The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a bizarre allegorical romance attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.
The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed: for the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear: Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free.
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The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is the first of the three founding texts of the Rosicrucians (a.k.a. the Order of the Rosy Cross). The other two are the Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio Fraternitatis, also usually attributed to Andreae.
The narrator begins his tale with an invitation to a Royal Wedding, a prestigious and much-anticipated event, which he fears he is unworthy to attend. He goes to sleep in a state of great anxiety, and as his dreams commence he finds himself in a dungeon, bound in chains in the company of a great crowd of other prisoners.
Their captors – the “nobles” – peer down at the rabble through a hatchway high overhead, delivering a rather obscure allegorical lecture – explaining why we’re up here and you’re down there – before a spokesman announces that a rope is to be let down and pulled back up seven times, and that anyone who can cling to the rope will be drawn up and out of the dungeon.
The prisoners have a couple of obvious choices, each exclusive of the other:
One: the captives can trample each other to get hold of the rope, the stronger succeeding at the expense of the weaker;
Two: some prisoners can choose not to make the attempt themselves, instead helping others by boosting them up on their own backs to places on the rope, in the hope that those who escape with their help will then be able — and willing — to intercede on their behalf.
The “correct” choice is never made clear: our narrator, while constantly professing his humility and unworthiness, is singled out for special treatment by way of various dei ex machina, so the decision is out of his hands. (And, like the narrator of a movie retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, we know that however suspenseful things may get, in the end the narrator will not be going down with the ship, since he or she has lived to tell the tale.)
So-called Hermetic texts such as the Chymical Wedding and its sequels are like cookbooks, but cookbooks in which every step, every ingredient, every process, is described in the most esoteric terms possible: for the untrained chef, so much is obscure, so much prior knowledge is assumed, that boiling an egg or steaming a head of broccoli become terrifyingly arcane undertakings. The hermeticists and alchemists believed that the knowledge they possessed was so dangerous that the uninitiated had to be protected, excluded by a wall of symbolism. If you couldn’t figure out what they were telling you, then you probably weren’t supposed to know.
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Any time you have more than one human being in the same place at the same time, there will arise some system by which conflicting interests are resolved in favor of one or more individuals at the expense of the rest.
The most basic mechanism is the one we share with the crocodiles: hierarchy based on brute power. “I’m the biggest and the strongest, therefore I get the best of all the available resources – which, of course, makes me even bigger and stronger, and even more entitled to the lion’s share.” Simple, obvious, straightforward.
Once the system evolves beyond that point, however, complexity sets in with a vengeance.
From where we stand today, we can look back through history across thousands of social and governmental experiments, each with its own supporters and detractors, and even with hindsight there are no clear winners or losers.
The only constant across all these systems is the fact that those in power hold onto their position only with the complicity of those they rule. When things don’t work out, peasants revolt, voters flock to the polls, oppressed minorities throw themselves on the bayonets of their oppressors, religious martyrs sing hymns from the auto-da-fe. We change the rules, we die under them, or, like Gandhi or Mandela, we simply sit down and say “Maybe I can’t beat you, but I can refuse to validate your control over me.”
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Like Rosenkreutz on his dream quest, we live in a world of choices. There are no hard and fast rules to tell us the right answers from the wrong – or rather, there are too many, and they frequently contradict each other. We have to rely on our own intellect, our intuition, our instincts, our compassion, or our ambition to tell us what to do.
In 1742, Thomas Gray wrote that “ignorance is bliss”, suggesting that perhaps it’s better to choose to enjoy the daylight, gathering the rosebuds while you may*, never looking up from the flowers to see the approaching night. Others instead choose to peer under the bed and into the shadows at the back of the closet, to hunt down the bogeyman and face him, always conscious that sooner or later, after the rosebuds must come the killing frost.
For the rosebud crowd, there is little incentive to invest time and effort into plans that can only produce benefits in some uncertain future; the only sensible choice is to grab the rope, kick away the reaching hands, pull for the sunlight in the here and now. For the others, today’s roses bloom unappreciated: it’s the future that matters. They believe that bending the back today, enduring a little more time in the hole, will create the opportunity to bring more of their fellow prisoners up into the light – assuming, of course, that everyone plays his part and fulfills his obligation to the others.
No easy answers: Rosenkreutz doesn’t have to make a choice, because lucky accident gets him out of the hole. It’s his story, after all, and he gets to skip the tough parts if he wants. Dreams are like that. For the rest of us, though, things are not so easy. We have to decide on our path – choosing not to choose is itself a choice, with its own consequences – and we have to learn to live where that takes us.
* The “rosebuds” come not from Gray, but from his compatriot Herrick: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46546