Solar and Lunar Symbolism:
The Matter of Containment in
A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance
A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance is a text that can be entered through many doors. Once inside, a reader is assailed by images that echo and mutate like the reflections in a house of mirrors. Each reflection reveals a new entrance, an alternate path that unmasks a deeper, more profound level of meaning.
Interpretation of any text is limited by the reader’s encyclopedia of personal knowledge and experience, but opportunities for interpretation of Possession are virtually unlimited because Byatt builds her house of mirrors on an ethereal foundation of archetypal symbols that abide in the collective unconscious, symbols any reader can decode and assimilate at some level. On the other hand, readers with an astute knowledge of the symbolism of alchemy and astrology are privileged and will discover in Possession an intense, generational examination of the male/female relationship. And if one notices the right clues and chooses to follow the right path through the house of mirrors, one will discover a dreamlike representation of the inner workings of a single mind as it experiences the process of individuation.
An analysis of the text’s solar and lunar symbolism and its clear correspondence to the alchemical processes leading to either a lesser or greater coniunctio and a resulting individuation delineates the human struggle for a relationship where no partner is contained or constrained by the other. The quest for a symmetrical relationship reverberates throughout the novel, from generation to generation, and into our personal lives. But Possession is not a romance. The symmetrical relationship is not actually physical: it is mental. Possession is living entity—a mind experiencing individuation through symbolism.
BUY A TICKET, AND TAKE YOUR CHANCES.
You have entered the house of mirrors. There you stand with your ticket clutched tightly as you gaze at the first mirror. On the surface, Possession chronicles a multiplicity of personal quests that range from the traditional academic search for knowledge to a disgraceful, pseudo-academic quest for personal aggrandizement. Because we begin and end with Roland, his is the quest that generates the story. Roland is an innocent. His narrative calls to our better side. Although Roland’s quest clearly follows the standard rites of passage formula of separation, initiation, and return as described by Joseph Campbell, a perceptive reader soon begins to suspect that much more is going on just below the shimmering surface of the narrative sea.
Roland, a part-time researcher, just barely surviving in the dog-eat-dog academic world, stumbles upon two previously undiscovered letters penned by a famous Victorian poet. Roland falls under the spell of Hermes the thief, the opener of doors, and crosser of boundaries—Roland steals the letters and is led into a transformative adventure. Roland’s quest for historical knowledge is actually a spontaneous quest for personal knowledge—individuation, formation and understanding of the whole self, led by Maud, a decedent of Maia, named for the mother of Hermes.
The separation stage of Roland’s quest proceeds without complication. In response to the call to adventure, he leaves the everyday world, finds aid that borders on the supernatural, and crosses the threshold to another world. At the midpoint of Campbell’s quest structure, the chronotope slows. The meeting with the goddess and sacred marriage segments slow and reach out to contain most of the text, switching place and era without any perceivable order, leaving only a few chapters for the return. A key to understanding this timing device lies in the title Campbell employs for the period: The sacred marriage, arguably the most important symbolic procedure in the science of alchemy. When Roland first meets Maud, she is wearing a silk turban painted with peacock feathers announcing the arrival of the new dawn. The narrative drops down from a realistic world into a secret fairytale realm where theories of alchemy, Jungian psychology, and quantum mechanics meet and reflect each other’s mysteries. It is The Bay of the Dead, “Where two worlds cross” (385).
Are you lost yet? No matter: It’s too late to find your way back to the entrance. You must proceed. Take my hand. I’ll let you borrow my encyclopedia, an astrologer’s encyclopedia. Let’s choose the path through the mirror with the darkest reflection.
THE FIRST BIFURCATION.
Since Campbell openly exploits Jung’s theories of archetype and myth in his configuration of the archetypal quest, connecting this essential section of the quest to the processes of alchemy can be anticipated. According to Jung, “We can see today that the entire alchemical procedure for uniting the opposites [. . .] could just as well represent the individuation process of a single individual, though with the not unimportant difference that no single individual ever attains to the richness and scope of the alchemical symbolism” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis 555). Jung believed that the steps of the alchemical process symbolically represented the steps of human individuation. Not all the steps of the alchemical process were necessary for individuation. Interestingly, the alchemical and individuation journeys could begin at any of the steps of the alchemical process and proceed in any order. The process was nonlinear, which conforms naturally with the convoluted nature of Byatt’s text and with the fact that the human unconscious pays absolutely no heed to the limits of space or time. Feeling queasy? It’s those strange images—symbols bouncing from mirror to mirror. Here’s a little secret: symbols don’t simply represent something, they have a transformative effect. You must be feeling it by now.
Jung taught that there was a difference between signs and symbols. “The sign is a token of meaning that stands for a known entity. [. . .] A symbol, on the other hand, is an image or representation which points to something essentially unknown, a mystery” (Edinger, Ego and Archetype 109). Possession is replete with the symbols of alchemy. Some symbols are so ubiquitous they border on the didactic. One such symbol is the number three. There are three death masks (19), three letters from Christabel to Hearst (55), three fine sons (58), three choices for the tailor (67), three dolls (91), three locks (103), three beautiful ladies (167), six strands of hair that Byatt explains are “twice three” (296), and even an old woman who sports only three teeth (289). Perhaps the most important triad in Possession is the necromantic trinity composed of Mesuline, Christabel, and Maud. And what of the trinity of their mates who bear names so similar they become confusing: Raimond, Randolph, and Roland?
The number three was a crucial and omnipresent symbol in alchemy. There were triads that related elements such as heaven, earth, hell; soul, spirit, flesh; and most important, sulfur, mercury, and sun, which was believed to originate from the Christian trinity. Jung stated that the triad was a crippled quaternity, that only opposing pairs could balance each other to make one complete whole (Edinger, Ego and Archetype 179). Interpersonal relationships in Possession are arranged in triads—untenable triads. Maud—Roland—Val. Ash—Christabel—Ellen. Christabel—Blanch—Ash. Until a triangular relationship is altered, purified, or made equal it cannot succeed. A quaternity of opposites can fold itself in half, joining opposites until only one remains. When Val and Wolf are no longer in the picture, Maud and Roland can come together, a balanced relationship that can break the curse transported through generations
The glass beakers that contain queens in alchemy, become a glass coffin that confines a princess in Possession. Bathrooms are decorated with multicolored glass bottles and jars filled with mysterious amalgamations. Alchemical scintillae, mind sparks, appear in Possession as flickers, sparkle of jewels (134), spangles and sparks (212). Maud searches a frozen pond for signs of fish. “The fish eye, like the sun, is an allegory as well as an allegory of the consciousness” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis 53). The alchemists called the scintillae, soul sparks, or fish eyes. Stones, which bring to mind the Philosopher’s Stone, are a recurring motif in Possession. There are standing stones, Stonehenge, jet, and the stones Blanch puts in her pockets when she jumps into the water.
The most pervasive and purposeful use of symbolism in Possession involves the most important two symbols of alchemy and astrology: the sun and the moon. The sun and moon are the archetypal opposites that must come together in the mystical marriage to create the whole, the undivided self. In astrology, individual sun/moon midpoints that fall on the same degree signify marriage partners.
While the sun is the king—masculine, gold, hot, dry, powerful, and the giver of light and life—the moon is the queen—feminine, silver, cold, wet, changeable, and can only reflect light offered by the sun. In alchemy, the dark side of the moon is symbolized by a large grey or black dog, such as the Dog Tray.
Upon a first glance, the moon seems to hold a position inferior to the sun. But this is far from the truth. The moon controls the prime arcane substance: water, the agent of power, transformation, and the maker of marriage. The moon, like waterfalls, is also the gateway between heaven and earth (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis 176). “The moon with her antithetical nature is, in a sense, a prototype of individuation, a prefiguration of the self” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis 175). According to the alchemists and Jung, perhaps due to her association with water, the moon is symbolized by a mermaid often depicted as having two tails as did Melusine (Edinger, Mysterium Lectures 43). The alchemical moon and early drawings of Melusine and almost identical. Christabel and Maud both wear green shoes, making their bottom halves the color of a mermaid, signifying their connection to each other and to Melusine.
In Possession, Ash is solar and Christabel is lunar. Not only is Christabel lunar, she is always accompanied by a grey Irish Wolfhound that represents her other side. Christabel writes an extremely significant letter to Ash stating that she sees spangles, sparks, shooting stars, and fears his heat may burn her up like the sun. She says the day is dry and smells of burning. She writes of a fine white powder, or ash, and states no human can stand in fire, Ash’s fire, and not be consumed (212-213). Ash writes to Christabel explaining how, as she walked away from him, Dog Tray half-hid his vision of her (108), drawing an image of a half moon. Ash often calls Christabel his silver or white lady. The Fata Blanca, another water fairy, was associated with Mesuline the mermaid and the moon. Christabel writes to Ash that she has two sides, one a silken self and the other a spider woman, dark and light aspects like the moon. In the same letter, she writes, “I have no graces, and as for the wit you may have perceived in me when we met, you saw, you must have seen, only the glimmerings and glister of your own brilliance refracted from the lumpen surface of the dead Moon” (97). She clearly sees herself as lunar. Maud, while peering through an iced pond for a sign of fish, sees the reflection of her face as “barred like the moon” (157). Her hair is described as white in certain lights (282). The moon is white or silver as are undines.
Although Christabel, Maud, and even Mesuline are the moon, all three rebel against the possibility of being contained by a man. They long to shine with their own power and not be forced to rely on a man to fuel their fire. Where Christabel and Mesuline lose their battles to solar men, Maud barely survives a relationship with solar Fergus Wolf, then goes on to encounter “meek” Roland who is willing to blend with her as an equal, with no intention of containing her. Because of this, Maud and Roland can succeed where the others have failed.
You seem to be hanging back. I have a feeling you might be losing faith in me or in my encyclopedia. Not to worry. The text will show you that we are reading correctly.
Early in the novel, Byatt offers keys to interpretation, reading instructions to insure that her symbolic hints are not overlooked. She mentions a “fashionable search to the Key to All Mythologies” (15). Fergus Wolf tells Roland and readers, “There are all sorts of symbolic and mythological and psychoanalytic interpretations, you can imagine” (38). So, readers are free to attach psychoanalytic interpretations to the reading of Possession. As to the symbolism, Leonora’s book states, “This may all be read as symbol of female language” (267).
We are now at a juncture in our travels. Whirl around until you see a reflection looks back at you through the eyes of a wizard. There! Do you see him? He is standing in a primitive laboratory, surrounded by smoke and ancient secrets. This is where the house of mirrors gets dangerous. Whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand. It’s time to deal with the alchemist.
There is a common misconception that the alchemists were only concerned with turning lead into gold. In truth, as with modern academics, they were solitary researchers on a quest for knowledge. They searched for the “Philosophers Stone,” which had a fourfold nature and symbolized concretized wisdom (Edinger, Ego and Archetype 267). The alchemists were scientists. Sir Isaac Newton credited his scientific discoveries to his study of alchemical works.
The most common steps to the alchemical procedure were calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio, and coniunctio. Coniunctio, the ultimate meeting and conjunction of true, non-containing opposites, is the final goal of alchemy and of individualization. Two crucial steps toward coniunctio are solutio and coagulatio, both of which are governed by the feminine principle.
THE ALCHEMICAL PROCESS
Calcinatio is a purging, whitening fire. “From the darkness of the unconscious comes the light of illumination, the albedo. The opposites are contained in it, potentia” (Jung, 77). It is interesting that “ash is a singular term for the scoriae left over from the burning, the substance that remains below—a strong reminder of the chthonic nature of sulphur. [. . .] As a chthonic being it has close affinities with the dragon” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis 112). The nature of the ash is clearly masculine. Could Randolph Ash’s name be a pun? Was he not Christabel’s dragon?
The albedo, or white potential, is eventually broken and given life by blood, by red on white, literally with Christabel’s first night with Ash (309) and figuratively when Maud blushes “red blood stained the ivory” (57). Such a unique metaphor for a blush can hardly be without meaning.
Solutio takes place on the moon. She dissolves matter in water. This profoundly feminine procedure is crucial to the process. Here containment first becomes an issue. “The dissolving agent will be a superior, more comprehensive viewpoint—one that can act as a containing vessel for the smaller thing” (Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche 56). In other words, the less complicated partner will be contained or consumed by the more complicated partner. Symbols of solutio are the bath, showers, sprinkling, swimming, and most telling of all, drowning. This last aspect of solutio is represented by “seductive mermaid or water nymph who lures men to death by drowning” (Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche 54). Melusine, is described as “self-contained” (321). Mesuline takes possession of Raimond after he drinks her water and sees the sun’s (his own) light reflected back from her face. The more complex partner has contained the less complex. Roland and Maud also demonstrate their willingness to meet in water when they each make scissoring, or swimming motions in their separate, white beds (268 & 273).
Coagulatio turns a substance into earth—another process governed by the feminine principle. Earth is feminine. The word matter is a derivation of the Latin word, mater, or mother. The agent of coagulation is lead, which not only has links with alchemy, but with astrology. The aspects of lead are represented by the planet Saturn. Lead, like Saturn, is heavy, dull, and burdensome. On the positive side, Saturn also represents the acceptance of responsibilities. When the tailor, Roland, turns down the gold and silver daughters and chooses the one who carries the chest of lead, he is choosing to accept limitations and responsibility and rejecting the sun/moon dichotomy by selecting the descendant of coniunctio.
Sublimatio pertains to the air. Volitized material is turned into air and elevated. Sublimatio is often depicted by a white bird attempting to fly from a glass beaker containing a sun/moon symbol resting on a field of white peaks that resemble Maud’s images of the white bed where the sheets look like whipped egg whites. Another symbol of sublimation is the descending bird returning from the eternal and to reincarnate. A powerful symbol for this process, originated in Egypt, is the ladder. In Possession, Maud climbs a ladder up and down, symbolizing the spiritual trip to and return from heaven, when she sleeps in the upper bunk on the ship to France, thus refusing an inferior position (361).
Mortificatio represents death, defeat, torture, mutilation, and rotting. It is symbolized by images of open graves. Plato saw death as representing wisdom, as did Paracelsus. The corpse uncovered in this process is often called the Paracelsian Mummy (Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche 163). In Possession, the grand finale’ of the quest for knowledge takes place in the cemetery where Ash’s grave is unearthed by Cropper. The lead box guarded by Ash’s corpse reveals the knowledge sought by Roland and Maud in their Hermetic journey.
Separatio is a form of creation. It relates to the separation of the purified opposites that will be unified in the coniunctio and is symbolized by knives. In Possession, Maud uses a knife to cut an apple into moon shapes (294). Christabel and Sabine discuss the fact that when walking on her two tails, Mesuline felt as though she was walking on knives. Both Christabel and Sabine then have dreams of walking on knives(404).
Coniunctio, the culmination of the alchemical opus, comes in two types: lesser and greater. Here lies the key to understanding containment in Possession. A lesser coniunctio is one where imperfectly separated partners create a contaminated conjunction, one that needs to be subjected to further procedures. Here, is a conjunction of two partners who are not equal or symmetrical opposites, two partners who cannot create the one whole because one partner is containing the other. The greater coniunctio is the creation of “a miraculous entity variously called the Philosopher’s Stone, gold, penetrating water, or tincture and so forth. It is produced by a final union of the purified opposites, and because it combines the opposites, it mitigates and rectifies all one sidedness” (Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche 217).
We have maneuvered our way through the maze and are quite near the end of our journey. The astrologers’ encyclopedia has led us to a unique exit, but I still sense doubt. And what of readers not lucky enough to have access to the insight of the astrologer?
TRAIL OF BREADCRUMBS
Perhaps to be sure that readers find their winding way through the mythical forest of Possession, Byatt leaves a trail of keys to understanding, like the scraps of bread Hansel and Gretel followed. Readers who overlook important symbolism are given a second chance.
In a letter to Maud, Leonora asks, “Why is water always seen as the female” (154)? Here readers are reminded of the symbolism of water. Ash writes to Christabel, “To say that the Truth of the Tale is in the meaning, that the Tale but symbolizes an eternal verity, is one step on the road to the parity of all tales [. . .]” (180). Here the text tells us that we are reading of an eternal truth that follows women generation after generation.
Ash writes to Christabel of Paraclesus: “I like to credit Paraclesus, who tells us that there are minor spirits doomed to inhabit the regions of the air who wander the earth perpetually and whom we might, from time to time, exceptionally, hear or see, when the wind, or the trick of the light, is right [. . .] It occurs to me—speaking of Paracelsus—that your Fairy Melusine was just such a Spirit in his books” (188). Christabel answers: “Yr citation from Paracelsus was of course familiar to me. And with your usual quickness you have seen that I am interested in other visions of the fairy Melusine—who has two aspects—an Unnatural Monster—and a most proud and loving and handy woman” (191). Not only does the text hint to readers that they can expect to see Melusine return from her fairy world, but Christabel reminds readers of the two faced lunar nature of women. Most significantly, Paracelsus, trained as a physician, was one of the most respected and imitated alchemists of all time.
Sabine, in her journal, perhaps speaking for the author, writes, “What I had meant was to make of the wild Dahud an embodiment as it were of our desire for freedom, for autonomy, for our own proper passion, which women have, and which, it seems, men fear” (378). Christabel and Sabine go on to trade statements on the battle for supremacy between men and women. There is no doubt that the text speaks to us of women’s need to live a life free of containment my men, or by society.
Just in case readers are not aware of the alchemical importance of scintillae, In the Mummy Possest, Ash echoes the words of the alchemists when he writes, “Lights are Intellingnces in our minds” (439). He goes on to say, “Observe how left and right, Above, below, reverse themselves” (439). Ash offers an exact description of how a quaternity becomes one in coniunctio.
If one considers Bohm’s holographic theory of enfoldment where the one embraces the whole, as in Jung’s collective unconscious, the sameness of the relationships of Mesuline, Christabel, and Maud creates a connection that crosses time and space making them closer together than three unlike things that occur at the same time and in the same place. Then it could be said that the story of Mesuline was lived or relived concurrently with that of Christabel and Maud. Christabel was unable to live a successful version of Melusine’s disastrous relationship, but Maud did. The non-linear nature of the text underscores and supports this possibility.
Melusine and Raimond fail at coniunctio because Raimond insists on containing Mesuline. Her containment is symbolized by the fact that her creative powers are skewed. She can build castles overnight, but they all have major and bizarre flaws. She can have children, but they are all born with freakish birth defects such as a cat’s head growing out of the side of a face. When Raimond peeks at Mesuline in her bath, in water, thereby uncovering her true self, she leaves without a word and only returns to visit her children while they sleep, or to circle the castle and cry out three times to warn of death.
It is obvious that Randolf Ash is solar in nature. Like Raimond, he is a hunter. He stalks Christabel by circling her home and peeking into her windows (53). He is dismayed when during their first sexual encounter Christabel meets him as an equal (308). Ash, used to a wife who is willing to sit home and reflect his Magnificat Victorian rock-star-like light, sees Christabel as lacking in wifely attitude (303). If Ash’s wife, Ellen, were to die, Ash and Christabel could not come to a greater coniunctio because Ash would insist on containing Christabel and, in addition, would always fear the containment he saw in his relationship with Christabel. The text tells us, “She contained his past and his future, both now cramped together
[. . .]” (312). Christabel understands this. She writes of Melusine, herself, who is like a “Mother sun” and gives off sparkling light of her own (318). Christabel, like Melusine, and Lilith before her refused to take an inferior position (361).
Ash had promised Christabel to “do all in his power that you might sparkle in your sphere as ever before” (217). Perhaps Christabel wanted to shine without the limit of containment in her own sphere. After their relationship ends in failure, she cuts her silver/gold hair off and, like Melusine, suffers damage to her creative powers. She goes on to write “verses nobody wants” (489). Christabel tells Ash in a letter that she has become Melusine, circling the castle, crying out the need to be with her child (544). In the same letter, she goes on to state that there is a possibility that if she had not let down her defenses against him, that she might also have become a great poet. “I wonder, was my spirit rebuked by yours” (545)?
Maud and Roland manage to break the cycle of the hunter and hunted, of the containers and the contained. Roland tells of himself, “In the days of his innocence, Roland had not been a hunter, but a reader [. . .]” (510). Because he has no intention of containing Maud, as did Fergus Wolf, they can meet as perfect opposites and become one.
In the myth, we see Roland as the tailor who kills the “black artist,” thus releasing the princess from the curse of the glass coffin. Upon his death, the magician who imprisoned the princess turns to grey dust, or ash (75). Roland, symbolically, destroys the demons of the past by making the right choice, a choice he makes because his quest has transformed him.
The curse is broken. The fairy tale is complete.
We have exited the house of mirrors and stand outside, blinking in the daylight, feeling like we have just awakened from a dream. At first, you might wonder if Maud and Roland marry and live happily ever after. It doesn’t matter. Possession is not a romance. Maud and Roland are not real. They are not even characters; they are opposing elements of the mind of the text, a mind that has found itself, accomplished individuation. Because you viewed Possession through the eyes of an astrologer, you did not experience a romance, you witnessed an actualization.
Possession is a mythology of individuation, an alchemical chronicle of a universal experience, a quest journey all must travel. The alchemist’s laboratory is in the human mind. If you are past mid-life, you will see echoes of your past journey reflected in Possession. If you are younger, Possession is a scrying mirror. Gaze into its dark surface, see your future, and always remember to let Hermes guide you. Follow his trail of symbols.
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Random House, 1990
Edinger, Edward F. Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago: Open Court,
—. Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambahala, 1992.
—. The Mysterium Lectures. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1995.
Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
—. Mysterium Coniunctionis. Princeton: Princeton University