Alchemical Spagyric of Vervain
This is a preparation of common vervain (Verbena officinalis) made using Bulgarian from Mountain Rose Herbs. In a Spagyric tincture, the herb is macerated or soaked in high-proof alcohol, and then strained after several weeks to produce a menstruum or herb essence-infused alcohol. The herbal residue is calcinated or burned to black or white ash. The ash and the menstruum are then recombined for a period of cohobation, before the ash is re-filtered out, and the resulting spagyric bottled.
Vervain is also known as van-van, and is a common ingredient in hoodoo and other rootwork. It is an ancient herbal cure for eye strain, and a relaxant of some kind. A few drops in a large amount of water is a strong dose. I produced this as part of my initiatory work in the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn. I’m not at all sure that I’m ready to drink even a few drops of it, actually. I mean, it’s black. With this tinge of green around the edges where light can pass through.
Except, when I hold it up to the light, it has this green color which is somewhere between the traditional color of Venus, and the green glass of a bottle of Rolling Rock Beer. After several strainings through cotton balls and coffee filters, it is nearly cloudless; there are no remaining films or mists of particulate left in it, and it is vaguely emerald in color.
One is reminded of the Emerald Tablet, and the wisdom of Hermes Thrice Blessed.
So, from a Design perspective…
So, from a design perspective, this is dumb. I mean, what’s to be gained from soaking a bunch of herbs in alcohol for weeks, burning the remaining herbal mess, recombining the ashes with the herb-infused alcohol, and then letting it sit for a week. Add a teaspoon of wine to a barrel of sewage, you get sewage. Add a teaspoon of sewage to a barrel of wine, you get… sewage. Seems utterly dumb, right?
And yet the symbolism, both alchemically and chemically, as well as the value of the actual nutrients left over in the ashes, is kind of important. The soaking part, what alchemists call the menstruum, is where you get all the easy stuff to make the switcheroo from being solid to being liquid. The alcohol becomes a solvent which makes it easy for the plant essentials to cross over from being plant to being something else.
But there’s a whole crowd of things in a plant that can’t make the crossover that easily. You have to break them down, break them out, smash them up, and mash them up, and then recombine those shattered, broken-down bits back into the easy stuff. This process is called Calcination. In alchemy you do it by putting the oven on 500°F and then putting all the soaking-wet alcoholic leafy bits in there, and watching them burn. It’s pretty. It’s ugly. It’s hot. You’re making sure the dross burns off — all the crappy parts of the design. Some writerly type said, “Kill your darlings.” Harlan Ellison said, “don’t write crap.” Stephen King said, “Cut 10% of everything you write in the first draft.” The Alchemists did that too. Dump the bad stuff, and reduce the waste to ash. Make it utterly black, make it gray, make it white. Heat it up, and burn away everything but the essentials.
Then dump that ugly black ash, the leftovers of your furious cutting-away, back into that beautiful green, herb-infused alcohol. And leave it in the darkness for a while, bringing it out only a couple of times a day to shake it and stir it and make a mess of it all over again. It will turn so black and so dark, you won’t be able to see light through it. It will become utterly opaque. That’s cohobation.
And then filter it. The coffee filters, or the cotton balls, will be ugly and slimy and burnt-looking. It will be crusty and black. And the liquid will still look black from the side. Tilt your head funny at great design, and you can see the magic that’s being used against you in the final product, and the ghastly waste that went into producing something that amazing… it’s like following the production chain of an Apple product back to the iridium mines in Africa and the sweatshops of Shanghai, that leftover teaspoon of ashen-black liquid tar leftover at the end of a spagyric operation. It’s the difference between good design and great design. It’s the difference between taking twenty minutes on a project and twenty months.
But that’s where excellence comes from. From the reuse and the burning up of ideas, from the consumption of materials, from the willingness to apply tools and heat to a problem. Getting the low-hanging fruit — getting the base chemicals to cross from plant to alcohol — that’s easy. Getting the raw chemical building blocks of the world into the spagyric… that requires a different kind of effort. A deeper one, a heartier one, a more dedicated one. Separate, Dissolve, Burn Up the Leftovers, take the Ashes and dump them back in, Recreate the Work Fresh and New.
It’s a beginning.
From A Teaching Perspective…
From a teaching perspective, this is hard. The rewards of a spagyric tincture aren’t really meant to be shared. They can’t be, really — nominally, this is medicine, but medicine from a style and philosophical approach to medicine that is no longer common nor approved. The techniques require access to tools and materials that we no longer accept that students should work with.
And yet the process!
“Take something natural — using human gifts, dissolve the easily-gotten parts, and break them down — using other human gifts, shatter what remains into miniscule pieces — burn those pieces to release the even stranger bits — recombine with the easily-gained bits — leave them alone a while, except for a little gentle stirring — filter out the raw bits.”
Isn’t that what we ask students to do with their writing? Or their lab reports? Or when correcting mathematical errors in a piece of homework? Don’t we teachers sit like coffee filters over open jars, to collect the black bile that students spew out, and find a way to make sure the pure essence of their work, and the pure essence of their personhood, reaches the page or the presentation or the planning book? Don’t we occasionally apply too much pressure, and the filter breaks, and we say terrible words, and reach for the paper towels, and call in the heavy hitters and have to re-filter the whole batch?
Does anyone get what I’m trying to say?
There’s richness is the reminders here.