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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Alchemy

Alchemy is an ancient science purported to transmute base metals into gold by freeing them from their impurities through the various stages of the alchemical process. Alchemy is also often understood metaphorically as a spiritual process, whereby the self undergoes a series of purifying stages, until a transmutation to a higher form of consciousness is reached.

Some of the earliest writings on alchemical philosophy came from Aristotle, who proposed that the basis of the material world was a prima materia, or prime, chaotic matter, out of which form arose in the shape of four elements: fire, air, water and earth. The Creator, by blending these in certain proportions, brought forth the limitless varieties of life. To transform one substance to another, the alchemist believed he could change its elemental proportions “through the processes of burning, calcination, solution, evaporation, distillation, sublimation and crystallization” (Fabricius, Alchemy, p. 8).

Alchemy was one of the earliest attempt to reconcile the duality of spirit and matter. Most practitioners of alchemy theorized that all earthly things, animate and inanimate, possessed a cosmic spirit. An improper balance of mercury, sulfur and salt, the fundamental ingredients in all matter, caused the spirit of gold, to be imprisoned in lesser metals. To speed up the natural evolutionary process of elevating base metals to their perfection as gold, alchemists used methods designed to reduce a metal to its fundamental ingredients and then to recreate them into a more noble pattern (Cosmic Duality, pp. 37-8).

From this theoretical structure of nature evolved the assumptions upon which alchemy was based: the unity of the universe and relatedness of all natural phenomena as expressed by the idea of prima materia from which all bodies were formed and into which they might again be dissolved, and the existence of a potent transmuting agent capable of promoting the change of one kind of material into another (Fabricius, p. 8). This transmuting agent became known as the philosopher’s stone, an object so quintessential it could not only transmute metals, but cure illness and prolong life.

The process was composed of three stages. In the first, the alchemist heated the primary material, usually a blend of salt, mercury and sulfur, until it dissolved and turned black with decay. Under this continuous heat the liquid became dry, powdery and white. If all was done properly, the materials would eventually recombine and become a brilliant red, the color of the philosopher’s stone.

Explained briefly in more modern terms by Carl G. JUNG, the alchemical process, or Great Work, begins with blackness (nigredo), either present from the beginning or produced by separation of the elements. A union of opposites occurs, often represented by a marriage (coniunctio) of male and female. This union is followed by the death of the product of their union and a corresponding nigredo. At this point, a washing leads to the whitening stage (albedo), which is highly prized as the silver or moon condition. However, this is not the final product, as it must still reach the sun stage or rubedo condition, accomplished by raising the heat of the fire to its highest intensity (Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, pp. 230-2).

As early as the sixteenth century, Paracelsus believed that spiritual changes in the alchemist paralleled the alchemical process.

. . . the alchemist was “ripened” by his art, just as lesser metals were ripened into gold. The act of breaking down the first matter corresponded to the alchemist’s mercilessly examining his innermost soul until it too lay rotted and dead. From this ruin, the spirit supposedly arose anew, and the alchemist toiled to create the spiritual equivalent of the philosopher’s stone — a pure and immortal soul. (Constable, Search for the Soul, p. 54)

Alchemy continued to develop along both paths well into the eighteenth century, and even though spiritual alchemy for a time lost respectability, it is its mystical aspect which continues to be sought by contemporary alchemists, with any possibility or producing gold being viewed as a by-product of the spiritual quest.

Early History. Some lexicographers believe the word alchemy derives from the Greek chemeta, or chyma, that which is poured or cast, or from an ancient Egyptian word, khem-t which, according to Plutarch, Egypt was called because of the black soil of the Nile delta. Khem or Amen-Khem, is the Egyptian god of generation, productiveness and vegetation, from whose name the word Chemistry is derived (Funk & Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary).

In Arabic, Ul-Khemi is the chemistry of nature. The earliest use of the term “alchemy” is found in the works of Julius Firmicus Maternus, in the days of Constantine the Great. The oldest extant alchemical treatise was written by Zosimus the Panopolite about 400 CE in Greek, dealing with the finer forces of nature and conditions in which they operate. He postulates the existence of a Universal Solvent by which all composite bodies are resolved into the homogeneous substance from which they are evolved, which substance he calls pure gold, or summa materia. This solvent, also called menstruum universale, can remove disease, renew youth and prolong life. Such is the lapis philosophorum or Philosopher’s Stone (Constable, Secrets of the Alchemists, p. 19).

However the word came to be, the founding of alchemy is often credited to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great Hermes), an Egyptian priest and/or king of the first century BCE. He was believed to be an incarnation of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and a scribe of the underworld, who came to earth and reigned as pharaoh for over three thousand years. The Greeks, when adopting Thoth into their pantheon of gods, equated him with Hermes, messenger to the gods. The medieval alchemists embraced Hermes Trismegistus as their own, and their craft became known as the Hermetic Art (Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, p. 14).

Several centuries preceding the birth of Christ, in the Greek-speaking cities of Ionia, in Asia Minor, the first influential Western philosophers were questioning the nature of things. This questioning impulse reached its peak in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, in the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who did the first systematic study of natural phenomena. Their ideas sifted into Egypt and mixed with the occult beliefs of many Eastern traditions (Constable, Secrets of the Alchemists, pp. 18-9).

The city of Alexandria, capital of the Ptolemaic Greeks, was the cultural and intellectual hub for many Greeks, Egyptians and Jews. As these gathering scholars turned their attention to the ancient Egyptians’ metallurgical expertise, a new discipline took shape. The Greek worldview blended with the goldsmiths’ art to give birth to alchemy. The earliest writings on alchemy were likely destroyed in the destruction of Alexandria’s library in a series of Roman conquests beginning in 47 BCE. Emperor Diocletian, in 290 CE, threatened by unrest among the Egyptians, banned the practice of alchemy and burned all texts on the subject (Ibid., p. 19).

In the eighth century, a court physician named Geber, taught Aristotle’s belief that all metals were composed of sulfur and mercury, mixed in different proportions — a key idea in later European alchemy. Assuming gold was the perfect combination of these substances, the alchemist sought to chemically purify sulfur and mercury, opening the way to making gold (Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, p. 14).

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, alchemy came to Western Europe via the Arabs of Sicily and Spain. European adepts such as Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) and Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294?) began writing original books, not just adapted Arabian ones. The basic theory of alchemy included the possibility of metallic transmutation, the sulfur-mercury theory of metallic constitution, and the Aristotelian tenets of the “prime matter” and the four elements. They arrived at a broader view of nature by combining alchemical experiment with ancient natural philosophy and Christian theology (Fabricius, p. 6).

Later Activities. Because alchemy developed in a pre-Christian cultural world, it became a subculture of medieval Christianity. Mystics, without being orthodox Catholics, scientists without following the learning of the time, and artisans unwilling to teach others what they knew, alchemists were the problem children of medieval society. Once in the subculture, they often adopted apocalyptic visions alien to Western Christian society, a development accelerated by the psychological revolution taking place in the wake of the alchemists’ attempts at transmuting the elements (Ibid., p. 7).

As the alchemical labs changed into psychological labs and alchemical work into explorations of the inner universe, the purgation and transformation of metals were translated into symbolic procedures concerned with the purgation and transformation of souls. At the end of the Middle Ages, alchemy began to develop into a mystical system. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries the psychological experiences of generations of alchemists were distilled into a mystical system remarkable for its theological boldness and unity of doctrine, the opus alchymicum (Ibid., p. 12).

The rationality of the age of enlightenment was not conducive to the spirit of alchemy. Its method of explanation “obscurum per obscurius, ignotum per ignotius” (the obscure by the more obscure, the unknown by the more unknown) was not compatible with the spirit of enlightenment and the dawning science of chemistry (Jung, Psychology and Alchemy). In 1661, it suffered a death-blow in the scientific field when Robert Boyle published his Sceptical Chymist, which replaced the theories of alchemy with a rational system from which the science of chemistry arose. The alienation between the world of alchemical experience and the world of the industrial age was furthered by the materialistic and positivist spirit of the nineteenth century, until alchemy and its rich symbolism was rejected as pure nonsense (Fabricius, p. 12).

Then, in 1914, the Austrian depth psychologist Herbert Silberer, in Problems of Mysticism and Its Symbolism, recognized the unconscious foundation of the opus alchymicum, and proposed that alchemical symbols were eruptions of repressed unconscious forces. In 1944, C. G. Jung published his study on Psychology and Alchemy, bringing order and structure into the jungle of alchemical writings. Jung regarded the opus alchymicum as a mental process of transformation which he christened “individuation,” a term implying psychological totality, individual wholeness, or the soul’s attainment of divine selfhood (Jung, p. 13).

Centuries of refined laboratory techniques and alchemical manipulation of various materials produced many chemical discoveries: alcohol, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, sugar of lead, and a number of antimony compounds. Finally, in the twentieth century and the atomic age, we learned to change the elements into one another by changing the number of protons in the atomic nucleus of the basic elements (Ibid., p. 8).

Alchemy and Theosophy. H. P. Blavatsky, one of the founders of modern Theosophy, in many of her writings expounds on theoretical teachings such as the Absolute, the periodicity of the Universe, Karma and Reincarnation, the inner constitution of the Human Being, of the Kosmos, and the Law of Correspondence. Most of these teachings can be studied under the light of Alchemy. She proposed that the subject of Hermetic art is man, and the object of the art is the perfection of man. Man is the trinity which alchemists divide into Sol, water of mercury, and sulfur (the secret fire), or into body, soul and spirit. Man is the philosopher’s stone spiritually and physically. The latter is but the effect of the cause, and the cause is the universal solvent of everything — divine spirit (IU I:309).

When speaking of her search of the unknown, Blavatsky talked of alchemy, of union or “marriage of the red Virgin” with the “astral mineral,” and of the philosopher’s stone (union of the soul and the spirit). She was influenced by her studies of the books in her great-grandfather’s library on “alchemy, magic, and other occult subjects.” “Paracelsus, Kunrath, and Agrippa,” she wrote, “all spoke of the ‘marriage of the red Virgin with the Hierophant,’ and of that of the ‘astral mineral with the sibyl,’ of the combination of the feminine and masculine principles,” or what the East calls the harmonizing of yin and yang (Cranston, pp. 41-2).

Blavatsky believed that the truest practitioners were not seeking vulgar gold, but the golden understanding; not the transmutation of base metals, but the psychic transformation of their own personalities, nor the elixir of immortality by the philosopher’s stone, that mysterious lapis that symbolized the total man. She wrote, “the philosopher’s stone symbolizes the transmutation of the lower animal nature of man into the highest and divine.” The latter she calls “the universal solvent of everything” (Idem, p. 42).

Each science has three aspects — the first two: objective and subjective. “Under the first heading we may put alchemical transmutations with or without the power of projection; under the second, all intellectual speculations. Under the third is hidden the meaning of the highest spirituality. Now since the symbols of the first two are identical in design and possess . . . seven interpretations varying in meaning with their application to one or another of the domains of nature, the physical, the psychic, or the purely spiritual — it will be easily understood that only high initiates are able to interpret the jargon of hermetic philosophers. . . . Since there exist more false than true alchemical writings in Europe, Hermes himself would lose his way” (CW XI:532-3).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Works, 15 vols. Wheaton: TPH, 1988.

Blavatsky, H. P. Isis Unveiled, 2 vols. Pasadena: Theosophical Univ. Press, 1972.

Blavatsky, H. P. The Theosophical Glossary. Krotona: TPH, 1918.

Constable, George, ed. Search for the Soul. Mysteries of the Unknown. Morristown: Time-Life, 1989.

_____. Secrets of the Alchemists. Mysteries of the Unknown. Morristown: Time-Life, 1990.

Cranston, Slyvia. H. P. B.: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. New York: Putnam, 1993.

Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art. London: Diamond 1989.

Flaherty, Thomas H., ed. Cosmic Duality. Mysteries of the Unknown. Morristown: Time-Life, 1991.

Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Standard Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901.

T.G.

 

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