Snape as Vitriol: The Green Lion alchemical catalyst?

by John on May 6, 2007

I promised more than a week ago to post something about the place of Severus Snape in the alchemical drama of the Harry Potter novels. I’m still very much of two minds about this; I had hoped to post something definite but I cannot do that now. I don’t think that I’ll be sure enough of what Snape does and does not represent to say “I’m sure” until I can talk to Ms. Rowling about it.

As I don’t think I’m on her A-list for tea invitations, I will jump the gun of academic prudence instead and share with you (1) the Fandom research which has brought this to my attention, (2) my enthusiasm for this work (that is very different from what I have done or have seen elsewhere), and (3) my equally strong misgivings about it.

Let’s start with Severus Snape and my frustration in trying to see him in light of the Great Work taking place in the seven book alembic.

I have been asked several times at conventions, book stores, and on campuses when talking about the alchemy of the series what part the oily Potions Master plays. It’s a natural question, especially after I’ve detailed Ron, Hermione, and Harry’s roles and the meaning of Sirius’, Albus’, and Rubeus’ names in the black-white-red spectrum of the laboratory.

I’ve never given an answer that really satisfied me, if my interlocutors usually have been polite enough not to insist I come up with something better. Talking about Severus as both Dumbledore’s apprentice and his mirror image as an alchemist, the Gryffindor/Slytherin androgyn that is “slytherin-side-out,” is fascinating, even important (if true!), but it lacks the connect-the-dots transparency of Hermione as alchemical mercury or Sirius as the embodiment of the nigredo. I am eager to read anything that suggests something more easily understood about the character of Snape in the light of alchemy.

It’s a situation not unlike Harry Potter’s name. Many, perhaps even most readers disagree with my reading of what Harry’s name means. As a rule, someone in every audience (and one in ten reviewers on Amazon) feels obliged to tell me that my interpretation is “a real stretch.” I can live with that. What I find mind-boggling, though, are those readers who believe Harry’s name means, well, nothing. In a book full of Dickensian Cryptonyms and names embedded with literary and mythical references, the lead character’s name could be something like “Kodak” or “Coca-Cola”? Catchy but meaningless? There’s a real stretch.

Snape not having an alchemical role is like that. What chance is there in a book series in which every other major figure has a specific alchemical meaning or point-to-point reference that Severus Snape, the pivotal figure of these novels, doesn’t have one? I find that possibility one that is hard to get my head around (and I have pretty flexible noggin).

Hence my excitement when I found this in a Scribbulus essay posted at The Leaky Cauldron:

Vitriol is another substance that we will come across in the course of our analysis. It is the most important liquid in alchemy, bar none, serving as a catalyst for all subsequent reactions. It was distilled from an oily, green substance (copper sulfate) that formed naturally from the weathering of sulfur-bearing gravel. This Green Vitriol is symbolized by the Green Lion in alchemical drawings. After it was collected, it was heated and broken down into iron compounds and sulfuric acid. The acid was then separated out by distillation. The first distillation produced a brown liquid that smelled like rotten eggs (sulfur), but further distillation yielded a nearly odorless, yellow oil called simply vitriol. The name was also used for various sulfate salts, such as copper sulfate (blue vitriol, or rarely Roman vitriol), zinc sulfate (white vitriol), iron (II) sulfate (green vitriol), iron (III) sulfate (vitriol of Mars), or cobalt sulfate (red vitriol). Vitriol readily dissolves human tissue and is severely corrosive to most metals, although it has no effect on gold. Vitriol’s importance in the novels cannot be underestimated; without it, Harry cannot move through the stages of transformation to enlightenment, even when things look irrepressibly bleak…..

In Harry Potter, these four substances are symbolized by the following characters, and these will be discussed in greater detail: Mercury=Dumbledore, Sulfur=Hagrid, Salt=Sirius and Vitriol=Snape. The other characters have their places as well. Three couples represent the union of sulfur and mercury or the Great Marriage: James and Lily; Ron and Hermione (the “quarreling couple”); and Bill and Fleur. In addition, Ginny’s full name, Ginevra, means “white foam.” As mentioned in the paragraphs on vitriol, the only thing that can fight a sulfuric acid fire is foam. (highlighted by John)

Alchemy and Harry Potter, Scribbulus 116, pgs. 11-12

Two things caught my eye here with respect to Snape as Vitriol: “[Vitriol] is the most important liquid in alchemy, bar none, serving as a catalyst for all subsequent reactions” and “this Green Vitriol is symbolized by the Green Lion in alchemical drawings.” The Green Lion I had read about but never as Vitriol or as the critical catalyst of the Great Work. I put up my post on 24 April saying I would be writing soon about Snape as “the Green Lion or Alchemical Vitriol (the catalyst of the Great Work?)” with links to sites discussing these names and started looking through my books.

I was both relieved and disappointed. The disappointment came from not finding anything about alchemical vitriol that linked it to the Green Lion or that said it was a catalyst, not to mention “the most important liquid in alchemy, bar none.” Jung makes one reference to the Green Lion in Mysterium Conjunctionis: “the same is true of the synonyms for Mercurius, the green lion and the aqua permanens, which are likewise media of conjunction” (Mysterium Conjunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesisof Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, C. G. Jung, Princeton University Press, p. 461) but “media of conjunction” is a long way from “catalyst” and “synonym for Mercurius” contraindicates the symbol for Vitriol.

Abraham, too, in the three pages in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery devoted to the Green Lion does not mention vitriol. It is defined as “raw antimony ore, the unclean matter of the Stone, philosophical mercury, the prima materia in the earliest stages of the opus alchymicum (see Mercurius)” (A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Lyndy Abraham, Cambridge University Press, pg. 92).

Part of me, I confess, was relieved. How could I have missed something this important? Nothing in Burckhardt, Eliade, my four alchemical dictionaries, and the pile of picture books and histories linked the Green Lion with anything but philosophical Mercury (‘Mercurius’).

But my disappointment won out. Really, Snape is vitrolic, no? Look it up. “Very caustic or bitter, scathing.” Snape’s picture should be in the margin. And “Green Lion”? Is there a better image of Severus than this sign of Gryffindor and Slytherin’s conjunction? Only the “Red Serpent” can compete.

But the best part was “Snape as alchemical catalyst,” a substance that spurs the reactants to transformation while remaining unchanged (untouched or neutral) himself. This made such transparent, point-to-point sense I was really hoping I would be able to find something to make this link, however embarrassed I might feel about having it missed it myself.

Then, voila, the author of the Scribbulus piece, Arianhrod, appeared in the HogPro comment boxes asking me to write if I had any questions about Alchemy and Harry Potter, Scribbulus 116, pgs. 11-12. I wrote immediately, of course, and asked for (1) the source of the link between the Green Lion and vitriol and (2) the source of the assertion that vitriol was the essential catalytic fluid of alchemical transformation.

Arianhrod’s response was prompt, generous, even enthusiastic.

I will do my best to dig up that reference for you. Vitriol is a necessary catalyst in the reaction; without it, the reaction can’t take place. The alchemists believed that it was corrosive to all metals except gold, and even today high school chemistry students are taught that for the most part, a catalyst isn’t changed in the reaction. (It is, but the alchemists didn’t know that.) The term vitriol is also an acronym for “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying you will find the hidden stone.” This comes from Valentine’s Azoth of the Philosophers. Alternately, it is vitriolum, which is “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam”, or “Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying you will find the hidden stone which is the true medicine”.

There were different types of vitriol–blue, green, white, etc. Green vitriol is not common, which might be why the alchemists put so much importance on it. Green vitriol is a heptahydrate of iron (II) sulfate or ferrous sulfate. Sorry for being so technical; I have a background in chemistry. LOL Actually, any sulfate of the metals iron, cobalt, copper, or zinc is called “vitriol”. Modern chemists recognize it as a salt, not sulfuric acid, but sulfuric acid is still called “vitriol” or “oil of vitriol”. There is a school of thought that says the alchemists mistook vitriol for verdigris, which is copper (II) acetate. In any case, sulfuric acid is the most widely used acid in commercial production today, because it reacts with everything.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say (and they’re not the most reliable source, but…):

“Vitriol was widely considered the most important alchemical substance, intended to be used as a philosopher’s stone. Highly purified vitriol was used as a medium to react substances in.”

I.e., a catalyst.

Here is another source; see page 5: http://chemicke-listy.vscht.cz/docs/full/2002_12_05.pdf. In the meantime, I will try to find the source where I found that.

If we are wrong in this, then so is every other fansite out there, because EVERYONE seems to have identified Snape as the Green Lion or vitriol.

Arianhrod and I had a more than pleasant exchange of notes and found ourselves in agreement about Fandom’s obsession with ‘shipping and the necessity of uncoupling the alchemical exegesis of the books from this psychological turf war/projection sheet. There are some problems in this response, though, and, as tempting and delightful as Snape equating to vitriol and alchemical catalyst may be and as pleasant and generous as Arianhrod is, we shouldn’t rush past the red flags these problems send up.

(1) Arianhrod has no reference for either the assertion that vitriol is the Green Lion or that it is a catalyst for the reaction.

(2) Arianhrod cites a Wikipedia article that defines vitriol as what Abraham, Jung, and others say is the Mercurius or alchemical mercury and as a medium for the alchemical reaction. A chemical medium, however, is not a catalyst any more than a petri dish spurs the life that grows in it. Wikipedia is only a measure of internet consensus not historical, logical, or literary verities.

(3) The chemistry pdf article is about vitriol in the various streams of alchemy but nowhere does it mention it as the Green Lion or as a catalyst.

(4) Arianhrod argues from consensus in Fandom sites discussing alchemy: “If we are wrong in this, then so is every other fansite out there, because EVERYONE seems to have identified Snape as the Green Lion or vitriol.” I guess I really do need to get out more. Internet consensus is meaningless unless it can be tracked to a published opinion that has been through some process of verification.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for Arianhrod to find the source of the vitriol portion of “Alchemy in Harry Potter.”

I found the source for the vitriol citation myself in Arianhrod’s Scribbulus essay bibliography (pg. 41). In the letter posted on HogPro’s comment board, Arianhrod had written:

We have literally read hundreds of texts and books on this subject. Hundreds. Applying them to the stories is challenging, but you can’t make a square peg fit a round hole no matter how much you try. You have to constantly re-evaluate your theory as new information comes along, not cling to it. New ideas and fresh perspectives come with change…

I went, naturally, back to the Alchemy and Harry Potter essay to look at the bibliography and “works cited” and compare it to my preferred sources. It certainly is an impressive list, if nowhere near the hundreds of texts Arianhrod has read. I found it frustrating, though, because those ideas in the essay I found most interesting were always the ones without references.

I noted one trend in the “works cited” section. Of the 37 references in this section, 9 of the references are to the same source. As this constitutes almost a fourth of Arianhrod’s notes, I assumed the authority must be Adam MacLean or another alchemy maven who had digested “hundreds if not thousands” of books and published on the subject. When Mr. MacLean weighs in on alchemy in Harry Potter, I hope to be in the audience and in a front row.

But, no, Arianhrod’s authority is not Adam MacLean. It’s Dr. Laura De Giorgio, professional Hypnotist and New Age goddess. You can read about her gifts at her website, Deep Trance Now. Her alchemical musings and illustrations, especially those about the seven stages of transformation detailed in Arianhrod’s essay can be found on the Alchemy pages of this site. You can even purchase a course there on how to have your very own alchemical experience courtesy of hypnosis.

What were Dr. Laura’s sources for her alchemical insights? I confess to dreading that it was something she channelled a la Sister Claire Prophet and Saint Germain. At the bottom of her alchemy pages, though, she made this broad citation:

From the Book “The Emerald Tablet”
The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation
by Dennis William Hauck

I went back to the Scribbulus essay bibliography and found Dennis Hauck. His do-it-yourself New Age guides to alchemical experiences can be found on Amazon but Arianhrod listed this Hauck reference with her essay: Hauck, D.W. The Chemical Arcana. 2005. The Alchemy Lab. 11 March 2006. http://www.alchemylab.com/arcana.htm.

If you follow that url, you’ll find this passage on alchemical vitriol:

Vitriol

The most important compound, the one in which all other reactions took place, was Vitriol. It was distilled from an oily, green substance that formed naturally from the weathering of sulfur-bearing gravel. After this Green Vitriol was collected, it was heated and broken down into iron compounds and sulfuric acid. The acid was separated out by distillation. The first distillation produced a brown liquid that stunk like rotten eggs, but further distillation yielded a nearly odorless, yellow oil called simply Vitriol. The acid readily dissolves human tissue and is severely corrosive to most metals, although it has no effect on gold. It also shows a tremendous thirst for water. If a flask of Vitriol is allowed to stand open, it absorbs water vapor from the air and overflows its container. The sulfuric acid in Vitriol is the agent of transformation in most alchemical experiments.

Sound familiar?

More striking, on the same page as this definition appears, David Hauck lists his references:

Sources

G. R. S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, (York Beach, Maine: Samual Weiser, 1992). 864 pages. The best translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, the surviving works of Hermes Trismegistus.

Dr. Gottlieb Latz, Die Alchemie: Die Lehre von den Grossen Geheim-Mitteln der Achemisten und die Speculationen Welche Man an Sie Knupfte, (Bonn, Germany: Selbstverlag, 1869). 600 pages. The translated title is Alchemy: The Study of the Arcanum and How One Can Achieve It.

Dr. Gottlieb Latz, Secret of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Translated by D. William Hauck. (Holmes Publishing Group, Box 623, Edmonds, Wash., 98020; 1993.)

Mark Haeffner, The Dictionary of Alchemy, (London, England: The Aquarian Press, a division of HarperCollins; 1991). 272 pages. This compendium is an excellent source for understanding basic alchemical concepts.

Manly P. Hall, Man: Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, (Los Angeles, California: Philosophical Research, 1972). 254 pages. Chapter 16 discusses the Egyptian fascination with the pineal gland.

Rene Guenon, The Great Triad, (Cambridge, England: Quinta Essentia, 1991). 171 pages. This discussion of the three universal principles penetrates all the great spiritual disciplines. Chapter 12 is devoted to the triad of Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt.

I have two of these books (highlighted above) and promptly went to each to see what it might have to say about vitriol, the Green Lion, and alchemical catalysts.

Haeffner’s dictionary, which Hauck says is “an excellent source for understanding basic alchemical concepts,” does not have entries for vitriol or the Green Lion. For the “agent of transformation” in the Great Work or even just an important medium, this is quite the omission.

Guenon’s The Great Triad, as with all the Sufi giant’s texts, is dense, profound, and edifying. There is nothing in chapter twelve of this book that was source material for Hauck’s statements about mercury, sulphur, and salt or that suggests what he says about these alchemical reagents and products is true. Titus Burckhardt was Guenon’s student and was more knowledgeable about alchemy (hence his several books on the subject). Why Hauck does not mention this authority escapes me, except for my suspicion that Burckhardt’s “neglect” of salt leaves a hole in Hauck’s “Paracelsan” theories and practices.

His other three sources are a 19th century charcoal burner whose work is only available in a translation self-published by Mr. Hauck, a Samuel Weiser publication, and Manly Palmer Hall, author of The Secret Teachings of all Ages. I leave it to the discerning reader to weigh their value. This note on Manly Palmer Hall and how he knew what he knew (and published as surety) is revealing:

In an obscure astrology magazine of the 1940s, a biographer of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote a profile of Hall, which holds an interesting passage:

The question is constantly asked on all sides as to how Mr. Hall can know and remember so much on so many different and difficult subjects. Perhaps a direct answer to this constant question may be discovered in the following episode in the life of Mr. Hall himself: The first question Mr. Claude Bragdon, American mystic, asked Mr. Hall after their first meeting in New York in 1937 was:

“Mr. Hall, how do you know so much more about the mathematics of Pythagoras than even the authorities on the subject?”

Standing beside both these dear American friends of mine, I was wondering with trepidation in my heart what reply Mr. Hall would make.

“Mr Bragdon,” answered Mr. Hall quickly, unhesitatingly, and with a simultaneous flash of smile in his eyes and on his lips, “you are an occult philosopher. You know that it is easier to know things than to know how one knows those things.”

So where does this leave me?

I am still excited about the possibility of Snape proving to be alchemical vitriol, the Green Lion, or an alchemical catalyst. It seems to be the sort of point-to-point reference we should expect in Ms. Rowling’s alchemical drama.

I remain enthusiastic, too, about discussing literary alchemy with the Jungian scholars and the New Age “Paracelsans.” We do not know and cannot know what mix of alchemical sources Ms. Rowling read in her “ridiculous amount of alchemy” that set the magical parameters of her stories. I have to think it included pieces of the literary tradition, some traditional material, a little psychology, and even a little of the do-it-yourself kits for wanna-be alchemists (didn’t she say she wanted to be one?). There’s certainly a lot out there that I know very little about — and it may be stuff that was close to Ms. Rowling’s heart when laying out these stories.

I’m all ears. I know too well the only final authority on the subject of “Alchemy in Harry Potter” is Ms. Rowling.

Perhaps after all her reading in alchemical lore, she sat down with David Hauck’s Seven Stages of Personal Transformation and did a connect-the-dots work from Hauck’s stages to her seven books as Arianhrod suggests. If Ms. Rowling is doing a dot-to-dot, I much prefer Hans Andrea’s work with The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkeutz at the yahoo group “Harry Potter for Seekers,” but, who knows? Severus could be alchemical vitriol via the researches in trance of Dr. Laura and friends. Only Ms. Rowling knows for sure.

But I am also very disappointed to learn again that internet scholarship, unless proven otherwise, is best assumed to be faux scholarship. Arianhrod’s theories on The Leaky Cauldron are fascinating but it will be hard to take her thoughts about Mercury=Dumbledore, Sulfur=Hagrid, Salt=Sirius and Vitriol=Snape as seriously as I might have, given her dependence on Dr. Laura and Dennis Hauck. It’s cut-and-paste work rather than something coming from a synthetic rather than a syncretic understanding. This work, again, may be spot-on, however many reservations I think serious readers have to have about it.

My approach in this has been both boring and sober. Stick to authorities in the field of alchemy, literature, and literary alchemy. In the absence of tea time with Ms. Rowling, this approach and time spent with her books has been the best I can do. I still hope to learn a bunch from the Jungians and New Agers about alchemy approached in a different way, but I don’t expect to abandon the literary tradition perspective until Ms. Rowling (or Deathly Hallows!) reveals how wrong I have been in this choice. The literary tradition has always seemed to me the common sense place to start and to dig deeper. It is the English literary tradition, after all, that Ms. Rowling is writing within.

More on this as it develops. I hope to post soon on the more substantial subject of Snape as Machiavelli’s (and Ms. Rowling’s?) Prince. Thank you for your patience on this alchemical topic; Stay tuned for reflections on Harry’s roots in the Renaissance of Northern Italy!

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