In another entry, I discuss trees as symbols of the connection between Heaven and Earth and Jupiter’s ascent up the alchemical tree in Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.” This entry starts with a similar symbol and analyzes it in biblical and alchemical thought and literature. That symbol is the garden, as in the title of my former podcast, Hermetic Garden. I discuss a few poems, Fantastic Beasts, and Harry Potter primarily, and I analyze mandrakes, magical beasts, and what they are and mean.
I considered writing a defense of Harry Potter, because it has a poor reputation in occult communities and in academic circles, both of which I consider myself a part. Occultists see Harry Potter as giving ludicrous ideas about what magic is, and many academics (most famously, Harold Bloom) view it as poor writing (though that notion is changing slowly). Despite its flaws, Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World has had tremendous influence on me, and I don’t need to defend her or my choice to analyze her work. Her work and my analysis of her work will speak for themselves.
This entry is mostly about Rowling’s work, so to lend a bit of credence to the analysis that follows, here’s something Rowling said back in 1998, before her worldly fame and fortune, in an interview with The Herald:
“I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.”
The first part of the name of my podcast, “hermetic,” refers to alchemy and hermeticism which are really the unifying themes of the podcast. The garden of the title is symbolic, and I named my podcast with this symbol in mind.
A poem by Andrew Marvell called “The Garden” is a meditation on the garden as a symbol of a particular aspect or quality of the human psyche. It should be no surprise that alchemical theory and symbols influenced Marvell greatly, as highlighted in the wonderful book Marvell & Alchemy. The book mentions “The Garden” briefly, but doesn’t go into much detail. The book spends much more time talking about a similar but much longer poem called “Upon Appleton House,” which we’ll discuss below.
In literature, gardens as symbols necessarily evoke Eden, the paradisaical garden in Genesis, which is a symbol of an established cosmic order. The events that lead up to the fall – the serpent entering into the garden and Eve’s eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – are like a crack in the established cosmic order. Rowling uses subtle imagery of a garden in the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, when Dumbledore “step[s] over the low garden wall and walk[s] to the front door” to lay Harry gently on the doorstep of number four, Privet Drive, and the next chapter, titled “The Vanishing Glass” describes something like the symbolic tale of the serpent in Eden. Many alchemists held the belief that Adam was closer to nature in Eden than man is now. Before the fall, it was said, Adam could speak and understand the “original” language of nature without the need of interpretation. Elias Ashmole explains in a commentary on Theatrum chemicum Britannicum that
Adam before his Fall was so absolute a Philosopher, that he fully understood the true and pure knowledge of Nature (which is no other than what we call Naturall Magick) in the highest degree of Perfection, insomuch, that by the light thereof, upon the present view of the Creatures he perfectly knew their natures, and was able to Bestow names suitable to their Qualities and Properties.
After the fall, though, not only does Adam forget the perfect natures of all the creatures of the earth, but he must “work the ground from which he had been taken.”
Other than Genesis with its Garden of Eden, the first text about a hermetic garden I know of is the Hermetic Garden of Daniel Stolcius, which is a series of 160 emblematic plates each accompanied by a poem, covering a wide breadth and depth of the symbolic material of the alchemical tradition. Scholar of alchemy Adam McLean published an annotated version of the Garden. One emblem in the collection depicts the alchemical stage of fermentation, showing Sol and Luna lying prostrate in tilled soil, like the type of soil you’d find in a farm field. An angel, like that depicted in the Judgment tarot card, blows a trumpet to resurrect the bodies of Sol and Luna.
The verse below the emblem reads:
The seed thrown on good soil sprouts,
For which purpose it regains its soul.
The trumpet sounds for the resurrection of the bodies,
So that they take on new flesh again.
Without ferment the sun cannot again see the light of day,
And beautiful Diana at its side without ferment cannot have life again.
The emblem reminds me of the tarot Key XX, Judgment, with the image of an angel blowing a trumpet, resurrecting a man, woman, and child. Judgment symbolizes the element of fire, whose zodiac signs are Aries, the Emperor; Leo, Strength; and Sagittarius, Temperance.
There are many more emblems in the book symbolically depicting the various stages of alchemy. Unfortunately, McLean’s version is out of print.
I mentioned above that Andrew Marvell wrote another poem around the same time as “The Garden” called “Upon Appleton House.” Around 1650, Marvell moved to the Appleton House, owned by the Fairfax family, to be a tutor for Lord Fairfax’s daughter, Mary. The poem, probably written during that time, is written in the style of a country house poem, following the tradition of Ben Jonson and others, but it is also a garden poem. It is a meditation on the polarities of action and contemplation, and symbolizes the human mind as being imprisoned in the “house of flesh.” The poem consists of 97 stanzas of 8 lines each, for a total of 776 lines in the poem, written as octosyllabic couplets.
The first group of stanzas describe the house, the next group the history of the house as a nunnery, and the next the flower gardens. After this, the speaker tells us about the meadows, the woods, and, finally, Mary Fairfax herself.
The LibriVox recording is in the public domain, and I recommend listening to it if you don’t want to read such a long poem to yourself. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, so it may even be beneficial. These are stanzas 71 through 73 of “Upon Appleton House”:
Thus I, easie Philosopher,
Among the Birds and Trees confer:
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the Fowles, or of the Plants.
Give me but Wings as they, and I
Streight floting on the Air shall fly:
Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted Tree.
Already I begin to call
In their most-learned Original:
And where I Language want, my Signs
The Bird upon the Bough divines;
And more attentive there doth sit
Then if She were with Lime-twigs knit.
No Leaf does tremble in the Wind
Which I returning cannot find.
Out of these scatter’d Sibyls Leaves
Strange Prophecies my Phancy weaves:
And in one History consumes,
Like Mexique-Paintings, all the Plumes.
What Rome, Greece, Palestine, ere said
I in this light Mosaick read.
Thrice happy he who, not mistook,
Hath read in Natures mystick Book.
The whole poem operates on multiple levels of meaning. There are some rich lines and images here in this passage, most of which I can’t cover completely, but I’ll do some analysis, taking a few of the images one at a time. First, at the end of the first stanza above, we see that the narrator calls himself an inverted tree. The inverted tree is almost as widespread a symbol as the tree, which we discussed in an entry on Poe and imagination.
Similarly, Hermes tells Asclepius in the Corpus Hermeticum:
those who possess soul have roots extending downward to them from above; and those which are soulless sprout from roots which reach upward from below. The one sort are nourished with two kinds of food; the other sort, with food of one kind only. Animals are composed of soul and body; and their food is of two kinds – food for the soul and food for the body.
Here, Hermes tells Asclepius that men have souls when their roots are in heaven, which provides nourishment and life. Otherwise, they are soulless. The tarot card associated with this is the Hanged Man, being the halfway point of the path of return and representing the element of water. This is why the expert in literary alchemy Lyndy Abraham says that the soulful person is a sort of amphibian of earth and heaven, taking part in both and being nourished physically by food and spiritually by gifts from heaven above.
In Marvell & Alchemy, its author, literary alchemy expert Lyndy Abraham, argues rather convincingly that there’s a cipher in this section of the poem. The sign that there is a puzzle, Abraham says, is that elsewhere Marvell calls his ‘quills’ and ‘lines’ his toys, which he puts away at one point for fear that Mary will see them directly. Additionally, in the first stanza above, Marvell writes that he “among the birds and trees confer[s].” Indeed, he does confer something through them. The first letters of each of the names of the trees and the birds throughout the woods section unscramble and translate to form the phrase “Thou art Noah, Thou art Thoth,” making us think of an earlier line, when the poem says:
But I, retiring from the Flood,(ll.481-4)
Take Sanctuary in the Wood;
And, while it lasts, my self imbark
In this yet green, yet growing Ark.
There was a folk belief among some Renaissance thinkers that Noah was the father of all druids and, like druids, could speak the language of the creatures of the woods. No wonder the stanza after the hint at the cipher discusses the “original language” (like that of Adam regained), a language that, unlike Noah or the Druids, the speaker divines via the Sibyll’s leaves, in order to write his strange prophecies.
The word “mosaick” is a play on the mosaic, as in composed of smaller parts, and the name Moses, who delivered the Israelites out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea. All of the separate parts of the mosaic of nature reveal the message within.
“Thrice happy” is another hint at the cipher – its relation to the term “thrice-blessed” invokes Thoth in these lines. Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, in a conflation of the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes, was the inventor of letters, the progenitor of alchemy, and purported author of the Hermetica. Supposedly alchemy comes from the Egyptian words al khemet which means “the black land,” referring to the fertile soil around the Nile river.
The purpose of tilling soil has historically been to mix organic matter into it, increasing its fertility. Earth and fertility are popular symbols in the alchemical tradition, and mandrakes incorporate both meanings in one image. Though Rowling uses them in her twentieth-century texts, Mandrakes as symbols of fertility are much older. They were used in ancient times as anesthetics and as aphrodisiacs, and, in Genesis chapter 30, they increase Leah’s fertility, and she bears a son with Jacob, naming him Issachar, which means “there is reward.” The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols describes Mandrakes the following way:
The mandrake is a fertility symbol, it foretells the future and acquires wealth. In magical practices, although the mandrake may be found in both male and female shape, it is always regarded as the male principle. Its medicinal virtues and spiritual efficacy depend upon the extent to which it has a tap-root. It is, however, poisonous and must be carefully prescribed to be beneficial. The mandrake is supposed to grow from the semen ejaculated by a hanged man.
The mention of the hanged man harkens back to the symbol of the inverted tree we mentioned earlier, but this passage, quoted from a French artist named Albert-Maris Schmid, associates semen or fertility with it. In the hermetic tradition, the tree’s roots are heaven, and from the spiritual gifts above the hanged man creates and nourishes the soul.
Many versions of this brown, human-shaped plant, including the version in Harry Potter, scream when you pull them out of the ground. In Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts Professor Pomona Sprout, the herbology professor, explains that when a mandrake becomes mature, its cry can be fatal, though when young it only causes a few hours of unconsciousness: this is why Sprout requires her students to wear earmuffs when working with mandrakes. Additionally, Sprout’s first name, Pomona, was inherited from the Roman god of fruit and abundance, and Pomona’s attribute was the horticultural pruning knife.
As I mentioned earlier, herbology or herbalism is the cultivation and study of plants for their medicinal properties – their effects on the body. In Harry Potter, herbology is about studying plants’ magical properties. Neville Longbottom is one of the foremost students of herbology in the series. There are many interesting parallels between Harry and Neville in the stories: their birthdays are the same, and Harry even uses Neville’s name to disguise himself when riding the Knight Bus in Prisoner of Azkaban.
Longbottom is a compound last name borrowed from the Longbottom leaf of Lord of the Rings, a name which make us think of depth. In the first book, Neville shows his depth when he stands up to his friends, not wanting them to risk their lives going to the 3rd floor of Hogwarts. Here, he’s brave, but he’s ill-advised or uninformed. He hasn’t honed his bravery – his courage in action – yet. Contrast this to one of the last scenes in the final book, when Longbottom shows his depth and his growth, not to mention his Gryffindorian nature, when he pulls the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Hat of Gryffindor to behead the serpent Nagini and become one of the handful of people to help Harry on his quest to destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes.
Like Harry, Neville is a Gryffindor, but due to his knack for herbology, I see him as a kind of Hufflepuff-Gryffindor hybrid. I suspect that if the sorting hat had given Neville an option between two houses like he did Harry, Neville may have been given Hufflepuff as an option. There’s no shame in being a Hufflepuff: hunky, honest, helpful, and heroic Cedric Diggory is one of the most prominent Hufflepuffs in the Potter series, and his name hints at the symbolism of the house. The name “Cedric” comes from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and it has its roots in a Welsh name that means “bounty-pattern.” Diggory contains the word “dig,” which you do in the dirt to plant seeds and uncover treasure. As has been established by Harry Potter scholars, the four houses of Hogwarts are associated with the four classical elements: earth, water, air, and fire: hence Hufflepuff’s association with plants and the dirt.
Perhaps even better than Cedric’s heroic Hufflepuff ethos, Newt Scamander is the quintessential Hufflepuff: loyal, honest, caring, and even nursing magical creatures as a profession; he also contains a nervous energy that’s characteristic of highly intuitive types. Dumbledore describes him best in The Crimes of Grindelwald:
Do you know why I admire you, Newt? More perhaps than any man I know? You do not seek power or popularity. You simply ask “Is a thing right in itself?” If it is, you do it no matter the cost.
This is the quintessential Hufflepuff: they are selfless, honest, loyal, hardworking do-gooders. Cedric is the self-sacrificing, unsung hero of Goblet of Fire, and his death, the first in the series, is a shedding of some amount of the earth element of the tale. Hufflepuffs are the type of people who tend to keep to themselves, out of the spotlight and yet offer their minds and bodies for the betterment of humanity – in the muggle world, they might take professions like doctors, librarians, or teachers.
Once, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, out of relief, Newt Scamander thanks Paracelsus, who is an important figure in the alchemical tradition. I think he might be even more important and influential a figure than Nicholas Flamel, who is mentioned in the first Harry Potter book and who appears in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Paracelsus was born at the end of the 15th century, and he published throughout the 16th century numerous volumes of alchemical theory and put together the most complete theory of alchemy and medicine. In a book called The Golden Builders, Tobias Churton suggests that Paracelsus was expounding long-held secrets in his theories. Churton explains that:
Paracelsus referred to the “divine signatures” inherent in the world, traces of a more than natural (though not unnatural) presence, something of a maker’s mark and transcendent mind, discernible in creation – a ladder, a clue…
Put another way, Paracelsus writes:
I considered with myself, that if there were no teacher of medicine in the world, how would I set about to learn the art? No otherwise than in the great open Book of Nature, written with the finger of God.
This makes us think of the metaphor Marvell uses in “Upon Appleton House” – written by God himself in a secret language, the book of nature holds secrets about the spiritual world. In the treatise “The Economy of Minerals,” Paracelsus also writes:
Consider, I beseech you, this tiny grain of seed, black or brown in colour, out of which grows a vast tree, producing such wonderful greenness in its leaves, such variegated colours in its flowers, and flavours in its fruits of such infinite variety; see this repeated in Nature in all her products, and you will find her so marvellous, so rich, in her mysteries that you will have enough to last you all your life in this Book of Nature without referring to paper books.
Paracelsus’ “mystical Book of Nature” became a common metaphor in 16th- and 17th-century thinking, and it’s reflected in writings of philosophers, poets, dramatists, and great thinkers of that age beyond Andrew Marvell. For example, the Soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra says, with no need for explanation, that:
In nature’s infinite book of secrecyI.ii.8-9
A little can I read
Also, English Paracelsian Thomas Tymm wrote in 1612 that:
The Almighty Creator of the Heavens and the Earth… hath set before our eyes two most principall Bookes: the one of Nature, and the other of his written Word.
The metaphor of nature as a book seeped into the common conception of the cosmos so much that it can be found in the works of various thinkers and writers such as Francis Bacon, propagator of the scientific method; Sir Thomas Browne, 17th-century polymath and expert in medicine and the esoteric; and even the poet and satirist Samuel Butler, who was a skeptic of the alchemical theory formulated by Paracelsus.
Additionally, 17th-century English philosopher and alchemist Thomas Vaughan, brother to poet Henry Vaughan, advised any seeker to
Run over the alphabet of Nature; examine every letter – I mean, every particular creature – in her book.
Though Paracelsus’ alchemical and medicinal theories have to do with plants and minerals, some 16th and 17th century alchemists, like Vaughan, connected the Book of Nature and alchemical properties to creatures as well, which is what Fantastic Beasts revolves around.
The beginning of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens with images of newspaper articles describing a war between Grindelwald and No-Majs, or non-magical people; Grindelwald going into hiding; and a ban on magical creatures in the United States. The United States, a sort of alchemical experiment in itself, has a distinct history with magic and witches, our cultural attitudes, prejudices, and biases shown by historical events like the Salem Witch Trials, which looms in our mind as we watch. We eventually reach the first scene with Newt. He is on a ship to the United States, clutching his briefcase and softly calming one of his creatures inside, a Demiguise named Dougal.
Upon Newt reaching inspection, we discover that the briefcase he was clutching is not as simple as it appears. Underneath its modest exterior, the case contains a deep lair, which Newt even climbs into later in the movie. The briefcase isn’t the only thing in the movie with this property. We see a few scenes later an animal called a Niffler, which is a magical creature with a long snout, black fur, deep pockets, and an eye and nose for treasure. Like a sort of mammalian magpie, Nifflers stuff gold, silver, jewelry, coins, dog collars, and any other shiny objects into their seemingly bottomless pouches, creating a hoard of treasure in the depths of their pockets. According to Newt’s own book, also titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Nifflers are kept by Goblins to find and collect treasure for them. This reminds me a bit of our discussion of the mandrake earlier – the mandrake, like the Niffler and the dragon, acquires wealth.
The type of magic that Newt’s case and the Niffler’s pockets hold is not unusual in the Wizarding World. The Undetectable Extension Charm, whose Latin casting phrase is Capacious extremis, affects the inner dimensions of an object without affecting its outward appearance. Hermione uses this spell on a bag in Deathly Hallows in her preparation for Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s adventures in the wilderness, outside of Hogwarts. Hermione Granger having an enchanted bag of her own adds to the meaning of the bag and the enchantment.
Many others such as John Granger and Hans Andrea have detailed the reasoning for Hermione being symbolic of alchemical mercury – including her name’s similarity to the Greek version of the Roman Mercury, Hermes, and her initials being Hg, the symbol for Mercury in the periodic table of elements. On some level, Mercury is a symbol for spirit. Paracelsus describes it as:
a sharpe liquor, passable and penetrating, and a most pure & Aetheriall substantiall body: a substance ayrie, most subtill, quickning, and ful of Spirit, the food of life, and the essence or terme, the next instrument.
Mercury is one of three hypostatic principles of the process of alchemy. The other two principles are Sulphur and Salt. Very loosely and briefly, Sulphur is energy, and Salt is the body. Mercury is the mind, which is also the object of the process. The enchantment on Hermione’s and Newt’s bags (and the Niffler’s pocket) show the potential for the mind to be much deeper on the inside than we can see on the outside. As we experience the world, we internalize much, some of it subconsciously. We build a model of the world we experience in our nervous system, most of which is stored in the amygdala, or the almond-shaped memory center in our brain. Like Hermione, our mind can produce parts of the model from its depths when we need them, and sometimes when we don’t, like when a jingle from TV pops into your head.
Just before the scene with the Niffler, in a traditionally comedic switcharoo trope, Newt and a man named Jacob unknowingly swap nearly identical briefcases. Jacob Kowalski, whose last name means “smith,” as in the metalworking occupation, is trying to get a loan from the bank to open up a bakery. At the beginning of the film, Jacob works at a canned food factory, but he desires to open up his bakery to bake pastries instead, because he says they “make people happy.” There’s a contrast here between the boring food he produces at the beginning of the film – nobody’s ever smiled over a can of beans – and the creature-shaped bread he bakes at the end of the film which do tend to make his customers and the audience joyous.
Jacob’s name originates in the Bible. It means “supplanter,” referring to when Jacob takes his twin brother’s favor from their father by covering himself with goat hair (his brother Esau was apparently a very hairy dude). Later, in chapter 28 of Genesis, Jacob places his head on a rock and receives a vision of a ladder up to heaven, with angels going up and down it. Even later, Jacob wrestles with an angel near a city called Luz, beats the angel, and renames the place Bethel, which means house of God. Luz, by the way, means an almond tree, whose scientific name is Amygdalus communis, the first tree to flower in the spring and whose blossoms are pink and in five parts.
A few scenes later in Fantastic Beasts, Jacob falls for a woman – the beautiful Queenie Goldstein, whose last name means “gold stone.” Though mostly absent-minded, she is an accomplished and talented Legilimens, with extremely high emotional sensitivity and empathy, so sensitive, in fact, it seems she performs her mind-reading without even trying or thinking consciously about it. Rowling’s treatment of Queenie’s mindreading, to me, is an echo or continuation of the themes and mechanisms of prophecy in the Harry Potter series. Professor Sibyll Trelawney, Hogwarts Seer and Prophetess and Harry’s divination professor, is a legitimate seer, but only when she doesn’t want to be. With only a few exceptions, she accidentally stumbles upon prophecy in the signs she reads. When Sibyll applies her conscious mind to her practices, we, the audience, laugh at the absurdity of her melodrama and showmanship. We laugh, that is, until her prophecies accidentally come true… Though most of her prophecies are accidental, one of her earliest prophecies, of the rivalry between Harry and Voldemort, was forceful. Something possesses Trelawney and she foretells the competition between Harry and Voldemort:
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…and the dark lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have the power the dark lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…the one with the power to vanquish the dark lord will be born as the seventh month dies.
“Neither can live while the other survives,” the prophecy goes. In an earlier echo of that prophecy, in Prisoner of Azkaban, the grim which she predicts through Harry’s tea leaves does appear, and, at the end of the story, Harry and Sirius are nearly killed by Dementors. The grim does indeed bring death for Harry eventually – the death of Sirius, who is the grim himself. Trelawney also predicts with tarot cards Dumbledore’s death at the astronomy tower in Half-Blood Prince, though she and we don’t know precisely what it means when she pulls the card in her reading.
Like Noah, Jacob carries the creatures of a magical, prediluvian age past the threshold – the heavy rain – and into the muggle world. Above, I wrote that Jacob desires to bake and sell pastries at his own shop because he feels that it “brings joy to people,” and eventually he does. Not only does he bake bread and pastries, he bakes bread and pastries into the shape of the beautiful fantastic beasts he met!
In the Bible, especially in the New Testament, bread is a symbol of a gift from God. Bread is a staple physical nourishment, and in symbolic form a spiritual nourishment. Jesus says in Matthew 4:4 that
Man lives not only by bread, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
And Robert Fludd, commenting on this passage, suggests that
These words were understood by Moses of that Manna by which the Israelites were nourished in the desert.
Further, another alchemist whom we mentioned earlier, Thomas Vaughan, suggests that the ‘dew’ of the alchemists is equivalent to the Manna of this story in Exodus:
The dewy water is no humane confection, but a thing prepared by the divine spirit…For thus I read in Exodus, “And it came to pass that at even, the Quails came up and covered the Camp, and in the morning the Dew lay around about the Hoste. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold upon the face of the Wilderness there lay a round small thing, as small as hoare Frost upon the ground, and when the Children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, it is Manna.
Jesus of Nazareth also calls himself the bread, connecting himself to the Manna in the desert, which is also the dew of the alchemists – that is, tiny drops of water that condense onto cool surfaces (like petals and leaves) overnight and appear there at sunrise – connecting it in turn to the waters from heaven we discussed above.
Like Jacob makes bread for the people of New York in Fantastic Beasts, Rubeus Hagrid in Philosopher’s Stone bakes a pastry for Harry upon rescuing him from the Dursleys and inviting him to Hogwarts, all on his birthday. Despite the way the letters on the cake appear in the film version, the book tells us that Hagrid’s spelling is impeccable, which is unsurprising to me given that Hagrid is a representation of the alchemical artist. His cake isn’t in the shape of any animals, but it is made of chocolate, which, as we know, is a pick-me-up for wizards. In addition to being Harry’s initiator and psychopomp, Rubeus Hagrid is a professor of beasts, Hogwarts’ keeper of the keys, and, though this deed is often ignored, he also defrosts broomsticks at Hogwarts whenever they’re frozen over.
In alchemy, the stage after which Rubeus Hagrid is named is the rubedo stage, where the philosopher’s stone is projected onto other metals in a process called Projection. In Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, a character named Epicure Mammon – a greedy man – asks his conman partner, Subtle, when the alchemical projection will take place. Mammon wants to get the philosopher’s stone from him because he thinks it will make him rich. Subtle responds that Mammon should be patient, because the augmentation of the stone’s potency can come about only through iteration of the familiar dual processes of solve et coagula, Solution and Coagulation. Once the Stone has reached full Virtue, or Strength, it will be ready for projection.
Son, be not hasty, I exalt our med’cine,
By hanging him in balneo vaporoso,
And giving him solution; then congeal him;
And then dissolve him; then again congeal him;
For look, how oft I iterate the work,
So many times I add unto his virtue.
As, if at first one ounce convert a hundred,
After his second loose, he’ll turn a thousand;
His third solution, ten; his fourth, a hundred:
After his fifth, a thousand thousand ounces
Of any imperfect metal, into pure
Silver or gold, in all examinations,
As good as any of the natural mine.
Get you your stuff here against afternoon,
Your brass, your pewter, and your andirons.
In a scene of Fantastic Beasts, an Obscurus, looming throughout the film, finally terrorizes New York City, and the way it’s stopped is not by fighting it, but by talking calmly to it. Porpentina attempts to build a bridge between Credence, who harbors the Obscurus, and the world of magic. She looks at him with her salamander eyes, which resemble “fire in water,” and gently tries to calm him, with Newt nearby encouraging her:
“Keep talking, Tina. Keep talking to him – he’ll listen to you. He’s listening.”
After this line, the screenplay reads:
Inside the Obscurus, Credence reaches out to Tina, the only person who has ever done him an uncomplicated kindness. He looks at Tina, desperate and afraid. He has dreamed of her ever since she saved him from a beating.
She continues by saying, in a diagnosis of his troubles, that she knows what his adoptive mother did to him, that he’s suffered by her hand. She’s almost successful in calming the beast within, but Credence turns to Grindelwald, disguised as a man named Graves, whose name makes us think of death and emptiness. After this, Grindelwald, disguised as Graves, fights Newt publicly, in front of Muggles, Graves even torturing Newt as he lies prostrate on the floor underground. Shortly after Graves’ capture in the underground subway, Newt exposes Graves for what he is: Grindelwald in disguise, whose first name “Gellert” means spear, and whose last name bears association with Grendel, the shadowy monster who was defeated by the hero of the spear-Danes of the epic Beowulf.
Speaking of names, Tina’s full name is Porpentina, a name that means “porcupine.” Though porcupines may look threatening, they’re rather gentle creatures. In symbol, it is closely linked to the spirit-realm and often plays the part of culture-hero, who changes society and culture due to invention or discovery. The porcupine also has quills, and like Marvell’s mention of quills, this makes us think of writing.
The character Subtle from Jonson’s play mentions the need for Virtues to grow to their full potency before projection. This makes us think of Leo, a fire sign, to the alchemical process of projection. That card is Strength, also called Virtue or Lust. My favorite version of the card is the version in the Tarot of the Sephiroth, where a woman, who has two eyes of Horus as her eyes, looks as if she’s channeling the psychic power of the lion as a snake wraps around her waist and left arm. With her right arm, she casts rays of light through the lion to the space below.
This is related to the short, simple line from the Emerald Tablet that says:
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
In my version of the Emerald Tablet, I attribute this line to Leo, or Strength. On the Tree of Life, Teth and Strength are assigned to the path that connects Chesed and Geburah. Additionally, the intelligence to which the card is attributed is Intelligence of the Secret of Works.
The line from the Emerald Tablet, which personally I attribute to Virgo, is also relevant here:
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, sweetly & with great industry.
This is an imperative sentence – it is a call to comb through the earth and find and reveal its subtle properties – the fire. It is a call to reap the wheat of the sown seeds that grow from the symbolic earth in the depths of our mind. This is part of the meaning of the alchemical acronym VITRIOL – visita interiora terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem, “visit the interior of the earth and by purification you will find the hidden stone.” And this relates to Cedric Diggory’s name – pattern-digging. Digging through the earth is a symbolic act
Porpentina’s plea serves as a diagnosis of Credence, who has magical energies, Virtue, welling up in his mind. Yet he has nowhere to direct the energy. The Obscurus is a magical creature that is the absolute absence of other magical creatures. Its form is obscure; it hasn’t had the opportunity to manifest itself into a beast. In the Wizarding World, wizards must be given the opportunity to practice and hone their magic, else they become obscurials, harboring a dark, violent, dangerous energy inside. For Credence, this is due to bad belief, or credence, but this isn’t Credence’s fault just as it’s often not any belief-holder’s fault. He is a product of his childhood.
At the end of The Crimes of Grindelwald, Credence’s supposed real name is revealed: Aurelius. As John Granger has pointed out, this is an allusion to a story by Vladimir Nabokov. I’ll quote Granger here on the meaning of Credence’s revealed name. First, he quotes Nabokov, then explains the quotation:
[Paul] Pilgram belonged, or rather was meant to belong to a special breed of dreamers, such dreamers as used to be called in the old days ‘Aurelians’—perhaps on account of those chrysalids, those ‘jewels of Nature,’ which they loved to find hanging on fences above the dusty nettles of country lanes.
And Granger’s explanation is that:
we’re meant to think of chrysalis, the transformation of pupa to butterfly here, a completely natural and wonderfully miraculous metamorphosis akin to alchemical magic of lead being changed into gold. Paul Pilgram’s sad fate, though, as well as his name, suggests that Credence’s end will not be majestic if his heart is not right.
We’ve discussed in this entry that the fantastic beasts Hagrid and Newt raise are, quite cleverly, symbolic representations of symbolic representations of energies in the psyche, and we should give attention to and care for them as we encounter them. These beasts – or archetypes – enter into our imaginations and help us get in touch with our magical-spiritual side.
To reveal more, I borrow a passage here from psychologist James Hillman. This comes from a book called A Blue Fire – the name alchemists give to the blue virgin, also known as Sophia or Shekhinah, the divine immanence which blossoms into the feminine half of God. In this quote, Hillman is responding to the question, “Aren’t you merely elaborating what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung always insisted upon: images and instincts are inseparable?” His answer is:
Let’s leave it right there: images as instincts, perceived instinctually; the image, a subtle animal; the imagination, a great beast, a subtle body, with ourselves inseparably lodged in its belly: imagination, an animal mundi and an anima mundi, both diaphanous and passionate, unerring in its patterns and in all ways necessary, the necessary angel that makes brute necessity angelic; imagination, a moving heaven of theriomorphic gods in bestial constellations, stirring without external stimulation within our animal sense as it images its life in our world.
And elsewhere, he reveals more about this concept when discussing albedo:
We whiten the earth by earthing our whiteness. So, put the heat on anima attractions, soulful philosophizings, delicate aestheticisms, petty perceptions, global moods, love-dovey coziness, and the nymphic gossamer illusions that promise lions. Don’t literalize the relief of the albedo into relaxation: pull the plug on Mary’s bath. Silver is hard and it likes heat and truth; its telos is yellow and red, bright and loud. Get at essentials; stick to the image; greet the angel. In the albedo, the very method of psychoanalysis changes from an Aristotelian observation of similarities (and its ultimate reduction downward to common denominators) to the study of singularity, each phenomenon a thing in itself, allowing and forcing the necessary angel to appear as the body in the image making its behavioral demands on the soul.
In one of the final scenes of the first Fantastic Beasts movie, Jacob steps into the obliviating rain and says, “It’s just like waking up, right?” With a kiss from Queenie (whom he affectionately calls an angel at another point) in the city streets in the pouring rain, Jacob is obliviated.
Afterward, in an echo of the beginning of the film, Newt swaps briefcases with Jacob a second time. This time, rather than fantastic beasts, Newt carries a briefcase full of eggshells made of silver, which Jacob uses to fund his bakery.
In Act 1 Scene 3 of Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three witches, called the Weird Sisters. The word “weird” comes from Old English wyrd, which means fate or destiny. It’s related to the word “worth,” and thus has similar connotations as the word fortune. Banquo says to them:
In the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?
Rowling appears to be using fantastic in this way – that is, having an enigmatic inward nature. On her site, Rowling suggests that the fantastic beasts in the real world, which she calls the emotions, are inside of man:
There is the metaphorical sense of the beast inside a man: the crude emotions that a manipulative genius like Grindelwald knows how to stoke and use.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a tale about exactly what Rowling expressed symbolically when naming it. The beasts of the Wizarding World are the figures of literature which enter into our psyches through our imagination. We find these beasts in the literature produced by nature via projection – that is, the manifestation of spiritual and psychic realities into art. The screenplay and film of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are a call to attention: these are the fantastic beasts, and this is where to find them. The beasts are sources of illusion and trickery, but they are also the instrumentality of salvation for people like Credence.