Along with astrology and the qabalah, alchemy is considered one of the principle branches of the Western Esoteric Tradition. But while many students are familiar with zodiacal charts and the fundamentals of the Tree of Life, far fewer are acquainted with the basics of alchemy. Too often alchemy is still wrongly caricatured as an attempt by medieval quack-scientists and con-men to gain quick wealth by turning lead into gold, or to dupe others into handing over their gold, only to receive a lump of lead in return while the swindler makes a quick getaway!
The origins of Western alchemy date back to Graeco-Roman Egypt, particularly Alexandria. It was here that techniques of metallurgy and herbal medicine were combined with Greek philosophy, astrology, religion, and mythology to form the earliest Western teachings on alchemy. Medieval authors often called alchemy the "Hermetic Art," suggesting that the origin of this science was none other than the fabled master, Hermes Trismegistos, or "Hermes the Thrice Great," who was said to have written forty-two books covering all manner of knowledge. Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles and Aristotle, first developed the theory that everything in the universe was comprised of the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These were regarded as qualities that exist within all matter and not merely the outward expressions of the physical elements. The treatises of alchemy included the physical properties and the magical powers of the elements as well as various material substances in nature.
After their conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, the Arabs absorbed the knowledge of the Alexandrian alchemists. By the middle of the seventh century alchemy had become a mystical discipline. The medieval Arabs carefully preserved the knowledge they had received and safeguarded all manner of Greek and Arabic alchemical treatises, which they brought to Spain in the eighth century. By 1350, several alchemical tracts were being copied in monastic scriptoria.
In truth, alchemy is the occult science of the transformation of matter. It is a philosophical wisdom tradition and a spiritual discipline that touches upon almost every aspect of the human experience. At its core, alchemy teaches that in this divine universe all matter comes into existence from a common substance or fusion of substances. Everything within the cosmos moves toward a state of perfection known as "gold," but only if the component materials are present in the right proportions or degree of purity. The fundamental goal of alchemy is to bring all things, including humanity, to its preordained state of purity and spiritual perfection—a worthy goal indeed.
The work of alchemy was two-fold: the practitioner worked in a laboratory setting to perfect a physical substance, such as a mineral or a plant, often with the goal of making a medicinal substance. This was the alchemy full of experiments and laboratory equipment: furnaces, bellows, stills, alembics, curcurbits, condensers, and glass beakers. Yet in conjunction with this process the alchemist prayed, meditated, fasted, and carried out other spiritual disciplines, so that the work of purification affected not only the substance of the experiment, but also the soul of the alchemist who was conducting it. Alchemists sought to give the quality and purity of "gold" to their own being. They sought to transmute the base materials, or rather the base portions of their own nature, into spiritual gold or divine wisdom. However, the principal interest of many alchemical philosophers was spiritual—many wrote commentaries on the alchemical treatises without practicing the art themselves. Over time, these two aspects of alchemy—practical alchemy and Inner alchemy—came to be seen as separate disciplines.
Unfortunately, the early practical alchemists who penned treatises about their sacred art did not often help their cause; they were so intensively secretive that they tended to write instructions in riddles and parables that did more to confuse than to instruct. The classical texts of alchemy are rich in symbolism and allegory. Some of these treatises contained little more than alchemical prints and illustrations. To guard their work from the profane, alchemists wrote in a symbolic language illustrated with fantastical drawings of dragons and lions, fish and birds, kings and queens, stars and planets, hermaphrodites and unicorns, animals fighting, curious beings, and weird creatures composed of symbols—all of which made little sense to the outsider. As a result, spiritual seekers today are still baffled by the lingo and imagery of alchemy. To many it remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and so alchemy continues to be the most secretive of the magical arts.
Take for example, a cryptic seventeenth-century alchemical engraving of the "Azoth of the Philosophers" used by the Golden Dawn in the Portal Ritual where it is called "The Great Hermetic Arcanum." This diagram shows the massive amount of arcane symbolism that the alchemists packed into such illustrations.
The central face in the diagram refers to the number one, the monad—the synthesis of the many parts united into the whole. The duad is symbolized by the two gender archetypes of masculine and feminine, the Queen of Luna and the King of Sol, to the left and right of the central figure. The triad is portrayed in the triangle of spiritus, anima, and corpus, which are the three alchemical principles of spirit, soul, and body. The number four is depicted by the four elements in the corners of the drawing. The number five is represented by the five parts of the central figure (hands, feet, and head), which are each associated with one of the five elements in the diagram. The number six is symbolized by the points of the two triangles in the drawing. The number seven is shown by the heptagram of the planets. Sol and Luna are the male and female principles, which are separated in nature. Through the alchemical art the two are united and the resulting offspring is the Philosopher's Stone—male and female, soul and spirit—merged into one. In the circle that surrounds the figure, a Latin sentence of seven words is shown: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectifando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which translates to "Visit the interior of the earth, in rectifying you will discover the hidden stone."
When Israel Regardie wrote The Philosopher's Stone in 1937, he was convinced that the symbols, metaphors, and allegories presented in the cryptic textbooks of medieval and renaissance alchemists were not what they appeared to be. It was his belief that the equipment, techniques, and materials and substances described in alchemical treatises in practical or laboratory alchemy were part of an elaborate smokescreen concocted to hide what he believed alchemy really was—a perfect method of psychological reintegration—spiritual alchemy. To Regardie, descriptions of various substances and laboratory equipment were symbols of the various parts of the human psyche: the sun and moon represented the animus and the anima, the crow symbolized the astro-mental body, the fire of the alchemical furnace alluded to the human libido, the egg of the philosophers referred to the human aura, the dragon symbolized repressed psychic energy and fears, and so forth. Regardie surmised that the goal of the Great Work in alchemy was one and the same as the goal of Individuation in analytical psychology. He sought to decode the enigmatic writings of the alchemists and to share his insights with students of magic and mysticism by publishing The Philosopher's Stone.
In his later years, Regardie gained new appreciation for practical alchemy, but he also knew that his early work in The Philosopher's Stone could provide students with valuable clues that encourage self-refection and spiritual wholeness. Decades after it was first written, students are still finding that this classic text contains precious gemstones of knowledge well worth discovering.