Alchemy: Reflections on the Sacred Art in a Secular Age

Alchemy is either the foundation of modern science or a grand mystic delusion induced by mercury fumes. Can new understandings of ancient ways show us how interconnectedness can exist in harmony with scientific mastery?

We inhabit a world that has been radically transformed by technology. The boundaries between nature and human artifice are often difficult, if not impossible, to discern. For some, this is a source of deep anxiety, expressed in cultural movements ranging from ecological activism to New Age spiritualities centered on the earth. For others, technology holds the key to prolonging human life and eradicating disease through advances in gene therapy and nanorobotics.

In recent decades, historians of science have traced the ideological vision of modern techno-science to the mysterious practices of medieval alchemy. For these historians, alchemy was a precursor of experimental science and its dreams of technological mastery. Others, approaching alchemy from the standpoint of the history of religion, have represented alchemy as a form of mysticism totally at odds with the materialism of the modern scientific worldview. Both approaches are ultimately reductive and one-sided. Our modern categories are too crude to grasp the subtle interplay of science and spirituality that characterized the work of the alchemists. Yet it is precisely in this interplay that we may hope to find a solution to our modern technological crises, by returning to a holistic and sacred vision of humanity’s place within the natural universe.

Alchemy seems to promise a secret knowledge, on the borderlands between science and mysticism. The word conjures up hazy ideas of miraculous reagents: the philosopher’s stone that can transmute base metals into gold, or the elixir of life that can bestow immortality on the alchemist himself. In popular imagination, alchemy is one of the magical arts. If you leaf through a medieval alchemical codex, this association of alchemy with esoteric knowledge is immediately confirmed. The traditional writings are full of enigmatic symbols—the chemical wedding of the King and the Queen, the Green Lion devouring the sun, or the self-devouring serpent. Some kind of coded language is at work, meant to guard the secrets of the “sacred art” from the eyes of the profane. The alchemists represented themselves as adepts, initiates of a secret tradition as old as the pyramids of Egypt. Or so they claim. The preeminent figurehead of the tradition was Hermes Trismegistus (the “thrice great”), a legendary Egyptian priest and prophet. Alchemy, it seems, was not merely a set of theories and experimental instructions that could be learned by reading books. One needed the key to unlock the inner meaning of the alchemical code and this was only available through initiation into the Hermetic tradition.

The traditional writings are full of enigmatic symbols—the chemical wedding of the King and the Queen, the Green Lion devouring the sun, or the self-devouring serpent. Some kind of coded language is at work, meant to guard the secrets of the “sacred art” from the eyes of the profane.

This esoteric dimension raises a problem for modern students. If alchemy demands a privileged insider’s perspective, then how can outsiders ever hope to make sense of these books?

The self-representation of the alchemists as initiates of a secret tradition should be taken quite seriously. There are deeply entrenched connections between alchemy and the so-called “mystery cults” of the late ancient world, and the symbolic language of the alchemists cannot be understood without a sympathetic understanding of the mystical worldview in which they operated. Central to alchemy in its earliest phases was the concept of gnôsis, an initiated understanding of reality that disclosed unseen connections between heaven and earth. This was a super-rational apprehension of the hidden structure of the cosmos. Alchemical experimentation was partly aimed at unveiling these secret connections. Material bodies were chemically analyzed in order to discover their occult powers, which could then be harnessed in order to generate strange phenomena.

The alchemist could not detach himself from the results of his experiments. He discovered that by transforming the materials in the chemical vessel, he too was transformed.

The universe was imagined by the alchemists as an interconnected whole, united by mysterious forces emanating from the stars; the alchemist had to know how to harness those divine forces in order to effect miracles on earth. Even stranger, we learn that the alchemical operator was part of this interconnected field of forces: the alchemist could not detach himself from the results of his experiments. He discovered that by transforming the materials in the chemical vessel, he too was transformed. Over and over we encounter this tendency to represent alchemical operations in terms of a spiritual allegory of death and resurrection, of purification and transformation. This was part of the inheritance of the mystery cults, which taught that the attainment of mystical awareness required spiritual death and rebirth.

The earliest alchemists were Hellenized Egyptians and Jews who worked in the cosmopolitan centers of Greco-Roman Egypt in the early centuries of the Common Era. Certain forms of artisanal knowledge—knowledge of goldworking in particular—made their way from the Egyptian temples into the alchemical laboratory. For the alchemists, mummification was the archetypal act of transmutation—the transformation of decaying matter into an incorruptible substance. The goal of transforming base metals into gold finds its earliest expression in the sacred context of these temples, where the statues of the gods fabricated from gold and precious jewels were animated through the performance of secret rituals. Ordinary materials were transformed into the living bodies of the gods.

In the Roman period of Egypt, these traditional cult practices were reinterpreted by the alchemists in light of Greek theories of matter—in particular the idea of a primal matter, from which all natural substances were supposed to derive. The earliest of their alchemical practices were based on the hypothesis that if imperfect metals could be resolved back into this prime matter, they could then be reformed into more perfect metals. They speculated that the most primal type of metal might be mercury—a metal with very strange properties. A liquid—the Greeks called it “silver water”—mercury is also dense and cohesive like earth. And despite its great density it vaporizes when exposed to fire, giving it an airy quality. Finally, and perhaps most unusually, they noted that mercury eats other metals: it has a corrosive, fiery behavior. Mercury seemed to have properties of all four of the elements recognized by the ancients. It was simultaneously water, earth, air and fire. How could one element hold together the opposing powers of air and earth, fire and water? Mercury was the top contender for the status of a primal matter, something more basic than the four elements, the ultimate source of all material reality.

The early alchemists used mercury along with sulphur to first destroy the metals they were working on. The corrosive vapors of mercury and sulphur would rise up in the vessel and actually decompose the base metals (usually copper or lead), reducing them to a blackened primal state. Next, having “killed” the metals, they would reengineer them from scratch, taking that prime matter and treating it with other reagents in order to change its properties. The process was conceived as a sacrifice—the total destruction of the metal—followed by a rebirth, symbolized by gold. This process of sacrifice and redemption was an allegory for the initiation of the alchemist himself, who first had to die, to abandon his mundane ego, before he could attain enlightenment.

The idea that human technology should be capable of such radical transformation of nature—turning one substance into another—was not at all obvious to the ancients. The alchemist claimed this power in virtue of a divine dispensation; he had been elevated to a gnostic understanding of the secret forces latent in the cosmos. This is why alchemy was called the “sacred art.” It was no mere technique—no mere artifice. Alchemy was always more than chemistry. Its practice was often more akin to ritual than experiment; and its theoretical principles were concealed in enigmatic symbols that still defy any straightforward analysis into the language of the modern laboratory.

Alchemy in the modern world

If we approach alchemy from the standpoint of modern experimental science—as a kind of proto-chemistry—we encounter a number of problems. From the modern standpoint, we expect science to be open to rational inspection. Scientific knowledge may be expressed in obscure terminology, inaccessible to a lay person. But in principle, the pursuit of scientific education is open to all and science aims for the public good. We expect of science a certain transparency. Alchemy, by contrast, was an elite discipline, hidden from the masses. Its truths were deliberately encrypted. We require a posture of objectivity from the modern scientist— detachment and disinterested rationality. By contrast, the experiments of the alchemist often had the character of bizarre religious rituals, in which the alchemist himself was transformed in and through the experiment.

The psychologist Carl Jung made a deep study of alchemical texts and came to the controversial conclusion that alchemy was never really about the pursuit of chemical knowledge. It wasn’t really the mystery of matter that the alchemists were trying to uncover in their experiments, but the mysteries of the psyche. The strange symbols of alchemy were not really an encrypted chemical knowledge; they were archetypes, symbols deriving from the unconscious depths of the mind. This explains why alchemy is so insistently expressed, in religious terms of self-transformation. Even when the alchemists think that they are exploring the hidden depths of matter, they are really exploring the shadowy realms of the unconscious, projecting the hidden contents of the psyche outwards into the unknown.

Even when the alchemists think that they are exploring the hidden depths of matter, they are really exploring the shadowy realms of the unconscious, projecting the hidden contents of the psyche outwards into the unknown.

According to Jung, modern chemistry parted ways with alchemy in the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment ideals led to an abandonment of the mystical dimensions of the art and its holistic vision of reality. Modern chemistry turned instead towards a materialistic and reductionist view of the cosmos, in which the psyche was imagined as radically separate from the objective universe. Jung maintained that it now fell to the science of psychoanalysis to pick up where alchemy had left off, as a form of therapy aiming at self-integration and transformation.

The Jungian approach is enticing. It seems to confirm our intuition that alchemy is something mysterious and radically other than modern science. But as “other” as alchemy appears, we must also contend with the fact that it gave rise to modern chemistry. There was no radical break between alchemy and chemistry. We are accustomed to thinking about the origins of modern science in terms of the narrative of a “scientific revolution.” Following the lead of Alexandre Koyré, twentieth century historians such as Thomas Kuhn framed the concept of the scientific revolution as a way of describing the rapid transformations of Western science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term “revolution”—with its moral and political inflection—suggests a violent rupture with preceding traditions, a victory of rational science over the religious dogmas of the medieval world. There is no denying that this period saw significant advances in scientific theory and practice, including a radical shift in cosmology (Copernicus flipping the Earth–Sun rotation relationship for good) and the rise of experimentalism. However, the language of “revolution” conceals some of the essential continuities between the rise of experimental science and the older traditions of alchemy and magic. These continuities were not lost on such great luminaries of the period as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle (one of the founders of the Royal Society). Both of these men were deeply engaged with the tradition of alchemy. Newton was a practicing alchemist, who devoted himself more diligently to alchemical theory and practice than he did to his published works on physics. His private laboratory notebooks, which were hidden away for centuries after his death, are now the subject of careful scholarly examination.

Today, a new wave of scholars are attempting to rehabilitate alchemy and establish it as it fundamentally was: a form of experimental chemistry. Among these scholars are William Newman and Lawrence Principe, both of whom are anxious to distance alchemy from the occult and legitimize its study as worthy of academic attention. They stress that with proper chemical understanding, one can decode the symbols of alchemy to reveal straightforward chemical procedures, which can then be replicated in the modern laboratory.

These scholars rightly argue that the alchemists had good reason for believing in the possibility of metallic transmutation. Anyone familiar with the mining of metallic ores would have encountered phenomena that looked, by all accounts, like transmutation. If a miner dropped an iron implement into a pool of copper sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral salt readily soluble in water, he would soon discover that its outer surface had become coated with copper. For the modern chemist this is not mysterious. We now understand this as a substitution reaction in which the iron bonds more easily with sulphur than with copper. It isn’t a genuine transformation of one substance into another. However, in the pre-modern universe, before the rise of analytical chemistry, the same phenomenon would have appeared in an entirely different light.

If you believed that all matter was composed of only four elements (earth, air, fire and water), and that those elements could turn into one another, then the idea that metals could evolve and transform into higher forms would not really pose an insurmountable problem. If air can turn into water, then why can’t iron turn into copper? The idea of metallic transmutation only strikes us as fantastic because our theoretical framework does not allow for the chemical transformation of one element into another.

The idea of metallic transmutation seems still more reasonable if you believe that the universe is inherently purposive, guided by divine intelligence. Everything strives to become as perfect as it can—as a seed strives to become a flower, as an embryo evolves into a child. Prior to the seventeenth century, it was commonplace to suppose that metals were also, on some level, living beings, which very slowly evolved and matured under the earth. The alchemists were searching for the fabled philosopher’s stone, a catalyst that could speed up these natural processes of metallic gestation. Usually it was a special form of mercury, represented by a self-devouring serpent; like the venomous dragon, mercury was highly corrosive, and in the early stages of the operation it actually dissolved the base metals. But it was also a medicine, which could regenerate the dead metals, bring them back to life and raise them to a higher degree of perfection.

So alchemy was in part a theoretical science, grounded in rational principles. There can be no doubt that the alchemists were engaged in technical laboratory work. They were not just deluded mystics, high on mercurial fumes. The fact that real chemical operations can be decoded and replicated from the alchemical texts demonstrates beyond doubt the essential continuities between alchemy and chemistry at the empirical level.

But is the Green Lion just a chemical cipher? Does this chemical decoding exhaust the possible meanings of the symbol?

If we attempt to fit alchemy into the narrow mould of a modern experimental science, we fail to understand it on its own terms, which are at once scientific and spiritual. The texts speak so emphatically about the primacy of initiation and mystical illumination that we are obligated to consider seriously what initiation meant to the alchemists. The chemical transformations enacted in the alchemical vessel were mirrored inwardly in some kind of psychic transformation. The scientific and spiritual dimensions were inseparable. One of the deep insights that emerges through a close engagement with the alchemical tradition is that our modern understanding of scientific objectivity has not always been assumed. The development of Western civilization rests upon the ideals of rational freedom and self-determination; modern individualism and democracy enshrine these values. Western science and technology are likewise premised on the idea that humans, as rational beings, can (and should) master the world. The alchemists agreed that human beings could radically transform the natural universe, but the technological wonders of alchemy were rooted in a sacred vision of humanity’s interconnectedness with the cosmos. The alchemist claimed the power to transform nature in virtue of his mystical alignment with the divine powers latent in matter. He could transform the cosmos only in virtue of first transforming himself. In our present age, as technological exploitation threatens global catastrophe and even species extinction, the alchemical vision of a sacred technology presents us with a viable alternative paradigm, exalting the creative genius of humanity while preserving the essential sacrality of the natural universe.

Further Reading

The archives of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and their Distillations magazine, are worth a trawl. The CHF “study the past in order to understand the present and inform the future,” with a particular focus on the science of matter. Their collection now features Sir Isaac Newton’s handwritten copy of George Starkey’s instructions on preparing “sophick mercury”—evidence of his search for the philosopher’s stone.

We tend to look at the sciences of the past with condescension and pity. If only they weren’t so naive! But Kyle shows us that the esoteric practices of alchemy, as with all of history, can show us alternative pathways forward. The spiritual and the scientific are neither fixed nor exclusive — AR

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