Alchemist's Quest

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

The title of Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is a bit misleading, since the three main characters it refers to are all bad to varying degrees. The lesser two evils, played by Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, have joined forces in a running scam whereby Eastwood turns his partner in to collect the bounty on his head, then springs him from the clutches of the law before he can be hanged. Eastwood eventually tires of this game and abandons Wallach, who soon gets his revenge. The nominal bad guy, played by Lee Van Cleef, is essentially of the same ilk as the other two but is redeemed neither by good looks nor comic flair.

This unsavory trio is locked in a deadly winner-take-all game, with a fortune in stolen Confederate gold as the prize. A dying Confederate army deserter has revealed to Wallach alone the name of the cemetery where the gold is buried, while only Eastwood has been given the name on the grave marker where the treasure supposedly can be located. The three main characters converge on the cemetery. There is a shootout and another betrayal. The grave is located, but it yields only bones. Eastwood now reveals that the gold is buried in an adjacent grave. This time he and Wallach are not disappointed. After briefly making Wallach stand on a grave marker with his hands tied behind his back and a noose around his neck, Eastwood splits the loot with him, and they go their separate ways.

Buried treasure is not only a common motif in adventure yarns but is also found in the Bible. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." A similar saying attributed to Jesus is found in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas. In this version, one of 50 ancient texts discovered in Egyptian desert in 1945, Jesus compares the kingdom to a man who possesses hidden treasure in his field but does not know it. Someone else buys the field after the man and his son die and plows up the treasure, which he then lends out at interest.

Carl Jung discovered buried treasure in the writings of medieval alchemists. He found in their arcane descriptions of transmuting base metals into gold the highly symbolic language of spiritual transformation. The base metals, or prima materia, represented the base elements of personality that were transmuted into alchemical gold -- the lapis, or philosopher's stone -- representing the fully individuated psyche. This process takes place within the hermetic vessel of the self, and it involves drawing together opposing elements of personality into an integrated whole. The alchemists had no language of psychology to describe these inner processes, and so they were projected onto material substances in the external world.

It might be a bit of a stretch to read such lofty notions into a spaghetti western about greedy treasure hunters. And yet the elements are all there. The low-lifes who pursue the gold -- good, bad and ugly -- are the prima materia. They converge in a cemetery -- a fitting locale for the transformation that takes place, since the old self must die for a new one to form. In this case, the integration is not quite complete, since the "bad" element is killed off before the gold is retrieved. There is a final showdown in the cemetery. The first grave has turned up only old bones, and Eastwood now writes the name of the actual grave on the bottom of a stone that he places on the ground as the three face off around it. After Van Cleef is summarily dispatched, Eastwood shows Wallach that no name has been written on the bottom of the stone. It turns out the gold is hidden in a grave marked "Unknown," meaning that it lies within, beyond the reach of conscious inquiry. There, not far below the surface, lie riches beyond reckoning.

Didymus Judas Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas

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