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This history behind alchemy studies the progression of this arcane art, looks at famous alchemists, and observes the effects it has had on modern science Alchemy has traditionally been viewed as "the history of an error," an example of medieval gullibility and greed, in which alchemists tried to turn lead into gold, create fabulous wealth, and find the elixir of life. But alchemy has also been described as "the mightiest secret that a man can possess," and it obsessed the likes of Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and many of the founders of modern science. This book explores the history of the so-called Royal Art, from its mysterious beginnings in Egypt and China, through the Hellenistic world and the early years of Islam, and into medieval Europe. Some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, figures such as Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and Thomas Aquinas, were drawn to alchemy, and legendary alchemists such as Nicholas Flamel were thought to have actually succeeded in finding The Philosopher's Stone. During the Renaissance, Paracelsus and his followers helped revolutionize medicine, and during the 17th century, alchemy played a major role in paving the way for modern science. During the 20th century, it became a focus of interest for the psychologist Carl Jung and his followers, who believed that the alchemists had discovered the unconscious. In this fully revised edition, Sean Martin has expanded the sections on Chinese and Indian alchemy and has added new material on the relationship between alchemy and early modern science, while also making a fresh assessment of this most enduringly mysterious and fascinating of subjects, to which all others have been described as "child's play."
About the Author
Sean Martin is the author of several other Pocket Essentials titles, including Alchemy and Alchemists, Andrei Tarkovsky, The Cathars, The Gnostics, and The Knights Templar.
Read an Excerpt
Alchemy & Alchemists
By Sean Martin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2006 Sean Martin
All rights reserved.
Basic Ideas and Themes
Our view of alchemy in the West is dominated by that of a mediaeval pre-chemist in a fume-filled laboratory, a solitary figure working endlessly amidst bubbling flasks and studying ancient cryptic texts in a futile quest to turn lead into gold. They have perhaps received financial backing from a rich man who is keen to expand his wealth even further, but they are really just wasting his money. Once it became known that alchemy supposedly had the power to make the practitioner immensely wealthy, the art began to attract frauds like flies to a dung heap. These were known as 'puffers', a reference to the bellows used to maintain the laboratory fire.
If the alchemist is genuine, he may inadvertently make a discovery that proves useful, but not in the way the alchemist or his backer had hoped. Alcoholic distillation was discovered in the alchemist's laboratory, for instance, and so was phosphorus. If the alchemist is not genuine, he will exhaust his backer's funds, and continue to move from town to town, impressing the rich and gullible with his laboratory demonstrations, and hoping that the authorities don't catch up with him.
The swindlers are the ones who usually find their way into literature and painting. Ben Jonson's play is perhaps the most famous example, overshadowing Chaucer's earlier Canon's Yeoman's Tale. The two works deal with false alchemy, and Jonson and Chaucer seem to have had first hand knowledge of the subject; that they might both have lost money to fraudulent alchemists has been suggested as the motive behind the writing of both pieces.
The real alchemists, the workers unconcerned with becoming fabulously wealthy, are more shadowy figures. We could assume that they would be educated, given to keeping their own counsel and hard-working. Their laboratories might have looked the same (at least to the uninitiated), but there would have been no sudden flashes of smoke or bright lights to impress would-be investors. Here work would have proceeded quietly and cautiously, almost like a Trappist monastery, with the alchemist swearing the lab assistants to strict secrecy. Equipment would have to be specially made without arousing the suspicions of the glassblower or potter. If word got out that one was involved in the alchemical work, there would be no telling what misfortunes might arise. If wealth was generated here, it was not the sort you could flaunt in front of others, or use to accumulate material goods for the sake of impressing your neighbours. The work was said to use only the simplest of materials, and was enigmatically likened to 'women's work and childrens' games'.
Much of the work would have consisted in observing changes in the flask as it was slowly heated. As this was traditionally one of the most secret, revered and feared of human quests, we have little to compare it to directly. We could liken it to an artist in his studio, personally preparing the paints, and then using them to create art, something luminous and beautiful that would inspire others, and, in outliving the artist, partake of a form of immortality. We could also liken the alchemist to the doctor or apothecary, studying nature, selecting plants and herbs in order to prepare them in order to heal. The smith, frequently seen as a likely ancestor of the alchemist, occupied a similar position. In forging metals he was feared and revered as the solitary artist who stood on the doorway of worlds. Or the monk, studying texts, carefully illuminating them with either pictures or marginalia, providing a gloss that hinted of hidden treasure within what one may read and otherwise miss. We may also see an equivalent in the quantum physicist, who has moved so far beyond experimental verification in investigating the properties of matter that he is working in areas formerly visited by the metaphysician and mystic.
Albertus Magnus (1193 — 1280) listed the qualities that the genuine alchemist must possess:
First: He should be discreet and silent, revealing to no one the result of his operations.
Second: He should reside in an isolated house in an isolated position.
Third: He should choose his days and hours for labour with discretion.
Fourth: He should have patience, diligence, and perseverance.
Fifth: He should perform according to fixed rules.
Sixth: He should only use vessels of glass or glazed earthenware.
Seventh: He should be sufficiently rich to bear the expenses of his art.
Eighth: He should avoid having anything to do with princes and noble men.
As we shall see, would-be alchemists ignored this eighth precept at their peril.
The Goal of Alchemy
The goal of Western alchemy was the production of the Philosopher's Stone, which would enable the alchemist to turn base metals such as lead into silver and gold. This however, was merely the test employed to check whether the Stone was genuine, and its real purpose was to bestow spiritual wealth and prolong life. It has been described as the Royal Art, or the Divine Art, or sometimes simply as the Art. Gold has traditionally been identified with divine powers because of its impermeability; it is resistant to both fire and water. Since the earliest times, gold and other, lesser, shiny metals such as silver, were regarded as having a divine origin and possessed the ability to overcome death: therefore, to own gold, or to try and emulate its properties, was to partake of divinity and immortality. It was also the colour of the sun, and silver that of the moon, the two great celestial powers that nurtured life by day and dreams — the life of the soul — by night.
Alchemists saw gold as growing in the belly of Mother Earth, and the aim of the art was to speed up natural processes in the laboratory. The fact that they saw gold and other metals as growing like plants over a very long period of time suggests that they intuitively understood the concept of geological time. They saw that there was a place within nature for alchemists (humanity) as the ones who should work with nature in order to perfect it. Because they saw within themselves the whole of creation, they were also perfecting themselves, and realising their true, divine natures.
Alchemy & Hermeticism
The idea that the alchemist can perfect nature is Hermetic, and alchemy has been described as the Hermetic science par excellence. The Hermetic arts — alchemy, astrology and magic — were thought to have been revealed to humanity by the god Hermes in the mythical time before recorded history. All three share a belief in the power of human beings to influence their environment through their respective disciplines, an environment in which there were echoes of the divine. Both astrology and magic influenced alchemy, with alchemists never embarking upon an operation unless the stars were favourable.
Alchemy, like the other Hermetic arts, had a worldview that was derived from antiquity. Central to Hellenistic (and later) alchemical thought is the classical theory of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. It seems to have been first propounded by the fifth century BCE Greek philosopher Empedocles, who argued that they were governed by the twin principles of love and strife. The theory was further developed by Aristotle (384 — 322 BCE), whose writings were to remain canonical until the advent of modern empirical science in the late seventeenth century. Aristotle held that the four elements had two qualities, either hot or cold and wet or dry. Thus earth is cold and dry; air is hot and wet; fire is hot and dry; and water is cold and wet. In each element, one of the qualities predominates: in earth, it is dryness; in air, wetness; in fire, heat; and in water, coldness. The elements can change, according to properties they have in common with other elements. Fire can become air through heat, or become earth by drying out. Implicit in this is the possibility of transmutation: lead could become gold through the manipulation of the metal's qualities. (Modern physics has shown that this theory is, in essence, true, as elements can be changed into others through the manipulation of their atomic structures.)
In addition to the theory of the four elements, alchemy held that metals grew in the earth, a product of the marriage between sulphur and mercury. These were seen as opposing forces, male and female, or volatile and fixed. In both laboratory and inner alchemy, the concept of bringing opposing forces together is at the foundation of the work. In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus added a third principle, salt. The three principles of sulphur, mercury and salt can be taken to mean soul, spirit and body respectively. It is the salt, or body, that unifies soul and spirit, and is the element within which the alchemical work takes place.
The work of the alchemist was known as the Great Work or Opus Magnum, and was sometimes divided into two stages, the Lesser Work, and the Greater Work. There is some dispute as to this, as each alchemist tended to see the process in their own way, and more importantly, to experience and live the work in their own way. It was said that there were seven stages to the work, or eight or nine or ten; the fifteenth century English alchemist Sir George Ripley spoke of Twelve Gates. It was, moreover, a solitary work, with little chance for alchemists to meet and swap ideas for fear of capture by the authorities or ridicule.
Alchemy has always been an oral tradition, with the secret being passed on from master to pupil. Thomas Norton, it is said, rode for a hundred days in order to find a master who would teach him the secret. This would go some way to explain why no two alchemical manuscripts ever agreed on the precise nature and order of the work. There were as many ways to make the Stone as there were alchemists. Or, at least, as many variations on the process as there were alchemists: most, if not all practitioners adhered to the basic nigredo-albedo-rubedo sequence that is thought to have originated around the time of the legendary Egyptian adept Maria Prophetissa. This further stresses that alchemy was a solitary process: one that both took place away from the eyes of the curious, in the secret enclave of the laboratory, and also in the solitude of the alchemist's own being. Genuine alchemy, as with all other spiritual paths, needs human transmission in order for its magic to be fully grasped.
The threat of ridicule, harassment, kidnapping, torture and violent death was also no doubt an incentive to keep the work secret. An anonymous informant's information led to one fifteenth century English alchemist,Thomas Daulton, who was a monk at an abbey in Gloucestershire, being forced to the court of Edward IV in order to make gold for the king. Daulton was either unable to produce the elixir, or refused, and was kidnapped again, this time by one of Edward's nobles, Lord Herbert, who imprisoned Daulton for four years in Berkeley Castle. Daulton still refused to impart the secret, and was eventually released. He died a short time later, as did Herbert, who was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury.
The Great Work was often seen as being performed in one of two ways, the Dry Way and the Wet Way; some even spoke of further methods, called the Mixed Way and the Brief Way. These various methods refer to the supposed length of time of the work, and the temperatures required to heat the matter in the flask.
The Wet Way is described as the noblest of the ways, and is usually said to require the most time to accomplish. In the Wet Way, the temperatures needed to heat the retort are low: often much of the work is said to be carried out at body temperature, or at the temperature of a hen sitting on her eggs.
The Dry Way utilises an oven, and much greater temperatures, sometimes of up to 1000° centigrade. This is traditionally said to be a difficult method, and one that should only be attempted in conjunction with a master. This is the method said to have been used by Fulcanelli.
The Mixed Way, perhaps not surprisingly, incorporates procedures from both the Wet and Dry Ways, and was supposedly the method used by Albertus Magnus, Nicholas Flamel and Eirenaeus Philalethes.
The Brief Way is, as its name suggests, a direct, short path, a sort of alchemical dzogchen, that is said to take as little as four days to accomplish.
In psychological terms, the length of the process would depend upon how many things the individual has to work through in order to achieve a sense of wholeness and balance.
The Lesser Work: Nigredo
The alchemical work began with the first matter, or first agent, being placed into the retort at an astrologically suitable time (usually the spring, under the signs of Aries and Taurus). Astrology has always been important in alchemy, as it is one of the main tools by which an alchemist can try and work in harmony with natural rhythms and cycles.
What was it that the alchemists put into their baths and stills? No one knows. The word for alchemy, al-kimia is, according to some authorities, taken to mean 'the art of the black land', we can hazard a guess that, at least for the Egyptian alchemists, the first matter or prima materia may have been the black soil that was fed by the Nile and its tributaries; Egypt was called the black land precisely because of its well-nourished Nile soil. Later alchemists would write that 'the matter of our work is every where present', and also that it was 'worthless' and 'vile' and 'despised by all men'. Soil could perhaps fit this description, but others would disagree: Isaac Newton used antimony as his first agent, Nicholas Flamel is said to have used mercury, while Mary Anne Atwood believed the first matter to be the human imagination itself. Other, perhaps less enlightened practitioners, took the 'vileness' of the first matter literally and used dung, urine and mud in their experiments.
This initial stage was known as the nigredo, the black stage, because it dealt with a raw, confused mass. Although modern psychologists like Jung have felt that this corresponds to the unrefined state of the unconscious before any inner work is undertaken, this interpretation of the work may extend back as far as the semi-mythical first century adept Maria Prophetissa. Maria was one of the earliest alchemists to have understood the symbolic, or inner aspect of the work, so she may well have understood that the blackening of nigredo was equated with a spiritual or metaphorical death. In order to be cleansed by the work, the alchemist had to deal directly with the confused mass of himself or herself.
The Lesser Work: Albedo
The second stage, albedo, deals with whitening, or cleansing the matter. In physical terms, this may have involved a washing of the matter. In inward terms, we are dealing with a cleansing, perhaps referring to the observing of rituals such as fasting and other abstinences. It was hoped by such practices that the body would be readied for a reunion with the soul.
The Greater Work: Citrinitas
This stage of the work tends to disappear after the Hellenistic period, and represents a starting again, much as in nigredo, but at a purer level. It is a necessary preparation for the marriage of matter and spirit, which takes place during rubedo.
The Greater Work: Rubedo
The final stage, rubedo, is the climax of the work at which the Philosopher's Stone or Elixir is achieved. In spiritual terms, it is the mystic union of the soul and the body. This became known as the conjunctio, sometimes referred to as the chemical wedding, the marriage of the king and queen, or sometimes of the sun and moon.
Unlike chemistry, the alchemist would not be conducting operations in an empirical manner; that simply wasn't the point. The work would be repeated and repeated and repeated, each time waiting for the colours to appear, each time hoping that the stars and other esoteric variables would be sympathetic to the success of the work. Each new generation or school of alchemy would add something new to the process, much the same way that a gardener may continually graft one plant onto another, and then another, as the garden grows and surrounds the gardener with riches.
Hermes Trismegistus and the Corpus Hermeticum
The most influential text in alchemy is the Tabula Smaragdina, or Emerald Tablet. It was ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, who was supposed to have been a priest who introduced the art to Egypt sometime during the Old Kingdom, but the writings ascribed to him seem to date from around the time of Maria Prophetissa; the oldest extant copies of Emerald Tablet come from the library of the great Arab alchemist Jabir, dating from the eighth century.
Hermes is the Greek messenger of the gods. In Latin, he is known as Mercurius, and Mercury, the volatile, changeable matter, plays a vital role in alchemical thinking and practice. Hermes was also identified with Thoth Hermes, the Egyptian scribe of the gods. This meant that he was naturally associated with learning, the world of spirits and with lunar cycles. Whether or not there was originally a great teacher on whom tradition later embroidered the name Hermes Trismegistus, we shall never know, but it would seem that the writings bearing his name were composed by a group of Egyptian Gnostics living in the early centuries CE. The famous proverb, 'As above, so below' is from the Hermetic writings, known as the Corpus Hermeticum. This is actually a conflation of 'That which is above is like that which is below', which is taken from the Emerald Tablet, said to have been found in Hermes's tomb, clutched in the bony hands of the departed teacher. Part of its influence derives from the fact that it is said to contain the sum of all knowledge in its dozen or so verses. The text runs as follows:
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
Excerpted from Alchemy & Alchemists by Sean Martin. Copyright © 2006 Sean Martin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
Basic Ideas and Themes,
Alchemy in the West,
Alchemy in the East,
The Golden Chain,
Suggestions for Further Reading,