Crowley’s “The Ship” – A Grand Premiere: A Mystery Play Revealed

Part II

Each of the actors in The Ship has related what their character was representing symbolically in the play. There have been those that related to a differentiated part of the one self, a planet or Sephira, or that their part was analogous to other characters as related and explored in several of Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis. Another aspect, the alchemical model mentioned by Frater Kallah Adonai and Fr. SivAnanda Samsara, struck this writer particularly as hitting the mark for an explanation of the various portrayals and for the overall production of the work. If the cast and crew mates of The Ship will permit me, I would like to share this analogy more in depth.

The Great Work within the art of alchemy, as every great magician and artificer knows and as Crowley knew only too well, is working with the rarefying process of changing matter to spirit and back again. It is the dual process of applying equally the working of the outer forces of nature upon the inner dimension, and working upon the interior (plant, metal, man’s body and spirit), to produce a transmutation or rebirth of the original material. If applied to the Great Work upon metals the alchemist names this result the Philosopher’s stone. If applied to the Great Work upon the self, philosophers call it the Stone of the Wise. On one level, one can work the alchemy of plants, on another that of metals, and on another the soul of the individual. For Crowley, his laboratory notes were transcribed into what many philosophers had done before him, he had given a great truth literary and poetic analogy through the writing of a mystery play.

For most, it will work best if you open to a copy of the play and are able to follow along, while I delve into the specialized processes of alchemy as veiled through the verse that Crowley sets forth in The Ship. This is not meant to be another treatise on the subject, but only to describe the most rudimentary components as relates to The Ship.

First, let me briefly describe one small simple example of a transmutation immediately available to view in the opening scene. As one views the stage looking to the left are green trees, in the center the temple of the sun, and on the right a heap of builder’s refuse. Why one may ask? It is a simple and at once visual explanation of the nature of change, a foreshadowing of the great work to come. The trees are the original, organic form- the “prima materia.” The trees are changed into wood that becomes the temple of the sun and then the refuge or the dross after the building was completed is left. We see at once a transmutation of the trees into something beautiful and amazing.

The transmutation that takes place throughout The Ship is similar in principle, but is presented on another level. Through the elevation of the primary material — the body of John, by the purifying of the inner self, and an integration of the polarities within the soul or the self, the incarnation of spirit occurs. This process, which unfolds in a series of character conflicts, allegorically speaking, is the very alchemical process of the self in its Death-Rebirth experience, or the process of reincarnation. By the process of working with the elements within, the self transforms itself. This body or “ore” changes into something greater than from which it began and in the end becomes the enlightened soul, or transmuted “gold.”

Through successive alchemical operations, as explained through the famous work known as the Splendor Solis (written by no doubt a pseudonymous author naming himself Salomon Trismosin sometime in the 16th century), it explains the transformation process involving the incarnation of spirit in matter through a death-rebirth. The Splendor Solis is also accompanied by twenty-two successive illustrations that portray the work. In The Ship, amazingly, the plot closely follows this process. The soul of John, in his transmutation must go through the seven general successive alchemical steps that metals go through: calcination, sublimation, solution, putrefaction, distillation, coagulation & fixation. And we shall see how well this occurs within the play.

The play opens at the Temple of the Sun and drawn upon the backdrop are seen two intersecting disks; the terrestrial (earth) and the celestial (all of the heavens), and at their center is a vesica. In the first illustration of the Splendor Solis, is shown a shield of the sun, bringing the macrocosmic sun into the lower world of the earth. In the second illustration is seen a banner which says, “Let us go and seek the nature of the four elements, which are all found within the earth.” In the plays opening scene the King is resting, and behind the veil, Julia says, “Softly splendid, to his rest steals the godhead to my breast!” And Joanna says, “Hidden in the Holy veil, Thou and I prepare the rite…” John the sun, unites with Julia the mother earth and Joanna the moon. In the next Splendor Solis illustration is seen a knight guarding a double fountain, which is poured the golden and silver liquid, the sun and the moon, or the sulfur and the mercury, and on his shield is written, “Make one water out of two waters.”

In the next illustration is shown the meeting of the polarities of the lunar queen and the solar king. This represents the King’s decision to carry out the ensuing step of the process of calcination in the soul, the willingness to burn away the ego.

The vesica is the doorway through which the transmuted spirit will eventually find birth from the working of this unification. Both the play and the illustrations show that one must descend into the matter and then rise up remade. “As above so below, and as below, so above.” The first four Splendor Solis illustrations introduce the basic forces of what must be achieved, by first integrating the polarities within. Out of the two will come the product of their union. This groundwork must occur before the self or the ore may prepare for its transmutation.

Next, enter a Chinese, an Arab and a Zulu. Allegorically, the conflict that ensues represents the activating forces, which bring on “a heat” or the calcination of the ore. We must look beyond the National representations and understand the basis at which Crowley chose these particular men. It is easily understood when viewed as the alchemical stages of heat and its successive colorations. The Chinese represents the yellowing, the Arab the reddening, and the Zulu, the blackening. They are the salt, sulfur and mercury of the soul. In another alchemical writing called the “Turba” the heating process is generally explained. “Twice it turns black, twice also it turns yellow and twice red.” This is exactly what happens when the three men approach first Jovian and then Julian to obtain entrance into the shrine.

This heating process is next represented in the Splendor Solis illustrations in seven separate phases of the death and rebirth cycle, which we shall see, follow suit within the play. They can be divided up into the following: 1. the extraction of the ore, 2. the archetypal tree, 3. the death of the old king, 4. the meeting with the angelic spiritual being, 5. the winged hermaphrodite with the egg, 6. the beheading and dismembering of the body, and 7. the bath of transformation.

The Chinese says upon entering the stage, “I am the dragon brother of your priest and we come from north and south and east, to build your god a new and nobler shrine.” In alchemy, the symbolic language of calling the first heat, the alloy of copper and silver made by warming the two metals with mercury, is called the “Dragon, ” and signifies the beginning of the heating process. In the first illustration of the Splendor Solis, a youth is seen pouring a flask down a Dragon’s throat. The forces of John’s soul must now be dissolved.

In the next illustration we see that the forces have been digested and transformed into three birds — the three assassins of John’s soul. The red bird is the expansive fiery energies that are untamable. The Black bird is the dark and decaying material of old perceptions and habits. The White/yellow bird tries to mediate between the two. Thus the Chinese, the Arab and the Zulu work their scourging, impaling and spearing upon John. The metals separately work upon the soul material and then burn themselves into the next stage of the souls transformation. The three metals mostly fuse themselves together. In the next illustration is shown an eagle with three heads — the three assassins worked as one slayer, but in three different ways.

In the second phase, the next Splendor Solis illustration shows a tree uniting the earth and heaven, an analogy for the process of the self, establishing firm roots and growing new branches. This shift is an etheric one. In order for the self to grow, the self must release its etheric force. John is tied to the white column. His arms are outstretched and he is crucified, as upon a cross. From E.J. Holmyard’s book, Alchemy, he describes this analogy. “The symbolic equation of Christ with the philosopher’s stone may be explained as a projection of the redeemer-image, but with the reservation that the Christian earns the fruits of grace from a work already performed, while the alchemist labours in the cause of the divine world-soul slumbering and awaiting redemption in matter.”

John, the old king dies. In this third phase, the Splendor Solis illustration shows the Old King sinking into the universal sea of the soul, symbolizing the hardened, contracting and rigid patterns within.

As the assassins declare to the women to open the shrine, the chorus reveals the fourth phase of the work. “In it all principles inhere; to it all elements conspire; from it all energies revere, of it the inscrutable desire.” In the Splendor Solis is shown the four elements and in its center an hermaphrodite holds an egg, the fifth essence. Jovian and Julian stand by as Julia and Joanna open the door of the vesica and blind the assassins with a blaze of light. This light is the whitening of the “ore,” the bright soul of the spirit released in a blinding flash, John in angelic form, the quintessence of the spirit. The assassins sink down to the rubble on stage, appropriately, as the work they have done, like the metals they are, have done their work. In this phase, he has reached the turning point of the transformation. His etheric force has now become an astral soul.

In the next illustration we encounter the sixth process, of dismemberment of the body. The energies of the three metals that have worked their process must now be transformed. A final separation of them must be irrevocably separated from the body. In the Splendor Solis, a man is seen wearing garments of red and white with a sword. (John wears a white robe now stained with blood.) The pictured philosopher must cut and dismember the etheric forces that he has brought to bear. The three ruffians are now put to their final deaths. This process of purification is the second major step of alchemy, the sublimation.

At the final death of each of the ruffians, the waters succeeding rise. In Adam McLean’s commentary on this phase of the Splendor Solis, he writes about this illustration. “In the background are seen people welcoming the arrival of a ship with its long-sought cargo, a metaphor for the bringing of new forces into the work. Also is seen a temple, a physical manifestation of a spiritual impulse and represents the abiding, eternal foundation of the work in substance. John’s soul now must sink into the universal sea within the soul.”

The Ship is the vessel, which travels over the sea as an alchemical flask for the soul. It carries this developing ore of the self for a certain period of time in order for this truth to “sink” into the subconscious. The chorus peals, “Through the tempest, toward the dark, ploughs the fate-fulfilling bark, laden with the sacred ark.” In the next Splendor Solis illustration, the philosopher sinks into a restless sea. The earthly body is dissolved. This last phase of the death cycle is called the bath of transformation, and it heralds the beginning of the third major process in alchemy, the process of solution. It is one of silence and of peace for the soul. In this alchemical process the gold is slowly rising to form a red tincture by a gently heated water bath.

The chorus describes the fear that Julia and Joanna have in the opening of the second scene. “Dreams diluvian daunt the daring daughters that, devout in the hour of wastrel waters hither bore from its house of eld the shrine.” And, “the ocean labours; earth is awake; a murmured motion marks the end of the tragic theme.” Then the stage directions read, “A great beetle emerges from the pool holding in its mandibles the sacred Vesica! He advances, and affixes it to the Tree, just above the fork of the boughs.” This dramatic portrayal is the next major alchemical step of putrefaction. The beetle is black, which represents what the mixture in the vessel has turned into. It also symbolically represents the natural process of what this animal does with its young, that of rolling the eggs along within a dung ball to allow the life inside to incubate until its proper time. This is also what happens when the old seed in the soil decomposes to make a rich loamy food for the next seed to germinate. From the darkness of the unconscious mind, a new life is forming.

Through the alchemical process of this resolution there comes an integration of the three principles already mentioned, the salt, sulfur and mercury. In the Splendor Solis illustration there is seen the iridescence of the philosophical mercury and what is pictured is a peacock’s colorful tail. In the play, a rainbow is seen above the trees. Julia gets it right, “The seven colours glow upon the murk. This is the midmost moment of the work.” This is the next major alchemical step, the distillation. The coloration is caused by the rising of the vapors from the body of the material. “The energy is constantly falling back down to nature’s trio of Saturn, Mercury and Mars, and then rising again into the realm of the Moon and Venus,” says Mellie Uyldert in his Metal Magic.

In the play, the bier is brought before the tree. Julia dances about the body and roses fall from heaven. The body is then raised up and stood against the tree. Julia and Joanna raise their hands to heaven and invoke the powers of rejuvenation under the moon. Despite their work to bring the body back to life, it does not stir. The alchemist must be patient; this is the critical final point of the work. Everything happens of its own accord. One cannot force or rush this final phase of Coagulation. The final stage in alchemy is the process and formation of the red tincture of the solar forces, beautifully portrayed by John getting covered in roses.

In the Splendor Solis, the next illustration shows a Queen holding an orb in her right hand, a scepter in her left and she stands in brilliant light. The white stone or philosophical salt is finally brought into contact with living energies. Salomon Trismosin reminds us, “Without the moon the whole mastery is in vain, for it is a metallic water which rejoices in the body and makes it alive.” As the dawn’s light so prevails, so does the new spirit of the transmuted self come to rebirth. The young John now awakes and is reborn.

In the last Splendor Solis illustration, the king is seen holding the orb and scepter in his hands, and there he stands exalted, crowned and powerful. The sun is seen radiating out from behind him. The philosophical sulphur of John, has reached its fully active penetrating aspect, having acted inwardly to reattach its radiating and life-seeking reaches of his soul. “This is the alchemical marriage, where opposing principles are fused into a purified and incorruptible whole,” says E.J. Holmyard. John raises his hands and opens the vesica shrine. His inner soul, now transformed and luminous, shines upon all who are around him and touches all who see it, as one may feel the radiance from a transcended being.

Little did I, or many of the actors and crew know when first reading The Ship, what Crowley was fully trying to present. What at first glance was seen as a short play about rebirth, had become a major literary tableau for the story of the eternal soul in its evolution of reincarnation via the vehicle of the superlative cooperation of nature and man. “Mankind, matured from myriad wombs, is but the garden where it blooms.” As Tess Moon said, “It’s something that can be forever contemplated.”

To close, I would like to share the closing words of a rare Greek alchemical poem translated by C.A. Browne.

“Thus he doth easily release himself by drinking nectar, though completely dead; He poureth out to mortals all his wealth and by his help the Earth-born are sustained. Abundantly in life, when they have found the wondrous mystery, which being fixed will turn to silver, dazzling bright in kind, a metal having naught of earthy taint, So brilliant, clear, and wonderfully white.”

Rest in Peace Chris Parker (Jan 31, 1965- Dec. 10, 2005)


Crowley, Aleister The Equinox Vol I, No 10, Samuel Weiser Inc, 1972
Holmyard, E.J. Alchemy, Penguin Books, 1957
Uyldert, Mellie Metal Magic -The Esoteric Properties And Uses Of Metals, Translated from the Dutch by Jane Fenoulhet Turnstone Press, 1980