The Hierosgamos Theme in the Images of the Rosarium Philosophorum

by Karen-Claire Voss

This paper was first presented at a conference on alchemy at the University of Groningen and later published as "The Hierosgamos Theme in the Images of the Rosarium philosophorum," in Alchemy Revisited: Proceedings of the International Conference on the History of Alchemy at the University of Groningen, 17-19 April 1989, ed. by Z.R.W.M. von Martels.  E.J. Brill:  Leiden, 1990.

Both the texts and the iconography of the alchemical tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are filled with allusions to ‘the chymical marriage,’ [1] and some of the most beautiful and compelling images in the texts depict the conjunction of opposites as a royal marriage. [2] These descriptions and images occur with sufficient frequency to warrant comparison with the hierosgamos (sacred marriage), as understood in the discipline of history of religions.

The present analysis makes use of examples from the Rosarium philosophorum, first published in 1550, [3] which contains a number of memorable pictorial images of two lovers embracing.  The very title of this text turns out to point us in the right direction, for in the light of the history of religions, the word rosarium (‘rosary,’ in English) immediately evokes a cluster of symbols which are all associated with the hierosgamos theme – for example, the enclosed garden of the Virgin Mary and the taming of the unicorn by the virgin. [4] Thanks to the title of this work, we encounter the idea of the hierosgamos even before we embark on a hermeneutical discussion of the images that the work contains.

The Hierosgamos in the History of Religions

The term hierosgamos is used generally to refer to the union between two divinities, or between a human being and a god or goddess, or between two human beings (under certain special conditions); more particularly, it is used to refer to the ritualized, public sexual union between the king and a hierodule (‘sacred prostitute’) in ancient Mesopotamia. [5]   This union was accompanied by the belief that the human partners became divine by virtue of their participation in it.  It was thought, for example, that the priestess who took part in this ritual became the goddess Inanna in the same way as ordinary bread and wine are thought to become the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist.  Both ritual forms entail regeneration and transformation; in Mesopotamia, the hierosgamos was thought to insure the well-being of the king, the prosperity of the people, and the continued fertility of the land. [6]

The belief that human beings could participate in the ontological condition of divinity through sexual union, through the body, is exceedingly ancient, but the hierosgamos is not merely an important element in an archaic religious tradition.  It is also exceedingly persistent And, in my view, its persistence indicates more than a merely superficial connection between its manifestations in the ancient Near East and in the West; it has become associated with a spectrum of symbolic meanings so rich and compelling that they continue to reassert themselves over and over again.  Although the hierosgamos did not find its way into the official teachings of Christianity, for example, it is present nonetheless in the symbolism of Mary as the Bride of Christ.  [7]

The major difference between the significance of the hierosgamos in the ancient Near East and the Christian West is that its expression in the former context was bound up with an explicit, embodied praxis that necessitated ritual sexual union.  This gives rise to certain hermeneutical difficulties.  Scholars of religion sometimes deny or ignore the presence of the hierosgamos idea, or pronounce its use as a conceptual category invalid. [8] Even those who do recognize its presence may yield to the prevailing wisdom that encourages the substitution of a part for the whole, and thus interpret the hierosgamos according to an allegedly higher, spiritualized ideal, having nothing to do with the body. [9] Analogous interpretations are offered for the hierosgamos theme in alchemical texts.  Yet, many of the alchemists appear to have undergone a complex experience involving mutual reciprocity between the events in the laboratory and within themselves of a kind that harkens back to, and carries forward, the imprint of a religious tradition that combined physical and spiritual levels of transformation. [10]

It seems to me that there is a core of meanings associated with the hierosgamos that have persisted cross-culturally.  If anything, the symbolism became enriched by the addition of Christian doctrines, especially that of the Incarnation, which signified the union of human and divine.  I note too the fact that many alchemical texts like the Rosarium insist on the interrelatedness of body and spirit.  It would appear therefore that in seeking the ‘conjunction of opposites’ the alchemists were attempting to overturn the conventional conceptual dichotomization between spirit and body, and to offer in its place models that reflected their intuitions of ontological wholeness.  Therefore, when interpreting the hierosgamos theme in the context of the alchemical tradition we should keep in mind the fact that it is generally meant to include the body; it signifies not only idealiter but also realiter. [11] An adequate hermeneutics of alchemical iconography can do justice to the multivalence of the hierosgamos images in texts like the Rosarium only by seeking to encompass the totality of their symbolic meanings.

The Rosarium philosophorum contains twenty-one images, fifteen exhibit the hierosgamos in more or less explcit form; three others contain it implicitly. [12] I want to comment on those images that are both representative and significant.  [13]

Figure 1 shows a fountain fitted with three spigots.  The waters are the key to unlocking the meaning of this image, for the text explains that the waters flowing from each are really a single water --‘of which and with which our magistery is effected.'  The three waters evoke a hierogamy described in the Enuma Eliş, a Mesopotamian creation myth from around 1900 b.c.e., which relates how the primordial waters of Tiamat, ‘she who bore them all,’ and Apsu, ‘their begetter . . . commingle as a single body,’ and thus become the sole matrix from which everything emerges. [14] The verse accompanying the figure heightens the correspondence between the alchemical fountain and the hierogamy that produced all life:  ‘We (waters) are the metal’s first nature and only source; the highest tincture of the Art is made through us.’ 

In Figure 2 we see a king and queen dressed in elaborate robes.  Each holds a stalk ending in two flowers.  He stands upon the sun, she on the crescent moon.  Although their separateness is symbolically emphasized, they clasp hands as if to prefigure the ‘chymical marriage.’ A dove -- at once a mediating symbol as well as a further link with the hierosgamos, since it was associated both with Eros and with the powerful female divinities of the ancient Near East [15] --is shown hovering above them, holding its own stalk which perfectly intersects the cross formed by those held by the king and queen. 

In Figure 3 the pair is naked; but, still wearing separate crowns, they proffer to one another a flower on a long stalk.  The banner over the king's head reads:  'O Luna, let me be thy husband'; the one over the queen's reads:  'O Sol, I must submit to thee.'  Once more, the dove appears between them, a flower in its beak.

In Figure 5, we see the king and queen in sexual embrace. 

Figures 6-9 show the king and queen in hermaphroditic form, indicating succes­sively deepening levels of conjunction, and depict them lying in a sepulcher.  Their bodies are joined; they have two heads, but now wear a single crown. 

Figure 11 is explicitly sexual.  The king and queen, each winged, wear two crowns, and are submerged in water.  Their limbs are entwined; her hand grasps his phallus; his left hand fondles the nipple of her breast; his right is under her neck, supporting her. 

Figure 17 depicts the product of the union between the alchemical opposites in the form of the Hermetic androgyne. [16] This offspring is not simply the end result of the marriage of oppo­sites. 

Figure 18 shows the lion eating the sun.  It is itself an implicit hierogamy because it is not fully differentiated from its parents, and continues to participate in its hierogamic beginnings.

Figure 19 provides an excellent example of the occasional coalescence of alchemical symbols and Christian symbols.  Mary is in the center, flanked by the Father and the Son who are about to crown her.  The Holy Spirit--in the form of a dove--hovers above.  In the background appear the words Tria and Unum.  This image clearly contains a rich variety of hierogamic themes.  First, there is the symbolic similarity between the three waters of the alchemical foundation we saw in Figure 1 and the Trinity.  Second, the Incarnation of God the Son was made possible by a hierogamy between Mary and the third person of the Trinity.  Third, the Incarnation of the Son entails an ontological condition of simultaneous humanity and divinity--a profound manifestation of hierogamy. [17] Like the marriage between the al­chemical opposites, all these unions require mediation.  In the alchemical marriage, this function is often performed by Mercurius, whom Jung calls a ‘mediating symbol par excellence’; [18] in the Rosarium, however, we have already seen the dove in the role of mediator.  In this figure we see it in that role too, poised above the crown that the Father and Son are about to place on Mary's head; it is now associated with the third person of the Trinity.  The fact that the dove was a symbolic attribute of the female divinities of the ancient near east underscores the con­clusion that Figure 19 is also a hierogamic image, albeit in Christianized form. 

Figure 20, the last image in the series, depicts the risen Christ.  In his left hand, he holds a banner marked with a cross; his right gestures toward the now empty sepulchre.  That sepulchre unmistakably indicates that the completed alchemical process has involved the transformation, not the transcendence, of the body.  For if the alchemical work neces­sitated the transcendence of the body, one would not expect to find an empty tomb, but a tomb filled with the putrefying remains of the king and queen.  Instead, we see the risen Christ, the embodiment of the hierogamic union between human and divine.  In the view of the alchemist who wrote the Rosarium Philosophorum, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body signified, not the suppression, or even the transcendence, of the physical body, but its glorification and perfection. [19]

Hierogamic Images as Metaphor and Symbol in Alchemy

It is not surprising that the author of the Rosarium Philosophorum chose images of the hierosgamos to help convey something of the exquisitely subtle reciprocity invoked in the alchemical coniunctio.  The hierosgamos images of alchemy are profoundly eloquent expressions of the experience of the true adepts as they moved through the later stages of the work.  For those alchemists, all the elements of ordinary experience were sacralized.  The Philosopher’s Stone could be found everywhere; it was ‘walked on, children play with it’; it is familiar to all (people) both young and old, is found in the country, in the village, in the town. [20]

Perhaps we are still capable of learning from the alchemists that what transforms common substance, that which is familiar to all, is no more – and no less – than a deeper apprehension of the significance of the Hermetic motto:  ‘What is above is just as what is below.’  This motto, so often quoted and equally often misunderstood, requires that we understand the radical implications of a ‘whole from which nothing is excluded.’ [21]

I am grateful to Antoine Faivre for his invaluable advice to me about this paper in particular and about matters Hermetic in general, and for reading and commenting on an earlier draft.  Thanks to Richard Payne for his suggestions and also to Stephen Voss for his patient willingness to discuss the paper at various stages of its preparation  Acknowledgement is gratefully made to the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, for making the resources of their library in San Jose, California, available to an outsider, and to Clara Campbell, Research Librarian there, for her assistance, as well as to the reference staff at Clark Library, San Jose State University.  Finally, my thanks to Dean Crane and Professors Rex Burbank and J.Benton White of San Jose State University, who provided financial support.

[1]   C. Rosenkreutz, ‘The Hermetick Romance, or the Chymical Wedding,’ A Christan Rosenkreutz Anthology, ed. P.M.Allen, New York 1968, pp. 67-162.

[2]   For example, Michael Maier gives a description of a royal marriage intended to allegorize the conjunction of alchemical opposites in ‘A Subtle Allegory Concerning the Secrets of Alchemy,’ in The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged, ed. and trans. A.E. Waite, London 1893, vol. II, pp. 199-223, and H. Madathanas provides a remarkable alchemical exegesis of the Song of Songs in ‘The Golden Age Restored’ (Waite, op.cit., vol. I, pp. 51-69.  M. Eliade offers an analysis of the relationship between the rites associated with metallurgy and the alchemists as creators, along with an examination of the implications of a ‘world sexualized,’ in The Forge and the Crucible, trans. S. Corrin, New York 1962.  Maier’s ‘Atalanta fugiens’ is illustrated and discussed along with similar texts in S.  Klossowski de Rola’s The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century, New York 1988.  J. Telle discusses the alchemical opposites at length in Sol und Luna.  Literar- und alchemiegeschichtliche Studien zu einem altdeutschen Bildgedicht, (Schriften zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 2), Hürtgenwald 1980, which includes sixty illustrations.  The hierosgamos theme is found in the plastic arts, too.  See S. Taylor, ‘A Pair of Alchemical Ivory Figures,’ Ambix 4 (1949), pp. 77-8.  The present paper is part of a more comprehensive work in progress that will survey hierogamic images from a representative number of alchemical works from the sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries.

[3]   The first printed edition of the Rosarium philosophorum was published in De alchimia opuscula complura veterum philosophorum, vol. II, Frankfurt 1550.  See J. Telle, op. cit. n. 2, pp. 7-8, 45, et passim, for complete bibliographic information about manuscript copies and printed editions of the Rosarium.  See also the entry Rosarium philosophorum in J.F. Ferguson, Bibliotheca Chemica.  A Catalogue of the Alchemical, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Books in the Collection of the Late James Young of Kelly and Durris, 2 vols., Glasgow, 1906.   

[4]   These complex connections have not yet been systematically articulated.  However, the hierogamic connotations of the central prayer of the rosary should not be overlooked:  ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’  The rose itself has been associated with erotico-mythical themes (and female divinities) from the earliest times, and became one of the major symbolic attributes of Mary.  It has been featured in the Song of Songs, Dante’s Paradiso, and the Roman de la Rose, as well as in the literature of courtly love.  See M. Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, New York 1976, pp. 305-9 et passim.  The thematic links between the idea of the hierosgamos and the virgin and the unicorn are discussed in O. Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn, New York 1982, pp. 41-69 et passim.   

[5] See F. Apfell Marglin, s.v. ‘Hieroduleia,’ And K.W. Bolles, s.v. ‘Hieros Gamos,’ in vol. VI of The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade, et al., New York 1987, and S.N. Kramer, ‘Cuneiform Studies and the History of Literature: The Sumerian Sacred Marriage Texts,’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963), pp. 485-527.

[6] S.N. Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth, and Ritual in Ancient Sumer, Bloomington 1969, pp. 49-66.  For a discussion of the relationship between the corporeal elements of sacraments and the meaning of the sacraments themselves see P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, III, Chicago 1963, pp. 122-3.

[7] The appearance of the hierosgamos idea is not confined to Christianity, but appears also in Judaism.  For example, the Sabbath is frequently thought of (and prepared for) as though a bride, and the relation between human and divine is often described in erotic terms, especially in the context of Jewish mysticism.  See for example a description of prayer as analogous to the ‘coupling’ between a man and a woman in M. Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, ed. and trans. M. Friedman, New York 1966, pp. 196-7, and the discussion on erotic imagery employed by one Jewish mystic in M. Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, trans. J. Chipman, New York 1988, pp. 179-227.

[8] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane; an Inquiry into Some Varieties of Praeter-natural Experience, Oxford 1957, pp. 119,20.

[9] See N.O. Brown’s comment on the mystical body in Love’s Body, New York 1966, p. 83, and I. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York 1983.

[10] On the reciprocal relations between the alchemists and their physical environment see M.L. von Franz, ‘The Idea of the Macro- and Microcosmos in the Light of Jungian Philosophy,’ Ambix 13 (1965), pp. 22-34, and K. Voss, ‘Aspects of Medieval Alchemy: Cosmogony, Ontology, and Transformation,’ unpublished M.A. thesis, San Jose State University, 1983.

[11] P. Deghaeye, Realiter und idealiter.  Zum Symbolbegriff bei Friedrich Christoph Oetinger’, Pietismus und Neuzeit.  Ein Jahrbuch zur Geschichte des neueren Protestantismus.  Band 10 (1984).  Schwerpunkt: Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, eds. M. Brecht, F. de Boor, et al., Göttingen 1984, pp. 66-89.

[12] I am grateful to Adam McLean for permission to reproduce (in the printed version of this paper) his arrangement of the illustrations from the Rosarium (see p. 150) that appear in The Rosary of the Philosophers, ed. with a commentary by Adam McLean, Edinburgh 1980. Although Telle, op. cit. n. 2, pp. 211-32, reproduces twenty-one images (the first appearing on the title page of the 1550 edition), McLean reproduces only the twenty accompanying the text. Since McLean's arrangement of twenty images appears here, my references here employ the numbers that he has assigned to them. Subsequent to the publication of this paper McLean created a website devoted to the literature, images, and music of the alchemical tradition and has kindly given permission to use his hand painted images to illustrate the web version. See http:/

[13] Jung pronounces these images the ‘most complete and simplest illustration’ of the importance of the hierosgamos in the alchemical process, and compares their symbolism to the phenomenon of the transference in The Collected Works. XVI: The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and Other Subjects, (Bollingen Series, XX), trans. R.F.C. Hull, sec. Ed. Princeton 1966, p. 200.

[14] J.B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton 1950, pp. 60-72, and K.Voss, ‘From Chaos to Cosmos: An Analysis of the ‘Enuma Eliş’, presented at the American Academy of Religions national meeting in Chicago, November 1984.

[15] For a brief but illuminating discussion of the symbolism of birds see Manabu Waida, ‘Birds’, The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade, et al., New York 1987, vol. II, pp. 224-7 and especially the reference to doves, p. 225.  I note the inconsistency between Jung’s statement that the dove in the Rosarium means that the union between the king and queen ‘is supposed to be a union in the spirit’ and his accompanying footnote which explains that the dove in the ancient Near East was associated symbolically with erotic love and female divinities like Inanna in Psychology of Transference, op. cit. n. 13, p. 238.

[16] See J. Libis, et al. (eds.), L’Androgyne, (Cahiers de L’Hermetisme), Paris 1986.

[17] Steinberg, op.cit. n. 9, p. 17, comments: ‘The English word “humanation”, obsolete since it was ousted in the seventeenth century by “incarnation”, deserves a place in the active vocabulary; it has at least some of the force of the German ‘Menschwerdung’.

[18] C.G. Jung, The Collected Works. XIV: Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Oppositions in Alchemy, trans. R.F.C. Hull, (Bollingen Series, XX), first ed. 1963, sec. Ed. Princeton 1970, p. 43.

[19] A. Faivre has pointed out to me that Romans 8:21-23 appears to offer justification for an optimistic view of the potentialities of nature, and thus for my interpretation of this image.  It is a view that seems to have been shared by the author of the Rosarium.  Festugiere’s articulation of a pessimist and an optimist gnosis that he sees in the hermetic writers may be of help in understanding alchemical writers.  See A.J. Festugiere, La revelation d’Hermes Trismégiste, 4 vols., sec. Ed. Paris 1950-1954; see vol. I, p. 84 and vol. II, pp. x-xi.

[20] See M. Maier, ‘A Subtle Allegory’ in Waite (ed.), op. cit. n. 2, vol. I, p. 180.

[21] From F. Akkerman’s description of the humanistic worldview in his lecture, ‘Early Humanism in Groningen’ presented in Garnwerd as part of the proceedings of the Alchemy Conference, University of Groningen, April 1989.