Bob Dylan and the Symbols of Alchemy. But is he a Gnostic?

by Larry Fyffe

In the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s songs are bird symbols derived from the writings of the ancient alchemists.

A precursor of modern chemistry, alchemy searches for a means to transmute base metals into silver or gold. From the four basic elements – earth, wind, fire, and water, there develops a pseudo-psychology that seeks a proper balance among these basic elements in the human body.

The steps in the search for this special knowledge of how to escape from the outward darkness of the physical body to inner enlightenment is at first a professional secret. Those who practice these transmutational steps – then and now – are today referred to as ‘Gnostics’.

According to the alchemists, the first step in the seach for self-knowledge, or ‘gnosis’ – in the biological/psychological realm – is symbolized by the black crow or raven, a bird attracted to the earth, but which also circles the sky.

In the following song lyrics, Bob Dylan expresses that sometimes he feels like he has the persona of a black crow:

Black crows in the meadow
Across the broad highway
Though it is funny, honey
I’m out of touch, don’t feel much
Like a scarecrow today
(Bob Dylan: Black Crow Blues)

Then there’s the symbol of the white swan, a bird that’s observed mostly swimming on the surface of the water rather than in flight, still not capable of detaching itself altogether from the earthly darkness wrought by ignorance of the knowledge of how to experience goodly enlightenment:

The singer/songwriter surrounds the symbol of the white swan with black humour:

Tenderly William kissed his wife
Then he opened her head with a butcher’s knife
And the swan on the river went gliding by
Lady Margaret’s pillow was wet with tears
Nobody’s been on it in twenty’s years
(Bob Dylan et al: The Ballad Of The Gliding Swan)

The third step of the gnostic staircase is symbolized by the peacock whose tail feathers flash a rainbow of colours; it’s not all inner brightness yet but it’s getting there:

The cry of the peacock, flies buzzing in my head
Ceiling fan broken, there’s a heat in my bed
Street band playing ‘Nearer My God To Thee’
We meet at the steeple where the mission bells ring
(Bob Dylan: Caribbean Wind)

The fourth stage away from the dark outer flesh of the physical body to the inner light of the spiritualism is symbolized by the pelican. The pelican (the female of which was thought to feed her own blood to her young) is similar to the albatross depicted in Samuel Coleridge’s famous poem – a symbol of self-sacrifice, Christ-like.

In the song below, Bob Dylan takes on the persona of such a symbolic bird, but he is determined not to sacrifice his body, and with it his inner spirit, as he rides the warm southern winds :

I’m circling around in the Southern zone
I pay in blood, but not my own
(Bob Dylan: Pay In Blood)

Finally, the Phoenix is a mythical bird which rises up from the metaphorical ashes of its physical body into imaginative heavens where, in the words of poet William Yeats, the silver apples of the moon merge with the golden apples of the sun – and the process of gnosis is complete:

You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the one I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
(Bob Dylan: You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

In his artistic creations, Dylan makes use of the symbols of alchemy and what they stand for. To what degree, if any, he is personally a Gnostic mystic is a matter of conjecture.

Please note: we hope to have a review of “The Ballad Of The Gliding Swan” available on the site tomorrow.

Earlier articles in the series (in order of publication)


  1. Really enjoyed reading this! I like how alchemy is portrayed as an inner process, rather than an attempt to make physical gold. I think a lot of Dylan’s work can be seen from this perspective, including songs that have been interpreted in biographical terms. An example could be Abandoned Love.

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