Liminality, transmutation & the new earth alchemy, by Guest Author Herman de Roos

Liminality, transmutation & the new earth alchemy, by Guest Author Herman de Roos. Sponsored by

“Hear the wind moan
In the bright diamond sky
These mountains are waiting
Brown-green and dry
I’m too old for the term
But I’ll use it anyway
I’ll be a child of the wind
Till the end of my days

Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see…”

– Bruce Cockburn, Child of the Wind

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When people are asked about Alchemy, most of the time they will mention the transformation of led into gold. This is however only one aspect of Alchemy. It probably lured many greedy people into studying Alchemy and very possibly to their downfall, since modern chemistry proved that it is scientifically impossible to change led into gold. Nowadays people tend to think of Alchemy more as a personal process of transformation. The transformation from an impure material being, into a pure and spiritual being. Personally I think this also is not the most important aspect of Alchemy as well.

Most of all Alchemy is about transformation. The transformation of everything into everything. In that way Alchemy can be considered a natural phenomenon. Think for example of the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or the transformation of a little seed into a gigantic tree. It would not be exaggerated to say that one of the most fundamental processes in the universe is transformation. The universe and everything in it continuously transforms from one thing into another or from one state into another.

Thinking about transformation I feel, and I think many people with me, that the whole world at this moment seems to be in a state of transformation. This feeling is being caused by all the chaos that can be witnessed all around us. The world is facing several revolutions, like those in North Africa within the world of Islam. Each year it seems the storms and tycoons we are facing are becoming bigger and stronger. After a long period of drought, for example, Australia has been facing floods. A Tsunami hit on Japan and caused death and destruction on a massive scale. The problems with the nuclear reactor of Fukushima, that was damaged by the earthquake preceding the Tsunami, are still not solved. The damage, caused by radioactive liquid leaking from the factory, only is a small part of a worldwide destruction of the environment that is happening at this very moment.

When thinking of the environment and the problems it is facing I also want to mention the sudden disappearance of the honeybee in several parts of the world. Think of what will happen to our food production, when there are no longer bees to fertilize plants with pollen. In this context I also remember several articles in newspapers, last year and this year, about the sudden death of birds and fish all around the world. Or think of whales and dolphins that wash ashore because their solar-system has been mashed up somehow. (By the way, most of the time by human use of solar equipment).

These are only a few examples of the chaos today. There are also a lot of wars going on in the world, there is worldwide poverty and there are illnesses like cancer and aids that cause death and misery everywhere. We are facing a global economic crisis of which I believe it has not yet reached its full scale. According to the Spanish professor in economic studies, Santiago Niño-Becerra, the contemporary crisis only is the precursor of a so called super crisis which will cause a transformation that will bring the end of Capitalism.

This chaos causes a feeling of instability and many belief that this is a sign the world has entered a period of transformation. This feeling is being supported by prophecies from many religions in this world. For example, within the Hindu religion a great cosmic cycle is coming to an end and a new one will start. This transition is believed to cause a period of transformation during which a lot of old junk will be removed. Within the Christian world we are now in the transition from the Piscean Age to the era of Aquarius. It would be plausible to assume that this also is a period of transformation.

Recently I found a similar example concerning the Jewish zodiac combined with a pentagram. When the pentagram is placed on the zodiac we find five points of intersection making an angle of 144 degrees. According to Hans Konstapel the intersection with the Bull is related to the great Deluge. The next intersection will happen in our time. It falls together with the sign of John the Evangelist who wrote the Revelations. The moment of intersection from this Jewish zodiac falls together with the one calculated by the Hopi Indians of Northern America and the one indicated in the Mayan calendar.

Today, particularly this Mayan Calendar receives a lot of attention. According to this calendar a great cosmic cycle of about 26.000 years will come to its end at December 21st, 2012. According to John Major Jenkins at this date there will be a conjunction of our earth, the sun and the galactic center of our solar system. Even more important however is the fact that in 2012 the solstice meridian crosses the galactic equator. Potentially this could mean a field-effect reversal. About the consequences of this reversal opinions differ. Things that might happen vary from a pole shift, which could cause disasters such as flooding, to a reversal in our collective psyche whereby mankind will develop itself into a higher spiritual being.

The Swish psychologist Carl Jung called this process of reversal, enantiodromie. On the level of civilization enantiodromie happens during short periods of cultural chaos. A cultural transformation influences the spiritual values of people and the scientific and philosophical fundaments of thinkers and policy makers in society. During these areas of social change a polarization of values occur, opposite camps define themselves, thrive apart and at the same time form new systems of values, beliefs and philosophies.

This process of reversal, enantiodromie, happens during periods of cultural chaos. That kind of period looks a lot like the liminal phase in the ritual process which is described extensively by the anthropologist Victor Turner. In the next chapters I will give the characteristics of the liminal phase within the ritual process. I will explain how this stage of liminality is exactly the period in time that makes it possible to make a transformation in order to reach a new level of thinking. Telling all of this it seems events on a cosmic level coincide with events on earth, making it appear as if the whole world has entered into a stage of liminality and for that a period of transformation or enantiodromie.

The liminal phase in the ritual process

Liminality is a notion that originated within the study of rituals. The first to pay attention to this subject of liminality was the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. In his book ‘The rites of passage’ of which the French version already appeared in 1908 he states, that a complete scheme of rites de passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition) and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation). In ‘The Ritual Process’, Victor Turner at his turn writes how these rites of passage can be divided in three phases: separation, margin and aggregation .

The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual or group, either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions, or from both. During the second phase, the intervening liminal period, the characteristics of the ritual subject are ambiguous. He or she passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase of aggregation, the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or corporate, is reincorporated in a relatively stable state once more and, by the virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of a clearly defined and structural type. He or she is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions. Secret societies like the triads and freemasons know these kind of rituals as well as marines and special services within the army. There is a period of seclusion, physical and mental change and eventually the inclusion within a new group from which a new identity is derived.

The next focus is the so called margin or liminal phase in the ritual process. Turner describes how ‘the attributes of liminality, or of liminal personae (“threshold people”), are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial’.

The interest in liminal phenomena finds its source in their blend of lowliness and sacredness, their homogeneity and comradeship. They form a moment in and out of time, and in and out of the general secular social structure. In the liminal phase society is introduced as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated community of equal individuals who as a group submit to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Characteristics of liminal situations and roles

Turner asks himself why liminal situations and roles are almost everywhere attributed with magic-religious properties. Or why these situations are so often regarded as dangerous, inauspicious or polluting to persons, objects, events and relationships that have not been ritually incorporated into the liminal context. In his view, from the perspective of those concerned with the maintenance of ‘structure’, anything that is contrary to the dominant structure is therefore a threat and must appear as dangerous and anarchical. Therefore these manifestations have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions and conditions. To sustain this view he refers to the anthropologist Mary Douglas and recapitulates the argumentation of her book ‘Purity and Danger’ as follows; ‘that which cannot be clearly classified in terms of traditional criteria of classification, or falls between classificatory boundaries, is almost everywhere regarded as ‘polluting’ and dangerous’.

Another author who is being referred to is Henri Bergson. From Bergson Turner discusses the normative system of bounded, structured, particularistic groups. These so called ‘in-groups’ have a closed morality and they try to preserve their identity against members of ‘out-groups’. They protect themselves against threats to their way of life and try to maintain the norms that are essential for the routine behaviour on which their social life depends. Contrary to the closed morality of the stable structural systems, Bergson situates structures with an open morality. The people within these new structures with an open morality are identified as falling in the interstices of social structure, structurally inferior and marginal but also as open minded. These people are the members of despised or outlawed ethnic and cultural groups who play major roles in myths and popular tales as representatives or expressions of universal-human values. For instance the Good Samaritan. According to Turner in closed or structured societies, it is the marginal or ‘inferior’ person or the outsider who often comes to symbolize what David Hume has called ‘the sentiment for humanity’.

The ambiguous features of ritual subjects in the liminal phase are also a characteristic of liminality. In the liminal phase ritual subjects slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there, they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. Because people mistrust the things they cannot classify, it is my opinion that this ambiguousity contributes to the fact that these individuals, liminal situations and roles are given magic-religious properties and are often regarded as dangerous.

The dialectic of social life

Turner compared the functioning of society with a ritual process and he especially paid attention at the so called liminal phase in this process. He argumented that the liminal phase is the most important ingredient of a process that makes it possible for a society to transform. The premise of Turner is to explain how within stable and structured social systems more or less unstructured systems come into existence through a dialectical process. Within existing structures, new opposite structures come into existence which cause the whole system to enter a state of liminality. Any structure or system, like in a ritual process, continuously moves in to this state of liminality. Turner himself refers to the ‘institutionalization of liminality’ , transition as a permanent condition. In other words, the status system and liminality require each other and each is continuously being transformed into the other.

According to Turner this dialectic process is indispensable for any society because no society can function adequately without it. He considers liminality, marginality and structural inferiority as conditions in which myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems and works of art are frequently generated. These cultural forms provide people with a set of templates or models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and people’s relationship to society, nature and culture. But they are more than classifications, since they incite men to action as well as thought. Each of these productions has a multifocal character and each is capable of moving people at many psychobiological levels simultaneously. This is why I agree with the scholar in religious- and ritual-studies Ronald Grimes, who argues that for Turner it is specifically the liminal phase that enables ritual to do the work of transformation.

A critical note is at its place here. In her book ‘The Anthropology of Religion’ the anthropologist Fiona Bowie uses the term symbolic classification in order to explain that it is fundamental to all human societies to impose meaning on the environment, to order, classify and regulate. Classifying means creating order in the chaos of our cosmos by using opposite pairs of comparison, like for example hot and warm or pure and impure. For Bowie classificatory acts always derive from a particular view of the world and notions of what is pure and what is polluted which word refers to the argumentation of Mary Douglas in her book ‘Purity and danger’

According to Bowie these acts of classification can have profound implications for people’s lives. To imagine this we only have to think about the untouchables who are outside the Hindu cast system or the Jews in Nazi Germany. She speaks about groups within society that are considered to be virtually outside the limits of the ‘human’ category. It seems to me that this exactly fits the way Turner writes about liminal groups. However where Turner refers to the potential of transformation these groups can possess, Bowie speaks about a potential danger these groups can encounter. Because when these groups are dehumanized they are no longer considered human and that is one step towards complete separation and even destruction. Especially because Turner uses a term like ‘inferiority’ makes me want to keep Bowie in the back of my mind while reading Turner’s specific view on liminality.


Talking about Alchemy, what does all of this mean? I don’t know. Perhaps it is a natural phenomenon that events on a cosmic level coincide with events on earth and perhaps these processes become clear in the ritual process as described by Victor Turner. Certain is that a lot of things are happening and they all seem to point in a certain direction. That direction is a transformation on a massive scale. If this transformation will be accidental or caused by events occurring on a cosmic level does not really matter. What we see is that several events, and expectations about it, are falling together.

According to my opinion this world has entered a stage of ambiguity or liminality which brings uncertainty for lots of people living on it. Because of that people are entering a state in which they are open for new ideas and changes. That is what we see at this moment. The idea of sustainability, for example, is becoming very popular. It can however be questioned if combining it with commerce is such a good idea. It still is an example of the way this world can transform. Some people believe everything will turn out well for everybody. They belief a new spiritual consciousness, that will inevitably arise, shall be the cause of that.

Personally I hope these people are right, because a sudden spiritual awareness would certainly take away a lot of the dangers that accompany these periods of liminality and transformation. Looking at how the universe and this world are functioning I am not sure how this period of chaos and transformation will proceed. Will the changes happen gradually or sudden, caused by spiritual awareness or by a disaster that is for example the result of a pole shift, environmental problems like pollution or shortage of water, revolution, war, an economic crisis or something else?

Whatever happens, choices will have to be made. Concerning that I have put my hope on the human free will which, as I feel, will play an essential role. Does humanity eventually choose for power and more destruction or for a way of life that is more consistent with the way nature works and especially, the pace at which nature is developing? I myself wish for prosperity without growth and a system which has human happiness as a starting point. Sustainability plays an important role in that. The number of people however that are supporting these ideas is still very few at the moment. Perhaps these numbers will grow because of all the events happening nowadays, as well in the cosmos as well as on this earth. As above, so below.

Herman de Roos
herman.deroos at

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1 – Santiago Niño-Becerra, De crash van 2010 en de ondergang van het kapitalisme. (Nijmegen, 2010) p. 21 – 22

2 – dd. 3 April 2011

3 – John Major Jenkins, Het einde van de Mayakalender 2012. Decodering van de Mayakosmogenesis. (Deventer, 2005) p. 397 – 402

4 – Jenkins, Het einde van de Mayakalender 2012. p. 399

5 – Arnold van Gennep, The rites of passage. (University of Chicago press, 1960) p. xxi

6 – Gennep, The rites of passage. p. 11

7 – Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure. (Aldine Publishing Company USA, 1969) p. 94

8 – Turner, The Ritual Process. p. 94 – 95

9 – Ibidem, p. 95

10 – Ibidem, p. 109

11 – Ibidem, p. 107

12 – Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply into the bone. Re-inventing rites of passage. (University of California Press, 2000) p. 121

13 Fiona Bowie, The antropology of religion. (Blackwell publishing, 2000) p. 38

Image Credit

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The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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