Alchemy is a term that covers many philosophical traditions which span over four millennia across several continents.
Simply put, Alchemy is the art-form of liberating something from its fixed physical properties.
By fixed, we are referring to something with finite properties. In reality, in this physical dimension, there is nothing that is, by this definition, fixed. The physical laws we observe are recorded within a culturally agreed upon set of shifting perceptions.
Alchemy is actually a perfect illustration of the disparity between these designations and the deeper undercurrent running beneath them. Many of us who have heard of alchemy, are familiar with the concept of turning an ordinary metal, such as lead, or such as iron, into gold. Incredibly, that is really only the surface of Alchemy. The deeper truth beneath that very literal designation is that Alchemy actually has more to do with taking something with seemingly fixed properties and turning it into something entirely different.
Early Alchemists used processes that would go on to be the foundations of scientific techniques, so in that way you could think of Alchemy in general as a sort of predecessor to Chemistry, Biology, and the like. But, unlike these later sciences, you absolutely cannot separate the scientific process of Alchemy from hermetic principles and spirituality.
Those principals and spiritual truths are the basis upon which Alchemy stands and understanding how they got there is a crucial component of the story of western Enlightenment thinking, witchcraft, and much more.
The Origins of Alchemy
The Alchemist Robert Boyle is credited as being the father of modern Chemistry. Iatrochemistry emphasizes the medical application of alchemy. It was also the study of alchemy that influenced Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. But the story of Alchemy actually begins long before Newton and Boyle.
Alchemy most likely began in Roman Egypt, then spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Now one could (and perhaps this site will at some point) dive way, way deeper into the history of Alchemy, Hermes, Egypt, and much more before advancing further. But we’re mostly interested in what Alchemists actually believe and how alchemical thought is woven into the western esoteric. So, for now, just know that it’s very old, it’s origins are somewhat shadowy, and it was massively influential on Enlightenment thinkers.
Modern Day Alchemy
Those thinkers (and the Hermetics and Alchemists who came before them) left a powerful mark on history. It’s very easy to make the claim that indirectly Alchemy is responsible for the tenor of western science, philosophy, religion, and much more. Without going that far though, one can easily see the contributions of the Alchemists in the products of the day: 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 has its roots in Alchemy.
Fun Fact: In J.K Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series, Alchemy is on offer at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry if there are enough pupils who want to take it. Of those pupils, only sixth and seventh-years are allowed in! Watch the clip below for a bit of an introduction into Harry Potter alchemy.
The 4 Stages of Alchemy
Alright, we’ve had our fun. 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 great work of Alchemy is usually characterized by four stages. Each of these stages is represented by a color:
Negredo – Black Alchemy
Negredo is the first, which means a “blackening,” or “melanosis.” It is representative of putrefaction and decomposition. Where ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively.
Internally, this represents a kind of spiritual death and the confronting of one’s own shadow aspect.
Albedo – White Alchemy
Albedo, which means a “whitening,” or “leukosis.” It represents the washing away of impurities, where the physical object, such as an ingredient in some kind of alchemical brew, is to be purified and divided into two opposing components or principles.
Metaphorically, this represents regaining some sense of the original purity of a thing and is also connected with the receptivity of the soul, the washing away of the ashes to find the pure aspect beneath.
Citrinitas – Yellow Alchemy
The third principle citrinitas, a “yellowing,” or “xanthosis.” This refers to transmutation, the actual turning of a subject, such as an ingredient, into its highest state – such as metal into gold.
This represents awakening, becoming a manifestation of the divine, a walking embodiment of the soul, rather than a muted reflection of it. This is a process of becoming.
Rubedo – Red Alchemy
The fourth and final principle, a “reddening,” or “iosis.” Rubedo refers to the end state of alchemical success – the achievement of the perfect state. This final state of perfection of any subject such as an ingredient into its exalted state is the ultimate aim of the alchemical process.
It can be interpreted as achieving an enlightened consciousness and the total fusion of spirit with matter. This stage is often represented by the symbol of the phoenix.
So…What Is Alchemy?
As you can see, based on these 4 principles, Alchemy goes much further than just the physical process of transforming base metals into higher metals – it very much has to do with human transformation and helping one elevate their spirit to a purer state.
This relates to you if you are trying to transform yourself from your ordinary fixed, physical self into your exalted state and enlightened being. You can see this one of thinking of the self at play in most of the world’s major religions. It’s Christ-consciousness, the quest for Nirvana, individuation, and so much more.
Now, since we of the esoteric mind are keenly aware that by changing one’s mind about one’s reality, one’s reality is also changed. Therefore, it’s certainly not the biggest leap in the world to make the following statement: Alchemy is actually the practice of creating your entire reality.
The Highest Esoteric Principle in Alchemy
Now let’s jump back in time to the earliest alchemical thinkers. These distant relatives may have been Egyptians during the Roman years, they have been way later than that too, we’re not totally sure. But what we are sure of is that 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.
Alchemy is the practical application of the truth that you create all of it, your entire reality and even the perception that your reality is on some level distinct from other realities, but no less real.
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 sensual apparatuses are then perceiving 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 and must follow suit.