The seventeenth century marked both the greatest flowering of alchemy and also its decline. No longer attracting the greatest minds, and increasingly marginalized, alchemy went underground, and it was not until the nineteenth century that a strong occult revival began in reaction to scientific reductionism. The discovery of radioactivity showed that the theory of transmutation, so long denied by science, was not, after all, fundamentally in error. With each discovery of quantum physics, alchemy stood further redeemed, or was, at least, theoretically arguable. Physics has now acquired some of the attributes of the intuitive arts. Science has proved that everything is possible, even alchemy.
Alchemy and Psychology
During the early 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung started studying alchemy when he realized that many of its key symbols were surfacing in the dreams of his patients. His studies and lectures on alchemical symbolism were colleted in his book Psychology and Alchemy.
Jung’s study of alchemy inspired his concept of individuation – a person’s liberation from his or her own psychic labyrinth and the resolution of the personal psychodrama. His main interest lay in how the psyche responds to the riddle of existence rather than in the nature and purpose of Creation. He elucidated the understanding that the world is a reflection of the inner psyche, that in a very real sense each individual is responsible for everything that happens in the outside world. This is the key to understanding the true significance of humanity as a microcosm; as above, so below; as within, so without.
The Fulcanelli Phenomenon
In 1926, an unusual book appeared in Paris called The Mystery of the Cathedrals, written under the alchemical pseudonym Fulcanelli. This book elaborated with great authority the idea that the Gothic cathedrals of Europe were nothing less than alchemical texts written in stone, containing with their architecture all of the symbols of the Great Work. Fulcanelli suggests that esoteric Hermetic philosophy was the impulse behind the astonishingly sudden flourishing of Gothic architecture in medieval Europe.
Remaining one of the most enigmatic and mysterious occult figures of the twentieth century, Fulcanelli rediscovered the long-lost alchemical process that produced the famous blue-and-red stained glass of such cathedrals as Chartres, in France. He is said to have performed a transmutation in front of reliable witnesses before disappearing during the 1930s.
The Great Work (part 1)
The Great Work, or Opus Magnum, is the term used by alchemists to describe the conscious effort to achieve the highest state of purity. The term is applied both to the Outer Work, the perfection of the Philosopher’s Stone, and to the Inner Work, the achievement of divine consciousness. In order to proceed along this path, the initiate must understand, intellectually at first, the nature of cosmic reality. The Great Work also refers to Creation itself. Creation materializes to the point where it produces a godless ego that believes in nothing but itself. Such a point of extreme selfishness creates a spiritual vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, and thus the ego pulls the full weight of the universe down upon its head. Shocked by the full awareness of its mortality and impotence, the ego experiences the initiation of the nadir, the big wake-up call. Humbled, the initiate starts to seek divinity as his or her salvation and begins the path of return. Just as the microcosm is the mirror image of the macrocosm, so the Great Work of the initiate is the process of the Great Work of Creation in reverse.
One Plus Naught Makes Ten
Hermetic numerology can only hint at the why of Creation, but it can give us a profound insight into the what and how. The sacred numerology differs from mathematics in many fundamental ways: it perceives numbers as qualities rather than quantities; there are no fractions; one divided by two equals two; naught proceeds from one; one plus naught equals three. Number divines the divine.
This is the phonetic cabala, the “language of the birds”, the mystical Langue Verte (“Green Language”), true gibberish.
- The One
In the beginning, there was one: the absolute, the all in one, the one in all. This one is the “I” of God, represented by a rod or, in alchemy, a serpent. It is the absolute symbol of masculinity. It is God the Father, the active, engendering principle. But what can one do on one’s own? How can there be masculinity when there is, as yet, no femininity? Alchemy answers this riddle with another: the figure of the ouroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth. This is potentially both male and female, both “I” and “O”. It is the beginning and the end of the Great Work. It is all and nothing. It is male and female, but also neither.
- From one to zero
In order for one to multiply, it must sacrifice its undivided unity. By turning on itself through meditation, “I” becomes “O”. “O” represents the passive receptive principle; the sum and matrix of all possibilities; the (unfertilized) egg; the eternal feminine; and God the Mother.
- The Logos
This supreme sacrifice of self-contained, undifferentiated unity is symbolised by the beheading of the king: “I” becomes “i”, thereby making the point. The point is the logos, the word; the seed that fertilizes the egg.
- Let there be light
The cosmic marriage has taken place. The egg has been fertilized and, after a count of nine, gives birth to the Sun, the eye of God, represented by an “O” with a point in the middle, the symbol of gold. The number of the Sun is ten, symbolizing the cosmos, the paradigms of creation, completion, and perfection. In Roman and Chinese numerals, ten is represented by a cross (“x”). Graphically, “IO” is an archetypal symbol for marriage.
The Divine Principle
Prima materia, the “first matter”, is the divine principle, the absolute. It is both the beginning and the end of the Great Work. No alchemist will ever tell you what the “matter” is, for it cannot be told. It represents the greatest riddle and secret of alchemy. It is the primary stuff of the world, the nitty-gritty, the salt of the earth. But it is also ethereal and intangible. However, everyone who really seeks it with all of his or her heart and soul will find it.
The divine principle separates into two to form the matrix, the womb of creation from which all things issue. Two is duality, the law of opposites, the dynamic tension of the created universe. It is light and dark, active and passive, high and low, male and female. These couples are represented alchemically by sulfur and mercury, the Red King and the White Queen, the Sun and the Moon.
In the first book of the Hermetica, Hermes relates a vision of the Creation: “I beheld a boundless view; all was changed into light, a mild and joyous light; and I marveled when I saw it. And in a little while, there hade come to be in one part a downward-tending darkness, terrible and grim … And thereafter I saw the darkness changing into a watery substance, which was unspeakably tossed about, and gave forth smoke as from a fire; and I heard it making an indescribable sound of lamentation; for there was sent forth from it an inarticulate cry.” This is the rending of the One, the wrenching pain of separation as the Absolute falls in upon itself to precipitate the process leading to manifestation.
Duality is established to give birth to Creation. The union of sulfur (soul) and mercury (spirit), the opposites created by duality, engenders salt (form), which is the third principle. The creation forms a trinity of God the Mother, God the Father, and God the Sun. These three aspects of the absolute are analogous to soul, spirit, and body, called in alchemy sulfur, mercury and salt. These are philosophical principles and should not be confused with the substances of the same name, with which they have only a very partial connection. These three principles are present in everything manifested in the universe. Indeed, without any one of these principles nothing could be. It was Paracelsus, who, like Rhazes centuries before him, emphasized the importance of the third principle of salt in addition to the traditional duad of sulfur and mercury. Salt adds the third dimension that allows things to manifest on the material plane. It is the vehicle of physical existence.
Sulfur – is the active, masculine, fiery, solar principle. It is the soul, consciousness, the individual spirit.
Mercury – is the passive, feminine, watery, lunar principle. It is the spirit, the life force, the universal sound in all things.
Salt – is the body, the precipitate, the child of the marriage of sulfur and mercury, the son of the Sun and the Moon. It mediates between the two, balancing them, reconciling their opposing principles, and rendering them complementary and compatible. It is their raison d’être, without duality would serve no purpose.
In its polarity with sulfur, mercury is bound, definite, and specified. But in itself it is mysterious, elusive, ambivalent, and androgynous (only when qualified in relation to sulfur is it fixed as the feminine). It is anonymous, yet has many names: Hyle, Chaos, Chaotic Water, Living Water, Eternal Fountain, Philosophical Basilisk, and even prima materia, Original Mercury. When fixed by sulfur, mercury becomes the Great Mother, the principle of life, the vitalizing life force, Prana, Chi. Mercury also mediates between sulfur and salt. These three philosophical principles express the dynamic that allows the universe – and all things – to be and that explains why Hermes is designated “Thrice Greatest”, for he has mastered the triple mystery of creation.
The Four Elements
All things have their being in the three philosophical principles of soul, spirit, and body. This trinity animates all things in the material world. The trinity gives rise to the quaternity, the four philosophical elements of fire, water, earth, and air, which define the material form of all manifest things. These elements should not be confused with the substance with which they share their names, nor do they correspond to the chemical elements. They are not things, but principles and consist of pairings of four qualities: hot, dry, cold and moist.
Each element shares both of its qualities with another element. This provides the dynamic that allows for transformation within matter.
Fire – is hot and dry. It is symbolized by the upward-pointing triangle, being volatile and ascending.
Air – is hot and moist. Putting a brake on the ascending nature of fire, its triangle is crossed.
Water – is cold and moist. As the descending element, its sign is the downward-pointing triangle.
Earth – is cold and dry. It halts the fall of water, hence its triangle is crossed.
The four elements conceal within them a fifth element, known as the quinta essencia, the quintessence, or Azoth. Of all the philosophical principles, none is as mysterious and intangible as the fifth essence or element, which equates with the secret fire, the spark of divinity within all things. It is the divinity in all things, the inner sun in which all things find their true identity. Paracelsus considers it to be the extract of the elements, their incorruptible, eternal substratum. It has the connotation of being the absolute essence of all things and, as such, many alchemical magisteries (products or medicines) are called quintessences, particularly those that have been distilled, because distillation releases the soul and spirit from matter.
The quintessence can be symbolized by the pentagram, the figure that most perfectly divides the circle. It represents the microcosm, the individual containing the whole universe within itself.
The Seal of Salomon
According to the legend, the Seal of Solomon was a sigil set in a ring brought to Solomon by the archangel Raphael to help him bind the demons who were disrupting the building of the Temple. The Seal of Solomon is a hexagram, a six-pointed star made by two overlapping equilateral triangles. This symbolizes the union of fire and water, the marriage of soul and spirit, sulfur and mercury, the Chemical Wedding. It is the union of the above and the below, the marriage of heaven and earth, the macrocosm and the microcosm, two things becoming one.
Within the symbol we find the one, which is often emphasized by enclosing it within the ouroboros; the duads of fire and water and above and below; the trinity, implicit in the repeated triangles; and the quaternity of the four elements. Implicit, as well, is the quintessence as the mystical center, which is found through meditating on the symbol as a mandala. This reveals the hexagram to be another symbol for Mercurius, the agent of dissolution and resolution.
The six points of this “Star of the Wise” denote the six alchemical directions: North, South, East, West, above, and below, which, as pairs, define the three dimensions within which the Great Work takes place.
Melville, Francis: The Book of Alchemy. Fair Winds Press.
Compiled by Simone Anliker.