The origin of Alchemy:
Hellenistic Egypt, ca 300 BC. Greek colonists look at the religion of the Egyptians and see similarities between their god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth (The-Thrice-Great). Both were gods of language, gods of magic and psychopomps (in charge of transmitting souls from one world to the next, like the grim reaper) In the minds of some, the two figures merge into one character called Hermes Trismegistus.
Now fast forward to 100 AD. At this time, Alexandria, Egypt is the definition of a melting pot. Roman culture advocates a comparative and syncretic approach to religion, and Alexandria is a geographic hub. The ideas of mystics from all over the world mixed together. Jewish Cabala, Zoroastrianism, Platonic philosophy, Christianity, Astrology, Innumerable Greek mystery cults, and probably a spattering of Hinduism and Buddhism —It was all there.
Out of this bubbling cauldron of mystic philosophies came some unique 2nd century inventions.
Gnostic Christians, who were themselves influenced by Zoroastrians and Manicheans, created an elaborate hierarchal cosmology. They believed that the creator of the Earth (YHWH of the bible) was actually an ignorant demigod called the Demiurge, and that the real God existed in an abstract realm far beyond this world. They disliked the material world and believed that Jesus was sent by the original God to help human beings figure out how to climb up the spheres and become spiritual beings instead.
Meanwhile another group called the Neo-Platonists also had a stratified worldview. They distinguished between microcosm and macrocosm, apparent world and ideal world, individual beings and the Monad (one true being) —but they believed that in the end, every layer was interlinked and connected as permanently as a man is to his shadow. The material world and the spiritual world were ever-reconciled.
These beliefs met and mingled and from the junction of these two popped Hermeticism. Hermeticists believed that Hermes Trismegistus was a real Egyptian Pharaoh who invented magic, science, philosophy, and hieroglyphics. He created an emerald tablet onto which he inscribed the instructions for the transmutaion of metals and the maxim “That which is above corresponds to that which is below and that which is below correspond to that which is above,” and started a secret society to pass down his knowledge. His lineage of students was believed to include Moses, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato.
Determining what the Hermeticists really thought is difficult because they were incredibly distrustful of language. They felt that words could not capture the true meaning of their impressions. They admired the Egyptians because they falsely assumed that Hieroglyphics was a picture-language like Rebus. Inspired by this fantasy they created an elaborate symbolic code of their own —intent on communicating everything with images, emblems, numbers, and obscure allegories.
There were three major ways of practicing Hermeticism: One is astrology (the reading and manipulation of the stars) the second is Theurgy (the practice of magical rituals to achieve oneness with divinity) and the third and the largest involved performing ritualistic experiments with metal. The named of this practice came from the Arabic Al-Chemia or “The Chemistry.” Hermeticists who practiced the art of Alchemy were called Alchemists, and they would lay the foundation for our modern understanding of the Elements.
What did the alchemists, the ancestors of modern chemists, believe about the elements?
The alchemists believed in one elementary form of matter called “Prima Materia” or prime matter. All matter was under the influence of four elemental qualities or forces – heat, moistness, coldness, dryness (corresponding to fire, water, land and air) and the fifth element or “quintessence” which constitutes divinity.
The divinity of a material is usually invisible. It’s either hidden deep down in the heart of a thing, or it lies up in the heavens waiting to be re-integrated with its early counterpart. Truly divine matter is philosophical in nature (AKA platonic, ideal, spiritual) and has been described as golden, healing, light, bright, powerful and other fancy terms.
The idea of a hierarchy of metals ascending towards divinity comes from the Gnostic Christians, who used the metals and the planets as metaphors for stages of spiritual enlightenment. Tin (Jupiter) was lowest, followed by Iron (mars) Copper (venus) Quicksilver (Mercury) Silver (the Moon) and Gold (the Sun). Arabic neo-platonists introduced the idea of Salt representing the body, Sulfur representing the spirit, and Mercury representing the mind.
The alchemists took this symbolism of metals and made it the core of their spiritual practice. So much so that the average person only knows that alchemists were “wizard-scientists who wanted to turn lead into gold.” In reality, an alchemist’s experiments were actually elaborate live-action analogies for his own spiritual growth.
Each metal that the alchemists dealt with was said to have a personality. Some were hotter, some were cooler, some were dryer, and some were wetter. The four qualities that give metals their identities were thought to have analogs in people. Popularly a person would be described in terms of the four humors, the “sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic temperaments.” Today we might substitute “the thinking, feeling, sensing and intuitive functions” instead (Carl Jung was an alchemy enthusiast before he discovered psychology). In any case, it’s the imbalance of competing pairs of opposites that give people, and metals, their personality.
Also, by merit of corresponding to a star in the sky and a sign in the zodiac, each metal was also associated with an astrological type and a classical deity. This association was used to explain a metal’s behavior. Mercury is fluid because the messenger god needs to be swift. Mixing Copper and Iron in a special mixture over fire can produce an alloy with a net-like grid pattern running over its surface —because when Vulcan (fire) catches Venus (copper) and Mars (iron) in bed together, he throws a metallic net over them from which they can’t escape. Each metal does what its celestial counterpart would do in the same situation.
If metals had personalities, horoscopes, and affairs just like us, it follows that whatever happened to these archetypal metals would happen to us. If a metal can be improved, so can a person.
A metal could be made more divine (“Transmuted”) by subjecting it to a complex distillation process called the “Opus Magnum” (a term still used in art to this day). This Opus typically involved putting a mixture into a spherical bottle called a retort and subjecting the mixture to a long sequence of cooking, cooling, and adding solvents. The aim was to neutralize the effects of hotness, coldness, wetness, and dryness which had already imprinted the metal.
The hope was that ultimately, when the Opus was finished, the retort would contain a substance that was chock full of quintessence. The Philosopher’s Stone, Green Gold, Panacea, the Universal Solvent, and the Elixir of Life are just some names for the hypothetical results of a successful Opus Magnum transmutation. In all cases, the substance has all the qualities of a saved human being – radiance, health, healing ability, transfigurative powers, omnipotence, grace.
The airtight spherical retort was considered a microcosm of the universe, and a reflection of the alchemist’s soul, which was also a microcosm of the universe. Reactions that took place in the bottle were also happening on all the levels, because the laws of nature are universal.
What were the laws of nature? The alchemists observed that when substances are distilled, they redistribute themselves by density (in this case, density was considered to be an indicator of spiritual impurity rather than atomic weight). They believed, as Aristotle did, that the law of gravity functioned to group like substances together, rather than to draw objects together because of their masses. When disintegration happens, the good elements separate from the bad elements, and reassemble “in their proper place.”
A constant process of disintegration and reintegration was applied to substances during the Opus Magnum. Substances would be dissolved and resolved, broken and put back together, melted and hardened, burned and washed, sublimated and solidified. By observing how constantly destroying and rebuilding a substance makes it stronger, it would become clear to the alchemist that constant cycles of personal destruction and reconstruction are the agents of personal growth. Today, psychologists call this principle “Positive disintegration.”
The bottom line when studying alchemy is that it was very rarely about the metals. An alchemist’s experiments are almost always about purifying himself or finding enlightenment and salvation. The alchemists were not scientists and they did not pretend to be. In fact, alchemists typically called themselves “philosophical artists.” Their art just happened to produce scientific breakthroughs as a by-product.
By the Enlightenment Era, the alchemists, in their attempt to discover quintessence, had accidentally invented countless new alloys, compounds, medicines, and poisons. These miraculous discoveries were interpreted as steps in the right direction, which encouraged more and more transmutations. Eventually, some alchemists decided to build their lives around these practical discoveries, performing scientific experiments instead of spiritual ones. Other alchemists chose to turn away from the chemistry side and focus primarily on their artwork and their philosophy.
In the 1700s, modern chemistry was born, which focused on explaining observed chemical phenomenon in precise, repeatable language and from the rational materialist perspective.