The Secret Art of Alchemy
Created | Updated Mar 13, 2009
To medieval alchemists1, the world was animated. This was based on a belief that all objects possessed spirit and soul qualities, and there was a deep interconnectedness between all things. The material imagination contained in celestial bodies and substances, like the Moon and water, was a basis for fully participating with nature, of having an intimate relationship with its phenomenal presence, its movements and rhythms. To the medieval Christian, it was man who needed to be redeemed by God. But to the alchemist, who believed that spirit was contained in the material world and not outside it, it was quite the reverse. The alchemists' primary matter, therefore, was not in heaven but in the affairs of the ordinary, mundane world. This prima materia has, as the alchemist's say, a 'thousand names' and is ubiquitous, indicating that anything was suitable matter to be worked on and transformed. Today, however, the matter is in our projected material, in all the everyday occurrences of life. It is in everything we are unable to 'see through,' everything we take unquestionably, uncritically for 'real'.
A Brief History
Alchemy, as an esoteric art, is almost as old as civilisation itself. But it wasn't until the 12th or 13th Century, in the aftermath of the Crusades and the Arabic influence, that it filtered into western Europe via Sicily and Spain. Alchemy derived its origins from ancient Egypt, where it was associated with the worship of Thoth, who became Hermes in ancient Greece and Mercury in Rome2.
In antiquity it was believed that the world originated from a single substance, or First Matter3, which separated out into four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and then recombined in various proportions to make up the physical objects in the world. Aristotle refined this idea, teaching that primary matter existed first as pure potentiality, which then acquired form through four primary qualities (hot, cold, wet, and dry) arranging themselves into paired opposites; each identified with the four individual elements (eg, fire = hot + dry). By manipulating these qualities, Aristotle thought it was possible to change the elemental combinations of materials.
The alchemists adapted these ideas, reasoning that in order to transmute a base metal or substance into gold, it must first be returned to its original, undifferentiated state. Since all substances are composed of the same four elements, it was thought theoretically possible to change one substance into another (eg, lead into gold) by reducing the substance to its original elements, re-arranging their relative proportions, and then bringing the new substance into being. The challenge lay in establishing the stages through which the chemical operations must pass and in discovering a miraculous agent (a modern day 'catalyst') capable of enabling the necessary transformation to occur.
The Work of Alchemy
In the popular imagination, the alchemist is a seeker of gold, driven by personal profit and greed to extract that precious substance from base metals. From a modern-day perspective, attached as we are to material wealth, this reading of the alchemist's exploits are understandable. But while there were those 'puffers' who did indeed mint coins and sought riches and fame, some were at least after an 'inner' gold. This was variously known as the Philosopher's Stone, Golden Flower, Elixir of Life, and universal medicine, depending on a particular tradition, but all symbolising the search for the supreme and ultimate value.
The alchemist's quest was one of self-development, attempting to integrate the many facets of personality to attain psychic wholeness. Alchemy, as the depth psychology of an earlier age4, thus required infinite patience, subtlety in appreciation and dedication to the Art, often at great personal sacrifice.
The work or opus of alchemy was an inner repetition of the cosmology outside - except, on the psychological level, the alchemical process was a complete reversal of our contemporary notion of biological evolution - as an expanding, outer process on the physical plane. Its final 'goal' was inorganic matter, either a metal (notably, gold), a mineral, a crystal or a stone.
This is dissimilar to the seven-day creation story in Genesis, for instance, where man is the crown of creation, the top of the evolutionary ladder. In other words, alchemy's operations deliberately broke down the natural order of things in order to renew creation. It was a work against nature, an opus contra naturam, in order to free the psyche from its material and natural view of itself and the world.
This return to find original essence, the gold in the heart of matter, may be explained by man's relation to the material world of nature. Mircea Eliade5 traces the relationship of alchemy and metallurgy of primitive man to mineral substances. Minerals, he asserts, shared in the sacredness attached to Mother Earth. As the source of life and fertility, ores 'grew' and 'ripened' in the belly of the earth like embryos. Galleries of mines and caves were her vagina. The miners and the metalworkers in extracting these ores from the earth were like obstetricians co-operating in the work of nature. Through metallurgy, man felt that he was ultimately able to assist in the processes of growth taking place in the bowels of the earth.
The alchemist, like the metallurgist, in their labour and with the assistance of fire, pursue the transformation of matter, its perfection and transmutation. The whole operation of mining, its rites and mysteries, played upon the alchemist's imagination as a metaphor for the generative and degenerative powers of nature; its ability to constantly renew and refashion itself. For example, the mythical belief that to ensure the 'marriage of metals' in the smelting process, a living being must be sacrificed in order to 'animate' the operation.
The Materials, Vessels and Operations of the Alchemical Laboratory
For the alchemist, the world is read through substances, with alchemy itself being a means of entering the realm of imagination. The world was seen in terms of imagination interacting with concrete substances through impersonal, objective operations. It was thus a discipline built entirely on the psychological phenomenon of projection. The alchemist projected his psychic state onto matter and matter, likewise, projected its transformations onto the alchemist6. It was a dual process, a mirroring back of physical operations on substances, each one resonating with all human experiences hitherto lying dormant within the personal psyche. By projecting psychic processes into the matter which was to be transformed - from a 'lesser' substance, the prima materia (eg, lead, earth, water or dung) into a more valuable substance (eg, gold) - the alchemist was, in effect, attempting to transform human spirit from a lower to a higher form.
Operations called calcinatio, solutio, putrefactio, mortificatio, coagulatio, coniunctio and so forth, like the materials and vessels used, were personified metaphors of psychological processes. Imaginative processes of dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, decapitation, flaying, poisoning; and images of monsters, dragons, unipeds, skeletons, hermaphrodites, et al spoke a pathologised language7, recognising they worked simultaneously on both the soul in his materials and the soul in himself.
For the alchemist, the vessel was something truly marvellous, a kind of matrix, or uterus, from which the miraculous stone or 'divine' child is born. As a place of containment, it was both womb and tomb, death being intimately connected and essential to new life. In us the retort is the vessel of memory and imagination, holding events and fantasies where they can be subjected to the heat of passion and feeling or to the simmering of thought and reflection. In this retort, events of life decay, losing their literal form; but they also ferment, acquiring taste, bite, and body - a good cook of the psyche knowing the best combinations of temperature and time, when to let things simmer and when to bring them to the boil.
Jung and Alchemy
The Swiss psychologist, Dr Carl Jung, who began studying alchemy when aged 53, realised that the alchemist was really working symbolically on the transformation of his own psyche. He found in alchemy's bizarre fantasies and afflicted imagery a metaphor for individuation and an ideal portrait of soul-work.(Jung's Individuation is a process of self-development in which an individual integrates the many facets of the psyche to become his or her Self, and thus attain psychic wholeness.) Its symbolisms and operations were a projection onto matter of archetypes and psychological processes that occur in the collective unconscious.
Believing that an individual's psychological state can be assessed alchemically, he took the four basic substances found in alchemy (sulphur, salt, lead, and mercury) as metaphors for the way the personality operates in life. The work of individuation, as the differentiation of self, is then to enact lengthy operations on these substances, as if doing alchemy on ourselves. This resulted in Jung's (often neglected) alchemical model of personality, being a development of his better known psychological typology theory. Jung was also able to elucidate the stages of alchemy and relate them to his own insights into the individuation process.
From the Raw to the Cooked
Alchemy's operations were principally designed to liberate the soul from material entrapment. As Heraclitus of Ephesos (535-475 BCE) long ago observed that literal fixations in earthbound problems stop the soul's movement. What kills the flow and buries the soul needs dissolving in order to loosen and allow to rise into awareness our congealed fantasies, images and feelings. Like a baptism, alchemy's solutio involved a purification, a 'washing away' of debris in order to gain a clearer perception of essentials. This is analagous to a cathartic release of emotions, where tears give way to fresh insights.
One alchemical motto - 'perform no operation till all be made water' - refers to the state of dissolution as the foundation of the work. In these primal, 'mercurial' waters, 'imperfect', gross matter is broken down and cleansed. Entering these 'waters' was a kind of death, it being necessary to let go where one has been stuck in order to regenerate soul and give to matters a new psychic sense. This operation was often symbolised as a regression to a pre-natal state, to the amniotic fluid of the mother's womb. Alchemical imagery shows a divine 'child' growing in the womb of the vessel through a 'psychic pregnancy', there to await a kind of regeneration through death. This image underlines the paradoxical nature of alchemy and the rhythms of nature, where birth and death, womb and tomb, are intimately bound. Without a 'falling apart,' or death of the soul through water, there can be no new insights or renewal of consciousness. The alchemist's attempt to produce a miraculous new substance - often symbolised by an act of sexual intercourse between a king and queen in a water bath, resulting in the production of a child or a hermaphrodite - can be understood as a male embryogenetic fantasy. That is, the alchemist was indulging in a form of compensation for his inability to emulate the female's capacity to create life.
Pathologized images were of major importance to the alchemist who believed that the Gods force themselves symptomatically into awareness, and that pathologizing was a divine process working in the human soul. By reverting the pathology to the God, they recognised the divinity of pathology. Pathologizing is a way of seeing, of gaining 'psychological insight,' which may explain why alchemists, like many great artists and writers, often suffered for their art8.
The initial nigredo or 'blackening' stage of alchemy tells us that it starts with a 'mess', the prima materia being the symptom that may drive one to seek therapeutic help. It is the crisis, issue, wound and failure that forces one to begin to question one's nature, examine life, and explore deeper meanings. 'Washing out' the immersed matter is therefore a metaphor for breaking down old habits, attitudes and beliefs that obscure psychic insight, or have lost psychic significance. Withdrawal of psychologically naive projections and the loosening of resistances is also the decay (putrefaction) of idealisations that have moulded our reality. By dissolving rigid ego boundaries, we can begin to challenge the ideas we carry about ourselves and the world, questioning the 'truths' we unequivocally take to be reality.
Alchemy insists that the way to create soul is through 'the mess' - psyche's garbage becoming the raw material which is cooked, reflected upon, in order to see the fantasies operating in our 'messy' lives. Turning base metal into gold is therefore to see the value in our symptoms, our 'faecal matter' as yielding great riches. It is not about transforming or closing-off symptoms, which, from an alchemical perspective, is the mistake of spiritual, growth-based psychologies. Alchemy attempts to 'see through' what lies hidden in the matters of life; in our repressed unconscious mind where contamination takes place.
The 'waters' were sometimes described as 'stinking', alluding to the shadow side of personality. Within these 'stinking waters', slumbering in the soul, lie our repressed contents, those inferior, unacceptable aspects of one's nature that we try to hide and disown. The stink may emanate from the rotting matters of our worldly affairs, the pollution and corruption that pervades the world. This becomes a matter for soul, of Hecate, the compost-maker of the underworld, whose temples are the rubbish-tip and household dustbin, who elicits our psychopathy, sees the value and brings to life the morbid perspective of soul - this being at the very heart of alchemy.
Washing away all the dung from the unconscious is to lose the gold with the dross. As an heroic labour, it reminds of Hercules' task in the underworld of cleaning the Augean stables and shifting the s**t by diverting two rivers. By comparison, alchemy's operations were much more subtle. The alchemist was aware that an egocentric style of consciousness is apt to literalise the fantasies that shape our reality into 'hard' problems that need to be solved. Only by 'seeing through' the illusion of problems into the reality of fantasies can we to shift from the heroic to the imaginal ego.
Treading the Middle Path
The middle path of soul is reflected in the two-fold nature of alchemy - the engagement with the concrete materials and operations in the laboratory while maintaining an enthusiasm for research and new ideas in the library. (Soul-making could be read as a Praxis, ie, both theory and practice together; as the active involvement in outer reality and relationships, and the process of inner reflection.) The alchemist also gave equal attention to regulating the fire (keeping it alive) and watching the changes taking place in the substances. Too much or too little attention either way could spoil the work.
The mystery of alchemy was about a reconciliation of the opposites; by connecting, for example, the macrocosm with microcosm, personal with impersonal, masculine with feminine - and bringing them together into a paradoxical relationship, as exemplified by the alchemical motto 'As Above, So Below'. To achieve this union of opposites, alchemy attempted to move in two directions simultaneously: keeping things both apart and together. A motto for this was: Solve et Coagula ('dissolve and congeal'). Treading a middle path stemmed from a concern to keep soul separate from body and spirit (mind), to rescue soul from manic flights into spirit (from psychological inflation and transcendence), and to draw soul out of the confines of materialism. When soul is lost in either of these extremes, gone too are the benefits it brings to experience. For instance, without soul, relationship and connectedness to people suffers. Though physically present, we may walk through busy, crowded areas of daily life like a stranger who sees it all as if it were happening behind a glass panel.
Alchemy emphasised that soul begins in the moist, solid earth, the realm of ordinary experience. Without this embodied world there could be no soul. We need the tangles and problems, our hurt feelings, pains and depressions, just as much as we need our exhilarations, joys and pleasures, of everyday life.
The Final Curtain
In classical alchemy, empirical science and mystical philosophy worked in tandem, being more or less undifferentiated. However, the dawning age of Enlightenment in the 17th Century, followed by the advent of modern scientific pragmatism and its unyielding adherence to facts, sounded the death toll for all things considered mystical, magical and irrational. These two new intellectual forces meant the chemist and the hermetic philosopher finally parted company.
Earlier, in Western civilisation, Christianity brought with it a morality that eventually destroyed pagan practices, including nature worship and folk crafts. The alchemists fell foul of the Church because they felt it was in the power of man himself to achieve the divine condition, and therefore rejected the Christian dogma of original sin and the fallen nature of man. Alchemy, viewed as witchcraft and heresy by the patriarchal Church, threatened the vision of Christian universal harmony, and was officially denounced as a heathen, superstitious pursuit9.
With classical imagination stultified, 'animism' - the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomena - gave way to 'anthropomorphism' - the attribution of human form or character, or, the ascription of a human attribute of personality to anything impersonal or irrational - and humanism as the dominant worldview. As the many spirits inhabiting nature began to fade, everything became a reflection of, and message for, human affairs. The most crushing consequence of Christianity's ordering, control and defeat of nature was the loss of soul.
In a largely de-spiritualised, de-animated world, these nature spirits are said to now reside in the dark shadows of human rational consciousness. Psychologically, as Jung observed, the gods, deities and spirits have become our modern day dis-eases. Repressed, they exist in our personal lives as moods, odd fascinations, delusions, erotic fantasies and whatever else lurks in the depths of the unconscious. They are the 'chaotic' urges of nature, the irrational elements that entangle us in life10. It seems as though we are trapped in the materiality of our being, with nature reduced to the human experience of it.
Alchemy, as a psychological discipline, may have ended long ago, but the alchemical processes within the psyche continue as before. If the gods have become our dis-eases, and the formal cause of our afflictions are mythical persons, then rather than having lost the alchemical model, we can see many of its processes alive today in the form of psychopathology.