Bob Dylan: Songs Of Alchemy

Bob Dylan: Songs Of Alchemy

by Larry Fyffe

Many symbols in the song lyrics of Bob Dylan come from the proto-science, psychology included, that undertaken by the Alchemists. The remnants of Alchemist thought remain scattered throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Dylan often uses symbols -concise images with contextual meaning – that appear in ancient Greek/Roman mythology and cosmology. For instance, Mercury is the quick-moving son of Zeus, the god of Thunder; Apollo is the golden Sun-god who burns the white raven black for not preventing his earth woman from straying; Diana is the silver Moon-goddess, Apollo’s twin sister, both the offspring of Zeus; Jupiter(Zeus) is the rebellious son of Saturn who overthrows his father; Leda is an earth woman, impregnated by a swan(Zeus in disguise) – she gives birth to Helen of Troy; Venus, daughter of Zeus, rides a half-shell upon water – one of the four basic elements, according to the the science of the times, along with fire, air, and earth – the balance of these elements in body fluids determines the overall character of an individual.

Named after the fastest-moving god-planet, the Alchemists believe ‘mercury’ transforms base metals into precious silver and gold. The Alchemists develop an analogical cosmology around the physical process used – a Gnostic belief system that considers the sexual union between a man and woman to be analogous to merging these two precious metals into an ethereal awareness of an untouchable God; emanations from the far-away Godhead include Mercury, the Moon, and the Morning Star.

Below, a Christian hymn, Gnostic in style and content under the influence of the ‘Song of Solomon’:

He’s the the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star
He’s the face of ten thousand to my soul
(Charles Fry: The Lily Of The Valley)

Intermediary spirits, like the Morning Star, intuitively receive messenges from the far-off and unknowable Absolute Spirit, and convey them to the material beings trapped on Earth.

The doubled-edged song lyrics below can easily be interpreted in the terms of Gnostic Alchemy:

But you changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
From silver and gold to what man cannot hold
You changed my life
(Bob Dylan:You changed my life)

Explicit sexuality, artistically expressed in Holy Bible (ie, Song Of Solomon), is euphemistically expunged by orthodox Christian leaders; interpreted instead as a utopian union between the Bride of Christ (His Church) and the Bridegroom, Jesus.

The Biblical canon in the modern times of Christian missionaries attempts to bury Gnostic imagery, but the imagery survives – the following double-edged song lyrics interpreted as a recognition of this:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
(Bob Dylan: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands)

A prose-poem depicting overwhelming female love, by a Canadian writer, springs to mind – it’s banned in her home and native land:

It says, I remain, I am, I shall never cease to be
Your memory will grow a deathly glaze
You will forget, you will fade out, but I can’t be undone
(Elizabeth Smart: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept)

The ‘humour theory” hypothesizes that ‘black bile’, composed from the element earth, causes individuals to be ‘melancholic’, to be sorrowful – a psychological disturbance that is associated with mythology’s elderly Saturn. In the Gnostic system of the Alchemists, the raven, a bird of prey, because it’s able to fly up into the air for awhile, symbolizes the soul’s unsuccessful bid to escape from the physical body – nor can the raven of the Bible get any satisfaction, any peace, any rest:

And he sent forth a raven which went forth, to and fro
Until the waters were dried up from off the earth
(Book Of Genesis 8:7)

In a song by Dylan, the alchemy symbol is rendered even less capable of ignoring bodily urges:

My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing
(Bob Dylan:Love Minus Zero )

The vengeful God of the Old Testament is represented as a sunlit star in the Judeo-Christian Bible:

The Lord bless and keep thee
The Lord make His face shine upon thee
And be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee
And give thee peace
( Book Of Numbers 6:24-26)

Some of the time, but not all of the time, so expressed by Dylan as well:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
(Bob Dylan: Forever Young )

The white swan of Gnostic Alchemy, like Greek mythology, represents earthly sexual union with the God of Thunder as being a rather dark experience:

A sudden blow: The great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By dark webs, her nape caught in his bill
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast
(William Yeats: Leda And The Swan)

A somewhat modified image of God – one of light, rather than of darkness – is found in the Holy Bible:

A bundle of myrrh, is my well-beloved unto me
He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts
(Song Of Solomon 1:13)

Bob Dylan offers up a parody:

Saddle me up my big white goose
Tie me on’er and turn her loose
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie
(Bob Dylan: Country Pie)

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. ie, Smart: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
    Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion
    (Psalm 137: 1)

  2. Brilliant how you draw from all these sources. Just this command of Dylan song lyrics is amazing.

    To me, the Gnostic union refers to a level beyond the physical coupling of two people. It may aim at the union between the soul (bride) and the spirit (groom). Love between two people may be used as an image, an analogy.

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