Alchemy is the most notorious of sciences. “Nazi science” was far more cruel, but its practice lasted less than two decades. Alchemy, even if we accept that it demised in the 1800s (with which a modern-day practitioner might quibble), was around for centuries.
WHY DOES ALCHEMY HAVE SUCH A BAD REP?
Over the centuries, Alchemy has often been considered a “dark art.” There are several reasons why…
1) Alchemists are thought by many to be little better than witches… off in their smoky, shadowy lairs, mixing their potions in their cauldrons and crushing things in their crucibles in the middle of the night.
2) Alchemists pervert nature (some might say)… They take what is beautiful and natural and bend it to their own will. Using molten means, they pry substances apart and then force them back together in unnatural ways.
3) The Alchemist’s work is done in secret. And even when they do go public with their work, they do it in a coded language, often using metaphors involving sex or even the crucifixion of Christ.
4) The goal of the typical Alchemist (though there are a variety of individual motivations) has been the production the gold (or other precious substance). If they could not make real gold, then counterfeit. This fixation upon gold and counterfeiting serves to color Alchemical pursuits in hues of avarice and deceit.
5) Lastly, the Alchemist seems dangerous. Not only does he play with forces beyond his control, but he comes off as unbalanced in his work, pursuing his idée fixe –not with a wise moderation– but with a lust for knowledge rivaling the most obsessive drives of the flesh. In the Alchemist, the quest for wisdom smacks– not of virtue– but of vice, with hubris and greed percolating through all his activities. Such a monomaniac– driven by the darker hungers of man– seems especially vulnerable to the temptations of the devil. He strikes us someone who would make a Faustian bargain with any Mephistopheles who could offer him knowledge in return for his soul. In his burning thirst for knowledge and power, he might, in the agony of frustration, attempt to summon evil spirits or demons in the hope that the forces of the darkside could provide information which would lead him closer to his goal. Thus, blinded by their mad pursuit, Alchemists could find themselves being used as conduits or tools by Satan and his evil minions.
Dante, writing around the year 1300, had such disdain for the Alchemical goal of gold-making, that he placed Alchemists in the Eighth Circle Of Hell, alongside counterfeiters and forgers.
According to one ancient historian, the Roman Emperor Diocletian proclaimed that all books on Alchemy should be burnt. Diocletian’s concern was less about the empowering of demons and more about the fact that Egyptian Alchemists might be able to use their secret arts to concoct enough silver and gold to allow Egypt to amass so much wealth that it could rebel against the Empire. However, Lawrence M. Principe (our guide for this post) seems to doubt that Diocletian ever ordered the book-burnings at all… and if he did, he would have most likely done so for the practical purpose of breaking Egypt’s bad habit of minting its own coins. The Emperor wanted Egypt to use the same standard Roman currency used by the rest of the Empire. On the other hand, I’ve read in another source that this same Diocletian also outlawed Astrology… therefore, this particular Emperor may have had a bone to pick with the suspect arts.
In truth, it is difficult to say what percentage of Alchemists were motivated by the lust for wealth, and how many purely by the quest for knowledge.
But lest the reader believe that all this distrust of Alchemy was overblown and that Alchemists never actually succeeded in making fake gold– Principe tells us that “a substantial number of Late Antiquity coins made of imitation precious metals have recently been identified, and the composition of some of them is strikingly similar to what would be produced following the recipes” of Alchemy. And it is worth stating that Principe is not just talking theoretically here– he has actually followed some of these Alchemical “recipes” and recreated numerous experiments (albeit, Alchemical texts are notoriously convoluted, and each practitioner must make his best-educated guesses as to what each recipe is actually describing… more on this anon…)
THE ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY
But what IS Alchemy? What were the motivations of history’s Alchemists? Were they greedy counterfeiters? Power-hungry god-chasers? Were they deserving of distrust and fear? …Or was their obsession more to be pitied?
Principe informs us that the predecessors of the Alchemists were folks (probably quite business-minded) who were not so much into creating real gold as they were into producing artificially those items which people desired and found beautiful– but which were naturally hard to come by, and thus, very expensive. If a scientifically minded person could come up with a cheaper, easier way of producing something that was indistinguishable from the valuable, genuine article– well, that person could stand to make a fortune.
Typically, the progenitors of the Alchemists were attempting one or more of four main results… 1) counterfeit gold, 2) counterfeit silver, 3) artificial gems, and 4) dyes (yeah, I know… “dyes” is not nearly as exciting as the first three, but nice bold dye which would keep its color was damned hard to come by in the ancient and medieval worlds). Principe takes pains to point out that this is not yet what most of us would call “Alchemy”– for Alchemy involves deep philosophy and investigation into the heart of nature’s secrets. As of yet, these counterfeiting attempts are merely a collection of what Principe calls “recipes.”
Principe, tells us in his titillatingly titled book, The Secrets Of Alchemy, that Alchemy was born when two areas of creative investigation united some time during the latter days of the Classical World…
The first area of investigation was practical… this was man’s trial-and-error experimentations with Nature, his attempts to make a more desirable thing from two or more things he found naturally occurring. This could be anything from turning wood into charcoal, to smelting copper with tin to produce bronze.
The second area of intellectual pursuit contained in Alchemy is less practical… it is the philosophical investigation into the nature of things. This is perhaps the most fundamental difference between Alchemy and Chemistry (though as with any distinction, the dividing line grows blurrier the more one inspects it)… Chemists by-and-large do not concern themselves with the metaphysical explanations behind their chemical reactions; they do not ask to see God in the crucible. For Alchemists, the opposite is true: they are on a God-hunt, following the tracks He leaves behind in every reaction and in every sublimation (purifying a substance by vaporizing it and then recondensing it).
Long before Alchemy as such began to be practiced circa 300 A.D. (yes, I prefer the era designation after the year number), the Ancient Greeks famously produced several philosophers who speculated about the truer reality underlying apparent reality. For example, Principe mentions Empedocles, who lived over 400 years before Jesus Of Nazareth. He proposed that all matter was composed of different combinations of four elemental substances: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth… and these four elements interacted via attraction and repulsion– or, “Love” and “Strife“– just one of numerous theories about underlying reality produced by early Greek philosophers.
Similar to Empedocles, Aristotle felt that four elementary substances underlie all matter. Aristotle called these elements “Qualities,” and listed them as… Hot, Cold, Wet, and Dry.
The Qualities go even DEEPER than Empedocles’ elements, for they are what make-upthe four Empedoclean elements… Hot + Dry = Fire. Hot + Wet = Air. Cold + Wet = Water. And Cold + Dry = Earth.
When this sort of speculation about underlying reality united with hands-on smelting and mixing and experimentation… Alchemy was born. As Principe writes, Alchemists must have some sort of “intellectual framework” which guides and focuses their work—while at the same time, Alchemy cannot merely be dreamed-up theories unpursued by any hands-on, realworld experiments. Alchemy– to be Alchemy– must have a foot in both worlds… the physical and the mental, the fire and the quill, the laboratory and the desk. Alchemists are philosophers with dirty hands.
The first systematic Alchemy appears to have been practiced in the Greekified, Roman-ruled land of Egypt. Ever since the conquest of Egypt by the young Macedonian king, Alexander The Great (in the three hundreds B.C.) the upper-classes of Egypt had been of Greek or of Greek-Egyptian stock, and the entire culture of Egypt had under gone massive Hellenization. That is why Egyptian names of the period will often sound suspiciously Greek… and indeed, in both culture and blood, many of the better educated and better libraried Egyptians were more Greek than Egyptian.
The origin of the word “alchemy” is obscure, but the best guess is that that it comes from the Greek word for “melt or fuse”, “cheo”. By the time the Arabs were using the word, they were calling it “al-kimiya.”
ON THE NATURE OF THINGS
Most Alchemists, not so unlike the Ancient Greek philosophers, operated under the general idea that all matter is composed of a few basic ingredients.
One of the most common theories held by Alchemists for a time was the belief in a substance called “Materia Prima,” or the “Prime Material.” Materia Prima is the quality-less something that is the foundation of matter and gives it existence… Materia Prima provides SUBSTANTIALITY. Where it is absent, there is a space between objects… in this way, Materia Prima also determines QUANTITY.
All other qualities (color, hardness, etc ) of matter, under this worldview, are determined by something called “Form.”
It was “probably during the third century,” states Principe, that a “crucial juncture” was reached in Alchemy and its practitioners began toying with the idea using their theories to make REAL gold—not just look-alike gold. Principe informs us that “Chrysopoeia” is the Greek name for the process of artificially making Gold.
Many Alchemists who adopted the Materia Prima / Form outlook toward reality directed their energies toward the attempt to separate the Form from the Materia Prima. The reasoning was this… If all matter is made of the same Materia Prima, then to turn Lead into Gold, all one must do is (somehow) separate Gold’s Form from its Materia Prima, and then that Form to Lead’s separated Materia Prima. Granted, this is not the way to get rich, for you’ve basically just moved the Gold around from one lump of Materia Prima to another. The next step would be to find a way to artificially create the Form of Gold.
One of the earliest writer whose works we would truly call “Alchemical” was a man by the name of Zosimos. Zosimos lived around the year 300. He was of Greek descent and lived in Egypt. His writings, according to Principe, “provide the best window we have onto Greek Alchemy.”
Zosimos, who concentrated his researches upon metals (as most Alchemists would do), operated under a principle almost identical to that of the Materia Prima / Form theory, although in his terminology, the Materia Prima is called a substance’s “Soma,” or “Body,” and the Form is provided by the substance’s “Pneuma,” or “Spirit.”
Zosimos believed that the Soma provides the “basic substrate” for all metals, and the Pneuma determines all particular properties. “Thus,” Principe explains, “the identity of the metal is dependent upon its Spirit, not its Body.”
Zosimos felt that the Soma is completely non-volatile, but that the more active Pneuma could theoretically be separated from the Soma by means of fire. Much of his work centered around the attempt to imbue one metal with the vapors of another. It was Zosimos’ hope, says Principe, that by “joining separated Spirits to other bodies” he could change one substance into another (a phenomenon called “Transmutation.”). Principe states that at some point Zosimos began to equate the Soma with Mercury (the only common liquid metal). Indeed, for Alchemists for centuries to come, Mercury would always receive special consideration.
An interesting thing to note about Zosimos’ early Alchemical notions is that, already, ideas of the material world and of the spiritual world are intertwined. Principe insightfully points out that one could read a Gnostic worldview into Zosimos’ approach… that the “active, volatile” Spirit is trapped in the “heavy, inert” Body, similar to how man’s divine Soul is trapped in, and weighed-down by, his worldly Flesh.
Principe tells us that the legendary figure who wrote “what would become perhaps the most revered and best known text related to Alchemy, The Emerald Tablet,” was a man known by history as Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes Thrice-Greatest”). Several texts of Greco-Egyptian origin are attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but their composition dates range from the first century BC to the fourth century AD… so the idea that all the works under his name have the same author is a little suspect, to say the least. The myth of Hermes Trismegistus enlarged over the centuries until, by the Middle Ages, some Europeans were claiming that he had lived around the time of Moses and was “a divinely inspired pagan prophet who foretold the advent of Christ.” Principe mentions that by the 900s, the Islamic world considered Hermes the founder of Alchemy– and also believed he was “a native of Babylon.” European Alchemists valued the contributions of Hermes Trismegistus so much that the term, “the Hermetic Art” came to be synonymous with Alchemy (and later, to the developing science of Chemistry). The term “hermetically sealed” is also based on his name.
For all its influence, the famous Emerald Tablet is only one paragraph long. According to the ancient story, which Principe relates, the Tablet was discovered “written in Syriac, on a tablet of green stone, clenched in the hands of an ancient corpse buried in a subterranean sepulcher hidden beneath a statue of Hermes Trismegistus.”
One particularly influential sentence from the Emerald Tablet reads… “That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one thing.”
Many Alchemists, and philosophers in general, have interpreted those words as a description of the Microcosm idea– that everything in a smaller or lower world has a match in the higher or larger world, the Macrocosm. This same idea also goes under the name of the Correspondence Principle, and Swedenborg was among many who subscribed to this opinion.
The Tablet also makes mention of the interplay of Earth, Wind, Fire, Sun, and of some mysterious “It.” It was probably this tantalizing “It” that drove many the Alchemist to read and re-read the text in the attempt to decipher the vague reference. Many came to believe that the “It” was the Philosopher’s Stone…
THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE
By the time Alchemy heads into the Dark Ages, some-when about the seventh century, the dream-substance which will change one substance into another has been given a special name… The Philosopher’s Stone. The name is a bit misleading, because the Philosopher’s “Stone” (if it is ever found) could very well prove to be a liquid or perhaps even a vapor. Thus, it has also been called, “The Stone Which Is No Stone“). The Arabs, in fact, called the Philosopher’s Stone by another name… “al-iksar al-a’zam,” meaning, “the Greatest Elixir” (you can see the word “elixir” in “al-iksar”). Almost any time the Philosopher’s Stone is referenced, the assumption is that the specific transmutation in mind is that of Lead into Gold.
A LONG BUT NECESSARY DIGRESSION ABOUT DECKNAMEN
Both Zosimos and Hermes Trismegistus wrote in a certain style common to Alchemical writings. That style is simultaneously frustrating and alluring. Alchemists are notorious for writing about their work in high-flown, metaphorical, idiosyncratically coded language that only the writer, himself, could ever truly understand with certainty. This is due to the trick Alchemists employ of substituting code-words and fantastical descriptions for the substances and methods they are discussing.
This coded language of the Alchemists has been given the name of Decknamen— a German world meaning “cover names.” Perplexingly, few of these “cover names” and coded sentences have any standard, agreed-upon definitions.
So even if an Alchemist did manage to get his hands upon a copy of a fellow Alchemist’s “recipe” book (and remember, books used to be rare and expensive things), he still had the challenge of trying to decipher what the hell the experimenter was up to.
The Sun and the Moon were common Decknamen code-words for Gold and Silver. In fact, all seven metals known in the medieval world had an astrological pseudonym. The reason that this way of coding fell into usage was probably due to the simple fact that the number of known metals equaled the number of “planets” known to the Medieval world (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn).
Also, the medieval mind in general — and the Alchemist’s mind in particular– was prone to seeing cosmic connections between heavenly and earthly phenomenon. Many believed that phenomena in the heavens had counterparts on Earth, and vice-versa. In fact, for those who subscribed to the philosophy of the Microcosm, the entire Cosmos (the “Macrocosm”) can be seen to run in a smaller, parallel version on Earth– or even in an individual. The Microcosm is basically a representation of the Macrocosm. The coincidence that there were seven planets and seven metals was too tantalizing a cosmic connection for Alchemists to ignore. The eventually agreed upon symbolism breaks down as follows…
Sun = Gold, Moon = Silver, Venus = Copper, Mars = Iron, Tin = Jupiter, Saturn = Lead, and (least creative of all) Mercury = Mercury.
Principe lists a couple reasons for the development of Decknamen in the Alchemical literature…
1) Self-Protection. Writing outright the instructions on how to counterfeit gold was not a way to stay on the good side of the authorities. Also, rumors of Alchemists working in collusion with Dark Forces abounded. Like I said earlier, an Alchemist was despised by some respectable folks nearly as much as a witch. But, if instead of clearly expounding upon your craft, you wrote your Alchemical text in so convoluted a manner that no one could really say what the devil it was about, you may just save your book– and maybe your person– from being tossed into the flames on book-burning day. And writing under a pseudonym (as many Alchemists did) might not be a bad idea either.
2) There is a tradition in Alchemy that only the “worthy” should be privy to Alchemical discoveries and theories. For one reason, some feared that the power to create Gold or to alter matter could too easily be used for evil purposes if the knowledge fell into the wrong hands. Jabir, an Arab Alchemist, was instructed by his master thusly… “O Jabir, reveal the knowledge as you desire, but such that none have access to it but those who are truly worthy of it.”
Personally, I’ve come up with a few more reasons for the prevalence of Decknamen in Alchemical works to add to Principe’s…
3) Speaking a coded language that only the wise and worthy (supposedly) understand just ups the cool factor. I know a thing or two about human nature, and I’m convinced that part of Alchemy’s allure for Ancient and Medieval nerds was that joining the ranks of the elite worthies of the world in their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone was like playing the world’s biggest, oldest FANTASY GAME… sort of a precursor to Dungeons And Dragons. Alchemy was a game in which imaginations could soar and players could assume the role of a great sorcerer or seek to become as powerful as a dragon. Alchemists were, after all, on the way to becoming demi-gods, possessors of Divine Knowledge. Doubtlessly, Alchemists could also feel very superior to the ignorant clods around them who never even questioned the deeper reality of the world—and had only recently invented the fork. One should never underestimate the needs of the ego and the power of self-delusion. In fact, often the most intelligent people are the best self-deceivers.
4) Ever since the earliest Alchemists, such as Zosimos and Hermes Trismegistus, talk of the Spirit world was freely blended-in with talk of the Material world. Once one begins thinking in spiritual terms about matter, the metaphorical language could begin to crop up naturally. One could easily switch from talking about how “the heating of the metal will cause the vital Spirit of the metal to rise up from the body of the material” to simply “the Spirit rises from the Body…” And remember… the medieval mind ate-up the connotation of Microcosmic implications.
5) I can’t refrain from adding one last possible reason for Decknamen… Maybe there was charlatanism alloyed here with the quest for knowledge. It would only be human nature if someone who had devoted himself completely to his vocation –who had sacrificed everything for it, even his health– succumbed to the temptation to aggrandize his accomplishments, to imply that he had greater successes than he actually had, to cover his tracks with generalizations and Decknamen and loose talk of “spirits” and such so that no one could TOO closely follow him, and thus disprove his assertions. This way, when others tried to follow his instructions and replicate his experiments but failed– the implication was clear… the person doing the repeating had not fully grasped all the meaning contained within the text. The writer’s reputation could remain clean, even vaunted.
THE USE OF PSEUDONYMS
While we’re on the subject of reputation… I think one reason that Alchemists wrote under pseudonyms was to give their opinions more weight. Now, this may at first thought seem counterproductive to ego-maintenance, but actually, we humans will accept whatever mode of selfhood-propping that we can lay hold of. The Alchemist, himself, even operating under a pseudonym would still have the pleasure of knowing that his work was being taken seriously by some of the greatest minds of his generation, and– even more importantly– that his work might achieve immortality by ACCRETING to the works of whatever great name in Alchemy he has chosen to write under.
Although individual biographers often, I contend, go overboard with their armchair psycho-analyses of their subjects, I don’t think that enough attention is paid to the half-conscious or subconscious ego-boosting or belief-saving manipulations that underpin History on the Grand Scale.
ACRONYMS IN ALCHEMY
Sometimes, Decknamen took the form of acronyms. For centuries, Vitriol held great interest for Alchemists, partly because of the following Alchemical text:
Visita interiorem terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem.
The text, which can be translated as… “visit the interior of the Earth and by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone”… has the acronym in its Latin version of V.I.T.R.I.O.L.– and many Alchemists took this as a coded message that Vitriol has some special significance to Alchemy. For a long time, Vitriol was a darling of the Alchemistic world , especially as a base material for the hoped-for production of the Philosopher’s Stone.
ALCHEMY AND SEX
Sometimes Decknamen comes tinged with sexual allusions. One prominent sex-related concept in Alchemy is the Hermaphrodite, a being having both male and female characteristics. That Alchemists would seize upon the idea of the Hermaphrodite comes as no surprise when we realize how so much of their work involved combining two different substances to form a third substance containing characteristics of both parent substances. The sexually charged symbolism seems even more inevitable when we consider that in Alchemical writings, the “Sun” stands for Gold and is considered masculine and the “Moon” is thought of as feminine and is code for Silver.
Here, from Alchemist Basil Valentine, is an example of some Decknamen which mixes several different types of typical code: 1) the signifying of substances by their connections to the gods or to heavenly bodies, 2) the use of sexually charged language, 3) the description of a violent death, and 4) talk of fire…
“The king’s crown should be pure gold, and a chaste bride should be married to him. Take the ravenous grey wolf that on account of his name is subject to bellicose Mars, but by birth is a child of old Saturn” …. “throw the king’s body before him that he may have his nourishment from it. And when he has devoured the king, then make a great fire and throw the wolf into it”
ONE BOOK OPENS ANOTHER
Tangentially related to Decknamen is the belief held by many pursuers of the Philosopher’s Stone that writers of Alchemical texts purposely spread their ideas over several books. Those studying the different texts of Alchemy felt that each book would only give a partial answer, a clue to interpreting correctly the clues contained in the OTHER books. As the Latin Alchemist motto went: Liber Librum Aperit (“one book opens another”).
I’m personally not convinced that Alchemists were actually strategically dividing their discoveries into several books. I suspect that this is merely an excuse made by Alchemists as to why the different texts never seem to give very complete answers.
Scholar Paul Kraus offers what is probably an even better reason for the strewing of ideas across several works. Kraus posits that an author such as Jabir (we’re getting to him) divvied-up his ideas and discoveries across several books because… he was not actually the author of all the books. Other people were choosing the pseudonym of “Jabir” to write under, allowing later writers to make additions with the same authority as the older works. This of course resulted in different ideas — even contradictions– being presented in the different books. To claim that Jabir was purposely dividing up his knowledge was really, says Kraus, just a practical way “to hide the multiple authorship of the Jabirian corpus” and explain away contradictions between books.
However, if we accept the idea that Alchemists really were purposefully spreading their knowledge over several publications, then we can assume a couple of probable motivations…
1) if all your hard-earned wisdom is contained in one book, and that one book is ordered destroyed, than all your hard-work risks going up in flames. Whereas, if you spread your ideas and findings over several books, the chances are better that at least some of your work will escape the fire. An Alchemist knows that his work is part of a long, ongoing tradition. To contribute to the ultimate goal, his work must survive him so that future generations can use it. What Hippocrates said of the Health profession could also be applied to Alchemy… “Ars longa, vita brevis” (the art is long, but life is short). Also…
2) We must remember, Alchemy is only for the “worthy.” Only those Alchemists so sincere, so driven, so hard-working and so studious as to pursue wisdom through a library full of books is worthy of the knowledge they seek. Putting all the answers in one book just seems too, well… easy.
ALCHEMY: THE ARAB PERIOD (roughly 750 – 1400)
In the year 640, Muslims conquered Alexandria, Egypt. Through this conquest, as well as conquests of other Byzantine lands, the Islamic Empire absorbed Greek learning… including Alchemy.
As already noted, several authors wrote under the name of the Arab Alchemist, Jabir. But whoever– and however many– he was, “Jabir,” like many other Alchemists, believed that all metals were composed of two principles… However, unlike the Zosimosian strand of Alchemy, Jabir did NOT believe that one substance was inert and the other full of “spirit.”
Instead, Jabir believed that all metals were composed of “Mercury” and “Sulfur,” with Mercury representing the moist principle, and Sulfur the dry. However, keep in mind, Alchemists rarely say what they mean. When Jabir says Mercury and Sulfur, he is (we assume) merely using these terms to stand for the principles of Moist and Dry (Principe points out that real Mercury combined with real Sulfur merely produces Cinnabar). Jabir believed that when the two principles of Mercury and Sulfur are perfectly combined, they form Gold.
Jabir (and again, this is probably a different Alchemist writing under the same name) also– perplexingly if not outright contradictarily– believes in the Four Qualities of Aristotle. As Principe explains Jabir’s theory… “Each metal is composed of a precise mathematical ratio of the Qualities. Hot and wet predominate in Gold, for example, while in lead, cold and dry predominate. Turning lead into gold therefore involves introducing more hot and wet or reducing the cold and dry.”
Jabir attempts to “heal” the metals by adjusting their ratios of Qualities “just as medicine heals the sick by adjusting their ratio of Humors.”
[Possibly Helpful Aside: In the second century, the physician Galen took Empedocles’s Four Elements AND Aristotle’s Four Qualities and applied them to the human body, seeing a parallel between the fundamentals of the Macrocosm and the fundamentals of the Microcosm of the human body. A very superficial overview of Galen’s Four Humor’s Of The Human Body breaks down like this…
Blood = Air = the combination of the Hot and Wet Qualities, and is associated with the Heart and with a sanguine personality…
Phlegm = Water = Cold + Wet, and is associated with the Brain and with a “phlegmatic” or sluggish or imperturbable personality…
Black Bile = Earth = Cold + Dry, and is associated with the Liver and a melancholic personality
Yellow Bile = Fire = Hot + Dry, and is associated with the Spleen and a “choleric” or “hot” or quick-tempered personality]
According to Jabir, says Principe, “each metal requires a specific elixir just as each patient requires a specific medicine.”
Rhazes or al-Razi, a Persian living around the year 900, was a famous physician and Alchemist who disagreed with Jabir’s views. Rejecting Jabir’s Ratio Of Qualities Theory, Rhazes believed that the World is composed of SIX Elements: spirits (volatile substance), stones, borax, salts, vitriols (sulfates of iron or copper), and metals (which, following Jabir here, Rhazes believed to contain a Mercury principle and Sulfur principle).
By the way, one of the most famous learned men of the Arab Period of Alchemy, Avicenna, or ibn Sina, actually wrote against Alchemy and denied the possibility of metallic transformation.
THE SYMBOLIC UNIVERSE: Alchemy’s Return To Europe
Alchemy re-enters the consciousness of Europe in 1144, when an Alchemical work is translated from the Arabic. Remarks Principe upon Alchemy’s return to a Europe much changed… “transplanted into its third cultural context, Alchemy flourished in Europe for nearly six hundred years.”
Interestingly, just as the Arabs had sometimes written Alchemical works under Greek pseudonyms, some European Alchemists began writing under Arabic pseudonyms. The number one reason for using a pseudonym was the same as it had always been in Alchemy… “Pseudonymous authorship was intended to give books greater authority by making them seem older, more venerable, and part of a culture [Arabic] recognized as more advanced.”
This period of Alchemy has its own interesting cast of characters. Arnald Of Villanova, a Catalan physician with ties to the Spiritual Franciscans, in 1290 wrote a book about the advent of the Antichrist. In it, Arnald compares the Alchemist’s “Greatest Elixir” (or the Philosopher’s Stone) to Christ… “Our elixir can be understood according to the conception, generation, nativity, and passion of Christ,” he boldly asserts. Just as Christ underwent a fourfold torment of… scourging, being crowned with thorns, crucifixion, and thirsting upon the cross– Mercury (the starting point of Alchemical experiments in Arnalds’ view) must undergo its torments so that it may be resurrected as The Stone Which Is No Stone. Arnald, speaking in the voice of Mercury, states, “after my many sufferings and great torments, I am resurrected, clarified, and free from all stain.”
And just as Christ brings salvation and healing, the transmutation granted by the Philosopher’s Stone brings “healing” [in Jabir’s sense] to the base metals, converting them to the perfect metal, Gold. For Jabir, says Principe, when prophets of the Bible speak of the Messiah– they are also speaking of Chrysopoeia (as you’ll remember, that’s Greek for “gold-making”).
Interestingly enough, even the word “crucible” means “little place of torment,” after the Latin, “cruciar” (“to crucify”).
Several European Alchemists of this period believed that the Church, instead of condemning Alchemy, should embrace it. These Alchemists felt that the only chance against the Anti-Christ was for the Church to wield the power of Alchemy.
One thing to note about Alchemical texts of this period… The illustrations came AFTER the texts. So, if you’re reading say, the influential medieval text, Summa Perfectionis (“The Sum Of Perfection”), don’t make the mistake of using the pictures to interpret the meaning of the text. The illustrator was not the writer, and his interpretation could be misleading. (Then again, we’re talking about Alchemical texts here– there may BE no correct, let’s-get-real interpretation).
Alchemy took a turn for what I think is the better with practitioners of the art such as Jean de Roquetaillade, a.k.a. John Of Rupescissa. Jean was a Franciscan Friar born in central France during the early 1300s. Instead of being obsessed by the turning of Lead into Gold, Principe tells us that Jean made “medicinal preparations a key part of Alchemical practice.” This pharmaceutical side of Alchemy caught on so well that by the late Middle Ages, it was challenging the transmutation of metals as the predominant pursuit of Alchemists. There are even stories of Alchemists challenging doctors to see whose methods could best heal the sick.
PURIFY THE GOLD OF THINE OWN HEART
Lastly, there is one more major strand of Alchemy, a late comer. This strand has as its central goal– not the making of Gold– but the enlightenment of the soul….
As early as 1600, Michael Maier was contending that “God has hidden infinite secrets in Nature” […] “for the purpose of cultivating our intellect.”
Nearly two centuries later, a man who seems generally underappreciated today in terms of his impact on society, would further lay the groundwork for the Alchemy of Self-Development. His name was Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was a Swiss physician who lived 1734 to 1815, much of that time in Paris. Now, let’s be clear… Mesmer was NOT an Alchemist. However, I mention him because his theories contributed to the side-road-turn Alchemy took in the late 1800s. Mesmer, Principe informs us, “had promoted a theory that an incorporeal fluid permeates the entire universe, connecting human beings to one another and to the rest of creation. The improper circulation of this fluid through the body causes illness, and certain individuals have the ability to control its flow using either their own bodies or magnets, thus acting as healers.” This may be the origin of the term, “animal magnetism.” Mesmer helped start an occult revival in England which influenced many people of all classes– including, directly or indirectly, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Two years after Mesmer died, Mary Anne Atwood was born on the island of Gosport in the English Channel (an island I assume really exists, for I’ve never seen it on a map) [CORRECTION: Ha! Gosport is NOT an island, it’s a town and port (see comment below). Thanks for the correction, M Watson!]. Her 1850 book, A Suggestive Inquiry Into The Hermetic Mystery, smacks of being written in a post-Mesmer world. In it, she asserts that “the spiritualized adept not only controls the Ether to produce the Philosophers’ Stone within himself, but can also manipulate ordinary matter by the same forces and thereby transmute Lead into Gold by a psychic, rather than a spiritual, operation.”
Principe credits Atwood for having “originated the notion that Alchemy was a self-transformative psychic practice.” Instead of the healing the metal– we heal ourselves, and in so doing, reach “a higher plane of existence.” The “Gold” Atwood’s Alchemy would produce is the Purified Human Soul.
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Final Note: I did not mention Isaac Newton in this entry. If I have time during the course of The 300, I’ll try to add a post on Newton’s Alchemy– all the more interesting because the good people of England were so ashamed of Newton’s connection to The Dark Art that they down-played and even tried to hide his work in the area.