Study what thou art,
Whereof thou art a part,
What thou knowest of this Art,
This is really what thou art.
All that is without thee,
Also is within,
Thus wrote Trismosin. -- From the Aurum Vellus, 1498
THERE is a strange allure about the medieval pictures of alchemists laboring at furnaces and scientific retorts, seeking the elusive means to make gold and to discover the secret of long life. Yet . . . were they really doing these things? Some commentators believe that many meanings of a psychological and metaphysical kind were hidden within their drawings and the essays that accompanied them. This opinion is based upon traditions coming down to us from ancient days.
Classic and other writers of the far past have informed us that the Mystery Schools of antiquity were concerned mainly with the development of character, or the unfoldment of the spiritual potentials of their students. Their system of education disappeared when the Schools were closed, but was replaced later by a new method called "the work," employed by the alchemists to fit in with the conditions of their times. This "divine science" made its first strong penetration in Europe in the eighth century through Geber, the Arabian. It was widely known before that, however, in China, India, Egypt, and other nations, and we have, too, a book by Zosimus written in Greek about 400 AD. The well-known writings ascribed to Hermes 'the Thrice Great' may be derived from old Egyptian sources in versions filtered down through the alchemists, but whereas some modern defenders and exponents of alchemy have thought the 'Emerald Tablet' of Hermes was merely a chemical recipe for preparing sulphuric acid, others have seen in it a profound statement of the Law of Correspondences. For it asserts that what prevails in the large universe, pertains in all its parts, from solar system to atom, from the heavens to man -- the knowledge of one is the key to all.
Today we are witnessing a revival of interest in alchemy, as shown by the publication of numerous books and articles on the subject. Enterprising publishers, in an attempt to meet a demand apparently greater than the supply, have also been reprinting indiscriminately old alchemical works or commentaries of good, bad and indifferent quality. The alchemists of the Middle Ages, indeed of all times and races, threw a veil of secrecy about their work, even about their objectives. Two phrases that have come to be jeeringly associated with them are the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. It has been thought that the former was a kind of catalyst bastening. If not enabling, 'base' metals like lead to be turned into 'noble' ones like gold and silver. Similarly, the 'elixir' has been deemed to refer only to a liquid essence capable of extending the normal span of human existence. Some historians of science ascribe to these terms strictly chemical meanings, conveying formulas for making acids, other reagents and materials.
The word alchemy itself is believed to be from the Arabic Ul-Khemi, suggesting the "science of nature"; but it is also linked with Egypt, the old name for which was Khem or Chem. It is known that the alchemists used a cryptic language nicknamed 'lunar caustic.' This has been sarcastically derided by scholars and laymen until recent years, for they thought it a jargon coined by ignorant, superstitious men and that it also masked the activities of charlatans and rogues who battened on the credulity of the populace. In our days, we have grown accustomed to the symbolism used in various sciences, such as chemistry, where letters of the alphabet stand for the scores of elements out of which it is believed all substance has been produced. These signs are applied to show in a shorthand way bow compounds are made, and their atomic structure. Similarly, in the field of botany, they are used to depict the 'floral formulas' or composition of flowers, on which are based the groupings of plants in their species, families and natural orders. Thus today it is being recognized ever more widely that the alchemists were as entitled to their own specialized language as modern scientists are to theirs.
But alchemical hieroglyphics were more than a quick means of expressing ideas that otherwise would require awkward or complex sentences. The European alchemists lived in a time of strictly enforced clerical orthodoxy, with drastic punishment for infringement of the credal dogmas. So they obscured their teachings and the requirements of their system of training, which diverged drastically from Church policy and doctrine. They used, for instance, such terms as sulphur, mercury and salt to stand for body, soul and spirit (some of the existing literature stresses that 'philosophical mercury' is distinct from the metal of the same name, thereby indicating what other works preferred to leave to the intuition of the student).
'Gold in the crucible' was the end of this educative process. It was what was left when all the dross in man's nature had been burned off in the furnace of life's tests and experiences. What the alchemists called the homunculus to be created in the laboratory was neither a kind of Frankenstein's monster nor a delusion, but St. Paul's "new man" born of or sublimated from the "old man" of unreformed and unenlightened habit. The performers of the magnum opus (the 'great work') were not really the men who had found the secret of making metallic gold, but rather those who were completing the work of refinement carried out on one's self. Stairway of the Sages is the suggestive title of an old book in this field.
Despite the piety and devotion of Nicolas Flamel (1330(?)-1417) and others like him, the Church was opposed to alchemy because it recognized that this was not just a search for commercial gold, but that it provided a channel for the continued transmission of heretical doctrines. In his Subterranean Physics (1669), Becher writes:
False alchemists seek only to make gold; true philosophers desire only knowledge. The former produce mere tinctures, sophistries, ineptitudes; the latter enquire after the principles of things.
The alchemical gnosis or wisdom was based on the correspondence between progressive stages of illumination and successive material operations. The psychotherapist Carl G. Jung realized but one aspect of the symbolism of alchemy when he delved into the subject and equated it with twentieth century psychology (Psychology and Alchemy and Alchemical Studies, Vols. 12 and 13 Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Bollingen Foundation, Pantheon Books, New York); his association of the glyphs with the processes taking place within the mind of the human being was intuitive, but the full parallelism seems to have been broader and deeper than he envisaged. He referred to Paracelsus as the first scientist in psychology, and to his alchemical writings as providing very brilliant insights into such phenomena as the basic bipolarity within each individual. But some other commentators have maintained that Paracelsus' references to the elixir of life and to gold are screens for his profound esoteric doctrines. When Paracelsus says the philosopher's stone is white, obtainable only after nine months' work, he seems to be pointing to the quality of purity and also making an analogy with the gestation period: the physical course is a perfect symbol for the spiritual one, though the time cycle may be much greater for the one than for the other.
Is this not a variant of the myths of the Quest for the Holy Grail, with the Holy Vessel a synonym for the philosopher's stone, as Caron and Hutin suggest? (The Alchemists, Evergreen Profile Books, 1961. 192 pages.) They have not been alone in this, nor in the pointer to Parsifal, with his similarity to the Celtic Pair Cyffail, the Cup of Regeneration, to give added force to the comparison. There is certainly a parallel between alchemical research and the gnostic illumination of the earliest Christian as well as pre-Christian communities:
Traditional alchemy claims that it knows the principles of all the sciences; it seeks to explain the nature, the origin, and the purpose of every existing thing; it has grandiose plans for regeneration; it is gnosis and thaumaturgy. The adept seeks to sanctify reality. The art of alchemy is always accompanied, moreover, by a special ascetic discipline: alchemy aims at the purification of Being, and endeavors to make man capable of attaining supreme knowledge - his effective transmutation from the illusory to the real.
The alchemist evidently regarded himself as having a mission to redeem the universe, for in transmuting himself, the microcosm, he must also affect the macrocosm, that larger system of which he is an inseparable part. Hence he must be completely involved in his work: all that he is as well as all that he has. The spiritual nature of this task was indicated by the demand that "the artist be pure, humble, patient, chaste, intelligent, wise." (op cit., p. 106)
An article, "The Ancient Art of Alchemy" (Natural History Magazine, August-September issue, 1963), by David Pramer, appears to take the view that the genuine alchemists were but the forerunners of the present day scientists. He rates highly their contributions which have resulted in our industrial science. But, as Caron and Hutin point out, they were surely more than the first laboratory workers. There were three categories of people loosely called alchemists: a) those who had gone after the magnum opus or 'great work; b) the so-called 'puffers' (the men who did not know the secrets of the art of alchemy and so tried to discover them by experiment), and c) the charlatans. Unfortunately, the noise raised by the impostures drowned out the voices of the real thing, of which the former were the counterfeits.
The 'puffers' tried everything, even the most ridiculous procedures. An amusing aberration cited by Caron and Hutin states that
Because they grossly misinterpreted certain alchemical treatises, some of them were convinced that a block of ice buried in the ground for a thousand years would infallibly turn into rock crystal; or that lead required only four periods of two years each to pass in successive stages from its primitive state to red arsenic, from this state to tin and finally to silver. -- p. 78
Although they worked in an unorganized way, they placed us in their debt because we owe to them many features of our modern technology.
The 'puffers' may often have been amazed by the results of their experiments, for they were really voyaging an unknown sea; but the genuine alchemists, the 'proficients,' based their work on their own traditional principles, and not on experience gained through the senses. They cannot be described as "wandering through the unknown," to use Diderot's phrase. For the basis of all they did and wrote, as it appears from the very nature of their system and procedures, is that there is no such thing as chance in this well-ordered universe of cause and effect. There is the continual implication that inner self-mastery and "laboratory work" take place together, the symbolism of the one applying potently to the other. We may note in this connection the similarity between what has just been said and the way the language of the old crafts was used: artistic and warrior disciplines were employed to represent stages in the unfoldment of high qualities inside the human being. For instance, what is called the Zen of flower arrangement, or of archery, as well as what used to be the interior accompaniment of the jiu jitsu training before the physical aspect was violently divorced from it to become judo, used words for physical actions to suggest interior progression.
The decline of the Schools that should have been transparent vessels of the ancient light (of which gold was a symbol), led to the rise or use of alchemy in their stead. In China, the objective of the alchemists was to "Make men like unto the gods." For the alchemists, making gold meant a process taking place at the human level, within the man, and it implied a mystical relationship between him and the 'noble metal." This seems to have been a world-wide concept, for gold had a special place also in the sacred symbology of the ancient Central and South American peoples.
But what was the philosophers stone? One view is that the alchemists taught about a 'universal solvent," by which all complex or compounded bodies are resolved into the homogeneous or single substance from which they are evolved: this one element in nature is .Pure gold" or summa materia. This implies a remarkable forecast of the latest scientific theory of matter or substance as being fundamentally composed of concreted light! The solvent is the philosopher's stone, which has been described as having "the power to remove the seeds of disease from the human body, of renewing youth and prolonging life." But this appears to be far from a complete definition. Because man is a miniature universe, his composite nature and the relationships between the parts reflect, in essence, the forces of his source and home. Thus Julius Sperber, a Rosicrucian alchemist, says in his Introduction to the Philosopher's Stone (1674):
Lastly it [the philosopher's stone] so purifies and illuminates the soul and the body that he who possesses it sees, as if in a mirror, all the celestial movements of the constellations and the influences of the stars; remaining in his chamber with the windows closed, he need not even contemplate the firmament.
Apparently each individual must discover it for himself as he steadfastly transforms and thus illumines his own nature. Similarly, we find pointers to this thought in early alchemical writings of the 13th century:
The philosopher's stone has so marvelous a power that those who draw near to it ... after they have seen themselves therein, . . . will no more be the puppet of any illusion, so clear-seeing and wise will they return therefrom. -- Jean de Meun, Romance of the Rose, part 2 (1270)
If one could have such an experience, there is no doubt that there would be a bright perception that could see the flow of causes, that could pierce through the veils of appearances into the heart of the cosmos as it actually is. Our impressions of the world and life itself, colored as they are by ideas absorbed from our environment as wen as from our own personal preferences in one direction or another, must be an illusion clouding our vision of the reality.
What then, did the alchemists mean by "attaining the Elixir of Life"? Was it the "grace of the awareness of God" of the Christian mystic or what the Hindu terms moksha or "deliverance" from the wheel of earthly existence?
The genuine alchemists, perhaps few and far between as compared with the many who were so called, were oriented towards service for the good of their fellows. Their names shine as healers of the sick and benefactors of the poor. In an age when travel was extremely hazardous, they went far and wide in order to share their insights and their methods. As Dr. John Dee wrote in the Hieroglyphic Monad: "We teach the true mystical sympathy." This is the divinely human spirit (spiritus mundi) which they sought so assiduously to embody, and which it would be well if we tried to emulate. There is little doubt that all the credal and racial bitternesses bubbling up in various parts of the world would end their acid attacks upon the fine qualities that man has evolved through the history of his earthly sojourn. The sour "tartaric" would be changed into the sweetening agency of brotherly love.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Theosophical University Press)
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