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Peter Kingsley-About The Sun & The Underworld

‘Dark Sun’ from the ‘Splendor Solis’ series.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from chapter V of Peter Kingsley’s ‘Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic’, Oxford University Press_1995. Pages 55 to 58.


-The fires of heaven-including the fire that rose up to become the sun-had their point of origin in the depths of the Earth-*’The later philosophical trends which enforced the-to us still familiar-distinction between the supralunar and the sublunar, the world of above and the world below, never succeeded in eradicating this more paradoxical, ambiguous world-view. For example, it recurs, prominently, in Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri; while the close association, and at times identification, of sun and underworld, Helios and Hades, continued to find expression in the Greek world both in religious cult and at the literary level. This helps to explain how, in late antiquity, the sun seen in a vision could meaningfully be described as ‘Tartarus like’ (ταρταροειδης, tartaroeidis); and it was entirely in the spirit of this ‘underground’ tradition about the sun and its affinities that early Islamic cosmology presented the sun as ‘created from the fire of the earth; related the heat of the sun to the heat of hell-fire, and could speak in one breath of ‘the fire of which the sun and the devils are made’.But above all it was alchemical tradition that was responsible for preserving and maintaining this basic association between sun, earth, and underworld. Alchemists, from the end of antiquity through to and beyond the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were so concerned with the paradoxical discovery of light in the depths of darkness that they undercut all the familiar distinctions between upper and lower, celestial and terrestrial. For them fire was only secondarily a celestial phenomenon: in origin it came from, and belonged at, the center of the earth.

This ‘central fire’, as they sometimes called it, was considered by them the key to the alchemical transformation process. According to them it was the real source of light-so much that they referred to it as the ‘sun in the earth’, the ‘subterranean’ sun. On the one hand, this ‘earthly’ or ‘invisible sun’ was the ‘fire of hell’, the ‘black sun’, the ‘darkness of purgatory’. On the other, as the sun that ‘rises out of the darkness of the earth’, it was the origin not only of the visible sun but also of the light of the stars. And significantly, they indicated that the nature of this hidden, generative fire was volcanic.

Remarkably, considering what we have seen of Empedocles’ own views on the subject, the earliest of the surviving references in alchemical literature to this paradoxical idea occurs in an Arabic text where the idea is attributed, quite specifically, to Empedocles. This apparent coincidence deserves a little careful attention here, because it has a significance which is not immediately self-evident-both for our understanding of Empedocles and for our appreciation of how he came to be understood in later generations by different people with different interests.

The Arabic text in question was known by the name of ‘Mushaf al Jamaa’, ‘Tome of the Gathering’. The original survives in a few fragments; however, parts of it were translated into Latin under the title ‘Turba Philsophorum’, ‘The Gathering’ or ‘Assembly of Philosophers’. In both cases the title refers to a gathering of ancient philosophers under the presidency of Pythagoras.


<< HYGEIA note: This was written in 1995. Since Theodore Abt has edited and translated into English the full manuscript of the ‘Mushaf’ in 2011 we presented some time ago and also, Gregoire Lacaze edited the most recent scholarly edition of the ‘Turba’ (2018) we also presented earlier. Both spend considerable time exploring the genesis and connections between both works >>


The relevant passage which so far is only known from the Latin-has Empedocles deliver a speech that opens with the words: “I signify to posterity that air is an attenuated form of water’ (Significo posteris quod aer est tenue aquae). The Empedocles of the ‘Turba’ then goes on to compare the earth to an egg, with the earth itself corresponding to the shell, ‘the water which is under the earth’ (aqua quae sub terra est) to the egg-white, and the fire underneath the water to the yolk. Finally, ‘there is the point of the sun at the middle of the yolk, which is the chick’ (solis autem punctus in medio rubei, qui est pullus).

This idea of a ‘point of the sun’ at the very center of the earth is a first both paradoxical and bizarre, so much that modern scholarship has cheerfully followed Julius Ruska in altering the text to give it a more acceptable meaning. But Ruska’s ‘emendation’ is in itself far from plausible; and above all, it is unnecessary. The one person who, since Ruska’s edition in 1931, has seen the need to retain the manuscript reading has been Carl Gustav Jung. Owing to his familiarity with alchemical literature he was quick to realize that the strange idea of the sun growing out of the middle of the earth was fundamental to alchemical doctrine.

More specifically, he noted not only that even the earliest of Latin commentators on the ‘Turba Philosophorum’ found the reading ‘point of the sun’ in their texts-and interpreted it without any hesitation-but also that this same basic idea of a fiery, generative point at the heart of matter can be traced back to Gnostic writings of the very first centuries AD.

To this we can add that in Greek alchemical tradition the image of a point at the center of a circle had for centuries been a common symbol used to denote the sun, the alchemical egg, and the generative, fiery principle of red sulfur. The manuscript reading is plainly correct, and Empedocles’ teaching in the ‘Turba’ is clear: The fire at the center of the earth gives birth to the visible sun.’


A 1897 printing notice from a French printer in Beauvais. Note the signature-symbol at the bottom and the shape of the text…From the archives and library of HYGEIA.
Peter Kingsley-About The Sun & The Underworld

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