Bird Symbolism in Alchemy

Concepts are carried easily on the feathered backs of birds. There are many animal symbols within alchemical scripture and art, wolves, dragons, unicorns, dogs, deer, insects, lions, toads, but above all most often allegories are represented by birds. They permeate all world religions perhaps due to their ability to fly, crossing the domains of earth and the celestial, and their associations with freedom. They also come in a myriad of colours in nearly every geographical area, and colour symbolism is active in the psychology of most theological and spiritual beliefs. 

In my experience there are five to eight birds in alchemy. The crow and raven, the peacock, the dove and swan, the pelican, and the phoenix and eagle. These birds embody states of being. We can learn from them and embody their values within ourselves. There are many guides in alchemy and all of them can be found inside. Birds of alchemy fulfill the archetype of angels in secular understandings— each has their domain, their own wisdom, but form a vast safety net in mystical psychology. They allow us the ability to step out of the comfort of mundane thinking and internalize symbolism readily available to create a wider world view and heightened self understanding.

The crow and the raven, being attracted to putrefication, represent destruction and decay in alchemy. They exist as one in the five, as corvids, but I see them as two aspects, the lesser and the greater stages of destruction. In the 12 keys or processes of transfiguration, calcination, dissolution, and separation are of the crow and the matters of later putrefaction and fermentation are of the raven married with the dove. 

In the gradient between the raven and the dove is the peacock, the iridescent film across the putrid matter that represents all the colours of the rainbow reflected in the colour white. The peacock is proud and creative, a sign that the path one is on is true. It often leads the way towards the next phase,

The dove is related to the stages of clarity, Albedo, which it shares with the swan. Again these two merge into one but can represent a duality— the swan is majestic and graceful, while the dove is of peace and faith. The entire contradictory and discontent mass of alchemical understanding is a part of the singular one just as our discontent and contradictory body is one. Doves are swans and swans and doves and both are neither. If you’ve been reading my pieces on alchemy this sentence will make sense. Just as the conflicts between humans are a part of the system of ‘us’ and yet we are one species, each one of us different yet the same, the swan and dove become one and separate in the world of Albedo.

A bird, like the peacock, not specifically tethered to any phase is the Pelican. They are found in a few places in alchemy, but I most associate them with citrinas, though they’re also very applicable in the beginning stages of transmutation, as they represent sacrifice. Pelicans are willful and aware though and usually belong further along in the cycles of transmutation. In olden times it was believed the bird was the perfect mother to the point of pecking their breast to sustain their young on their blood in drought and famine. Imagery of the pelicans reaching down to pierce their chest is shown to be reflected in distillation apparatus, specifically the pelican flask, where tubes bring distillate back down from the top to the base to reflux. I and others consider the pelican to represent the third and second last stage as this is a time to test if the work done until now is stable. We must be willing to sacrifice all we’ve learnt if it’s proven to not hold up as true and unbreakable. If it can be destroyed, it’s not ready. This is relevant in all stages, but in citrinas we are readying ourselves for the final phase. Most specifically the pelican represents the love and energy the alchemist must put into their craft, the blood quenching our baby.

When the baby grows to its full potential and we grow with it, this is rubedo. 

The eagle and the phoenix are the final stage, attributes of great immortality and harmony of being: the mythical being the spiritual and psychological, the eagle being the practical and physical. I’ve never met these birds myself so my notes will be briefer than the others. What we know of the immorality of the soul is that we already possess it but don’t know how to accept it, how to truly be aware of and harness the full potential of ourselves as inhabitants of this reality. We know the fire bird as a symbol of rebirth which is a key aspect of alchemy. The eagle is known in many cultures as a noble, proud, fierce, majestic, and mystical creature. 

Teachers, guardians, philosophers, these birds can be found in most alchemical emblems and manuscripts and beyond in wider fields of thinking. I believe in eternal knowledge within all of us and therefore thoughts transcend belief, organization, religion, and way of life. I believe in the power of these bird symbols because I’ve never absorbed something that challenged them and instead see them in everything I do.

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