying through the labor and dross to an eventual discovery of treasure, with Jupiter’s help.

With the help of his companions – the narrator’s accident of exposing the parchment to heat and Jupiter’s ability to climb the tall tree – and in spite of the mistakes of his companions (like the narrator’s insistence it was a wild goose chase and Jupiter’s relative ignorance) Legrand discovers the treasure buried under the tree of the philosophers. He encounters nigredo and albedo, which if all goes well will eventually lead him to rubedo, or the projection of the philosopher’s stone.

When I talked about Poe’s interest in esoteric studies earlier, I didn’t mention one of his more well-known interests: hypnagogia, or the hypnagogic state. Author Mavromatis describes hypnagogia psychologically as “the loosening of the ego bounds of the subject.” Poe described the state in the following passage:

There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquillity — when the bodily and mental health are in perfection — and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time — yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows;” and for absolute thought there is demanded time’s endurance.

These “fancies” have in them a pleasurable ecstasy as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the Heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell. I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure, moderates or tranquilizes the ecstasy — I so regard them, through a conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the Human Nature — is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world…

Poe even wrote that he would deliberately attempt to experience these states of mind – to reach the very inappreciable point of time where the floodgates open and feelings and imagery would rush into his conscious mind uninhibited and to experience the ecstasy of what he describes as the supernal, spiritual realm.

To give you some idea of what hypnagogic states might look and feel like, I’ll quote Peter Schwenger’s excellent description from an article titled “Writing Hypnagogia”:

You are in bed, your eyes are closed, you feel yourself drifting toward sleep. You are drowsily aware of bright clouds drifting past, which condense into floating luminous ribbons, stars, saw-toothed lines, and geometrical forms. The faces begin; they crowd in on you, grotesque to the point of caricature. One group pares itself down to skulls, and it is now clear that they are a skeleton family, rather jolly, mother and father and two children with balloons, all seated in a bulbous automobile and moving along in the jerky fashion of 1930s cartoons. They disappear down a long, curving road, which then unfolds like a wave….

No wonder Poe loved hypnagogia: dark, spooky, surreal imagery and feelings of spiritual ecstasy – what Romantic could resist?

The best alchemical and symbolic literature operates much like the hypnagogic state – in a liminal space between the conscious mind and the unconscious, but more controlled, helping the reader travel between the representation and the represented and ushering unconscious energies into the door to the conscious mind. But there may also be a purely unconscious component to the alchemical symbolism, which helps with this ushering even when a reader is unaware of the characters, imagery, and action of the story being representational at all. As Hawthorne’s Holgrave wakes up the sleeping, hypnotized Phoebe, so the alchemical artist wakes up her readers.

Aside from by gleaning what we can by some of their writings, we don’t know what all medieval alchemists believed, how they conceived of their practices, or whether all of them practiced at all. Did any alchemists view the material operations of their work as symbolic, or wholly practical – with the goal of transmuting physical metals from their basic state to gold? Lawrence Principe, a historian of science, suggests that the claims that “the alchemical texts from the whole history of alchemy were simultaneously chemical, spiritual, and psychological” is not supported by the historical record. However, long before Atwood or Hitchcock, dating as far back in English as about 1600, there are treatises discussing the spiritual-metaphorical nature of alchemical literature.

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Image of a Rosicrucian door with quote from Matthew 7:14

For example, Fama Fraternitatis, the Rosicrucian manifesto, warns against “the ungodly and accursed gold-making” which the author or authors regard as a perversion of the real thing. The real thing, it says, was a spiritual process.

Additionally, other hermeticists, religious scholars, Jungians, many poets, symbolists, gnostics and neoplatonists suggest a simultaneously chemical, spiritual, psychological component to alchemy. In his study of alchemy, Mircea Eliade explains:

The Western alchemist by attempting to “kill” the ingredients, to reduce them to the materia prima, provokes a sympatheia between the “pathetic situations” of the substance and his innermost being. In other words, he realizes, as it were, some initiatory experiences which, as the course of the opus proceeds, forge for him a new personality.

Eliade suggests that initiates let symbol operate in their minds by letting their imaginations see the figures and symbols as parts of themselves, in a sort of sympathetic magic like that Baudelaire attributes to artists. Perhaps, like some artists like Hawthorne or Yeats, suggest, the initiatory process happens simply by experiencing the sense impressions, like a ritual or meditative practice. Perhaps, like the Golden Dawn system suggests, our powers are awakened through name and image. Perhaps a new personality comes to the initiate the way the dung beetle in Egyptian iconography births a new Sun – by collecting enough dross.

If you’re interested in esoterica having to do with some of the ideas discussed here and want to explore it rather than Poe and his stories and poems, I recommend studying Keys 18 and 20 of the tarot.

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