The Tinctures

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detail from engraving by Matthäus Merian prefacing 'The Philosophical Basilica' of Daniel Mylius's 'Opus medico-chymicum' (1618)
Detail (lower portion) of Mathieu Merian’s engraving prefacing ‘The Philosophical Basilica’ of Daniel Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum (1618).

The Tinctures

The primary Tincture
The antithetical Tincture

Solar and Lunar

Principles and Faculties

The Cycles of History

The Opening and Closing of the Tinctures

Tinctures: AV B 72
AV B 72

The Tinctures

The tinctures are fundamental to Yeats’s System and underlie its inherent dualism. Within the System as a whole they are special cases of the more encompassing duality of Solar and Lunar, pertaining to incarnate life: ‘the Tinctures belong to a man’s life while in the body, and Solar and Lunar may transcend that body’ (AV A 139). In the greater reality the ‘cones of the tinctures mirror reality but are themselves pursuit and illusion’, as ‘the sphere is reality’ (AV B 73), but since incarnate life, with its pursuit and illusion, is the most immediate aspect of our experience, and the majority of A Vision is concerned with it, whether in the individual life or in history, the tinctures dominate its dualistic symbolism. (The term itself hardly occurs in the Automatic Script, and Yeats notes that it was he who ‘had suggested the word tincture, a common word in Boehme,’ as the shared name for the antithetical and primary poles [AV B72].)

Yeats states that the ‘whole system is founded upon the belief that the ultimate reality, symbolised as the Sphere, falls in human consciousness, as Nicholas of Cusa was the first to demonstrate, into a series of antinomies’ (AV B 187) and refers later to ‘a phaseless sphere that becomes phasal in our thought, Nicholas of Cusa’s undivided reality which human experience divides into opposites’ (AV B 247). Elsewhere Yeats refers to the ‘antinomy of the One and the Many that Plato thought in his Parmenides insoluble’ (VPl 935), and he preserves this Platonic opposition in his duality, though expanding it by association to include, the objective and the subjective, Love and Strife or Concord and Discord, the Solar and the Lunar, and asserts the constant conflict of the two opposites.

The Tourney of Sol and Luna from 'Aurora consurgens'(early 16th century)
The Joust of Sol and Luna from Aurora consurgens (early 16th century); note that Sol’s shield has a lunar emblem, while Luna’s shield carries a solar one.

It is very difficult to deal with the tinctures separately, since they are constantly defined through their relationship to the other, and in fact Yeats gives very little direct description. After introducing the idea of opposing forces through pre-Socratic Greek philosophy in AV B he does, however, give a basic outline. The primary is linked to ‘objectivity of mind’ and described in terms of the dictionary’s definition of objectivity, so that it ‘lays “stress upon that which is external to the mind” or treats “of outward things and events rather than of inward thought’ or seeks ‘to exhibit the actual facts, not coloured by the opinions or feelings”’ and ‘is reasonable and moral’, while antithetical subjectivity is linked to ‘our inner world of desire and imagination’ and ‘is emotional and aesthetic’ (AV B 73). Yeats does not elaborate these definitions of the terms greatly, leaving much to be inferred from their application in the course of the exposition.

There are two longer lists, which apply to civilisation and religion, but one of these is given in the prefatory ‘Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends’ and the other appears at the end of the penultimate book. Applied to history the primary is ‘an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace’, while the antithetical is ‘an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war’ (AV B 52); in terms of religion, the Christian or any ‘primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent [for immanent?] power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical’ (AV B 263).

It is possible to see, perhaps, why Yeats avoided giving a clear table of oppositions, since rather too often critics latch onto these lists and take them as definitions, when what is most important is the underlying principle, while the attributions can change and vary according to context. The fundamental idea of the primary is unification while that of the antithetical is separation, so that primary forces bring things to unity, sameness, and concord, whereas antithetical forces bring things to individual identity, differentiation, and discord. These themes inform the terms’ names, though rather obliquely: ‘the subjective cone is called that of the antithetical tincture because it is achieved and defended by continual conflict with its opposite; the objective cone is called that of the primary tincture because whereas subjectivity. . . tends to separate man from man, objectivity brings us back to the mass where we begin’ (AV B 71-72) and a draft version elaborates this: ‘in the antithetical we are all different, each a microcosm, in the primary we are one, & because all are one before they are many’. In the dualism of the One and the Many, the primary harks back to unity, so that it is ultimately the dominant tincture, but the One, in itself, is static and therefore sterile. Though the antithetical is the secondary opposition, it is the necessary expression of difference and conflict, and therefore movement and life. A first degree of extension from these ideas is that the primary is identified with the macrocosm, God and the equality of all souls, while the antithetical is identified with the microcosm, humanity and difference of all people.

The division of primary and antithetical is so fundamental to the System that it is often difficult to generalise about experience or a being’s purpose in life according to the System, because the two diverge so much, and if the being mistakes the purpose, then the life will be ‘out of phase’. Since the antithetical is the basis of life and humanity, in opposition to after-life and spirit-knowledge, Yeats almost invariably takes the antithetical as the typical case or the centre of his interest, and the primary, despite its name, is forced into the secondary role. This dualism inevitably entails a constant balancing of the one hand against the other, and Yeats evidently finds that sometimes his interest in the Wheel’s objective half is too weak to sustain extended consideration. Although the Wheel contains a spectrum, the two halves are so radically at odds that it is difficult for the person of one half fully to identify with the other.

In certain ways A Vision is an antithetical reading of the larger System and can almost be seen as a perverse reading of the material offered by the Automatic Script and System behind it. Yeats acknowledges, through the fictional drama of Robartes and Aherne surrounding AV A, that the System could have been presented quite differently. Casting Robartes as the discoverer, Mr Yeats as the editor and Aherne his rival, serves the function of allowing Yeats to acknowledge his bias, but to ignore it. Robartes takes his papers away from Aherne, who has been editing them, complaining, according to Aherne’s account, ‘in exaggerated language that I interpreted the system as a form of Christianity, that only those aspects of character that were an expression of Christianity interested me—primary character to use the terms of the philosophy—and that I was neither informed not interested when it came to the opposite type’ (AV A xxi). Robartes’s decision to hand control of the editing to Yeats is explicitly depicted as a swing in the opposite direction, not towards neutrality but to a man ‘who has thought more of the love of woman than of the love of God’. While Aherne recognises that the ‘system has grown clearer for his concrete expression of it,’ he also notes that ‘if I made too little of the antithetical phases he has done no better by the primary’ (AV A xxiii). In this fiction Yeats clearly indicates his lack of sympathy with the primary aspects of his own System, which makes ‘the realisation of God one half of life’, and acknowledges that these aspects receive scant attention in the work as it appears.

Solar and Lunar

The tinctures are relatively equal in terms of human life, since they are manifested through the Wheel and cannot exist apart. The broader terms ‘Solar’ and ‘Lunar’ are more hierarchical in their relationship, since each level is Lunar with respect to that above it and Solar in relation to that below it. This means that, looking upwards, one always sees the Solar aspect, looking downwards, the Lunar aspect, so that the Lunar is in some respects inferior and less permanent. In the two main elements of the human constitution, the Principles and Faculties, this resolves into a fundamental dualism of Solar Principles and Lunar Faculties, and hence human life is Lunar, while the after-life is Solar. However, the four Principles are divided into the two Lunar and two Solar Principles, and the four Faculties are similarly divided, and these pairs are themselves in opposition (see below). In relation to the human, the Daimonic companion being is the Solar part of the duality, while in more general terms the Thirteenth Cone is the Solar counterpart of the Lunar Wheel of history and human life, but comes to subsume all forms of opposition.

The ultimate reality of the Sphere is a marriage of Solar and Lunar, but appears more Solar in nature, since at each level the greater is Solar in relation to the lesser, and humanity is intrinsically Lunar. The Sphere is androgyne, or in fact beyond all sex or opposition, in a similar way to the alchemical ideal of the reconciliation of Sun and Moon or Sulphur and Mercury. Indeed in his use of Solar and Lunar as terms, Yeats is closer to traditional forms of thinking and imagery. A recent writer on alchemy, Dennis Hauck, has written that:

King Sun and Queen Moon, from 'Rosarium Philosophorum' (1550) The most basic tenet of alchemy is that there are two primary ways of knowing reality. . . . The first way of knowing is rational deductive, argumentative, intellectual thinking that is the hallmark of science. . . . The alchemists called this solar consciousness, and assigned it many code words, such as the King, the Sun, Sulphur, Spirit, the Father, and ultimately the One Mind of the universe. . . . The alchemists called the other way of knowing lunar consciousness. This intelligence of the heart is a non-linear, image-driven intuitive way of thinking that is an accepted tool of the arts and religion. Among its many symbols are the Queen, the Moon, the metal Mercury, the Soul, the Holy Ghost, and ultimately the One Thing of the universe.
from Rosarium Philosophorum (1550)(cited Alchemy: The Great Secret, 45)

Neither way of thought is adequate in itself, and the path indicated as necessary for the alchemist lies between the two extremes, often represented by the Hermaphrodite or Rebis. Yeats tends to reject such reconciliation, however, at least for the moment, and dwells on the constant tension between the two forces, the relationship between the sexes rather than the annihilation of their difference.

Rebis, from 'Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit', Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich (15th century)

The Solar and Lunar or primary and antithetical of Yeats’s System, include many of these elements, along with astrological and Cabbalistic symbolism. The Solar is associated with reality, knowledge, intellect, the spiritual dimensions, necessity, objective truth, and the urge to transcend or to submerge the individuality in the greater external whole, whether it is Nature, humanity or God. The Lunar is associated with creation, experience, emotion, the psychic dimensions, choice, subjective sincerity, and the impulse to assert individuality in the face of all that stands outside it. The Solar is thus also linked with the comic and what brings humanity together, while the Lunar expresses the tragic and what separates human beings one from the other. In 1921 Yeats noticed that the System did change certain traditional associations of Sun and Moon from those he had given in his introduction to Augusta Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men (viz Ex 24), where the Sun ‘is the self sufficing source of energy’, and the Moon ‘the popular self abandoning impulse’ (YVP 3 88). In A Vision these particular attributes are reversed, but the field of associations follows coherently from the first principles of the primary expressing unity and the antithetical expressing difference to create a consistent core of meanings for the dualism. Given his mind and his training, Yeats naturally sought out correspondences, but they are seldom exact, and in some ways Yeats appears to have been relieved that there were no direct parallels.

The Faculties and Principles

In the circle of rebirth ‘each day and night constitute an incarnation and the discarnate period which follows’, of which the day is the period after death, while ‘the incarnation’ itself is ‘symbolised by the moon at night’ (AV B 79). This symbolism is specifically applicable in terms of the Principles and the Faculties, where the Principles, which are active after death, are the Solar counterparts of the Lunar Faculties. Of the Principles the Solar pair of Celestial Body and Spirit are, once unified into the Celestial Body’s transfigured form (the Clarified Body), the ultimate and eternal part of the individual soul. Within the cycles of incarnation and development these are joined by the two Lunar Principles, the Passionate Body and the Husk. The Husk is closely allied to the body itself and the vital forces, and the Passionate Body is linked with the astral level and personal desire, but both are shed or absorbed during the death period, the Husk almost immediately, the Passionate Body rather later. The Principles are reflected into the creative Faculties during incarnate life, specifically through the ‘lowliest’ of the Principles, the Husk. Consequently it is the Faculty that corresponds to the Husk itself, the Will, which is dominant during life, while that which corresponds with the Celestial Body is the Body of Fate, the most intractable and least personal of the Faculties.

Each Principle or Faculty is also either inherently active and appetent or static and the goal of the appetent counterpart. The active forms have affinities with antithetical qualities and the static goals have affinities with primary qualities. To summarise:

  • Celestial Body: Solar, static
  • Spirit: Solar, active
  • Passionate Body: Lunar, (static)*
  • Husk: Lunar, (active)*

  • Will: antithetical, active
  • Mask: antithetical, static
  • Creative Mind: primary, active
  • Body of Fate: primary, static
*not really relevant in these two cases

or in tabular form:

StaticCelestial BodyPassionate BodyMaskBody of Fate
ActiveSpiritHuskWillCreative Mind

Though each Principle or Faculty is intrinsically either Solar/primary or Lunar/antithetical, the actual placement for a given incarnation will vary, and is such that the Faculties can never all be in their natural disposition (since the Will and Mask are always diametrically opposite to each other, as are Creative Mind and Body of Fate). Though the Creative Mind, for instance, is intrinsically primary, it can fall in either the primary or antithetical tincture according to incarnation, and if it is primary, which accords with its own fundamental nature, then Body of Fate will be in an antithetical Phase.

In human incarnation the conscious mind is represented by the antithetical gyre and the unconscious by the primary, and from our human perspective the natural dimension is comprehensible, so that the ‘instructors make the antithetical or lunar cone of the Faculties light and leave the solar dark’ (AV B 190). The active Faculties, Will and Creative Mind, remain on the light or antithetical gyre, and the static Faculties on the dark, primary gyre. This can also be seen as the gyre of the Daimon, to whom this gyre is light (though still primary) and the other gyre dark (but still antithetical), since from the Daimon’s spiritual perspective the ‘light is thought not nature’ (AV B 190; see also AV A 26-27).

When we move to the cones of history, however, the Faculties appear to behave in a different way, transferring from Solar to Lunar cones at a point equivalent to the interchange of the tinctures, and bring elements of influence to the nature of the eras.

The Cycles of History

The opposition or alternation of antithetical and primary also applies through history, as first one and then another predominates in different areas of life. This topic is covered more fully in the page on History, but it is worth noting here, that since history is entirely human, it is the province of the tinctures, but that within the alternating pattern of cycles, since the Annunciations come from beyond the human, these cones, deriving from the Principles and covering a cycle of some 4,400 years, are Solar and Lunar (viz AV B 263). The ‘cone shaped like an ace of diamonds . . . is Solar, religious and vital; those shaped like an hour-glass Lunar, political and secular’ (AV B 262), and they remain Solar and Lunar, whether they are primary or antithetical at a given point, changing as the Faculties transfer from one to the other at an Annunciation.

With the approaching Annunciation being that of the ‘antithetical multiform influx’ (AV B 302), Yeats sees himself as a prophet of the coming antithetical, even to the point of declaring a new form of religion. In AV A Yeats describes the nature of the coming climate of thought and philosophy, which will be born in opposition to the ossified monolith of primary thought, the last gasp of the current religious cycle (see text). This section does not appear in AV B, but A Packet for Ezra Pound declares:
Oedipus: Antoni BrodowskiI send you the introduction of a book which will, when finished, proclaim a new divinity. Oedipus lay down upon the earth at the middle point between four sacred objects, was there washed as the dead are washed, and thereupon passed with Theseus to the wood’s heart until amidst the sound of thunder earth opened, ‘riven by love’, and he sank down soul and body into the earth. I would have him balance Christ who, crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body, and I see him altogether separated from Plato’s Athens, from all that talk of the Good and the One, from all that cabinet of perfection, an image from Homer’s age. . . . What if Christ and Oedipus or, to shift the names, Saint Catherine of Genoa and Michael Angelo, are the two scales of a balance, the two butt-ends of a seesaw? What if every two thousand and odd years something happens in the world to make one sacred, the other secular; one wise, the other foolish; one fair, the other foul; one divine, the other devilish? Christ: Dali
Oedipus and Antigone in Exile
Antoni Brodowski (1828)

National Museum in Warsaw
(AV B 27-29)Christ of St John of the Cross
Salvador Dalí (1951)

Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries

The Opening, Closing and Interchange of the Tinctures

The Opening and Closing of the Tinctures

Yeats struggled with the concept of the opening and closing of the tinctures, and it led to some of the only major changes in the section on the ‘Twenty-Eight Incarnations’ between the two versions of A Vision. In A Vision A, Yeats envisages a four-fold division of the Wheel, with transitional points between Phases 26 and 27, 4 and 5, 12 and 13, 18 and 19, so that from Phase 27 to Phase 4 ‘the Tinctures become one Tincture’, from Phase 5 to Phase 12 they ‘become two again’, from Phase 13 to Phase 18 ‘each Tincture divides into two’ making four, reverting to two between Phases 19 and 26, after which they close to the single one (AV A 17). Yeats’s working copy of AV A (YL 2433c), corrects the phrase ‘Between Phase 12 and Phase 13’ to ‘at Phase 11 and Phase 12’, and in A Vision B the transitions occur on either side of the Zodiacal cross of Head, Heart, Loins and Fall, and the opening and closing are made both simpler and more baffling. In the revised treatment, the opening and closing of each tincture happens separately, at a particular Phase rather than in between, the antithetical during an odd-numbered Phase and the primary during an even-numbered Phase: at Phase 25 the antithetical opens and at 26 the primary, at 4 (primary) and 5 (antithetical) they close again, at 11 and 12 open again and at 18 and 19 close again (AV B 88). These primary and antithetical openings are related the division of each half of the Wheel into its own complete wheel, so that the openings and closings of the tinctures correspond with Phases 8 and 22 of the self-contained primary and antithetical wheels, and the tinctures are open in the respective antithetical halves of these wheels.

The two halves of the Wheel as separate wheels
‘One may regard the subjective phases as forming a separate wheel, its Phase 8 between Phases 11 and 12 of [the] larger wheel, its Phase 22 between Phases 19 and 20; the objective phases as another separate wheel, its Phase 8 between Phases 25 and 26, its Phase 22 between Phases 4 and 5.’
(AV B 88-89)
Phase 8 of the greater Wheel is Phase 1 of the smaller, antithetical wheel, and Phase 22 is Phase 1 of the smaller, primary wheel. In this arrangement the primary wheel proceeds anti-clockwise over the top, while the antithetical wheel proceeds anti-clockwise around the bottom; the numbers within the subsidiary wheels refer to the Phases of that wheel, while the Phase numbers of the greater Wheel appear around the edge for clarity of reference.
The tinctures of the greater Wheel are open during the antithetical half of the smaller wheel in both cases.

Not only is the antithetical tincture open for longer than the primary, but also an antithetical bias appears to favour the opened Faculties, which correspond with the antithetical part of the subsidiary wheels (a bias can also be seen in Yeats’s changing the Automatic Script’s term ‘breaking up’ to ‘opening’). The opening has a different effect in the two halves of the greater Wheel. When the tinctures are open in the antithetical half of the Great Wheel:

The opening means the reflection inward of the Four Faculties: all are as it were mirrored in personality, Unity of Being becomes possible. Hitherto we have been part of something else, but now discover everything within our own nature. Sexual love becomes the most important event in life, for the opposite sex is nature chosen and fated. Personality seeks personality. Every emotion begins to be related to every other as musical notes are related. It is as though we touched a musical string that set other strings vibrating. . . . [whereas during the primary opening] the tinctures open not into personality but into its negation, the Whole objectively perceived. . . . not subjective, form the point of man, but a sharing of or submission to divine personality experienced as spiritual objectivity. . . . the Faculties ‘wear thin’, the Principles, which are, when evoked from the point of view of the Faculties, a sphere, shine through. (AV B 88-89)

While the tinctures are open in the antithetical half, the Faculties are strengthened and heightened, whereas during the primary opening, they are weakened and subordinated to the Principles. Yeats’s sympathies are clearly with the antithetical opening, though the spiritual primary is closer to the traditional ideal of esoteric systems of thought.

The Interchange of the Tinctures

At Phase 15 and Phase 1 occurs what is called the interchange of the tinctures, those thoughts, emotions, energies, which were primary before Phase 15 or Phase 1 are antithetical after, those that were antithetical are primary. I was told, for instance, that before the historical Phase 15 the antithetical tincture of the average European was dominated by reason and desire, the primary by race and emotion, and that after Phase 15 this was reversed, his subjective nature had been passionate and logical but was now enthusiastic and sentimental. (AV B 89)

This is almost the only treatment of the idea, despite passing references elsewhere, and if anything the interchange of the tinctures is explored even less than their opening; indeed Yeats continues: ‘I have made little use of this interchange in my account of the twenty-eight incarnations because when I wrote it I did not understand the relation between the change and Unity of Being’ (AV B 89), but having decided not to revise the text he also leaves his readers little the wiser about what it does mean. Its application is therefore only really seen in the Great Year, and there the transition is not even strictly speaking the interchange itself. Yeats writes of how, ‘At the birth of Christ took place, and at the coming antithetical influx will take place, a change equivalent to the interchange of the tinctures’ (AV B 262) as the active and static Faculties transfer from the Solar to the Lunar cones or vice versa. The static Faculties, Body of Fate and Mask, are on the Solar cone of religious, vital life during a primary dispensation, but on the Lunar cone of secular, political life during an antithetical one. The corollary is that the Will (along with Creative Mind) is located on the Lunar cone during a primary dispensation and the Solar cone during an antithetical one (see diagram). In this concept the key Faculties are Body of Fate, the most primary, static, unifying and objective, and Will, the most antithetical, active, differentiating and subjective; since the Solar cone defines the religious genius of the era, the presence of Body of Fate on the Solar cone marks the religious era as primary, while if Will is on the Solar cone, the era is antithetical: ‘Before the birth of Christ religion and vitality were polytheistic, antithetical, and to this the philosophers opposed their primary, secular thought. Plato thinks all things into Unity and is the “First Christian”. At the birth of Christ religious life becomes primary, secular life antithetical—man gives to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (AV B 262-63). The superficial paradox therefore is that when Will is on the Solar cones the religious era is antithetical, and when it is on the Lunar cones the religious era is primary, but here Will and Body of Fate retain their inherent nature, and ‘bring’ their influence to the cone.

The pairings of Will and Creative Mind and of Mask and Body of Fate retain the aspect of paired Discords, so that Mask and Creative Mind do not appear to influence the nature of the cycle. Seen in the circle their relationship is clearer, if still complex, and Yeats leaves much of the detail unexplained.

For further exploration of the fundamental duality within the Yeatses's System, see the essay "'Everywhere that antinomy of the One and the Many': The Foundations of A Vision," by Neil Mann in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.

The Cardinal Phases and the Phase Triads

The Wheel of Incarnations

The Daimon



Secrets of the Rosicrucians; detail
from Hartmann, Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians of the 16th and 17th Centuries (Altona, 1785)



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.