and The Great Art of Alchemy
University of New Orleans
"The changing of bodies into
light, and light into bodies, is very comfortable
The philosophy of this ancient discipline is mysterious1a, both necessarily and deliberately. Necessarily, because it took into account the invisible world which cannot be observed by the senses and therefore could not be described in a logical fashion. Deliberately, because the knowledge, which the alchemists believed themselves to be able to obtain, would confer a degree of power which, in the hands of the uninitiated, would be disastrous to the world.
Western alchemy offers us two concomitant themes: the transmutation of base metals into gold (which is regarded as the ultimate stage in a process of perfection) and a religious conception of the regeneration of the soul.1 These two interpretations give rise to two dominant schools of thought. The one school, material, which regards alchemy as a chemical process .. The other, mystical, which conceives of alchemy as a spiritual process disguised in the language of chemistry.
"There is also the marriage, the coniunctio, the union of Sun and Moon, Sol and Luna, the masculine father principles of radiance, light, heat, and energy with the feminine mother principles of magnetism, mystery, beauty, feeling, and water. The inner marriage as described in alchemy, sometimes as a 'chemical wedding,' is akin to the Taoist's blending of yang and yin, or the Tantric yogi's fusion of Siva and Sakti in the pingala and ida energy channels of the subtle body. Sometimes the alchemical marriage is said to be between the King and the Queen: these are the male and female aspects of the person, the ego. The King is often shown being purified, purged in a hot bath or furnace, freed of black dross, sweating out the impurities, the attachments that link ego to the world of sense objects. Sometimes the marriage is described as being between a red man (air rubeus) and a white woman (mulier candida): the red, fiery, martial, choleric masculine and the purified, innocent, virginal, venusian feminine. These are all aspects of what Jung would call unifying with the anima, female psyche, or the animus, male psyche."30
The only major English work which attempts to reconcile these two views is A.E. Waite: The Secret Tradition of Alchemy. His conclusion is not definitive and leaves many questions still unanswered as to the true nature of alchemy.
This confusion over what alchemy is presents us with a fundamental difficulty. Alchemy has no generally stated principles which we can work with that are accepted by all alchemists. H. Leistester tells us, "the alchemical literature from the Greek and Egyptian sources comes to us with no theoretical ideas, the recipes are entirely practical.2
The method of the early alchemists, as stated earlier was deliberately chaotic. Authors of early manuscripts state that they deliberately tried to conceal the practice from all who had not been initiated into a certain secret which enabled them to understand this Great Art.
When young alchemists first attempted to follow the recipes in the manuscripts, almost invariably they were unsuccessful. In fact most alchemists never did understand, or as the alchemists themselves like to say, innerstand the texts. The innerstanding was to come to the alchemists through an older more experienced master. "In the career of every alchemist who claimed to have made the stone, there was what may be called an initiation into the secret of alchemy."3
At some stage in his practice, the young alchemist would meet an older alchemist, who knew him to be a worthy man of the secret. He would then pass the secret to the young initiate, allowing him to work successfully. This secret was not always revealed by an older alchemist; in England in 1525, Thomas Chamok said he had no master, "God having put the secret into his head as he was lying in bed."4
Alchemist's theories come to the reader today in dark sayings, enigmatic allegories, and poetic utterances. It is impossible to understand the essence of alchemy texts on an intellectual level. A quote from 14th century Chinese alchemists Tisan T'uing Ch'l demonstrates this point:
This type of descriptive prose is not at all uncommon in alchemical literature. Another example comes from a western source, Morienas the Greek, writing at about the same time: "The ancients did not refer to the matters pertaining to this science by their proper names, speaking instead as we truly know, in circumlocutions, in order to confute fools."6
Before finishing this introduction on the difficulty and complexity of the subject, a word must be said about the alchemists themselves. Alchemists were of many kinds as many as the colors of the rainbow, which is so very important in their imagery and symbolism. At one end of the spectrum were the impostors or charlatans, using pretended knowledge of the "Divine Art" as a means of making money and gaining fame. At the other end were the devotees of the mystical alchemy. Between these extremes were many types, some called puffers, souffeurs or kitchen cooks. The intentions of many of these men were honest but their knowledge was insufficient to understand the true nature of alchemy. The difficulty is brought home to us by John Hopkins when he says: "the difficulty in understanding alchemists is because we try to understand them through our rational scientific minds when their philosophy was not scientific but more of a transcendental idealism."7
So how are we to
understand this great art, sometimes called "Hermetic
"It is important to remind ourselves that the alchemical teachings developed at a time and in a cultural context in which Descartes's sharp conceptual division of the world into res extensa and res cogitans did not yet exist. Not that the ancients did not know the difference between consciousness and matter, but that somehow the distinction or separation was not as rigid and definite as it has since become. This can tend to make it quite difficult for the modern mind to think in the same way as the ancient mind. Jung repeatedly stresses the point"30
With this paradoxical introduction, let us look at alchemy's cultural and historical development, keeping foremost in our minds that alchemy is like a two-sided coin: one side is it's practical chemical side of transmuting metals and the other is it's mystical intuitive side.
The word alchemy is said to have different origins, none of which are conclusive. Some etymologists claim that the Arabic form "Al-Kimiya" derives from the Greek and also from the Egyptian hieroglyphics meaning "Black"; from the alluvial soil of Egypt. Others claim the root is from the Occult, where "Al" means "The" and "Kimia" means secret or hidden - ergo "The Occult".9 A more traditional definition is that the word follows from the Greek meaning the casting of metals. Still, Oriental sources claim Chinese roots in the word "Kim-Imy", meaning gold making juice.10 For our purposes we will stick with tradition which has the word deriving from the Greek and Egyptian forms.
In a later paper Ralph Metzner gives this description of the orgin of the name "Alchemy":
"The word 'alchemy' has been given two different etymological derivations. Some authorities derive it from the Arabic al-kimiya, which in turn is based on khemia, the Greek name for Egypt, 'the black land'; the ancient Egyptians' name for their country was Kh'mi, 'the black earth.' So, al-kimiya would then be a term signifying "the Egyptian teaching,' or "the Egyptian art,' or 'the art of the land of the black earth.' An alternative derivation of the word relates it to Greek khumos, meaning 'chyme' or 'juice.' This provides an obvious connection to chemistry as it is usually conceived. Both of these derivations are interesting in that the teachings of alchemy do relate very much to 'water' and to 'earth,' to fluid and substance, as substrates of the living processes of Nature."30
Alchemy continues to be shrouded in mystery, controversy, and speculation.
"It is the Arabians construct of the term that has remained in the English language. The Arabians originally acquired the science from Egypt. Before Egypt was invaded and re-named by the Romans, Egypt was originally known by its people as Khemit or the Land of Khem. They are also said to be the descendants from Atlantis before the great flood. The term Khem refers to the black fertile land from which the life giving crops grow. Esoterically, Khem refers to the dark mystery of the primordial first matter from which creation manifests and the science of transformation which is alchemy. The first matter is also equated with consciousness.
The term Chemistry has its root in khem. The science of modern Chemistry evolved from the Alchemists in Europe. Alchemy was brought to Europe by the Moors in Spain originating from the Arabians. The Arabians added the prefix Al referring to Allah or God. Therefore, alchemy can be defined as the Science of God Realization."
Alchemy - The Science of
Traditionally, Egypt and China are two locations where records of alchemical literature originate. Some scholars claim that the discipline developed first in China around 400 B.C. and from there passed on to western civilization.11 Others believe Alexandria, the great Egyptian city, was where the origins of alchemy lay. There are still other sources that claim India to be alchemy's birth place, citing the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. This would date alchemy as far back as 5000 B.C..12 With our present knowledge it is impossible to say with any certainty where or when the study and practice of alchemy began, this will be left for scholarly debate. Perhaps the most judicious opinion is that alchemy developed independently in all of these regions, filling a universal need in spiritual individuals.
The oldest alchemical text of the west, of which only a fragment has been preserved, is entitled Physika Ku Mystika (Physical and Mystical Matters), which is attributed to Demokritos of Abdera in the fourth century B.C.. Fragments and pieces of other manuscripts without any known authors survived up to this date without any known authors. Many of these early texts are attributed to divine and royal personages: Hermes, Isis and Keloptra (Cleopatra).
Early alchemical writings are of extremely diverse character, showing very little homogeneity. Some are very practical laboratory treatises, others are wholly mystical. In two of Demolaitoa of Abdera's manuscripts, the Physical and Mystical Matters and The Book Addressed to Leukippos, the style changes from a very practical recipes from dyeing cloth to transcendental Zen-like sayings, The intellectual incoherence in these early texts, according to Dr. Taylor, is not the intention of the author, but on account "of our difficulty in identifying the materials and elucidating the technical procedure."13
Early Egyptian alchemists had certain theories about the nature of matter. The most crucial was its "essential unity". It was this unity that made it possible to convert one form of matter into another. With this unity there was a progressive scale in nature, from the corrupt, base metals (lead), to the pure indestructible ones (gold). Nature always intends and strives to the perfection of gold. This philosophy of the "essential unity of matter" and its movement towards perfection is said to derive from Aristotle. Early achemists are said to have taken Aristotle's theories about matter and change and incorporated them into their science.
Two theories of alchemists that are attributed to Aristotle are their ideas of Matter and Form. An example here may serve as an introduction. Sulfur and iron, according to modern science, are different kinds of matter. But for Aristotle and alchemists they are the same matter only specified by different forms (form is a kind of geometric shape). For the modern reader to consider ancient alchemical and Aristotelian ideas, we must put aside some of our "modern", basic concepts such as atoms, chemical elements and pure substances. This is a very crucial point for the modern reader must view change as the essential characteristics of all things and changes in himself.
This point cannot be emphasized enough. For Aristotle there was change and there was the changeless. Using an alchemical example: Iron changes into rust - something changes and something persists. That which persists is called Matter and that which changes is called Form. "In a statue, bronze is the Matter and Apollo the Form, but in bronze itself, earth and water are the Matter, and the cause of the properties of bronze the Form". 14
The Philosopher's Stone
Hofmann's Elixir, Amanda Feilding, 2008
For alchemists and Aristotle, matter was not something that you could see or touch. The world, the material world, consisted of five basic elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether. This last element was the prima materia, the element that made up all things in this world. It was the key to finding the Philosopher's Stone (Lapis Philosophorum). This prima materia had an enormous potency, a small quantity of which would "transform a very much larger quantity of base metals into silver or gold, and which had unexampled powers of healing the human body and indeed of perfecting all things in their kind".15
"To accomplish this, one of the essential operations used in the opus is separatio, the separation of the elements as a prerequisite to their unification. Paracelsus says: 'The impure, animate body must be purified through the separation of elements, which is done by your meditating on it.' Through internal observation of our own imaginal thought processes (what Jungians call 'active imagination'), we become aware of the distinguishing features and characteristics of the constituents of our psyche. We recognize the solid, dense, chunky 'earth' of bodily structurebone, muscle, tissue, joint, flesh. We experience the wave-like fluidity of 'water' as we swim in our inner sea, the mare nostrum of blood, lymph, humor, hormone and the associated feelings. With 'air' we encounter the gaseous state, the uprising breath, with its expansive, dispersing motion, inspiration, ideas, conceptions, thoughts that fly like the wind. With 'fire' we sense the electricity of our nature, the nervous vitality, the sparking, flashing of perception, intuition, imagination. Alchemy is experiential psychophysiology, the consciousness of biochemistry, the physiology of consciousness in reverse. It is psychophysiology from the inside, using symbols, myths, and chemical procedures to describe one's experience."30
This Philosopher's Stone is also known as "the Elixir", the transmuting agent in alchemy. This process of transmutation was effected by a powder called "xenon". The contemporary meaning is a cosmetic or dusting powder. The word Elixir comes from the Arabic Al-Iksir meaning "powder".
This doctrine of a transmuting agent was not at all speculative but was supported by practical evidence. One experiment demonstrating its properties is with the mineral galena (lead sulfide) which possesses the color and lustre of lead, but is neither malleable nor fusible like lead. When it is heated, however, it disengages sulfurous fumes, acquires the missing properties, and is transformed into lead16
The composition of the Elixir is clearly stated but the method of uniting its components or of using the Elixir to make gold is held just beyond one's attainment: "Detailed directions for the preparation of many substances leading up to the final synthesis of the Elixir, sometimes sufficiently incoherent in essential points, mingled with extravagant claims of broad experiences in chemistry, aroused the interest during the simpler portions of the directions and they confounded him by the impossibility of sucess.17
The idea of finding the Elixir of life has its origins in the Chinese religion of Taoism, dating back to the founder, Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.. Since this article is mostly concerned with western alchemy, further inquiry into the Chinese sources will not be pursued. One source from Chinese literature will suffice; We Po Panic (d. 121) was the father of Chinese alchemy and wrote a treatise on the preparation of the "pill" of immortalityS, The Ts'an T'ung Ch'i18
In Egypt, alchemy thrived at the intellectual center of Alexandria without difficulty or interference for centuries. In 292 Roman emperor Diocletian decreed that the practitioners of the "Great Art" were to be expelled from Egypt and all their manuscripts were to be burned. Political reasons had forced Diocletian's famous edict, for he was afraid that the alchemists could make gold and then the Egyptians could buy men and materials to attack Rome.19 After the edict, alchemistic history is in doubt. What happened after the expulsion from Alexandria, and the fate of the alchemists themselves, we have no way of knowing. We can only speculate that many moved into the Midddle East, joining the Islamic intellectual centers in Persia, Syria and Constantinople. Without literature for this period, it is impossible to be more exact.
A few Graeco-Egyptian transcripts of earlier doctrine do remain of this period, containing only alchemical recipes. The oldest is the manuscript of St. Mark of Venice which dates back to the 10th or 11th century. This and other manuscripts are preserved in Paris and were translated and studied by Marcellin Berthelot, resulting in his monumental work Les Origines de l'alchimie in 1885. According to Berthelot the chief writers of these early Greek manuscripts were: Democritus in the 1st century, Synesius in the 2nd, Zosimos in the 3rd, and Olympiodorus and Stephanus in the 5th and 7th, respectively.
This early literature contains no connecting theories, according to Holmyard. What they do offer us is the "most bizarre picture of Gnostic theory intermingled with chemical fact, ecstatic visions, descriptions of apparatus, and injunctions to the reader to keep the secret of the art from the vulgar".
Most of the ancient alchemical writings cane to us through Arabic writings and translations, dating from the 7th century. These Arabic writings are translations of early Greek and Graeco-Egyptian manuscripts. It was in Persia and in Syria that most of the Arabic work on alchemy took place after the explusion from Egypt. Syria was the most vital intellectual center, a true meeting ground of cultures and tongues. Latin, Greek, Syrian, Persian and, after the rise of Islam, Arabic, were all current language21
After 640 under the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad, there was a great revival in learning throughout the Islamic world. This period of revival is contrasted with the relative poverty of western Europe. Many scholars were joined at these centers where the study of philosophy, mathematics, science and religion was pursued. It was during this period that many early alchemical works from the Greek manuscripts were brought to these centers and translated. The most famous translator during this period was Hunayn iba Ishaq (d. 876). Ishaq brought Greek manuscripts on medicine and science from Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor to Baghdad as early as 640.22
The greatest figure among alchemists and scientists in the Middle Eastern world is Geber. Geber is a westernized version of the Arabian Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. Europeans have looked on Geber as the founder of alchemy because of his extensive writings and profound understanding of the subject. There are many great and fabulous stories connected with this giant of Islamic culture, and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. What can be said with certainty is his role in Islamic civilization is as influential as Aristotle's in European. His writings are extensive and, according to Richard Russell (in 1678), his style is that of a true artist, for his writings have "no tautologies, circumlocutions, or fruitless ambages; but like a good master, informs and does not perplex the mind of his disciple."23
Another giant in Islamic culture who had an extensive influence on the study of alchemy in Persia was Rhazes (861-925). Rhazes is the latinized form of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi. Born in the golden age of Arabic learning, he traveled to Baghdad to study medicine when he was in his early teens. His writings are also extensive and his influence immense.
Abu'l Qasim Al-Iraqi (d. 1200), is an even more influential figure in Islamic alchemy. His influence is not as great as the two preceding great masters but his writings add greatly to their theories and recipes.
Alchemy continued to flourish in the Islamic tradition in Spain under the Caliph Al-Hakam II (961-976). It was during this time that one of the most influential Latin works was written. It was entitled DeAnitnaand is attributed to Avicenna, which is a Latin distortion of his full name, Abu Ali al-usayn ibn.
According to tradition, alchemy found its way west in the middle of the 12th century in the form of Arabic manuscripts on the subject. The first translation was made by Robert of Chester in 1144, and by the beginning of the 13th century almost a dozen texts had been translated, including The Emerald Table, attributed to the "god Hermes Trismegister". In this movement west, Albert Magnus (St. Albert), 1200-1280); Roger Bacon, the father of the experimental method; and Thomas Aquinas (1235-1271) all investigated to one degree or another the theories of the new subject. It was Magnus and Bacon who were to take the art seriously enough to investigate it systematically. St. Albert's studies were made mostly through the work of Avicenna. His writings on the art are also voluminous, characterized by "his tempering statements of moderation; trying to make every ascertain clear".24 A truly difficult task considering alchemy's paradoxical nature. St. Albert's most famous work De rubus Metallicis et Mineralibus (1214) helped spread the facts and theories of alchemy across Europe.
A contemporary, Roger Bacon, also believed there was much to learn from alchemy in its practical, chemical experiments. His interest was purely experimental, "dividing alchemy into its theoretical or speculative aspect and its practical operative aspect.25 He seemed to dismiss the strict approach of science. If it could not be demonstrated in the laboratory, and confirmed by scientific demonstration, Bacon would say, then it wasn't worthwhile.
The reintroduction of alchemy into Europe was characterized by a rise in what Hopkins refers to as "pseudo alchemy". Pseudo alchemists were those individuals who studied alchemical literature and practiced with the elements, but knew nothing of its real value. Their purpose was only to make gold and become rich and famous. This form of alchemy spread all throughout Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, thriving in small shops, tavern's and basements. It is a phenomenon impossible to document, but its spread helped to discredit the art far beyond its original form. These pseudo alchemists were called puffers or souffeurs by true practitioners of the art - as Pernety writes:
"Those ignorant are those who spend many years of their life without succeeding in any of the Hermetic principles. After spending many years without success, their vanity offended, ashamed as having failed, they seek to indemnify themselves, by speaking evil of that which they have been unable to obtain."26
Thus the alchemy that was being introduced to Europe was stripped of its intrinsic mystical aspects, relegating it to a purely physical science of making gold. This misinterpretation, Hopkins explains the reasons for this misinterpretation: "[Because] there was no master mind (Geber), to bring alchemy to a new birth Europe, and no compelling discoveries had emerged from Islamic laboratories to impress the value of alchemy upon a practical world, the prospects of alchemy occupying a position of helpfulness in the scientific inquiry into the nature of matter were poor indeed".27
Probably the greatest mind to investigate alchemy in the 13th century was Thomas Aquinas. The extent to which he studied alchemy was small, but his comments on the Great Art were very influential on his contemporaries. "The chief function", wrote St. Thomas, "of the alchemist is to transmute metals, that is to say, the imperfect ones, in a true manner and not fraudulent".28
It is not surprising that when some of the best minds in the Middle Ages gave favorable comments on the Great Art a large number of people began practicing alchemy. Alchemy swept over Europe like a fever in the 13th century, remaining at least for four centuries, until 1661, the chief preoccupation of those inclined to understand nature's secrets.
There was a bewildering variety of alchemical practice during this renaissance in European thought. Historians, writer's and painters of the middle ages give us a kaleidoscope look at how the art was practiced. Inscriptions of alchemists range from Christ like figures to creatures of the most despicable trickery and hipocrisy.
The greatest impact on western civilization was through the monasteries . The medieval alchemist was in most cases a learned cleric. This was because the great majority of those who could read and write were clerics, and alchemy necessarily involved the study of books. To get a copy of a manuscript, the monk would probably have to hand-copy one or two manuscripts which someone would have to lend him.
Alchemy continued to grow into the 14th century. Translations were becoming more popular throughout Europe. Two interesting figures who practiced alchemy during this period were were Ramon Lull (1225-1315) and Arnold of Villanova (1214-1313).
The aim behind all these experimental philosophers in the later centuries was to do away with all mysterious, occult, or personalized forces, and to explain nature on a mechanical basis. The greatest exponent of this approach was Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Boyle. work in chemistry had a major impact on alchemy. Boyle's purpose in his investigations of alchemy and chemistry was to present a mechanical picture of chemical reactions; to do away with all occult forms and qualities; and to explain the behavior of substances by analogy with a machine, specifically to consider the world as a "great piece of clockwork." An essential part of his work was to clear away the old ideas as, especially those of the Aristotelian elements, the foundation of alchemical philosophy. He did this in his most famous book, The Skeptical Chemist, 1661.
The result of this and other works of the same time, was a "true chemical revolution"29 which was actually part of a greater revolution of all experimental sciences. The alchemical doctrines of the four elements were overthrown and the ideas of atoms and substances were firmly established.
Alchemical history does not stop here. The practice and study of this ancient and medieval art will be continued in the centuries ahead, but never on a scale as it had been in the past.
University of New Orleans
1a. "In the past it has been traditional to live publically but to keep great knowledge secret. Thus, all the alternatives to the ordinary experience and suffering which men have known before come down to us in guarded symbols, white and black, with seals all around, impenetrable by the common mind." - Franklin Jones (Adi Da Samraj) Knee of Listening, Preface (unpublished version), 1970.
1. Sheppard, H.J., "A History of Alchemy", Ambix (July 1970), pp. 69-75.
2. Leicester, H.M., The Historical Background of Chemistry, (New York, 1956), p. 36.
3. Partinton, J.R., "History of Alchemy and Early Chemistry", Ambix (Jan 18, 1947), pp. 302-313.
4. Read, J., The Alchemists in Life Literature and Art. (London, 1947), p. 39
5. Partington, J.R., "Ancient Chinese Treatise on Alchemy", Nature (Aug 24, 1935), p. 78
6. Stavenhagen, L., "A Testament of Alchemy", (New England, 1974), p. 11
7. Hopkins, A.J., "Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy", (New York, 1934, p. 22
8. De Rola, S.K., "Alchemy, The Secret Art", (London, 1973), p.6
9. Wagner, H., "The Light of Egypt", 2 Vols. (Denver, 1900), p. 53
10. Barnes, Wh.H., "Chinese Influence on Westrn Alchemy", Nature (May 18, 1935), p. 36
11. Taylor, S.F. "A Survey of Greek Alchemy", J. Hellenic Studies (1930), pp. 109-139
12. Partington, J.R., "History of Alchemy and Early Chemistry", Ambix (Jan 18, 1947, pp. 210-215.
13. Taylor S.F. "Alchemy", (Baltimore, 1968), p.26.
14. Ibid., p.85.
15. Ibid., p. 92.
16. Thompson, C. S., "The Lure and Romance of Alchemy", (London, 1949), p.81.
17. Read, J., "Prelude to Chemistry", (London, 1949), p. 120.
18. Partington, J.R., "Ancient Chinese Treatise on Alchemy", Nature (Aug 24, 1935), p. 38.
19. Hopkins, A.J., "Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy", (New York, 1934), Apendix I.
20. Holmyard, E.J. "Makers of Chemistry", (Oxford, 1933), pp. 35-39.
21. Hitti, P.K., "History of the Arabs", (London, 1937), p. 69.
22. Partington, J.R., "Albert Magnus on Alchemy", Ambix (1935), p. 3.
23 Holmyard, E.J., "The Works of Geber", (London, 1928) p. xxxvii.
24. Partington, J.R., "Albert Magnus on Alchemy", Ambix (1935), p. 3.
25. Levi, E., "Transcendental Magic", (New York 1974). p. 20.
26. Pernety, J.A.J., "The Great Art", (New York, 1973) p. 29.
27. Hopkins, A.J., "Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy", (New York, 1934) p. 184.
28. Taylor S.F. "Alchemy", (Baltimore, 1968), p.85.
29. Read, J., "The Alchemists in Life Literature and Art", (London, 1947), p. 52.
30. Metzner, Ralph, "Alchemy and Personal Transformation", Laughing Man Magazine (Spring 1981, p. 53.
31. Feilding, Amanda, "Hofmann's Elixir - LSD and the A New Eleusis", 2008.
Book of Secrets: "Alchemy
and the European Imagination