Alchemical Speculative Placemaking

Mortificatio ♑︎

[Qualities of mortificatio: killing, the experience of death, darkness, defeat, torture, mutilation, rotting, the shadow, to kill in order to heal, death then rebirth, death of the literal and the concrete]

Key 4 from the alchemical text Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine, 1699.

“Putrefaction is of so great efficacy that it blots out the old nature and transmutes everything into another new nature, and bears another new fruit. All living things die in it, all dead things decay, and then all these dead things regain life. Putrefaction takes away the acridity from all corrosive spirits of salt, renders them soft and sweet.” – Paracelsus, 1605

A story: I should have died many times. Fortunately, I did not until I had to. For most of my life I fled the haunting of shadows I did not understand and could not face, often creating new ones along the way. I fled via different countries, different relationships, different substances. Finally, I collapsed. All exits were blocked. It came time to face myself. Despite false starts and stubbornness, I was accompanied into the darkness. I saw beliefs, behaviors, stories and systems that had to die so they might be replaced by something new. That had to die so that I might have the chance to live. As Carl Jung wrote, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

There is much dying left to do. This project is part of that process. In fact, this project would not be possible without that process. Years ago, during the journey into darkness, I recounted a grotesque, disturbing dream to my therapist. In response, she asked, “What do you know of alchemy?” I replied, “You mean turning stuff into gold?” Smiling, she said, “There’s much more to it than that. Your dream calls to mind the mortificatio stage of alchemy.” Confused, I asked, “What is that?” Declining a clarifying answer, instead she said, “Look into it and see if it resonates with you.” And here I am.


Wheat growing from the body of Osiris, the Egyptian god of agriculture, the dead, and resurrection and husband of Isis.

What inside us must die? What here must end? Octavia Butler, an alchemist in her own right, reminds us change is the only constant:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Earthseed: The Books of the Living

For something to change, something must die. Death feeds regrowth. Birth cannot happen without death. The very air we breathe is the same as that of our ancestors. The world soul (anima mundi) is fed by the growth sprouting from the deaths we pass through as we live.

Though we speak not of literal death, there is far too much of that. Too much cruel, systemically mandated death. This world of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy feeds on that death but offers no life in return. What needs to die to end those deaths? How can the death of this world birth something new?

“Die and become,” said Goethe. What is worth dying for to live?

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

James Baldwin

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