The  Way  of  the  Gourd:  The  Alchemical  Iconography  of  Cucurbits   by  Frederick  R.


    The  history  of  gourds  (and  all  cucurbits)  is  the  history  of  humanity.    All  over   the  ancient  world  the  very  origins  of  life  are  connected  with  the  mysterious  gourd.   The   mysteries   of   its   cultivation,   of   the   selective   pressures   of   picking   ones   that   dried   well,  predated  the  domestication  of  any  other  plant  or  animal.  Its  usefulness,  above   its   edible   or   medicinal   properties,   was   in   holding   water.   The   simple   but   essential   hollow   interior   held   water,   the   world’s   most   precious   elixir,   allowing   travel   and   pilgrimage   in   wanderings   that   brought   the   calabash   from   Africa   and   Asia   into   the   Americas.  Theories  of  the  bottle  gourd’s  (Lagenaria  siceraria)  prehistoric  arrival  in   the   Americas   range   from   the   suggestion   that   gourds   naturally   drifted   across   the   Atlantic  Ocean  from  Africa,  as  the  thick  walls  can  protect  its  seeds  that  remain  viable   for  long  periods  in  saltwater.  More  recent  studies  suggest  that  the  gourds  found  in   the   Americas   are   related   more   to   the   Asian   variety   than   the   African.   But   now   evidence  may  be  proving  theories  that  the  first  Paleoindians  to  migrate  from  Siberia   to  North  America  carried  bottle  gourds,  propagating  them  along  the  way.  From  the   Underground   Railroad’s   passage   to   freedom   to   “follow   the   drinking   gourd”   to   the   Christian   wayfarers   of   Medieval   Europe   the   gourd   is   a   sign   of   hope,   of   magic   and   divine  providence.       Bottle  gourds  would  hold  the  traveler’s  essential  water  in  otherwise  dry  and   forbidding   regions,   allowing   greater   and   greater   distances   to   be   traveled.   Gourds   were   the   prototype   for   baskets   and   pottery,   and   the   first   examples   of   pottery   involved  smearing  gourds  with  clay  and  placing  them  into  a  fire.  The  shapes  of  the   earliest   vessels   and   containers   for   water,   food   and   brewing   took   on   the   shape   of   gourds  and  it’s  no  wonder  that  the  earliest  stills  for  distillation  resembled  gourds  as   well.   Gourds   are   everywhere   associated   with   magic,   with   mystery   and   with   powerful   forces.   These   associations   were   strengthened   by   the   gourd’s   early   use   to   boil   water   with   hot   rocks,   and   perhaps   ancient   distillation   by   catching   the   condensing  vapor  in  wool.  Gourds  were  also  used  to  pan  for  gold.  Everywhere  that   gourds  grow  they  are  potently  expressed  in  myth  and  folklore  from  the  Ayahausca   cups   in   Peru   to   their   deep   associations   with   magic   in   Africa   to   the   Caribbean,   and   to   all  native  peoples.    

  “How  water  walk  go  a  pumpkin  belly”  Jamaican  Proverb  

    India’s  myths  of  creation,  as  well  as  of  surviving  the  great  flood,  often  center   on   gourds.   From   the   Puranas   to   the   Vedas,   gourd   mythology   is   abundant   in   India   and  comes  to  also  be  associated  with  soma  and  amrita,  or  the  “elixir  of  immortality.”   The  Mahabharata   tells   of   the   conflagration   that   was   quenched   by   Indra’s   flood,   with   the  many  herbs  and  trees  resins  (rasa)  flowing  into  the  water  of  the  ocean,  mixing   with   “molten   gold”   and   milk   churned   from   the   raging   waters.   In   classical   alchemical   terminology,   the   sun   and   moon’s   energies   combine   and   birth   a   series   of   gods,   goddesses   and   divine   animals,   climaxing   with   the   “beautiful   God   Dhanvantari   who   carried   a   white   gourd   that   held   the   Elixir.”   Elsewhere   the   “beautiful   gold   water   gourd”   of   the   sacred   nag   is   “Drona   the   Teacher   himself”   and   the   Drona   cup   is   the   name  of  both  the  soma   cup  as  well  as  a  mountain  containing  sacred  ores  that  were   likely  used  in  making  the  sacred  alloy  of  soma.1  This  association  is  why  sadhus,  yogis,   gods   and   siddhas   all   carry   the   elixir   pot,   sometimes   containing   soma/amrita   or   Amanita  laced  urine  such  as  with  the  money  god  Hanuman.  It  is  also  the  bhumpa  of   Tantric  traditions  and  held  by  many  Mahayana  Buddhist  gods.     Shamanic   and   Tantric   traditions   of   the   Himalayas   often   use   a   gourd   as   the   ritual   vessel,   and   like   for   the   Daoists,   it   symbolizes   the   world.   The   kalasha   bottle   gourd   represents   the   three   worlds:   the   smaller,   upper   belly   is   the   akash,   heaven,   which   also   is   divided   into   three   sections;   the   neck   is   the   human   world   of   plants,   animals,   the   five   elements   and   the   four   directions;   and   the   larger   lower   portion   represents  the  underworld.  Ratsch  describes  its  central  role  in  Kirati  shaman  altars   saying  it  holds  the  “primordial  amrita.”  

                                                                                                                1  See  Needham  for  discussion  of  Drona  and  Soma,  as  well  as  my  own  Forays  into   Alchemical  Pottery  Part  1  on  India  that  advances  the  metallurgical/alchemical   theory  of  soma  advanced  partially  by  various  Indian  scholars.  These  Indian  epics   also  connect  the  gourd  with  alcohol  and  lyre’s  as  gourds  always  made  the  best   amplification  chambers  for  instruments.  






The   origins   of   gourds   in   China   are   truly   archaic,   as   Girardot   has   written   extensively   in   his   masterpiece   on   early   Taoist   myths.   The   twining,   vining,   chaotic   growth   of   this   hermaphroditic   and   auto-­‐incestuous   (male   flowers   fertilize   the   female   flowers   of   same   plant)   tangle   ejaculates   explosive   growth   of,   as   Girardot   writes,   “swelling,   shaping,   and   coloring”   dumbbell-­‐shaped   gourds.   This   “cucurbitic   ontology”   finds   expression   in   the   Dao   of   uselessness   as   found   in   Zhuangzi   and   the   alchemical   labs   of   Daoists.   Man   and   the   universe   itself   are   gourd-­‐shaped   as   are   microcosmic   furnaces   inside   the   adept.   The   gourd   is   always   associated   with   healing   magic,  with  alchemy,  sacred  pilgrimages  for  herbs  or,  above  all,  medicine.  Williams,   from   Chinese  Symbolism  and  Art  Motifs,  writes:   "The   gourd-­‐shell,   or   a   painting   of   the   gourd   on   wood   or   paper,   or   a   small   wooden   gourd,   or   a   paper   cut   in   shape   like   a   perpendicular  section  of  the  gourd,  or  a  paper  lantern  made  in  the  shape  of  a  gourd,   is   in   frequent   use   as   a   charm   to   dissipate   or   ward   off   pernicious   influences."   The   drawings   of   the   earliest   Chinese   alchemical   apparatus   usually   were   gourd   shaped,   and  the  distillation  vessels  that  are  shaped  like  gourds  can  be  found  all  over  India   and  China  and  into  Arabian  and  European  designs.    Scholars   like   Rolf   Stein   and   Victor   Mair   and   Norman   Girardot   have   eloquently   demonstrated   the   vast   and   ancient   associations   in   Far   Eastern   culture   from  creation  myths,  floods,  microcosmic  gardens,  and  elixirs  to  hulu  gourd  charms   and   magic.   Adepts   disappear   into   expansive   worlds,   like   Fei   Changfang,   the   mysterious   herb   vendor   who   concealed   himself   in   his   magic   gourd   each   night,   tying   into  themes  of  the  gourd/womb/cave  of  retreat  and  rebirth.    The  gourd  adorned  the   staffs   of   immortals   and   adepts,   like   the   famous   Iron-­‐Crutch   Li,   whose   staff   could   transmute   base   metals   with   the   gourd   containing   the   drug   of   immortality.   Other   famous   Taoist   gourd   immortals,   among   many,   are   the   Gourd   Master   Huzi   and   the   Gourd   Immortal   Hugong.   Hulu   gourd   charms   and   talismans   continue   to   be   used   in   fengshui   and   as   symbols   of   longevity   all   over   Asia,   with   gourd   folklore   abounding   throughout  Japan  and  South  East  Asia.     Below  are  pictured  examples  of  alchemical  gourd-­‐shaped  devices  in  Chinese   and  Indian  laboratories.    The  uses  and  construction  of  these  gourd-­‐like  devices  can   be   found   in   the   Forays   into   Alchemical   Pottery   series   as   found   at   Some   examples   of   gourd-­‐inspired   Greek   distillation  vessels  are  also  depicted  below,  followed  by  Arabian  examples.      









The  gourd  pot  as  the  holy  water,  elixir  vessel  can  be  found  in  Arab  alchemical   texts   as   well,   in   the   hands   of   various   Islamic   mystics,   dervishes   and   holy   men.   Persian  Sufi  Iqbal,  speaking  of  a  visionary  elixir,  and  my  “world-­‐beholding  glass,  all   its   radiance   surpass…Let   the   bitter   potion   poured,   By   the   heavens   in   my   gourd.”2   Patai’s   The  Jewish  Alchemists   documents   the   use   of   cucurbits,   ququrbita   and   other   gourd-­‐shaped   devices   that   are   mentioned   in   many   Arab   and   Jewish   alchemical   manuscripts.   As   Harran   in   Syria   was   well   known   in   the   ancient   world   for   its   glasswares,  it’s  likely  in  this  context  that  the  earthenware  or  iron  gourd  vessels  of   Chinese  and  Indian  mystics  transmuted  into  glass.  Alchemists  like  Al-­‐Razi  describe   their  gourd  shaped  devices  as  having  arms  to  allow  vapors  to  cool  and  be  collected   and   in   manuscripts   it   is   described   as   a   “cucurbit   and   still   with   evacuation   tube   (qarʿ   aw  anbīq  dhū-­‐khatm).”  Below  Sufi  dervishes  have  gourd  pots  like  Daoist,  Buddhist,   Saddhu  and  Christian  spiritual  pilgrims.      

      Islam  and  Judaism  spring  from  the  same  well,  and  the  Old  Testament  story  of   Jonah   and   the   gourd   contextualize   cucurbits   as   a   symbol   of   divine   providence.   "And   the   Lord   God   prepared   a   gourd,   and   made   it   to   come   up   over   Jonah,   that   it   might   be   a  shadow  over  his  head,  to  deliver  him  from  his  grief.  So  Jonah  was  exceeding  glad  of   the   gourd.   But   God   prepared   a   worm   when   the   morning   rose   the   next   day,   and   it   smote  the  gourd  that  it  withered.  And  it  came  to  pass,  when  the  sun  did  arise,  that   God  prepared  a  vehement  east  wind;  and  the  sun  beat  upon  the  head  of  Jonah,  that   he  fainted,  and  wished  in  himself  to  die,  and  said,  It  is  better  for  me  to  die  than  to                                                                                                                   2  Gourds  had  many  visionary  uses  such  as  for  the  mentioned  uses  for  instruments   but  also  for  making  pipes,  and  as  the    Fuqqaa,  or  a  Gourd  for  ‘Beer’  

live"   (Jonah   4:6-­‐8).   The   gourd   is   a   reprieve   from   God   in   Jonah’s   trials,   and   “It  was   sent  to  him  when  he  was  in  a  very  wrong  spirit.”  Jonah  is  being  spiritually  initiated  as   “God   is   preparing   thee   to   be   a   comforter   to   others”   and   his   worm-­‐destroyed   gourd   was   but   a   brief   botanical   theophany   on   Jonah’s   path   and   trials.   The   gourd   remained   a   sign   of   Divine   comfort   in   Christian   art   such   as   is   depicted   below   with   St.   Jerome   in   his  study.  From  the  Koran,  “And  We  caused  to  grow  over  him  a  gourd  vine.  (Sura  As-­‐ Saffat  (Those  who  set  the  Ranks)‚  verse  146)    

      The   gourd   in   Christian   art   is   a   symbol   of   Resurrection,   contrasted   with   the   apple  that  fooled  our  first  parents  in  the  Garden  of  Eden.  Resurrection  of  the  spirit   and   the   body   partake   of   the   truly   ancient   searches   of   immortality   by   all   ancient   cultures,  as  first  recorded  in  the  Epic  of  Gilgamesh.  The  spontaneous  transmutation   of  the  sinner,  the  Godly  alchemy  of  eternal  life  and  Grace  are  all  found  in  the  gourd.     Gourd   and   related   plants   are   found   in   such   evocative   paintings   lke   Madonna  della   Candeletta   by   Carlo   Crivelli   in   1490.   Crivelli   often   juxtaposed   the   apple   and   the   gourd,  with  the  infant  Christ  apparently  resting  at  times  on  a  gourd-­‐shaped  pillow.    




    Spain’s  gourd  imagery  abounds,  perhaps  born  of  the  mingling  of  alchemical   cultures,   and   it   was   a   threshold   between   Europe   and   the   Moorish   influences.   Pilgrims  on  the  way  to  fight  in  Crusades  or  for  spiritual  penance  followed  a  specific   route.   One   particularly   famous   route   follows   the   Milky   Way   (Via   Lactea)   to   the   Atlantic   Ocean   and   was   the   Way   of   St.   James,   or   El  Camino  de  Santiago,   who   was   the   patron  saint  of  alchemists  and  physicians.  The  Legenda  aurea,  relates  that  St.  James   defeated  the  sorcerer  “Hermogenes”  or  “Hermes  Trismegistus”  of  the  Pharisees,  and   thus  the  bearer  of  his  secret  knowledge.  Hermogenes  converted  after  witnessing  the   might  of  St.  James’  spiritual  powers  from  God  and  gave  up  his  devil  worships  and  rid   himself  of  his  conjuring  books  when  he  accepted  the  staff  of  St.  James.  The  Way  of  St.   Iago  is  the  way  of  alchemists  and  the  saint  was  often  called  upon,  such  as  by  Nicolas   Flamel,   to   aid   them   in   the   Great   Work.   Roob’s   Alchemy  and  Mysticism  quotes   older   texts   that   explain,   “In   secret   symbolism,   the   ‘Compostela   scallop’   (conquille   St.   Jacques)…  represents  the  principle  of  Mercury,  which  is  still  called  the  ‘traveler’  or   the  ‘pilgrim’.  In  the  mystical  sense  it  is  worn  by  all  those  who  want  to  obtain  the  star   (Lat.   Compos,   possessing,   stella,   star).”   Fulcanelli,   the   modern   “adept”   of   France3,   writes,  “That  is  the  point  at  which  all  the  alchemists  must  begin.  With  their  pilgrim’s   staff  as  a  guide  and  the  scallop  as  a  sign,  they  must  undertake  this  long  dangerous   journey,  half  on  water,  half  on  land.  First  as  pilgrims,  then  as  pilots.”  Of  course  Spain   was  the  major  source  of  mercury  for  much  of  the  ancient  and  medieval  world  from   the  mines  of  Almaden,  gifted  to  the  Order  of  Calatrava  in  the  early  12th  century.4                                                                                                                   3  Fulcanelli  seems  increasingly  to  appear  to  be  a  fabrication  by  a  fraternal  order   with  sinister  agendas,  as  our  contacts  in  France  have  sent  us  intriguing   documentation.  An  alchemical  Taxil  hoax.     4  Pilgrims  carried  the  jacinto  de  Compostela,  a  red  quartz,  as  a  talisman  which  may   be  the  exoteric  red  mineral,  while  cinnabar  was  for  the  alchemist.  Neither  is  found   in  the  immediate  region,  but  both  are  common  elsewhere  in  Spain.    

  The   staff   and   gourd   iconography   can   be   found   in   much   of   the   Christian   art   and   representations   of   the   saints.   St.   Ignatius   Loyola,   whose   devotion   and   piety   sprang   from   his   pilgrimage   to   the   alchemical   Black   Virgin   of   Montserrat,   is   often   shown   in   pilgrimage   with   gourd   and   staff.   Also   significant   is   the   tradition   of   Santo   Nino   De   Atocha,   the   Christ   child,   popular   in   Spain   and   Hispanic   countries,   who   magically  appeared  in  times  of  Moorish  conquest  and  rallied  people  to  ever  higher   spiritual   heights.   Also   of   interest,   the   skullcap   worn   by   Roman   Catholic   (and   Anglicans  and  Orthodox)  clerics  is  called  the  zucchetto,  Italian  for  small  gourd,  and  it   resembles  a  section  of  gourd  with  a  protruding  stem.      






  The  gourd’s  perfect  shape  and  symbolism  continued  to  exert  its  influence  on   alchemy   and   distillation.   The   cucurbit   is   familiar   to   all   Islamic   and   European   alchemical  adepts  from  Jabir  to  Paracelsus  to  Solazaref.  Copper  stills  of  fine  quality   are   still   being   produced,   mostly   in   Portugal,   for   distilling   fine   spirits.   Modern   alchemists   still   use   glass   cucurbits   like   countless   other   alchemists   from   Ripley   to   Starkey.     The   modern   “master”   alchemist   Fulcanelli’s   Demeures   Philosophales   includes  a  woodcut  of  a  majestic  little  pilgrim  from  the  15th  century  hermetic  abode,   one  of  the  most  endearing  images  ever  conceived  of  by  the  adepts  of  the  Great  Work    




      Prayer  dear  to  St.  Ignatius:                                                                                                                          St.  Roch   The  Anima  Christi     Soul  of  Christ,  sanctify  me.   Body  of  Christ,  save  me.   Blood  of  Christ,  inebriate  me.   Water  from  the  side  of  Christ,     wash  me.   Passion  of  Christ,  strengthen  me.   0  good  Jesus,  hear  me.   Within  Your  wounds  hide  me.     Permit  me  not  to  be  separated  from  You.   From  the  wicked  foe  defend  me.   At  the  hour  of  my  death  call  me     And  bid  me  come  to  You     That  with  Your  saints  I  may  praise  You   Forever  and  ever.     Amen  






  References  and  Further  Reading:  


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Calabash  nebula  


Dannaway,  Frederick  R.  2012.  Forays  into  Alchemical  Pottery  Part  2A  China.­‐into-­‐alchemical-­‐pottery-­‐2a/     Ellis,   F.S.   (ed.)   retrieved   2012.   The   Golden   Legend   or   Lives   of   the   Saints.     Fulcanelli.  1964.  Le  Mystere  des  Cathedrales.  Paris.       Girardot,   N.J.   1983.   Myth   and   Meaning   in   Early   Taoism.   Berkeley:   University   of   California  Press.    

Mair,  Victor.  Retrieved  2012.  Southern  Bottle-­‐Gourd  Myths  in  China  and  Their   Appropriation  By  Taoism. FjAHOBQ& 185.pdf&ei=QbYgUPyLAYbG6wHDs4GQBw&usg=AFQjCNEAU0G8wf-­‐ g5HH_68j3aneHQ_j8Fw     Needham,   J.   1983.   Science   and   Civilization   in   China,   Vol.   5,   pt.   5.   Cambridge:   Cambridge  University  Press.     Needham,   J.   1980.   Science   and   Civilization   in   China,   Vol.   5,   pt.   4.   Cambridge:   Cambridge  University  Press.     Needham,   J.   1976.   Science   and   Civilization   in   China,   Vol.   5,   pt.   3.   Cambridge:   Cambridge  University  Press.     Needham,   J.1974.   Science   and   Civilization   in   China,   Vol.   5,   pt.   2.   Cambridge:   Cambridge  University  Press.     Ratsch,  C.  2002.  Shamanism  and  Tantra  in  the  Himalayas.  Thames  and  Hudson.       Stein,   Rolf.   1990.   The   World   in   Miniature:   Container   Gardens   and   Dwellings   in   Far   Eastern  Religious  Thought.  Stanford  University  Press.       Williams,  C.  2006.  Chinese  Symbolism  and  Art  Motifs.  Tuttle.  



Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful