What is Alchemy

Alchemy is literally, an ancient art of transmutation and the precursor of modern chemistry and metallurgy. Symbolically, a mystical art for the transformation of consciousness.

Current Western interest in alchemy is due largely to psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, who saw it as having a spiritual dimension as well as a physical one: The true purpose of the art is the psychological and spiritual transformation of the alchemist.

Alchemy is called a “spagyric” an, from the Greek terms for “to tear” and “to bring together.” As a mystical art, it draws on various spiritual traditions, including the Hermetica, Gnosticism, Islam, the Kabbalah, Taoism, and yoga. Western and Eastern alchemical arts have developed differently.

Western Alchemy

Western alchemy draws on the Hermetic tradition, Greco-Egyptian esoteric teachings. According to legend the founder is Hermes Trismegistus, a form of the Egyptian and Greek gods of magic and wisdom, Thoth and Hermes, respectively. ( See Hermetica ) In the late centuries B.C. and early centuries A.D., the Egyptians combined metallurgy with Hermetic philosophy and ideas drawn from Western mysteries, Neoplatonism, gnosticism, and Christianity. The Egyptians developed one of the basic fundamentals of alchemy: that the world was created by divine force out of a chaotic mass called prima materia, or “first matter.” Thus in alchemy all things can be reduced to first matter through soh’e et coagula, “dissolve and combine,” and transmuted to something more desirable. Specifically, alchemists sought to transmute through joining opposites.

By the fourth century A.D., alchemy had assumed its historical form and essentially replaced the disintegrating mysteries. It spread throughout Europe beginning in the twelfth century, a product of the Muslim occupation of Spain. 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 a medieval alchemist named Jabir ibn Hayyan, generally known as Geber (c. 721-815), whose writings were largely unintelligible.

Alchemy was at its peak from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Alchemists sought the elusive “philosopher’s stone,” or lapis, a mysterious substance believed to enable the transmutation of base metals into silver or gold. The philosopher’s stone also served as the “elixir of life,” a means to immortality. While most attempts at metals transmutations were failures, some alchemists claimed to succeed. Nicholas Flamel, one of the great alchemists of the fourteenth century, is said to have achieved the transmutation of mercury into silver or gold on three occasions.

The writings and drawings produced by the alchemists tend to be obscure and difficult to understand. The alchemists based their study primarily upon direct, personal revelation through visions and dreams. The alchemists did not describe their work in direct terms, but wrote and drew in symbols intended only for the comprehension of other adepts. They varied in their use of terminology.

According to early alchemy, all things have a hermaphroditic composition of two substances: sulfur, 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.

As a continuation of the mysteries, alchemy may essentially have been a euphemism for the sacred service of cocreation, made possible by immortalization, a status that had been achieved through initiation into the mysteries.

The hermaphroditic nature of alchemy was often expressed in erotic art, though there is no evidence that actual sexual rites were practiced.

Medieval and Renaissance alchemists were responsible for many discoveries important in metallurgy, chemistry, and medicines. See Paracelsus. However, in the early nineteenth century, alchemy 6 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.

Interest in alchemy remained low key until about the second half of the twentieth century, when a revival of interest began taking hold in the West. Alchemy schools were founded to teach the ancient art, resulting in spagyric products for cosmetics, herbal medicines, beverages and wines, perfumes, and so on.

Eastern Alchemy

Alchemy was highly developed in ancient China. It was an oral tradition until c. A.D. 320, when the classic alchemical text, Nei P’ien, was written by Ko Hung. The immortality sought by the Chinese was not an extension of earthly years; they sought instead to attain a state of timelessness spent with the Immortals, in which one had supernormal powers. To this end ancient Chinese alchemy focused on various elixirs, which were purified by combining ingredients and repeatedly heating them in various vessels.

The alchemical process is analogous to Taoist meditation, in which ch’i, the universal life force, is created and purified in the body. Ch’i is created when the nutritious elements of food are combined with secretions from glands and organs. This forms blood and sexual energy (ching). Heat in the form of breath transforms the sexual energy to ch’i, 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 ch’i passes through twelve psychic centers located along the channels. After many cycles the ch’i 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 ch’i can be stored for future use.

In India alchemy traces its roots to earlier than 1000 B.C. in the development of Ayurvedic (“the wisdom of life”) medicine, where it continues to play a role today. Indian alchemy is a union of male (Shiva) and female (Parvati) principles; the result is jivan, an enlightened being.

In both Hindu and Chinese traditions, one may also achieve immortality through Tantric, yoga. Prolonged abstinence or coitus without ejaculation is believed to intensify the life force (prana or ch’i) and produce physiological changes.

Jung and Alchemy

Carl G. Jung’s interest in alchemy grew out of his intense interest in Gnosticism, and his desire, as early as 1912, to find a link between it and the processes of the collective unconscious that would pave the way for the reentry of the Gnostics’ sophia (wisdom) into modern culture. He found such a link in alchemy, which he saw as analogous to individuation, the process of becoming whole.

Jung had many significant dreams during his life, and in 1926 he had one in which he was a seventeenth-century alchemist who was creating a great alchemical work. The dream proved to be prophetic, for Jung made alchemy a focus of much of his work. Inspired by that and other alchemical dreams, Jung collected a vast body of works on alchemy and immersed himself in study of the subject.

His research was greatly influenced by The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chinese mystical and alchemical tract discovered by Jung’s friend Richard Wilhelm, and given him by Wilhelm in 1928 for comment. The Secret of the Golden Flower revealed to Jung the bridge between Gnosticism and the psychology of the unconscious. In comparing the Chinese tract with Latin alchemical works, Jung found that the alchemy systems of both East and West essentially dealt with transformation of the soul.

Jung was amazed to notice that many of his patients-men and women of both European and American backgrounds- produced in their dreams and fantasies symbols that were similar or identical to those in myth, fairy tales, the mystery cults, and alchemical works. This insight led him to develop his ideas about the collective unconscious, a repository of primeval images and patterns of behavior shared by humankind.

Jung’s first important words on alchemy were a lecture on alchemical symbolism in dreams, entitled “Dream Symbols and the Individuation Process,” delivered in 1935 at Villa Eranos on Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland. A year later, also at Eranos, he lectured on “The Idea of Redemption in Alchemy.” His first book on the subject was Psychology and Alchemy (1944). Aion, Alchemical Studies, and Mysterium Coniunctionis also deal with alchemy. Jung’s knowledge of alchemy is exemplified throughout all of his later writings.

Jung saw alchemy as a spiritual process of redemption involving the union and transformation of Lumen Dei, the light of the Godhead, and Lumen Naturae, the light of nature. The alchemists’ experimental procedure of solve et coagula symbolized the “death” and “rebirth” of the substances they used. Alchemists were part of the process, and transmuted their own consciousness into a higher state through symbolic death and rebirth.

According to Jung the early Christian alchemists used the philosopher’s stone as a symbol of Christ. Thus, in its highest mystical sense, alchemy represents the transformation of consciousness to love, personified by the hermaphrodite, the union of male-female opposites (physicality and spirituality) who are joined into a whole.


  • Collective conscious;
  • Gnosticism;
  • Jung, Carl Gustav

Sources and Further Reading:

  • Richard Cavendish, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974;
  • Martin Ebon, ed. The Signet Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: New American Library, 1978;
  • Manly P. Hall. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. 1928. Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1977
  • M. Esther Harding. Psychic Energy: Its Source and Its Transformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973
  • Stephan A. Hoeller. “c. G. Jung and the Alchemical Revival.” Gnosis 8 (Summer 1988): 34-39
  • Stephan A. Hoeller. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1982
  • C. G. Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe. New York: Random House, 1961
  • C. G. Jung. Psychology and Alchemy. Rev. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968
  • C. G. Jung. The Practice of Psychotherapy. 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966
  • C. G. Jung. Aion. 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968
  • C. G. Jung. Mysterium Coniunctionis. 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970
  • John Lash. “Parting of the Ways.” Gnosis 8 (Summer 1988): 22-26
  • Da Liu. T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Meditation. New York: Schocken Books, 1986
  • Jim Melodini. “The Age of Gold.” Gnosis 8 (Summer 1988): 8-10
  • Hans Nintzel. “Alchemy Is Alive and Well.” Gnosis 8 (Summer 1988): 11-15
  • Peter O’Connor. Understanding Jung, Understanding Yourself. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985
  • Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986
  • Elemire Zolla. “Alchemy Out of India.” Gnosis 8 (Summer 1988): 48-49


Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 1991 by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.