Alchemical Dreams and Art
(Silver Monkey in a Golden Cage)
For me, ‘alchemical dreams’ and art have always had a strong link. Sometimes I have dreams that feel heavily imbued with meaning. I think of these dreams as being particularly important and record them as soon as possible — before they are forgotten.
I call them ‘alchemical dreams.’ As an artist, these dreams are filled with incredibly rich symbolism which inspires my art.
How alchemical dreams inspire my art
I’ve been recording my dreams for a while. This helps me to really pay attention to my unconscious and to wait and see what it is trying to communicate.
The unconscious alchemical images that arise in dreams can influence not only one’s art but also one’s personal development in a powerful way.
And even though I still need to read through all my scribbled down dreams again, I have already been finding some odd patterns and recurring themes or images.
Although, some days I may be a little bit lazy, or I’m woken with loud noises (we live in a very noisy area close to a busy intersection), so I lose the dreams as soon as I wake up.
Sometimes I have so many dreams in one night, I don’t even know where to start recording them. It seems like too much work, or just too confusing, so I don’t even bother.
By the time my brain has gone into Beta state, or by midday, it’s almost impossible to remember the dreams. There seems to be a lot of periods of silence too, where I’m not really getting anything. Nothing earth-shattering. No amazing epiphanies.
I am aware of not trying to force the unconscious (which is impossible anyway). So I just need to be patient, but hold onto my earnest intention to let the unconscious know that I’m open and respectful.
In the same way, I’ve been keeping a sketchbook and recording many of my dream images, or just weird visions that last a second and seem to come out of nowhere. The drawings themselves are exploratory. I never know exactly where they’ll take me.
They usually begin with just a glimmer.
I’m not sure why, but I’ve been quite caught up in this weird drawing of a silver monkey in a gilded cage. It was a brief image from a dream I had.
Perhaps I’ll do an oil painting of it. But it’ll probably end up quite different from the sketchbook drawing.
What does the monkey represent in alchemical dreams and art?
Silver monkey, golden apple.
The monkey is reaching out through the bars of the cage, trying desperately to grab a golden apple. I’m not really sure what it all means.
And I also don’t want to reduce such a thing through the artificial lens of the ego — the calculating pilot of my daily worries and the getting-things-done/reduce-the-universe-to-digestible-chunks side of me, which sees things only through a keyhole — which I normally think of as ‘me’.
Sometimes, there is no need to attach meaning to things. Maybe it’s just the unconscious playing a foolish game with me as I indulge in the fluffy territory of the psychonaut dreamer.
Therefore, I’m still trying to balance the two. For both are biologically and spiritually vital — the ego and the non-ego or alter ego. I realised I don’t really have any formula or direction for this. I don’t really don’t know much. Perhaps I never will.
It doesn’t feel like the kind of knowledge that’s transferable. At least, not that I’m aware of. Humility seems to be the only means of keeping the observational facilities clear and authentic.
Ego inflation quickly muddies the communication from these deeper parts. So I’m becoming more sensitive or aware of ego-inflation in myself (I can’t seem to stop it) and in others everywhere. I’m casting all my idols onto the trash heap.
I’m aware of being severely triggered by any sort of spiritual guru/priest/academic/theologian etc. The instinct within me is repulsed by their intellectual narcissism. Whoever proclaims the way loudly is lying.
The inward journey is not easy. Of course, it’s not. And never has been. There are distractions everywhere. It’s a journey one has to take alone.
I’m leaving all voices, teachers, parents, priests, sages, Buddhas, internet gurus, at the antechamber before descending down into Dante’s Inferno of the self. I don’t know what the hell to expect.
There is an alchemical magic language written into the image of the silver monkey and golden cage. I tend to think of the monkey as myself in a way. Perhaps it is my repressed instincts.
Or my unconscious desires as I reach through the golden bars (a gilded cage is still a cage) towards the apple from the Garden of Paradise. Thoughts like these only come to me while I’m in the meditative act of drawing.
The drawing took several days before it felt ‘right’. I don’t know why or when the Ouroborus or 13-pointed star appeared. Mixing my own dry earth pigments with gum arabic to make watercolour, I then tried adding some chalk to make gouache.
I had sparkling hematite powder which I tried to mix with the pigments like mica. This experiment was only partially successful. The hematite sparkles only in certain directional light. Otherwise, it appears a bit gritty or dirty.
The monkey is such an expressive creature. We tend to find the dramas of monkeys a bit funny. Maybe because they remind us of us. With our laughable egos.
There’s also a distant evolutionary memory for us within the image of the monkey. Something perhaps a little tricksy, not quite trustworthy. The instincts perhaps? Do we regard our human/primitive instincts with suspicion in these modern times?
He looks annoyed or perhaps even sad as he reaches for the apple.
The apple is like a promise of something? Some sort of fulfilment. Some sort of wholeness, sacred knowledge, fertility, fruitfulness, perhaps even something sexual almost, but more than this, an awakening, a reward of some kind, a symbol of the Tree of Life.
The light of the sun? Something godly? The apple is both an object, but also a metaphorical symbol. It exists in both the material and spiritual worlds simultaneously.
Perhaps the monkey is even myself reaching for the fruit of the unconscious, but I just can’t reach it through any sort of willpower of my own. The unconscious mocks me. I’m just a willful, foolish monkey.
Though, why silver? The first thing that comes to mind, is the colour of moonlight. The unconscious yet again. Contemplation, imagination, or fantasy.
Through alchemy, silver (Argentum) is purified further into gold (Aurum). Or perhaps, the monkey is actually quicksilver. Mutable. Mercurial. Argentum Vivum.
If you really wish to know a person, there are two ways. Knowing their personal myth, (the story about themselves they tell themselves) and by following the trail of their libido. The libido is not merely sexuality (though it can be expressed as sexuality).
Rather it is the life-energy, their imagination, their fantasies and creativity. If you really listen to someone openly, they will usually tell you where their libido is going.
That will reveal their instincts, their desires and their goal-orientated behaviour, usually expressed in a healthy individual through their creativity and their personality.
Creativity is positive libido. And instinct is our pull towards life. From the moment we burst out crying at birth. The deep-seated, mysterious genetic programming of our species. We are both body and soul.
Instincts really form the basis for what people like to call archetypes. People like to talk a lot about archetypes these days, but that doesn’t hold much that is actually practical in one’s personal journey. To start from the beginning, one has to look to the instincts.
What are my instincts trying to tell me? What instincts are suppressed or repressed causing me to feel a bit cagey? Instincts arise from a place much deeper than the psyche. They begin within our animal natures, within our very genome.
Many people who are instinct-injured behaved as if they are caged animals. You can open the door of the cage, but they’ll just sit there. They don’t even know what freedom means anymore.
When a society or individual has suppressed its instincts and libido for long enough, all kinds of complexes, neurosis and pathologies arise. The libido can also become a negative sexual expression such as we so commonly see with the many gender issues we have today.
Instincts are not just natural reactions that we think of as being prevalent in animals. And that pertains only to animals.
This belief, which has persisted from the 19th Century, that only humans are conscious and have power over instincts, is pure human hubris. We now know several species of animal who show signs of being self-aware.
For a mother to suppress her maternal instincts, for example, or for humans to no longer avoid danger, or suddenly no longer have the instinct to reproduce, could mean the extinction of our species. (Perhaps scientists would just make genetic human clones augmented with A.I. with the way things are going anyway.)
So instincts are natural and vital.
The problem with instincts though is that they are really powerful. And they can blast you apart. Therefore, if there isn’t healthy communication between the ego and with the instincts, things can get really out of control.
Instincts that are allowed to run loose can cause all sorts of individual and social problems. The same applies to instincts that are heavily suppressed. It’s like trying to put a lid on a boiling pot.
So there has to be a dialogue. And this is why awareness of the self and inner work is so important. Because we have complex social structures and are socio-biological creatures.
Developing a strong ego is just as vital as integrating or paying attention to our unconscious selves.
The apple also reminds me of Newton’s apple, a symbol of gravity. The apple is drawing the monkey toward it like a magnet.
Magnets held a very spiritual significance for the alchemists. Compasses, gravitational forces (such as the earth, moon, sun, planets and stars) and magnetic north were of special symbolic significance for the alchemist’s journey.
The pull of the spiritual journey was represented as a magnetic force. With Mercurius/Hermes or Jesus Christ as a symbol of the self, the Holy has a direct magnetic influence upon us.
How strange that Mercury seems to attract gold like a magnetic force.
We are prone to thinking in our modern reductionist times of the alchemists as a bunch of old quacks. But the alchemists were really the forefathers of our scientific age. Newton himself was a prominent alchemist.
What differentiates scientists of today from the scientists of the past, is that the alchemists were fixated on searching for the spiritual in the material. They saw God’s glory and mystery within everything.
They spoke in a language of the unconscious. Where everything had multiple meanings, most of it couched in secret knowledge known only to the pilgrims who undertook the journey with reverence. (Read more on how the mysterious practice of alchemy continues to influence modern artists today.)
The Lapis Philosophorum (or Philosopher’s Stone) was such a symbol of the union of the spiritual with the material.
The stone of life, which transmuted that which is base, prima materia (first matter), associated with chaos, into gold, purity, enlightenment, union with God.
Compare that with the nihilistic view scientists have of the universe today.
I would say we have lost, rather than gained.
…And as to the people, they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them.” — Plato, in Protagoras.
To us, we see only a lonely planet adrift (by mere crazy chance) in empty space with nuclear-fueled stars like little pinpricks of meaningless nothingness.
To the alchemists, the planets and stars were alive with influences and meaning. They saw them as living gods and angels. It’s also quite nice to have a sky. Otherwise, we would just be two-dimensional.
And my monkey drawing finds it very frustrating to be two-dimensional. He wants to get out.
In case you missed it, check out How to Create More Meaningful Art — Part 1 on habits I’ve been trying to stick to in my deepening quest to create more meaningful art.
Thanks for reading, and please send me your thoughts below…