Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

–   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from Symbols.com

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

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Deadly Nightshade

May 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm (Aesthetics, Botany, Drugs, Health and Medicine, Murder, Mythology, Poison, The Ancient World, The Occult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

 

Deadly nightshade, alternatively known as belladonna, is an herbaceous plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. A delicate-looking, beautiful plant with a legendary potency, its role in history has stemmed primarily from the effects of chemicals naturally occurring in the plant, which include the hallucinogenic toxin scopolamine. It is also from the berries of deadly nightshade that the drug atropine, included on the World Health Organizations Essential Drugs list, is derived.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed Atropa belladonna by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed “Atropa belladonna” by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

The plant’s genus, Atropa, comes from the name of the Greek Fate Atropos, who was believed to wield scissors that could cut short the thread of human life. This is a reference to the severe toxicity of the plant’s berries, a handful of which, if eaten, can plunge an adult into a nightmare of confused convulsions and hallucinations, followed by a torturous death. Extract from the plant has, according to legend, been used as a poison since ancient times. Macbeth, King of Scots from 1040 – 1057, was rumored to use atropine as a sedative and poison to surreptitiously best his foes. There have also been reports of deadly nightshade being employed by torturers, who used it to disorient and weaken their unfortunate subject.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The toxic nature of the chemicals contained in deadly nightshade is such that, in small doses, parts of the plant have been historically used recreationally and spiritually to induce hallucinations, perhaps most notable by European witches and shamans in their notorious “flying ointments”. The chemicals scopolamine and atropine can, according to shamanistic lore, create the sensation of physical flight (along with a host of other hallucinations and delusions) when ingested orally or applied to the skin in ointment form. A tincture of deadly nightshade was also purportedly drunk by ancient Greeks who visited the legendary Oracle of Delphi, in order to induce prophetic visions.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

The history of deadly nightshafe, one concerned both with death and with a heightened experience of life, speaks to the dichotomous nature of this powerful plant. Even its two most common names, deadly nightshade and belladonna, associate the plant first with death and darkness, and second with feminine beauty. Perhaps these contrasting interpretations are not separated by an unbridgeable gap, but are rather two poles of one notion. It could be that the seductive nature of this plant, which can cause spiritual visions, is amplified by its potentially fatal potency. This combination of erotic and thanatopic qualities is reminiscent, appropriately enough, of the Greek Fates themselves – three women who determine the course of mortal life through enchanting song, weave the course of events into an unchangeable fabric, and finally cut the life thread short.

Some Further Reading:

Botanical.com’s entry on Deadly Nightshade

An inquiry into flying ointments

Erowid.org’s page devoted to Belladonna

Drugs.com’s entry dedicated to atropine

A large collection of information regarding the Moirai (Greek Fates)

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The Circe Order of Dog Blood

May 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm (Animals, Exclusive Societies, Fear, Murder, Mythology, The Occult, Women) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

357px-Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus by John William Waterhouse

"Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus" by John William Waterhouse, depicting the sorceress Circe from Homer's Odyssey

While wandering through the dusty back-alleys of the internet, occasionally one hears whispers of a subject so unspeakably terrifying that it is rarely addressed directly. One such topic, regarding which I have heard mention of countless times during my years as an investigator into the occult but have still found precious little information, is an organization known as the Circe Order of Dog Blood (with Circe sometimes spelled Kirke). Believed to have been active in Southern California and perhaps Ohio during the early 1970s, this alleged Satanic cult has been blamed for, or at least linked to, acts of shuddering violence.

charles-manson1

Most references to the Order are brief mentions of its possible association with famed cult leader Charles Manson, pictured above. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that Manson was involved with the Order’s administration. Some sources suggest that a woman identifying herself as Circe (a name harkening to the mythological Greek sorceress who turned men into pigs and surrounded herself with animals) was the central figure of the Order. According to author Adam Gorightly, Circe briefly owned an occult shop in Toledo, Ohio, where she actively accumulated cult members and led them in ritualized dog slaughter. Gorightly hypothesizes that Circe was and alter-ego of Mary Ann DeGrimston, ex-wife of Robert DeGrimston. DeDrimston is notorious for founding and leading of The Process Church of The Final Judgment, an early offshoot of the Church of Scientology. (Ironically enough, one of the Process’ retreat centers in Arizona transformed into the Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit organization currently dedicated to animal rescue and welfare).

Robert DeGrimston pictured alongside Mary Tyler Moore in literature promoting the Process Church of the Final Judgment

Robert DeGrimston pictured alongside Mary Tyler Moore in literature promoting the Process Church of The Final Judgment

While very little is known about the Circe Order of Dog Blood, it has become something of a scapegoat for unsolved, gruesome crimes committed during the early 1970s. Author Bill Ellis mentions rumors of “Santa Cruz dog-skinners”, who may have been one and the same as the Order, or perhaps the infamous Four Pi Movement, a secret contingency within the Process. One inside source claimed of the Four Pi Movement that:

The ceremonies involved use of a portable crematorium to dispose of the bodies, a wooden altar adorned with dragons and a wooden morgue table. There were as many as forty people in attendance at these sacrifices. The instrument of sacrifice was a set of 6 knives welded into a football shaped holder. The heart was eaten…”

Ellis goes on to link the Four Pi Movement with:

…a group called “Kirke [or Circe] Order of Dog Blood.” This group allegedly met on the full and new moons on secluded beaches outside of Los Angeles to sacrifice black animals of all sorts, cats and dogs included.”

These organizations, including the Process and the Manson Family, are allegedly linked through this ritual of drinking animal blood. The Circe Order of Dog Blood, however, may have had the distinction of performing human sacrifice as well. According to Gorightly:

This mysterious ‘Circe’ also brought property adjacent to a location reported as being a site where satanic rituals involving human sacrifice were performed. In 1985, law enforcement officials dug up the site, discovering ritualistic paraphernalia, although no evidence of murder was uncovered. Shortly before the police raid, the occult shop in Toledo closed and ‘Circe’ disappeared.

And here, it seems, is where the trail dies. When it comes to scholarly discussion of Circe and her infamous Order, apparently speculation is the best one will find. Whether a sinister cadre that incinerated humans, skinned dogs, and drank blood, or just a suspicious organization with the misfortune of rubbing shoulders with the criminals involved in the Four Pi Movement and the Manson Family, the Circe Order of Dog Blood represents the horrifying fact that humans are capable of cooperating to commit acts of nearly unthinkable ruthlessness under the guise of religious ritual.

Some Further Reading:

A link to text from the book Raising the Devil by Bill Ellis, from which some of the above citations were taken

A blog with useful information about the mysterious Kirke

A site containing extensive writing about the Process Church of the Final Judgment

An article on Serial Killer Central about the Four Pi Movement

A 2008 article about a family dog in Springfield, MO that disappeared, only to be found with its skin and heart removed

An article exploring the Circe of Greek mythology

Here is an image that I couldn’t fit into this article, but I would like to share nonetheless. It shows a letter from Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard concerning the DeGrimstons:

sp-declare-grimston-grimsto

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