What are the origins of Alchemy?
Alchemy is an ancient spiritual science, and one of three disciplines that comprise the Hermetic tradition. Whether conducted in a physical laboratory or one’s own psyche, this so-called “royal art” is concerned with transmuting the “gross” into the “perfect” through a series of processes collectively referred to as the “Magnum Opus” or “Great Work”. Completion of the Great Work purportedly yields the “philosopher’s stone” or the “elixir”, a legendary substance variously claimed to transmute base metals into gold, rejuvenate the body and confer immortality. Although clearly not fundamentally materialistic, alchemy has undeniably influenced material science, as the predecessor of chemistry. Alchemical tinctures also informed a new field of medicine; homeopathy is based on the work of Paracelsus, a 16th century alchemical philosopher.
As the late C.G. Jung found alchemical symbolism indispensable for interpreting and communicating his research in the field of psychology, so have many students of alchemy found zodiacal, planetary and elemental correspondences useful for organizing the corpus of alchemical knowledge. Thereby, the zodiac represents the 12 transmutative processes in 4 phases (decomposition: oxidation, digestion, and fermentation; modification: coagulation, fixation, ceration; multiplication: distillation, sublimation, filtration; and union: solution, multiplication, and projection); and the seven classical planets represent stages of attainment in spiritual practice, each signified by a base metal (lead, tin, iron, copper, mercury, silver, gold).
What does Alchemy mean now?
To define the concept and practice of alchemy is a little like trying to define the concept and practice of life. Both demand struggle, discipline and refinement. There are laws. There are exceptions. In the end, the laws are defined only to be broken. At its heart, a practitioner realizes “Do what thou wilt be the whole of the Law.” In other words, you and only you are responsible for your actions, the consequences of those actions and the acquisition of your own happiness. As with all forms of magick, Alchemy attempts to extend the practitioner’s spirit into realms of awareness previously hidden from consciousness, and ultimately, to extend the will, effecting physical manifestation.
Alchemy is a language of results.
The primary study for a practicing alchemist is the relationship of cause and effect within the larger cyclical process of transformation. The journey from the will to physical manifestation follows a path. The will is defined, a desired outcome envisioned, knowledge, tools and resources are gathered. Finally, action is strategized, formalized and executed. This study requires the practitioner to seek a trained mind and a focused heart. Ultimately, only the pure of heart succeed, as the second part of the quote reminds us, “Do what thou wilt be the whole of the Law, under Love.”
All magick, through observation and study, seeks to emulate and harness natural force. Alchemists are acutely aware of the reactionary qualities of substance and the influence of substance and condition on human behavior. The word ‘harness’ is a metaphor for the practice. As with a horse or other creature, the alchemist observes, waiting for the right moment. Then, when resources and knowledge unite, The Alchemist seizes hold of the force, riding it towards a purpose.
Alchemy embraces tradition and science from many cultures, from the first written record of human thought to the present. By name, ‘Alchemy’ offers infinite connotation to practitioners and laymen alike, but it’s foundations lay in the concept of an Archetype, the personification of a collectively conscious idea. As beings of consciousness, we act out archetypes every day of our lives. Real power lies in choosing which archetype you wish to embody, allowing you to acquire allies in the physical realm.
If the Alchemist is true to his or her instincts, natural forces can serve as tools, if purpose and action are in accord. But like any tool, forces must be used with the full understanding of their true nature. An alchemist’s toolbox may include commodities such as metals, gemstones, organic materials, or money; as well as skills and talents in relationships, business, athletics, the arts of war or peace. Alchemical disciplines may be esoteric: familiarity with numerology, astrology, energy vortices, the awareness of dream states. And the alchemist’s methods may be common and profane: negotiating, manipulating, intimidating, misinforming. All alchemical disciplines serve the practitioner in connecting the will to the physical world. When a connection is made with awareness and intent and aligned with a natural force; it will carry the Alchemist further along the path of transformation.
Traditional alchemy holds the phenomenon of matter at its core and the desired results are often material wealth or a greater understanding of physical forces. Either results in a sharpening of the practitioner’s ability to implement their will, but the aspiring alchemist must be wary. A breach in understanding, an error in judgment, a misguided impulse from an impure heart can send the forces of chaos echoing through an unforgiving world.