One of the keys to thinking about legends and myths is paying attention to the sequence in which things happen. The sequence of events is most revealing to the level of consciousness called by Carl Jung “symbolic” and by Rudolf Steiner “Imagination.” To an alchemist the imaginative or imaginal thinking is a way of understanding complex image sequences in which symbols unfold in a pattern of encrypted events which themselves are the real message of the legend. An excellent example of the imaginal sequencing consciousness that carries the symbolic or encrypted “message” is the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. To “see” this story imaginally it is necessary to employ a type of “rosetta stone” for alchemists. This decoding device is known as the alchemical mandala. In the mandala an alchemist has a blueprint for understanding symbolic messages on many different levels of meaning simultaneously.
Fundamentally, the mandala has four stages of development that are symbolic of all changes in all systems. The earth stage is the stage in which the question is earthed or grounded and many different facts arise. The alchemical quality of the earth is “dust” that is, the phenomenon appears as so many different pieces without any unification. The water stage is when the question is changed in some way and the task is modified by the flow of circumstances. In the water level changes arise which must be dealt with as the dust of the earth stage begins to transform into viable patterns. Here the dusty non-relational aspect of the study begins to become integrated according to previously hidden patterns. In the air stage the changes in the pattern become so great that the question reverses itself. With this reversal the situation and the understanding often runs opposite from its original parameters. It is usually during this stage that insight appears which leads to the fire stage. In the fire stage the question has evolved into insight into larger more integrated systems in processes of understanding that happen above logic structures. These four questions constitute the alchemical mandala. In a story these levels symbolize the process through which the hero or heroine is traveling. In all archetypal or symbolic systems these themes are present as the hidden force that moves the story along. As the plot moves from earth, to water, air and fire any number of permutations may arise but a skillful eye cast towards the mandalic, symbolic consciousness can follow the most complex thread with insight.
Using this four step elemental mandala let’s look at the story of Jonah. Jonah was approached by the Lord and given a task to go to Nineveh and cry against it as a representative of the way of the Lord. Jonah was given a distinct task that grounded him into a commitment. This is earth. Jonah immediately feared that this would be not in his best interest so he attempted to go to the air level and move in exactly the reverse direction from Nineveh. It is not often successful to skip from earth to air so Jonah violated the protocol of the mandala. This was a foreboding of trouble. He went to a group of sailors and booked a place in a boat to Tarshish. The boat in the water is a symbolic image of the body. A boat is the physical earth set onto the water. It is a little earth in the vast sea of the waters of life. Here was Jonah in a little earth on the great water trying to get to the stage of air. He wished to reverse the Lord’s assignment. In a fitting gesture the Lord sent the air as a great wind against Jonah and the sailors were distressed and each called out to his god and they cast the stores that were in the ship into the sea. These are images of earth, different gods and material goods; the “dust” and chaos of life. In all of this turmoil Jonah went below decks and fell asleep. This is an image of the alchemist entering into the subconscious / unconscious life of instinct. In sleep, there is a separation of the forces of unconscious life on one side from the awareness capacities of the soul on the other. Our living body composed of earth and water alchemically, is in the bed while our awake consciousness is in the dream world having adventures. Jonah has chosen to move into his higher self and leave his earth and water consciousness below decks. He sees no reason to pray and no reason to meditate.
The captain of the ship found him sleeping in these dire straits and asked him to arise and pray to his God to deliver them. The captain, the thinking head, wakens the sleeper to prayer since the elements of wind and water are threatening the integrity of the physical body (the ship). This, in the language of the twelve steps program is the first step, the realization that there is a problem. In their terror the other men cast lots to see who was the cause of the dilemma. The lot fell to Jonah. In this gesture the unconscious is tapped to see if any remedy can be found through divination. This is the most typical response of a consciousness that has not yet found any higher vision. It is a magical response of a consciousness that has no access to the day awake capacity of reason. Alchemically the casting of lots is the equivalent to the water consciousness in which the forces of life ultimately dissolve problems. The consciousness of divination is not yet air because divination is not self consciousness. For self consciousness to arise the diviner must accept that the watery divination process itself must be reversed into the awake state. Decisions need to develop within the human soul and not occur outside of the soul in the realm of chance.
Once the sailors found out that Jonah was the one with whom God was displeased they reverted to earth mode and asked him all kinds of questions about his livelihood and his origins. They were looking for details, a characteristic of earth mode of consciousness. Jonah moved from earth to water through the reversal of air and admitted that he was to blame. Through this admission Jonah has had a reversal and has moved through air into fire. His fortunes have reversed, and he now sees the whole situation with the enlightened eye of the meditating soul. In this higher consciousness his moral forces come to the fore from his True Self and he instructs the sailors to throw him overboard, which they do after first trying one last time to row to shore inspired by his selflessness. Failing this, Johah was cast overboard, and the sea was calmed. The agitated life forces of the water level of consciousness have been healed by the presence of moral insight. The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah and he was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights.
This is a picture of an initiation process or temple sleep in which the spiritual pilgrim is immersed in his or her own physical and life bodies for three days and nights as if they were in a coffin. During this ritual internment, the day awake or rational consciousness is freed from the earth and water elements and travels through a reversal of consciousness through the awake state into the higher realms where it meets and witnesses the True Self. The purpose of this ancient ritual was to give the seeker a taste of what it would be like to live a life free of the pulls of the habits and urges in the earth and water realms of the soul. Jonah has been given this insight because he already had a moral imagination of what was proper to do on the ship. This moral imagination has freed him from urges and drives which keep him chained to the physical and life bodies. By showing that he was not afraid of death, he has died to self and was born into the True Self. In this enlightened state Jonah prayed to his God from out of the belly of the fish. Even though he was cast out of sight of the world he still was in the presence of the Lord. The depths closed around him and he traveled to the bottoms of the mountains in the belly of the fish. Then Jonah said a curious thing. ch2 v7 “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee into thine holy temple.” Here Jonah has left the day awake consciousness with its reversals of logic and reason and entered into the high holy of holies, the “I” being or the True Self. To the uninitiated he has fainted but curiously he can remember the Lord in his faint. This is what the yogis call samadhi. In this high unconscious / super-conscious state Jonah made a resolve to honor his vow to the Lord and go to Nineveh. With that resolve fortunes once again reversed and the Lord commanded the fish to vomit out Jonah upon dry land. Once again he is back on earth. He has moved through one mandalic cycle.
For the second time the Lord commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to the people about repentance. Once again Jonah was on a three day’s journey to Nineveh. Once again we have an initiation process being described. This time however Jonah entered into the city after only one day. Is this a mistake? We hear that the city is three days journey and then we hear in the next sentence that Jonah was there in one day. Obviously this is not your run of the mill city. Jonah now has new capacities for traveling though this land on the other side of the day awake consciousness. After one day Jonah began preaching to the King of Nineveh who instantly was converted. Nothing is impossible with the Lord. The city was saved due to the timely repentance of the people. And God saw the turning of the hearts of the people of Nineveh and repented of His own plans to destroy the city and left it intact.
This greatly displeased Jonah. He was vexed with God because he says that he already knew when God asked him the first time to go to Nineveh that the Lord, being gracious, would not destroy the city. Jonah is now under the spell of the reversal process in the air or desire body of the soul. Everything is reversing. Using his day awake consciousness, Jonah explained his anger by making rationalizations with his intellect. He has come down from his moral perspective in the True Self and is now hair splitting like any other human. God asked him if his anger was really appropriate but Jonah stormed out of the city and made a booth on the east side and sat there in the sun. The east is the direction of insight. Jonah here is sitting in the initiation place where he can receive enlightenment but unfortunately he is angry. He is stuck in his air/desire body full of reversals. In this state Jonah asked God to take his life because he was so angry. God then asked him if his anger does him well. How can we understand this anger?
We have seen where Johah had gotten into the spiritual world and then returned back into the day awake consciousness of the desire body where he was agitated. Imagine that you had just experienced yourself as a shining immortal being living in the spiritual light and now you suddenly find yourself back here on earth living in the awake state among the detritus of the world. You might be angry. This is a picture of the fruits of the initiation process called the separation of the bodies. While in the fish, Jonah’s normal thinking and feeling and willing were separated and his inner life was given over to the service of God. He was clear seeing in the spirit. With this initiation complete he was vomited back into life. But his learning must not stop. Now that he has been to the temple he must bring what he learned back into his life on earth and serve others with his knowledge.
So we find him outside Nineveh watching to see if his anger will influence the Lord. When this didn’t happen Jonah became incensed and demanded that God kill him to put him out of his misery. His misery was not being in control of destiny. Even though initiated, Jonah still has control issues. He has fallen back into his desire body and cannot see his True Self. Jonah needs a deeper initiation. He must enter consciously into his life body the source of drives and urges.
God made a gourd vine grow in the soil next to Jonah’s hut. The vine grew up in one day and shaded the hut protecting Jonah from the sun and from his grief. Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. This is a picture of the adept who gains conscious entrance into the life forces.
In alchemy the plant and its rampant growth is an image of the abundant life forces. Gourds have growth forces in abundance. The Lord uses the gourd as a signal to Jonah that he must now consciously enter into his own life forces. This is a higher state of initiation. This is not as easy as it sounds. For most persons it is relatively common to be able to transform the desire forces. All we have to do is experience pain and suffering. When, through pain, we make a resolve to do something better in our lives, that is an initiation which makes changes in our desire body. To speak in biblical terms when in our suffering we pray to the Lord to lift our burden, the Lord expects that we will attain metanoia we will change our thinking. When we change something in our personality we transform desire. The transformed desire becomes ardor or passion for doing the good, the will of the Lord.
In the case of the life forces the transformation is not so much applicable to the desire life but to the deeper and more unconscious life of urges and drives which lie at the root of habits. These are connected to endocrine pathways and to deep life patterns of digestion, assimilation and reproduction, in a word satisfaction. Changing a desire is difficult but changing a habit that gives us satisfaction can drive a person to distraction. The habit is a much more deeply seated pattern. It cannot be transformed by the day awake consciousness. It can only be worked with by witnessing that we are helpless in the face of the problem. This is the second step in the twelve step program. “I am powerless to change.” The third step is “I give my problem to a higher power.” To do this I must enter into a deep reflection on my powerlessness to overcome the deep urges in the body that were developed by my own weakness. This initiation is known as the entrance into the body of life forces. This is the higher initiation level of the water. It comes after the temple sleep helps us to see that we are immortal beings who must work to redeem what we have included by default into the body of flesh which we received from the Creator.
God grew the gourd that shaded Jonah. This was very pleasing to Jonah. Then the next day God prepared a worm to eat the vine and the vine withered and Jonah was left again in the blazing sun. The sun beat on Jonah and once again he asked God to take his life. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God asked him “Jonah doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” and Jonah answered, “I do well to be angry even unto death.” God then asked him if it was worth dying for a gourd. God is asking Jonah a mystery question that translated into mystery language is something like, Is being in control of life more important than aspiring to eternal life? God told Jonah that he (Jonah) didn’t plant the gourd nor tend it and it only lived for one day. Through this dialogue God is asking Jonah, Can you see into the possibility of redemption or must you feel like you are responsible for all things? Finally, the Lord asked Jonah, If you see the possibility of redemption and giving your problem to a higher power why should I not save Nineveh which is full of people who cannot solve their problems either?
The entrance into the life forces through initiation is symbolized by the growing and decaying of the gourd. It is a high level of initiation in which an alchemist must own the shadow forces present in his or her soul and admit to being powerless without the help of the spiritual worlds. This insight brings the simultaneous perception of the possibility of redemption of the soul and the probability of the eternal existence of the human spirit beyond the grave.