Alchemy has been around for thousands of years, and types of alchemy are described in the literature of ancient Egypt, the Graeco-Roman period, medieval China, at the height of Islamic civilization, and especially in the early and late Renaissance in Europe around the 14th through the 17th century. Even a few eccentrics have continued explorations of alchemy in Europe since that time.
At its more superficial level, alchemy is a type of pre-scientific chemistry whose goal was to purify matter of its rough, less-spiritual qualities and transform it to its purest form, which just happened to be gold, which just happened to be highly valued. (Joke: A guy figured out a way of going against the old saw that “you can’t take it with you,” and ended up at the pearly gates of Heaven with a suitcase full of gold, feeling smug. St. Peter checked out the suitcase contents and called out to the rear, “Hey, Gabriel, here’s another guy with a suitcase full of street paving!”)
Here's another picture---a little like on the other webpage, but also a little different. You can notice near the bottom a guy at D who is holding to a dragon and a lion. This may remind you of the Tarot Card of the Chariot mentioned in Lecture 2, the challenge of balancing seemingly irreconcilable forces.:
The rich symbolism of these writings were fascinating to the psychiatrist and depth psychologist Carl Jung and some of his students. They considered these imagest to be projections of the workings of the psyche. A projection is when you perceive in others qualities that are actually in you. For example, when you fell in love with someone, you tended to project onto that person—as part of whatever falling in love is about—certain qualities of the perfect parent, the perfect child, the perfect friend, and so forth. We project on our future president the power to make it all better. Much of what we experience emotionally has to do with our envisioning in the other some part of ourselves that we think we don’t have, can’t have, and so forth—that’s projection. In this sense, pre-scientific chemistry became for folks a way to project a variety of religious and psychological experiences that were imagined to be “out there” in the way the world really was, if only we could discover its secrets, rather than in here, in my own mind, waiting to be worked out psychologically. But of course, back then they didn’t have psychology.
Alchemy was a mixture of esoteric philosophy and spirituality—the whole realm of God’s secrets in nature—along with some intuition about the commercial possibilities associated with the discovery of those theories. It was a bit the way people think about science, but mixed in with a fair amount of religion. Since the technology of the telescope had hardly been invented (i.e., Galileo in the mid- 16th century), astronomy was hardly more scientific than chemistry in the forms of astrology and alchemy.
In those years, also, things had not been compartmentalized. It was intuited and also widely believed that the positions of stars and planets were definitely causally relevant not just the character of the person based on the hour and date and year of his birth, but also the initiation of an event or a phase in a process. So medicine and alchemy drew upon the early theories of astrology and numerology, and upon the authority—still, with a powerful and almost magical sense—of Aristotle and other classical authors. This was to them fairly new technology, as Europe had only recently emerged from the middle ages, rediscovered the classical roots, and re-energized learning—which is why the 15th through the 17th century has come to be called a word that means re-birth—the Renaissance.
So as much as we feel clever today, and are tempted to look back on the primitive technology of five hundred years ago, in some parts of Europe this was the most intellectual ferment and excitement people had ever known. (They also picked up some of that energy from re-discovering the classics that wrote about the glories of Rome and Greece, and the spread of the printing press—all of which was a preview of the excitement that the internet and associated technologies have triggered in our own time.)
The Renaissance was an era mainly in Western Europe that was emerging from a relatively totalitarian domination of the Roman Catholic church, the word meaning that the Church possessed the intelligentsia of its time. This intellectual class escaped that domination and dared to think for itself—staying just short of heresy—most of the time—though some pioneers such as Galileo and Giordano Bruno unfortunately stepped over the line, to their regret.
Alchemy saw nature as a source of mystery that deserved as much attention as any pondering of the scriptures. Thomas Aquinas had written of two revelations: The revelation of scripture, and the revelation of nature. In pursuit of that second source of insight, into that intellectual ecological niche, poured the pre-scientists—what would now be considered pseudo-scientists. But for the time, they were working with the paradigms and tools they had. So, pause and let yourself become naive. Things are. Yes, we learn names and some qualities. But things change. Whoa, what’s going on, here? Things burn, some stuff dissolves. Stuff that is clean becomes tarnished, and if you boil water it become steam that can then condense back into water. These kinds of transformations mean something.
Commercially, they are the meat and potatoes—to mix a metaphor—of mineralogy, the extraction of ores, their purification, and transmutation of those ores into useful metals that can then be melded together to create pots, swords, amulets, jewelry, and other interesting things. The key metals known back then were iron, copper, lead, tin, silver, gold, and non-metals such as sulphur, mercury—what was that queer stuff about?—and a few others—antimony, etc. There were common other substances like salt, chalk, vinegar, wine, and again, some of those had odd qualities. Then there were other substances that again had odd qualities—their chemistry was far from accurately understood—that when heated, distilled, filtered, mixed with other stuff, re-heated, and subjected to other processes, and their products then had further mysterious properties.
So this was the intellectual frontier: What were those properties, what were they about? To work with such matters, alchemists had some paradigms to overcome. The first was that things were all regular, symmetrical. (Modern sub-atomic physicists also are wrestling with this, and a recent Nobel prize went to someone who worked out why a little assymetry was necessary for there to be anything rather than nothing. (This involved the fact that during the theoretical "Big Bang" an inconceivably large number of both matter and antimatter pre-particles were generated, and in the high intensity of that compressed world, they collided and annihilated each other---re-releasing the energies of their creation; but one particle out of a billion escaped such collisions, one positve matter rather than anti-matter, and those tiny residues (proportionally) were nevertheless so numerous that they ended up composing all the matter in our known universe, becoming in time (for the most part) the components of atoms. Were it not for this tiny assymetry, nothing would have emerged. I see this as also related to the prolific nature of nature (or God) that creates a million eggs and tiny embryos, only one of which may not be eaten and end up making it to sexual maturity. It is also the parable of the sower and the seed.)
But it was difficult then to imagine that God was less than what Humans thought of as perfect, so they thought, for example, that the orbits of the planets should ideally be perfectly circular. There was a not-insignificant struggle when the measurements that were then becoming more precise, thanks to the new tools such as the telescope, revealed that the planetary orbits were not as theorized, perfectly circular. Rather, planetary orbits turned out to be elliptical, that is, a tiny bit elongated, egg shaped.
Still, these were mere exceptions back then, before science. Things weren't as neat as Aristotle had hypothesized. For example, another common assumption was that numbers were a bit magical and things should ultimately have a rational symmetry of certain types. Aristotle pointed out that there were four basic substances—fire, water, earth and air—and that gave part of the substance to both the theories behind astrology and the theories of alchemy. A further foundational concept was that the operations in the general cosmos should apply or have their parallel in all seemingly petty situations. That helps explain astrology, but also why the model of thinking in terms of triads and quaternities is true—that, is, things can be viewed as divisible into three or four sub-categories. (One view of the alchemical processes is that the materials being cooked progress through four stages:
This picture has the spirits of (respectively) earth, water, air, and fire---those are their symbols at the bottom, the downward pointing triangles for the first two, the upward pointing triangles for the latter two. (Note the line in the middle for earth and air.) At the top in the chemical vessles are a dark humanoid figure for the blackness of the impure human, "nigredo." Next, dissolved in water after calcination, burned white and perhaps crystallized, "albedo," a little purified. Then distilled into vapor, the phoenix, air. Then transformed magically by fire into the lion of the philosopher's stone.
The Three SubstancesAs another basic concept, it was assumed that God could best be understood as a Trinity. (Within the world-view of the European Renaissance, Christian symbols reflected a sense of metaphysical certitude—which was both orthodox and politically correct, but intellectually accepted—for the most part.) Just as it was assumed that the orbits of the planets would be perfect circles, so it is assumed that the mystical power of the trinity applied to many fundamental principles, so that, as the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes, a major text in esoteric thought, proclaimed, “As above, so below.”
The essence of the dynamics of substance could be found as expressed as three essences, Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. The Sulfur was comparable with earth in its visible or solid state as a yellow powder that can be found in nature, but since it burned (giving off a noxious gas—sulfur dioxide), it was also imagined to have an occult, subtle state and it also represented the essence of burning, of fire. Mercury was its opposite, a liquid. That it was a liquid that shone like metal meant to people that it was the most sublime form of liquid. Water in its liquid state was the most visible expression of the principle of mercury, while when cooked it became steam, the volatile principle, associated with air, gas, the principle of gas. Remember, they didn't have chemistry to differentiate things, so they did the best they could.
Somehow when sulfur and mercury, or sulfur and water, burned, was cooked, fire and water, earth and air combined in different ways, leading to salt—not just table salt, but something that came of mixing, dissolving, purifying, and mainly, crystallizing! (In that sense it was like table salt.) Alchemical salt was the state comparable to what the physicists of the time called “ether,” the invisible, pure medium through which the planets traveled. (They didn’t know about vacuums, or space.) Salt was the fifth substance, beyond earth, water, air and fire, and Latin for five is quintus, so it was the “quintessence.” (That word has come to mean the essential core meaning or principle involved in some idea, as in, “The quintessence of McCain’s policy in Iraq is based on the virtue of strength.”)
Interestingly, there was an intuition of their being some single and indestructible type of matter—Gold came close—that ideally combined the different elements. More, there was a close relative of this materia prima that could catalyze alchemical reactions so that lower substances were purified and transmuted into gold—and this was what is known as the “philosopher’s stone.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmot#In_alchemy You may have encountered that term in the first of the Harry Potter novels, but this is really where it comes from.
TrinitiesA slight digression to emphasize another fundamental assumption. So much of the world has been perceived as the interaction of three basic principles:
This prevalence in many systems—and those just mentioned are only some examples—makes the idea that important ideas can be best understood in this framework something that Carl Jung associated with an “archetype,” a primal principle, a fundamental way the mind works.
Hegel's Dialectical Process
Einstein’s Formula Light ( “c”) Matter ( “m”) Energy ( “E”) Christianity God-Father Christ-Son Holy Ghost Tantric Yoga Shiva Shakti Brahman Gurdjieff Affirmation
Reconciliation . . . etc.
Binaries and QuaternitiesE\equally prevalent archetypes involve deep tendencies in the human mind by thinking as things in terms of contrasting opposites---binaries---or in terms of four---quaternities. Binaries include either-or, yes-no, up-down, right-wrong, good-bad, heaven-hell, God-Devil, male-female, individualism-community, and so forth. The word "quaternity" derives from the Latin word root for quatros, as in quarter. (This term is in dictionaries of psychology but not all regular dictionaries, and refers to Jung’s concept that the mind tends to think in four contrasting categories.) There are innumerable examples, from the four directions (of the compass) or the four Gospels to the four humors. The four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm, overlap with a more fundamental view that not just the human body is infused by these four dynamic “fluids,” but the world itself is basically composed of the four substances, earth, water, fire and air (see figure). Alchemical purification takes itself through these four “substances,” sometimes repeatedly.
CorrespondencesAnother theme that seemed to thicken and confirm these theories is that the intelligentsia often integrated elements from many different approaches. If they could find a similar theme in a different system—musical, numerical, color, mineral, metal, magical letters from the Hebrew alphabet—the mystical Jewish system of Kabbalah had also been co-opted by Christian esoteric thinkers in that era—and so forth, all were used as clues and correlates of basic principles. Symbolism was heavy, both to disguise any concepts that might be thought by ignorant high-level clergy to be suspect of heresy, and to keep the approach proprietary to the writer and his own often paying students. Also, the symbolism evoked many associated concepts.
As mentioned in the lecture, Edinger made his own map of associated concepts to many of the major concepts in alchemy. The associations to the operation called calcination are noted in the middle of the webpage about alchemy and deep maturity. Here are two concept-association maps for the alchemical processes of separation and conjuntion.
Here on the left: Separation -- filtering, skimming off the top, other techniques for discriiminating between the proverbial "not throwing out baby with the bathwater."
Conjunction, on the right:: Bringing together seeming opposites: Note the relationships among the different alchemical processes, leading to the goal of the philosphers' stone.
Here’s another word you may have heard: “hermetically sealed.” This also derives from alchemy, speaking of creating a container for chemical reactions in a furnace that won’t leak. Alchemy, in turn, served the mysterious processes of Hermes—the name of the Greek god of communications—related to the Egyptian god Thoth—whose legendary “emerald tablet” was a source of insight for esoteric technicians. Or perhaps Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-great, was simply the name of some early sage who was transformed into a god because of his great contributions. They did that sort of things in ancient times. In those years, a common belief was that the ancients, those fifteen hundred years or more earlier, somehow had it, had the pure understanding, which was subsequently degraded by time.
Note also that different fields overlapped, so there could and should be correspondences among the magical fields of numerology, astrology, alchemy, etc.
Other Processes:Here's another picture of the sequence of alchemical processes according to another writer: These are the twelve alchemical operations in the form of the philosophical tree. In order, from the bottom, are:
1. Purgation, getting out the impurities. 2. Sublimation, a procedure that further refines. 3. Calcination, burning to ash. 4. Exuberation---well, I don't rightly know what that is. Look it up on Google and let me know if you can find it. 5. Fixation, an operation that makes the substance more stable, resistant to dissolving or burning. 6. Solution, working out a way to dissolve it anyway. (Regarding this, the discovery of certain combinations of acids that could dissolve gold was considered important, because ordinary acids or other solvents wouldn't touch it!)
On the leaves are other major processes. Again, the principle of reiteration, doing certain operations again, and the sequences were not always agreed upon or made available to readers because of proprietary interests. 7. Separation; 8. Conjunction; 9. Putrefaction in sulfur; 10. Dissolving---in ? Sulfuric Acid? 11. Not sure, 12. Multiplication---an operation in which a substance could be amplified in its effectiveness.
Real Alchemy in the Stars and in Our Heritage
We are descended from an alchemical process in the evolution of the universe. In the first stars, for the first few billion years after the "Big Bang," there was nothing but Hydrogen burning via fusion to Helium. But in the very big stars, as they got ready to burn out, they collapsed a bit and the increasing pressures and jump of temperature---millions of times higher than anything we have been able to produce on earth (except for moments in the most modern technology)---the stars became in a sense alchemical crucibles for transmuting one element into another. In these collapsing stars, carbon and some other elements were formed.
These elements blew off as gas and dust and were incorporated into another generation of forming stars over the next billion years and some of those were much bigger than our own sun. When they, in turn, burned out, they, too collapsed. These especially large stars were again thousands of times more powerful from the other big burning-out stars we just mentioned---the "red giants"--- and in their super-nova collapse, they were able to act as alchemical furnaces that again transmuted carbon and other relatively smaller elements into even larger atomic nuclei, the higher or larger elements, such as iron. Iron in turn is not only an important substance for building our blood---it is an essential component for the hemoglobin molecule that makes our blood red and able to carry more oxygen---but iron is also a major component of the core of our planet. Yet all these heavier substances are really just the remnant products of giant star deaths. Thus, we are made of star dust, or if you like, star corpses, or star poop. Whatever.
Theologically, all this, if you include the idea of a creator, makes the act of creation far, far more grand and subtle. This story is far more interesting than the more primitive idea that God could just say, "Let there be... " Here's a little joke that in a sense illustrates this viewpoint:
One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him. The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."
God listened very patiently and kindly to the man. After the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this? Let's say we have a man-making contest."
To which the scientist replied, "Okay, great!"
But God added, "Now, we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."
The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.
God looked at him and said, "Oh, no. No, you have to go get your own dirt!"
ReferencesBurland, C. A. (1967). The arts of the alchemists. London: Weidenfeld & Ncolson.
Godwin, J. (1979). Robert Fludd: Hermetic philosopher and surveyor of two worlds. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.
Greenberg, Arthur. (2007). From alchemy to chemistry in picture and story. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Jaffé, Aniela. (1999). C. J. Jung in word and image. (Especially chapter on Alchemy, pp. 97-113). Bollingen Series XCVII:2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kryder, Rowena. (2007). Foundations of co-creation: Alchemical practices for self-realization. Dripping Springs, TX: Golden Point. ( www.creative-harmonics.org )
Ridge, Rebecca M. (2009). The body alchemy of psychodrama. Minneapolis, MN: BRIObooks.
Sadoul, J. (1972). Alchemists and gold. (Trans. By O. Sieveking). London: Neville Spearman.
Taylor, F. S. (1974). The Alchemists. New York: Arno Press.