"Let thou who would step upon the path of wisdom first endeavor to gather and order thy tools - and having done so, destroy them utterly. Not for thy work is the crucible, the aludel or the athanor, the vitriol or the aqua regia. Take in thy hands the unturned stone and raise the flame with the breath of thy lungs; set thy eye to the smoke and thy tongue to the ash. Light the flame with the blood of thy limbs! Cure thyself with the salt and swallow the sulfur! Thou are the vessel and the furnace - when thou are burned hollow, the quicksilver turns. Blacken thy bones and they shall be harder than steel."
- From The Alembic of St. Apollonius of Tyana
Among the relatively niche group of those familiar with his writing, P.L. Murtaugh has a reputation as strange and inconsistent as his body of work. Seen variously as a serious practicing occultist, a harmless prankster, a scholarly investigator and journalist, an outright fraud and hoaxer, or some mixture thereof, opinions vary wildly. There is generally very little argument, however, that the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is his magnum opus, for better or for worse. Published in 1982, the Grimoire represents Murtaugh's efforts to reconcile and synthesize the rather far-reaching fields of study that made up his earlier books. Threads that began in 1968's Walking with the Silent Ones, 1974's The Crescent and the Urn: Uncovering the Secrets of Mesopotamian Time Travel and 1981's Staring Down the Abyss: Scrying Applications in the Modern World are clearly woven through the Grimoire, and this attempted fusion of three distinct works is echoed in the form as well as the substance.
Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is comprised of three separate texts, each of which is followed by Murtaugh's notes, analyses, and expansions. These works are The Alembic of St. Apollonius of Tyana, Excerpt from "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao", and The Glass Tablet of Sharab. Each of these is presented as an authentic esoteric text from antiquity, but as one might be forgiven for suspecting, there is no real proof that any of them actually exist. At the time of the Grimoire's publication, there had been no prior books on them, or indeed even mentioning them, and no indication that they came from anywhere save Murtaugh's imagination. Indeed, given his reputation as a prankster in the best case and a fraud in the worst, it is easy to believe that Murtaugh fabricated the texts whole cloth. However, as is so often the case with this author, the story is not so clean-cut; in addition to the texts themselves and his analyses, Murtaugh offers numerous and seemingly legitimate citations of research papers in obscure scholarly journals across the globe, the vast majority now defunct. In every case the supporting work in question has been nearly impossible to procure, but the scant handful of those that have been tracked down do indeed make mention of the Grimoire's parent texts. While never the focus, the academic papers make mention variously of their historical, linguistic, anthropological, and mythological provenances. In each case there are several additional scholarly works cited, even more obscure than those in the Grimoire itself; nevertheless, the Grimoire's subject matter does appear to have some kind existence outside Murtaugh's book. We are left to conclude, then, that either they are actually real and that Murtaugh affected a prodigious academic effort in drawing together both the pieces and the extant material that speaks to them; or, that the entire thing is an incredibly elaborate hoax or joke on the part of Murtaugh. In either case the work involved, and the result, is undeniably impressive.
The Alembic of Saint Apollonius of Tyana was, according to Murtaugh, written by Apollonius himself. For the unfamiliar reader, Apollonius of Tyana was a wandering neo-Pythagorean ascetic and wonderworker, a so-called "pagan Christ," who most likely lived in the first century C.E. Only scant fragments of writing from Apollonius are likely authentic, and certainly none with this name are known outside the Grimoire. The Alembic, while relatively brief, is considerably the longest of the three works in Murtaugh's book, clocking in at roughly 12 pages depending on the edition. The content and form is in no way characteristic of work from its purported era; indeed, in style it is much closer to the Rosicrucian Manifestos of the 17th century, being rather densely packed with alchemical allusions. Murtaugh attributes some of this character to his primary source for the text being a 1616 translation by one Ruprecht Klein of Strasbourg; he does, however, provide at times lengthy passages in the Koine Greek which Apollonius used. Despite the alchemical symbolism, the Alembic is not a piece of Hermetic philosophy; rather, it urges the reader to abandon the tools and methods of the Hermetic work and engage directly and bodily with the prima materia. As in the other two pieces in the Grimoire, there is a focus on un-becoming and unknowing in the Alembic, although it is less explicit here. Murtaugh's notes, comments and analysis are thorough and insightful, making reference to and comparison with not only the aforementioned Rosicrucian texts, but also the works of other neo-Pythagoreans, numerous of the alchemical treatises of the 16th and 17th centuries, and many other writings. He also draws parallels between the Alembic and Apollonius' only surviving writing, On Sacrifices, and here Murtaugh demonstrates an impressive eye in penetrating their surface differences. Several lines of inquiry from Murtaugh's The Crescent & The Urn are touched upon in this section as well, beginning his unstated goal of drawing together all of his previous works.
The second primary text featured in the Grimoire is Excerpt from "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao," which Murtaugh ascribes to no specific author. As we may expect, "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao" is not a known piece of writing; Chang Kuo Lao, better known as Zhang Guolao, is one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism. By all accounts Zhang was a real historical figure, living between the 7th and 8th centuries C.E., who has become a well-known Chinese mythological figure. Naturally, no work known as "The Jade Law" is attributed to him. However, the Excerpt's seeming provenance is no less interesting for not being written by Zhang. A significant portion of the piece in Murtaugh's book is almost a word-for-word interpretation of the apocryphal "Iron River" Sutra, an esoteric Buddhist text supposedly written in the 5th century. The Sutra was an early minor text of Zhenyan, but is said to have been lost in the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of 845. Fragments of it were known to circulate in Shingon communities once esoteric Buddhism was brought to Japan, but no full version is known to exist. That large portions of the Excerpt not only match the known fragments of the Iron River Sutra, but also expand on them in a style in keeping with those sources, is surprising to say the least. Murtaugh himself acknowledges the similarities between the Excerpt and the Sutra, though he maintains that the text from which he worked was The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao.
Conceptually, the Excerpt (and by extension, portions of the Iron River Sutra) straddles a complex line between standard esoteric Buddhism and totally unorthodox teachings. On the one hand, in keeping with the tenants of esoteric Buddhism, the piece declares that Enlightenment is not a distant possibility but is instead directly achievable, and that the exoteric doctrines are merely helpful and are not the Truth itself. On the other hand, the Excerpt states that esoteric doctrines are also incapable of communicating the Truth, and that "the wise must forget the wisdom they have learned and the wisdom they have taught." Furthermore, the Excerpt argues that Enlightenment is not only attainable but is immanent rather than transcendent, and that it is beyond teaching and being; these passages bear more resemblance to the Tao Te Ching than to many Buddhist texts. The common theme of the Grimoire, of the necessity of unknowing, is more clear here than in the Alembic. Murtaugh here revisits some of his arguments from Staring Down the Abyss as well, mainly regarding the misguided nature of discerning reality through esoteric practices.
The third and final piece of the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is also the shortest; The Glass Tablet of Sharab takes up about two full pages, while Murtaugh's analysis goes on for more than 50, though some of this is more of a conclusion to the book. The Glass Tablet is immediately recognizable as being a line-by-line refutation -- or, as Murtaugh says, a Nemesis -- to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. The Emerald Tablet, of course, is the cornerstone of Hermetic philosophy, proclaiming that "...as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation." The Glass Tablet, by comparison, states that "...as all things have as their source not one but nought and the nescience thereof, so too are all things borne by the dissolution of nought." Murtaugh spends comparatively little time on the supposed history of the Glass Tablet, for the most part choosing only to state that is said to have been written by the "semi-mythological philosopher Sharab of Ur" in the late 2nd century B.C.E.. Murtaugh does concede that Sharab is not a Sumerian name, and that the reason behind the appellation "Glass Tablet" is unclear since the text is reputed to have been recorded on clay, as was the norm of the time. Regardless of its origin, the Glass Tablet is an intriguing work, speaking directly on the unknowing that the other works in the Grimoire intimated about and touched on. Nemesis, being the goddess that enacts retribution against those who succumb to hubris, is a tremendously apt identification on the part of Murtaugh; where the Emerald Tablet promises that "by this means you shall have the glory of the whole world," the Glass Tablet simply states, "you do not need glory. And you will see, but never gain perfection." In both the Glass Tablet and his analysis of the text, there is a sharp focus on the illusory nature of transcendence and of esoteric wisdom itself, echoing Murtaugh's thesis in his Walking with the Silent Ones.
As a whole, the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is more than the sum of its parts. Even if the parent texts that form its backbone were written entirely by Murtaugh, they present a unique take on the nature and applications of esoteric studies throughout history. Murtaugh's impressive exegeses on the works provide sharp insight that even a studious reader would be likely to miss on their own, and form an invaluable commentary on the three texts. Fact, fiction, or somewhere in-between, the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix delivers a fascinating examination of the philosophy of a perennially controversial author. While it has been out of print for some years, we can unequivocally say it is worth the effort to track down.