1. What is alchemy?
Well, obviously it’s a lot of things. But I think in essence it’s the practical and theoretic Natural Philosophy of the West, deriving from ancient Egyptian culture. The word “alchemy” means “of Khemet”, from khem meaning black – as in the black, fertile soil of the Nile Delta. This culture had a world-view that bore with it certain assumptions about the experiential universe, about meaning and the immanent divinity within the material world. Alchemy is and was about cracking open our experience of the material to discover the divine, and to discern meaning from that.
2. How is alchemy relevant in this modern era?
When we speak of modernism, that’s its own set of cultural assumptions that didn’t just emerge from itself. The roots of our world-view dig through the strata of Rome and Greece and Egypt and Sumeria, and the fossils of these cultures populate our everyday lives. The days of the week named after Woden and Thor and Freya, Saturn, Sun and Moon. Months of Janus and Juno and Mars. So understanding the past gives us a firmer footing in the present. Additionally we live in an age where science informs almost every aspect of our lives, and that science has its heritage in alchemical study. Newton called himself an alchemist.
The current dialogue and tension between science and religion strikes me as wholly artificial. Both shed light on aspects of human knowing, just as poetry and prose do not negate one another. What’s up for grabs is the role of meaning in the face of an exclusively materialist take on science which excludes meaning, or even the question of meaning. Alchemy contributes a scientific model which places meaning at its heart. We shouldn’t be so quick to get rid of that; I think we might need it later.
3. What personally drew you to study alchemy?
Jung. He empathized with the work of the alchemists in their goal of attaining understanding as a means of healing. Where their pursuit was general – healing the world, healing the human rift with God – his was particular, healing the patient through a discovery of their own archetypal landscape and the forces shaping this. Jung also identified alchemy from the late Middle Ages through the early modern era as the bridge to the Classical understanding of the universe; the NeoPlatonists, and back to the Gnostics. As a Gnostic, for me, this is tracing the breadcrumbs home.
4. How did “A Dictionary of Western Alchemy” come about?
Entirely by accident, to be honest. It began as scraps of notes I kept while wandering through these compelling, bizarre, encrypted original source texts. When a particular symbol or phrase or term would come to light, I’d jot a little note either in a Moleskin or a text file. After two decades, I’d amassed about three hundred of these, and began to organize their etymology, giving me something I could navigate more deliberately. It was only then that I realized that this was the germ of something others might find beneficial, and I spent the next few years identifying and filling in the gaps. Then of course the thing was much too big, more of an anemic encyclopedia, and I scaled it down to something concise and more easily accessible: a dictionary.
5. Traditionally alchemists shrouded their work in symbol and code. Do you feel someone using your dictionary in the course of studying alchemy is “cheating” the system?
The purpose of encryption was I think twofold: one was more pedestrian in nature, which is about protecting commercial, intellectual property. The cat’s out of the bag in that regard. If you want a process for polishing cotton so that it resembles silk – and this was one of the biggies – you can find that in seconds. Likewise was the formula for making potable gold. As to the second reason, it was to approach the subject with a sense of otherness, a sense of the sacred. But I feel this is still possible if the study of alchemy is done mindfully and with intent. So it’s not so much cheating as hacking. Here’s a tool, get in there, see what you can make of it.
6. How accurate of a portrayal of an alchemist do you feel Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series is?
Ha! I actually invoke Snape in my book’s Introduction. It’s not a bad start, actually, this image of Snape. He’s taking intangible concepts like luck or fame or fear, and making them finite, bottling and putting a stopper on them, in order to use them to solve a very real problem. The fact that he’s a literary character is a bonus; story and narrative and allegory are all vital components of alchemical Work. I think it does get to the core of it, despite all the additional stuff that goes along with him being in a children’s book.
7. You also wrote “Living Gnosticism: An Ancient Way of Knowing”. Do you find any similarities in the study of Gnosticism and the study of alchemy?
In perhaps the most famous Gnostic text, The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says
Split a piece of wood; I am there.
Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.
So the material world isn’t in its natural root divine, but it functions as a vehicle for the divine. This subtle distinction is frequently mistaken for dualism, but it’s much richer than that, much more hopeful. And this is really the crux of alchemical thinking: there’s a plant, which will experience corruption and decay, and there’s the idea of the plant, which pre-exists the plant and will survive its material experience. Spagyrics, or plant alchemy, says that if you take away all the parts of the whole-plant-thing that’s useful while it’s experiencing material-plantness, what’s left is something pure and infinitely refined. And this is the medicine of the plant. The parts it needs for collecting sunlight and repelling predators goes away, and the soul remains. We have the ability to access that plant-soul, to respect it and learn from it and benefit from it.
Gnosticism says, hey, there’s this whole artificial world out there, a world of clocks and pay cheques and parking tickets and status, and none of that stuff is real. We made it all up, and yet we confuse that constructed world with the real world, the primordial idea of existence and how we ought to relate to each other and to the divine. So alchemy and Gnosticism share this dialectic of content and context. And both are ultimately engaged in this process of Restoration, of healing by identifying with the All.
8. You’re an ordained priest in the Apostolic Johannite Church, could you share a little bit about this particular tradition and how it varies from other Christian traditions they may be familiar with?
The Tradition begins with the community of John the Baptist, some of whom became Christians and others who, maintaining that John was Christ, spread East. Within the group of those who later followed Jesus, most took a Platonic view of the whole thing, stressing mystery and metaphor, while others took to the emerging party line of Peter and Paul. So there’s a schism, evident half-way through the Gospel of John, where these original John followers leave and take on what we eventually label a Gnostic flavour. This group’s teachings flow through various “heretical” movements; the Paulicians and Bogomils and Cathars, debating and disagreeing and pondering the whole way.
Then in 1804, Napoleon’s doctor comes across what purports to be a mediaeval text, a slightly different version of the Gospel of John wherein John and not Peter is the successor of Christ. There’s also no Resurrection narrative. So this 19th century doctor sets out to “restore” the John Tradition, the Johannite Tradition, along Masonic lines. This church wobbles around a bit, gets some validity through the bishop of Haiti, and pops up significantly at the end of the century. Many, many independent churches share this heritage through chains of ordination and consecration, but only recently has one church made it their main focus and aesthetic, and that’s the Apostolic Johannite Church. Rather than just hang this Tradition on the wall as one-among-many, this is our principal vein of inquiry and spiritual context. You can check out the website at www.johannite.org if you like.
9. Do you have any other upcoming projects that my readers will be interested in?
I hope so. I’ve committed to doing a book on Cathars for Quest (the alchemical dictionary’s publisher) as well as a follow up to my Gnosticism book. There are also some workbooks on Qabalah and Tarot in the hopper, and I just finished shooting a documentary film about Zen meditation in youth prisons.
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
I would ask, what’s the alchemy of the site? What’s being refined here, transmuted by these conversations, and what’s your experience of the insight gained, for you personally, spiritually, creatively?
I always say that the Magical Buffet is where spirituality, politics, and pop culture collide, with hopefully entertaining and enlightening results. I know personally it has shown me that people are people. Regardless of education, spiritual or political association, gender, race, etc. at the end of the day we usually want the same things. More often than not, that involves alcohol.
About Jordan Stratford:
Born in Prince Rupert British Columbia, Jordan Stratford studied writing at the University of Victoria, where he was influenced by the fine art of the Victoria exhibition group The Limners. He found work early on in photography and in the field of digital layout and typography, and then freelanced as a writer, publisher and interactive designer until founding Arc New Media as the Creative Director in 1994.
Stratford received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology with his ordination as a priest in the Apostolic Johannite Church in 2005 and briefly studied the DMin program at Wisdom University. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry Studies at St. Raphael the Archangel Theological Seminary. He served as the Rector of the AJC’s Regina Coeli Parish in Victoria BC from its founding until 2008. Stratford is also an outspoken local advocate for the rights of the homeless and mentally ill.
In 2006, U.S. News & World Report interviewed Stratford along with NT Wright and Dr. Marvin Meyer for a feature article on Gnosticism, and his work has also been cited in college course material and doctoral dissertations. Additionally, Stratford has regularly contributed to blogs relating to Gnosticism, Esoteric Christianity, Paganism, new religious movements and the Independent Sacramental Movement.
Stratford is also a screenwriter, independent filmmaker and artist, and has had several art shows at Michelle Frost Gallery and Rogue Art in Victoria. Currently he supports artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers as a creative coach, and has work-shopped over 30 screenplays from concept to draft. He serves on the board of directors for the Vancouver Island Film Producers’ Association and the South Island Film Commission.
In addition to “A Dictionary of Western Alchemy”, Stratford is the author of “Living Gnosticism” (Apocryphile Press 2007) ISBN 1-933993-53-7, reviewed in the Summer 2008 edition of PanGaia Magazine.