ALCHEMY and HERMETIC PHILOSOPHY:
AN OVERVIEW

Lance Storm

(Investigator 65, 1999 March)   



Prologue

The alchemical tradition, incorporating hermetic philosophy and gnosticism, extends chronologically, from pre-Christian times right up to the modem era, and geographically, throughout Europe, Arabic countries (Egypt, Iran, etc.), and even as far as India and China. The practitioners of the spagyric art/science (from Greek spaein = to rend, tear apart, and ageirein = to bring together) claimed matter as both the source of their wisdom (though many had a spiritual orientation), and the salvation of their soul's desire. In its simplest form, the transmutation of base metals (lead, mercury, etc.) into gold was the primary goat, and the attempt to bring this about was taken literally, and quite seriously. Running parallel with this effort was the search for the philosopher's stone (the lapis, Latin = stone) and the elixir of life ("drinkable gold").

Alchemy, as proto-chemistry, later developed into the science of Chemistry at the time of the Age of Enlightenment, while the more metaphysical statements of the hermetic philosophers became the subject of philosophy and psychology. Transmutation became an ultimate reality in the twentieth century at two levels: psychologically, in the recognition of the alchemist's visions as representations of developmental and structural transformations in the psyche as given in the Jungian tradition, and physically, with the manufacture of new elements through transmutation of already existing elements (for example, hundreds of tonnes of plutonium are manufactured each year in the United States alone) as a result of a more detailed knowledge of the structure of the building blocks of matter (the atom), and an associated understanding of both the immense forces which bind subatomic particles and the awesome energies which may be released through nuclear fission and fusion. Thereby, late twentieth-century humanity was launched into the nuclear age – a world very different from that imagined by the alchemists.


The Politico-religious World of the Alchemist

In an age-old human world of values, aspirations, goal-seeking and the like, it is not surprising that a kind of 'meritocratic' attitude should have emerged as a fundamental aspect of human nature (this may be a human construction based on an a priori instinctual pattern of survival). Existing side by side with other political systems of increasing complexity as civilisations grew, this type of meritocracy emerged in accordance with the notion that the measure of an individual's merit (intelligence, strength, personality and character, talent and skill, etc.) can only be proven in competition, or measured against personal wealth.

Hand in hand with the individual's "heroic quest" is the distortion of this necessary striving for egohood and identity into an over-valuation in materialistic societies of the 'object' as a symbol of personal power and spiritual strength in highly prized (because rare) elements and other products of matter (gold, silver, precious jewels, and so on). It is therefore not surprising that a socially constructed type – the alchemist – should also have emerged: an individual whose sole aim was to acquire wealth – whether this be measured as aurum vulgi (common gold = material riches) or aurum philosophorum (philosophical gold = emotional balance and wholeness).

Another split was also reflected in the character of the alchemists. Human credulity and avarice prompted many power-seeking and opportunistic rulers to seek out successful alchemists who, having mastered the art of gold-making, were later shown to be tricksters and charlatans leading both themselves and their gullible sponsors either to financial ruin or narrow escape from vengeful creditors (Holmyard 1957: 14; De Rola 1973: 12-14). Other less ambitious, more honest practitioners of the art maintained a life-long and steady – if not fruitful – attempt at transmutation through cautious efforts in the laboratory, and avoidance of a public life, lest they be found out (Holmyard 1957: 14; De Rola 1973: 12-14; Aylesworth 1973; 39-41).

Secrecy was especially important since all alchemists were regarded as heretics by the Church for adopting the gnostic belief that spiritual salvation could be achieved through knowledge of nature and matter, and speculative interpretation of Scripture. Believing that human nature could be perfected in a laboratory through chemical magic was an insult to Christian doctrine and Church authority, where faith and spiritual interpretation of Scripture was the only accepted path to God. Not that the alchemists in Christian Europe were unchristian or antichristian – certainly they were not Godless. They believed that the darkness of nature could only be illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit, Deo concedente (with God's Will), with the art itself being an arcanum of the Sapientia Dei (God's Wisdom) (Jung 1973: 26, 52).
 


The Hermetic Tradition

It is from a religious position that the idea of correspondences was most highly honoured amongst the more insightful of alchemists. Those that were well versed in the hermetic teachings of the mythical Hermes Trismegistos – who supposedly lived contemporaneously with Moses of Exodus fame, and produced many works on alchemy, magic, philosophy and astrology – held the belief that a practical, experimental approach to matter and an understanding of its nature, mirrored or corresponded with the workings of the human soul and its nature, culminating in a liberation from the earthly realm, "after knowledge and experience of this world have been gained" (Bernoulli 1970: 319).

Fowden (1986: 22) notes that hermetic thought extends as far back as ancient Egypt to the Egyptian Thoth (god of science, intellect, and knowledge) who was later equated with both the Greek god Hermes (god of travel, communication, and language) and the Roman god Mercury (god of commerce, eloquence and skill). Fowden writes that since God was taken by the hermetic philosophers to be a part of everything, it naturally followed that "sympathetic correspondences, or 'chains'" existed between all things, held together by "divine powers" or "energies":

affinities [exist] between the most disparate areas of the natural realm, so that each animal, plant, mineral or even part of the human or animal body corresponds to a particular planet or god whom (or which) they can be used to influence, providing the right procedures and formulae are known (Fowden 1986: 77-78).


Consequently, the equation of metals, animal natures and heavenly bodies with human characteristics was inevitable. The colours of precious metals became the 'soul' – the animating principle as merged with the metal's 'body' (the mere physical quality of the metal); so too the human soul – character, personality, mind – was a higher, more sublime component imprisoned in the flesh and blood of the human body. The aim of the 'true' alchemist was "dissolution of the body and the separation of the soul from the body" (Fowden 1986: 90). This secret was the 'absolute truth' about the soul and it corresponded directly with the Philosopher's Stone - it was eternal, and to have it meant not only knowledge of the mystery of life, but mastery over matter and an ability to make gold.

Such a 'truth' had to be guarded from the greedy and foolish masses. Therefore, as a means of protecting themselves, and their knowledge, Holmyard (1957: 14) claims that "alchemists used to describe their theories, materials, and operations in enigmatic language, efflorescent with allegory, metaphor, allusion and analogy" which often led interpreters to assume that the alchemists' statements were sometimes of a "purely esoteric significance." However, their 'formulations' were made just as often unconsciously as they were made deliberately. For the most part, the practices and materials were, as Holmyard states, described esoterically, but the images, and the theories constructed from these images, were spontaneous (unconscious) psychic products and were represented by the alchemist as well as hand and eye would permit in ambiguous and incomprehensible paintings and drawings.

Jung recognised the value of these seemingly paradoxical and nonsensical images when he discovered the connection between the unconscious psychic processes of the alchemist and his experiments with matter (Jung 1970: 228, 242ff; 1989: 488ff). Although the tenth-century Persian physician Avicenna scoffed at the literal-mindedness of the 'puffers' (so named from their constant use of the bellows), and many disillusioned but enlightened alchemists closed their laboratory doors for good to pursue the finer, more spiritual points of the art, most alchemists were never aware of the psychic component in their alchemical transmutations (Holmyard 1957: 90; Jung 1970: 217).

Understandably so, since the unconscious content of the alchemist's psyche was not recognised as personal (related to the ego) and was therefore seen in the laboratory flask or vessel. Jung writes:

All projections are unconscious identifications with the object. Every projection is simply there as an uncriticized datum of experience, and is recognized for what it is only very much later, if ever. Everything that we today would call "mind" and "insight" was, in earlier centuries, projected into things, and even today individual idiosyncrasies are presupposed by many people to be generally valid (Jung 1989: 488).


The veritable panoply and diversity of imagery which constitute the iconography of alchemy reflects the complex nature of the psyche – particularly the unconscious – which communicates to the ego in images, since they convey more meaning than the spoken word (not that language is not used by the unconscious, but the image is universal and accessible to all people, while language is limiting and particular to a people). As de Rola observes:

in their images alchemists have spoken in ingenious and often very beautiful ways of things about which they have never written. This pictorial language, in which not a single detail is ever meaningless, exerts a deep fascination on the sensitive beholder (de Rola 1973: 9).


Even today, images, mythical or otherwise, such as dragons, kings and queens, ravens, lions, unicorns, royal marriages, peacocks, trees, and so on, can be experienced to almost numinous heights in the human imagination (dreams, visions, fantasies), and even in the visual arts, such as painting, sculpture, and film.


The Magnum Opus (The Great Work)

The first principle of the opus was the Stone of the Philosophers. This Stone must be "transformed and perfected by the art," becoming paradoxically, the lapis philosophorum (Philosopher's Stone) (de Rola 1973: 10).

Psychologically, the lapis refers to the psyche – its closest equivalent for the alchemist being the human soul. In fact, the stone was called the "stone that is not a stone," coming as it did "from God but not from God" (Aylesworth 1973: 36). Although the terms, before and after transmutation, (first, Stone of the Philosophers, then, Philosopher's stone) vary in word order, the lapis is essentially the same, just as transformation in a person's personality is detectable only through relationship, but not physically – effectively the person is the same, but different, somehow.

The lapis occupies an extremely high position in the arcanum of the alchemist, and as such, tended to be referred to in the texts more often than the gold, which was the transmuted base metal made possible by the lapis in the first place. Specifically, the "transformed and perfected" Stone was attained by a union of opposites symbolised by the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) between Sol (Sun) and Luna (Moon) principles. These principles were embodied in the anthropomorphic couple of King and Queen, which Jung equates with consciousness and the unconscious, respectively. They are antagonistic and polar opposites and may involve friction and violent reaction when brought 'face to face'–the process of self-discovery is equally demanding. This reaction was observable in the alchemist's vessel upon heating a mixture of the standard ingredients Sulphur (Sun) and Mercury (Moon), and was a highly volatile procedure symbolised by two dragons at war.

Should success be attained, the royal couple would merge and become the hermaphrodite or androgyne. Unfortunately, there were always difficulties, even disaster, during the opus, and many stages, involving putrefaction, sublimation (evaporation) and distillation (purification), were necessary to bring the process to completion. Jung (1970: 228-232) observes that the "death of the product of the union" might follow, which took the alchemist into the nigredo (blackness) stage. A 'baptism' or washing may lead the alchemist to the albedo (whiteness) stage, or the soul may return to the "dead" body, or perhaps the cauda pavonis (peacock's tail) symbolism of many colours might appear. This symbolism too, marks the advent of the albedo, which is indicated by the 'presence' of silver – the moon condition.

The final stage, the rubedo (reddening) or sunrise stage is reached when the highest temperatures purge the product of its impurities. Once again the "red and the white are King and Queen, who may also celebrate their "chymical wedding" at this stage, symbolising a personality of even and balanced temperament and exhibiting the best qualities of both natures–a 'golden' disposition (Jung 1970: 228-232).

The entire opus is steeped in confusing symbolism, a conflation of real chemical reactions with the alchemist's projections (it is known that the fumes from heated mercury can induce hallucinations) – an undifferentiated merging of natural events in the physical world with mental events in the psyche – which generally produced an incoherent philosophy that could not, or should not, be seen as referencing the same reality. The psychically real and the physically real were one and the same to the alchemist, hence the difficulty the modern mind has in deciphering these images. With the advent of modem depth psychology a separation of these two factors became possible.
 

Epilogue

It cannot be stated conclusively whether the ideals of the hermetic philosophers – the 'true' alchemists – were ever realised in practice. Throughout the many centuries during which the alchemists have plied their craft only a few are claimed to have discovered the lapis and actually transmuted base metals into gold. One notable alchemist, a French scrivener of the 1400s, Nicolas Flamel, and his wife Pernelle, are held to have amassed a vast fortune in gold upon their discovery of the lapis, and there is documented evidence recording the great many charitable acts performed on their part as a result of such wealth (Sadoul 1972: 72-84).

As mentioned in Investigator #54, a relatively new theory of  'low energy transmutation' by Kervran (1980), as distinct from the 'high energy' transmutation described previously, challenges modem physic's conceptions of matter. His theory sits alongside chemical theory and does not challenge its precepts, but the physicist's theory of the atomic nucleus is challenged in so far as it does not necessarily take extremely high levels of energy to create one element from another. Numerous examples are given in Kervran's book.

The legacy of the alchemists remains: from their hard work and personal sacrifice, extending over thousands of years, arose the disciplines of modem medicine, pharmacology, organic and inorganic chemistry, mineralogy and nuclear physics. That which started in the imagination of the hermetic philosophers – the psychophysical parallelism of the human being with nature, the dream of transmutation, the discovery of many new elements, the nature of crystalline structures, and genuine scientific work (including improvements in laboratory techniques) – led to the empirical foundations of the world as we know it today.

The testament of the alchemists: advances in medicine (cures for venereal disease and other ailments, smelling salts, sleeping potions and pain killers), waterproofing for leather and cloth, rust inhibitors, luminous inks and explosives, and so on, have all arisen from the imagination and the endeavouring human spirit. As Jung has said: "the debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. It must not be forgotten that it is just in the imagination that a [person's] highest value may lie" (Jung 1971: 63). This value, the alchemist's dream, may well be the philosophical gold.
 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aylsworth, Thomas. G. The Alchemist: Magic Into Science. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Westey, 1973.
Bernoulli, Jacob. "Spiritual Development in Alchemy." In Spiritual Disciplines: Papers From The Eranos Yearbook. New York: Princeton University Press, 1970.
De Rola, Stanislas K. The Secret Art of Alchemy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gilchrist, C. The Elements of Alchemy. Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1991.
Holmyard, E. I. Alchemy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1957.
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.
________  Psychological Types. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
________  The Psychology of the Transference. New York: Princeton University Press, 1973.
________  Mysterium Conjunctionis. New York: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Kervran, C. L. Biological Transmutation. New York: Beekman, 1990.
Sadoul, Jacques. Alchemists and Gold. London: Neville Spearman, 1972.

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