The Alchemical Mysteries of Daisy

There is a flower within my heart,
Daisy, Daisy,
Planted one day by a glancing dart,
Planted by Daisy Bell.
Whether she loves me or loves me not
Sometimes it’s hard to tell;
And yet I am longing to share the lot
Of beautiful Daisy Bell.

Henry Dacre – Daisy Bell  (MetroLyrics)

Few people know that Harry Dacre, the author of the song Daisy Bell, was an accomplished alchemist. He was a shy and retiring man – indeed Harry Dacre was a pseudonym for Frank Dean, his real name. Another artist recorded the song which was to be his chief monument in the world – but what a song: one that clearly shows that he attained that rarest of gifts, the crowning glory of the Great Work of the alchemist.

"Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick" by The Lafayette Studio - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daisy_Greville,_Countess_of_Warwick.jpg#/media/File:Daisy_Greville,_Countess_of_Warwick.jpg

Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick” by The Lafayette Studio – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The first line of the song, “There is a flower within my heart” emphasises the interior nature of the mystery being expressed. The alchemist seeks to tend the inner garden of the soul, where, as Hermann Hesse wrote, we should let a thousand flowers bloom. The flower could also represent the elusive blue flower of Novalis, or perhaps the mystical rose of the alchemist.

The flower was planted in the singer’s heart by a glancing dart from Daisy Bell. A dart is a kind of arrow, and the arrow usually represents sexual attraction, being the weapon of the god Eros or Cupid; but the arrow can also represent knowledge, and perhaps has a dual meaning here of both erotic attraction and mystical knowledge.

The singer does not know whether or not the Soror Mystica loves him, but he is longing to share her lot. These lines emphasise the chancy and difficult nature of the Great Work, and the difficulty of attaining the hidden knowledge, which is greatly longed for by the alchemist, of course.

The song is addressed to a Miss Daisy Bell, clearly a reference to both the Soror Mystica of alchemy, and both the goal of the Great Work, and the means by which it is attained.

Who is the Soror Mystica?

Sorora Mystica literally translates to Mystical Sister, and she is the sole assistant to the Alchemist. She brings the balancing force of feminine and masculine principles in the physical and psychic work of the Alchemical process. She is the assistant to the chemical work and the mirror for which the Alchemist reflects. She is a vehicle for transference and the key to the Alchemist’s individuation.

Let me explain. The name Daisy is a pet name for Marguerite, which is a kind of daisy. The name Marguerite is also derived from Margaret, which means ‘pearl’. The pearl is obviously a reference to the pearl of great price, which is the enlightenment sought by mystics, occultists, and alchemists – the goal of the Great Work. In The Parable of the Pearl, a man hears that a beautiful pearl is hidden in a field, and sells everything he has to buy the field. Perhaps the pseudonym that the author used was a punning reference to this field: Harry Dacre = “arid acre”.

The name “Bell” clearly represents a bell-jar or some other alchemical vessel, the hermetic vessel inside which the alchemical process must be sealed in order for the Great Work to succeed. The fact that a bell is cast by metal-workers (often regarded in earlier times as magicians), and that the outer symbol of the Great Work was making gold from base metals, also adds to the alchemical associations.

According to the Virtual Victorian,

The Daisy he described was said to be based on the Countess of Warwick, Frances Evelyn ‘Daisy’ Greville.

Daisy was a champion of women’s rights, and also a mistress of the Prince of Wales.

The Prince of Wales clearly represents the King in the alchemical process. The fact that Daisy Bell was a mistress, and therefore someone to be concealed, again emphasises the interior and hidden nature of this mystery.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.

The first line of chorus (the best-known part of the song) implores Daisy to give him the answer. Clearly he is not just seeking her hand in the mystical marriage, but also the completion of the Great Work of Alchemy – not just an answer, but The Answer.

"Rosarium 11 fermentatio" by Anonymous - Rosarium philosophorum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosarium_11_fermentatio.jpg#/media/File:Rosarium_11_fermentatio.jpg

Rosarium fermentatio” Depiction of the fermentatio stage as hieros gamos, woodcut from the 16th century Rosary of the Philosophers. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The chorus continues, “I’m half crazy all for the love of you”. This clearly represents the idea that alchemists were regarded as mad by the rest of the world, because they were apparently seeking the impossible – the transformation of lead into gold – but what the world did not realise was that the transformation of lead into gold was an elaborate metaphor for the transmutation of base matter (the lumpen soul of the untranscended self) into divine spirit or gold (the symbol of the imperishable, immortal soul infused with divinity). So although alchemists appeared mad, they were in fact eminently sane – hence the phrase “half crazy”.

The next line is “It won’t be a stylish marriage” – there is little outward show to demonstrate that the Great Work is proceeding, hence it won’t be stylish – but alchemists used the symbol of a marriage (of a king and queen) to represent the union of the masculine and feminine principles within the psyche.

At this point, the author injects a little humour – “I can’t afford a carriage” – perhaps because he has spent so much money setting up his alchemical laboratory; or perhaps, on a more serious note, because he shuns worldly success and seeks only spiritual riches.

The last two lines of the chorus are a very clever modern adaptation of the ancient alchemical symbol of the Beast With Two Backs (a euphemism for a couple making love) which was a symbol of the Chymical Wedding, Hieros Gamos, or Sacred Marriage. The Soror Mystica is enthroned upon the seat of a bicycle of made for two.

We will go tandem as man and wife,
Daisy, Daisy,
Ped’ling away down the road of life,
I and my Daisy Bell.
When the road’s dark, we can both despise
P’licemen and lamps as well.
There are bright lights in the dazzling eyes
Of beautiful Daisy Bell.

In the second verse, Mr Dacre emphasises the equality of the partnership between the alchemist and the Soror Mystica, going tandem as man and wife; he will despise policemen (symbols of exoteric ethics and external laws, which the mystic does not need because he or she is guided by the divine will from within) and lamps (symbols of exoteric wisdom, which he does not need because he is illuminated by the divine light shining forth from the eyes of the beloved Soror Mystica).

I will stand by you in weal or woe
Daisy, Daisy,
You’ll be the bell which I’ll ring, you know,
Sweet little Daisy Bell.
You’ll take the lead on each trip we take.
Then if I don’t do well
I will permit you to use the brake,
beautiful Daisy Bell

In this verse, like the medieval knights who followed the mysteries of Courtly Love, the singer pledges his loyalty “in weal or woe”, and invites her to take the lead and use the brake – he submits to her inner guidance – and perhaps here she represents the Anima, his inner feminine self (of whom the Soror Mystica is usually the outward representation).

Harry Dacre carefully encoded an alchemical mystery in the lyrics of the song, and then set it to a catchy tune in the hope of imbuing the popular consciousness with the occult mysteries of alchemy. Of course, if you look at the subsequent explosion of feminist ideas, magical ideas, then he clearly succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Because everyone knows this song – right? And every time you sing it, you are praising the mystical qualities of making the Beast with Two Backs, and furthering the Alchemical Great Work.

Notes toward a Pagan Theology of Fiction

Pagans widely agree that fiction has spiritual power. In their interviews of Pagans, Margot Adler (Drawing Down the Moon) and Sarah Pike (Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves) both found that Pagans often cited science fiction or fantasy as important inspirations for their spiritual life. In religious studies scholarship generally, there’s an enormous amount of material on how people have engaged novels, films, and other media for spiritual purposes (one good recent example is Invented Religions; some of my own contributions to this topic include papers on matriarchal Goddess novels, Heinlein and Starhawk, and film as religion).  My take has generally focused on how fiction with a spiritual impulse has inspired real-life community practice, followed by individuals re-fictionalizing those community practices in order to better articulate and spread their religious values. As in myth, which tends to focus on spiritual or cultural truth rather than historical truth (though there may be a historical event or person at the core of the tale), Pagans often use fiction to clarify values, describe ecstatic experiences, or articulate hopes in a way that feels spiritually authentic—a purpose for which literal, historical prose accounts are not well designed.

Here at Patheos, we’ve had quite a few posts recently touching on the topic of fiction and Paganism. Sterling, for instance, writes about how the images from a favorite novel allowed her to form a real-life connection to the spirit of a particular river. (Her experience reminds me of the conversation in this blog, where the author argues that the local gods and spirits of a particular place are forced to use images we are familiar with in order to speak to us – such that, while we may seem to be speaking with a deity from across the world, we may actually be relating to a local deity who has clothed hirself in a way designed to get our attention.) Gus diZerega has offered a two-part series on pop culture and the formation of independently acting thought forms, suggesting the power that the media we consume may have on our behavior as individuals and as a society. Sunweaver recently shared about her use of fictional heroes as a way of exploring human virtues, and Aine Llewellyn responded with some reflections on how fiction and pop culture help to inform his work with contacting local and/or previously unknown spirits.

Although I myself have found fiction to be religiously inspiring (especially fiction that includes the worship of historical deities), I largely keep characters derived from pop culture entertainment out of my devotions. There is something compelling in diZerega’s suggestion that given enough attention and energy, a thought-form originally based in a pop culture narrative can become responsive (or, perhaps, a previously-existing spirit will clothe itself in those images in order to make human contact). Yet I still tend to agree with Galina Krasskova that making pop culture the focus of a spiritual practice could distract us from forming relationships with the partially forgotten, but potentially very responsive spirits of our local land and of our particular ancestors. (Krasskova’s post is in response to Sunweaver’s, as is this very interesting post on the nature of film vs. theater and its relationship to ritual by Sannion.)

As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). Keeping up with internet communication and its rapid change is intellectually stimulating, but in other ways, its demands directly contradict what I know is best for my health in its broadest sense. Spending time outside, being present with my surroundings, and cultivating a pace of life that allows deep contemplation and deep intimacy is good for me, good for the health of my community, and good for the health of the world—but I find myself summoned to the computer to earn a living and try to disseminate those locally-focused values to the wider world. Ah, paradox. —In any case, I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local.

And yet… Although I find myself sympathetic with Krasskova’s argument, it hinges on the idea that there is a kernel of historicity at the heart of tales of Cu Chulain, Heracles, and Achilles. Krasskova suggests that these heroes’ historical existence gives them a tie to real-life communities that purely fictional characters cannot have. But I am skeptical, because as we know well, the relationship between the tales told of historical people and the historical reality often diverge wildly within even a few generations. Pick up a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and consider the propaganda that passes for history in our public schools—the distortion of even basic facts about important American figures. It is in no way clear to me that heroic legends have the power to put devotees in touch with personalities who are more than literary creations, particularly when the historical gap is one of thousands of years. Even in a post-Enlightenment era where we observe a line between fiction and fact that many ancient peoples did not, our “history” is far more literary in content than we like to acknowledge.

I plan to continue to collect resources on this topic, perhaps to write something more substantial about all the ways Pagans use fiction in their practice and theology. What are your thoughts?

EDIT: I should have mentioned here Alan Moore‘s theology of fiction as articulated especially in Promethea (and which scholar Jeffrey Kripal finds underlying a number of different works of science fiction and fantasy). Moore sees reality itself as narrative—that all beings are tales being told in the mind of God (an idea he derives partially from poet and artist William Blake). This circumvents the claim of a certain group of Pagans that for gods to be real, they need to be historical, not fictional. For Moore, since reality itself is narrative, both human beings and gods are real *because* they are part of the narrative of creation. The line between the fictional and the real is blurred, if not entirely erased; although some fictions are manifest in flesh and others are not, and fictions have varying degrees of consciousness and power, all fiction is understood as ultimately real.