Monday, February 1, 2010

Begin in Fire: More on Battlestar Galactica, the Aeneid, and Alchemy

"What fire cannot do, the Danaans did." [Aeneid, II.505]
The last post on the subject of comparing Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid ("End", as in Telos) focused on similarities between some of the major characters in both stories, but with this post I will start focusing more on plot elements. Of course, the topics of "character" and "plot" are obviously impossible to keep neatly separated from each other.

There are three obvious areas of plot overlap between BSG and the Aeneid: (1) Both stories begin in catastrophic violence from which there are few survivors, and these refugees then become the main focus of the action. (2) Both stories lead up to a final apocalyptic conflict, but in both cases there is a reconciliation, although not before there is significant bloodshed on both sides. Despite the amount of carnage in this final conflict, the reconciliation at the end is in stark contrast to the pitiless violence at the beginning, which is literally genocidal in its intent. (3) The final conclusions of both stories ultimately hinge on a heroic leader who has overcome death, and who thereby has gained the knowledge needed to lead the people to their destiny.

Previously, in Alchemy, the Aeneid and Battlestar Galactica, I very briefly, schematically and somewhat cryptically indicated that the plot elements outlined above (and some others) can be correlated to a sequence of seven Alchemical Operations. Five of those seven Operations correspond nicely with the three areas of overlap given above as follows:

(1) The catastrophic beginning followed by the initial wanderings of the refugees corresponds to Calcinatio and Solutio (the first two Operations).
(2) The apocaplytic conflict followed by reconciliation correspond to Separatio and Coniunctio (the final two Operations).
(3) The heroic encounter with and victory over Death, and the knowledge gained thereby, corresponds to Mortificatio (the fifth Operation).

This leaves two remaining Operations: Coagulatio and Sublimatio, both of which, in this proposed alchemical literary analysis of BSG and the Aeneid, have to do with the sojourn in, and subsequent flight from, New Caprica and Carthage, respectively. The parallels between New Caprica and Carthage are especially fascinating and are among the most striking of all the similarities between these two very different stories. But those correspondences will have to wait their turn as I go through the Operations in the order they appear in BSG and the Aeneid: (1)Calcinatio, (2)Solutio, (3)Coagulatio, (4)Sublimatio, (5)Mortificatio, (6)Separatio, (7)Coniunctio.

This ordering of the Operations is taken from Edward F. Edinger's book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. In one of the most remarkable synchronicities of my life, I just happened to find myself reading Edinger's book at the same time that I first read Vergil's Aeneid. I had no intention of finding Alchemical messages in the story of Aeneas, in fact it seemed much more to be the case that these messages were intent on finding me!

In that book Edinger presents the seven specific Alchemical Operations that I have been discussing, and in the order I am using here. However, Alchemy being, well, Alchemy, there are many different ways of dividing up, naming, ordering, and explaining the "Operations" of the Art.

The fiery nature of Calcinatio clearly resembles the destruction of Caprica and Troy. Edinger states at the very beginning of his chapter on Calcinatio: .
Most lists of Alchemical Operations begin with calcinatio. A few authors say that solutio comes first. However the sequence of operations (with one or two exceptions) does not seem to be psychologically significant. Any operation may be the initiating one, and the others may follow in any order.
[p. 17]
When it is the first Operation, Calcinatio represents an initial purification and sacrifice. To illustrate this Edinger quotes from Iamblichus' On the Mysteries (on pages 39-40):
[E]ven as the Gods cut through matter by the fire of the thunderbolt, and separate off from it those elements which are immaterial in their essence, but are overcome by it and imprisoned by it, and render them impassible instead of passible, even so the fire of our realm, imitating the acitivity of the divine fire, destroys all that is material in the sacrifies, purifies the offerings with fire and frees them from the bonds of matter, and renders them suitable, through the purification of their nature, for consorting with the Gods, and by the same procedures liberates us from the bonds of generation and makes us like to the Gods, and renders us worthy to enjoy their friendship, and turns round our material nature towards the immaterial.
[p. 247 of Dillon's 2003 paperback SBL edition]
Immediately after that quote Edinger adds:
Similarly, certain myths speak of the fire bath that conveys immortality. For example, Demeter, in her sorrowful wanderings after the abduction of Persephone, accepts the hospitality of Celeus and Metaneira, king and queen of Eleusis. In gratitude she plans to make their young son Demophoon immortal by holding him in the fire. Metaneira sees this procedure and interrupts it by her screams. Immortality is a quality of the archetypes. Thus the psychological meaning of the fire-bath of immortality will be that a connection is made between the ego and the archetypal psyche, making the former aware of its transpersonal, eternal, or immortal aspect.

The end product of calcinatio is a white ash. This corresponds to the so-called "white foliated earth" of many alchemical texts. It signifies the albedo or whitening phase and has paradoxical associations. On the one hand ashes signify despair, mourning, or repentance. On the other hand they contain the supreme value, the goal of the work. One text says, "Despise not the ashes for they are the diadem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure."
The text that Edinger quotes from is the Rosarium Philosophorum, as quoted by Jung in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which Jung adds this: "In other words, ash is the spirit that dwells in the glorified body." This "ash" is the final end to which the Operations of Alchemy are directed, and the "glorified body" is the only vehicle, or means, by which one can be transported to that final goal. Both the goal and also the means to that goal can be none other than the True Self, which is revealed in a very preliminary wayat the beginning of the Great Work. This is a promise of things to come -- like the first tentative kiss of young lovers. Calcinatio provides the first glimpse of the Undiscovered Self at the very moment when the process of discovery has just begun.