Explore the Symbols of Separation
In the third stage of the alchemical process, the soul and spirit — or Sulfur and Mercury — are separated from the body — Salt — in order to purify each before reuniting them. Splitting things apart is an analytical process. So the experience is one of mental clarity, but without emotional engagement. On the one hand, it can feel lonely or even dissociative. On the other hand, it offers the potential to step out of the body and into the spirit then soul levels of being.
This can be an astonishingly freeing experience. But at this early stage in the sequence, it is not yet time to join the parts together. So when we return to the body, we are not integrating our Divine experience, but stepping down from it and returning, alone, to the mundane. Both the sorrow and joy of this is that we now know something that had been hidden previously. Whereas before we were ignorant of it, we now yearn for it. However, the ultimate union with the Divine will not happen until a later stage.
In Tarot and Alchemy: Separation, we’ll explore the symbols of the third alchemical operation:
- the planet Mars
- the metal Iron
- the sign of Aries
- the tarot cards from the 7 x 3 table: the Empress, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Star
Get More Out of It
Please join us via Zoom on the first Saturday of the month in 2023 for Tarot and the Seven Stages of Alchemy at the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Check Joy Vernon Astrology * Tarot * Reiki on YouTube for recordings of select Tarot and Alchemy meetups.
The Alchemical Operation of Separation
The definition of separation is dividing something into its component parts. Separation is done via filtration, distillation, settling, cutting or agitation with air.
Dennis William Hauck, author of Sorcerer’s Stone: A Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy, asserts that these separate parts are pure unto themselves. However, he sees them as being in opposition to each other. As a result, alchemists pictured them as fighting, or as being held apart from fighting, like boxers after the bell.
I think it’s worthwhile to note that this separation, although it includes filtering out unwanted parts, is also about separating to examine and analyze, so that each part’s place and purpose is thoroughly understood before putting it back together. Unlike calcination, which was mostly about getting rid of everything that doesn’t serve, this stage takes something apart, a watch perhaps, separating it into all its pieces, cleaning each one, replacing what’s worn or broken, then putting it all back together.
Of the Earth But Not On the Earth
The title on the Azoth emblem is “Terra” or “Terrae” – “of the earth.” Meditation on this and all the symbols of alchemy can bring deep understanding. For myself, I believe that this phrase works in multiple ways.
A simple observation is that normally we keep our focus on earthly things, looking down rather than up. As a result, we can be so obsessed with our material goals that we miss out on the spiritual. Likewise, it’s all too easy to get stuck in your head instead of being present body, spirit, and soul.
In the Azoth image labeled “Terra,” the white birds seem to be pecking the black bird, which is lying on its back. Have they killed it? Are they eating it? Perhaps at this stage it feels as if we must destroy the worldly level in order to reach the spiritual. But maybe it is the earth that nourishes the parts of us that cannot touch the ground.
Alchemical Separation and Observer Mind
When considering the alchemical stage of separation, it’s useful to recognize the concept of observer mind. We’ve all had this experience, but not everyone knows the term for it. When I learned this term, the example used was of a talk show doctor helping a depressed person. This person complained that they were going through the worst depression they had ever experienced, and there was no way out of it. The doctor noted that although there was one part of the person that was lost in the experience of depression, there was another part that had the capacity to evaluate their illness as being worse than previous.
The doctor went on to explain that the part of us that can make those judgment calls is the observer mind — it overlooks everything and makes an assessment. When you’re lost in physical or emotional pain, stepping into observer mode is very useful. Even though it’s in your own head, for most generally healthy people it is like a neutral third party offering helpful feedback. A healthy observer mind makes a great advisor!
Astral Projection as Alchemical Separation
One interesting thing about separation is that the experience tends to be fairly neutral — neither good nor bad, but more a question of good when appropriate but bad when not.
I was doing a Reiki session on a friend many years ago. He had been in a car accident and had a lot of pain. I started working on him, and soon noticed that his energy seemed completely detached from his body. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and I admit I wondered it the accident had knocked his soul loose!
So I asked, “How long ago was this accident? “Two weeks,” he replied. Not that I’m experienced in things like the soul being detached from the body, but that just seemed like too long. And anyway, I had talked with him several times since the accident and he seemed normal and not soulless. I didn’t think anything was wrong, but felt I should say something. I hesitantly stated, “It feels as if your energy is hovering outside your body.” He replied, “Oh! I thought that lying here on the Reiki table would be a good time to practice my astral projection. It crossed my mind that I didn’t know if I was doing it right. I guess I am!”
The red planet, Mars appears as a pink star in the night sky, the flush of the fight on his face. Mars is the warrior, soldier, athlete, and rabble rouser. Mars emboldens, spurs, pricks our conscience, fights for what he believes in. He is our energy, vigor, desire, ambition, frustrations, anger, and motivation.
The surface of Mars is covered in iron oxide – Mars’s metal – which gives it its red color.
Medical astrology gives Mars the qualities hot and dry. This planet embodies the choleric temperament, the doer. The heat of Mars aligns him with fever and inflammation. Mars rules the head, blood (and iron is in hemoglobin), adrenals, gall bladder, nose and sense of smell, muscles, and the male reproductive system. He governs weapons, particularly swords and knives, and also relates to cuts, burns, and accidents. Mars-related medical issues tend to be quick and acute. Societally, Mars brings about plagues, epidemics, and disasters.
You could say that Mars will always choose a side. He’s not Switzerland. He knows what he wants, what’s right for him and his specific goals. This metaphor for alchemical separation partly highlights the evaluative process. But to put a fine point on it, it raises the idea of the fighter’s faster-than-thought gut response. This is not deep meditation where all things are one and it’s all good. At the level of separation we know right from wrong. And as a good soldier, he’s committed to the cause. He will do or die without a second thought.
Mars (the Tower card) rules the zodiacal signs of Aries (the Emperor) and Scorpio (Death), and is exalted in Capricorn (the Devil).
Symbols for Mars include the sword, knife, spear, and helm. Dogs pull his chariot. His color is red and his number is 5.
The metal for the Separation stage of alchemy is iron. It’s abbreviation is Fe for ferrum. Iron is known to oxidize in air, creating rust.
Iron and its ores are variable in appearance. For instance, the most common iron ore, hematite, is steel gray to black to reddish brown, with or without a metallic luster. One identifying signature of the ore hematite is that no matter its color, it leaves an identifying red streak — Mars’ color — when scraped against unglazed porcelain.
The pure metal is not often used. Rather it is commonly alloyed with other metals. For example, it combines with carbon to make either steel or cast iron. Iron also naturally occurs in an alloy with nickel. These alloys are extremely strong, offering a high load bearing capacity. Steel is an iron alloy that is strong and light enough to make Mars’s favored weapon, the sword.
As an oxide and in ores, iron is the most abundant metal on earth. Interestingly, it usually came to earth in meteorites. In terrestrial deposits, iron is found often with gold, platinum, and sulfide ores. However, in meteorites it typically appears with nickel or silicates.
The fact that iron came to earth from space plays into the Mars archetype in an interesting way. A staple of science fiction is the story of invaders from space, specifically from Mars. In another sci fi favorite, robots take over the world. Remember that some of those outer space meteors contain the silicon that microchips require! Both these tropes summon the image of fighting, competing, and protecting, which in turn are only necessary when there is a sense of separation, not cooperation.
The mineral olivine gets its green color from iron, although it can show up in other shades including yellow. Related gemstones include a lighter colored form called chrysolite (yellowish green) as well as the deeper green peridot. This silicate is abundant in terrestrial deposits and also occurs in meteorites. It looks like gorgeous light-filled stained glass. In fact, the alchemist’s Green Vitriol is iron and sulfuric acid. It dissolves everything except gold, allowing the alchemist to separate out the metal that was his ultimate goal. The gemstone olivine is Nature’s allusion to this inner gold.
Separation: Aries in the Thema Mundi
As we walk the reverse Thema Mundi, outlining the alchemical process from Lead/Saturn/Aquarius to Gold/Sun/Leo, from populus to sovereignty, we stop now at Mars’s sign, Aries. Aries aligns with parturition — the original separation. The first sign of the zodiac, Aries represents birth out of the Piscean gestation into individuality. Mars’s blade cuts the cord, little lungs take their first gasp of air, and an astonishingly powerful voice bellows the first battle cry.
The young of some species are immediately on their own. But Aries also represents all the initiations of separation, from weaning, through adolescence, to adult individuation. Here one is no longer dependent on – or necessarily supported by – the other. Although this helps someone develop a strong sense of independence, on the other hand, they lack an awareness of a community or support system. The result is a feeling of extraordinary vulnerability but at the same time an ease of self-expression. Astrologers assign Aries the aphorism, “I am.”
Mars is fiery in nature, but the sword he wields aligns with the symbolism of the element air. Correspondingly, we tuck breathing meditations into the separation pigeonhole. When you remember that breathing increases oxygen, and Mars’s iron-rich hemoglobin carries oxygen to the muscles, also ruled by Mars, well it does seem to be a match made in heaven. Or at least welded in Mars’s fiery forge.
Many simple breathing meditations work with counting the breath. The practice of breathing in for more counts than you breathe out energizes you. Likewise, breathing out longer than you breathe in is relaxing. You can try this in your day, perhaps taking longer in-breaths in the morning to help you wake up, then longer exhalations at night before going to sleep. When you’re familiar with the practice, you can use it any time of day to appropriately rev you up or calm yourself down as needed.
Out of body experiences, along with astral projection and astral travel are examples of separation spiritual practices. The idea of leaving your body to rise on the planes, connect with the Divine, or become one with the Universe also fit the bill.
A Dance of Separation
I had an interesting experience after a Reiki initiation several years ago. We had learned and practiced all weekend in a conference room with muzak playing. I have a vague memory of the hotel not being able to turn off just one room or some similarly lame excuse. On this final day of the training, after my initiation, I was sitting in quiet, silent bliss. Slowly the sound of music entered my awareness. In response to the pretty sounds, my astral body stretched and reached and began to dance in a way my physical body would have had trouble doing. This entire dance happened in my mind, but felt entirely real and physical.
One of the most interesting parts of the experience was that the music was lovely and moving, not at all like the muzak we’d heard the whole time. I’m still not sure if that music was in my mind or if the muzak had finally lucked into a beautiful tune!
I remember trying to explain the experience to a friend after. I don’t know why I used this term, but I told her that it felt like death. She became very concerned for me. Perhaps she was worried that I was romanticizing death. I tried to explain to her that I had no desire to die. Rather, at that time I felt utterly free and totally true to myself, free to be myself, move like myself, hear what I wanted to hear. Free to be perfect in that moment.
Separation Tarot Cards
Three of the tarot cards for separation are the ones that match the symbolism of Mars, Aries, and Scorpio.
- Mars: Tower
- Aries: Emperor
- Scorpio: Death
The Tower: Mars
The Tower is such a great image of the alchemical stage of separation! Not only in the literal interpretation of inhabitants being separated from the Tower, as well as parts of the Tower being blasted apart, but in other ways as well. The Rider-Waite-Smith image does a fabulous job of expressing a fall from a height, with the rocky pinnacle thrust into the dark sky, no ground in sight.
This is a major expression of the separation energy. Remember that the Azoth title is “Terrae,” of the earth. The earth is also the body. But the operation is about isolating the soul and spirit. Because we have not yet learned conjunction at this stage, the soul feels detached from the body. This can be a lovely feeling, but if out of balance can result in dissociation. We can almost see the abandoned body falling back to earth while the spiritual drops hover above.
The Emperor: Aries
The Emperor as Aries shows us the power of a strong individuality and sense of identity. But in tarot, the Emperor is known as the temporal ruler (as compared to the Hierophant, the spiritual ruler). The squared off throne, impenetrable armor, and barren landscape make you wonder if he has any spiritual connection at all. He’s rock solid. However, he is redeemed by the ankh in one hand, the symbol of life force and the air-themed idea of prana ,chi, or spirit.
The Death card, or Scorpio, on the other hand, towers over the spiritual leader, backed up by the temporal ruler’s water and cliffs in the middle ground. However, the golden sun hovering over the golden clergyman reminds us of cycles; that the only constant is change. Death, the ultimate separation, is a step in the cycle of descent and resurrection, the ultimate gold of coagulation.
Separation In The Tarot And Alchemy Table: Third Column
We advance now to the third column of the 7 x 3 table, featuring the cards The Empress, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Star. The subject-action-object formula we learned from Oswald Wirth reveals the Empress as the subject who takes a Wheel-inspired action on the object of the Star.
Many illustrations of the Wheel card show the glyphs for the three alchemical principles: Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur. It’s interesting to note that the two cards above and below the wheel also relate to this trinity. The Empress is the body, Salt. The Wheel, which moves up and down connecting body to soul, is spirit, or Mercury. You can even see Mercury’s caduceus in the illustration above. Then the Star is Sulfur, the soul, the spiritual part of us. In the body are spirit and soul.
The Empress: Body
The Empress is very physical. As Venus she rules the earthy sign of Taurus. The wheat shown in some illustrations also reminds us of the bounty of the earth and the fertility of growth. With one foot on a crescent moon and the other on the ground, she brings higher vibrations down to earth.
The Wheel: Coming and Going
The Wheel represents change, cycles, and coming into being. In some illustrations it is set amidst the four kerubs, or representatives of the fixed signs, the ox for Taurus, the lion for Leo, eagle for Scorpio, and angel for Aquarius. This rotation must be within a stable and unchanging environment, which grounds our coming and going, our joining and separating.
The Star: Soul
The Star is heavenly. She channels the stellar energy through the crown of her uncrowned and unadorned head and funnels it through the water she pours out, some on land, some on sea. In some illustrations, she isn’t even on the earth, but up among the stars pouring this spiritual light down to the earth. The butterfly or bird in the background represents the soul, released and free to move on.
The Cycle of Integration and Disintegration
The Empress is the body and the Star is the soul. The Wheel represents the cyclic integration and disintegration of the two. The soul lasts beyond the body, housing itself in the physical for a period, then releasing into the spiritual, only to repeat the cycle. In the alchemical stage of separation, the Body (Empress) releases (Wheel) the Soul (Star).
We realize that we are part of a larger cycle. We are more than our body. Our soul is starseed, but up to now we have completely lost that connection. At the stage of separation, we recognize that we are more than our body. We may even experience the bliss of the soul. But we cannot yet maintain divinity. We fall to earth and feel the ache of yearning for oneness.
Tarot And Alchemy: Separation Video
Here is a recording of the live Meetup we had on this topic. John, Penny, and I explore the images, emblems, symbols, and tarot cards for the alchemical stage of dissolution. It’s been edited down to 1 hr 36 minutes. Enjoy!
Your Out of body Experience
How does this energy show up for you? Do you get stuck in your head instead of being present body, spirit, and soul? Are you able to easily move into observer mind when you need? Or do you have periods of dissociation that seem to be out of your control? Maybe you practice astral projection or astral travel — that certainly counts as separation! Recognizing these different experiences of separation can help you see its value and know when and how to use it as one of the seven stages of alchemical transformation. Please share your experiences in the comments!