Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Language of Birds & the Alchemy of Love: The Music Box

Still Life With Music Box - digital - © 2016, DS
Note: The original image posted here has been replaced with the most current version.
(Click on any image this post to enlarge.)

"At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence. Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebus, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in deep Tartarus with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light. That of the Immortals did not exist until Eros had brought together all the ingredients of the world, and from their marriage Heaven, Ocean, Earth and the imperishable race of blessed gods sprang into being. Thus our origin is very much older than that of the dwellers in Olympus. We are the offspring of Eros; there are a thousand proofs to show it. We have wings and we lend assistance to lovers."

- Excerpt from "The Birds,"  a comedy by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, 414 BC, found here.

"... This thought leads to another, which takes us into unexplored and perhaps unexplorable regions of Greek religious history. The chief claim made in Pithetaerus's preposterous speech to the Birds is, after all, partly true. The Birds were objects of worship to the Minoans and the early inhabitants of Greece before Zeus and his Olympian commando descended upon the peninsula. Birds were not gods; Pithetaerus does not quite say they were. Yet the bird perched on the sacred Double Axe or the pillar-tree was the Numen of the axe or the tree. The Minoans believed, as Nilson says, that the gods - or, to put it more exactly, the divine power - appeared in the form of birds. Again, the most important and wide-spread method of communication with the divine power was by augury. The birds knew the weather; they knew when good luck or bad was to be expected; they gave clear warning of the future to those who could read their messages. Could they have known what was coming so well unless indeed it was partly they who made it come? "

- Gilbert Murray from the introduction to his translation of Aristophanes' "The Birds,1950.

"Sometimes mythological birds create more than the physical world. Cultures in northern Europe and Asia credited birds with establishing their social orders, especially kingships. A golden-winged eagle was said to have put the first Mongol emperor on his throne. The Japanese believed that sacred birds guided their second emperor in conquering his enemies before the founding of his dynasty. The Magyar people claimed that a giant eagle, falcon, or hawk had led their first king into Hungary, where he founded their nation. The Magyars looked upon this bird as their mythical ancestor...

Many myths have linked birds to the arrival of life or death. With their power of flight, these winged creatures were seen as carriers or symbols of the human soul, or as the soul itself, flying heavenward after a person died. A bird may represent both the soul of the dead and a deity at the same time. Some cultures have associated birds with birth, claiming that a person’s soul arrived on earth in bird form."

-  From Mantrik Garudika's  Bird Figures in Mythology.

"Select characters in medieval Icelandic literature are able to comprehend the language of birds. Ranging from Sigurðr’s tasting the blood of the dragon Fáfnir to Óðinn’s daily dialogue with the ravens Huginn and Muninn, numerous sources will be examined from a comparative perspective. Birds consistently offer important information to individuals associated with kingship and wisdom. The wide chronological and geographical range of this motif will be explored as well as the fascinating theoretical questions regarding why birds are nature’s purveyors of wisdom. With their capacity to fly and sing, birds universally hold a special place in human experience as symbols of transcendence and numinous knowledge; Old Norse tradition reflects this reality."

- Timothy Bourns, from his introduction to The Language of Birds in Old Norse Tradition. (.pdf)

The Hindu God Garuda. For a list of other avian humanoids, try here.

The Language of the Birds

Technically, the Language of the Birds - as it was often described in folk tales and myths in general - literally referred to what anyone might assume it did: the way birds communicate. And, to be able to understand this language endowed one with special powers, knowledge and abilities. As time went on, however, the phrase took on more occult implications. in medieval France it became the secret "Green Language" of the Freemasons and Knights Templar - la langue des oiseaux - and was possibly also utilized by the Troubadours (or Trouvères). During the Renaissance, there were apparently a number of musical languages inspired by birdsong, although at least a few of these were probably composed of simple signals in ways similar to those used by the indigenous peoples of the Americas and elsewhere.

When I first began using the phrase "the Language of the Birds" to describe my own understanding of mysticism, I had almost no formal knowledge of the phrase's history; I had initially found it in reference to a Sufi text, and was attracted to it in a poetic sense. After all, the phrase has a nice resonance to it.  Eventually, however, I began to equate it with language of the higher consciousness, specifically that of the creative muse and its role in automatism. At the same time, I began to intuit there was a transdimensional aspect to it, which I referred to as "the memory of sound". That is, while there is the physicality of sound and its effect on our senses, there are also immaterial, subliminal codes embedded in sound which effect us both emotionally and spiritually in ways that are not currently understood. In this sense, music is, in fact, magic.

An Australian Robin
As it stands, for all our technological prowess, we, as a species, have not inwardly changed very much from the days our savage ancestors danced naked around a fire; the difference being, our savage ancestors very likely understood a few things we modern specimens of humanity have forgotten. And, one of those "things" is the origin of music. My guess is that if prehistoric humans could somehow convey to us certain facets of our prehistory, they might inform us that humans did not, after all, invent music. The were taught.

And, why should I say this?

Well, do the math. Songbirds are thought to have evolved 50 million years ago in an area which is now Australia. Modern humans, on the other hand, are generally considered to have arisen out of Africa a paltry 250,000 years old. In other words, birds were singing millions of years before humans even discovered the coveted fire they'd eventually dance around.

So, in a very fundamental way, the language of the birds is music. And, most likely, the first bards, the first maestros who traversed the earth were birds, and it was they who informed the proto-humans of the immense power and potentiality of sound. Moreover, embedded in their chirps, whistles and trills was both literally and subliminally the first communicated language of love. Yes, the first love songs were composed by birds to communicate with their mates and their potential mates, and it was they who ultimately taught humanity how to arrange notes in beautiful, heart-rending arrays to express their own emotional and spiritual yearning. Is it any wonder that  Aristophanes described birds as the progeny of Eros, the God of Love (who, interestingly, had mated with the Goddess Khaos)?

In a very real sense then, if there were no birds, we would not have music. Would we have language at all?* Would we have, for instance, poetry? I wonder. Science (as we currently know it) will insist that birds have an alien intelligence wholly unlike our own, but when one begins to uncover the immense presence of birds in the world's mythology, it almost seems that humanity has intuited over the ages its true ancestors were, in reality, avians. And, in the realm of the psyche, this might be essentially true. For, apart from music, birds are also creatures of flight, and although I'm not going to broach the subject right now, it ties in neatly with this quote by Timothy Bourns (from the same source as his quote above):

"Birds are the most cross-culturally common symbol of the Transcendent Function. In myths and dreams they represent flights of intuition and an individual’s attainment of arcane knowledge through a trance-like state. As a symbol of transcendence, birds provide the means by which the contents of the unconscious can enter the conscious mind, and they also are themselves an active expression of those contents.”

* Interestingly, according to the Wiki article, in Egyptian Arabic, hieroglyphic writing is called "the alphabet of the birds".

The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica

(Inset images: See the bottom of the post.)


The Alchemy of Love

Illustrations from the Rosarium Philosophorum. (click to enlarge)

"As Spring reaches its midpoint, night and day stand in perfect balance, with light on the increase. The young Sun God now celebrates a hierogamy (sacred marriage) with the young Maiden Goddess, who conceives. In nine months, she will again become the Great Mother. It is a time of great fertility, new growth, and newborn animals."

- From a short entry for the Wiccan holiday, Ostara (March 20th), found on this page.

"Hieros gamos or Hierogamy (Greek ἱερὸς γάμος, ἱερογαμία "holy marriage") refers to a sexual ritual that plays out a marriage between a god and a goddess, especially when enacted in a symbolic ritual where human participants represent the deities.

The notion of hieros gamos does not presuppose actual performance in ritual, but is also used in purely symbolic or mythological context, notably in alchemy and hence in Jungian psychology.

In Wicca, the Great Rite is a ritual based on the Hieros Gamos. It is generally enacted symbolically by a dagger being placed point first into a chalice, the action symbolizing the union of the male and female divine in the Hieros gamos. In British Traditional Wicca, the Great Rite is sometimes carried out in actuality by the High Priest and High Priestess."

- From the Wiki entry for Hieros gamos.

"One of the most fascinating explorations of the psychological analogues of alchemy was given to us by Jung in a lengthy essay not usually classified as one of his alchemical writings, entitled The Psychology of the Transference. In this study Jung employed the ten pictures illustrating the opus of alchemical transormation contained in a classic called Rosarium Philosophorum (Rosary of the Philosophers), where the dual powers of the "King" and "Queen" are shown to undergo a number of phases of their own mystico-erotic relationship and eventually unite in a new, androgynous being, called in the text "the noble Empress". The term "transference is used by Jung as a psychological synonym for love, which in interpersonal relations as well as in depth-psychological analysis serves the role of the great healer of the sorrows and injuries of living."

-  From "Alchemical Eros" via C. G. Jung and the Alchemical Renewal by Stephen A. Hoeller, (an article from the Gnosis magazine archive).

"In this hermetic side of alchemy, the "philosopher's stone", supposed to to be the most tangible and dense crystalization or condensation of a subtle substance, became a metaphor for an inner potential of the spirit and reason to evolve from a lower state of imperfection and vice (symbolized by the base metals) to a higher state of enlightenment and perfection (symbolized by gold). In this view, spiritual elevation, the transmutation of metals, and the purification and rejuvenation of the body were seen to be manifestations of the same concept."

- From the Crystalinks entry for Philospher's Stone.


But, what do we really mean by phrases like "the realm of the psyche" or "spiritual elevation"? Obviously, this question (in various forms) has been at the heart of the world's philosophy the millisecond humanity became disconnected from its initial source. At some point, we simply forgot. No longer having any real understanding of our essential natures we - specifically those of us in the west - allowed the various spin-doctors to take over. "And all the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty (the egg) together again... "

Except for one thing. In spite of the failure on the part of "the king and his men", there is one force that could - and one force that always will - "put" us together again, and that is the force of Love. While the physical aspect of Love exists and is very important to us in a biological and psychological sense, Love also reminds us that we are, in essence, immaterial entities. We know that we are truly alive because we love. We are assured our lives have meaning because we love. We conceive of things like "eternity" and "forever" because we love.... and we know Love, like Life itself, cannot simply dissipate because, although it influences the material realm, it is not really of it. Love knows no atrophy.

Alchemy itself, as a psuedo-science and precursor to chemistry, was primarily founded upon the concept that there was some substance - the Philopher's Stone - that when procured a certain way via certain rituals could transform base materials literally into gold. This, in any case, is the general fable. But when one takes a peek at all the literature, and all the various graphic material pertaining to alchemy and the alchemists, one thing immediately becomes clear: alchemy was no mere chemistry experiment.

But, just what was alchemy exactly? What was really meant by "the Great Work"? In reality, there is no exact definition of alchemy. It seems to have slowly evolved both in the East and in the West, and, at all times, to have been both an exoteric as well as an esoteric inquiry. On one hand, the quest was to cure disease, attain immortality and transmute base substances... on the other the goal was divine and spiritual knowledge and the perfection of the soul. The Great Work was generally in reference to creating or attaining the Philosopher's Stone, but once again, the "stone" had both material and mystical properties. One might say the stone itself was merely metaphorical for a sublime state of being or for the secret of creation itself.

One might go further and intuit the true Philosopher's Stone was the force of Love, but this side of alchemy has been mostly ignored except in Hermetic philosophy, in which the heiros gamos (see quotes above), or the "mysterium conjunctionis" is a crucial part of the philosophy. It was not lost on Carl Jung, however, who wrote in Volume 14 (translatable text) of his Collected Works:

“In light of eternity, it is a wedding, a mysterium conjunctionis. The soul attains, as it were its missing half, it achieves wholeness.”


The Music Box

La Gardienne des Phénix - 1954, Leonor Fini

"Their discovery that certain neurons have “music selectivity” stirs questions about the role of music in human life. Why do our brains contain music-selective neurons? Could some evolutionary purpose have led to neurons devoted to music? McDermott says the study can’t answer such questions. But he is excited by the fact that it shows music has a unique biological effect. 'We presume those neurons are doing something in relation to the analysis of music that allows you to extract structure, following melodies or rhythms, or maybe extract emotion,' he says."

Lastly, we come to the Music Box, the third element of this introduction. Portions of it first made its appearance on this blog in February around Valentine's Day, and was meant to be the metaphorical fulcrum about which my "Ode to Love" was spun. That particular post died in the water, however - for numerous reasons - and, although the initial post is still online - and might be referred to in the future - you may as well consider this one its replacement.

In "Still Life with Music Box" the floating panels of the box I created last month have finally come together into an actual (although virtual) object. In order to visualize the box, I inadvertently made a model of it with cardboard and inkjet prints and then snapped its photograph. A great deal more work was involved, but amongst the objects, only three were entirely contrived... and I'm guessing it's pretty obvious which ones. I'm no master, but I did the best I could (without driving myself insane). (Hint: The wooden table supporting the objects is real enough - it was created by my grandfather at some point around the turn of the last century.)

As it so happens, as lyrical as the music box appears, it's creation was the result of a geometrical inquiry... an inquiry that's particularly relevant in any discussion of love and alchemy when you come right down to it, but I'll save the geometry for the next post and reflect on the music box's general importance here; that is, in its role as a generator of music, and, at the same time, a collector of love tokens, that is, a keepsake box.

Initially, I referred to the music box as the "Love Box"... totally overlooking the fact that the actual term is American slang for a certain portion of a woman's anatomy. That being said, that "love box" has the particularly feminine connotations it does, is not really inappropriate here. Woman, after all, do have a peculiar predilection for keeping memorable items in special boxes, especially as young girls. Our little magic boxes... full of talismanic detritus we've collected over the years... a coin, jewelry, a shred of hair, a crumbling flower head, a photo, a signature, stones, bones... whatever. Generally the tokens are kept to remind us of lovers or loved ones... small trophies for experiences that may eventually retreat into a mental shadowland in the same way the objects themselves have retreated into the shadowy recesses of the box. But, no matter. The box becomes a sort of artificial memory bank... a collection of three-dimensional objects representing transdimensional events in the same way a collection of symbols do.

In the end, whether we're talking about musical codes, alchemical codes, or the enigmatic chemistry of love and attraction, some type of hidden language is involved... as is some kind of communication that lies outside the bounds of what is consciously understood. When we find ourselves in tears while listening to an old, wistful tune, or find ourselves suddenly uplifted by the memory of a lover's smile, although utterly immaterial, the experience is real, and has as much power to move us, inspire us, and inform us as any collection of words (up to and including the ones you are presently reading)!

And that, to me, is the Language of the Birds.

By the way, concerning that music circuit discovered in the brain (above quote)... isn't it nice when science discovers something we already intuit? ;-)

(See "inset" section below)


Note: Although my intention was to complete the entire "Music Box" section in one post, I'm afraid it now occurs to me this is impossible.

Oh well... Hopefully, by the time you've digested this - which , more or less, will stand as an introduction to the series - I'll have The Music Box (Part 2) in production. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, it came to my attention earlier this year, that, synchronistically, there was actually an exhibit in New York (January 12 – February 13, 2016) that was particularly relevant to the ideas I had begun hashing around... See: Language of the Birds: Occult and Art.

Go figure!


Inset images in this post (by section)

The Language of the Birds:

The Bird-Woman figurine:  Early Egyptian pottery (3650 BC), on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY.

The Oneiroscopist - oil on canvas - 1947, Edith Rimmington. Note: Edith Rimmington (1902 - 1986) was another female Surrealist who's apparently fallen through the cracks...

The Music Box:

The Gardenia - oil on canvas - 1945, Max Ernst. Sadly, I cannot find my original source for this painting. Wiki, however, has a fairly extensive collection of Ernst's work here.

Note: from the Wiki entry on Ernst, we have this:
"Ernst developed a fascination with birds that was prevalent in his work. His alter ego in paintings, which he called Loplop, was a bird. He suggested that this alter-ego was an extension of himself stemming from an early confusion of birds and humans. He said that one night when he was young he woke up and found that his beloved bird had died, and a few minutes later his father announced that his sister was born."

Lastly, I've included the beautiful illustration (above) which originally appeared in Omni magazine in January of 1990. It is the work of Gervasio Gallardo, and, as it so happens, I located it on a wonderful page devoted to Max Ernst (and Loplop) found here.


  1. The post may not be complete, but the image is AWESOME!! I love that damned box -- wish it were real (in the sense of being 3D and existing in THIS dimension). All the myriad touches -- the shells, the key....symbols of treasured remembrance.

    Keep slaving away -- it's art like this that makes it worthwhile.

    1. The post is now complete, BG, but, really, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

      I'm glad you like "Still Llfe with Music Box"... but, "reality" is so over-rated. I think the music box is as real as it has to be. ;-)

    2. Fascinating....this language of Birds und the Alchemy of Love and i can see that this exploration-slash-expose is merely the illuminated portion of the subject -- far more hides in the shadows...or within the box, eh what?

      And I agree -- the music box *IS* real in that you've obviously made it manifest.

      Most intriguing.

    3. Thank you, BG... and thanks for agreeing with me!

      Ah, yes, far more is hidden in the box... much of it dark and strange. And I do intend to explore (publicly) as much of it as possible... that is, with one caveat: in spite of the subject, I am trying to avoid getting too confessional. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect, and I'm watching myself... well, like a hawk! It simply wouldn't do to have strangers shuffling around in MY "love box" now would it? ;-)

  2. Wow, I can see why you're saying there's more to come! :) I think this is great, and there are a lot of things plumbing the depths. In a funny way, it's not dissimilar to what scientists said about the discovery of gravitational waves. By studying them, they can sort of figure out what lies on the other side of the mirror, or the unseen or invisible. I think there's a locked box, birdsong mystery at the heart of what you're talking about, where you can see some outer manifestations of some problem or aspect of awareness, but the internal is maddeningly elusive.

    1. Thank you, sweets. I'm not sure about the comparison to gravitational waves, nor what I have discovered exactly, but, the good news is that the Music Box has been opened. And I'm finding all sorts of interesting items... which I've started unveiling on the new supplement: The Restoration of Symmetry."

      We are all initiates in the Land of Love. ;-)

  3. PS may I quote you on my blog? - the part about women keeping music boxes filled with talismans...