J. K. Rowling seems to have had the words ‘Solve + Coagula’ tattooed in a script much like her handwriting on the inside part of her right arm just above the wrist. When Nick Jeffery discovered this and told me about it, I posted a quick note here at HogwartsProfessor which TheRowlingLibrary tweeted out to its global audience and The-Leaky-Cauldron retweeted to its minions at the far reaches of the galactic fandom empire and beyond.
Which has meant I have been buried in e-owls asking the question, ‘”What doessolve et coagula mean?” Beatrice Groves has written something on the subject which I assume will be definitive but MuggleNet.com has been down (way down, as in “transitioning to new ownership”) so I don’t know when hersolve salvo will be available.
To fill the breach, here are some notes on the alchemical axiomsolve et coagula from Charles Nicholl’sThe Chemical Theatre and Lindsey Abraham’sDictionary of Alchemical Imagery, two of the definitive texts on literary alchemy. After the jump!
Nicholls wrote in the introductory chapter toThe Chemical Theatre that alchemy’s Great Work is in essence the action of dissolution and congealing, expansive dissipation and contracting recomposition, which is what the words solve et coagula mean literally:
Loss and restoration of form: this is the basic rhythm of alchemical transformation. It is expressed in the formula, ‘solve at coagula’: an injunction to dissolve and congeal. Chemically this is typified in the process of sublimation, reducing a solid to vapour (solve) and them condensing the vapour to purified solidity (coagula). Another formula reads: ‘fac fixum volatile et volatile fixum’, make the fixed volatile and the volatile fixed. This appears in Trismosin’s Aureum Vellus (1598) as:
Si fixum solvas faciasque volatile
Et volucrem figas, faciet te vivere tutum.See AlsoAphra Behn and the Order of the Coagula: Racial Representations in the 17th Century as 21st Century Paranoia
William Backhouse translates:
If thou dissolve the fixt & make it fly,
And fix the bird, thou shalt live happily.
Backhouse expressed the same idea more enigmaticall in his own poem, ‘The Magistery’ (1633):
The Eagle which aloft doth fly
See that thou bring to ground;
And give unto the Snake some wings,
Which in the Earth is found.
This interplay of fixed and volatile, solid and vaporous, is central to alchemy, for the alchemist saw it as an interplay between the bodily and spiritual aspects within matter. The Mirror makes this clear in its description of solve et coagula:
Solution and congelation shal be in one operation, and shall make but one worke….And this solution and cogelation which wee have spoken of, are the solution of the bodie and the congelation of the spirite, and they are two, yet have but one operation. For the spirits are not congealed except the bodies be dissolved, as likewise the bodies is not dissolved unlesse the spirit be congealed.
Here we see that the process of removing or breaking down metallic form is essentially a resolving of bodily matter into spirit. The keynote of the alchemist’s perfecting intention is spiritualization, and dissolution is the body’s route to spirit:
the spirit wil not dwel with the body, nor be in it, nor by any means abide with it, untill the body be made subtil and thin as the spirit is. But when it is attenuate and subtill, and hath forsaken his grosnesse and corpority, and is become spirituall, then shall he be mingled with the subtill spirits, & imbibed in them, so that both shall become one and the same & they shall not be severed, like as water put to water cannot be divided.
Inextricably linked with this purifying loss of form is the coagula which congeals the spirit back into material form. Thus, says the Mirror, ‘this work or masterie is a coniunction or marriage of the congealed spirit with the dissolved bodie’. The process is a transforming circle, the substance returning once more to solidity, but now divested of ‘grosnesse and corpority’. ‘Corporeall things in this regimane are made incorporeall, & contrariwise things incorporeal corporeall, and in the shutting up of the work, the whole body is made a spirituall fixt thing.’ This ‘spirituall fixt thing’ is one definition of the Stone: matter suffused with spirit. Another term often used is ‘corpus subtile’, or subtle body. Philathes expresses this paradoxical condition:
It is called a stone, not because it is like a stone, but only because by virtue of its fixed nature, it resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone….If we say that its nature is spiritual, it would be no more than the truth; if we described it as corporeal, the expression would be equally correct; for it is subtle, penetrative, glorified, spiritual gold. it is the noblest of all created things after the rational soul, and has virtue to repair all defects both in animal and metallic bodies, by restoring them to the most exact and perfect temper: wherefore it is a spirit of quintessence.
It is in this work of dissolving and subliming, of reducing physical substance to spirituality, that the alchemist’s fire looms so large. (pp 46-47)
Abraham’s entry for solve et coagula in her Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, the standard guide to both metallurgical and literary alchemy, reads:
Dissolve and coagulate, one of the oldest axioms in alchemy, first found in Greek manuscript quotations of Maria Prophetissa (Patai, ‘Maria’, 183). The alchemical process of solution (or dissolution) involves the converting of a solid (a body) into a fluid substance (a spirit), while the coagulation is the turning of a fluid into a dry solid. Zoroaster’s Cave states: ‘Our Great business is to make the Body a Spirit, and the Spirit a body’ (74). The opus alchymicium consists of a repeated series of dissolutions and coagulations – the dissolution of the old metal or matter of the Stone into the *prima materia (original stuff from which it was created) and the coagulation of that pure materia into a new and more beautiful form. With each cycle of solve et coagula the matter in the alembic becomes purer and more potent. A well-known alchemical dictum is ‘Dissolve and congeal again and again, dissolve and congeal, till the tincture grows in the stone’ (AE,15). The alchemist must never cease in the process of dissolving the stone which has just been coagulated. Subtle in Jonson’s The Alchemist informs Mammon that the ‘medicine’ (i.e. Stone) is exalted by ‘giuing him solution; then congeal him;/ And then dissolve him; then again congeal him; For look how oft I iterate the work,/ So many times I add unto his virtue’ (2.3.104-7). The solve or dissolution is associated with the moon (moisture and coldness), while the coagula is associated with the sun (dryness and heat). Dastin wrote in his ‘Speculum philosophia’: ‘for in the beginning of thy operation, help the work in dissolution, by the Moon, and in coagulation by the Sun’ (in FC,41). The moon and the sun here refer to the two contrary actions of the mercurial waters (see stream)
Frequently the processes of *separation (division) and *coniunctio (union) are identified with the solve et coagula. When the metal or matter for the Stone is killed and dissolved (solve), its soul and spirit is separated from its body (separatio). The body is cleansed of its impurity and the soul (or soul/spirit union) may then be reunited with it. The re-entry of the soul/spirit into the purified matter at the coniunctio gives it form, coagulates it. At the simplest level, the solve is the softening of hard things, and the coagula the hardening of soft things (or the giving of form to amorphous matter). In order for a complete merging or union to take place between body and spirit at the *chemical wedding, the body (a hard substance) has to be spiritualized or made soft, while at the same time the spirit (a soft substance) is materialized or made hard. This is sometimes termed the volatilization and the fixation of the matter. Many alchemical texts claim that these two processes happen simultaneously. The Golden Tract stated: ‘with this solution there takes place simultaneously a consolidation of the spirit’ (HM, 1:40). Artephius wrote of the ‘Sunne” and ‘Moone’, the alchemical lovers (the male and female seeds of metals) which are killed after they have been united in the *chemical wedding: ‘their solution is also their congelation for they have one an the same operation, for the one is not dissolved, but that the other is congealed’ (161). See inversion.
In a nutshell,solve et coagula, ‘dissolve and conjoin,’ is the axiomatic action or process of every stage in the alchemical purification of gross matter into a Philosopher’s Stone. Because the Great Work is at least as much, perhaps primarily, about the cleansing of the alchemist’s soul as it is about turning lead or ‘hard darkness’ into gold, ‘solid light,’ the alchemist, too, ‘lets go,’ if you will, of all attachments, and is spiritually or psychologically purified in his reconstitution, that is, as he ‘pulls himself back together.’
The natural question after grasping this definition is why Rowling would choose to write this on her right arm in indelible or water soluble ink. “Great question,” as the panel moderator says to the audience member during Q&A. Sadly, for an authoritative answer, we’ll have to wait for Rowling’s next interview and hope that she approves the question and deigns to answer with something more revealing than “I’ve always liked the phrase — and I lost a bet with my oldest daughter and had to get a tattoo, so….”
My guess is that Rowling understands that she is a literary alchemist and that her job as such is to immerse the reader in her alembic of imagination, light the fire in her story athanor (hermetic furnace), dissolve the psychic attachments we have which narrow our understanding and our capacity for love, and then to reconstitute us as more courageous and less prejudiced images of God. In formalist language, this dissolutioncum reconstitution is ‘defamiliarization,’ a blasting away of mental ruts and habits that prevent us from experiencing everything and everyone as they are, miracles of existence in play in many dimensions, rather than as we have come to pigeon-hole and misread them in the ennui of our everyday life.
Solve et coagula is the action of all spiritual growth, the ‘Chemical Theatre’ Nicholls tells us every alchemist believed was taking place in his laboratory vessels, our breaking up and being re-born in a more supernatural or enlightened (illuminated!) condition. Perhaps Rowling wears this phrase on her right wrist both to remind herself of her work as an hermetic writerand that she herself is a spiritual experiment in progress who needs to ‘let go’ and ‘re-make’ herself consciously in each moment. It’s an excellent reminder to her serious readers!
I covet, of course, your comments and correction.