What is Alchemy?

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Alchemy is an art and practice that’s found its way into many philosophical, scientific, and metaphysical traditions. These span some four millennia and have impacted every corner of the globe. In fact, Alchemy is at the very bedrock of the contemporary Western Esoteric, Pantheistic, and Neo-Pagan traditions. It’s also the forefather of Chemistry, Modern Science, and many forms of emergent technology. But how did this happen? And what is Alchemy anyway?

 

Alchemy Definition:

Simply put, Alchemy is the science and art of liberating something from its fixed physical properties. 

 

By fixed, I’m referring to something with finite properties. And this brings us to our first important, alchemical distinction.

In the material, physical world in which we spend the vast majority of our lives, nothing is fixed. All matter is in a constant state of flux. Everything is becoming, nothing is being. Contemporary science would even argue that the barriers between material objects are flimsy at best. Where does your body end and the chair you’re sitting on begin? Turns out, that’s a trickier question to answer than it may seem at first glance.

By extension, this means that the physical laws we believe to govern the cosmos are also ever-shifting. Because all of the universe is in a constant state of change, so must our understanding of it be continually evolving.

 

Alchemy Training

So what does any of this have to do with Alchemy? And what do Alchemists do?

The alchemical process is rooted in understanding and working with the fluid nature of both the universe and oneself. The ultimate goal of Alchemy is to change an element, either within the practitioner or within the universe, from a less desirable state to a more desirable one.

This brings to mind the most common cultural perception, apart from Harry Potter perhaps, of Alchemy in the Western world. Many who have heard of Alchemy were introduced by way of the concept of turning an ordinary metals, such as lead or iron, into gold. While this is a central focus in Alchemical thought and procedure, the reasons behind this attempted transmutation are more complicated than profit alone.

 

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Alchemy Gold

To this day, Alchemy training uses processes that are rooted in ancient techniques. These include, but are not limited to changing base metals into more “pure” ones, like gold. This concept of purity is actually the reason that gold became such a central focus to alchemical thought in the first place. Gold has always been prized for its illustrious qualities and its aesthetic purity over other metals. But there are chemical reasons to pursue gold post-transmutation as well.

Gold is among the most malleable of the metals. We can turn it into all sorts of things. Considering the fluid nature of the concepts at the bedrock of alchemical thought generally, it makes perfect sense that such a moldable metal would emerge as the central material in Alchemy training. There are other important material factors as well. Gold doesn’t degrade or rust in the same way other metals do. It’s far stronger than one would expect from such a malleable metal. And, while the purest forms of gold are the least durable, they can easily be combined with other metals to craft strong alloys.

 

Alchemy and Chemistry

The methods that early alchemists used to transmute base metals into gold would go on to become the foundations of early scientific techniques. In this way, you could think of Alchemy as a predecessor to Chemistry, Biology, and Western Science in general. But, unlike these later sciences, you absolutely cannot separate the chemical processes in Alchemy from the esoteric principles at its heart.

These principals and spiritual questions form the foundation upon which Alchemy stands and understanding them is a crucial component in the story of Enlightenment thinking, Witchcraft, and much more.

 

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Alchemy History

When you imagine the origins of Alchemy, there’s a fair chance that your mind dances with images of Renaissance-era scientists toiling away in dimly-lit workshops. And such visions are certainly rooted in reality.

The alchemist Robert Boyle is credited with being the father of modern Chemistry. His philosophical work with Iatrochemistry (using alchemical techniques to cure ailments and illness) emphasized the medical application of the techniques discussed above. Alchemy also influenced other prominent, Renaissance thinkers, most famously Isaac Newton. But the story of Alchemy actually begins long before both Newton and Boyle.

 

Alchemy Origin

Alchemy most likely began in Roman Egypt, then spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Does that sound like a radical oversimplification? That’s probably because it is. The more complicated truth is that the origins of Alchemy are somewhat tricky to decipher.

Depending on whose history you believe, the form of Alchemy that would go on to influence the Renaissance-era thinkers who concretized it in the West’s cultural legacy is either as ancient as civilization itself or just a few centuries older than Isaac Newton and his contemporaries.

In addition to historical oddity, another hindrance to diving too deeply into the history of Alchemy is that, like many things in Western Esotericism, its origins have been overshadowed by a set of narratives preferred by spiritual practitioners. Such retconning is par for the course in Western Esotericism and, in this case, does muddy the waters a bit in determining Alchemy’s actual origins.

Now one could (and perhaps I will at some point) dive way, way deeper into the history of Alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus (a supposed contemporary of Moses, but not really), how the Egyptian mythos impacted the development of Alchemy, and much more. But discussing the historical, spiritual, metaphysical, and cultural implications of any one of these aspects to the history of Alchemy would take an entire article. For now, let’s root ourselves in what Alchemists actually believe and how alchemical thought came to be woven into the Western tradition.

What we can be certain of is that Alchemy is very old, its origins are somewhat shadowy, and it was massively influential on Enlightenment thinkers.

 

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Modern Alchemy

Regardless of the vagaries in Alchemy’s history, it’s certain that the Enlightenment and Renaissance-era thinkers who were influenced by alchemical thought left a powerful mark on Western civilization.

Through their efforts and alchemical employment, it’s very easy to make the claim that Alchemy is directly or indirectly responsible for the tenor of Western science, philosophy, religion, and much more.

Even if you don’t want to be that grandiose about it, one can easily see the contributions of the Alchemists in contemporary products and processes: Metal working, the production of gun powder, inks, dyes, paints, cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics, glass manufacturing, the preparation of extracts, liquor distillation – each of these and more have their roots in Alchemy.

 

Harry Potter Alchemy

Fun Fact: In J.K Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series, Alchemy is on offer at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but only if there are enough pupils who want to take it. Of these, only sixth and seventh-years are allowed in. Much like she does with other magical traditions, Rowling does actually weave a bit of legitimate alchemical thought into her presentation of the art. Watch the clip below for a bit of an introduction into Harry Potter alchemy.

 

Spiritual Alchemy

Thus far we’ve attempted to answer the question, “What is Alchemy,” by examining its scientific and cultural history and implications. But I’ve also alluded to a deep spiritual undercurrent present in alchemical thought.

For me, the best way to get one’s head around how Alchemy can help one spiritually is by looking at one of the principles at its heart. Like the earlier exploration of Alchemy’s influences, I could easily expand this into an entire article (and I just might), but for now there’s a little book you need to know about called, The Emerald Tablet.

 

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The Emerald Table of Hermes Trismegistus

There’s that name again, “Hermes Trismegistus.” I’ll definitely go further into the historical, metaphysical, and cultural underpinnings of this fascinating figure at a future date. For now, just know that Hermes is, for many people, the originator of alchemical thought. Importantly, this is in all likelihood not historically true. But there remains a contingent of people who contend that an ancient-world man named Hermes existed and he delivered the Hermetic principles to humanity as a gift from the gods/aliens. Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s leave it for now, though.

Among these principles is one from which the Western world constructed metaphysics, science, and much of religion. Isaac Newton actually did his own translation of this text and, since he’s come up a few times in our conversation, let’s use his words here:

That which is below is like that which is above that which is above is like yet which is blow to do ye miracles of only one thing.

A tad confusing? Let’s get a bit more contemporary. Here’s Madame Helena Blavatsky’s (a crucial figure in the development of contemporary Western Esotericism) translation:

What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of the one thing.

From this, we distill this Hermetic principle into its core essence, the presentation of which is woven into the central fibers of just about every single Western religion and spiritual discipline. For my money, no one gets it more perfect though than Neopagans who simply say, “As Above, So Below.”

The Stages of Alchemy

What does this have to do with Alchemy? Well, what we’re really interested in is how the alchemists saw the world. What was their cosmology and what can we learn from it? The alchemists would contend that all of reality is situated within or around a core set of immutable truths. Humans are somehow related to these immutable truths and the perfect state of being they allude to, but distanced from them. Crucially, however, we can conclude things about the nature of the heavens by understanding the nature of our reality and vice versa. And, since we can transmute base metals into more pure ones, why can’t we do the same thing to ourselves?

To this end, alchemists concluded that all things, humanity included, were positioned along an ever-moving gradient of nearness or distance from purity/divinity. This relative distance was conceptualized as a series of stages. Each one of these was linked to a color. Therefor, the great work of Alchemy, which is largely about nearing divinity, is usually characterized by four stages, each represented by a color.

Negredo – Black Alchemy

 

Negredo is the first stage. The term means a “blackening,” or “melanosis.” It is represents putrefaction and decomposition. In an alchemical working, this is the stage where ingredients need to be cleansed and cooked extensively.

For Spiritual Alchemy, Negredo represents a kind of spiritual death and the confronting of one’s own shadow aspect.

 

Albedo – White Alchemy

Albedo means “whitening,” or “leukosis.” It represents the washing away of impurities, where the physical object, such as an ingredient in an alchemical brew, is purified and divided into two opposing components.

To a Spiritual Alchemist, this stage represents regaining some sense of the original purity of a thing. It’s also connected with the receptivity of the soul. One washes away the grime of decomposition to find the pure aspect beneath.

 

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Citrinitas – Yellow Alchemy

 

The third principle is Citrinitas or a, “yellowing,” or “xanthosis.”

This refers to transmutation, the actual turning of a subject, such as an ingredient, into its more pure state – such as a base metal into gold.

For Spiritual Alchemy, it represents awakening. In this stage, one connects with the divine. They become a walking embodiment of the soul, rather than a muted reflection of it. This is the ultimate process of becoming.

 

Rubedo – Red Alchemy

The fourth and final principle is Rubedo or a, “reddening,” or “iosis.” Rubedo refers to the end state of alchemical success – the achievement of the perfect state.

Spiritual Alchemists understand this stage as the moment in which one achieves an enlightened consciousness. This also speaks to the total fusion of spirit with matter. The symbol of the Phoenix often represents this final stage.

 

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So…What Is Alchemy?

As we can see, Alchemy goes much further than just the physical process of transforming base metals into higher ones. Alchemy very much has to do with human transformation and helping one elevate their spirit to a purer state.

 

 

The concepts in Alchemy allude to the internal transformation of a fixed, physical self into an exalted state. You can see this kind of thinking at play in most of the world’s major religions. It’s Christ-consciousness, the quest for Nirvana, Jung’s ultimate Individuation, and many more.

Now, since we of the esoteric mindset are keenly aware that by changing one’s mind about one’s reality, one’s reality is also changed, it’s certainly not the biggest leap in the world to make the following statement:

On its deepest level, Alchemy is actually the art of engaging with and transforming one’s entire reality. In other words, it’s Magic.

 

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The Highest Esoteric Principle in Alchemy

Let’s wrap up this overview of Alchemy with a jump back in time to the earliest alchemical thinkers. These distant relatives may have been Egyptians during the Roman years or they have been way later than that. But we are sure of one thing. The early alchemists were very hesitant to divulge the highest esoteric principle in Alchemy.

And basically, that principle is that thoughts create reality. Only the mind limits. And so, liberating the mind through spiritual practice means liberating all that the mind perceives. And liberating perception goes on to impact reality.

Alchemy is the practical application of the truth that you create all of it – your entire reality. You even control your perception of your reality. All of it is mutable, all of it experimental. You are in control. 

 

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Everyone is an alchemist by these definitions, most are just unaware that they are doing it. On some fundamental level, the Alchemists believe that your mind is constructing its own reality. Your perceptive systems are then interpreting that construct. And the rest of your body is responding to that data loop.

Alchemy is the process of understanding that your mind is doing all of this. If you change how you are thinking and what you are thinking about, your reality will follow.

 

More Alchemy Please!

Want to explore Alchemy from a Jungian perspective? Check out this video a did a while back on the topic.