Alchemy (the “Royal Art”, or “Great Work”), a form of speculative thought, is perhaps best known as attempting to turn base metals into gold, and for trying to discover a cure for diseases and a way of extending the human life span. It is in fact a system of thought, related to broad disciplines including natural philosophy, medicine, astrology, metallurgy, and hermetic thinking. The name alchemy is largely known to the west today due to its connection with the philosophy that surfaced in 12th century Europe via contacts with the Arabic world. But the study of alchemy and alchemical processes seems to be quite universal, with some evidence of it from ancient India, China, Persia, Egypt, and others, describing specific experiments with mercury, salt, and sulphur, etc.
Transmutation, or change from one state of existence into another, is a key concept in Alchemy – for example, the process for lead to change into gold, or, for someone to go from a state of sickness to health, or from old age back to youth again (the “elixir of life”). The transmutation of metals was to be accomplished by a specific powder or elixir, often called the “Philosopher’s Stone”, which would cause the changes to occur. The alchemists, after a profound examination of natural processes and the secrets of nature, arrived at a view that involved two polarities of nature; one being mercury, the volatile intellect, and the other, sulphur, connected with the soul. Paracelsus added a third principle, salt, which as a solid, corresponds to that of the body. To the alchemist, these Paracelsian “Tria Prima” are not only chemical substances, but spiritual forces. The qualities of heat, dryness, coldness and moisture were, according to Aristotle, joined with the “prima materia” to develop into the four elements.
Many experiments were done by alchemists, with the goal of transmutations. Such states of change were sought after by medieval alchemists, as is well known, and such experiments continued into later times, with certain alchemists having royal patrons. But, from an early period, the Egyptians were known to be skilled workers in metals and, according to Greek writers, they were familar with their transmutation, using quicksilver in the process of separating gold and silver from the native matrix. The resulting oxide, a black powder, was believed to possess marvellous powers. Salt also, mainly because of its curative properties, was viewed in Christian terms as the “salt of the earth”, the “salt of wisdom”. The very earliest Greek text that involves alchemy, “Physika kai Mystika” (of natural and hidden things), divides the Great Work of alchemy into four phases according to the colours it produces: a blackening (nigredo), whitening (albedo), yellowing (citrinitas), and reddening (rubedo). This early division has survived through the centuries. Other alchemists attempted to create new life altogether, said to result in a small being called a “Homoculus”.
Familiar names to us today in the west, such as Roger Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Raymond Lully, Robert Fludd, Nicolas Flamel, Paracelsus, John Dee, all were involved in alchemical experiments and philosophy. Scholars agree that alchemy had ‘something’ to do with the development of the science of chemistry, but hermeticists claim that chemistry owes much more to alchemy and its concepts than is generally acknowledged. More research is being done today on the subject of alchemy, and alchemical literature, from a variety of perspectives.
Dr Karen Ralls
- Ralls, K., Gothic Cathedrals: History, Art, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2015
- Ralls, K., Medieval Mysteries: History, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2014
- Ralls, K., The Knights Templar Encyclopedia, Career Press, NJ, 2007
- Ralls, K., The Templars & the Grail: Knights of the Quest, Quest Books, Chicago, USA, May 2003
- Ralls, K., & Robertson, I., The Quest for the Celtic Key, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2002;
To get started…
a few general and academic books about Alchemy…
- Dawkins, P., Arcadia, The Francis Bacon Research Trust: Upper Tysoe, 1988
- Eliade, M., The Forge and the Crucible, second edition, Univ. of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1978
- White, M., Isaac Newton: The Last Sorceror, Fourth Estate: London, 1997
- Wolf, F.A., Mind into Matter: A New Alchemy of Science and Spirit, Moment Point Press: Portsmouth, NH, 2000
Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.
Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.