The Deep Cut
Sarvenaz Mostofey in conversation with Krzysztof Gutfrański
The following essay points out how game developers from Egypt use their alchemical knowledge and how they have come to understand the image of migration and refuge as a quality that mirrors a key principle of alchemy: the dualistic nature of existence. Migration and refuge are subjects the duo Solælune, consisting of visual artist Nardeen Galuaa and game developer Alieldin Ayman, often delve into. In their games, such as I, in Empathy (2020) and Elysium: The Refuge (2019) they propose a new image of the refugee as the alchemical acolyte. »The act of migration is a transitional state,« they say, »and it transforms individuals, and there it can be tied closely to the alchemical initiation.«
Solælune (Alieldin Ayman and Nardeen Galuaa) — Mrz 17, 2021
Solælune, I, in Empathy, 2020
Solælune, I, in Empathy, 2020
How good it is to migrate every day! How beautiful it is to stop somewhere every day! How nice it is to flow without freezing and getting muddy! What word that belongs to yesterday, is gone, my loved one, with yesterday. Now is the time to say new things.
– Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Now Is The Time To Say New Things
It is no coincidence that the subject of spirituality and divination has recently gained tremendous recognition in art and contemporary society. One can observe an increased interest in studying topics such as magic, occult, shamanism, and alchemy. The global pandemic and prolonged forced lockdowns might have awakened even more feelings of unsettlement and a changed perception of time, and with it inner thought and meditative conversation with oneself in hope of ultimately changing, or merely escaping, the secular nature of modern life.
For the ones who truthfully seek within, the difficulty of these periods is a major characteristic of what we call the »spiritual pilgrimage,« a term we use to describe a journey ventured by the soul to destinations where enlightenment is possible; a liminal home and a resting place built upon harmonizing inner conflict and embracing the divine within. It is important to understand that a spiritual pilgrimage is neither bound to particular spatial constellations or crossing borders – except for those of the mind. Should circumstances allow for it, a physical transformation, or a metamorphosis, reflects and accompanies that of the spiritual. The following text wants to emphasize the understanding that migration (with all its devastating moments) can be understood as such a spiritual pilgrimage.
An excellent representation of the concept of the spiritual pilgrimage as we understand it can be found by studying the last five emblematic plates in the Book of Lambspring (1556). These are concerned with fulfilling the great work of alchemy: the philosopher’s stone1, or as Lambspring mentions it, the »philosophical stone.«2 The plates show a narrative whose three main characters are: a king, his son, and a winged spiritual guide; of which could be seen as the earthly body (the king), the soul (the son), and the spirit in man (winged figure).
Emblem XIII from the Book of Lambspring, Musaeum Hermeticumm, 1678 (wikicommons).
The king entrusts his son, the prince, to the spiritual guide to show him the world below from a high mountain above, and the heavens above from below, which fills the prince with great joy. Likewise in a spiritual pilgrimage, this event reflects a process through which the soul separates from the earthly body and its physical senses mature, and simultaneously is made conscious of its own nature and the inner world through the spirit. This event can be traced down to »the nigredo,«3 or the blackening, in alchemy. However, during these transformative procedures the soul could easily be deceived by the initial inner brightness, which is often mistaken for true illumination: »the albedo« or the whitening, which precedes »the rubedo,« the reddening.4
The next plates from the Book of Lambspring reveal the choice of the prince, who mourns the lonely king and returns to his pale and dying father, as the soul must return from its pilgrimage for the alchemical initiate to continue beyond the albedo. As the story progresses, the father – who deeply rejoices his son’s return, so much so that he devours him – goes into a metamorphosis of the body that changes his form to resemble that of a glorious man; albeit still wishing for his son’s return. The change – and the hybrid state – represented resonates with the way we use the term migration/spiritual pilgrimage. This is a physical, observable change that follows and reflects that of the soul and the spiritual.
»And perhaps it is through this very separation of consciousness, and coexisting in multiple realms, tied together by bonds of empathy and solidarity, that the refugee might once again be made whole in a new home through rebirth (or replacement), that we understand it to be a modern image of the esoteric alchemist.«
Finally, upon the king’s wish, his body is softened by rain, which allows for the rebirth of the prince from the king to achieve the balance of body, soul, and spirit in the alchemical initiate; the rubedo, the final stage of the Magnum Opus of alchemy.
It is to be noted that the allegory of the suffering father devouring the returned son dictates the yearning for a physical manifestation of the soul’s transformation after its return, and the difficulty of the inner conflict the initiate must overcome to achieve the great work. The process in its entirety could also be grasped through reading these words from the infamous emerald tablet: »Separate that spirituous earth from the dense or crude by means of a gentle heat, with much attention. In great measure it ascends from the earth up to heaven, and descends again, newborn, on the earth, and the superior and the inferior are increased in power.«5
Refuge and migration are subjects we often delve into in our art practice; our deep interest lies in understanding how these notions transform individuals and how closely one can tie them to the alchemical initiation. The act of refuge is a transitional state. A verse of the gnostic gospel of Philip indicates that refuge can be interpreted as an alchemical process – one that does also start in the nigredo: »Those who have gone astray are those born of the spirit. And they are usually lost because of the spirit. So from one single breath of spirit the fire blazes and is blackened.«6
It is also noteworthy to consider how a refugee holds two entities or personas, a rescuer and a rescued (he rescues him*herself, and becomes the rescued). A selfless consciousness is consumed to create the path for a dormant yearning self, a potential future, which is an act done in perfect awareness, almost reminiscent of that of the alchemical Ouroboros7 constantly consuming its self to grow and survive.
Zosimos of Panopolis facing his inner self, separated by a tree of life from the Facsimile Edition of the Mushaf as-suwar (p. 157a). Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum Vol. 2 (wikicommons)
In our games, such as I, in Empathy (2020); Elysium: The Refuge (2019); and Nomad: The Pilgrimage (2018), we often use the concept of »shattering interchangeably« as a symbol for refuge, which we believe is one that incorporates the fickle nature of the state of consciousness of a refugee. The concept was first developed from a text written by Zosimos of Panopolis, in which he describes a long and strange sequence of dreams he experiences that Jung later considers a very difficult alchemical allegory.8 In his dream sequence, Zosimos is dismembered into four parts, and he describes it as being cut »in accordance with the rule of harmony.« Those parts are then burnt upon an altar until he realizes that he has become spirit through transformation of his body, a transcendence of flesh in a way. The visions extend much longer but end with Zosimos waking up and describing how much beauty he has witnessed and thus understood throughout his rather bizarre visions.9
The separation before conjunction is an important and recurring theme in alchemy that can take many forms such as its mention in Splendor Solis, an illustrated alchemical manuscript from the fifteenth century, written in old German. It says: »Mendalus the Philosopher says: I command all my descendants to spiritualize their bodies by dissolution, and again to materialize the spiritual things by means of a gentle decoction.«10
Plate VIII: The Fourth Parable (Reproduced from the original painting in the British Museum) from Splendor Solis (1582), public domain
Likewise, this concept played a major role in ancient Egyptian mythology: the fight of Osiris with his brother Set results in the dismemberment of Osiris’s body into fourteen parts that were scattered by Set in different places over the land of Egypt. The same number, fourteen, was of utmost importance in the continuation of the story, where Osiris’s son Horus avenges his death by fighting Set, resulting in his left eye being shattered. That eye is then healed by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and science, and alleged author of the emerald tablet under the name Hermes Trismegistus and made into the »Eye of Horus,« which Osiris uses to revive his father.
The eye got its common usage as the symbol that is now well known; one of healing, sacrifice, and resurrection. Rituals of counting and completing the Eye of Horus were performed in temples every month, linking it to the lunar cycle, again taking place over fourteen days.11
And perhaps it is through this very separation of consciousness, and coexisting in multiple realms, tied together by bonds of empathy and solidarity, that the refugee might once again be made whole in a new home through rebirth (or replacement), that we understand it to be a modern image of the esoteric alchemist. We’d like to conclude with the words of Thoth: »No one can be saved until he is born again. If you want to be reborn, purify yourself of the irrational torments of matter … This is the only road to reality. It is the way our ancestors tried to discover Primal Goodness. It is sacred and divine, but a hard highway for the soul to travel in a body. For the soul’s first step is to struggle against itself; stirring up a civil war. It is a feud of unity against duality. The one seeking to unite and the other seeking to divide.«12
Solælune was founded in 2018 by Alieldin Ayman, a game developer and software engineer, with the visual artist Nardeen Galuaa. The duo seeks to experiment with philosophical video game projects with the goal of creating awareness of humanitarian issues such as the refugee crisis and proposing alchemy as a medium to comprehend the human soul and its potential. Games developed by them include I, in Empathy (2020), Elysium: The Refuge (2019), and Nomad: The Pilgrimage (2018).
The philosopher’s stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers‘ stone were known as the Magnum Opus (»Great Work«).
Johannes Lambspring, Book of Lambspring as seen in Musaeum Hermeticum by Lucas Jennis, 1678. The original book could date back to 1556 with one of its earliest versions written in German. https://www.e-manuscripta.ch/doi/10.7891/e-manuscripta-6275 (accessed on February 6, 2021).
In alchemy, black (nigredo) is the first stage in the magnum opus. The nigredo state is accomplished by work; it is not the original state of the soul, the prima materia. It is something that one has come to, and is a signal that one is ready to begin the journey. See https://soulspelunker.com/2014/01/alchemy-nigredo.html (accessed on February 6, 2021).
Adam McLean: »The Birds in Alchemy,« in: the Hermetic Journal No. 5 (1979). Available online at: https://www.alchemywebsite.com/alcbirds.html (accessed on February 6, 2021).
The Emerald Tablet is an alchemical text that holds significant importance in the founding of western alchemy. It was allegedly written by Hermes Trismegistus, a name associated with the combination of Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth in Hellenistic Egypt, and the most significant figure in alchemy. It first appears in Arabic in the book of Balinas the Wise on Causes (Kitab Balaniyus al-Hakim fi’l Ilal) around 650 AD. Many translations have since been made, of which we included the one by Sigismund Bacstrom. Available online at: https://innergarden.org/alchemylibrary/emeraldtablet.html (accessed on February 6, 2021).
The gnostic Gospel of Philip is one of several ancient books discovered in upper Egypt in 1945, initially completed and translated in 1975. Available online at: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/GPhilip-Barnstone.html (accessed on February 6, 2021).
The Ouroboros is an alchemical creature, and perhaps the most famous one, first illustrated by Cleopatra the Alchemist, an ancient Greek alchemist who was born and lived in the city of Alexandria in Egypt somewhere between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era, in the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra. Available online at: https://cannotbecontained.com/2017/07/17/cleopatra-the-alchemist-sketch-of-a-philanthropist/ (accessed on February 6, 2021).
Carl Jung: Alchemical Studies: The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 13. Princeton 1967, pp. 59–60. Available online at: https://www.academia.edu/9234735/Carl_G_Jung_Vol_13_Alchemical_Studies (accessed on February 6, 2021).
Idem, pp. 64–65.
Solomon Trismosin: Splendor Solis, 1582, p. 30.
Geraldine Pinch: Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, 2002: pp. 131–32.
Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke: The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs, 1997, pp. 121–22.
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