Bob Dylan And The Symbols Of Alchemy: Birds Of Pray

by Larry Fyffe

The portrayal of the Christian Messiah in the Bible shows evidence of the historical influence of the alchemists of Egypt, and the philosophy that is now known as Gnosticism (found in Jewish texts as well). The human eye is an important symbol thereof:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven
Where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt
And where thieves do not break through nor steal
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also
The light of the body is the eye
If therefore thine eye be single
Thy whole body will be full of light
But if thine eye be evil
Thy whole body shall be full of darkness

(Matthew 6: 20-23)

Also in the song lyrics of Bob Dylan, listeners can detect remnants of Gnostic thought with its view that mankind is trapped in a world of darkness – modern man, trapped in a material world, has his focus on science, industry, and capitalist greed:

He looks so truthful, is this how he feels?
Trying to peel the moon and expose it
With his business-like anger and bloodhounds that kneel
If he needs a third eye, he just grows it

(Bob Dylan: Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window)

In Gnostic texts, Jesus is portrayed as a shape-shifter; He’s capable of transforming Himself into a sharp-eyed eagle. And, in the Holy Bible, Christ possesses the alchemical ability to bring the dead back to life:

And Jesus lifted up His eyes, and said
‘Father, I thank thee that thou has heard me ….’
And when He thus had spoken
He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth’
And he that was dead came forth
Bound hand and foot with grave clothes

(John 11: 41 -44)

Folksingers, rather like artistic alchemists, sometimes re-arrange biblical passages into a secular ones. Below, Dylan adds his arrangement to a ballad of yore:

Oh, the new sheriff sent a letter
‘Go out and get me Lazarus
Dead or alive, dead or alive ….
Poor Lazarus
Lazarus’ father, when he heard his son was dyin’
Said, ‘Let the fool go down
Let the fool go down’

(Bob Dylan: Poor Lazarus -traditional)

A son of the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin counters medieval ‘biology’, its roots located in the biblical grand theory of a pre-ordained fixed design (called the ‘great chain of being’ in Shakespeare’s day), with a new empirically-based theory of ‘natural selection’ in relation to the existing environment. Poet Lord Tennyson responds with the ambiguous image of an eagle on high that falls like a thunderbolt.

Bob Dylan makes note of the resistance to any change on the part of the high authorities in control of social values – water symbolizing power. Dylan, not without humour, borrows from the traditional folk song ‘Poor Lazarus’:

They got Charles Darwin trapped out on Highway Five
Judge says to the high sheriff
‘I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care’
High water everywhere

(Bob Dylan: High Water)

Bob Dylan sides not with the dogma of the high priests of established religion. The singer/songwriter clings to the cliff with crooked claws, holding onto the alchemical portrayal of Jesus: the stone-like darkness lying at the heart of  human nature can be changed if an individual metaphorically wakes up and kindles the light that glows within one’s soul; however, given the dark clouds of social injustice that haunt the world of reality, it’s not an easy thing to do.

In the song lyrics below, the temptation is to take the well-worn path that’s trodden in ‘Poor Lazarus’:

She wrote me a letter, she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there

(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

The path leading to hidden mystical wisdom of ‘gnosis’ is not a simple and straight one, but a long and winding road that’s knotted with ‘eternal recurrences’, a cosmological view that sparkles in the the rings of the ancient Egyptians.

Isis, an Egyptian goddess, is a symbol of a good wife and good mother, represented sometimes by a kite, a bird of prey. According to the Greek essayist Plutarch, Isis brings her mummified husband back to life for a short time in order to mate with him after he’s shut up in a coffin.

Bob Dylan transmutes the plot into a psychological drama in song lyrics below:

I picked up his body and I dragged him inside
Threw him down in the hole and put back the cover
I said a quick prayer, and I felt satisfied
Then I went back to find Isis just to tell her I love her

(Bob Dylan/Jacques Levy: Isis)

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