Reflections of a Symbolist in Prague

Vincent Bridges © 2011

It is early morning on Jansky vresk. The sun has yet to reach the darker corners of the narrow streets and dead ends and the night air lingers like fumes from the last ghost to fade in the dawn twilight. Magick is afoot, the angels are humming the blues from the top of the Castle’s spires, the bells of Prague echo faintly in the distance, the nursing sisters whisper by on their way to morning mass in the hospital’s chapel, and I sit at my window, reading Czech poetry and trying to understand that which can’t be named, or described, but only experienced. Baroque Gnosis, Gothic Illumination, Valentinian’s Ialdabaoth on the door of the American Embassy, house signs that read like a page out of an Alchemical treatise; these are not really tangible objects, though they exist. They are clues to a larger puzzle, messages from a deep well, golden to be sure, of meaning and myth and awareness.

Giordano Bruno and the Lurianic Kabbalists taught the art of memory by creating theatres or palaces and filling the rooms and spaces, in their imaginations, with the knowledge they wished to remember. Prague itself is just such a memory palace, filled with knowledge and information waiting to be retrieved by those who can re-member the intangible, the mystical, the ineffable Gnosis of the genius/daemon of the place that is Prague.

Here’s how one of the great Czech poets, Vitezslav Nezval, described it in his A Wanderer in Prague:

“It is in this sense that I understand the concept of tradition, seeing within it the dreamlike and secretive resurrection of everything that may, or that has the strength (however long forgotten) to, captivate us at those moments when we are at our most pure, in other words when our desires return us to the earliest memories of our childhood stories and ancient books, to the earliest memory of that which we ourselves are, from those times when we were intrigued far more by a simple ballad and age-old tales than the vexed confusion of ordinary life.”

Like Nezval, I too am a “wanderer in Prague” though I lack his childhood connections and ancestral memories. For me, Prague is an orgy of Hermetic and alchemical symbolism, almost a surfeit of imagery, over rich like a fin-de-siecle Austrian pastry, in which Fulcanelli’s naïve and meaningful Gothic Hermeticism has exploded from the cathedral front and roamed throughout the city, attaching itself to building and house fronts, lurking in odd corners, persisting through time in ways that defy analysis and forces us to believe in the raw naked power of the image itself to work its magick.

For example, take this house: The Donkey in the Cradle. From the older sections of the crypts below the house it is clear that something was here from the 10th century or thereabouts, and the current structure, including the Tower, dates from the rebuilding after the Great Fire of the 1540s. During that long history, it acquired its odd name, which can also be read as the Donkey at the Cradle, making it a reference to the scene in Bethlehem and therefore Christian. Of course ass-headed humans date back to Apuleius’ Golden Ass, with its connection to Isis, the original alchemist. Lucius misuses magick and mistakenly turns himself into an ass. After years of toil and suffering, he prays one night to the Queen of Heaven, the Great Goddess herself, and she appears and tells him that he can only regain his humanity by eating the garland of roses in the next day’s Isis procession. In this way, Lucius not only regains his human form, he becomes an initiate of the Isisian mysteries.

However, when Edward Kelley bought the old house in 1589, another level of meaning and symbolism was added to the name. Kelley of course was an alchemist and magician and had had a few encounters with the Great Goddess through his angelic work with Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer. When he purchased the house in the spring of 1589, he no doubt understood and appreciated the Isisian metaphor in its name, as well as its thick walls, observation tower and deep crypts. After his death in 1597, the story of the name shifted, and began to grow in surprising ways. The basic story is that Anna Hrdlova, a local busybody and shrew, challenged Kelley in some way and he responded by turning her child’s head into that of an ass. Prayers to another version of the Queen of Heaven, Mother Mary, eventually restored the child, bringing the tale full circle and suggesting more than a casual overlap.

So let us wander a little, following the footsteps of the ghostly coachman up the steps on Jansky vrsek to Nerudova Street. Today, Nerudova is one of the city’s main arteries, with tourists overflowing the sidewalks and spilling down the hill, exhausted and overwhelmed by its Baroque Disneyland quality, complete with cute puppet emporiums, cheap souvenir shops, bistros, coffee shops, pubs, hostels and money exchanges. Few people slow down to look at the symbols floating above their heads, but if they did, they would find an exuberant explosion of hermeticism.

The Two Suns. Picture by E. Bridges.

Up to the left from Jansky vresk’s steps we find the house of The Two Suns, at number 47. This was the childhood home of the 19th century Czech poet for whom the street was renamed, Jan Neruda. When we contemplate the sign, the suns compel our attention: why two of them? Their faces are not angry, exactly, but grim, almost sad. They have twenty rays each, giving them a connection to the 20th Tarot Trump, The Last Judgment, and also the Wheel of Fortune or Fate by the value of the Hebrew letter Kaph, which is 20. The double sun then tells us of our fate, the fate of the world ultimately, and the working out of our Karma, our destiny or kismet, and so it is an appropriate spot from which to begin our hermetic wandering down Nerudova Street.

The Red Lion. Picture by E. Bridges.

Down the hill a few houses we come to our next alchemical metaphor, The Red Lion, number 41. Red is of course the most alchemical of all colors. In pigment, it is made from mercuric sulfide by a process that is thought to be an analog of the preparation of the “Red Powder” or the “powder of projection.” The Red Lion, here holding the golden chalice of the Grail legends, represents the final stage of the transformational process. There are other clues; the hexagonal structure on which the Lion leans and the strange disturbance in the sky that the Lion turns his head so sharply to see. The message suggests that an alchemical transmutation, whether of spirit or of metals, takes place between the physical matrix of reality and the obscure omens of the celestial realms. The Red Lion, the elixir of immortality, is the result of this balance, this harmony, of above and below. Tradition also relates that a young student, Jan of Pomuk, lived here while studying theology in the late 1400s. He would later become part of the Baroque patron saint, St.Jan Nepomucky, by a transformation that is pure mythic alchemy.

Just across the street from the head of the stairs at Jansky vresk is one of my favorites, The Golden Horseshoe, at number 34 Nerudova. No one knows, exactly, why the first golden horseshoe appeared on the house in the 1590s. Perhaps it had to do with the ghostly coachman who drives every Friday at midnight through the narrow streets and straight up the Jansky vresk steps, sparks flying like shooting stars from the spectral horses’ hooves, then making a sharp turn to the right down Nerudova, or Ostruhova as it was then. In the 18th century, the Golden Horseshoe was incorporated into a painting of St. Vaclav, the patron saint of Bohemia. Only the imprint of the horseshoe remained until recently, although St. Vaclav had been nicely restored. Today however, a nice brass and gold plated horseshoe is back in its place.

The Golden Key. Picture by E. Bridges.

Our next three house signs comprise a related group of meanings and images, the trinity so to speak of the hermetic work as a whole. First, at number 27 Nerudova, is the Golden Key, the Aureus Clavis of the great work. This represents the “right knowledge” needed to open the work; the key of course is the Green Language, the punning multilingual approach to symbolism used by the alchemists to both conceal and reveal their secrets. Without the golden key, the work is a closed book, a locked door. Just across the street at 28 Nerudova, we find the next principle, the Golden Wheel. Time and timing, the position of the wheel of the year and the great year of cosmic time, are all critical to the Great Work, and of course without the Wheel of Fate, literally the workings of what Jung called synchronicity, the aspirant will never find a teacher or a school of the Tradition in which to learn and work. A few houses down the hill at number 16 we find the Golden Chalice, the goal and end result of the work presented as the symbol of the transformation itself. It is the chalice of the mass, the container of the blood/wine of God made manifest in matter, and by extension the Holy Grail, the San Greal or the Sang Real, of the Medieval Romances. In Wolfram’s Parsival, we find the seamless union of alchemy and the Grail mythos. And it is no accident that Wolfram himself knew the Prague of the Premsylids quite well, using the myth of the Green Stone to unite his Grail with the Stone of the Wise by means of a Green Language pun, Lapis Exhilis.

The Red Lamb. Picture by E. Bridges.

Further down Nerudova, at number 6 on the edge of Malostranske Namesti and Thunovska, we find our next alchemical symbol, that of the Red Eagle. An exuberantly Mannerist stone frame of organic swirls and swooping leaves contains a Baroque painting of a large red eagle landing gracefully on the top of a small hill. Immediately, the symbol suggests the Egyptian Phoenix landing on its pyramidal ben-ben in the ancient city of the sun, On or Heliopolis. In this image we can see, as the Egyptians did, the philosopher’s mercury, the union of mercury and sulfur, grounding its volatility in the salt of the earth. Here this is symbolized by the hill of Abegnius, the Red Lamb, which curiously enough can be found across the street at number 11 Nerudova. This is a key step in the completion stage of the Great Work, the attainment of rubedo, or the reddening of the Stone that signals the transmutation of the powder of projection.

Our short walk down Nerudova has given us a primer, a basic text, for the Great Work of alchemy, both interior and exterior, all hidden in plain sight, waiting for those who can read the symbolism, and ignored by those without the golden key of the Green Language. Before we turn up to Thunovska, left us review the basics. Fate comes first, our destiny as a species and as an individual in search of transformation, and it is this that determines our Judgment, our karma. Then we see the Great Work from the perspective of uniting heaven and earth, as above so below. This in turn leads us to the three principles: the Key, the Wheel and the Chalice, or the wisdom, the practice and the goal of the Great Work. Finally, we are reminded of the need to ground our transformation in the energy of the earth itself, the mystic hill, the ben-ben of the Egyptian Phoenix.

Pondering these clues, we turn uphill to the left to Thunovska, where on the corner at number 9, we find the Golden Bell. This Baroque era piece of metal work is an amazing symbol for the nature of the transformation of time, from Iron Age to Golden Age. On top is a design that resembles both the Tibetan dorje or thunderbolt and the ancient sacred geometry of the Kabbalists. Eight swirls form the faces of an octahedron, with the vertices marked by the direction points, including top and bottom. This stands atop the semi-circle hemisphere of the bell itself. The image suggests the royal Orb and Cross, symbol of earthly power and authority, but it reaches beyond that metaphor to suggest the authority of a higher structural harmony in the shape of space/time. The Golden Bell rings when the cosmic alignments, the celestial harmonies, create a standing wave of transformational pressure, causing the quality of Time to change its vibration, the ringing song of the crystalline spheres.

Taking the next left down Thunovska, we follow Snemovni until it opens into a quiet triangular park, and beyond that we come to a charming dead end street named for our final stop, At the Golden Well. The rock on which Prague Castle stands towers over the street running beside it and leading to the sprawling Renaissance and Baroque house, now a five star boutique hotel. The current house sign, a stone relief by Josef Malinsky, shows the moment when Jesus encounters the woman at the well. This is a key moment in the Gospels, and Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman brings us directly to the alchemical mythos at the core of Christianity. Jesus expounds the philosophy of the “living water,” which brings with it eternal life, and the woman is so excited that she leaves her actual water jug behind and hurries off to spread the news of her encounter.

In Malinsky’s version, the well itself is covered by gold, with an inscription that reads “Deus est Spiritus,” or God is The Spirit. This is usually given as “Deus est Spiritus Sanctus” or God is the Holy Spirit. As it reads, it is simply saying that the Spirit or animating genius of the well is divine. In the anonymous Elucidation to Chretian de Troyes’ Grail Romance, we find the story of the holy wells guarded by nymphs, who offer travelers the water of life in golden bowls. It is this sense that we should look for meaning in the Golden Well; it is the ancient source of the life giving power of the Great Goddess. The well at this spot is apparently ancient, being absorbed in the early 16th century into the new area under the castle walls that would over time become the royal gardens, and owned by Rudolph II. He gave the house and its well to Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, who, according to the legend, had just such an encounter with the Spirit of the Well. Following his experience, he lined the sides of the well with gold, and was said to meditate on the workings of the universe at the well.

Climbing up the one hundred steps to the terrace cafe, through the middle of the new hotel, is almost as unique an experience as the view itself. Apollinaire, the French proto-surrealist, immortalized the spot in his poem “The Zone.”

“You are in the garden of an inn on the edge of Prague
you feel quite happy a rose is on the table
and instead of writing your story in prose you watch
the chafer sleeping in the heart of the rose…”

The Castle looms above, and the panorama of Prague in all its charm and strangeness is spread out in front of us. From here, where the divine spirit of Prague’s daemon rises up from the ancient lost well, we can see the old imperial city in a different way.

Written at The Donkey in the Cradle, Prague, April 2011.

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