In this, the tenth article of our occult studies course, we discuss the origins and nature of Alchemy and how the sincere study and practise of this sacred science can help us to find the Philosopher's Stone and Elixir of Life.
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Warning to Thrill-seekers and Mystery-mongers
If you have stumbled upon this page because you suppose, or have been led to believe, that alchemy is something anyone can take up with the aim of getting rich in a few short weeks or months, we're afraid you are doomed to disappointment and should read our 'Word to Puffers' in the sidebar. If, on the other hand, your interest is prompted by the sincere desire to be of service to humanity, then you will find much to inspire and facilitate your alchemical studies and experiments in this article.
It is rather amusing that chemistry, which is such an important part of modern science, has grown out of the much ridiculed researches and practices, as well as superstitions, of the ancient alchemists. What is still more amusing is the fact that the old alchemists used strange terms in order to hide their secrets, which, together with the many ridiculous names they gave to the various ingredients they needed in their work, successfully pulled the innocent legs of their successors (the chemists), who, taking these terms at their face value, now laugh heartily at these foolish alchemists. How these seemingly foolish, but really very wise, old men must be chuckling in their beards as they look down from above and see their detractors struggling with the hidden meanings of the weird phrases with which their diaries and manuscripts are filled.
It reminds us of the veiled teachings of the other occult and mystical sciences, consisting of subtle words and phrases with hidden meanings, very mysterious to the vulgar mind, such as the famous "Holy Grail" which now enjoys great notoriety in the public imagination through the novels of Dan Brown and others. Such fantasies continue to give rise to the most absurd ideas and fanciful speculations, causing a multitude of short-lived "occult orders" of all kinds to spring up, in order to spread their wonderful "secret" knowledge, only to fall down with a mighty bang, or fade out like a movie when the power fails; each according to its inherent proclivities and predestined fate. . . .and the wise ones silently stride past!
The origins of Alchemy
What is the meaning of the word alchemy? Opinions differ. One theory is that the word is derived from the Arabic Kimya, or chemistry, and al. Kimya in its turn being derived from the late Greek word Chemeia, which also means chemistry, or from Chemeia, mingling, or Cheein, to pour out or mix. But one Egyptologist of the last century, E. A. Wallis Budge, thought that its root might lie in the ancient Egyptian word Khemeia, which refers to the preparation of the black ore, or powder, which is the active principle used by alchemists in the transmutation of metals. Thus it is quite likely that this ancient Egyptian word, to which the Arabs prefixed the article al, is the real root of the word alchemy.
The Egyptians had the reputation of being skilled workers in metal from the very earliest times onward, and the Greek writers state that they knew the secret of transmuting base metals into gold and silver. Some writers have said that alchemical science first took form in Byzantium in the fourth century A.D., but we think it much more likely that this was due to part of the secret science of the ancient Egyptians leaking out through the indiscretions of some disciples which, trickling through via Alexandrian and Hellenic sources, founded the structure of the early and medieval schools of alchemy.
That this is so is confirmed by the fact that the originator of alchemy has always been said to be Hermes Trismegistus, whose works are supposed to contain a complete record of all its mysteries. After the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the seventh century, the Arabian scholars carried on the work of the Alexandrian School, which by the eighth century had reached Morocco, where it flourished exceedingly. Later on it spread to Spain where, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, it established itself in the colleges of Seville, Cordoba and Granada, from which the science spread throughout the rest of Europe.
For many years scientists and other unenlightened people sneered and scoffed at the idea of transmutation, but with the discovery of nuclear fission in the last century, science was finally able to transmute a minute quantity of mercury into gold by subjecting it to nuclear bombardment. More recently, some scientists claim to have succeeded in not only making gold, but transmuting many other elements too, such as calcium, copper, zinc and iron, using various nuclear technologies, including "cold fusion", but these continuing experiments, interesting though they are, would take us too far away from our present aim, which is to discover the sacred keys of alchemy that unlock the doors of Divine Wisdom, as opposed to material knowledge.
The old alchemists had a theory that all matter is of one and the same basic origin and that all forms of matter contain the same spiritual principle which is permanent, although the body or outer form is transitory, and one outer form may be substituted for another. As you will have noted, this is very similar to the prevailing scientific view, only science still denies the spiritual, preferring instead to rake over the mud of materialism in their search for ever more elusive and tenuous elementary particles such as the mysterious "Higgs Boson" or so-called "God particle". Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not see! We investigate some of the latest scientific theories about matter and compare them with the facts of Occult Science in our articles on why matter matters, the weighty problem of Gravity and gravitational waves.
It was taught that each metal is under the influence of one of the planets, and the alchemists referred to them under astrological symbols such as the Sun for gold, the Moon for silver, Mercury for mercury, Venus for copper, Mars for iron, Jupiter for tin and Saturn for lead. For this reason many alchemists paid great attention to astrological conditions before carrying out important experiments. That they were right to do so has been confirmed by modern science which has discovered a close connection between the Moon and silver, for instance, which metal follows the phases of the Moon from month to month. Gardeners have long known that the Moon affects the germination and growth of plants and physicians the reproduction and fertility of humans.
We are told that the original matter of metals is double in its essence, being a dry heat combined with warm moisture, and that air is water coagulated by fire, capable of producing a universal dissolvent. The neophyte must be wary of interpreting these terms literally. As we mentioned earlier, great confusion exists in alchemical nomenclature, and the gibberish employed by charlatans who in later times pretended to a knowledge of alchemy they did not possess, does not make things clearer! The beginner must also acquire a thorough knowledge of the manner in which metals grow in the bowels of the earth. These are engendered by sulphur, which is male, and mercury, which is female, and the crux of alchemy is to obtain their seed—a process which the alchemical philosophers have not described with any degree of clarity.
The physical theory of transmutation is based on the composite character of metals, and on the presumed existence of a substance which, applied to matter, exhalts and perfects it. Eugenius Philalethes (Thomas Vaughan) and other alchemists have called this "The Light"—a statement we would not disagree with and which the serious student should meditate upon. Consequently, it was thought that the elements of all metals are similar, differing only in purity and proportion. The entire trend of the metallic kingdom is towards the manufacture of gold, and the production of the baser metals is only the accidental result of an unfavourable environment. The Philosopher's Stone is the combination of the male and female seeds which beget gold. But the composition of these is so veiled by complex symbolism as to make their identification an impossibility for all but the trained Initiate.
In spite of all this the matter of transmutation is comparatively simple and depends mainly on a flux producing immense heat, and the three ingredients needed to make this flux are so common in nature that it is surprising that modern science has not discovered them before. Perhaps this is just as well, as the manufacture of gold in large quantities would create a world disaster besides which the financial meltdowns of this and the previous century would seem like a mild hiccup, especially if the secret fell into the hands of the unscrupulous. That the financial powers in the world have recognised this danger is proved by the many stringent laws controlling the sale of gold all over the world. Even if one produced gold alchemically, having first discovered the secret, it would be extremely difficult to put any appreciable amounts into circulation. Many swindlers have pretended to have this secret over the centuries, and for all we know, still do, and have employed the most cunning devices to trap the unwary.
The Philosopher's Stone
This mysterious Stone is described in The Golden Treatise of Hermes Trismegistus as follows: "In the cavern of the metals there is hidden the Stone that is venerable, splendid in colour, a mind sublime, and an open sea." The Six Keys of Eudoxus goes on to tell us that this stone: "has a bright glittering: it contains a Spirit of a sublime original; it is the Sea of the Wise, in which they angle for their mysterious Fish." Hermes adds: "Behold, I have declared that which had been concealed, since the work is both with you and about you." These few words from two of the very best works on alchemy sum up what the Philosopher's Stone is and where it is to be found. To say more would not help the puffer or the quack to discover the secret, whereas those who are worthy and ready will undoubtedly find it through their own efforts; such is the law in alchemical studies.
Out of the Philosopher's Stone the alchemist prepared the Elixir of Life, and this was done by making a solution of the stone in spirits of wine. This Elixir would restore the flower of youth and ensure a long and healthy life, but not prolong it indefinitely—this latter idea is a fanciful addition of fiction writers! Paracelsus says: "The Philosopher's Stone purges the whole body of man, and cleanses it from all impurities by the introduction of new and youthful forces, which it joins to the nature of man. There is nothing which might deliver the mortal body from death: but there is one Thing which may postpone decay, renew youth, and prolong short human life." Once again, this peer among alchemists says all in a few words.
In Paracelsus' work on The Tincture of the Philosophers he tells us that we should mix the "rose-coloured blood from the Lion" with the "gluten from the Eagle". But here we are on different ground, because he means the preparation of the Philosopher's Stone in a mystical manner, and not the objective or material ways referred to earlier. The blood of the Lion and the gluten from the eagle are terms to disguise sulphur and mercury, which here is used in a philosophical or mystical way. It is equivalent to the hidden meaning of the "Chymical Marriage", and represents perfect unity, such as the conjunction of the two sexes in marriage. Only, here it is marriage of a different kind, and has nothing at all to do with sex as we understand it in the physical sense.
Paracelsus describes this Medicine as follows: "This is the spirit of Truth, which the world cannot comprehend without the interposition of the Holy Ghost, or without the instruction of those who know it. The same is of a mysterious nature, wondrous strength, boundless power. By Avicenna this Spirit is named the Soul of the World. For, as the Soul moves all the limbs of the Body, so also is this Spirit in all elementary created things. It is beheld from afar, and found near; for it exists in every thing, in every place, and at all times. It has the powers of all creatures; its action is found in all elements, and the qualities of all things therein, even in the highest perfection. It heals all dead and living bodies without other medicine, converts all metallic bodies into gold, and there is nothing like unto it under Heaven."
He could have added that it is the greatest secret of the Initiates, and those who know it and have been able to demonstrate it unto themselves, have all knowledge, all freedom, all understanding, all compassion and all Love, so far as this is possible on Earth.
The three aspects of Alchemy
Alchemy can be regarded either as an esoteric philosophy, as an experimental and physical science, or as a combination of the two. Many enquirers make the mistake of taking a one-sided view, the chemists calling the alchemists fools on account of the mystical language they employ, and the alchemists deriding the chemists for their materialism, whilst many mystics take a purely transcendental view, regarding alchemy as the transmutation of the Higher Self of man and its perfection. The latter idea found its development in the "Chymical Marriage of Christian Rosenkreutz", an anonymous 17th century manuscript which has spawned a host of "Rosicrucian" teachings of all kinds, ranging from the sublime, through the fanciful, to the implausible and ridiculous.
There were also many alchemists who only interested themselves in the chemical operations on the physical plane, of whom Paracelsus says: "These do not give themselves up to ease and idleness. They devote themselves diligently to their labours, sweating whole nights over fiery furnaces. These do not kill their time with empty talk, but find their delight in their laboratory." Other alchemists were at the same time also mystics, who considered their science as a Divine gift. Trithemius of Spanheim, whose advice to a young occult student we reproduce at right, was one of these. Similar advice was given by Basil Valentine, who writes:
"First there should be the invocation of God, flowing from the depth of a pure and sincere heart, and a conscience which should be free from all ambition, hypocrisy and vice, as also from all cognate faults, such as arrogance, boldness, pride, luxury, worldly vanity, oppression of the poor, and similar iniquities which should all be rooted out of the heart—that when a man appears before the Throne of Grace, to regain the health of his body, he may come with a conscience weeded of all tares, and be changed into a pure temple of God cleansed of all that defiles."
This beautiful quotation may be applied equally to all other magical arts as showing the necessary selfless and devotional attitude we should adopt towards them, for unless we DO approach them with a clean mind and purified Higher Self, the mysteries will not be unveiled to us. So we have seen that alchemy is of a dual nature; spiritual and religious on the one hand, and physical and material on the other, and that these sides or aspects complete one another, just as the material and spiritual make man a complete being, whether on earth, or elsewhere in the many spheres or mansions of God's Universe.
Black Magic in Science
It has ever been the complaint of many scientists (and the vulgar) that the alchemists kept all their discoveries carefully hidden, disguising their theories with the cloak of obscure allegories, arcane symbolism and archaic language. The reason for this strange behaviour of these learned men is that they did not wish their secrets to fall into the hands of unscrupulous people who would use them for their own selfish gratification, and also to destroy their fellowmen and women. We could wish that modern scientists were equally reticent, so that we should not have to witness the terrible spectacle of seeing tens of thousands of people wiped out by atomic bombs, or crippled for life by the fiendish biological and chemical weapons scientists have developed, and are still developing in their poison vats. Neither should we hear of the merciless slaughter of innocent women and children in unprotected towns and cities in the many wars that have raged incessantly, and still rage, across this sorry-troubled globe.
All these devilish discoveries for the destruction of human life, health and happiness would have remained hidden, or at least controlled, so as not to hurt those who have no defence against them, if modern science had the same wisdom as the grand old alchemists of long ago. Please do not think that we are against progress or modern science; far from it. Progress is one of the finest and most glorious privileges of man, but it should be controlled in such a manner that it produces the greatest amount of good for all and not for the few who sit in the seats of worldly power, whether they wield that power from a presidential palace, a laboratory, bank or boardroom. Science has done much to improve the material well-being and conditions of man, but it could do very much more in all directions if it would but learn to embrace the spirit that animates all things rather than continuing to cling blindly to its materialist dogmas.
Bulwer-Lytton, in his occult novel Zanoni says: "Discover what will destroy life, and you are a great man!—what will prolong it, and you are an imposter! Discover some invention in machinery that will make the rich more rich and the poor more poor, and they will build you a statue! Discover some mystery in art that will equalise physical disparities, and they will pull down their own houses to stone you!" How little has changed since Lord Lytton wrote these words more than 150 years ago. Indeed, many would say that things are immeasurably worse today, and that for every material benefit science confers on mankind, she exacts an ever-heavier price in untold suffering and moral and spiritual decay.
On no account should any scientist ever place into the hands of his or her paymasters any knowledge which could harm mankind. The specious justification that is often trotted out by scientists that science is "impartial" and therefore not responsible for the use to which its discoveries are put, is sophistry of the worst possible kind. It is no different from putting a loaded gun into the hands of a dangerous lunatic and disclaiming all responsibility for what he does with it. Such morally bankrupt and irresponsible scientists are black magicians of the deepest dye, not one whit less wicked than their Atlantean predecessors, and like those sorcerers of old, they will all go down into the pit, but not before they have despoiled this earth and everything that lives upon it with the fruits of their evil genius. Let no one doubt these words, or think we exaggerate; for we can see very far into the future. . .and tremble at that which we behold! But then again, perhaps one does not need to look so far ahead to see where the arrogance, vanity, ambition, greed and blindness of so many scientists is leading mankind?
The study and practise of Alchemy
It is not possible in this short article to enter into highly technical discussions of alchemical elements, principles and practises. We can only give you hints and suggest books in which you can study these things further, should you be sufficiently interested and motivated to do so. We would also add that those who are impatient should never meddle with alchemy, but go out and have 'fun' instead, for Patience is the Root of all the magical arts and sciences, to which must be added the ability to read between the lines of the books by the various writers we have mentioned in this article. So, if you feel called to the Great Work and have the necessary mental and moral qualifications, set to and may good fortune attend your labours. To assist you in this we would recommend the following books:
- Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus. A. E. Waite. 2 volumes. 1894. Also HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- The Hermetic Museum. A. E. Waite. 1893, reprinted 1999, 2007. Various editions and publishers. Also HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Hermetic Arcanum. Jean D'Espagnet. 1623, reprinted 2023 by Aula Lucis in a new, hardcover edition. Also HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony. Basil Valentine. With a preface by A. E. Waite. Various editions. Also HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer. Francis Barrett. 1801. Various reprints, editions and digitized texts. HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- The Six Keys of Eudoxus. HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- The Hermetical Triumph. Limojon de Saint Didier, Alexandre Toussaint (1723). HTML text available at the Alchemy Web Site.
- Golden Treatise (or Tractate) of Hermes Trismegistus. HTML text available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
We should add that this is neither an exhaustive nor a complete list, nor can we vouch for the accuracy and quality of the various reprints of older alchemical works now being published as print on demand editions. Many of the above books are also available to read online at the Internet Sacred Text Archive and The Alchemy Website, organised and maintained by Adam McLean. This excellent resource contains the writings of almost every known alchemist. In connection with reading and studying alchemical writings, an anonymous writer has said:
"Let a Lover of truth make use of few Authors, but of the best note and experienced truth; let him suspect things that are quickly understood, especially in Mystical Names and Secret Operations; for truth lies hid in obscurity; for Philosophers never write more deceitfully—than when plainly, nor ever more truly—than when obscurely."
This is true. We have only to turn to the Bible to see that the real meaning of the most obscure passages is entirely unknown, both to ecclesiastical scholars and the laity, whereas plain passages such as "And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed" are interpreted literally, the better to conceal the truth of what 'Eden' and 'Man' really are.
Before we end our study of alchemy, it might be interesting to give a short list of some of the most famous alchemists of the past in chronological order. Their writings are well worth careful study.
- Zosimus of Panopolis of the fifth century, who wrote many treatises on alchemy of which only a few fragments are extant.
- Geber (Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan), ca. 721-815, was an Arabian alchemist, to whom more than 3,000 alchemical texts and treatises have been attributed.
- Albertus Magnus was a twelfth century philosopher and scientist. He was the first to describe arsenic in its pure form and wrote many valuable texts on the Great Art, including Metals and Materials, the Secrets of Chemistry, the Origin of Metals and the Theatrum Chemicum—which contains one of the most important treatises upon the Philosopher's Stone.
- Roger Bacon born near Ilchester, in Somerset about 1214. He was the most illustrious of mediaeval alchemists who studied theology and science at Oxford and Paris, and joined the Franciscan Order. He knew gunpowder and was especially interested in optics. Falsely accused of being in league with the devil, he was brave enough to fight the current opinions of his time, suffering much persecution. In his writings he confirmed his belief in the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life.
- Raymond Lully (also known as Ramon Llull), ca. 1235-1315, was born at Palma in Majorca. In opposition to the other alchemists of his day he believed that the secret of the Philosopher's Stone lay in the extraction of the mercury from silver and gold.
- Basil Valentine was a 15th century alchemist of whom little is known, who is best remembered for writing the The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony we have recommended earlier.
- Sir George Ripley ca. 1415-1490, wrote The Compound of Alchymy; or, the Twelve Gates leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher's Stone in 1477, which he dedicated to King Edward IV.
- Paracelsus 1493-1541, is perhaps the most famous of all alchemists, alternatively regarded as a great scientist by some and condemned as a charlatan by others. He first studied alchemy and medicine under his father, continued his studies at the University of Basle, and later became a pupil of the famous Trithemius of Spanheim, who instructed him in magic and the occult sciences. We review Franz Hartmann's definitive biography of Paracelsus elsewhere on our website.
- Heinrich Khunrath, ca. 1560-1605, was a disciple of Paracelsus (see above) who practised medicine in Dresden, Magdeburg and Hamburg. He travelled widely throughout Europe during his lifetime, including a stay at the Imperial court in Prague, presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, a mystic who took a keen interest in alchemy. Heinrich Khunrath is best known for his alchemical treatise on the mystical aspects of the Great Work known as Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom) published in Hamburg in 1595. This book contains a famous engraving entitled 'The First Stage of the Great Work', commonly known as the 'Alchemist's Laboratory', reproduced at the bottom of the sidebar.
- Michael Sendivogius (Polish: Michal Sȩdziwój) 1566-1636, was a Polish alchemist, philosopher, and physician. He discovered the element oxygen and performed many miraculous cures using alchemical tinctures. His most famous work was Novum Lumen Chymicum (New Chemical Light), first published in 1604.
- Thomas Vaughan (Eugenius Philalethes), 1621-1666, is best known for his translation of the Rosicrucian Fama Fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis. He also wrote a number of important magical and alchemical works under the pseudonym "Eugenius Philalethes", most notably Aula Lucis (the House of Light) in 1651, which is well worth reading.
- Elias Ashmole, 1617-1692, wrote the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, which became Isaac Newton's most heavily consulted alchemical text in his search for the spiritual principle that informs all matter which we have referred to above. Ashmole, who has been called "the greatest virtuoso and curioso that ever was known or read of in England before his time", founded the museum in Oxford that bears his name.
The genuine laws of alchemy must forever remain a sealed book to those who have not lost the urge for personal glory or selfish gain. To those of us on the path to the Light however, alchemy is that process whereby we transmute the lead of the lower self into the gold of the Higher, "acting prudently and with judgment" as Hermes says in his Emerald Tablet (reproduced in the sidebar), at the same time slaking off all the earthly dross we have acquired during our many incarnations, and blending the higher and lower aspects of the Self in such a way as to become ready for that Mastership which is the true Stone of the Wise and the Elixir of Life Immortal.
We have repeatedly stressed the importance of study, self-examination, sincerity and meditation in this investigation of alchemy. For this reason Occult studies and meditation form the subject of the penultimate article in our course.
Published 12 March 2013 — © Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Updated 1 January 2023.