It’s not called alchemy anymore. In fact, most of us believe that alchemy ended sometime in the 17th century when Newton and his colleagues of the Royal College threw out magic and ushered in an age of empirical science, materialism, industrialization and the primacy of the scientific method. Ironically, few people are aware that many of Newton’s central theories sprang from his secret alchemical work.
Alchemy today conjures up images of medieval nerds working in smelly, makeshift laboratories. We see them cutting, dicing and smashing up the foul ingredients that went into a steamy vessel beneath which blazed a constant fire. The aim of this weird experiment is to make gold out of crude, worthless metals; a lucrative trick if one could only pull it off!
In reality, the history of alchemy is at least 2000 years old and even a cursory review of its history shows that it was in fact the first laboratory science and can credit a great many accomplishments to its name. Porcelain, alcohol and mineral acids, even brandy were discovered by chance and ingenuity by these early chemists. There is no one alchemy, but many different types practiced the world over, from Egypt and the Middle East to China, India and even the Americas. And, not only were its practitioners interested in transmuting metals, but perhaps more importantly, they advanced the development of medicine, chemistry, religion, physics and psychology.
Written evidence of alchemical experimentation dates back to Bolos of Mendes (200 B.C.). A quick look at thousands of alchemical texts appears as if madmen wrote them. The words make no sense and comparing alchemical images (woodcuts, engravings, paintings) to surrealism makes the latter look like Norman Rockwell illustrations! And yet, despite all the gibberish (a word coined after an alchemist!) this proto-scientific endeavor remains the Royal Art.
If we measure alchemy’s worth by today’s standards, it does indeed look more like the work of madmen than anything to do with real science. We could easily forget alchemy were it not for the fact that many of its views are proving to be valid in modern laboratories. What the alchemists lacked in technology they made up for in prophetic vision and intuitive genius. They anticipated many of the theories that now form the foundation of quantum physics and genetic research. To take one example, rather than exclude experimenter bias, alchemists specifically included the “operator” as a crucial element to the success of their work. Gerhard Dorn, the 16th century alchemist, instructed his students with the admonition, “The mind must be in harmony with the work.”1 Consciousness was treated as a critical component, along with all those smelly substances, to be essential in their pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Alchemy involves mind and matter — one’s mind must be confronted, killed, purified and resurrected in much the same way that physical matter is handled. Consciousness is not limited to humans but to varying degrees is present in everything, from rocks to raccoons. Although there was no formal psychological science, there were strict codes and procedures with which the adept’s cognitive and moral behavior had to conform. There are pearls of wisdom hidden amidst the many thousands of pages of odd pictures and cryptic formulas in alchemical books. Being an occult art, alchemists purposely embedded recipes in paradox, bizarre associations and even used misdirection less their secrets be usurped by the dreaded “puffers” (crooks!). We must then decode recipes like one from the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegitus, “As above, so Below for the Making of the One Thing.”2 I will explain the hidden meaning of this formula, but even with such knowledge there is no promise of reward unless the gods favor the work. In fact, the last ingredient to go into the alembic was a prayer to Hermes.
This formula is taken from the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegitus, otherwise known as the Tabula Smaragdina. It is one of thirteen recipes that many believe represents all the steps needed in producing the Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone or lapis is the goal of alchemy. It is conceived of as a stone that can transmute the most inferior material —lead, for example — into the most precious and enduring substance (gold). The lapis was also referred to as the Elixir of Immortality for those adepts who sought a concoction that promised eternal life. The One Thing in this recipe refers to the Philosopher’s Stone. According to Hermes Trismegitus, it is produced by integrating the Above and the Below. These are two realms of experience, the former being the spiritual and the latter pertaining to earthly existence. In other words, we attain immortality by joining heaven and earth
In my research, I have come to believe that the origin of this recipe comes from ancient Egypt, the place that many believe is the birthplace of alchemy. In Egyptian cosmology, Nut represents the sky goddess and Geb, her husband, the earth god. At one time they were joined together in unconscious bliss and it was Shu, their father, god of the atmosphere, who separated them. The separatio was not easy given the intense love each had for the other; they held together as long as they could, but in the end Nut formed the firmament Above and Geb the earth Below. Shu provided the atmosphere in which human beings could reside and ultimately reintegrate the Above and the Below, for it is within our nature that the essence of these great deities is contained, waiting to be consciously realized.
While this recipe may sound esoteric, we need only be reminded that our earthbound bodies are, as the astrophysicist Isaac Asimov said, made of stardust.3 Thus, we see that old recipes have application for us today. In more contemporary times, the Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David and the Taoist yin/yang symbolize this same recipe for the rejoining of what first must be separated in the process of birthing consciousness.
In the last thirty years of his life, C.G. Jung dedicated his entire research to the exploration of alchemy. Jung was fascinated by the idea that alchemy provided him with evidence to support his theory of individuation; what these early chemists were really pursuing, however blindly, was the perfection of their own personality. Others, like Marie Louise von Franz, continued to develop Jung’s thoughts about alchemy and this work continues even today. Jungian analysts like James Hillman, Stanton Marlon and Jeff Raff have taken Jung’s work even further — exploring endlessly fascinating connections between mind, body and soul. My own work in alchemical psychology focuses on translating complex alchemical works (like the myth of Osiris) into a language and methodology anyone can use in their individuation process and spiritual development.
We should bear in mind that individuation occurs whether or not we consciously work on ourselves. Here I am reminded of the words etched in stone above the entrance to Jung’s home, “Summoned or not, the god will be there.” Bringing consciousness to bear on the prima materia of the unconscious—genetic and karmic obstructions, trauma, accidents, and our collective and cultural inheritances—acts to refine and transmute these dense, gross and complexed areas of one’s psyche and experience. Alchemy is a method that facilitates our personal development by applying natural processes that have been heated by conscious intention, love, and a personal confrontation with the unconscious. As a result, we gain, according to Jung, self-knowledge: a transcendent relationship with the unconscious that essentially frees us from the duality of the opposites, such as time and space. In other words, we become our own true, authentic self – the true gold of the alchemists. As Dorn put it, “Thou wilt never make from others the One which thou seekest, except first there be made one thing of thyself…”4
This idea is amplified in religious form as samadhi, mosha and more generally, enlightenment. And because the individual is an implicit part of a whole world system, individual progress contributes in whatever small way toward collective evolution. In my latest book, Embodying Osiris, I recall the Native American belief that healing oneself simultaneously brings healing to past and future generations. This is explained by the transcendent nature of achieving the consciousness represented by the Philosopher’s Stone. In Jungian terms, individuation occurs within the vessel of an individual living in a specific time, but its reward is experienced in the transformative vessel of the Self, beyond the constraints of time and space.
Alchemy is far from dead. In fact, I believe we are witnessing a renaissance of the Royal Art. Whatever its present name, the principles and many of its methods remain the same. More importantly, the love and passion that the alchemists had for Nature and its perfection have not changed in its long history. We are no different than our ancestors who sought to make peace with themselves and others, animals and spirits, rocks and minerals, gods and devils, heaven and earth. When we can open our eyes and see the infinite reflections of the One Thing, we have truly lifted the whole of humanity to a higher plane.
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1 The quote by Thomas Norton in his Ordinale of Alchemy is found in Arthur Waite’s book, The Hermetic Museum: Containing Twenty-Two Most Celebrated Chemical Tracts. New York: Red Wheel/Weiser, 1999, p. 60.
2 see Cavalli, Thom. Alchemical Psychology, Old Recipes for Living in a New World. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2002, p. 100-101.
3 While Dr. Sagan made this comment in the Cosmos series interviews, there is an outstanding question of whether the folk singer Joni Mitchell didn’t first include it in her iconic song “Woodstock.”
4 see Jung, C.G. Mysterium Coniunctionis, An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, vol.14. New York: Bollingen– Foundation, 1963, p. 235.
Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist in Santa Ana, CA. He authored Alchemical Psychology, Old Recipes for Living in a New World (Putnam 2002) and his latest best seller, Embodying Osiris, the Secrets of Alchemical Transformation (Quest 2010). He is a regular lecturer at Jungian institutes, major self-growth centers, museums and universities. For more information visit his websites, CavalliBooks.com and AlchemicalPsychology.com. Or, email email@example.com