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Scintillae marginila: Sparkling margins - Alchemical and Hermetic thought in the literary works of Sir Thomas Browne
Kevin Faulkner © 2002


Scintillae marginila: Sparkling margins- Alchemical and Hermetic thought in the literary works of Sir Thomas Browne


Revised paper  for conference- 'The Rising Dawn': The contribution of alchemy to Medieval Medicine and Intellectual Life. Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine University of East Anglia 21-22 March 2002


The physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) is invariably defined as a marginal figure in the history of alchemy, but his true relationship to alchemy has rarely been objectively evaluated. The difficulties which his ornate and labyrinthine prose presents to the reader, combined with the complexity of his psychological make-up- he was in near equal proportion - a Christian mystic, an empirical scientist and a scholar gifted with a poetic sensibility- have resulted in an aura of Victorian perceptions clinging to him as merely a quaint, religious character of English literature. Such received judgements have effectively discouraged scholars of alchemy from analysing Browne's literary works; however, an attentive reading of his Rebus, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus reveals a work constructed upon and utilizing fundamental concepts and symbols of the alchemical and hermetic tradition. Together the 'twin' Discourses of 1658 scintillate and sparkle with a thorough knowledge of alchemy and Hermetic philosophy whilst Browne himself has previously undetected connections  to the seminal scholar of alchemy, Carl Gustav Jung.


During Browne's life-span, in Britain at least, both the last great flowering of interest in alchemy and the scientific revolution gathered momentum. Somewhat Janus-faced to modern sensibilities, Browne approved of the new methods of scientific investigation whilst also adhering to the hermetic tradition. His perennial presence in fields closely related to alchemy has resulted in his being  assessed thus- 'to the student of the history of ideas in its modern sense of the inter-relation of philosophy, science, religion and art, Browne is of great importance'. [1]


Although primarily concerned with the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity Browne's spiritual testament and psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643) contains crucial evidence that he possessed many attributes of the archetypal alchemist. Deeply religious, morally upright, with a great passion for the natural sciences, believing in the existence of angels and fascinated with the world of dreams, using imagery not unlike the German theosophist Jacob Boehme  (1575-1624) he emphatically declared -'the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein as in a portrait, things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes'. [2] Furthermore he was aware of Alchemy's close relationship to religious thought confessing - 'The smattering I have of the Philosopher's Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold) has taught me a great deal of divinity.' [3] Evidence of the alchemical nature of his 'elaboratory' investigations can be discerned in his admission that-


'I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into thousand shapes it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self'. [4] 

This remarkable statement conjures up a vivid image of the alchemist encountering the numinous in the laboratory. Astute alchemists apprehended the psychic nature of their experiments - that they themselves were the object of their experiments . Browne's own capacity for self-analysis is a prominent  feature of Religio Medici . He was also well-acquainted with the writings of the seminal figure of Renaissance alchemy admitting- 'I could never pass that sentence of Paracelsus without an asterisk or annotation; 'A star in the ascendant reveals many things to those who seek the marvels of nature, that is the works of God.' [5]


Sir Thomas was, in all probability introduced to Paracelsan ideas whilst attending the universities of Padua, Montpellier and Leyden. The writings of Paracelsus, a curious mixture of the practical and mystical were a potent stimulus upon physicians. Although Browne objected that 'the singularity of Paracelsus be intolerable reviled all learning before him'[6] he nevertheless confessed to having 'perus'd the Archidoxis'[7], Paracelsus's treatise on cures by means of amulets. Likewise although refuting Paracelsus's claim to  have created a Homunculus , he nevertheless believed in his performing the alchemical feat of Palingenesis, that is the resurrection of a plant from its ashes[8]. Importantly, as a physician Browne knew 'that every plant might receive a name according unto the disease it cureth, was the wish of Paracelsus'[9]  and without question he took the ideas of the Swiss physician seriously for many books by leading advocates of Paracelsan medicine were once upon the shelves of his vast library.[10] The influence of Paracelsus upon Browne must have been profound for his eldest son Edward, one of the few people who really knew him well commissioned the Paracelsan word 'spagyrici', the name of Swiss alchemist-physician's distinctive brand of alchemy, to be engraved upon his father's Coffin-plate. The Coffin-plate inscription which eludes to the commonplace image of alchemy, the transformation of metals which for the spiritual alchemist signified a far deeper goal - the transformation of the base matter of man to acquire spiritual gold , translated from Latin  reads- 'Sleeping here his spagyric body converts the lead to gold.'[11]


Alchemy was an art practised in great secrecy. Many were highly guarded of their activities in order to maintain their public profession and social status and Browne was no exception. The arcana of the art were often passed on orally from one individual to another. The Abbe Trithemius for example initiated Paracelsus. Less frequently there is a  passing on of secrets between father and son as  between John Dee and his eldest son Arthur, or between Jean Baptiste van Helmont  and his son Mercurius  or between the Martin Ruland's  senior and junior . In this context it is worthwhile taking a quick look at the relationship between Sir Thomas and his eldest son  Edward Browne. As a young man Edward was a great traveller. Wherever he went he acted as the eyes and ears of his famous father.  Upon hearing his son had recently visited Amsterdam Sir Thomas wrote -


'When you were in Amsterdam I wish you had enquired after Doctor Helvetius who saw projection made and had pieces of gold to show of it'. [12]


Clearly as late as the year 1667 when aged over sixty Sir Thomas still lent an eager ear to tales of transformation . Edward ever the obedient son duly tracked down Helvetius in order to question him about his witnessing projection. Whilst in Amsterdam he visited the alchemist 'old Glauber' at his laboratory . When at Rome he visited the Jesuit priest Kircher who has been described as 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe' [13] and who was in fact one of Sir Thomas's favourite authors , his  books being avidly collected by the Norwich physician. [14]


Whilst Edward was at the Court of Emperor Leopold engaged upon collating  a 'curious catalogue of some hundreds of alchymical manuscripts' from the archives of the Viennese Imperial library during the winter of 1668, ostensibly for the benefit of the Royal Society, he received the following short verse which reveals Sir Thomas's highly moral attitude towards the study of  alchemy.


To one who would study the Occult and inside of his Gold, and upon looking to please not only himself


Persian Gold I wish for you

And the finest Alexandrian and Imperial Gold I wish you too

But look beyond the image to the inside of the metal

Nor let your treasure-chest be richer than your mind.


Sir Thomas did not need to rely solely upon his son to keep him in contact with fellow Hermeticists for he engaged in correspondence with many leading figures of seventeenth century intellectual life including the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole and the astrologer William Lilley. He also befriended Arthur Dee who upon his retirement, took up residence in Norwich. It may be worth remembering that Arthur Dee , the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee, had accompanied his father and Kelley in their peregrinations across Bohemia as a boy . Arthur Dee must have had been held in high regard by Sir Thomas for when taken ill Browne was able to declare to a correspondent- 'You desired to know what course Dr. Dee used for his recovery. I can very well inform, being with him within a few minutes after he was taken'. [15]


Arthur Dee's life and  friendship with Browne  raises many unanswered questions. Indeed it has been speculated that -'Little is known of this son of Dee's; one cannot help but wonder however, how much he may have influenced Browne, who was one of the seventeenth century's greatest literary exponents of the type of occult philosophy in which both the Dee's were immersed'. [16] Upon his death Arthur Dee bequeathed to Browne a list of his father's written works and a number of alchemical manuscripts as well as 'Vademecum, quo sontes Alchemical. Art. tradunt by the medieval alchemist Raymund Lull which he had extensively cited when compiling Fasciculus Chemicus whilst resident at Moscow.[17]  Dee's Fasciculus Chemicus, an anthology of alchemical authors upon the stages of the 'Great Work' was translated from the Latin and published by Elias Ashmole in 1651. Several years later Browne wrote to Ashmole of his friendship -


 'I was very well acquainted with Dr Arthur Dee, and at one time or other he hath given me some account of the whole course of his life; he gave me a catalogue of what his father, Dr John Dee, had writ, and what he intended to write, but I think I have seen the same in some of his printed books, and that catalogue he gave me in writing I cannot yet find'.[18]


In correspondence to Ashmole Browne offered the loan of many medieval alchemical texts. These included tracts by Roger Bacon , the great work or Elixir of Sir George Ripley and a concordance of the sayings of Raymund Lull. In addition to these  he offered the loan of an ancient manuscript  of Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy and Ripley's Emblematicall or Hieroglyphical scrowl in parchment about 7 yards long which (he noted) 'contains many verses somewhat differing from those in your first part of Ripley's vision'. These and several other medieval alchemical texts were offered to Ashmole with the earnest entreaty that they be returned to him.


When Arthur Dee died in 1651 a great surge of interest in alchemy in England was beginning. In fact the 1650's decade heralded the last and greatest boom-period in the printing of writings upon alchemy England has ever witnessed[19]. This was partly due  to a liberalisation of printing laws and the psychological uncertainties engendered by the Protectorate of Cromwell . Many important alchemical texts such as the Rosicrucian Fama and Confessio, along with the works of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus were made accessible to English readers in this decade. Such was the revival of interest in alchemy and Hermetic philosophy that in 1654 the preacher John Webster exhorted - ' the philosophy of Hermes revived by the Paracelsian school should be taught in Universities'.


During  the 1650's decade Sir Thomas purchased many costly volumes from book dealers including Elias Ashmole's compilation of British alchemical texts, the Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652)[20] Athananius Kircher's vast major work of comparative religion Oedipus Egypticus (1652-54)[21] and the alchemist Thomas Vaughan's evocatively titled 'A Hermetic banquet drest by a Spagyrical Cook' (1652).[22] These books supplemented what was already an impressive collection of books upon Hermetic philosophy and alchemy - the complete works of Paracelsus,[23] the Venetian cabbalist Francesco Giorgio's 'Harmony of the World',[24] the Abbe Trithemius' Polygraphie,[25]  Basil Valentine's 'Triumphant Chariot of Antinomy',[26] as well as the five wieldy tomes of the Theatrum Chemicum[27]  containing the principal works of  the foremost protagonist of Paracelsan philosophical alchemy,  Gerard Dorn. All of these esoteric texts and many more were, as a scrutiny the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue of Sir Thomas and his son Edward's Libraries reveals, once owned by Sir Thomas.


Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus


As might be expected of a creative artist Browne was not content with merely reading the alchemical literature which poured from the printing-presses of England during the 1650's but was inspired to make his own contribution to the great flood of alchemical writings. Though little acknowledged his Discourses of 1658 Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are constructed upon crucial concepts of alchemy. Each and every one of these core alchemical beliefs - the maxim solve et coagula, the colour stages of the opus, the nigredo and albedo, the Microcosm/Macrocosm correspondence and the basic mandala of alchemy, the circular figure of the Uroboros, are with consummate artistic skill utilized by him as alembic vessels in which to distil his own quite unique hermetic vision .


It was Carl Jung who remarked that- 'the late alchemical texts are fantastic and baroque; only when we have learnt to interpret them can we recognise what treasures they hide'.[28] Jung's inspirational statement is utterly relevant to Browne's Discourses. But in order to recognise the treasures which these fantastic and baroque texts contain it is first necessary to acknowledge their author as that most rare bird, an alchemist who was also endowed with considerable literary talents; only then can the questing seeker identify them as a unified work of alchemical literature as they thematically progress from Grave to Garden, from darkness to light, from unknowingness to 'the seeking of truth in the light of nature'.


Far too subtle a thinker to write exclusively upon alchemy, at first sight Urn-Burial appears to be little other than a discourse upon archaeology and funeral rites of how 'men have been most phantasticall in the singular contrivances of their corporal dissolution'. However the Discourse's opening lines with characteristic humour urges the reader to look further than mere surface appearances-


In the deep discovery of the subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers.


The 'subterranean world' which Browne explores in Urn-Burial is that of man, his mortality and deepest fear, namely Death and the after-life. The  theme of the unknowingness of the human condition  is illustrated by  highly original medical imagery such as-


A dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next. Whereof methinks we yet do dwell in Platoe's Denne and are but Embryon Philosophers.


Browne's sombre speculations and meditations upon death represent none other than the initial stage of the alchemical opus , the nigredo poetically alluded to in Urn-Burial  as 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing' . According to C. G. Jung -


'the Nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a journey to the underworld as Dante experienced it'. [29]


Urn-Burial alludes to several of the great 'soul-journey's' of classical literature. Homer's Voyage of Ulysses, Plato's myth of Er, the Roman poet Macrobius' 'Dream of Scipio' and Dante's descent to the Underworld are each cited. Seventeenth century examples of 'soul-journey' literature include the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher's Iter Ecstaticum (1656), a work which Browne possessed,[30] and John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress'(1678). In many 'soul-journey' texts including the Hermetic Corpus, the adept travels through the planetary spheres; the soul freed from the shackles of the body ascends to heaven where a mystical illumination, a widening of consciousness and a development of spiritual awareness occurs. Such journeys often describe the adept's hearing the celestial 'music of the spheres' before returning to Earth and hard reality. The grave meditations of Urn-Burial are the launch-pad for Browne's own 'mystical soul-journey'; The Garden of Cyrus ,the other half of his literary-alchemical Rebus with its repeated cosmic imagery, is the orbit of his 'soul-journey' ; its drowsy conclusion is the 'splash-down' which returns the doctor to earth and reality.


There may be a more immediate source of Browne's experiencing of a soul journey. As early as 1959 the critic Peter Green proposed that one reason why the Discourses are stylistically quite unlike any other literature of the seventeenth century may have been due to Browne's experimenting with drugs. Throughout the history of alchemy there is a considerable knowledge of minerals, substances and drugs. Browne was of an empirical nature, as a physician he was licensed to obtain Opium which was the only available pain-killer and tranquillizer in medicine in his day. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, Paracelsus seems to have been amongst  the earliest advocates of opium . It  was used to relieve such disorders as dysentery, and respiratory ailments . Such was its widespread usage in seventeenth century medicine that Browne's contemporary Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) declared  'Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium'.


There can be little doubt that in the course of his profession  Browne had the opportunity to observe both  the physical and mental effects of opium. One line in particular in Urn-Burial suggests he was well aware of its effects.


'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time which temporally considereth all things'.


Given the fact that the Protectorate of Cromwell was a drab, cheerless era which induced considerable Endzeitpsychosis especially amongst Royalists such as Browne it must have been tempting for him to reach into the medicine-Cabinet. And it is a curious coincidence that his writings were 'rediscovered' by the early Romantic figures of Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey and Coleridge.


The declamatory apotheosis of Urn-Burial contains a vital clue that Sir Thomas was well-read in alchemical literature and that  he saw it as no sin to occasionally 'borrow' imagery, in this case from the Paracelsan  protagonist Gerard Dorn.


'But Man is a Noble Animal. Splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with Equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us'.


Utilizing Paracelsian 'astral imagery' for his own purposes Dorn claimed that there was in man an 'invisible sun' that is, a life-giving force equivalent to the imago Dei or image of God in man  stating- 'The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are  of one and the same sun.' [31]


The sombre half of Browne's Garden-Grave Discourse concludes with an inventory of spiritual experiences and a declaration of the supremacy of Christian faith over death.


'if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, Extasy, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the Spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them'.


Browne's listing of transformed states of consciousness implies that the spiritual experiences and Revelatory 'soul-journeys' experienced by  various Christian mystics throughout history were not unknown to him; indeed he himself has been favourably compared with great names in Christian mysticism such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Nicolas of Cusa and Dame Julian of Norwich.


Primarily because of a publishing trend which has persisted since the Victorian era, the stoical Christian morality of Urn-Burial remains the better-known half of the Rebus. This publishing trend of omission, totally against Browne's artistic intentions, has contributed towards the obscurity of his 'handsome anticipation of heaven'  and major contribution to the treasure house of Hermetic wisdom The Garden of Cyrus. Though little recognised by scholars of the hermetic tradition  The Garden of Cyrus is a supreme example of the influence of alchemy and hermetic thought in seventeenth century literature. Its mystical vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe is strong evidence of his  dedication to a key quest of Hermeticism, namely 'proof' of the wisdom of God and it may well be the Obverse and not the Reverse of the Coin  crafted by the adherent of Vulcan's Art. 


In  the dedicatory preface of The Garden of Cyrus Sir Thomas describes his patron Nicolas Bacon, as 'a serious student in the highest arcana's of Nature', From the discernment of such arcana the alchemist-physician penetrated Nature's secrets to apprehend a fundamental tenet of alchemy - the Universal Spirit of Nature, the anima mundi or World-Soul responsible for all phenomena of Life.  Browne had previously speculated upon the World Soul or Universal Spirit which binds all to all in Religio Medici thus-


'Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) an universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato, and is yet of the Hermeticall philosophers; if there be a common nature that unites and ties the scattered and divided individuals into one species, why may there not be one that untyes them all?' [32]


According to C.G. Jung - 'The alchemist thought he knew better than anyone else that, at the Creation, at least a little bit of divinity, the anima mundi, entered into material things and was caught there'.[33] Just as Urn-Burial  symbolises the human spirit trapped in the corporeal body Cyrus is permeated with symbols representing the  anima mundi or World Soul imprisoned in nature.


In the 'Great Work' of alchemy the initial stage of the nigredo is succeeded by the albedo or whitening phase the light of illumination. Just as Urn-Burial represents the nigredo stage, Cyrus represents the albedo stage and the growth of consciousness which according to Jung- 'By means of the opus which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or whitening is produced.' [34]


The opening lines of The Garden of Cyrus depicts the creation of the world . Like many alchemists Browne was fascinated with life's beginnings, thus cosmic imagery opens his joyous Discourse upon life, light and beauty. The act of the Creation itself is likened to the alchemical opus - God is viewed as a cosmic alchemist. -  The opening paragraph also alludes to the central 'deity' associated with Paracelsan alchemy, namely Vulcan, as well as to Plato, 'the divine philosopher' and author of the 'Bible' of alchemy, the Timaeus. As ever highly original optical imagery is also  featured- 


That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may pass for no blind apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day: When the diffused light contracted into Orbs, and shooting rays, of those Luminaries'.


Throughout The Garden of Cyrus Browne tirelessly supplies his reader with proof of the 'higher geometry of nature' using evidence of the closely related symbols of the number five, the Quincunx pattern, the figure X and the network lozenge shape in art, nature and mystically. In many ways this  Discourse upon 'sacred geometry' is arguably one of the greatest examples of the alchemical imagination in operation extant in English literature, a fine example occurring  not unlike modern 'stream of consciousness' style writing-


In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares I wish we had their true and ancient description, far different from ours, or the Check-mate of the Persians, which might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the secretary of  Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets , with Eclipses of the Sun and Moon.


Browne was a keen botanist and the central chapter of The Garden of Cyrus contains many of his acute botanical observations; in total over 140 plants are mentioned. Botany was a much favoured past time of alchemists, not only because plants possessed medicinal properties useful to the physician, but also because plant-life demonstrated nature's organic ways. Page after page of detailed descriptions of plants, speculations upon germination and growth and considerations upon embryology, generation and heredity- the alchemy of nature and transformation are placed at the heart of the Discourse. It may also be noted that many flowers are indeed cinque-foiled, that is consisting of five petals. If ever there were an example of a physician 'seeking truth in the light of nature' as exhorted by Paracelsus this central chapter with its many sharp-eyed observations on plant-life is it. The Swiss -alchemist-physician's  encouraging of fellow physicians to 'seek truth in the Light of Nature' is in fact a dualistic concept in which both the apprehending of Nature's esoteric arcana and the beginnings of modern biological research are inextricably linked . In  Browne's day these two pursuits were quite indistinct from each other. 


Having explored the worlds of Art and Nature for evidence of the Quincunx pattern Browne in chapters four and five delves into mystical contemplation of esoteric topics such as the healing properties of music, astrology and physiognomy, revealing himself to be particularly well-versed in the Cabbala. In the short apotheosis and 'rubedo' phase of the opus he delivers his scientific credentials for obtaining truth, these being 'rational conjecture', 'occular observation' and 'discursive enquiry', before the much-celebrated drowsy conclusion in which the orbit of his 'soul-journey' splashes down to earth and hard reality.


But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations; making Cables of Cobwebs and Wildernesses of handsome Groves. Besides Hippocrates hath spoke so little and the Oneirocriticall Masters, have left such frigid Interpretations from plants that there is little encouragement to dream of Paradise it self. Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose.


Consciously evoking the basic mandala of alchemy , the tail-eating Uroboros, The Garden of Cyrus concludes in night, darkness and unknowingness thematically uniting it to Urn-Burial.


'All things began in order, so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven';


Urn and Quincunx


The literary critic Peter Green noted that Browne, 'packs his prose with as much concentrated symbolic meaning as it will stand' and that 'Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work, adding, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact'.[35] The primary symbols of the Rebus, the Urn and Quincunx share an intimate relationship to each other . They enable Browne as Green expressed it  'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, to paradoxically release the reader's mind into an infinite number of associative levels of awareness, without preconception to give shape and substance to quite literally cosmic generalizations'.[36]


 In Hermeticism the unknowingness of the human condition was often symbolised by the Urn's close associate, the Vessel .The Vessel was the scene from which the adept observed the stages of the alchemical opus. Generally considered to be circular in shape to show that it was a microcosm of the heavens, the Vessel was the place from which the incubation of the philosopher's stone occurred . In The Garden of Cyrus this incubation hatches in the symbol of the Quincunx -which is none other than a symbol of the Philosopher's Stone .


Browne's fixation with the  Quincunx pattern and number five exasperated Victorian readers of The Garden of Cyrus , however the source of his transcendental synthesis that numbers are the creators of phenomena and that God geometrises, originates ultimately from the teachings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Pythagoras, both of whom wielded an enormous influence upon hermetic philosophers and alchemists alike . Sir Thomas expressed his interest in Pythagorean thought in Religio Medici  thus-


'I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magicke of numbers.'[37]


Ever a believer in 'harmony, order and proportion' the number five held a particular attraction to Browne. Not only is it the Pythagorean 'nuptial' number being the marriage of the first odd and even numbers (2 +3) but it was also regarded as the centre number, the mid-point in the sequence of numbers to ten. Browne's Pythagorean inclinations and fixation with the number five becomes transparent when one reads in Robert Graves seminal study 'The White Goddess' that - 'To the Pythagoreans the number five held significance. Pythagoreans swore their oaths on the 'holy tetkratys' a figure consisting of ten dots arranged in a pyramid thus-


                                                     .      .

                                                 .       .       .

                                             .       .       .       .

The Quincunx pattern can be discerned at the very heart of the Pythagorean tetkratys. According to Robert Graves - 'To the Pythagoreans Five represented the colour and variety which nature gives to three-dimensional space, and which are apprehended by the five senses, technically called  'the wood' - a quincunx of five trees; this coloured various world was held to be formed by five elements - earth, air, water, fire and the quintessence or soul'.[38]


Browne's Rebus consists of  twice five chapters totalling ten whilst the most frequent symbol of the Rebus the Pyramid pervades both Discourses. As a 'conjoining' symbol of the Pyramid has a paradoxical function . In Urn-Burial the Pyramid is cited as a foolish and vain-glorious monument symbolising Man's pride in wanting to be remembered after death whilst in Cyrus  it is cited as an example of Eternal Form and Geometric wisdom.


J. B. Onians noted, 'Pythagoras' philosophy was communicated by symbols. The transcendent nature of the symbol was central to Pythagorean thought, in particular the tetkratys, a symbol of ten dots in the form of a Pyramid. It was the magic power inherent in a symbol, when compared to everyday language which made Pythagorean thought particularly attractive. The power of the Pythagorean mystery was based largely upon his understanding of the mathematical order of the universe, which could be summed up in visual representation of such numbers as tetrakyt and Quincunx.' [39] Thus it is from Pythagorean symbolism that Browne's 'mystical symbolism' of the Quincunx and belief in Eternal Nature, the much lauded anima mundi of the alchemists originates.  Browne was not however the first hermetic philosopher to appreciate Pythagorean symbolism. The Italian alchemist Giovanni Della Porta (1538-1615) from whom it is commonly believed that much of the source material of the opening chapters of The Garden of Cyrus were 'borrowed', and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who introduced the Quincunx as both an astrological and astronomical aspect were also familiar with this symbol. Unsurprisingly both Porta and Kepler are well-represented in Browne's library.


In the twentieth century C.G. Jung observed that alchemical symbolism incorporated geometric forms stating - 'Alchemical symbolism has produced a whole series of non-human forms, geometrical configurations like the sphere, circle, square, and octagon, or chemical configurations like the Philosopher's Stone, the ruby, diamond, quicksilver, gold, water, fire, and spirit (in the sense of a volatile substance).[40]  For Jung such symbols were none other than variants upon the foremost symbol of the psyche, the mandala , writing - 'Empirically the self appears spontaneously in the shape of specific symbols and its totality is discernable above all in the mandala and its countless variants'. [41]


Given the fact that the historical period in which The Garden of Cyrus was composed, the Interregnum or Protectorate of Cromwell was one of great psychological uncertainty, in particular for Royalists such as Browne, the obtaining of such an individuation symbol would have been no bad acquisition for according to Jung - 'the Mandala encompasses, protects and defends the psychic totality against outside influences and seeks to unite the opposites and is an individuation symbol'.[42]


Jung acknowledged that 'The quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx ) does occur as a symbol of wholeness ( in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely.'[43] Astoundingly he identified the Quincunx pattern as none other than 'a symbol of the quinta essentia  which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone. [44] The Quincunx pattern - a symbol of totality and wholeness - the Unio mentalis  or self-knowledge of the alchemists assumes a spiritual significance in The Garden of Cyrus as Browne's personal mandala through which he believed he had been permitted to glimpse into Nature's highest arcarna and thus acquire the philosopher's stone.


The Grand Conjunctio


Browne's usage and understanding of fundamental alchemical concepts becomes apparent when the synergy of his literary-alchemical Rebus is explored in depth. Urn-Burial  with its many reflections upon decay, the Oblivion of Time and corporeal dissolution  clearly corresponds to the solve or dissolving half of the  alchemical maxim solve et coagula whilst in perfect equilibrium The Garden of Cyrus with its many observations upon organic growth and reproduction is the coagula or 'fixing' half of the Rebus . Both appropriately contain observations upon decay and growth taken from two of Browne's amateur pursuits, namely archaeology and botany. Other related polarised themes in the Rebus include Urn-Burial's  depiction of the small, temporal world of Man, his mortality and the unknowingness of the human condition, in other words, the Microcosm. These themes are mirrored by the numerous examples of the eternal and universal forms throughout the Macrocosm  and the 'seeking of truth in the light of nature' in The Garden of Cyrus. Likewise the religious speculations, doubts and stoicism of Urn-Burial are answered by the joyous, scientific certainties of Cyrus.  Imagery of darkness  and funeral ashes  in Urn-Burial are mirrored by imagery of Light and of seeds  throughout Cyrus . Even stylistically the two Discourses are polarised . The slow, solemn, measured oratory of Urn-Burial is contrasted by  the hasty note-book jotting brevity of Cyrus.


Is the polarity of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus merely a sophisticated artistic construction device utilized by Browne? There is strong evidence that this is not the case. Polarity and more importantly, the quest for Unity were a fundamental preoccupation of many alchemists and throughout the history of alchemy the opposites and their union played a decisive role in the 'Great Work'.  Jung's study of alchemy led him to believe that the opposites are one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy[45] and for him their union played a decisive role in the alchemical process [46] stating -'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'.[47] According to him- 'The coniunctio oppositorum engaged the speculations of the alchemists in the form of  the "Chymical Wedding"...The dual being born of the alchemical union of opposites the Rebus or Lapis Philosophorum, is so distinctly  marked in literature that we have no difficulty in recognising it as a symbol of the self. Psychologically the self is a union of opposites.. and stands for psychic totality[48].'


Sir Thomas Browne's 'Great work' of  alchemy is none other than the penning of  two 'cosmic mirror' Discourses  - to achieve the quintessential alchemical task,  the harmony of the opposites and goal of the alchemical opus , Unity or Oneness, the fabled philosopher's Stone , none the less.  As C.G. Jung put it- 'What the alchemist tried to express with his Rebus is a wholeness which resolves all opposition and puts an end to conflict'. [49] The Union of the opposites was often represented in alchemy by the hieros gamos that is, the sacred marriage in which the archetypal figures in the rebirth mysteries of  ancient civilizations and alchemy are featured. The union of the opposites gives birth to the central symbol of alchemy, the psychopomp figure of Mercurius and it is not improbable that the spiritual alchemist Thomas Vaughan (c.1621-65) who knew of, and admired Sir Thomas may have had his Discourses in mind when, alluding to dominant symbols of the each respective Discourse he described Mercurius as ' not only a two-edged sword but also our true, hidden vessel, the Philosophical Garden, wherein our sun rises and sets'.[50]


In this little-known work of English literature composed by a modest doctor who lived in seventeenth century Norwich, there is arguably, one of the most learned examples of the complexio oppositorum or complex of opposites and an ingenious literary endeavour to create a symbolic portrait of the hieros gamos, the goal of the alchemical opus. Each and every element of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus- their construction, themes, imagery and symbols are clear evidence of Browne's deep understanding of the spiritual viewpoint of alchemy.  Together they represent a highly original literary experiment which touches upon deep spiritual and metaphysical realms to create a symbolic portrait of the grand conjunctio of alchemy . There is for scholars of alchemy real philosophical "gold" to be obtained from contemplation of their synergy.


Of the many ways in which alchemy is studied  the 1658 Discourses  yield rich interpretative fruit by at least three means.  Firstly as a source of symbolism in which highly original proper-nouns are employed to evoke powerful archetypal symbols. Secondly as a meditative exploration of the human soul undertaking an allegorical journey - in this case from the Grave to the Garden, and lastly as an embryonic understanding of the human psyche for Urn-Burial may be interpreted as representing the dark, irrational, unconscious half of the mind  and The Garden of Cyrus the rational and conscious half of the  psyche.  In this context Browne's relationship to the development of psychology  is worthy of closer inspection.


Jung and Browne


From their profession the alchemist-physicians gained a deep insight into human nature. Sickness, disease and suffering, often in the face of death, revealed to them the true, inner substance of the individual. This insight into what Browne termed 'the theatre of ourselves' was in fact the rudimentary beginnings of modern psychology . It was not however until Carl Jung in the twentieth century turned his attention to alchemy that the psychological element of alchemy was fully consciously recognised. Jung provided the scholar with new tools to examine alchemical literature and his analysis of alchemy remains extremely rewarding. There are furthermore some curious connections between him and Sir Thomas Browne which have not been previously discerned. For example, long before Jung began to study alchemy and its symbolism, the psychological element of Browne's writings attracted the attention of the poet Coleridge who composed  this short verse upon him.


He looked at his own Soul

with a Telescope. What seemed

all irregular, he saw and shewed to be beautiful

Constellations: and he added

to the Consciousness hidden

worlds within worlds.

By a remarkable coincidence this verse prefaces the introduction to Jung's autobiography 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections' and was chosen by Jung's collaborator Anelia Jaffe to describe the Swiss psychologist  . But whether Jung was familiar with Browne's Religio Medici  which was translated into German in 1746 it is not known; however Jung was fond of using the phrase Religio Medici  and unwittingly connected Browne to alchemy when he  stated that -   'For the educated person of those days, who studied the philosophy of alchemy as part of his general equipment, - it was a real Religio Medici. [51] He also indirectly linked Browne's study in 'the light of nature' to Paracelsan alchemy when stating "but that other pivot of Paracelsus's teaching, his belief in 'the light of nature' allow us to surmise other conjectures of his Religio Medica.  [52]


C.G. Jung elaborated upon the discoveries of the alchemist-physicians in order to develop his psychology and a key concept of his psychology is that of the archetypes. Curiously enough one of the very earliest usages of the word 'archetype' can be found in Cyrus and the discernment of archetypes is a theme of The Garden of Cyrus. Jung's great discovery was that the mystical language of the alchemist-physicians and their bizarre symbolism were none other than attempts to describe the psyche's contents. -


the language of the alchemists is at first sight very different from our psychological terminology and way of thinking. But if we treat their symbols in the same way as we treat modern fantasies, they yield a meaning - even in the Middle Ages confessed alchemists interpreted their symbols in a moral and philosophical sense, their "philosophy" was, indeed, nothing but projected psychology. [53]


From alchemist-physicians such as Browne's usage of seemingly bizarre symbolism and imagery to describe their understanding of the psyche  there emerged the beginnings of the modern science of psychology. This rudimentary and tentative understanding of the self and the unconscious psyche  were the fruits of the Renaissance spirit of enquiry into nature, which includes human nature.


The workings of the unconscious psyche were often revealed to the alchemist-physicians in their  experience of dreaming.  Sir Thomas was fascinated with dreams. In an age of grim realities dreaming must have been a most welcome diversion . He was in fact one of those fortunate individuals able to manipulate the sequence of events of a dream at will. This ability, in conjunction with his wide-ranging reading matter provided him with a rich fuel for his artistic creativity and is the source of much of his so-called 'dream-imagery' and 'mystical symbolism'.  Browne described his ability to lucid dream in Religio Medici thus-


Yet in one dream I can compose a whole comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof. Were my memory as faithful as my reason is fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams. [54]


He also wrote a short tract upon the interpretation of dreams in which he pondered - 'Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition and from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense and mystery of  similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional dependeth, may by symbolical adaption hold a ready way to read the characters of Morpheus'. [55]     


Browne's proposal of the 'symbolical adaptation' of symbols in the interpretation of dreams, his capacity for self-analysis and deep interest in the mystery of  individuality in conjunction with his utilizing of concepts and symbols from the alchemical tradition, quite rightly allow us to define him as an Ur-psychologist whose embryonic psychological speculations has important links to C. G. Jung.


The archetypal symbol of Janus, the Roman god of change and transition from the past to the future which for Jung was 'a perfect symbol of the human psyche', is in many ways a  highly appropriate symbol of the intellectual world of Browne. Sir Thomas  looked both back to the past ancient wisdom of alchemy for its spiritual and psychological wealth and forwards to the future development of science, in particular to the branches of medicine and psychology. Although often defined as marginal to the study of alchemy his Rebus Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus scintillates and sparkles with a comprehensive knowledge of the alchemical and hermetic tradition. Browne's paradoxical place in the history of ideas results from the combination of his deep study of esoteric ideas and approval of the modern scientific spirit of enquiry, such activities confirm him as a Janus figure in intellectual history and alchemy.





Abraham L.      Dee A . Fasciculus Chemicus N. York and London 1997   

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Batty Shaw A.    Sir Thomas Browne: the man and the physician British Medical Journal Vol. 285  

Bennett, J.    Sir Thomas Browne    Cambridge University Press    1962   

Copenhaver B. P. and Charles Schmitt   Renaissance Philosophy  Opus    1994

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Freke, T & Gandy, P    The Hermetica    Piatkus    1997

Geneva Anne    Astrology and the seventeenth century mind Manchester University Press   1995

Godwin, J.   Music, mysticism and Magic Arkana 1986

Graves R    The White Goddess revised 1958    Faber & Faber

Green, P.    Sir Thomas Browne Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Their Work, No.108 1959)

Haeffner M    Dictionary of Alchemy    Aquarian    1991

Happold F. C.    Mysticism A Study and an Anthology  Penguin  1964

Heideman M. A.    'Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus' A Paradox and a Cosmic Vision'    University of Toronto Quarterly, XIX 1950

Holmyard   E. J.    Alchemy Harmondsworth    1957

Huntley    F L    Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, Ann Arbour 1962

Huntley F L   Well, Sir Thomas?  A lecture given on the occasion of the tercentenary of Browne's death Norwich   1982

Jolande Jacobi   ed.    Paracelsus, Selected Writings, trans. Norman Guterman, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951

Jung, C.G.    Psychology and Alchemy    Trans. R. F. C. Hull London 1944   

Jung C. G.    Memories, Dreams, Reflections trans. R & C Winston London 1979   

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[1] Leonard Nathanson Chicago University Press 1967

[2] R. M. Part 1:12

[3] R. M. 1:39

[4] R. M. 1:48

[5] R. M. 1:31 Ascendens constellatum multa revalat, quoerentibus magnalia naturae i.e. opera Dei.         

[6] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 1 Chapter 8

[7]  R. M. Part 1:19

[8] R. M. Part 1: 48

[9] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 1 Chapter 6

[10]  Examples include Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (S.C. page 25 no. 98 page 51 no. 103,104)

   Joseph Duchesne, (page 33 no. 8 page 34 no. 63) Alexander Suchten (page 51 no. 128)

  Petrus Severinus ( page 18 no. 50 page 20 no. 23, 24, 25,26) John French (page 51 no. 118)

  Johann Glauber (page 43 no. 10) and Gerard Dorn (page 25 no. 118).

[11]  The surviving half of the Coffin-plate is on display at Saint Peter Mancroft Norwich.

     Latin original reads- Hic dormiens,  corporis spagyrici plumbum in aurum convertit

[12]  Keynes Selected correspondence letter no. 22  22nd September 1668

[13]  Baigent, M &Leigh, R.     The Elixir and The Stone Penguin London  1997             

[14] Kircher's books in Browne's library includes-

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae   Rome 1646  Sales Catalogue page 8 no. 88

Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica   Rome 1650 S. C. page 8 no. 89

Obeliscus Pamphilius      Rome 1650  S.C. page 8 no. 90

Oedipus Egypticus       3 vols.        Rome 1652 S.C. page 8 no. 91

China illustrated        Amsterdam  1667  S.C. page 8 no. 92

Iter Ecstaticum Kircherianum, cum school. G. Schotti  1660 S.C. page 30 no. 52

Ars Magnetica  1637  S.C. page 30 no. 53


[15] To Harmon Lestrange September 1653 Letter 188 Keynes Selected Correspondence

[16] P. French  John Dee London 1972

[17] Sales Catalogue page 25 no. 129

[18] Letter 296 Keynes  Selected correspondence

[19] Chart of all alchemy printed books

[20] Sales Catalogue  page 47 no. 56

[21]  See note 14

[22] S.C. page 51 no. 113

[23] S.C. page 22 no. 118

[24] S.C. page 2 no. 33

[25]  S.C. page 30. no. 17

[26] S.C. page 27 no. 57

[27] S.C. page 25 no. 124

[28] Memories, dreams, Reflections Chapter 7

[29]  C. W. 14: 93


[30] see note 14

[31] Speculativa philosophia  Theatrum Chemicum vol. 1 (Sales Catalogue page 25 no. 124)

[32] R. M. Part 1: 32

[33] C. W. vol. 14:  764

[34] C. W.  vol. 9 ii :  230

[35] P. Green Writers and their Work  Longmans, Green and co. no. 108   1959

[36] Ibid.

[37] R. M. 1:12

[38] R. Graves  The White Goddess Faber and Faber 1948

[39] J. Onians  Art and thought in the Hellenistic Age Thames and Hudson 1979

[40] C. W 11 :276

[41] C. W.  9 ii 426

[42]  C. W. 10: 621

[43] C. W.  18: 1602

[44] C. W.  10:737

[45]  C. W   8. 414

[46]  C. W 12 557

[47]  C. W 14 Foreword

[48]  C. W   9 ii 426

[49]  C. W 16 537

[50]  Cited in Mark Haeffner Dictionary of Alchemy Aquarian Press 1991

[51]  C. W. 10 : 727

[52] C. W. 13 :161

[53] C. W 14: 737

[54] Religio Medici Part 2:11

[55] Tract On Dreams