The celebration of Epiphany on January 6th marks the arrival of the three kings from the Orient who followed the star to the stable of the baby Jesus, and they were bearing him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. However, it would probably pass by practically unnoticed were it not also the day when we are supposed to take down our Christmas decorations if we don’t want bad luck to follow us for the rest of the year.
The truth is that this baseless superstition throws a dark veil over the earliest meaning of the story about the three magis or wise men so that we don’t realise that it is an astronomical metaphor for a vital alchemical stage in the Great Work of the spiritual development of the human being known as the three magisteriums, which I will come on to.
But first, why are the three magis following the star? Well, they have no choice. They are in its belt. They make up the three stars found at the waist of the giant constellation of Orion.
We Three Kings of Orion are
Orion is the Star of Bethelehem and its rise from the East is one of the oldest stories ever told, long before the Christian nativity was even thought of.
The importance of being able to track the rising of Orion at Samhain (early November), and its subsequent crossing over our winter night skies until it sets under the horizon at Beltane (in May), has been valued from at least when our hunter gatherer ancestors etched the image of this giant with his arms raised on to ivory mammoth tusks tens of thousands of years ago.
It would account for the plethora of different myths about Orion that are found worldwide. In the Celtic tradition, which is still remembered in Avalon, Somerset, he is Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Winter who at Samhain, in early November, has to defeat in a duel the Lord of Summer, Gwythyr ap Greidawl.
But what this means spiritually should be what most concerns us, and we can discern its message by understanding more about what this metaphor represents in the alchemical process of the Great Work.
The three magisteriums refers to a function of mercury that occurs during the Fermentation stage, which alchemists would perform at the beginning of Scorpio, governed by the planet Mars, to create what they called “wise man’s sulphur”.
The three magisteriums is represented symbolically by a crown of thorns with three nails, and below is an example of one that I found and photographed on the window above the altar of St Dunstan’s church at Baltonsborough in Somerset. (I have decoded the whole window to show that it is a recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone in Stories in the Summerlands.)
Christians refer to this as the Passion when Jesus suffered in agony on the cross during a period of darkness that fell across the Earth for three days.
However, we can better understand these metaphorical stories hidden in the scriptures when we realise that the aim of the true alchemist was not to turn lead into the gold but to release the divine golden spark from deep within the leaden state that the human being is first born into.
As Dennis M. Hauck writes in his Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy:
“Changing lead into gold was only a metaphor for a larger process that involved the rejuvenation of the body; the integration of the personality, and the perfection of the human soul. Though they spoke of retorts, furnaces, acids and chemicals, the alchemists were really talking about changes taking place in their own bodies, minds, and spirits.
“One of the central ideas of alchemy is that no transformation is complete and lasting unless it occurs simultaneously on all levels of reality – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. The distinction is what makes alchemy a unique discipline that combines the methods of science, psychology and religion.
“On the spiritual level, alchemy seeks to unite the opposing essences of soul and spirit in an operation known as the Sacred Marriage. The product of this union is the Philosopher’s Stone, which in spiritual alchemy is the embodiment of a permanent state of perfected consciousness.”
So given all that information, what can the time of Epiphany mean to us in terms of our own growth towards perfected consciousness?
Epi is a Latin suffix meaning “before”. The phany bit is about theophany, the appearance of God to the worshipper. So it is referring to a necessary stage before God consciousness, and the theophany follows the epiphany as surely as the three wise men followed the star.
The Dark Night of the Soul
A clear sign that you may be experiencing Fermentation is that your days may be seeming dull, pointless and lacklustre, while your nights are quite the opposite, with vivid, lurid, apocalyptic dreams containing symbols such as double-edged axes, swords hanging from above, knights wielding swords, dismemberment, the parting of the Red Sea or scenes of Armageddon.
What you are going through at “night school” can leave you with little energy or enthusiasm for your daytime activities.
You may find yourself feeling quite apathetic with little spirited initiative and full of self-doubt, wondering whether your “sins” have led you into the wrong path. We can be prone to this delusion because modern Christianity only teaches about the goodness of being good, and so we often tend to use how good we feel inside as a sort of temperature gauge to indicate to us how close we are to hell.
However, Fermentation is a necessary psychological stage for the adept on the path to enlightenment, and it represents the passage through the Dark Night of the Soul, which is a time of the inner reflection that is required for our souls to germinate and grow silently in the dark.
It is a stage of putrefaction, where all our now redundant and obsolete desires and fears are surfaced, processed and then dissolved and discarded in order for us to go forward into the penultimate step of Sublimation before the Divine Marriage and the birth of the Philosopher’s Stone.
So although our mind, which is determined to stick to its script programmed with modern values, is making us feel confused and miserable, our heart is quietly singing a song of joy and jubilation.
The 16th century Carmelite friar St John of the Cross wrote of the Dark Night of the Soul as follows:
“Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn.
“O night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed into the Beloved.”
To me, understanding about the three magisteriums of the wise man’s sulphur and the Dark Night of the Soul is the true gift of the three magis or wise men – and a true epiphany.