What is Alchemy

Alchemy is the ancient art of transmutation, and the precursor of modern chemistry and metallurgy. Alchemy is more than 2,000 years old.

The word alchemy is derived from the Arabic word alkimia. Al means “the.” The meaning of kimia is less certain. It may derive from kmt or chem, the ancient Egyptian term for “Egypt,” the “black [fertile] land.” It may also be related to the Greek word chyma, which refers to the fusing or casting of metal.

Paracelsus coined the term spagyric art, from the Greek terms for “to tear” and “to bring together,” to describe alchemy.

Initially, alchemy was a physical art related to metallurgy, chemistry, perfumes, dyes, embalming, and so forth. Alchemy is associated with the quest to turn base metals such as lead into perfect metals such as silver and gold. The heart of alchemy, however, is spiritual: a means of personal transformation, purification, and perfection into a state of prolonged life or immortality. Alchemy was practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. Western and Eastern systems have comparable elements, although Western alchemy later gave more emphasis to the physical transformation of metals.

Western Alchemy

Western alchemy is based on the Hermetic tradition, a syncretism of Egyptian metallurgy and Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity. The core text is the Emerald Tablet, a mystical tract attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice greatest Hermes”). The central tenet of the Emerald Tablet is “as above, so below”: humanity is a microcosm of the macrocosm of heaven, and CORRESPONDENCES exist between the two. One reflects the other. Other Hermetic works of importance, which were published much later, are known as the Corpus Hermeticum and the Hermetica.

The Egyptians developed one of the basic fundamentals of alchemy, that of “first matter,” that is, that the world was created by divine force out of a chaotic mass called Prima Materia, or First Matter. All things can be reduced to first matter through solve et coagula, “dissolve and combine,” and transmuted to something more desirable. This transmutation was accomplished through the joining of opposites. The entire chemical process was based on the assumption that all things in nature evolve into their purest and highest form. Thus imperfect base metals eventually become gold on their own. Alchemy merely speeds up the process.

According to early alchemy, all things have a hermaphroditic composition of two substances: sul phur, which represents the soul and the fiery male principle, and mercury, which represents spirit and the watery female principle. Later European alchemy added a third ingredient, salt , which corresponds to body. The transmutation process involves separating these three essentials and recombining them into a different form. The process must be done according to astrological auspices.

By the third century c.e., alchemy was widely practiced, and had replaced many of the disintegrating mystery traditions. Of note is zosimos (c. 250–300), a Greek author of numerous alchemical texts. Zosimos traced alchemy to biblical origins, an idea that gained popularity as alchemy reached its peak in medieval times. Zosimos also emphasized the transmutation of metals in his treatise The Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver.

Western alchemy suffered a setback in 296, when the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of Egyptian and Hermetic alchemical texts, thus destroying a great deal of knowledge.

However, the Emerald Tablet had by then passed into Arabic culture, where it continued to evolve. It was a highly respected science, practiced by adepts who wrote their treatises and manuals in deliberately obscure language. The term gibberish is derived from the name of a medieval alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as Geber (c. 721–815), whose writings were difficult to comprehend. Alchemy thrived in Moorish Spain, where from the 12th century on it spread throughout Europe. By the 15th century, alchemy was a thriving, but not always reputable, practice; Prague became one of the capitals of alchemy. Alchemy also took hold in England. Some European rulers and nobles became obsessed with transmuting metals into gold in order to increase their personal wealth and their war chests, especially for the expensive Crusades, and hired alchemists to produce gold. Fraudulent alchemists criss-crossed Europe, promising results in time to make personal gains and then flee when patience with them was exhausted. Some made no escape and were imprisoned or executed by irate patrons.

The transmutation of metals was accomplished with the philosopher’s stone, a mysterious and elusive substance that was never described in direct terms. The Philosopher’s Stone also was the elixir of life that would bestow immortality. The process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone is the Great Work, or Magnum Opus. The Philosopher’s Stone is both the beginning of the Great Work, the Prima Materia, and the end result.

Base metals are first reduced to a formless mass by melting or by placing them in a bath of mercury, the “Universal Solvent.” The first stage is called the nigredo, characterized by blackness. Through recombining, other stages are reached: citrinas, a yellowing; albedo, a whiteness; and rubedo, a redness. Sometimes a stage of all possible colors, called the “peacock’s tail,” was said to occur between albedo and rubedo. Sometimes the red and white appeared simultaneously. The final stage yielded gold as well as the Philosopher’s Stone. The stone was highly concentrated, and when added into the alchemist’s furnace of molten metals, it encouraged the rapid transmutation to gold.

Alchemists jealously guarded their secrets, and alchemical texts were written in obscure terms, as well as images and symbols that had to be interpreted intuitively by the individual alchemist. The MUTUS LIBER, or “Silent book,” is perhaps the best example of alchemy explained only through images. The hermaphroditic nature of alchemy was often expressed in erotic art, though there is no evidence that actual sexual rites were practiced (unlike some Eastern alchemical traditions). Alchemists were primarily male, but some worked with a female partner, usually a wife, who served as the SOROR MYSTICA, or “mystical sister”—the feminine component of the Great Work.

The ability to make gold out of lead was more legendary than factual, but numerous stories circulated about the alleged successes of some alchemists. In the course of their pursuits, alchemists were responsible for many discoveries important in metallurgy, chemistry, and medicine. However, in the early 19th century, alchemy was discredited by the discoveries of oxygen and the composition of water. Alchemy was reduced to the level of pseudoscience and superstition and was replaced by physics.

Modern Western interest in alchemy was revised by carl g. jung, who saw both the spiritual and physical dimensions in alchemy. Despite Jung’s pioneering work uniting depth psychology and alchemy, interest in alchemy remained low until about the second half of the 20th century. A revival of interest led to alchemy schools and products for cosmetics, herbal medicines, beverages and wines, perfumes, and so forth.

In addition, modern alchemists pursue the Elixir or Philosopher’s Stone that will restore youth and lengthen life. One of the chief substances believed to accomplish these goals is a form of gold called monoatomic gold, or the “gold of Isis,” created through various chemical procedures. Monoatomic gold is available for sale. Claims are made that when ingested in sufficient quantity, physical youthfulness is restored.

Eastern Alchemy

The immortality sought by the Chinese was the attainment of a state of timelessness spent with the Immortals, in which one had supernormal powers. Ancient Chinese alchemy focused on meditation and breathing techniques and also various elixirs, which were purified by combining ingredients and repeatedly heating them in various vessels.

The legendary mystic, Lao Tzu (Laozi) is credited as the father of alchemy in ancient China. Little is known about Lao Tzu. According to lore, he was born around 604 b.c.e., and he is famous for writing the Tao Teh Ching (Daodejing), or Classic of the Way of Its Virtue, the mystical work upon which Taoism (Daoism) is based. Initially, the book was called the Lao Tzu. The name was changed to the Tao Teh Ching sometime during the Western Han dynasty, which lasted from 202 b.c.e. to 9 c.e.

But whether or not Lao Tzu was a real person is debated by scholars. According to biographer Ssuma Ch’ien (Sima Qian; 145–86 b.c.e.), Lao Tzu came from the southern state of Ch’u (Chu), which is now the provinces of Hunan and Hupei (Hubei). He worked as custodian of the imperial archives of the (Zhou) Chou dynasty in the city of Loyang. He reportedly granted an interview to Confucius, who was some 50 years younger, and came to him with questions about rituals.

Lao Tzu’s cultivation of Tao (Dao) allegedly enabled him to live for more than 200 years, outliving Confucius by 129 years, according to Ssuma Chi’en. He retired from his job when the Chou dynasty began to decline. He traveled west and went through a pass known as Hsin Yi (Xinyi). The warden of the pass, asked him to write a book for his enlightenment. Lao Tzu agreed, and the result was the Tao Teh Ching. More than 1,000 commentaries have been written on Lao Tzu’s work.

“Tao” means “the Way.” It is the impersonal absolute truth, which is expressed through the masculine and feminine principles of yang and yin, respectively. These principles are in constant flux and ebb in an eternal flow of the Way. “Teh” (De) is the virtue or power of the Tao, which is experienced by wu-wei, or non-interference, that is, being “in the fl ow” of the Tao. The earliest written description of yin and yang is in the I CHING (Yijing). According to the I Ching, the Great Primal Beginning generates the two primary forces, which in turn generate four images, which in turn generate the eight trigrams upon which the I Ching is based. Lao Tzu is said to have been inspired by the I Ching in his writing of the Tao Teh Ching.

Like Hermetic philosophy, Taoism views humanity as a microcosm of the macrocosm. The external workings of nature have internal counterparts. There are correspondences between the basic elements of nature and the internal workings of the human body. In Chinese medicine, this is expressed in five elements: wood, air, fire, metal, earth, and water.

The alchemical process of spiritual purification comes through purity of heart and avoidance or elimination of desires, which enables the seeker to embrace the One. The best way to accomplish this is through meditation. Taoist meditation is characterized by several features: concentration, breath control, purification of heart and mind, practice of wu-wei in daily life, and the ability to play the female, or yin, role during mystical union with Heaven, the yang principle.

Breath control is of great importance. Meditation and breathing techniques circulate chi (yi) the universal life force, through the body, purifying it. Chi is created when the nutritious elements of food are combined with secretions from glands and organs. This forms blood and sexual energy (ching[xing]). Heat in form of breath transforms the sexual energy to chi, which circulates up and down psychic channels along the spine, from the crown to the abdomen, somewhat akin to the kundalini energy of yoga. The chi passes through 12 psychic centers located along the channels. After many cycles, the chi becomes refined. It reaches the crown in a highly concentrated state, where it can be manipulated or else sent back down to the abdomen. The chi can be stored for future use.

Lao Tzu favoured natural breathing, which induces tenderness, the essential characteristic of life (as opposed to rigidity, the characteristic of death). Lao Tzu considered the infant to be the perfect symbol of Tao, and said it was highly desirable to breathe as an infant does. Later Taoist alchemists advocated “fetus breathing,” which is so faint that it is nearly extinguished, and which when done precedes the mystical state of samadhi.

(It is interesting to note that fetus breathing is similar to hesychasm, an alchemica/mystical breathing that emerged in monastic practice in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and probably evolved from Buddhist influences. Its chief advocate was St. Gregory Palamas (c. 1296–1359). Hesychasm comes from hesychia, which means “stillness” or “light.” It is a method of prayer that combines extremely shallow, controlled breathing with yoga-like posture to induce a vision of light that is supposed to be comparable to the light seen at Jesus transfi guration on Mt. Tabor. There are dangers involved in the shallow breathing of both fetus breathing and hesychasm: damage to both the physical body and psychological/mental state.)

The return to a newborn state as a way to Tao is expressed in Taoist yoga, which advises (for men) the sublimation of the vital male force at age 16, when it is at its apex of strength, into hsien t’ien (xian tian), the prenatal vital force, which leads to spiritual immortality.

Lao Tzu’s approach to alchemy was primarily spiritual. Later Chinese alchemists looked for physical alchemy, and added elixirs to their pursuits.

According to lore, the first Daoist pope, Chang Tao-Ling (Zhang Daoling; b. 35 c.e.), pursued alchemy in his remote mountain abode. By supernatural means, Lao Tsu gave him a mystical treatise that enabled him to attain the Elixir of Life.

In India, alchemy traces its roots to earlier than 1000 b.c.e. in the development of Ayurvedic (“the wisdom of life”) medicine, where it continues to play a role in the present. Indian alchemy is a union of male (shiva) and female (parvati) principles, which creates jivan, an enlightened being.

Meditation, breath control, and posture are important elements of Indian alchemy. Immortality also may be achieved through Tantra, a sexual yoga, which is either prolonged abstinence or coitus without ejaculation. Tantra is believed to intensify the life force (prana, or xi) and produce physiological changes.

The Importance of Alchemy

As noted earlier, alchemists made significant contributions to the physical sciences and medicine. In the Western tradition, the Hermetic philosophy became the basis for magical practices. Grimoires, or magical handbooks, contained many principles of correspondences for the casting of Spells. The traditions of ceremonial magic, or high magic are paths of enlightenment based on the balancing of the masculine and feminine principles, and the perfection of the whole being. See also magic.


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The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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