Alchemy has always been a mysterious, even obscure, art. Even the derivation of the word alchemy itself is uncertain. The most widely explanation is from Khem, the native name of Egypt, with the Arabic prefix al meaning either black or derived from the root meaning wise. Alchemy would therefore be the art from the Land of the Wise, or the wise art.
The Philosopher’s Stone
Alchemists recognize their art as a sacred science that unveils not only the secrets of nature but the nature of God Himself, leading the sincere seeker to union with the divine. This union is achieved through preparing the Philosopher’s Stone, which is said both to transmute base metals into the purest gold and to be the Elixir of Immortality, the Stone representing perfect spiritual enlightenment.
Many of the greatest alchemists teach us that in order to be worthy of finding the stone, the appropriate piety must be developed. Basil Valentine tells us, “First, there should be the invocation of God, flowing from the depth of a pure and sincere heart, and a conscience which should be free from all ambition, hypocrisy, and vice, as also form all cognate faults, such as arrogance, boldness, pride, luxury, worldly vanity, oppression of the poor, and similar iniquities, which should all be rooted up out of the heart – that when a man appears before the Throne of Grace, to regain the health of his body, he may come with a conscience weeded of all tares, and be changed into a pure temple of God cleansed of all the defiles.”
Alchemical imagery is extraordinary rich. Some important alchemical works, such as the Mutus Liber, 1677, have no text at all, revealing their import only through pictures. Symbols can activate responses that lie deep within us. In this sense they “work” whether we understand them intellectually or not. Alchemical symbolism can produce subtle inner effects that bring about abrupt leaps of consciousness. This is alchemy.
A Brief History of The Art
“Thrice Greatest” Hermes, or Hermes Trismegistus, is the legendary genius of alchemy, which is why alchemists often refer to themselves as sons of Hermes.
The Ancient Egyptians knew Hermes Trismegistus as Thoth, the divine personification of wisdom, whom they portrayed as the ibis-headed scribe of the gods; the inventor of hieroglyphics; patron of the sacred sciences of geometry, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, but, above all, alchemy. Thoth exists at every level of being. He serves the gods, but also preceded them. Indeed, he brought them into being. He is the self-creating arch-magician, the word of God in action. He has but to name a thing and it springs into life, “clothed with being”.
The Greek Hermes
The Greeks identified their god Hermes as being an aspect of Thoth, which is why they named him Hermes Trismegistus (the “Thrice Greatest”) in recognition of his status. The Greek Hermes is the messenger of the gods, who mediates between heaven and earth. The Roman equivalent of Hermes is Mercury, and alchemists often refer to Hermes Trismegistus as Mercury or Mercurius.
Hermes Trismegistus is accredited with a body of writings known as the Hermetica. In this very ancient body of theological, philosophical, scientific, and medical writings of extraordinary beauty, intellectual power, and spiritual authority, the creation myth becomes a much richer, more detailed, and expressive allegory, an awesome alchemical process. Hermes describes humans as the “great miracle”, capable of achieving godhood as individuals by transcending the states of being that separate them from the divine. Humans are dignified as being truly made in the image of God, being the microcosms that reflect the macrocosm. Everything in creation finds its reflection in humans, who therefore have at their disposal all the tools that they need to achieve their divine destiny, should they choose to accept it.
The Emerald Tablet
Inscribed on green stone, The Emerald Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina is the most famous text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. To the uninitiated, The Emerald Tablet appears to be a confusingly cryptic riddle, but it has always been held in the highest regard by true alchemists as the most perfect précis of the creative principles of the universe.
The inscription reads as follows:
This is the truth, the whole and certain truth, without a word of lie.
That which is above is as that which is below,
And that which is below is as that which is above.
Thus are accomplished the miracles of the One.
And as all things come from the One, through the mediation of the One,
So all things are created by this One Thing through adaptation.
Its father is the Sun; its mother is the Moon.
The Wind bears it in its belly; the Earth nurtures it.
It engenders all the wonders of the Universe.
Its power is complete when it is turned to Earth.
Separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross,
Gently and with great ingenuity.
It ascends from Earth to Heaven und descends again to Earth,
Combining the power of above and below.
Thus you will achieve the glory of the Universe
And all obscurity will flee from you.
Thus is the power of all powers,
For it overcomes every subtle thing
And penetrates every solid thing.
Thus was all the world created.
And thus are marvelous works to come,
For this is the process.
Therefore am I called Thrice-greatest Hermes,
For I am master of the three principles of universal wisdom. This concludes what I have to say about the work of the Sun.
The Wand of Hermes, also known as the caduceus, is an ancient symbol, representing the unity achieved through the reconciliation of opposites. It consists of two serpents entwined around a central pillar or wand. The coupling snakes represent all of the opposing principles at play in the manifest universe: male/female, Sun/Moon, soul/spirit, or, in alchemical terminology Sol/Luna and sulfur/mercury. The central pillar represents the axis between heaven and earth, the above and the below. The wings represent transcendence, the crown, divine authority, while the fleur-de-lis is the Trinity.
Alchemy and Yoga
Alchemy is often described as “Western yoga”, because the aims of alchemy and yoga are the same – the mystical union of the self with the supreme being.
Yoga employs physical and mental exercises with which to achieve a state of complete awareness and tranquillity. It identifies subtle energy channels, known as nadis, within the body. Two of these nadis spiral around a central channel that runs within the spinal cord. The red nadi, called pingala, is masculine, solar, and warming by nature and its course runs form the left testicle (or the left side of the vulva in women) to the right nostril. The nature of the light-blue nadi, called ida, is opposite to that of pingala: it is feminine, lunar, and cooling and its course runs from the right testicle (or the right side of the vulva) to the left nostril. The central column, called susumna, contains within itself the equivalents of both pingala and ida. At its core is the Brahma-nadi, the channel for supreme consciousness within the individual.
The parallels between the nadis and the caduceus are immediately apparent. Pingala and ida correspond to sulfur and mercury. The Brahma-nadi equates to the secret fire in alchemy. The serpent power, the coiled energy “sleeps” at the base of the spine. When awakened, this energy rises up the susumna nadi. When the serpent power reaches the highest chakra, the yogin experiences the bliss of the supreme consciousness of Brahman.
The Greek sage Epicurus wrote, “The All was from the beginning like an egg, with the serpent as the tight band or circle round it.” The ouroboros is both serpent and egg. It is spirit waiting to be ensouled; God the Mother ready to receive the inseminating light of God the Father.
The ouroboros is prima materia, the “first matter” from which all things are born. This is the essential material that the alchemist must work with to create the Philosopher’s Stone. The double ouroboros combines two serpents, one winged. Each bites the tail of the other to form a circle. The symbol represents the great alchemical dictum Solve et Coagula, meaning “dissolve the body and coagulate the spirit”. It represents the union of opposites, an alchemical yin-yang. It is the circulation, in which the dissolved matter continually evaporates and recondenses, freeing and reintegrating the spirit, which in turn exalts the matter or body. The work is completed when “That which is above is as that which is below” namely when the two serpents are fully integrated as One Thing. The perfected serpent represents the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Distillation of Dew, The Elixir of Life
Dew, the distilled essence of heaven above and earth below, is a condensation of the Universal Spirit or Secret Fire, known in India as Prana and in China as Qi. To the Druids it was the most sacred form of water; to the Ancient Chinese it symbolized immortality, while in the cabala it represents resurrection.
One of the illustrations of the Mutus Liber shows exactly how to obtain dew. Cloths stretched over posts gather the dew, while from the heavens above stream rays of etheric forces, rich with the quickening spirit of life. This is the Secret Fire that impregnates the dew, and the ram and the bull, representing the zodiac signs of Aries and Taurus, indicate that it flows most strongly in the northern hemisphere’s springtime, from the end of March to the end of May. May-dew is considered the most potent, preferably colleted on clear nights leading up to the full moon. Dew is collected using clean cotton or linen sheets or towels stretched tightly across pegs a little way of the ground. At dawn, before sunrise, detach the cloths carefully from the pegs and wring them out into a large glass. Filter the dew (use unbleached coffee filters) into a glass jar, seal tightly, and set in the sun till noon. Strain off into another glass jar. The dew is now ready to drink.
Melville, Francis: The Book of Alchemy. Fair Winds Press 2002.
Compiled by Simone Anliker.
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