Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The subject of alchemy came up in a post last week. How about a look into what's available online about this ancient mystery? Always bearing in mind, of course, that point raised in yesterday's post - that history can be massaged and embroidered to suit the writer. The history of alchemy drifts very far back in time, so what's copied below has to be approached with that in mind. For myself, at one time I'd have discounted alchemy as simply being the beginnings of chemistry as we know it today. Was there more to it though? I don't know, but I'm willing to suspect there might be some discovery in the near future which, while not entirely validating alchemy's every claim, will put it in a kinder light than its current category as "pseudo-science".

Alchemy's basic aim was transmutation: changing something into something else. As generally understood it was the attempt to change base metal into gold; but other transmutations were involved too: of mind and spirit, which I think was why the Egyptians began their quest. Acquiring wealth, and power, would obviously have been strong motivation for some alchemists later on. In their need to understand transmutation, for whatever purpose, ancient alchemists were learning practical metallurgy, how to extract metals from ores, and gathering an understanding of chemical reactions.

Thinking about this ancient art/science I couldn't help being reminded of the TV series we're watching on DVD - Breaking Bad, about a chemistry teacher who uses his skills to make methamphetamine to sell in order to pay huge bills resulting from necessary treatments for his lung cancer (mentioned in an earlier post.) The results of his "cooking" do effect transformation of minds - but I suspect, not in a way which ancient alchemists would have approved.

Coincidentally, when preparing yesterday's post on revisionist history I noticed this at Wikipedia
Science historians are taking a new look at alchemy. Traditionally there was little room in the history of science for alchemy, which famously tried to convert lead into gold (lead oxide has a yellow colour), and it has been seen as closer to magic or mysticism than science. However there has been a revival of scholarship on the field and historians are finding reasons to give at least some alchemy a new interpretation. Alchemists, some historians are now saying, contributed to the emergence of modern chemistry as a science.
The best potted history of alchemy I've found online is HERE - it comes from a book by A. Cockren - Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored.
The extract begins:
To most of us, the word "alchemy" calls up the picture of a medieval and slightly sinister laboratory in which an aged, black-robed wizard broods over the crucibles and alembics that are to bring within his reach the Philosopher's Stone, and with that discovery, the formula for the Elixir of life and the transmutation of metals. But one can scarcely dismiss so lightly the science - or art, if you will -that won to its service the lifelong devotion of men of culture and attainment from every race and clime over a period of thousands of years, for the beginnings of alchemy are hidden in the mists of time. Such a science is something far more than an outlet for a few eccentric old men in their dotage.

What was the motive behind their constant strivings, their never-failing patience in the unravelling of the mysteries, the tenacity of purpose in the face of persecution and ridicule through the countless ages that led the alchemists to pursue undaunted their appointed way? Something far greater, surely, than a mere vainglorious desire to transmute the base metals into gold, or to brew a potion to prolong a little longer this earthly span, for the devotees of alchemy in the main cared little for such things.

The accounts of their lives almost without exception lead us to believe that they were concerned with things spiritual rather than with things temporal................... To appreciate and understand the adepts' visions, it is necessary to trace the history of their philosophy..........................
(Below: engraving by Hans Weiditz: An Alchemist, c. 1520.)

The piece goes on to outline how the doctrine spread, via China, Egypt, the Arab world to Europe and Britain, and how it evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries. The article ends with Our Debt to the Alchemists by Reginald Merton, which I've taken the liberty of copying almost in full (if anyone objects copyrightfully, I shall reduce it or take it down). (I reckon there's more than enough there to provide seed material for one or two movies!) I've added illustration and links to further information about named individuals.
"If there were any of the alchemists who discovered the mineral agent of transformation, fewer still were able to find its application to the human body. Only a very few adepts knew of the essential agent, the sublime heat of the soul, which fuses the emotions, consumes the prison of leaden form and allows entry into the higher world. Raymond Lully (left) made gold for the King of England. George Ripley gave a hundred thousand pounds of alchemical gold to the Knights of Rhodes, when they were attacked by the Turks. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had an enormous number of gold pieces coined that were marked with a special mark because they were of "Hermetic origin." They had been made by an unknown man under the protection of the king, who was found at his death to possess a considerable quantity of gold. In 1580, the Elector Augustus of Saxony, who was an alchemist, left a fortune equivalent to seventeen million dollars. The source of the fortune of Pope John XXII, whose residence was Avignon and whose revenues were small, must be ascribed to alchemy (at his death there were in his treasury twenty-five million florins). This must be concluded also in the case of the eighty-four quintals of gold possessed in 1680 by Rudolph II of Germany.

The learned chemist Van Helmont (right), and the doctor Helvetius, who were both skeptics with regard to the Philosopher's Stone and had even published books against it, were converted as a result of an identical adventure which befell them. An unknown man visited them and gave them a small quantity of projection powder; he asked them not to perform the transmutation until after his departure and then only with apparatus prepared by themselves, in order to avoid all possibility of fraud. The grain of powder given to Van Helmont was so minute that he smiled sarcastically; the unknown man smiled also and took back half of it, saying that what was left was enough to make a large quantity of gold. Both Van Helmont's and Helvetius' experiments were successful, and both men became acknowledged believers in alchemy. Van Helmont became the greatest "chemist" of his day. If we do not hear nowadays that Madame Curie has had a mysterious visitor who gave her a little powder " the color of the wild poppy and smelling of calcined sea salt," the reason may be that the secret is indeed lost; or, possibly, now that alchemists are no longer persecuted or burnt, it may be that they no longer need the favorable judgment of those in official power.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, it was customary to hang alchemists dressed in a grotesque gold robe on gilded gallows. If they escaped this punishment they were usually imprisoned by barons or kings, who either compelled them to make gold or extorted their secret from them in exchange for their liberty. Often they were left to starve in prison. Sometimes they were roasted by inches or had their limbs slowly broken. For when gold is the prize, religion and morality are thrown to the side and human laws set at naught. This is what happened to Alexander Seton, called "the Cosmopolitan." He had had the wisdom to hide all his life and avoid the company of the powerful and was a truly wise man. However, marriage was his downfall. In order to please his ambitious wife, who was young and beautiful, he yielded to the invitation extended him by the Elector of Saxony, Christian II, to come to his court. Since Seton was unwilling to disclose the secret of the Philosopher's Stone, which he had long possessed, he was scalded every day with molten lead, beaten with rods and punctured with needles till he died.

The famous alchemists Michael Sendivogius, Botticher, and Paykull all spent part of their lives in prison, and many men suffered death for no other crime than the study of alchemy. If a great number of these seekers were impelled by ambition or if there were among them charlatans and impostors, it does not diminish the fact that a great many of them cherished a genuine ideal of moral development. In any event, their work in the domain of physics and chemistry formed a solid basis for the few wretched fragmentary scraps of knowledge that are called modern science and are cause for great pride to a large number of ignorant men.

These "scientists" regard the alchemists as dreamers and fools, though every discovery of their infallible science is to be found in the "dreams and follies" of the alchemists. It is no longer a paradox, but a truth attested by recognized scientists themselves, that the few fragments of truth that our modern culture possesses are due to the pretended or genuine adepts who were hanged with a gilt dunce's cap on their heads. What is important is that not all of them saw in the Philosopher's Stone the mere vulgar, useless aim of making gold. A small number of them received, either through a master or through the silence of daily meditation, genuine higher truth. These were the men who, by having observed it in themselves, understood the symbolism of one of the most essential rules of alchemy: Use only one vessel, one fire, and one instrument. They knew the characteristics of the sole agent, of the Secret Fire, of the serpentine power which moves upwards in spirals -- of the great primitive force hidden in all matter, organic and inorganic -- which the Hindus call kundalini, a force that creates and destroys simultaneously. The alchemists calculated that the capacity for creation and the capacity for destruction were equal, that the possessor of the secret had power for evil as great as his power for good. And just as nobody trusts a child with a high explosive, so they kept the divine science to themselves, or, if they left a written account of the facts they had found, they always omitted the essential point, so that it could be understood only by someone who already knew


When the circle, the square and the triangle come together, they form a symbol that is used to denote alchemy. The symbol in question is a circle, within a square, within a triangle, which parallels the great work of the alchemist.
"This figure represents the alchemical Squaring of the Circle, within the microcosm of the Work." D. Stolcius von Stolcenberg, Viridarium chymicum, Frankfurt, 1624. Extract from "The Golden Game", Stanislas Klossowsky de Rola.
The symbol is impeccable as a representation of alchemy, as it shows man's relationship with the universe, the need to transcend the material (the square) towards the sublime quality of the spiritual (the circle), all under the watchful protection of our maker (the triangle).
When one acquires the right knowledge and wisdom, they acquire an understanding, -a gnosis- that enables them to remove the shackles of the material world, achieve oneness with spirit and then harmonize that oneness with the all. (See HERE)


PS: There's also more information and loads of links to helpful relevances at Library of Halexandria.

Also HERE.


And the Alchemy Website HERE.


James Higham said...

The symbol is impeccable as a representation of alchemy, as it shows man's relationship with the universe

It does? I'll have to look very, very hard.

Twilight said...

James Higham - Well...symbols are like that!

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mike said...

There are too many things that defy contemporary logic. I'm reminded of Edward Leedskalnin and his coral house in Homestead, FL...an engineering curiosity constructed under mysterious circumstances. Nikola Tesla and his ability to perform complex math calculations and long-term, multiple experiments solely in his head with no need for a physical laboratory...he would check them periodically to observe how the experiments were progressing. Ancient crystal human skulls created using unknown, highly advanced lapidary skills. The first mechanical computer of amazing complexity, the ancient Antikythera. Mexico's anomalous "Zone of Silence" with magnetic distortions, fireballs, and lack of radio wave transmissions. Too many oddities to ever mention here!

The world (universe) is full of mysteries. I have no doubt that ancient peoples perceived and understood natural principles in a manner that is invisible to us moderns. Alchemy is no doubt another ancient knowledge lost in history.

There are contemporaries among us that are conscious to this knowledge and skill and I suppose most of us could awaken, if disciplined to the natural environment in the manner of a shaman. The ability to dowse for water (or anything, actually) is a skill that has only recently been lost, but is making a slight revival.

Twilight, your discussion of vesica piscis (sacred geometry) had me recall my visits to ancient structures in Italy and Greece some years ago. The feeling of peace, calm, body-energizing, and an odd time distortion was ubiquitous to these structures that I visited. Our modern structures are antithetical to these ancient creations. There have been a number of scientific studies indicating that modern buildings are depleting to our physical well-being.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Yes, those examples are intriguing. I'm confident that the ancients (or some of them) were in possession of knowledge now lost to us.....the burning of the Library of Alexandria would be one reason among others.

Alchemy and astrology qualify to be included in the lost knowledge category - not totally lost, but what we have, I believe, is mangled or misunderstood or incomplete - in the case of astrology. I don't understand chemistry so can't comment on alchemy.

Dowsing is a good example yes, the skill in finding water deposits will be coming in very handy as water supplies begin to dry up -very soon in this part of the country, I understand.

Re ancient structures - I agree. I haven't visited Greece, but have spent several weeks in Rome, in the old heart of the city. I experienced some peculiar
feelings, especially walking near the ancient Forum area, and in the narrow back streets. It's long ago now, but I've never forgotten the experience.

Modern buildings, especially office buildings now filled with high tech devices, constant air conditioning or heating, must be swimming in trapped energies - no wonder some are known to have adverse effects on the health of those working inside.