It’s a gravestone, obviously, and one of no little antiquity. The National Trust guide, to whom I pointed it out, quipped, that with the skull-and-crossbones device, it might have been a pirate’s.
But it isn’t. Very probably, this is the gravestone of an alchemist.
Most people think of alchemy as the quest for chrysopoeia, that is, the transmutation of base metals into gold, and in a very limited, rather vulgar sense, it is. But this is just a microcosm of the true purpose of alchemy, which is the transmutation of the base material person; the alchemist’s own self, into pure, divine essence.
The alchemical process comprises several distinct stages of refinement, (typically 4, 7, or 12 in number), the first of which is Nigredo, a blackening, often involving death and putrefaction. The Caput mortuum – the useless residue left over from an alchemical process – is symbolised using a stylised skull, hence the use of a skull on a gravestone following death. The crossed bones beneath may be taken to represent two triangles, one pointing upwards towards the divine, and the other pointing to that which is below: in other words, the base, earthly body.
The philosophy of alchemy had its roots in ancient Egypt and Hellenic Greece. The respective gods of thosecultures, Thoth and Hermes, were traditionally viewed as messengers and mediators between the gods and man and therefore each became implicitly bound up with the alchemical journey. With the conquest of Egypt by the Greek Alexander the Great, they eventually became conflated as Hermes the thrice-great, or Hermes Trismegistus.
In respect of this, here is an excerpt from my novel The Satyr’s Dance, (Reynard Press, 2016):
‘When Alexander the Great had turned his armies to the south, towards Egypt, he discovered the entire pantheon of Hellenic gods already there. In the great Amun-Ra he had found Zeus; in Hathor, the beautiful Aphrodite. And in Thoth, revered God of Wisdom and Writing and Magic, the messenger and mediator between mankind and the gods – the Earthly and Divine, and all things opposing – he found Hermes.
When he looked east, towards the Levant and what would later become known as the Holy Land, he found Hermes there too. Revered for his wisdom, for his riches, and for the great temple he had built, there he was known as Solomon....................
.............Centuries after Alexander’s time, the crusading knights had come to the Holy Land and there built for themselves great churches and castles. As many were infected with leprosy, so too were they by the Egyptian and Hellenic wisdoms of astrology, alchemy and theurgy. It was there that Hermes Trismegistus, no longer Solomon but Baphomet, came to be worshipped as a god by the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – the Knights Templar.”
The conquests of Alexander caused the concepts of alchemy and Gnosis (the secret wisdom that enables the achievement of perfection), to be carried into the Levant and beyond. Here they were taken up by the Arabs and developed further as part of the rich learned and philosophical traditions which blossomed there. The Templars, (based principally at the site of Solomon’s Temple – the Temple Mount) adopted many of the Gnostic ideas and carried them to the west, where alchemy took root and flourished, especially during the Enlightenment period.
Interestingly, the powerful sea fleet controlled by the Templar order used the skull and crossed bones symbol as their naval pennant. Indirectly, this led to its use in various forms by the later pirates. So perhaps the national Trust guide on Holy Island wasn’t too far out, after all.