The Great Work.
Most people's idea of alchemy is a
conjured-up image of a mediaeval scholar in his
laboratory, surrounded by piles of rare books and manuscripts,
test-tubes, retorts, amblics and other paraphernalia generally
associated with chemical experiments; a remote expression on his
face while watching the white-heated brew in the crucible before
him. This picture is derived from hundreds of different
illustrations of the same subject. Such a remarkable consistency
deserves a serious attitude but is seldom honoured with one. That
is because when people deal with the phenomenon they usually talk
past each other, due to the fact that the word
alchemy has, at least, four different connotations -
as there are, at least, four different kinds of alchemists, viz.:
I: Les Souffleurs
II: The Scientific Alchemist
III: The Religious Alchemist
IV: The Philosophical Alchemist
I: Les Souffleurs
Les Souffleurs, the
blowers, is a French epithet given to the alchemists
conforming to the popular image of the adept mentioned above,
i.e. a Faust-like figure pursuing any shortcut to social and
material progress and wealth. These people's motives were totally
selfish. That there might be anything but material gain behind
the work was an alien idea to them. They tried anything, and
didn't even stop to think whether it made sense or not. If one
recipe didn't work, perhaps the next one would. They kept going
from one method to the next spending senseless amounts of money
on coals, metals and chemicals; the name souffleur -
literally meaning: blower - was an allusion to the
working of the bellows which was necessary to achieve the very
high temperatures needed for the transmutation.
Such a philosophy - or lack of - naturally found opposition with the Church and the most learned of the natural philosophers, who were the real scholars of the day. Even before the Age of Reason some degree of system and method was the hallmark of the serious student of nature. The senseless and random way of experimenting which characterised the souffleurs incurred the wrath of the religious and the disgust of the scientific establishment, but it was very popular with the other strata of society; not unlike the way gambling on the lottery, pools and horses, is to millions of people today, despite the appalling odds. It presented a dream of getting out of the misery and the daily tristesse for any mediaeval person in dire circumstances. One pound of scrap iron miraculously turned into the same amount of pure silver or gold and you were elevated to the level of the nobles with one stroke.
This ephemeral dream caused many ruthless practitioners of the Art to try anything that was rumoured to bring success. Some recipes taxed the alchemist heavily where moral was concerned. For example, blood and other parts of infants and virgins were in great demand. It's hard to understand that anybody could believe in the efficacy of such brews but the truth is that such recipes were far from uncommon; lots of old grimoires contain things that to a reader at the turn of the 21st century have the impression of being copied from a book of blasphemous nursery rhymes.
Take a Sieve and suspend it by a piece of
cord wherewith a man has been [sic] Hung...
And it is said, if a rope be taken, with
which a theefe is or has been hanged up with... The Boke
Of the Mervayles of The World
Albertus Magnus (ca. 1260)
Take the gall of a snaile, or milk of a sow,
and put in the fire, or with water of a worme shining late.
These are but three examples which, at first
sight, seem incomprehensible, childish, sickening or, at best,
quaint pieces of Mediaeval or Elizabethan dramatic rhetoric, but
actually the last piece is part of a conjuration for the
production of invisible writing, i.e. a recipe for invisible ink.
It may not work very well but the compound doesn't strike one as
quite so insane after learning what it's for. The trouble with
the souffleurs was that they didn't possess any sense of
discrimination. They took everything at face value and therefore
anything seemed possible to them, and, as their efforts caused
more bad than good, the negative view of the alchemists as a
whole is not totally unjustified.
Whether the three works quoted above strictly are to be categorised as alchemical tracts per se is of course a matter of opinion. Although they don't deal directly with the transmutation of metals they are similar in certain aspects or, at least, appear so to a modern reader.
Symbolism, parables and analogies have always been used to explain very complex phenomena, and that is one reason that various people have found profound alchemical - and other kinds of - truths in the Great Pyramid, the Bible and the decorative ornamentation of the Mediaeval Gothic cathedrals. It also explains why the souffleurs didn't make any further progress. They were too ignorant and stupid to understand the symbolism, and it was only greed and pride that kept them going through one incomprehensible recipe after another in the hope of hitting the jackpot.
Rue des Alchimistes in the old part of Prague
II: The Religious Alchemist
One reason for the tremendous success of the
Christian Church in its early days was its ability to flow with
the tide. The clerical leaders pursued a flexible if you
can't beat 'em, join 'em policy that eventually brought
this religion to the top, while other movements that had
attempted to convert the heathens forcibly naturally failed. For
example the Church had made it a policy to lay its feasts on the
same dates as the ancient heathen days of celebration so that in
a few generations they had almost completely replaced them, and
their original significance was largely forgotten.
As very few people were sufficiently proficient at alchemy, and as the Church leaders were not among those who were, it became a political hot potato. Obviously the transmutation of metals - if at all possible - was an act of God, and accordingly, anyone who aspired to become Pope should be able to master it, as should other high dignitaries, cardinals, bishops, etc, whereas it didn't look good in the hands of all and sundry. To save face the only alternative was to ascribe alchemy to the Devil, and that was eventually done, although people such as Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas all defended the Art; however, they were a minority.
From the Reformation and through to this day it has gradually been coming back into fashion. The Christian mystics, the Freemasons, the Rosicrusians and most other non-fundamentalist organisations use, at least, alchemical terminology and symbolism. They speak of: The transmutation of the Soul, where Man, in his lust-ridden mortal coils, represents the crude base lead, but whose soul, by the infinite grace of God, at the moment of death is transmuted - or transmigrated - into Cosmic Gold in Heaven.
Every proto-Christian creed of course has its own teachings that differ in some detail or other from the rest, but they have one thing in common: They do not admit to any physical part or basis of the process! It's all spiritual. There's no talk about turning lead or scrap iron into gold in the laboratory.
III: The Scientific Alchemist
From The Age of Reason until this century,
alchemy was almost ignored by the scientific establishment,
although the practitioners of the Art had contributed to
chemistry, physics and medical science throughout the ages.
Gunpowder, Arsenic, Antimony, various acids, phosphorous etc.
were first discovered or described by alchemists, and two of the
greatest scientists who described the fundamentals of optics, Roger Bacon (1190?-1280?) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were deeply versed in
alchemy. These giants are generally excused on the grounds that:
Roger Bacon was a product of his time (and, therefore, didn't
know any better). Newton, on the other hand, is not so easy to
explain away. Very few have the gall and guts to pass final
judgement on Newton's views on occultism and religion - or
anything else for that matter. Halley (the fellow with the comet)
or Flamsteed (a Fellow of the Royal Society - with no comet) once
passed a sarcastic remark upon one of these esoteric subjects to
Newton who replied: Sir, I have studied the subject.
Evidently You have not.
As the alchemists' modus operandi was declared irrational by the rationalists after Newton, it fell into disrepute and was considered the products of ignorant fools by the scientists whose efforts brought us the marvels and blessed fruits of the Industrial Revolution. Not until about 1900, with the discovery of radioactive matter, did it occur to these people that what they believed to be the basic tenet of alchemy wasn't the dream of a bunch of raving lunatics. It was, at least, theoretically possible. Later the transmutation of base metal into gold has actually been accomplished in big nuclear devices; the only trouble being that it costs more than the market-price to produce the gold this way. Those practitioners of the Art who succeeded - if any - obviously did it cheaper.
Why then hasn't the market been drowned in artificial gold if it's that easy? Well, it isn't that easy: There exist to my knowledge at least a hundred thousand different works on alchemy. I presume that these copious arcana have been studied by at least ten times that amount of people. One million people out of which a fair share has been what I call browsers, i.e. they have studied these works for other reasons. They have been perhaps historians, bibliographers, biographers, philologists etc. Some have had religious motives and have consciously or unconsciously mentally eliminated all references to the physical part of the process. Some have been greedy or desperate ignorant souffleurs with the bailiff or the debtors' prison breathing down their necks.
That leaves us with a handful of recorded cases, throughout the history of the West and a similar amount in the Arab, Hebrew, Indian and Chinese cultures, of alchemists who may or may not have mastered Ars Magna as the transmutation is euphemistically called. Merely forty or fifty during the whole span of recorded history. How does one account for that? One reason is of course the fact that no recipe fulfilling the stringent criteria of today's scientific approach has ever existed. All alchemical tracts are written in symbolic language that differs from one writer to another, and who can tell which of them actually succeeded in performing The Great Work, if any? There is also another reason:
Those who believe that
Alchemy is of pure Earthly, mineral and metallic nature ought to
abstain from it.
Those who believe that
Alchemy is of pure spiritual nature ought to abstain from it.
Those who believe that
Alchemy is merely a symbol, employed because of the similarity
between them to reveal the course of the spiritual
fulfilment, in other words that Man is the Matter and
athanor, ought to give it up.
Claude d'Ygé Nouvelle Assemblée des
It seems that the alchemist has to be
reconciled to the fact that the physical and the spiritual side
are equally important for a successful transmutation; which
brings us to the final group of alchemists: the Philosophers.
IV: The Philosophical Alchemist
It's very hard to say what the true alchemist
is like but there is one indication. He must be one who does not
fall into any of the three categories above. And he must be
wealthy. The time and cost of a pursuit such as the Great Work
are not of the kind that allows the adept in spe the luxury of
working for a living. One must devote oneself totally to studying
the vast literature on the subject but even that is no small
task. Alchemical tracts are probably the least reissued of occult
works, so they'll have to be bought second hand or at rare
If not otherwise available, it will incur travels to various famous libraries all over the world. Another important requirement is the command of several languages. French and German are a must, but even those may prove inadequate. Most of the non-reissued originals are in mediaeval Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew or Sanskrit.
After having collected works sufficiently for learning the modus operandi of the ancient adepts one has to study and meditate their works: Try to understand what lies behind the archaic and often cryptic lines handed down to us from the past. This may take years; I have heard of people who have been studying alchemy for twenty years and haven't grasped the fundamentals yet.
When one thinks one is ready, the time has come for the actual work in the laboratory. This generally takes another three to five years before it is completed. Then! - not before - is the time for the transmutation. This is where the true alchemist differs from the rest. Turning base metals into gold is merely a test to make sure that the experiment has met with success. The true purpose of the Work is the change it confers on the mind and body of the alchemist himself. The Philosopher's Stone a k a The Elixir of Life, or at times just The Elixir, is a homeopathic solution made from the gold powder. It serves to rejuvenate the adept - it is said to make him lose his hair, nails and teeth and cause him not to need to eat any food thereafter. The loss of hair, nails and teeth is only temporarily; they grow out again, and the adept is said to be able to keep himself alive for centuries by drinking a teaspoonful of this fluid twice a year.
Of course he also undergoes a spiritual change of which precious little is known. He shall converse with God and His Angels, and never more shall he walk in fear of the temptations of Satan or man. Whatever that means.
So who is a true Alchemist? Of course they all are according to themselves, but are there any among them who succeeds or are they all living their lives in a dream? Who can say?
Lars B. Lindholm
Declaration of Intent
LBL Literary Review
(c) 1998 LBL