Friday, February 12, 2010
I did a google search using the words “Alchemy” and “metalsmith” partly because I’m conceited and wanted to see myself on the internet, but mostly because I wanted to know if this little blog here had been picked up by the search engines and indexed yet.
A blow to my ego - no, I didn’t show up, but I did come up with 112,000 different listings - which roused my curiosity because I’ve never met another actual metalsmithing Alchemist and I was curious as to what all of those people I’ve never met were up to. Sooo… in the true spirit of experimental philosophy, I opened up all 112,000 of them and had a look (just kidding. I breezed through the first page). What I discovered was not unexpected, but it was still disappointing.
The word “Alchemy” has pretty much lost it’s meaning.
What I mean by that is that people use the term - maybe because it sounds mystical, magical, or neat-o cool - but have little, if any, idea what the word means. At best it seems to be used as a synonym for “change,” or the more exotic “transformation,” which is, I suppose, correct in the very, very vague way that the word “dog” means “friendly.” Change is certainly an important part of Alchemy, but it is hardly the defining characteristic.
I said that this was not unexpected. From the time of the Renaissance when ancient manuscripts made their way into Europe via the Middle East, along with Middle Eastern (primarily Muslim) works extending and developing the ideas found in those manuscripts, right up into the 18th century, Alchemy was an extremely important - if not THE most important - world view in Europe. Pretty much everybody engaged in any kind of intellectual work, ranging from mathematics, to physics, to medicine, to philosophy, and even the arts, was working from a background based on Alchemy. The philosopher/logistician Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher/mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, the mathematician/scientist Sir Isaac Newton, to name but a few, were Alchemists. Not just until they learned better - they were Alchemists until the day they died, and all the ideas, all their work, all they accomplished - were based on their explorations in Alchemy.
In the work of Shakespeare a person knowledgeable of the symbolic language of Alchemy (called “the language of the birds”) can find many Alchemical ideas clearly expressed. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Shakespeare’s final work, the hauntingly beautiful The Tempest.
In this play, the dual creative/destructive power of Hermes (Hermes is energy, and energy can be either or both creative and/or destructive) is played out between the “Airy Spirit,” Ariel, and the destructively ignorant Caliban. Miranda and Ferdinand form the royal couple in the sacred marriage, while Prospero acts as the master Alchemist who brings about the Grand Conjunction and union of opposites, transforming himself in the process. (We don’t know enough about the life of Shakespeare to know for sure whether he was a practicing Alchemist or not, but the Alchemical content of his plays is part of the evidence used to support the theory that Francis Bacon - philosopher, scientist, lawyer, statesman - and Alchemist - wrote them.)
And then… suddenly…
As the centuries slip from the 18th into the 19th, Alchemy vanishes from the face of Europe and the collective memory of Europeans. The foundations of the very thought processes which created the modern world we live in were completely forgotten. It’s as if, after having gone to college, earned your degree, and found a job, you suddenly forgot all those years you actually WERE in college. You knew what you had learned, but forgot the whole process of learning it - the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the leads that panned out, and the ones that dead ended - to say nothing of all those good times you had with your friends after hours.
So Alchemy vanished.
But not really…
A better explanation is that it blew apart as a result of the energy it generated.
Because Alchemy was a complete, integrated system in which all aspects of human experience and knowledge interacted, as each separate facet of knowledge reached a critical mass and began to develop exponentially, there was suddenly too much for any one mind to hold or even make sense of - order moved to chaos by taking the road marked “Complexity.”
In order to restore order, complexity had to be reduced. This was done through an act of separation (in Alchemy, we refer to this as “distillation”). The individual “fields” of knowledge were separated from one another, and each pursued by people who became increasingly specialized in one particular field - and, consequently, ignorant in the others.
Hence, the physical part of Alchemy became “Natural Philosophy” which divided into chemistry, physics, geology, botany, biology (you can see how this separation has continued. Biology is now cellular biology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, etc., etc.).
The internal, mental part of Alchemy became philosophy and psychology - both of which explore what we know and the way in which we know it.
The third part of Alchemy was the exploration of the soul (in Alchemy, things are typically divided into three parts - the physical part - referred to as “Salt,” the mental/intellectual part - referred to as “Sulphur,” and the soul part - referred to as “Mercury”). The exploration of the soul fell, for a long time, into the hands of powerful organized religious groups and languished due to their control. Currently, with the influx of religious thinking coming into Europe from other cultures, and the rise of new forms of spiritual expression - or the reemergence of old ones - the strangle hold of Western organized religions is loosening, and this area is beginning to advance as well.
What had once been an idea - that all areas of knowledge are intimately connected, intertwined, with each supporting and illuminating the others - was lost to specialization.
And a funny thing is now happening.
While I know that Alchemy, as Alchemy, will never really come back - it’s been too thoroughly forgotten - the basic idea behind Alchemy is returning. Thinkers, such as Edward O. Wilson, are pointing out what should be obvious - if what we learn in chemistry is true, it should tell us something about biology, which is based on chemistry. If what we learn about biology is true, it should tell us something about psychology, which is based on biology. And, to extend the thinking, - if the soul has a place in the body, understanding psychology should tell us something about the soul.
These people are telling us that all branches of knowledge are intimately connected and intertwined, with each supporting and illuminating the others…
Hmmm… it seems like I’ve written that before…
So this is what Alchemy REALLY is - not the freakish abortion of pre-scientific thinking, but the very essence of knowledge itself - the belief that all things are interconnected (Hermes sez: As it is above, so it is below). It’s the whole ball o’ wax, the big enchilada, the grand theory of everything.
Welcome to the return of Alchemy - the theory that everything which IS fits together, and the way in which it all fits together can be understood, and, being understood, can be used to accomplish tasks that seem magical. Maybe we are standing on the razor’s edge of the first real golden age for humanity - not as idealized legends, but as an actual reality.
Maybe we can make it, or maybe not. But I do think it is up to each of us to decide whether we are willing to do the work necessary to bring order out of chaos. And those of us who are trying are the New Alchemists.
Think about that the next time you hear the word “Alchemy.”
Thursday, January 28, 2010
I’m going to break my promise not to get all scholarly on you for just this once. The above quote is actually the first point in The Emerald Tablet, as translated by Sir Isaac Newton. The Emerald Tablet is the legendary beginning of Alchemical knowledge, which, according to legend was written by Hermes the Thrice-Great (Hermes Trismegistus). There are only about 12 or 14 points in The Emerald Tablet (depending on the translation you are using), and they are supposed to present the foundations of all the arts and sciences, so there’s not a lot of room to spare in those 12 or 14 points.
However, it seems that people have a tendency to breeze over this particular point, treating it more as a formalistic address than as a meaningful point. And there is, I suppose, a good reason for this. You will find statements like this in an awful lot of Alchemy texts. For instance, in The Golden Testament of Hermes, you will find this:
“He therefore, who now hears my words, let him search into them; I have discovered all things that before were hidden concerning this knowledge, and disclosed the greatest of all secrets.”
There’s a good reason why the writers of these texts needed to tell their readers that they were telling the truth, that there is something to what they say. The reason is this - until you are competent to judge for yourself, you’d never believe it. As soon as you come to something like this (also from The Golden Testament): “…the vulture standing upon the mountain crieth out with a loud voice, I am the White of the Black, and the Red of the White and the Citrine of the Red; and I speak the very truth.,” you’re going to think that you’re reading the random ravings of a disordered mind. But you’re not. Until you understand what you are being taught, you have to have trust in the teacher.
I bring this up because I am, by profession, a teacher. One of the things I teach is metalsmithing, in a high school. And I’ve taught hundreds of students how to use a jeweler’s saw, so I know just about everything a person will do wrong with one. And I’m going to tell you exactly how to use one so that it will work perfectly, and you’ll be able to cut straight lines or graceful curves through metal with - literally - no effort at all.
But if you’re like most of my students, you won’t believe what I tell you. You’ll try to do everything I tell you not to do, and not do everything I tell you to do. And nothing will work right until you resign yourself to doing it the way I tell you to do it. Save yourself some time and just begin by trusting me. Or learn the hard way, then come back and see that I speak truth.
There’s an interesting philosophical issue here. Every good teacher desires that his or her students will, one day, surpass him/her. And it is the job of every good student to go beyond the master’s teaching. This means that, sooner or later, you’ll end up doing things differently from the way I tell you to do them. This is entirely appropriate - BUT not until you understand WHY I tell you to do them in one way, and not to do them in another. To surpass a master, one must first master what the master has mastered, then master more (feel free to quote me on this any time you want to annoy somebody). You can only learn this by following my lead at first. So trust me for now. Tis most certain true.
I’m also going to do something very irritating. I’m going to give LONG explanations. There are thousands and thousands of books where you can get short explanations, and if this is what you want, try them. However, to understand the philosophy of a thing, you need the long explanation.
You should know that there are two ways to go through life - one is by following simple directions, in which case the one directing you will always be your master, or by learning philosophy (the art of careful and clear thinking), in which case you can become your own master. I prefer the latter, but it’s really up to you… Personally, I don’t want to be nobody’s master no longer than I needs to be…
So… on with the show…
Here is a jeweler’s saw, and some saw blades:
Notice how delicate and fragile it looks, and how thin and tiny the blades are. This is one of the first places you have to forget what you think you know. Go to black before proceeding.
You think that metal is hard, that you need some kind of power tools to cut it, and that cutting it is going to require a great deal of force. Please forget that.
The jeweler’s saw, with it’s thin, fragile blades, will cut through pretty much any metal you want to throw at it. It does this with grace and elegance, and without the use of force on your part. In fact, one of the biggest problems that beginners have is that they try to use force, and then nothing works right. The jeweler’s saw uses the magic of nature and of nature’s laws to cut - all you have to do is steer it (Hermes sez: Nothing can be accomplished unless it be in accord with nature).
If you look closely at a saw blade, you will see hundreds of little teeth. Each little tooth, as it glides over the metal being cut, takes a tiny sliver of metal off. Multiply one sliver by the number of teeth on the blade, and you get a lot of slivers. Then multiply that by the number of saw strokes per minute, and you get about two inches of metal removal per minute - or, as you gain experience, more. So, once you learn to use this saw, you can cut a five inch diameter circle out of copper, brass, silver, gold - or even steel - in about two or three minutes.
In order to cut metal, the saw blade has to be harder than the metal being cut. The blades are made of a steel alloy, and hardened until they are very, very hard - hard enough to cut steel which has not been hardened. The problem with this is that there is a trade off. The harder a material is, the more easily it fractures because “hard” makes things “stiff,” and “stiff” doesn’t bend well (in Alchemy, this is called “calcification,” which means, literally, “turning into stone”). If a stiff thing bends too much, it breaks (think of a sheet of glass. Glass is very hard - you need a diamond to scratch it - but a stone tossed at it by a child will cause it to fracture into a million pieces).
This means that the very, very hard saw blades will break very, very easily if they bend. That’s why tuning the saw frame is so important (think of the saw frame as the body of a stringed musical instrument - the Lyre of Hermes - and the blade as the string. To get it to work properly, you have to make sure the string is tight enough). The saw frame - if you work with it and not against it - will hold the blade in such a way that it doesn’t bend. But it can only do this with your help.
Check the orientation of the blade in the saw before you go any further! The teeth MUST point away from the saw frame, and be angled downward, toward the saw handle. If the blade is in backward - with the teeth pointing toward the inside of the saw frame - you will know as soon as you try to cut something because you will saw and saw and nothing will happen.
If the blade is in upside down, with the teeth pointing away from the handle, you will be able to cut, but you will also spend a lot of time cursing. With the blade in correctly, the motion of cutting pushes the metal down against the v-block (which I’ll explain later) and all the energy you expend in moving the saw goes directly into making a smooth cut. If the teeth point upward, the action of cutting lifts the metal up, wasting your energy, and the jittering metal ends up with a raged edge that looks like it was chewed on by psychotic beavers.
If your eyes are as bad as mine, you can easily check for correct blade orientation by running your finger - very gently - along the front of the blade. The teeth will catch on your fingerprints as you move away from the handle if the blade is in correctly.
I will sometimes run into people who insist that they can cut with the blade placed incorrectly. If you run into somebody who tells you to use some kind of eccentric cutting method, check the quality of their work before you accept their teaching. I’ve never met anybody who does quality work with a badly placed saw blade. Generally these people treat cutting metal as if it is some kind of divine penance they have to put up with instead of the gentle meditative pleasure it actually is. And they’re right. If you try to work against nature, you will pay for it.
Once you have the blade clamped in, you will need to tighten the saw. To do this, first make sure that the length adjusting thumbscrew is loosened. While standing (and it really works much, much better if you stand), place the butt of the saw on a firm surface, like a table top (NOTE: This will leave a dimple on a wooden surface. You may want to put down a small piece of pine board so you don’t mess up the table). With the butt on a board, and the handle hanging over the edge of the table, grab the crossbar (between the lower clamp and the length adjusting screw), and push down. If you are on the small side, lean your body over the saw as you push to get a bit of leverage.
When the blade tightens up, tighten up the length adjusting screw. Hold the saw frame with the mounted blade up in front of your face, and pluck the saw blade like a guitar string. You should get a nice tone out of it. Enjoy the musical sound of success! - recite a brief poem of praise to Hermes.
If you don’t get a musical tone, or the blade feels soft instead of tight, try again. You can’t cut with a limp, unmusical blade…
Before you begin cutting, there is one more thing you need to consider - and this is often overlooked, much to the sadness of the metalsmith.
Blades come in different degrees of coarseness (the number and size of the teeth). The size breakdown goes about like this - starting with the coarsest blades and getting finer: …5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, 00, 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0, 5/0, …
Now, the coarsest blades are thick and heavy, while the finest ones look like hairs, so the beginner is often tempted to try using the coarser blades, thinking that thick is more sturdy and less likely to break. Then, after trying to saw for ten minutes, the saw ends up in the garbage, and the aspiring metal smith ends up going into accounting, or advertising, or something else unfun.
The problem is that the blade has to be correctly matched to the THICKNESS of the metal being cut, not the QUALMS of the one doing the cutting. Attempting to use a blade which is too coarse for the thickness of the metal makes sawing nearly impossible - and entirely impossible to do well (thickness of metal is generally identified by “gauge” - the higher the number, the thinner the metal. For instance, 14 gauge is quite thick for jewelry work, 18 gauge is somewhat thinner and fairly common, 24 gauge is quite thin, but useful for lightweight earrings and such).
Ideally, you want about three or four teeth resting on the face of the metal you are cutting as you cut. If you look at a nickel from the side, picture how small the teeth would have to be in order to get 3 - 4 of them on there. Then look at a dime, and imagine the same thing. To understand why you need 3 - 4 teeth on the metal while you cut, take a look at this picture:
When three or four teeth ride on the edge of the metal, they scrape small slivers off like they are supposed to, and they also guide the teeth above them, keeping them from hooking the edge. However, when there are fewer than three teeth, the teeth above the metal tend to hook over the edge and get stuck. When this happens the metal smith tries to use force to get the saw moving and the saw blade either breaks or tears a ragged chunk out of the metal - or both.
Here is a link to Contenti, a supplier I use frequently. This chart shows which blade size to use with what metal gauge. There are some funky varieties of blades - spiral blades and skip tooth blades, for instance. Don't bother with these until you've learned what a regular blade will do. Also, the better blades are German, Swiss, or American - avoid the cheaper blades from India, unless you are cutting steel - the Indian blades are somewhat thicker, which makes them harder to steer, and they tend to dull faster.
In the next article I’ll explain how to actually use the saw to cut something. Until then, browse around at the Contenti website, look over the saws and saw blades, and think about this:
According to legend, on the night of his birth, Hermes stole the cattle which belonged to his half brother, Apollo, which explains why Hermes is not only the messenger of the Gods, but also the god of thieves. He is also the protector of prostitutes, if that kind of thing matters to you.
Anyway, While taking the stolen cattle back home, Hermes found a turtle, a couple of horns, and some leather strips. He put them all together and made the first musical instrument - the Lyre, kind of a harp-like thing.
When he got home he ended up in big trouble because Apollo didn’t much like having his cattle stolen. However, Hermes started to play his lyre, and Apollo was so entranced by the music that he traded his entire herd for that lyre.
In Alchemy, Hermes represents the “force/power/energy” which causes things to happen (the carier of action/intermediary between the Gods and humans), while Apollo represents intellectual thought (the active principle/the Sun). What, then, do the cattle represent, and what about that lyre?
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Hermes sez: As long as you are trying to make gold, you will never make gold.
I’m anxious to get into the actual act of working with metals, and I’ve begun to shoot photos to use in an article explaining how to use a jeweler’s saw (which should be the next topic), but right now I am waiting for my daughter to get out of dance class, I have time to kill, and so I’m going to ramble on about something else.
I want to introduce you to my friend, my teacher, and my animal familiar - Old Mr. Jenkins, the official studio cat of Splendid Fish Studio!
Alchemists, like a lot of other magical folk, tend to have animal familiars. As a general rule, my esoteric cohorts prefer toads. The toad represents the point at which inanimate matter begins to turn animate (because the toad is cold and looks like a clod of dirt, but isn’t), kind of like Frankenstein’s monster, but in a good way.
So, to apply the symbol, the point at which your idea begins to take shape, when it moves from being a vague, formless thing in your head and turns into something you can actually visualize, is the toad. Then, you’ve got a toad in your head. Or, if you are working on a complicated project where you need to make several parts individually, the point at which you begin to put them together and can see the thing you are making take shape right there in your hands, is the toad. You’re holding a toad.
But I, Corbin, have never been very good at following the rules, and I thumb my nose at tradition, so I have a cat. My familiar has turned out to be a very good teacher. I don’t mean that he whispers secrets in my ear at night, or that he has some deep knowledge from the edge of time which he has revealed to me through a series of signs and wonders. He’s taught me things in a very mundane way.
To understand what and how Old Mr. Jenkins has taught, I have to tell you something about his life story.
I live out in the country. It sometimes comes to pass that people who decide they do not want a pet will take the animal out into my neighborhood and dump it. When this happens, the animal sometimes ends up in my garage. We’ve acquired more than one cat this way.
There was a black female cat living in the garage a few years ago, and she ended up pregnant, had a litter and eventually got hit by a car. Four of the litter got promotions to the inside of the house, the rest found homes with friends.
After mom cat’s demise and our adoption of the kittens, her paramour moved into the garage. He was an old tomcat who had seen better years. His fur was rank and matted, he had a voice that could only be described as “God freakin’ awful,” his ears were tattered, torn, and ragged from frostbite, and he had cataracts on his eyes which gave a look much like Satan on acid.
Every time we went outside, he’d come racing toward us, screeching like a homeless schizophrenic, glaring at us with those terrible eyes (did you ever read “The Telltale Heart”?). My kids would run in terror. My wife and I avoided him, not wanting to admit that we were afraid, but also not wanting to get close enough to be touched.
It got so bad that I decided (actually, my wife decided for me) he’d have to go. I grabbed a box, collected what little courage I could find, and headed out to, hopefully, grab him quickly, stuff him in the box, and take him to the animal shelter where they’d find some way to get rid of him while I wasn’t watching.
So out I went… As I went to grab him, he attacked…
It was terrifying. There I was, already keyed up, and this monstrous demon of a cat threw itself at my legs and began to rub and purr vigorously.
Hey, wait a minute… That hardly qualifies as an attack…
Or, if it is, it must have been a love attack.
It turns out that Jenkies (he’s stone deaf and doesn’t mind being called Jenkies) has, aside from his looks, sound, and disabilities, had only one problem. He was desperately lonely. And he had a terrible need for human company.
Well, this changed everything, obviously.
How would it be possible for me to take a living thing to the pound once I’ve realized that the living thing’s greatest pleasure in life comes from loving me? How does a person do that? I know it happens, but the “how” of it escapes me entirely.
So Jenkies suddenly became a favorite of, not only me, but my wife as well. He got a nice, soft chair out in the garage to sleep on (he’s so old that he sleeps most of the time), good food every day - as much as he wants, and clean water. And when the cold weather set in, and we realized he was far too old to survive another Northern Michigan winter outdoors (three feet of snow and below zero temperatures are common), he came inside.
Jenkies is an unneutered male, and all our indoor cats are unspayed females (they all live indoors, so no kittens), so Jenkies can’t mix with the general household population (they’re all his daughters, anyways). And he’s too old to be neutered. We checked into eye surgery to fix the cataracts, but, even if we could afford it, he too old to handle the aenesthetic and would never survive. So the only place we could put him was in my basement studio, and that’s how Old Mr. Jenkins became my studio cat.
Well, Mr. Jenkins in the studio is a bit of a problem. First, he’s annoying. When I turn on the light, he usually wakes up, and instantly wants me to pick him up and pet him, for as long as he can get me to do it. He rewards me by purring like a Ferrari, and by shedding huge gobs of fur all over me (which makes my face itch, and gets in my coffee, and on everything I touch). He won’t eat until he’s been petted as much as I’m willing to do it.
And when I stop before he’s satisfied, he rubs against my legs while I’m trying to work. I constantly trip over him, or, when I’m working at the drawing board, he struggles up the chair, uses the shirt I’m wearing as a support, and gets on whatever I’m trying to work on. The studio isn’t really big enough for him and me, and sometimes I get the urge to just kick him out of the way. Instead, I waste 15, 20, 30 minutes scratching his head or brushing him…. Several times each work session (which, considering that I can only spend about 4 hours a night in the studio - when I’m lucky - is a big chunk of time).
He’s old, sometimes he misses the litter box, and I have to waste more time cleaning up. His favorite chair got moved from the garage into the studio, which meant that I had to move my soldering table in front of my accounting desk (which I can no longer use) and away from my quench bucket, which means that I have to carry red hot pieces of metal from one side of the room to the other, being careful not to drop them on Jenkens while he’s sleeping.
All in all, it makes everything I do less efficient, and more time consuming… but he’s an old cat…
This cat might be a hundred years old, for all I know. I think he once belonged to Schrodinger because, until I turn on the studio light, I’m never sure if he’s alive or dead. So far, he’s always been alive. One day the probability wave will collapse in such a way that he will be dead.
When that happens, I guess I’ll take out the chair and the litter box, and move everything in the studio back into the original design I had intended - a much more effective work environment, giving me a perfect set up for efficient work flow. I won’t be wasting time anymore, so I will be able to finish jobs quickly, and make a greater profit. I’ll be able to focus on what I’m doing without the need to push a cat out of my way constantly, so I’ll do better work. Splendid Fish Studio will become a much more efficient work environment.
But I don’t think it will be a better one. I’m going to get lonely down there on my own…
There always comes a time when the student must leave the teacher. This has to happen - it’s part of the natural order, just as every bird must leave the nest, and every child must leave the parents - but it’s still a sad time. I will miss Mr. Jenkins, my favorite teacher.
By the way, I forgot to tell you what he has taught me so far…
1. The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is. It is what it is, and the only way to know for sure what it really, really is to stop thinking you know it until you have tested it. This is why the first step in learning is to become ignorant.
2. Sometimes things are really, really bad, even for the best of us. If you are lucky, you might get through it. But don’t let it make you mean, because that might kill your future good fortune - and you.
3. Sometimes you get lucky. When that happens, take advantage of it, and enjoy it - never question your good luck. Act like it’s natural, because good luck is just as natural as is bad luck - and just as common (yesterday I found a dime in the sink!).
4. Everything which is true is learned through the study of nature. The place most people make a mistake is imagining that nature is somewhere “out there where the trees are,” but not “in here where the people are.” Everything is nature, even a cat living in a basement room, and me, and the interactions between the cat and I.
5. It is not at all uncommon for the very best things to be exactly the thing which somebody has thrown away out of ignorance of it’s true value, or in a moment of laziness, or of anger.
6. Focus, single minded determination, and efficiency are important in creating good art, but not the most important things. If it were, machines would be the consummate artists, since they have nothing going for them other than focus, single minded determination, and efficiency. In order to make good art, you have to have what, in humans, is called “humanity,” but, in animals, is called “love.”
This is why Hermes sez: As long as you are trying to make gold, you will never make gold.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I set up this blog with some definite ideas about what I wanted to do with it, but I'm finding that the hardest part is beginning.
Ultimately, I intend to try to teach my readers two things - Alchemy and Metalsmithing, and my first impulse is to immediately launch into some definitions and history in order to show why these two things are so intimately connected. Eventually I'll have to give some definitions, but... it occurs to me that, when one begins, it might be better to begin at the beginning. As I progress, things will become increasingly clear to the careful reader (I hope).
Anyway, in Alchemy - as with all things - you begin with the Black Crow:
My Son, that which is born of the crow is the beginning of this Art. Behold, I have obscured the matter treated of by circumlocution, depriving it of light. I have termed this dissolved, and this joined, this nearest I have termed furthest off.
(Hermes is the mythological Ur teacher and prime mover in Alchemy. When I quote from the Alchemical literature, I'll just attribute everything to Hermes - it saves me from falling into the abyss of scholasticism.)
Alchemy can be described as a process of transformation, leading from Chaos to Order (weirdly, Chaos and Order are the exact same things, but seen from two different vantage points). Or it can be described as the understanding of the process of transformation because, if things go through a predictable series of changes as transformation occurs, to understand one series of transformations is to understand the underlying principles of them all.
The process is often described as a series of color changes - black to white, white to red, red to yellow. Other colors are sometimes added in (green and blue are common) to describe specific details, but the general black-white-red-yellow sequence is the most fundamental.
So we begin with black, and with the Crow.
The black stage is the stage of chaos and putrification. Hermes sez: Putrification before generation. All colors must return to black before proceeding.
Putrification occurs when things loose their coherence, they begin to fall apart and mingle indiscriminately with the things around them. This is chaos as well. But the trick here is to understand that chaos is a way of looking at things. All things follow their nature, therefore, if the nature of a thing is understood, what was once chaotic becomes orderly. So - to transform chaos into order, all that is required is to understand.
Black, then, is ignorance.
Enter the Crow.
In many mythologies, ranging from Native American to Norse, the crow, because it feeds upon the dead, thereby returning dead material to life, is the intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, or the messenger between us and the Gods. It is also the guide which leads from the world of the living into the world of the dead (technically referred to as a "psycho pomp"). This is also the traditional role ascribed to the god Hermes, which is why the Crow is equated with Hermes.
Death is putrification - matter which, in life, is well ordered, in death becomes chaotic. The role of the Crow, the messenger of the gods and psycho pomp, and of Hermes, then, is to bring death and life, chaos and order, into alignment as a complete system in which each becomes an inseparable part of the other, creating balance.
Hermes the Crow brings about the first transformation - from death to life, or, as Hermes sez, "Putrification before generation..." By the way - in a complete system, the flow goes both ways. Ignorance leads to knowledge, but knowledge also leads to ignorance. Or, to put it more clearly, the more you know, the more your realize how much you have yet to learn…
If black is ignorance, and ignorance is chaos, then, to transform chaos into order, you must gain knowledge. When knowledge arises out of ignorance - when the crow flies - you have entered the second stage, the "whitening," which is purification.
At this point you are scratching your head and asking "Well, what the HELL does this have to do with metalsmithing?"
And good questions demand good answers, so here goes:
If you decide that you want to learn metalsmithing, that you want to learn how to turn a lump of dead, boring metal into a living work of art, you must begin with what you know, and, in the beginning, you know nothing.
You look at the work of master metalsmiths, and stand in awe of what they have done. You wonder if it is possible - even remotely - to learn to do yourself what others have done before you. The work of the masters is what Carlos Castenada refers to as "A tale of power," and, at first, all we can do is listen to that tale of what others have done, and stand amazed.
But Hermes tells me: "What one man has done, so may another."
Follow the Black Crow. Do not be afraid to begin in ignorance - it is the only place from which to start. As the Crow flies, the blackness will drop from it's wings, and the white crow will emerge. One day your work will be a tale of power to someone else...