The Secrets of Alchemical Transformation
By Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D.
I find it rare to encounter a book that’s both scholarly and profound, but I must include Embodying Osiris by Thom Cavalli in both those categories.
Obviously a seasoned student of the Jungian tradition, Dr. Cavalli dissects the Osiris myth in great detail and takes a close look at the alchemical significance of this important story. We become familiar with the gods and goddesses who are the characters in the drama, and we learn their deep meanings in relation to the human psyche.
Ancient Egypt and its deities are shown to be a reflection of not only the entire cosmos, but of our most internal psychological workings. In a way, the Osiris tale of birth, dismemberment, death, and resurrection is a tale of the possibility for the human being played out through the unconscious realm.
It is a metaphor incorporating “the alchemical methods involved in transforming living spirit into physical matter.” As such, Cavalli interprets the life of Osiris as being a representation of the three major alchemical stages: the nigredo (black), the albedo (white), and the rubedo (red). In fact, an alternate title for the book could have been the title of his second chapter: “Alchemy, Magic, and Osiris.”
Cavalli equates the Egyptian underworld with today’s idea of the unconscious. He tells us right up front that our “imagination allows us to experience Egypt and its gods as states of mind and psychic functions rather than well-developed gods whose identities were defined by more recent cultures.”
“Egypt,” he says, “is located somewhere between imagination and mystery.”
In the first two chapters of the book, we get a general overview of why the myth was important to the Egyptians and why it should be important to us. In order to really receive its truths, the author implores us to “embody” the god, not just study him, because “Osiris is the god of being and becoming.” He exists in the unconscious, and our task is to resurrect him.
Resurrection in that sense is a “method of achieving unity of body, mind, and spirit.” And, in order to do that, we must first, as with the gods, “step into the abyss of nonexistence.” One technique to accomplish this, and perhaps the most powerful technique, is to bring the warring opposites within us to peaceful resolution. Not at all an easy task.
In chapters three through ten, Dr. Cavalli quotes successive portions of a version of the myth and proceeds to analyse them in Jungian, archetypal terms. We come to see Osiris as the past and his son, Horus, as the future; Seth as the divine trickster, black magician, and alchemist who sets up the conditions of the physical world in which the magic can take place; Thoth as the magician who conjoins the opposites; Isis as the mother goddess, the feminine principle which furthers inner transformation; and so on with each of the Neters. In a nutshell, and to use agricultural growth as a metaphor, Osiris is the seed, Isis the earth in which the seed is planted, Seth the heat of the sun necessary for germination, and Horus the resulting, growing plant.
The story highlights successive battles between the protagonists “resulting in critical separation that helped form a psyche composed of consciousness and unconsciousness.” The goal, of course, is individuation, both of a culture and of individuals within the culture.
Reference to the action of lead in the alchemical process is likened to tribulations in this life. But, those difficulties must be recognised as the limiting, constricting forces against which we must struggle. Cavalli tells us that only, “Through conscious suffering, one confronts and transforms the shadow into something productive to the individuation process.”
The sealed coffin or box in which Osiris is put represents, of course, the alchemical retort, the vas hermeticum, our own body within which our transformation can take place. Cavalli says, “The box is sometimes depicted as a skull or vas mentalis, where the chief elements and stages of the Work are insulated from outside contamination.”
Throughout the text, Cavalli gives us anonymous examples of the reintegration process in patients he has treated, and this serves to make the myth even more real and relevant. He gives us hope by stating, “To experience a complete transformation of the personality within one’s lifetime is entirely possible.”
There are times in life when, as with Osiris in his coffin, we are alone, denied, cut off from the world of family and friends. All may seem lost. “But”, Cavalli concludes, “as long as we are aware of our own presence, hope remains, and at our darkest hour, some mysterious force in the universe comes to our side…. Fearless humility is a necessary quality, along with stillness, to allow grace to enter the vessel we have prepared.”
This book, in my opinion, is a valuable contribution to the body of literature concerned with work on oneself. It is in the finest of the Hermetic traditions. I recommend it to those who are interested in both the theory and practice of self-transformation.
– Reviewed by Alan Glassman in New Dawn 125