Monday, 10 September 2012

A History of Alchemy and Esoteric Transmutation


Bernard Hall, The Quest, 1905

The term ‘alchemy’ is believed to derive from the Egyptian word chem or qem, meaning ‘black’, and which was a reference to the black alluvial soils of the Nile. However, it is also thought that the term ‘alchemy’ established itself from the Greek chyma, which means ‘to fuse or cast metals’, which then established itself in Arabic as al kimia, from which the more familiar term of ‘alchemy’ derives from.[1] Western alchemy thrived during the second century C.E. in Alexandria but was later suppressed by Emperor Justinian in 529 C.E. along with other pre-Christian religious practices and beliefs. However, during the seventh century C.E. Stephanos of Alexandria revived an interest in alchemy with his book Nine Lessons in Chemia, which would later inspire medieval alchemical poets, who also extolled the principles of Hermetic philosophy, which passed into their works on alchemy.[2] Medieval alchemy espoused the Neoplatonic and Hermetic belief in the unity of the cosmos with correspondences between the unseen and seen dimensions reflecting each other. This belief also assumed that whatever existed in the universe must also be present in every human being. A Syriac Hermetic text emphatically affirms this,

What is the adage of the philosopher? Know thyself! This refers to the intellectual and cognitive mirror. And what is this mirror if not the Divine and original Intellect? When a man looks at himself and sees himself in this, he turns away from everything that bears the name of gods or demons, and, by uniting himself with the Holy Spirit, becomes a perfect man. He sees God within himself.[3]

In medieval alchemical thought humans contained the essence of the universe as a whole by consisting of spirit, soul, and body permeated by a universal spirit and united by a universal mind, a paradigm of thought that thrived in Renaissance magical philosophy living beings as unities consisting of anima, ‘soul’, reflecting the anima mundi, spiritus, ‘life’, reflecting the spiritus mundi, and corpus, ‘body’, reflecting the corpus mundi.[4] In alchemical thought and practice this was also applied to every object that possessed some sort of life. However, medieval alchemists did not regard all objects as equally perfect. Gold was seen as the highest development in nature and came to represent spiritual beauty, whereas lead was seen as the most base of all metals representing sin and darkness. The alchemical process of transmuting base metal into gold, which involved the primary attempt to reduce the base metal to a state of its material prima, was seen as “an attempted application of the principles of mysticism to the things of the physical world.”[5] Thus the idea of spiritual alchemy as a process of simultaneously taking place both in a material and spiritual sense can be seen as,

All the ingredients mentioned in alchemical recipes… were in truth only one, the alchemist himself. He was the base matter in need of purification by the fire; and the acid needed to accomplish this transformation came from his own spiritual malaise and longing for wholeness and peace. The various alchemical processes… were steps in the mysterious process of spiritual regeneration.[6]

This notion of spiritualised alchemy would also feature prominently in conceptions of initiation with the rise of occultism in nineteenth century with the reception and application of Renaissance magical philosophy. A prominent example of this can be seen in the rituals of initiation of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded on the beliefs similar to Antoine Faivre’s ‘correspondences’ and ‘practice of concordance’, with reference not only to alchemy and the Hermetic Qabalah, but also to astrology, the tarot, geomancy, Rosicrucianism, and above all ritual magic.


[1] Neville Drury, Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic, 2011, page 14.
[2] Kurt Seligmann, Magic, Supernaturalism, and Religion, 1948, pages 82-83.
[3] Quoted in Neville Drury, Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic, 2011, page 15.
[4] For further discussion on this see John Michael Greer, The Art and Practice of Geomancy: Divination, Magic, and Earth Wisdom of the Renaissance, 2009, pages 26-28.
[5] Herbert Stanley Redgrove, Alchemy Ancient and Modern, 1922, page 14.
[6] Allison Coudert, ‘Renaissance Alchemy’, in Hidden Truths: Alchemy, Magic and the Occult, edited by Lawrence E. Sullivan, 1989, page 201.

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