Alchemy is commonly viewed as a pseudo-science concerned with the transformation of base metals into gold: its status is that of a curiosity, notable mainly for the contributions of its practitioners to the emerging discipline of chemistry. This misconception is understandable given the shroud of secrecy deliberately drawn over the true goal of alchemy - the attainment of enlightenment. At the most esoteric level, the base metal of the alchemist was symbolic of the unredeemed self, while the gold, with its incorruptible nature and capacity to shine steadily, was symbolic of the transformed spiritual self. The intention was to turn the dross of everyday thought and experience into a pure, spiritual state.
Alchemy is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt, and to have been part of the esoteric wisdom of the Greeks, Arabs, Indians and Chinese. The first alchemical text to appear in Western Europe was the 12th-century translation into Latin by an Englishman, Robert of Chester, of the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy. The theory underlying alchemical practice derives from the ancient world-view, in which the whole of reality, including mankind, is created from a non-physical materia prima (first matter) - the universal magical element - that takes form as the elements earth, fire, air and water. Because these elements can be transformed into one another, it is apparent that all material things are based upon the principle of change. According to this world-view, it was possible to transform a substance back into the materia prima, and conversely the materia prima could be returned to the world in a different form.
The practice of alchemy is laid out in medieval texts so obscure and loaded with symbolism as to be nearly incomprehensible. Some scholars argue that in defying conventional logic, these texts test the resolve of the seeker, who must rely on inspiration and intuition to guide him on the path to enlightenment. More cynical commentators hold that the tortuous texts merely conceal a fraud. However, it is clear that the alchemist begins the Great Work with the materia prima which it is claimed one must mine for oneself, and which takes the form of a "stone" (not to be confused with the philosopher's stone itself). This stone, whose exact nature is nowhere revealed, is pulverized and mixed with a "first agent", enigmatically described as "dry water" or as "fire without flame", which some alchemists suggest is prepared by a secret process from cream of tartar. The resulting amalgam of these two substances is moistened with spring dew and placed in a sealed vessel or "philosopher's egg", and heated at a constant temperature over a long period.
During incubation, the two principles within the materia prima, usually referred to symbolically as "sulphur" (red, male, solar, hot energy) and "mercury" (white, female, lunar, cold energy) are said to fight venomously, each eventually slaying the other and producing a black putrefaction, the nigredo, the "black of blacks". This completes the first stage of the Great Work. In the second stage, the blackness becomes over-laid with rainbow colours (sometimes depicted as a peacock tail or pearl), which are in turn covered by a whiteness, the albedo. At this point, the two principles of the materia prima reappear in a new form, as the "red king" (Sulphur of the Wise) emerges from the womb of the "white queen" (mercury, or the White Rose). The King and Queen are united in the fire of love, and from their union comes perfection, the philosopher's stone, the catalyst capable of transmuting base metals into gold and the key to enlightenment.
For the alchemist, correct motivation was essential in undertaking the Great Work. The quest of those who concentrated merely on the chemical processes was doomed to fail. If the seeker was driven by greed, then, as one alchemical text puts it, he would "reap but smoke". Instead, he should be motivated "to know nature and its operations, and make use of this knowledge ... to reach the Creator".
What were the actual spiritual practices behind this symbolic process? Meditating upon the alchemical symbols themselves, in a progression through each of the stages, was certainly involved. But a Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, gives us further clues. It tells us how, through meditation, physical energy can be visualized as gathering and concentrating in the lower body, in the "place of power" below the navel, where it generates immense heat and then (symbolically) passes "the boiling point" [and] mounts upwards like "flying snow ... to the summit of the Creative".
Perhaps, for all their quaint and obscure language, the alchemists (or a few among them) did indeed effect the union of the red king and the white queen, and raised the base metal of the physical being into the pure gold of the greater spiritual self.
This engraving - one of a series of twelve 17th-century pictorial "keys" of the alchemist - contains symbols that refer to stages in the alchemical process. The sun and moon are the male and female elements of alchemy respectively; the two roses, red and white, symbolize the Red King and White Queen. Between them is the symbol of Mercury, the transforming agent of the alchemical process, which is released from the materia prima, transformed and brought to perfection through the alchemist's operations. Fire, an external force in alchemy, is here shown burning in a wooden brazier; alchemical texts often refer to a cool fire, which heats the contents of the alchemist's vessel gently, like a chicken incubating her eggs. The lion and snake are both symbols of raw, unrefined matter.
The Philosopher's Stone
In this image from the Mutus Liber, or "Silent Book", a 17th-century pictorial book, the philosopher's stone is shown (below) in the Athanor (alchemists' furnace), while its archetype is personified as Mercury (above) in the hands of the angels. The image emphasizes that the physical operations of alchemy mirror a spiritual reality, a belief summarized in the words of the French alchemist Pierre-Jean Fabre: "Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life."
The primal elements of sulphur (that which burns) and mercury (that which is volatile) are embodied in the androgyne or hermaphrodite. The union of these opposite principles is the purpose of alchemy and of human endeavour itself. The androgyne wears the crown of perfection. It stands on a dragon - a serpent with bird's feet - symbolizing its dominion over the forces of land, sea and air. The four heads of the dragon represent the four elements - fire, air, water and earth.
The Lion Eating Sun
Alchemy is connected with numerous different systems of thought. At one time or another, the art has been practiced in Northern Europe, Greece, India, China and the Middle East. It is not surprising, therefore, that alchemical symbols have numerous, sometimes conflicting interpretations. For example, the green lion (above), which represents matter in a primordial state, can be said to be devouring the male principle, or liberating the sulphur of the wise (both of which may be symbolized by the sun).
Alchemy and Christianity
Many alchemists were good Christians, but preferred to seek knowledge through direct experience rather than blind faith. Men such as Thomas Aquinas and Isaac Newton considered alchemy to be a complement to established philosophy and religion. The above detail from the "Ripley Scroll" shows the bird of Hermes (Mercury) drenched in sacred dew. The Ripley scroll was designed by Sir George Ripley, a devout English aristocrat, who was a Canon in the Augustinian priory at Bridlington, Yorkshire.
The King and Queen
In this woodcut from the 1550 edition of the Rosarium Philosophorum, the King and Queen, symbolic of the male (solar) and female (lunar) principles, are pictured in sexual congress in the archetypal "sea" of the spirit. In Jungian psychology, the King, Queen and other alchemical symbols are believed to correspond to the universal archetypes of the unconscious.
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