The Theosophical Society in America


Book Reviews 2018

Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection
Sharon Salzberg
New York: Flatiron, 2017. 305 pp., hardcover, $24.99.

For forty years, New York Times–best-selling author and renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has been helping people learn the technique of mindfulness to focus the attention and deepen the experience of love. She is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of nine previous books.

 In her newest book, Salzberg takes us on a guided tour of love’s inner landscape. With her affable and easygoing style, she brings the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness into everyday life, offering astute observations on how love enriches human behavior.

Salzberg emphasizes that in the heart of every human being is the innate but latent capacity to love without conditions or judgment. We are made to love and to be loved, whether we realize it or not. She puts it this way: “I believe there is only one kind of love—real love—trying to come alive in us despite our limiting assumptions, the distortions of our culture, and habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation that we tend to acquire just by living a life.”

The one “real love” Salzberg describes is not sentimental or romantic. It’s a love that reaches into the substratum of our being and takes many forms of expression. It may be kindness to a stranger; a friendly smile to a stressed cashier in a grocery store; serving food in a homeless shelter; rescuing a lost animal; showing unselfish love for a child; or feeling empathy for people trapped in a war zone. On a larger scale, the world’s mystics, sages, and poets have pointed to one underlying love at the root of the universe. In The Divine Comedy, Dante referred to it as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Salzberg brings this love down to earth by suggesting it is our birthright to experience the beauty of love in all of its forms.

Salzberg views the daily practice of lovingkindness as essential to living a joyful and fulfilling life. She skillfully explores how ordinary but authentic interactions with others can form relationships grounded in lovingkindness. The book is filled with mindfulness techniques and exercises that have been helpful to her and to those she has worked with.

Moreover, Salzberg is passionate about the necessity of expressing lovingkindness to oneself. To illustrate this point, she quotes the Buddha: “If you truly loved yourself, you’d never harm another.” Without the capacity to be kind and loving to oneself, the ability to sustain lasting loving relationships is constrained. Obstacles include discomforting memories of the past and a mind conditioned by race, culture, gender, religion, violence, abuse, or other factors that generate fear, anger, guilt, or resentment, and over which we have little or no control. She also devotes a great deal of attention to self-worth issues, which inhibit the expression of lovingkindness in many people.

Whatever the past may be, it is the story we tell ourselves about it that is often most important. In Salzberg’s view, this is where mindfulness practices and lovingkindness to oneself can be healing and liberating. “Living in a story of a limited self—to any degree—is not love . . . You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to prove that.” She makes it clear she is not advocating an egoic or narcissistic self-love. Rather she stresses that by having compassion for the entirety of our life experience, the pain and the joy, we can learn to integrate the disparate parts of our psyche and become whole. From within this interior wholeness, compassion flows naturally to all other beings, even in the midst of conflict and strife. It may not be a state of consciousness that is realized in every moment, but the daily practice of lovingkindness opens the heart to what is possible. Salzberg’s book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in living a fuller and more meaningful life.

Cynthia Overweg

Cynthia Overweg is a writer and educator. Her latest contribution to Quest was “Hildegard of Bingen: The Nun Who Loved the Earth” in the summer 2017 issue. Her website is

Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll
Christopher Hill
Rochester, Vt.:Park Street Press, 2017. 294 pp., paper, $16.95.

Christopher Hill is an intelligent and insightful critic, and his enthusiasm for his subject tends to be infectious. In his eclectic survey, he characterizes sixties rock and roll as a Dionysiac tradition and likens rock and roll concerts  to religious rituals. This tradition, he says, taking hold in an Apollonian power structure that is collapsing under its own neocolonialist weight, has transformed what he calls “the postwar American consensus.”

I suspect that in this case, he is attributing too much significance to the power of art. Whether you accept his thesis or not, he charts many hitherto little-traveled byways and offers up many intriguing theories. For starters, he suggests that “ecstatic” rock and roll has roots in the writings of the English Romantics, the French Symbolists, and especially “the black church liturgical tradition,” not to mention psychedelics. In his enthusiasm, however, he tends to stack the deck. For instance, in seeking to restore the historic influence of gospel music upon the formation of ecstatic rock and roll, he either downplays or ignores influences such as the jump blues practitioners, not to mention the electric-guitar influence of country and western and Western swing music.

Hill can be very persuasive, however, when he pinpoints the appeal of the Beatles, and the rest of the (admittedly often mushy and twee) British Invasion bands as in part a return to the “magical . . . history” of a fabled Albion. Hill states, “It was as if the new hip culture was finding a frequency which had been broadcasting for centuries . . . an alternative narrative.” In California, meanwhile, amid the Rosicrucians, the practitioners of yoga, and followers of the teachings of Manly P. Hall, a “transcendent” teen culture  began to emerge, as epitomized by bands such as the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Hill claims that “while it was the culture of the East Coast . . . that in a sense thought up the sixties, when it came to putting it into practice the West was the only place that was still open enough.”

One can question such extravagant claims and still greatly enjoy Hill’s further forays into tracing the somewhat obscure and  eclectic influences on the syncretic rock genre. Hill highlights the reemerging importance of the mystic concept of romantic love in songcraft by discussing, at great length, Michael Brown and his nearly forgotten “chamber rock” band the Left Banke. (But he omits any mention of the Jaynettes and their equally epically produced single “Sally Go Round the Roses.”) The author also offers a somewhat plausible explanation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as an acid-tinged “song suite” which follows the journey of everyman figure Billy Shears into a “visionary realm,” a “dreamscape” which “could contain the world.”

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, supposedly represent, at the apex of their career, the old culture of a carnivalesque “festive perception of the world” (in the words of critic Mikhail Bakhtin). In Hill’s telling, they are the Lords of Misrule, “who spoke with a kind of dark merriment” in a world which “needed to be turned upside down.” And Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the “most profound meditation on suffering in pop music.” But Hill also claims that the album is also “a kind of rite of passage . . . the journey to the land of the dead and the return to tell the tale.” Hill also makes the controversial claim that the “perverse” Velvet Underground’s first four albums constitute a monomythic “full cycle” with “four phases”: “contention for the soul of the hero”; “the hero . . . descends into the demonic world”; “the hero’s purgation/purification”; “the hero is reintegrated into the world.” Maybe Hill is on to something. But I don’t see it. The explanation is simply too pat.

No discussion of the transformative psychedelia of the sixties can be considered complete without mention of the Incredible String Band. Hill claims that the faithful listener will be “rewarded by moments of strange loveliness, mad invention, [and] dark magic that do not exactly have a useful comparison elsewhere in pop music.” He also links their appeal to that of the Victorian children’s literature exemplified by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (somewhat treacly) novel The Secret Garden. Like a great many of Hill’s theories and suggestions, this seems more than a bit overdetermined.

Hill concludes by asserting that the MC5, the hippie agitprop band from Detroit, were actually avatars of “the ecstatic rock and roll moment,” who worked their “enthusiastic” stage magic by drawing upon the Holiness church convention of “testifying,” while at the same time their “acid-Marxist” rhetoric offered “experiential confirmation of a type of energy and consciousness that would require a new society to embody it.” In his afterword, Hill argues that the “development of vision” that took place among certain select British and American rockers may, over time, provide “political ramifications [which] can be earthshaking.” He unabashedly hopes that this music might ultimately provide “a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of the two worlds, inner and outer.”

To quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.


Your Inner Islands:The Keys to Intuitive Living
Will Tuttle, Ph.D
Healdsburg, Calif.: Karuna Music & Art; 144 pp., paper, $15.

Intuition involves living from the deeper self rather than just from surface experiences. Will Tuttle, who is a dharma master in the Zen tradition, has been leading workshops to help people develop intuition since 1990, and offers us a seemingly simple method for bringing forth our natural intuition so that it helps us evolve into our higher selves—our true nature.

Tuttle defines intuition as “tuition from within”—tuition being teaching or instruction—that differs from “conventional rational forms of knowing . . . and a basic separation between the knower and what is known” or, in the Hindu tradition, between purusha and prakriti respectively. While we all have this ability, most of us live on the surface of the material world, which results in the usual problems of separation, delusions, anger, and ignorance of the wholeness.

Our “inner islands”—of which there are six—are the source of this evolution, according to Tuttle, which he describes as crossing a vast ocean, making stops along the way and learning the lessons until we reach the other shore—“our fully awakened potential.” Crossing a body of water is a Buddhist metaphor for going beyond the world of separateness, ignorance, and attachment, where we stand now, to the world of pure nondual awareness—emptiness. The boat and the oars symbolize the methods of getting us across this divide.

After many days of travel we come upon the first, the Island of Understanding. There we encounter a sign containing words from a Zen koan, “The ox, trying to go through the gate, is stuck; only his tail won’t go through.” This gate leads us into the “realm of intuition,” which is our “own true nature.” It is our inner voice; the ox is the true self; and the ox’s tail is the ego, which is an obstacle to spiritual growth. It is “the belief that you are a separate thing,”but it is also all the delusions that we have about our stories and our attachments, which we are called to release so that we can take responsibility for our awakening.

We come next to the Island of Energy, where the spiritual energy is so strong that, “like music, we just let it move us and follow its promptings.” On this island we learn to raise our level of spiritual energy to a higher vibration “through cultivating inner receptivity through prayer and meditation.” Through this higher level of vibration, we learn to follow our inner guidance, and more importantly to trust it—perhaps the most challenging thing.

On the Island of Meditation we learn the practice of “looking more deeply” to begin to see the oneness of all things. Words and concepts, the Island of Understanding tells us, “can limit our awareness” and “can become distortions that distance us and distract us from awareness of the deeper process unfolding around and within us.”We thencan move beyond the “conditioned consciousness” of samsara’s illusions.

“The most beneficial teachings tend to come from within, when the mind is clarified and abides in witnessing awareness,” the island tells us. It is here we learn to “expand beyond thinking and beyond being anyone or anything.”

The Island of Imagination is where we learn that the outer world is a manifestation of our inner world. “The world appears as a dream of mind to remind you that as you imagine the world, so it is, and as you imagine yourself, so you are as well.”

The fifth island is the Island of Relationship. Because we have learned the lessons of the previous four islands, we can now allow our relationships to “heighten” our intuitive abilities, and our “intuition to deepen our relationships.” In this chapter Tuttle explores the ideal utopian society. While there have been many experiments in utopian societies, especially during the Second Great Awakening in the United States (c.1795–1840), none seemed to have been successful over the long term. But it has long been an ideal to which humans have sought in their efforts to create the perfect society—or at least one to their own liking.

Surprisingly, the last island—the Island of Compassion—turns out to be the place from which our journey began. Samsara and nirvana are not separate places but are one and the same—states of mind that depend upon how our mind perceives the here and now.“Everything contains everything else and perhaps nothing is ever separate from anything,” andall of our life’s experiences contain the seeds for awakening to wisdom and compassion, Tuttle tells us.

Tuttle, an accomplished pianist, created a CD of beautiful music to accompany each island  for an auditory experience on our journey. His wife, Madeleine, an artist, has painted six panels, each depicting the islands, to provide beautiful visuals for the reader to help in this exploration.

Ultimately, truth is a pathless land, as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, and the journey to the other shore—beyond thought, beyond attachments and beyond the perceived self—is one that each of us must take on the path to enlightenment. In an age when we live more and more from Internet searches and Facebook commentary, Your Inner Islands is a thoughtful guide to connecting us with our inner self, that place where our intuition—and ultimately our truth—resides.

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truthavailable on Amazon.

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Twilight Language: An Appreciation

Printed in the Winter 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Levenda Peter, "Twilight Language: An Appreciation" Quest 105.1 (Winter 2017): pg. 26-31a

Reflections on the mysterious punning language behind much of medieval art—and alchemy.

By Peter Levenda

The idea that words in foreign languages—especially ancient languages—contain great power is not new. One only has to examine the great magicians’ spell books—the grimoires—of the Renaissance era and earlier to see that Hebrew and Greek were used extensively in magical diagrams and spells composed by persons who did not have much understanding of the languages themselves. What we know as “abracadabra” or voces magicae were often nothing more than real words in foreign languages that were garbled, misspelled, and mispronounced. Popular grimoires such as the Keys of Solomon and some of the texts that can be found in truncated form in such classic works as Francis Barrett’s The Magus (1801) contain inscriptions in pidgin Hebrew and Greek alongside invocations in Latin. Often Hebrew characters themselves are poorly copied from other sources by persons with no knowledge at all of that language, so that the result is often an indecipherable scribble.

Of all the texts that comprise the Western esoteric “canon,” however, the ones most inaccessible to modern readers are those of alchemy. The alchemical authors did not need to resort to voces magicae in order to encode their work: they wrote in the vernacular. Yet the language of alchemical texts is deliberately obscure, meant to be understood only by those who presumably already know their secrets. They are texts that, at first glance, seem to be intended to deceive and confuse. Like the patter of such comedians as the American “Professor” Irwin Corey and the Mexican actor Cantinflas, they use recognizable words with appropriate syntax and grammar, but the result is meaningless speech that only sounds real but which, upon closer inspection, seems devoid of any real content.

At least that is how alchemical texts are often regarded. Commentators such as the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung have compared alchemical language to the language of dreams and have insisted that they represent unconscious psychological processes. In a sense, that position relieves alchemical authors of the responsibility of being precise or clear in their writings. It also reduces the expectation that a nonpsychologist would be able to interpret an alchemical text. Viewing alchemical works as dream journals (to put perhaps too fine a point on it) requires us to see alchemists as a kind of secret society of people suffering from some form of mental instability who are exchanging reports of their dreams and then arguing with each other about them! While this may seem like an unkind interpretation of Jung’s work, it’s reasonable when one realizes that his informants when it came to dream interpretation were his psychotherapeutic patients.

Other observers have suggested that alchemical texts are written in a coded language that enjoys an ancient pedigree—an argument that insists on a logical context for alchemical texts rather than a purely psychological one. Robert Graves has written about a Druidic “language of the trees” that he believed to be the true language of poetry and myth, a thesis he expanded to book-length form in The White Goddess. The twentieth-century alchemist Fulcanelli has described coded instructions that are embedded in the design and ornamentation of the Gothic cathedrals in his enormously influential books The Mystery of the Cathedrals and The Dwellings of the Philosophers. More recently, in The Secrets of Nostradamus, David Ovason has examined the “green language”: the code in which the quatrains of Nostradamus are written (texts often as obscure as any alchemical treatise). In Hamlet’s Mill, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend have gone to great lengths to suggest that the myths of Europe, Africa, and Asia are coded texts describing ancient astronomical events.

In the fourth century CE Leyden Papyrus—a Greek occult text with alchemical elements—we read of something called the “language of the birds”:

<quote>I invoke You in the names which You have in the language of the birds, in that of the hieroglyphics, in that of the Jews, in that of the Egyptians . . . in the hieratic language.<end quote>

It is this ancient source that provided the inspiration for Fulcanelli’s use of the same term to refer to the “hieratic language” of the Gothic cathedrals. The classical literature of Greece and Rome refers to persons who had the ability to speak with birds and animals, an idea that presupposes a form of consciousness among the beasts that is capable of being understood by humans. It is a kind of metalanguage that does not depend on a vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, as do human languages, but which can transmit information through other means.

The citation above associates the language of the birds with hieroglyphics, Hebrew, and Egyptian: in other words, with written texts that were deemed mysterious or resistant to interpretation. Alchemical texts are written in the vernacular, however. They are written in Arabic, Latin, Greek, and eventually in modern European languages such as German and English. The type of allusive language that Fulcanelli invokes as examples of the “language of the birds” is in the vernacular as well. It employs puns as a kind of Kabbalah that relies more on the sound of words than on their dictionary meanings.

Fulcanelli’s most famous and often-repeated example is that of ars gothique as the homonymous argotique: in English, “Gothic art” as “argot”: slang or cant. To him, words that sound alike mean the same thing and can be used to explain and expand the meanings of each other.

Fulcanelli said that this secret alchemical language permeated medieval symbology and iconography. One comparatively simple example is the Crusaders’ motto Dieu le veut, “God wills it.” To Fulcanelli, this has a hidden meaning, whose pronunciation is virtually the same —Dieu le feu, “God the fire”—which, he says, “explains and justifies the badge adopted by the crusader knights and its color: a red cross borne on the right shoulder” (Fulcanelli, Dwellings, 201n.; emphasis Fulcanelli’s).

Although French is peculiarly well-suited to puns of this kind, they extend beyond the bounds of the French language. Another example cited by Fulcanelli is the name of the famous fifteenth-century alchemist Nicolas Flamel, whose “very name speaks like a pseudonym chosen on purpose.” Flamel evokes flamme, “flame,” the alchemical fire, whereas Nicolas harks back to the Greek níkÄ“, “victory,” plus lâos, “stone,” alluding to Flamel’s alchemical success as “conqueror of the stone” (Fulcanelli, Dwellings, 265).

Fulcanelli values the type of slang known as cant, which was used as coded language by marginalized or specialist populations. It was a debased form of the vernacular which was employed by criminal gangs, for instance, as a kind of in-group jargon. The term cant—which derives from the Latin root cantus, “song”—is used to describe language that is insincere or hypocritical: in other words, deceitful communications. The example of the singsong pleas of beggars is the usual example of this usage.

Fulcanelli’s work is replete with examples of this type of communication. Moreover, he points out that this argot is used in a visual sense as well. In other words, the artistic details of the Gothic cathedrals—statues, ornaments, orientations—are a kind of slang in stone. To Fulcanelli, there is no way to extricate the visual aspect of the cathedral from the purely auditory quality of the spoken words used to describe it, and this multivalent approach is the key to understanding alchemy and its peculiar terminology. What one sees in the stonework of the cathedrals, and other medieval buildings, are clues that are decipherable only to those who speak its associated language, a language, that, moreover, requires a grounding in the classical literature of mythology, religion, and popular folklore. This connection between symbols and texts is as modern as anything by Eco or Derrida.

To take another example, there is a carving on a fifteenth-century building in the French city of Thiers. It is known as the Man of the Woods. Here is Fulcanelli’s description (in part): “This simple man with abundant, disheveled hair, and unkempt beard, this man of nature whose traditional knowledge lead [sic] him to despise the vain frivolity of the poor insane people who think they are wise, stands above the mound of stones which he tramples underfoot. He is the Enlightened one for he has received the light spiritual enlightenment” (Fulcanelli, Dwellings, 251; emphasis Fulcanelli’s).

Nevertheless, the idea that important information needs to be encoded in some form, and made inaccessible to the general population, is problematic. It is a challenge to the general notion of communication as the transfer of information. The coded works of the alchemists seem to argue for a system of communication that is the transfer of deception: a system that undermines the social contract implicit in the idea of communication.

Had the alchemical texts been written in a real code—a substitution cipher, for example, in which one letter equals another, or letters are represented by numbers—then the authors’ intention would have been more obvious. The problem with alchemical texts is that the code is not obvious from the start. The authors of these texts seem to be saying something, and using language “in the clear” to do so, and that is where the real deception lies. One reads along waiting for the text to become clear—waiting for the key to the code, so to speak—and finishes by realizing that there is no key, and that the text remains as inaccessible at the end as it was at the beginning. It seems like a trick, an elitist sort of ludibrium at the expense of the unsuspecting reader. It is a work of deception, certainly, but, paradoxically, is not a lie.

Recent approaches to the problem of language and its sudden development among primates suggest that the initial function of language was to deceive. The lie, according to these studies, is at the heart of language. Language is a symbolic system that uses symbols to represent things that may or may not exist in “reality.” Language is a medium that is based on fiction: the mere fact of tenses—past, present, and future, not to mention all the variations of these basic three, for instance, the subjunctive mood or the future perfect tense—suggests an imaginal realm of possibility rather than a report on tangible events occurring at this precise moment: “He will have bought that car by then” as opposed to “I am hungry” or “there is danger.”

Other aspects of language are also enablers of deception. Metaphors, for instance, are themselves false statements which are intended to be taken as false even though they are used to describe real events or conditions. Their utility as a form of communication is based on the general acknowledgement by the audience—the consensus—that the metaphor is not true in any kind of real sense, but is only an imaginary statement that nevertheless points towards the truth. Metaphor, as the carrier of a kind of mini-myth, serves as shorthand for the truth.

Indeed, the philosopher Sallustius (also of the fourth century CE, the same period as the Leyden Papyrus) wrote, “One may call the world a myth,” a sentiment that has gained popularity recently in the relatively new field of consciousness studies. From this perspective, the world we experience with our physical senses is a fabrication, a construct, that is not representative of reality but only of a model of reality. This idea is at the heart of alchemy, and of the twilight language employed by alchemists to reinforce that idea using the best tool at their disposal.

In an article published in this magazine a few years ago, Cherry Gilchrist addressed the idea of esoteric orders and secrecy. She pointed out that one of the usual reasons given for secrecy in occult lore was the desire to protect sacred and powerful knowledge from the profane in order to protect the world from amateur magicians. Another reason given was the necessity of maintaining a degree of security as a safeguard for the practitioners themselves, for their “psychological well-being” and to provide an environment conducive to the operations of the work (Gilchrist, 93). The article revolved around the idea of esoteric orders and secret societies and the social organization of occult practices and initiatory bodies—in other words, around ritual and ceremonial secrecy. Indeed, in England and Ireland, a jargon called Shelta was discovered among a class of Irish “gypsies” called Tinkers. It has been linked (see Sinclair) to the original stonemasons as a secret language that apprentices had to learn before they could progress to the third degree of their craft: a craft that eventually developed into today’s most famous secret society, Freemasonry.

The idea that language itself evolved out of ritual is a relatively modern one, but one that has attracted some academic attention (see Knight, 68–91). Music, dance, and mime were employed to communicate ideas: that is, something intangible but nevertheless important to the group. These cumbersome and time-consuming methods were gradually replaced or enhanced by language, which sought to do the same thing.

In fact language was used to reinforce an insider/outsider dichotomy in which “we” know what our language/words/symbols mean but “they” don’t. In some cases, this was made necessary by political or cultural considerations. Ritual practices that society would consider blasphemous, obscene, or even criminal would have to be concealed, not only during the operations themselves, but also in any discussion of them. So strategies such as cant or argotique or even Shelta were employed as a spoken code. In India, where Tantra was considered an antinomian and transgressive practice, the same need for a coded language obtained.

But there is no alchemical secret society. Alchemists in the West were not initiated, did not belong to groups that met underground, and did not derive their training in a structured way from other alchemists. So the usual reasons given for ritual secrecy do not apply in this case. Alchemists, in fact, learned their art from texts, and in this way they were peculiarly modern.

With alchemy, we have a rich literature that is full of both language and art. These media are equally obscure, with alchemical art often being described as “surreal,” and indeed the Surrealist movement of the twentieth century embraced alchemy as a kind of proto-Surrealism. But alchemical literature and art seem to insist on using communication to create distance between the author and the reader, an approach that seems counterintuitive. Why did it become necessary or desirable to employ language to render communication less rather than more effective?

The answer to this question is to be found in the very nature of language itself and in particular a subset known as “twilight language.”

Twilight language is the medium in which the texts of Indian alchemy and Tantra are written. It is a language that exists in the realm between what is “real” and what is “imaginary.” In my book The Tantric Alchemist I have shown how the twilight language of India can be used to great effect when applied to European alchemical texts, but for now we will focus on the nature of that language itself.

The term “twilight language” comes from the Sanskrit sandhyā-bhāṣā, which some scholars also have translated as “intentional language.” This is an interesting idea in light of the above, for it implies a language that defeats the purpose of language: a text that is composed of metaphors, obfuscation, and misdirection but which paradoxically is intended to reveal a hidden truth.

Speakers of a common language collaborate in the multitude of deceptions that are present in their speech. We use language to disguise our feelings, to conceal our true natures, to present ourselves in the best possible light. We deceive—ourselves and others—to such an extent that when giving evidence in a court of law we are required to take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—as if only the penalty of perjury would inspire in us a desire, finally, to be truthful about anything. (Interestingly, the word sacrament comes to us from the Latin root sacramentum, meaning “oath,” a word that also came to mean “mystery.” Fulcanelli would approve.)

When this is the case, how does one present knowledge in such a way that there can be no mistaking either the intent of the author or the truth of the subject? If one writes a text the way most authors write texts, it can be assumed that there will be something left out, something embellished, something extraneous to the matter at hand. We expect this, without even being conscious that we do. We write the way we speak, and we read the way we write. Most of the time that speech is unintentional: it comes naturally, fluidly, but full of the possibility of error, exaggeration, metaphors that can be misunderstood, and even deceptions of which the author herself or himself may not be aware. If, however, we write with intention—with knowing how each word will be recognized, understood, and interpreted—then writing transcends the normal function of language. It becomes a kind of mathematics or scientific notation, in which emotion and psyche play no role. It strives to tell the truth.

In order to do that effectively, new terms and concepts need to be introduced that will strain the normal function of language. Just as hallucinogenic drugs strain the senses and reorganize their operation, the hallucinatory texts of the alchemists force the reader to find new meanings and significance for everyday words. To make matters worse, alchemical texts often contradict each other, which only adds to the general confusion and the exasperation with which many observers treat the entire field. Yet, while one alchemical text may contradict another, each text itself is internally consistent.

Alchemical works are replete with terms such as “our mercury” and “our gold,” which are ways of signaling that the elements we know by these names are not the ones intended by the authors. This forces the reader to abandon any notion that it is possible to derive chemical compounds through a simple reading of the text. The search for a formula to turn lead into gold seems doomed to failure from the very start when terms are not defined or identified. Add to that the confusion created when impossible concepts are introduced, such as the Green Lion or Red Dragon, and you are reduced to considering the entire subject one of fancy and imagination that has no relevance to the “real,” or at least to the physical, world.

The twilight language of Indian and Chinese alchemy, however, does provide us with a key to understanding the arcane scriptures of the European alchemists for the simple reason that they employ precisely the same terminology. You will find references to dragons, mercury, gold, and all the instrumentation of the alchemical laboratory familiar to readers of Western alchemical works, such as the writings of the seventeenth-century Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan; the Turba philosophorum (“The Crowd of Philosophers”); the Rosarium philosophorum (“The Rose Garden of the Philosophers”); or the works of Michael Maier. The value of the twilight language rests in the discovery that the Tantrikas and the Chinese alchemists were referring not only to chemical—that is, to laboratory—processes but were insisting on biological analogues. The alembic, retort, and other lab equipment found in the secret rooms of the European “puffers” are all present in the human body as depicted in the charts and diagrams of Indian and Chinese alchemy. In fact, one will come across constant references to “semen,” “seed,” and “menstruum” as well as other biological (and especially sexual) terms in European alchemical literature, particularly in the works of Thomas Vaughan.

Is that, then, the key to understanding alchemy? Well, almost. Are references to semen and the menstruum meant to be taken literally after all? Well, yes and no. Twilight language is meant to be both literal and figurative. Biological references are only part of the puzzle; otherwise twilight language would not be necessary.

What the alchemical texts conceal, and what twilight language reveals, is a “science” and an “art”—we really do not have a word in the English language that encompasses both—that is a study of reality itself. This is not the materialist reality of the scientist alone, and it is not the reality of the artistic or religious spirit alone. Twilight language is a kind of notation that describes both physical reality and the consciousness that perceives it. To try to derive single definitions for the terms one finds in Fulcanelli or in any of the other alchemical authors is to miss the point entirely. Each term in the twilight language is multivalent as well as multivocal. Twilight language describes a process, and it is that process that is identical for everything in creation, since everything in creation proceeded from the same First Cause.

Alchemical authors constantly refer to creation, and it is important to pay attention. Alchemists attempt to reimagine, revisit, and recreate the moment of the Big Bang (or however one wants to characterize that initial impetus that gave rise to everything we know). To the alchemist, creation is ongoing. It has not stopped. The alchemists know that the universe is constantly expanding and that we are part of that expansion. Alchemists attempt to mimic that process, and it is a process that includes not only chemical transformations in the laboratory but psychobiological transformations that mirror the chemical versions.

Twilight language describes this process in a way that is applicable to all fields of human endeavor. “Our mercury” is everywhere, as is “our gold.” While it seems almost insipid—a kind of New Age “we are all one” sentiment—the alchemist means it literally, and demonstrably. It is a way of telling the absolute truth, using the same language that we employ to lie and to deceive, and turning it on its head with all its metaphors and tenses and literary allusions by making it purely intentional and deliberate. It is the paradox of twilight language that makes it so compelling, and in that tension between the word and what it represents—between the symbol and the thing symbolized—is found the truth.


De Santillana, Giorgio, and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission through Myth. Boston: David R. Godine, 1969.

Fulcanelli. The Dwellings of the Philosophers. Translated by Brigitte Donvez and Lionel Perrin. Boulder, Colo.: Archive Press, 1999.

——. The Mystery of the Cathedrals. Translated by Mary Sworder. Las Vegas: Brotherhood of Light, 1990.

Gilchrist, Cherry. “The Open Secret of the Esoteric Orders.” Quest, summer 2013, 90–93, 120.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1948.

Jung, C.G. Alchemical Studies. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton/Bollingen, 1983.

Knight, Chris. “Ritual/Speech Coevolution: A Solution to the Problem of Deception.” In James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and Chris Knight, eds. Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 68–91.

Levenda, Peter. The Tantric Alchemist: Thomas Vaughan and the Indian Tantric Tradition. Lake Worth. Fla.: Ibis, 2015.

Ovason, David. The Secrets of Nostradamus. London: Random House, 1997.

Sinclair, A.T. “The Secret Language of Masons and Tinkers,” The Journal of American Folklore, 22:86, Oct.–Dec. 1909, 353–364.

Peter Levenda is an author specializing in esoterica and historical investigation. His esoteric works include such titles as The Dark Lord; The Tantric Temples; and Stairway to Heaven: Chinese Alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the Art of Spiritual Transformation.

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