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A Brief History of Alchemy
The origins of alchemy are lost in history and theories abound as to where it might have originated:
God taught it to Adam and later to Moses.
Fallen Angels taught it to human women in exchange for sex.
It is a remnant of lost Atlantean technology.
Extraterrestrials taught it to our ancestors.
Whatever its true origin is, recorded history documents an esoteric tradition that has existed for several thousand years.
Mystery and magic permeate all that is ancient Egypt. From beginning to end, Egypt has been called a theocratic state, ruled by a very powerful priesthood. The priesthood was divided into various castes, each with specific duties -- such as scribes and astronomers. Of special interest to us are the priests, who worked with materials in ways we might describe today as chemistry. These priests, often working under an oath of secrecy regarding their art, developed skills in metallurgy, ceramics, medicine, mummification, and winemaking, to name just a few.
The study of the operative forces at work in the universe was the primary goal of the priesthood. They called these forces the "Neteru" from which we obtain our word, "Nature." The Neteru are the forces of Nature.
From the small number of writings which remain to us, it is apparent that these priests were skilled healers who possessed a materials science, much of which is still a mystery to us. There were always two parts to these sciences -- one was mental/spiritual and the other physical. For example, the preparation of a medicine included the processing of a material accompanied by certain words, spells, incantations or rituals. And in prescribing, the patient was given the medicine with instructions to repeat a spell or prayer. The proper timing of these things was equally important.
In the Egyptian Mysteries, Man was composed of various spiritual and mental components as well as the physical component and each had its proper "medicine."
These Secret Sciences advanced over time and tales of wondrous healing oils, life-giving potions, and imitations of gold and precious stones have survived even to our day.
When ancient tomb robbers would plunder a pharaoh's tomb, these precious oils were one of the first things to be stolen. They were considered to be as precious as gold and easier to carry and sell. Stolen gold was heavy and had to be melted down before you could sell it.
When Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt around 300 B.C.E., he fell in love with the whole culture, and the Egyptians welcomed him with open arms. This began the so-called Greco-Egyptian or Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history. The Greeks called Egypt Khem or Khemet. This literally meant "The Black Land" and is in reference to the thick layer of dark fertile soil deposited by the annual flooding of the Nile. Knowledge of Egyptian Secret Sciences made its way into Greece where it was called Khemia "The Black Art" and spawned a long line of Greek alchemists.
In Egypt, Alexander initiated a sweeping campaign of construction and restoration, including the city named after him -- Alexandria. The Great Library of Alexandria is legendary. It has been estimated that this library contained nearly a million volumes of the collected writings of the known world. Scholars from everywhere flocked to Alexandria and it became a melting pot of ideas and philosophies. If is here that the Hermetic Philosophy and alchemy congealed as a Path to Spiritual Attainment and its secrets were only revealed to initiates under an oath of silence.
By around 30 B.C.E., the Roman legions had swept the world and the last of the Egyptian Ptolemies had fallen to Roman rule. During this insurgence, a very large part of the Great Library was destroyed by fire. Initially, Rome was tolerant of Egyptian ways. In fact, the worship of Isis spread well into the Roman world with temples in Rome itself. As the early Roman Emperors became converted to Christianity, this level of tolerance dropped off.
In 290 C.E., the Emperor Diocletian feared that the influx of imitation gold produced by the Egyptian Art could disrupt the Roman economy. Fearing also that it would allow someone to gather enough wealth to form an army which could move against Rome, Diocletian passed an edict calling for the destruction of all texts and materials dealing with the manufacture of gold and precious stones. This order was carried out with great severity.
Great masses of information were indiscriminately destroyed as well as what remained of The Great Library. In 325 C.E., Rome officially became Christian and in 391 the Emperor Theodosius made heresy punishable by death and ordered the destruction of pagan temples. In the Roman world, which at the time covered quite a large area, you were either a Christian or you were exiled or killed.
Most of those practicing the Hermetic Philosophy fled the country and migrated east to Arab lands not occupied by Rome. The early Persian Caliphs were much more hospitable to the alchemists and the center of The Art shifted there, although in a much more guarded capacity. It was here that the Arabic prefix Al was added to the Greek Khemia to give us Al-Khemia, later to become Alchemy.
Scientific pursuits in early Christian Rome became dormant for centuries.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the "civilized world" was thrown into chaos. Thus began "The Dark Ages."
Beginning with the Islamic invasions around 800 C.E., knowledge of alchemy spread into Western Europe, largely through the works of Ibn Sinna (also known as Avicenna.) He formulated a medical system that was popular for several centuries. Another was Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayaan. Jabir had a very cryptic style of writing, designed to conceal alchemical secrets. It is from his name that we derive our word for Gibberish. They collected many of the ancient Egyptian and Greek alchemical works and translated them into Arabic, which were later translated into Latin in Europe.
In Medieval Europe, alchemy became very fashionable. By now, kings and rulers everywhere had heard of the wonders possible through alchemy, especially the turning of lead into gold. Alchemy, as a means to making gold, became a popular pursuit by the rich and the poor. There were also a great number of cons and scams perpetrated by those who pretended to know the secrets of the alchemists. Many unsuspecting people lost their life savings in hopes of finding the way to inexhaustible wealth.
Alchemy began to acquire a bad reputation as a fraud because of this, and people began to distrust the whole matter without really knowing anything about the true alchemical art. Then, around 1310, Pope John XXII issued a decree prohibiting the practice of alchemy, and gold-making in particular, with heavy fines against those who traded in alchemical gold.
In 1404, King Henry IV of England issued an "Act" declaring gold-making a crime against the Crown. By the fifteenth century, the invention of the printing press made knowledge more available to the public. Texts about alchemy became very popular and began to multiply.
Paracelsus (born Phillipus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim in Switzerland 1493) revolutionized the Alchemical Art and is considered to be one of the fathers of modern chemistry and pharmaceutical medicine. A respected physician and university lecturer, Paracelsus was also skilled in all of the arts of the Hermetic Philosophy. Paracelsus repeatedly demonstrated the power and effectiveness of alchemically prepared medicines.
He stressed to his colleagues the importance of looking carefully into alchemy as a source for medicines far beyond what the current pharmaceutical technology could produce. He was constantly at odds with the medical professionals of his day and was looked upon very suspiciously by the Church because of his views and opinions. Because of this some believe Paracelsus was murdered in 1541. However, his ideas and writings did not go unnoticed. In a strange twist of irony, these helped lead to the end of the Age of Alchemy and the beginnings of chemistry as we know it today.
The writings of Paracelsus shifted the view on alchemy from the pursuit of gold into which it had fallen, back toward its original intent -medicines for the body and soul leading one to perfect health, wholeness, and initiation into Nature's mysteries. Paracelsus recognized man's physical and occult constitution according to Hermetic Principles.
By the seventeenth century, there was a growing religious freedom which sparked a wave of interest in all things Mystical. Alchemical texts became still more widely available, and scholars openly identified themselves as Rosicrucians, Adepts or Alchemists. The spiritual aspects of alchemy appealed to many, apart from any practical works.
Robert Boyle (another "Father of Modern Chemistry") and Isaac Newton studied alchemy during this time. Newton was fully involved and produced volumes of work. In fact, he considered himself to be more of an alchemist than a physicist or mathematician. His notes indicate that he believed he was very close to success in the alchemical art of metallic transmutation.
Boyle was also an ardent student trying to clarify many alchemical concepts which were becoming obscured even in his day. He was a meticulous experimenter and realized the difference between Philosophical and Unphilosophical workings upon materials.
In his very influential book, The Sceptical Chymist, Boyle called into question the number and nature of the elements and called for a more organized terminology. His alchemical insights have been largely misinterpreted to be a debunking of vitalistic alchemy in favor of a more rigorous concentration on the physical facts. It was the beginning of a more mechanical world-view, which would last into the twentieth century.
Around 1660, King Charles II signed the first Charter of the Royal Society and the study of chemistry soon became an officially recognized science.
America also had its alchemists, including several state Governors. There were groups in Pennsylvania who brought with them many of the early German alchemical writings (which were quite extensive.)
By the 1800s, the practice of Alchemy had largely disappeared in the outer world in favor of its still young offshoot -- chemistry. Alchemy survived underground in various "Secret Societies" which became popular, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century.
In the early 1900s, H. Spencer Lewis received a charter from some of these European contacts to form the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, better known as AMORC. Among other things, they taught laboratory alchemy as it was handed down by earlier Rosicrucian sources.
In the early 1940s, one student of these classes was Albert Reidel. Frater Albertus went on to teach these classes himself and then later split off on his own to establish the Paracelsus Research Society in 1960, which became accredited as Paracelsus College in the early 80s.
With the passing of Frater Albertus in 1984, there seemed to be a void in alchemical teachings and a lack of a central point where students could exchange information. By the early nineties, through the efforts of several PRS students, contact with a French group was made and the Philosophers of Nature (PON) was formulated to fill the void with fresh ideas and to carry on research in alchemy. The PON closed in the late nineties. Now we have the Internet -- the new "Library of Alexandria." As we shall see, chemistry, left to grow unfettered, has nearly come full circle to rediscover the Hermetic Philosophy.
Theory of Alchemy
The First Law of Hermetics – All is from One
Perhaps the most concise exposition of alchemical theory, acknowledged by adepts from all ages, is the famous "Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus." Legend has it that this tablet predates the Biblical flood and was inscribed by Thoth himself on a large plate of alchemically produced emerald:
VERBA SECRETORUM HERMETIS
It is true, certain, and without falsehood, that whatever is below is like that which is above; and that which is above is like that which is below: to accomplish the one wonderful work. As all things are derived from the One Only Thing, by the will and by the word of the One Only One who created it in His Mind, so all things owe their existence to this Unity by the order of Nature, and can be improved by Adaptation to that Mind.
Its Father is the Sun; its Mother is the Moon; the Wind carries it in its womb; and its nurse is the Earth. This Thing is the Father of all perfect things in the world. Its power is most perfect when it has again been changed into Earth. Separate the Earth from the Fire, the subtle from the gross, but carefully and with great judgment and skill.
It ascends from earth to heaven, and descends again, new born, to the earth, taking unto itself thereby the power of the Above and the Below. Thus the splendor of the whole world will be thine, and all darkness shall flee from thee.
This is the strongest of all powers, the Force of all forces, for it overcometh all subtle things and can penetrate all that is solid. For thus was the world created, and rare combinations, and wonders of many kinds are wrought.
Hence I am called HERMES TRISMEGISTUS, having mastered the three parts of the wisdom of the whole world. What I have to say about the masterpiece of the alchemical art, the Solar Work, is now ended.
The alchemists always admonish their students, "Know the theory first before attempting the praxis." They say, "You must walk in the Book of Nature to understand our Art."
"The alchemical concept of life and matter lies at the opposite pole of that of the current scientific community. Science is trying to find out how matter created life. Alchemy states that life created matter. Alchemy affirms that at the origin, there is consciousness. Consciousness is the need to Be of the Absolute.
In order to satisfy this need, consciousness created life, and in order to evolve, life created matter."
-- Jean Dubuis (PON Seminars 1992)
Alchemy is an exploration of the involution of the Absolute into matter and its subsequent evolution back to the source, depicted as the Ouroborus or serpent eating its own tail. There's a very old saying, "The All is mind. The universe is Mental."
The All or The One is, that which is the Fundamental Truth, the Substantial reality, (i.e., standing under and supporting Reality.) This All is beyond comprehending or the ability to truly name it, so we use a symbol and call it -- The All, the Absolute, the Divine, Spirit, the Force, The One Only One. Whatever you choose, it is just a symbol so we can talk about it. This is perhaps best described as Infinite Living Mind.
"Only by mental creation, can the All manifest the universe and still remain the All. For if a substance was used or acted upon, it would be separate and the All would not be All."
What we call "matter" is only that portion of the All we apprehend through our senses. It is only a label we use to designate the manifestation of the All within the range of our limited sensory apparatus. All things are connected but separated only by their rates of vibration.
Each one of us is a unique and complex waveform, though we also share many of the same "harmonics." Like fingerprints, we are unique but all related. Modern science takes advantage of this fact in order to identify materials by their vibratory nature in the form of spectral resonances in visible light, infrared, microwaves, etc. Einstein once said, "Everything is energy, beyond that is divine."
We live in a vast ocean of energy and everything seen and unseen is a part of it. The alchemists called this energy the Celestial Fire, Prima Materia, the First Matter, Chaos, and many others. Everything around us, though it seems separate and different from ourselves is One only One. All is from One is the First Law of Hermetics.
The Second Law of Hermetics -- Polarity
The One reflecting on itself creates the first movement towards polarity -- the division of the One into a most subtle spiritualized energy and dense material energy; the One divided into Spirit and Matter. Today we might call this energy and matter, which are the same.
The Second Law of Hermetics is the law of Polarity.
One of the earliest observations of Nature was that everything has its opposite -- day/night, male/female, hot/cold, wet/dry. The One divides into active and passive modes, with the active energy constituting the energies of life, and the passive one the energy of matter. Consider the image of a sine wave -- two opposite energies but One wave.
The Golden Chain of Homer, a book written about 1730 and highly esteemed by several generations of alchemists, called the active energy "Celestial Niter" and the passive energy "Celestial Salt." We call these "The Volatile" and "The Fixed." These two modes of the One express an inherent polarity as well.
Excerpted from Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett. Copyright © 2007 Robert Allen Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of Nicolas Hays, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to the Ibis Press Edition by Brian Cotnoir
Foreword by Dennis William Hauck
Preface to the First Edition by Robert Allen Bartlett
Introduction: Practical Alchemy
One: A Brief History of Alchemy
Two: Theory of Alchemy
Three: Astrology and Alchemy
Four: Introduction to Laboratory Alchemy
Five: Alchemical Processes
Six: Herbal Alchemy
Seven: Water Works
Eight: Return to the Fire
Nine: Qabalah and Alchemy
Ten: Introduction to Mineral and Metallic Works
Eleven: Via Humida
Twelve: Concerning The Minerals
Thirteen: Via Humida, Part Two
Fourteen: Via Sicca
Sixteen: The Seed of Metals
Seventeen: The Philosopher's Stone
Posted December 10, 2011
Picked up this book to do research on a huge writing project involving alchemy. One of the most straitforward, thorough guides I've read thus far. You get a historical and psychological perspective on alchemy, yes, but most importantly, you learn about the chemical/laboratory processes used in alchemy over the years.
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