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Alchemy: History and Symbolism

This article was written by Raymond Buckland
posted under Alchemy


"The Mysteries"...we generally think of these in relation to the ancient initiatory rites of Greece and Rome; the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic, the Phrygian, the Mithraic, plus the Egyptian, Tibetan, and others. Yet the term could as well be applied to the writings and diagrams of alchemy. Such have been referred to as "obscure idioms." The Rosarium philosophorum (or, to give it its full name, Rosarium philosophorum. Secunda pars alchimiæ de lapide philosophico vero modo præparando, continens exactam eius scientiæ progressionem. Cum figures rei perfectionem ostendentibus), published in Frankfort in 1550, stated, "Whenever we have spoken openly we have [actually] said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth." (Weinheim edition, 1990)

It sounds like double-talk, but it reflects exactly what the alchemists did. They presented nothing openly; nothing that could be simply and easily stated and understood. Anything that had that appearance should immediately be suspect. Alchemists kept their secrets locked away in a mish-mash of code names accompanied by illustrations that piled symbols on top of symbols. In Alchemy & Mysticism (Taschen, Köln 1997), Alexander Roob says “By imbuing them with a special hieroglyphic aura, the creators of these pictures sought to suggest the very great age of their art and to acknowledge the source of their wisdom: the patriarch of natural mysticism and alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus."

Hermes Trismegistus was said to have authored many books of alchemical and magical learning. It was after him that alchemy was named the "hermetic" art. Yet, he was actually mythical. Hermes was equated with the Egyptian deity Thoth: the scribe of the gods, inventor of writing and patron of all the arts dependent upon writing, including medicine, astronomy, and magic. The epithet Trismegistos is from the Greek meaning "thrice greatest."

The alchemists—or, as they referred to themselves, the "philosophers"—developed from beginnings in places as diverse as Egypt, India, and China. But alchemical practice really blossomed in the twelfth century, by which time relevant ancient texts had been translated into Latin. The Emerald Tablet and The Book of Alums were two especially notable texts. A wave of alchemy flooded across Europe during the Middle Ages. Even in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, in Paris, there are to be seen carvings of alchemical figures dating from the fourteenth century.

It has been said that the doctrine of alchemy "pertains to a hidden reality of the highest order which constitutes the underlying essence of all truths and all religions." (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola: Alchemy the Secret Art, Thames & Hudson, London 1973) Earlier, Pierre-Jean Fabre had said, "Alchemy is...a true and solid science that teaches how to know the center of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life." (Les Secrets chymiques, Paris, 1636)

What the alchemists strove to obtain was the "philosophers' stone," also known as the menstruum universale. This was thought to be a general solvent of enormous potency that could transform base metals into precious metals. It was also thought to possess tremendous powers of healing. As such it was an elixir of life, able to give perpetual youth.

One of the leading alchemists of his day was Aurœlus Philippus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1490-1541), better known simply as Paracelsus. His prodigious works were so obtuse and full of linguistic creations that they gave rise to the term "bombastic," meaning "pretentious, wordy speech or writing." But wordy or not, he possessed great knowledge that was sought after by his fellow philosophers. At the age of twenty, he had set off to see the world, and in doing so discovered metallurgy, alchemy, and alchemy's derivative, chemistry. He met with virtually all the great names in magic at that time, and spent several years in Egypt and Arabia.

Alchemy was not a pastime for the dabbler. The cost of experimenting was astronomical. Aside from the ovens, fuel, and necessary ingredients, there was a very high outlay for glass retorts and stills. In those days, glass was fragile; much thicker than today's glass, it would easily shatter under applied heat. Time was the other expense, for all of the experiments took place over weeks, months, or even years. In fact, the very reading of available texts could take many years. Alchemists often had to study long and hard before they could understand what was being presented in the texts—much less begin actual experimentation.

A large number of priests, monks, and other ecclesiastics practiced the art, since they had the time to indulge in it. They also generally had access to the necessary finances. The Bishop of Ratisbon, Albertus Magnus, was an alchemist, as was his pupil St. Thomas Aquinas. John Cremer, abbot of Westminster, and Pope John XXII (and probably other popes) also tried their hand.

The alchemists put an anthropomorphic face on their practice. They felt that to create gold, for example, it was necessary to "give birth" to it. This meant that there needed to be a seed that would develop inside a womb, or egg. At birth, the most important ingredient was pneuma, the "breath of life." The birth was actually more of a rebirth—of the base metals. There was a place, at the start of the process, for that rebirth; that palingenesis, or regeneration. Death—a separation—was followed by a long process of decay leading to putrefaction. The putrefaction is a dissolving of opposites into the "black of blacks" known as nigredo. Its appearance was the first indication that the process was going in the right direction.

In the complex symbology of alchemy, a blackbird represented the blackened mass: the nigredo. Birds flying off were volatilization. A lion represented acid, a stag the soul, and a unicorn spirit. The Ouroborus—the serpent biting its tail—symbolized completion. The Sun/Sol and Moon/Lunar were there, as gold and silver. There was frequently a mating of these two, and sometimes they were depicted as a hermaphroditic figure: half male and half female. The "death" of the old substance was sometimes depicted as a person entering a tomb, or lying in a grave.

One of the most frequently depicted figures in the alchemical illustrations is the serpent, whether in the form of a snake or, more often, a dragon. This represents the matter in its unregenerate, imperfect state. It is, therefore, a dragon waiting to be slain. Jung pointed out that the dragon is probably the oldest of the alchemical pictorial symbols of which we have documentary evidence. He said: "Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one leading back to the one; that it is sort of a circle; like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulari, or else rota, the wheel." (Psychology and Alchemy, London 1953)

Another important symbol was the tree. It was often shown with its branches bearing birds, eggs, or vessels of various kinds. These vessels might contain suns, moons, or other objects. Sometimes the tree was covered with blossoms that were, in effect, miniature suns and moons. The earth from which the tree grew was the mineral. The fruit was the spiritual.

Timing was all important to the alchemist, and he usually employed astrology as a tool. The "Great Work" would be started when the Sun was in Aries and the Moon in Taurus. The dates for the start of each of the various stages were equally important and adhered to. The process was actually divided into two main parts: the "gross" and the "subtle." This first part involved collecting together all the ingredients and then purifying them. The second part was their conversion. It was during this second, subtle, part that some alchemists made accidental discoveries. Geber, of Mesopotamia, accidentally discovered and analyzed red oxide in the early 1300s. Vigenere, in the late 1500s, discovered benzoic acid without realizing what he had done. Johann von Lowenstern Kunckel, in the 1600s, accidentally isolated phosphorous. Thus, chemistry gradually grew out of alchemy.

To again quote de Rola: "This pictorial language, in which not a single detail is ever meaningless, exerts a deep fascination on the sensitive beholder. This fascination does not even necessarily depend upon understanding. If the reader will contemplate these images, that is to say go beyond their surface, he will often perceive that they correspond to another timeless dimension which we all may find deep within ourselves." This was something recognized by Carl Jung, who used alchemical engravings and philosophies to illustrate the meanings of dreams.

It had long seemed to me that there was a place for the idea and the process of alchemy in modern life. Taking a tip from Jung, I thought it should be possible to apply it to inner development. In my Cards of Alchemy (Llewellyn, 2003), I therefore took those same alchemical illustrations and used them as tools for viewing the inner person. As I say in my introduction to the use of the cards, we are all alchemists in the laboratory of life and have within ourselves the ability to change; to transmute ourselves to become what we would most like to become. Using the cards, not in the sense and manner of Tarot cards—for they are quite different in their design and purpose—a person is able to look within and determine a direction for his or her life. The cards are excellent for placing the future into perspective and for seeing the best path to tread. Their whole focus is on personal transformation.

Included in the cards are scenes of people, plants, and animals, relative positions of the planets relevant to the reading, together with note of precious and semi-precious stones pertinent to the individual, keywords for meditation and for composing affirmations, and much more. The cards indicate the steps and stages of personal development in such a way that the user is able to come to terms with him or herself, and to arrive at personal truths. They can be used on a daily basis, weekly, monthly, or simply as the necessity arises. They can also be used to read for someone else, but their main focus is on personal development. In this way, the work of the alchemist is used to aid and advance the lives of people of the twenty-first century; showing the on-going relevance of the quest for that Philosopher's Stone.

Raymond BucklandRaymond Buckland
Raymond Buckland has been actively involved in metaphysics and the occult for fifty years and has writing about it for nearly thirty. He is the author of more than sixty books, including such best-selling titles as Buckland's Complete Book of...  Read more


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