Excerpt From Numen Naturae: Dismantling the Tower
I am excited to offer an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Numen Naturae: Dismantling the Tower. This volume follows Numen Naturae: The Magician' Wand, exploring the relationship between the Tower and archetypes of destruction and renewal. Below you will find an excellent essay by Tai Fenix Kulystin exploring the Phoenix in mythology and psychology. Pre-order your copy of Numen Naturae: Dismantling the Tower here.
Destruction in the Name of Healing and Transformation
the phoenix and the tower
by tai fenix kulystin
We are change. It is the only thing constant about this manifest world, and, I believe, change is one of the great joys of being alive. The alternative to the cyclical change and growth of this material universe is the stagnancy of limitless awareness, the experience of omnipotence, omnipresence, and/or omniscience that is often ascribed to the All. This, in my cosmology, is the reason for breaking away from the cosmic soup of all that is and inhabiting these finite forms that advance, steadily with each breath, closer to death from the very moment that life begins. There is benefit to this finite and limited way of experiencing the universe, and that is the ability to experience change, the unknown, and the unexpected.
In order for us to change and grow, there is a necessity of death. In order for there to be space for change to happen within, for a new beginning to occur, we must clear the way and experience an ending. The ending may simply be the ending of the old way of being, the ending of a relationship, or any other kind of ending. This growth–death–rebirth cycle is the particular focus of this piece, specifically working with the archetypal, mythological, and alchemical aspects of the Phoenix and how that associates with one of the foci of this anthology, the Tower card of the Tarot.
Because my intention while writing is to embody that which I am writing about, bringing all aspects of my Self (soul, body, and spirit is one possible delineation of Self that I particularly enjoy) forward and into the topic at hand, the process of writing this article has been one of phoenixing within myself. Like so many of us, I am a procrastinator. My own flavor of procrastination comes from the anxiety of perfectionism. As I struggle through the process of unleashing words from brain to page, I allow myself to repeat the following spell whenever I feel stuck:
I can release my procrastination tendencies and my perfectionistic ideals. These stories are a part of me created in order to keep me safe from the shame of failure. I can let that part of myself relax. I can let that part of myself, as much as is willing, burn up in a flash so that it may rise again, so that it may find something better to do. That part, now risen from the ashes, is tasked with keeping me on time and focused so I may finish this piece. I phoenix as many times as I need.
Yes, phoenix is both a noun and a verb in my lexicon. It is a process, an action, an archetypal interplay of Self and image as well as the mythological image of the Phoenix bird itself. To phoenix is to destroy and build something new from the ashes. Often—in order to create, in order to get unstuck, in order to move forward—we must burn away that which is not useful. This is usually terrifying, and it may feel destructive or counterproductive, but it is the exact opposite.
I have been working with the Phoenix as a symbol of intentional destruction, of death, renewal, and rebirth, in an alchemical context for many years now. Specifically, I approach it as an archetypal and mythological symbol related to initiation and the transformation process of destruction as creation. With the combined approach of my personal ritual work, practical and spiritual alchemy, as well as aspects of depth psychology, I have been engaging with the archetype of the Phoenix within myself and my life and working to phoenix wherever and whenever is useful within myself. Right now more than ever, phoenixing is necessary so that we may access the healing power of its transformation: Burn it all down, so that we may become something new.
As I write this in early 2017, we are living in a time when change is happening at a radical pace. Going forward, we must either adapt or perish. Resistance is only possible through adaptation. The disease of disconnection that we as a society and a species have been infected with is currently in the forefront yet again with the political climate in the United States. We are in the time of the Tower, the time of the Phoenix, and all our aggression and hidden agendas are coming quickly to the surface as the walls crumble down around us and the foundation of this country and all of its layers of kyriarchy are becoming exposed. This means that we get to do something about it, and we already are. Our cultural tendencies toward disconnection, oppression, and fear of difference must be acknowledged by us as individuals so that we may choose connection, equality, and diversity instead. Cultural change happens one person at a time—each person recognizing a different way of being, making the necessary changes, and inspiring others to do the same—and the Phoenix is an archetype of this change.
The Phoenix as a mythological figure is best known for its ability to be engulfed in flames and rise again from the ashes. It contains within itself the entire process of death, renewal, and rebirth, of breaking down the old and building something new out of the wreckage. The Phoenix is forever growing and changing, destroying what does not serve it and recreating something better. It encompasses the beauty and wisdom of death, destruction, change, and becoming.
Phoenixes are often described as having the head of an eagle and the tail feathers of a peacock, but have very different coloring than either of these earthly birds. Phoenixes are usually depicted as the colors of fire and ash: crimson, scarlet, orange, amber, yellow, black, sometimes purple. Often the fenghuang in Chinese mythology is referred to as the Phoenix, who is in an endless fight/dance with the dragon, symbolizing a union of opposites or the yin/yang connection in that tradition. The unification of opposites or (re)union of the separated is also a foundational alchemical process. In Greek mythologies, the Phoenix is connected to the sun and is thought to be similar to or possibly come from the Bennu bird in Egyptian mythology, associated with Osiris and the annual death/rebirth of the solar cycle. As the Phoenix is connected archetypally to rebirth and renewal, it is by definition related both to the natural cycles of existence as well as our innate instinctual drives.
While the Phoenix is related to the Sun and the Tower card of the Tarot is often related to Mars, they are both archetypal images of renewal and rebirth. In his investigation of the Phoenix in Arcanum Bestiarum, Robert Fitzgerald identifies the Phoenix as related to the Judgment/Aeon card, itself associated with Pluto. When looking at the major arcana as a story or a progression, the Tower is the burning and destroying to ash that we must go through in order to rise again and be reborn as the Aeon, as the Last Judgement, as what comes next. The Tower, then, is the beginning of the Phoenix cycle, setting the old to flame, burning it down to ash so that it may rise again. The Phoenix itself is the entirety of this cycle, not simply the bird that rises, the bird that must flame, or the ash in between. The Tower holds within it the promise of rebirth, however, as its destruction is intentional, is purposeful, is designed to lead to the Phoenix. The Tower and the Phoenix are, then, intimately entwined with one another, the beginning and ending of the same cycle and representative of the cycle itself.
The Phoenix is often related to the final stage of the alchemical process. The final stage is that which arises, fully formed, from the process of breaking down and creating something new from the ashes or now separated parts. Alternately, the Phoenix is sometimes seen as a representation of the entire alchemical process of separating the object or psyche or other material into its separate parts in order to break them down into their purest state so that they may be reunified into a new perfected form. This can be done within practical alchemy in the form of plant, animal, or mineral matter, or with spiritual or psychological alchemy through engaging with one’s own body, soul, and spirit.
The symbol of the tower (the structure, not the Tarot card specifically) was utilized within alchemical imagery. The tower in this context is a symbol of the alchemical furnace, also called an athanor, where heat is applied to the prima materia—the connection between the material world at its base and the divine realm that it is pointing to and reaching up toward—as well as the alchemical process itself of the perfection of base matter into its most perfected or most divine nature. While this is not directly associated with the Tarot card, it is, I think, relevant to its symbolism and certainly relevant to its connection to the Phoenix. The fire that burned up the Phoenix may as well start in the tower/athanor, bringing forth that sudden destructive change in the name of our never-ending quest for alchemical perfection.
Within my professional work as a sexuality, intimacy, and trauma educator, I utilize a few different alchemical processes to assist my clients in recognizing the disparate pieces or parts they have already fragmented into and work to reunite them for a greater experience of wholeness. To survive our families, childhoods, or simply the society we exist within, most of us engage in some amount of compartmentalization, disconnection, or disassociation that fragments our sense of self. There are multiple alchemical formulae, usually based on three, four, seven, or twelve steps, to my knowledge, and probably there are more that I have not yet come across—I seem to recall a fourteen-step process but cannot remember where I found it. I prefer to work with these four I have mentioned, as they can easily correspond with the three principles (sulfur, salt, and mercury), the four elements, the seven (classical) planets, and the twelve zodiacal signs. In my practice, specifically, because a large part of my work focuses on approaching body, soul, and spirit, I work with the three-phase alchemical model most often.
The Phoenix here symbolizes so much of the work I do within this therapeutic coaching context. Much like the personal example I gave at the beginning of this piece, the symbolism of the Phoenix can be incorporated into any desired behavior change, and as a coach I work with clients on targeted goals to improve their relationship with themselves, with others, and with the world. I work to shine a light on the parts of the Self that have been cast off into the shadows or that are clinging to patterns or processes that no longer serve so that the client may reunite those parts with the whole of who they are.
Together we work to help them embrace the necessary death and rebirth of these parts and aspects of the psyche that no longer serve the greater Self, these parts that need love and attention so that they may phoenix. In this process we first begin with recognition of the Shadow , of the disconnection that has already been experienced and that we wish to address and unify, which is the alchemical stage of nigredo. Then comes albedo, the recognition that there is another way, that what was cast out or discarded or what is stuck can change and become something new. Here we work to implement the change, often stumbling in the moment, but eventually finding our footing. Finally we reach rubedo, which is the emergence of a new way of being, united and ready to enact these changes in behavior or belief in the world. This process can happen over the course of one session sometimes, if something is really ready to move, or over multiple sessions. It is also cyclical; there is no going through this process once and being done with change forever, as we are beings of perpetual change. Each cycle we go through usually ends up pointing to a deeper, older, underlying belief or struggle, and so we go deeper.
Within my own spiritual work with the Phoenix death–rebirth archetype, I personally associate the Phoenix with the goddess Babalon. I work with Babalon as a present-day incarnation of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar who first appears through the works of John Dee and Edward Kelly, who was brought into contemporary practice by Aleister Crowley, and whose image has been enhanced and understood through the work and workings of Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron, Peter Grey, Alkistis Dimech, Amodali Zain, and others. There is no direct traditional association between Babalon and the Phoenix imagery. Within Jack Parsons’s work with Babalon he channeled the phrase “Flame is Our Lady. Flame is Her hair. I am Flame” as an invocatory chant for Her. She is the power of destruction and creation in one, she is the living flame, that which devours and delights. While She encompasses more than the traditional aspects of cyclical change like the Phoenix, Her flame also engulfs us with lust. There is something to be said here about sexual power and the Phoenix, and why orgasm is referred to as la petite mort, or the little death.
That death of orgasm is a form of transcendence; a momentary ego loss that has within it the potential for change via the all-consuming fire of orgasm. You can add intention to this moment and to the buildup of arousal that preceded it, especially—though not only—the idea of phoenixing a part of yourself such as personal or relational patterns or behaviors which no longer serve you. That intention can ripple out through your life and psyche and Self, bringing awareness, intention, and attention to that moment of la petite mort, letting in that fire, letting the sensation of it rise from your genitals to your heart and out the top of your head if you are able, showering down around you, cleansing you and changing you. As a side note: this work, if done with a partner or partners, should always be done with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. Engaging with the life force through sex magic can be quite powerful, incredibly rewarding, and produce profound results. Be mindful of what you wish to change.
Change is by definition a form of death, a type of destruction, but from the ashes of grief or pain or pleasure we can rise anew with the opportunity to reconstruct ourselves to better fit the situation we find around us and the experiences we must face. We can embrace destruction as a force of creation, creating a necessary clearing in ourselves or our lives for something new to emerge. Too often we become stuck in experiences, pieces of ourselves, or patterns of acting and living that do not serve us. Working with the Phoenix is working with the experience of the Tower card of the Tarot. It is the work of tearing down what is no longer serving us in order to repurpose that part of ourselves or our lives for the better.
The experience of phoenixing is terrifying at first, especially when needing to change a core belief or principle that has run you for a long time. This, I think, is especially why many run away from it. So many are frightened of death in its form as the finite ending of our personal experience. To work with the Phoenix, to work with destruction, is to face a form of death. I find it is easier for my own psyche, and those of others who I have worked with, to accept the concept of the Phoenix, or the destruction–rebirth cycle that the Phoenix and the Tower offer, because instead of facing certain death or doom we are facing the opportunity for change, for growth, for the necessity of destruction in order to do something different the next time.
It is easy, when engaging with the Phoenix, to focus on one part of the phoenixing cycle more than another. We want the rising from the ashes but often do not want to have to go through the fire and become ash in order to rise. Or we get caught up in the devastation of being engulfed in flames and the experience of turning into ash that we forget we get to rise. Another aspect of the cycle and process of phoenixing too often forgotten about is that arisen bird of fire then has to take flight. If we tear it down, burn it up, and destroy it, we must also retask it to do something new. Once it takes new form it needs to fully rise and leave behind the flames; otherwise it will continue to burn up again and again without actually moving from the same spot: continuously learning the same lesson but not doing anything with the new knowledge, continuously repeating the same mistakes.
Another way of working with the Phoenix, possibly the first and most fundamental—so of course I’m sharing it at the end—is exploring its image and building a relationship with its form within your own psyche through active imagination or visualization work. You can begin by doing your own research about the Phoenix and finding what resonates with you, or simply meditating on which aspects of this essay stood out to you. If you are skilled in or developing your visualization skills you can imagine the Phoenix as a figure in your minds’ eye with as much detail and sensory input as you can—visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustation (for visualization in this context does not only include the visual). The more detail you are able to experience, the stronger your link with the archetype becomes, so take your time here to examine it from all sides and with all senses. It is okay if one sense is weaker than others, or one is stronger than others. It can be useful to focus on the sense that is the strongest at first, developing that as much as possible while also working on the others. Take your time to establish this relationship. Once you have an image of the bird, you can imagine it bursting to flames, reducing to ash, and forming again from the heap. Do this over and over until it becomes easy.
Once your Phoenix is thoroughly defined within your mind, the Phoenix can become you and you become it. This can be done in a number of different ways, such as imagining your arms becoming wings, your hair becoming feathers, and so on. Another way of becoming the Phoenix is by stepping into it, merging your body with the image you have created. Again create as much detail here in as many of your senses as possible. You can imagine the same phoenixing cycle again with you as the Phoenix. Then you can include intention with it and assist with your own transformation and growth. You can imagine this Phoenix that is now you in the same process of bursting to flames, reducing to ash, and forming again from the heap. What within you needs to phoenix? What behavior, habits, or patterns within you need to end so that you may free up that part of yourself to do better things? What needs to burn up, die, and be reborn from the ashes?
- R. Fitzgerald, Arcanum Bestiarum: Of the Subtle and Occult Virtues of Divers Beasts (Richmond Vista, CA: Three Hands Press, 2012).
- Christopher W. Plaisance, “Turris Philosophorum: On the Alchemical Iconography of the Tower,” in Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, ed. Aaron Cheak (Melbourne, Australia: Numen Books, 2013), 325–54.
- Prima materia, Latin for “first matter.” In alchemy, the prima materia is the material that you start with, the base matter that is to be purified through the alchemical process and become transmuted to its highest expression.
- Nigredo, Latin for “blackness,” is the first alchemical stage within the creation of a stone, often called the Philosopher’s Stone. It is the first of the three conjunctiones or unions within this process. All of these stages are named for the color the material turns during the process within practical alchemy. This is specifically the union of soul (sulfur) and spirit (mercury). For our psychospiritual purposes, the Shadow is found within the soul and is brought up to engage with the mind, representative of spirit.
- Albedo, Latin for “whiteness,” is the second alchemical stage and second of three conjunctiones, the union of soul/spirit with body (salt). Sometimes a stage between Nigredo and Albedo is recognized, that of the Peacock’s Tail, in which the material takes on an iridescence, though sometimes this is thought to simply be the beginning of the light/whiteness of albedo.
- Rubedo, Latin for “redness,” is the third alchemical stage and third of three conjunctiones. Here is the union of soul/spirit/body with world, or a move toward the universal, which is presided over by spirit. Sometimes a stage between albedo and rubedo is recognized, that of citrinitas, or yellowing, and sometimes this is thought to be the beginning of the redness of rubedo.
- Jack Parsons, The Collected Writings of Jack Parsons, accessed January 2, 2017, http://www.sacred-texts.com/oto/lib49.htm.
Tai Fenix Kulystin, MA, CSB, CCTP is an identity and intimacy geek, somatic sex educator and bodyworker, sacred sexuality practitioner, and ritual artist. A student of magic and witchcraft for over half of their life, Tai loves bringing ritual and the sacred into all aspects of their life and work. They are a student of Anderson Feri witchcraft, an adept in the Golden Dawn tradition of magic, and a practical and erotic Alchemist. Their professional work is called Embracing Pleasure, a somatic sex education and bodywork practice based in Seattle, Washington where they provide heart-centered, therapeutic guidance for adults of all genders, sizes, relationship statuses, and sexualities who are struggling with identity, embodiment, trauma, or connection and who long to be seen. You can find more about Tai's professional work at www.EmbracingPleasure.com and www.TempleOfEroticAlchemy.com.
Pre-order your copy of Numen Naturae: Dismantling the Tower here.