The following article is comprised of information that I have found to be of great value while starting down the alchemical path and information that would have made things easier when starting out. While preparing this article I reflected back upon my alchemical journey thus far and thought, what would make starting down this path easier for others? This article is an answer to that question.
The following topics will be addressed as they relate to an introduction to alchemy:
-A basic definition of Alchemy
-The origins of Alchemy
-Thoth – The First Alchemist
-Why study alchemy
-The perennial philosophy
-Becoming an alchemist
-How to find instruction in alchemy
We will start with a basic definition of alchemy.
Within The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, Dennis William Hauck describes alchemy as follows:
“Alchemy is the art of transformation. Alchemy is about how to change one thing into another, and the goal of alchemy is to perfect or evolve the substance at hand. Alchemists try to change something that is inferior, imperfect, or unacceptable into something that is better, more perfect, and closer to what they desire.”
Basically alchemy is the art of breaking something down to its pure essence, and then working to rebuild the item in a more perfect manner. The word alchemy itself is not limited to the notions of laboratory or even spiritual alchemy. According to Mr. Hauck, “the word alchemy is always about how to accomplish some sort of creative transformation.” Therefore it may apply to anything that is being transformed in a creative manner.
The objective of this process of spiritual alchemy is summarized well by German alchemist Gerhardt Dorn:
“You must transmute yourselves from dead stones into living Philosophical Stones.”
The spiritual aspect of alchemy is further stated within The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels & Jacques Bergier:
“For the alchemist, it must be remembered that power over matter and energy is only a secondary reality. The real aim of the alchemist’s activities…is the transformation of the alchemist himself, his accession to a higher state of consciousness. The material results are only a pledge of the final result, which is spiritual…the transmutation of man himself…his fusion with the divine energy, the fixed center from which all material energies emanate.”
Whereas spiritual alchemy consists of creative transformation on the spiritual plane, laboratory alchemy is comprised of creative transformation on the physical plane. The alchemist transforms minerals, plants, and metals within a laboratory environment. However, laboratory alchemy consists of more than just modern day chemistry. In the arena of laboratory alchemy, the alchemist seeks to understand and invoke natural laws, or as stated by Mr. Hauck:
“To perform his transformation, the alchemist attempts to understand and connect with the unseen reality behind the manifest world.”
Mr. Hauck continues:
“By focusing on this single divine spark in all things, the alchemist hopes to reveal the essence of a substance or situation and guide its growth to a natural state of perfection.”
This focus and quest for the divine spark, also referred to as the quintessence, is what separates alchemy from the modern sciences such as chemistry. By seeking and achieving the divine spark, quintessence, or spiritual aspect, the alchemist may next reassemble the item under transformation in a more perfect way.
Origins of Alchemy
Within The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy, Dennis William Hauck describes the origins of alchemy as follows:
“The roots of alchemy are buried in the shifting sands of ancient Egypt as the craft developed from writings attributed to divine beings who are said to have come to Egypt over 10,000 years ago. The scribe Thoth, considered the first alchemist and also the father of music, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture, recorded the wisdom of the ancient visitors and sealed his writings in two great pillars that became known as the Pillars of Hermes. According to legend, the pillars were rediscovered thousands of years after the Great Flood and hidden away in an isolated temple in western Egypt. The city of Alexandria was founded to study and translate the sacred texts, and from there the ancient spiritual technology of alchemy spread throughout the world.”
The word alchemy, actually means “of Khem” and therefore the word itself denotes its Egyptian origin.
Occultist Manly P. Hall within his book Alchemy provides an alternate view that the origins of alchemy date back to the lost continent of Atlantis:
“The difficulty in deciding the origin of alchemy is directly due to ignoring the lost continent of Atlantis. The Great Arcanum was the most prized of the secrets of the Atlantean priestcraft. When the land of Atlantis sank, hierophants of the Fire Mystery brought the formula to Egypt, where it remained for centuries in the possession of the sages and philosopher. It gradually moved into Europe, where its secrets are still preserved intact.”
Regardless of origin, alchemy has been around for a very long time and has had a definite impact on our perception and interaction with the natural world.
Thoth – The First Alchemist
As we just discussed, Thoth was considered the first alchemist as he had transcribed processes from divine beings who arrived in Egypt more than 10,000 years ago. As such, Thoth is an important figure in the field of alchemy and is considered an intermediary between man and the gods.
The following passage from Quest for the Soul by John Nash provides a detailed overview of Thoth as related to our study of alchemy:
“Another important personage was Thoth, usually depicted in Egyptian art with the head of an ibis. He was credited with the invention of writing. The Syrian/Greek philosopher Iamblichus (c. 250-330 CE) made Thoth the author of 20,000 books, and some accounts included even higher estimates. A more realistic estimate was given by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-212 CE) who, despite his Christian convictions, was a great admirer of Thoth; he mentioned that 42 books were still studied in his time. One of these, the Book of Thoth, is claimed to be the origin of the Tarot.
Thoth served as scribe to the gods, recording among other things the verdicts handed down in the Hall of Judgment. He is also credited with inventing medicine and the science or art of alchemy, which almost certainly originated in Egypt. The root of the word “alchemy” is the Egyptian Khem, which means “Land of the Black Earth,” a reference to the fertility of the Nile contrasted with the “red” of the surrounding desert. Thoth is believed to have instituted the Egyptian mysteries and the initiatory system of the priesthood of Osiris.
Thoth was variously regarded as a deity, an avatar, or a prophet king of great antiquity. He has been compared with the Hebrew Chokmah or the Greek Sophia, emblem of divine wisdom. The Greeks would call Thoth Hermes Trismegistus: “three times great,” whereupon alchemy came to be known as hermetism. Depicted in art as a winged messenger, Thoth-Hermes served as an archetypal mediator between spirit and matter. In turn, the Romans called him Mercury. In his Roman form Thoth is famous for a vision in which he saw the seven planetary gods; in his cosmology, the Moon presided over birth and death, Mercury portrayed knowledge, Venus love, the Sun everlasting beauty, Mars justice, Jupiter power, and Saturn universal wisdom. From his vision we received the teaching that the visible planets are the outer forms of intelligences which rule the solar system. Thoth may also have been aware of the “harmony of the spheres”, anticipating the work of Pythagoras.
Thoth-Hermes is also credited with the famous dictum: “That which is above is as that which is below; and that which is below is as that which is above.” This axiom, often abbreviated to “As above, so below,” underlies what came to be known as the Law of Correspondences. It appears on the Emerald Tablet, usually taken to be an alchemical treatise, which according to tradition was inscribed on a single, large emerald. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280 CE) taught that the Tablet was found in Hermes’ tomb by Alexander the Great.”
As described within the preceding passage, the originator of alchemy in Egypt, Thoth, is also known as Hermes Trismegistus within Greek tradition, and Mercury within the Roman tradition. Across traditions and geography, Thoth-Hermes-Mercury is viewed as a key figure for the alchemical or hermetic traditions. In fact, the incarnation of Thoth has appeared across a wide range of religious traditions assuming the roles of various key figures within those traditions.
Why Study Alchemy
Although one has the ability to transform matter by means of alchemy, this is a lesser motivation when compared to the spiritual equivalent as described by Dennis William Hauck:
“The most popular reason for studying alchemy today is to reconnect with spiritual realities. In this approach to alchemy, the gold of the alchemist is not common metal gold, but an inner spiritual gold. Using meditation to penetrate the symbolic imagery of alchemy, the seeker attempts to transform the dark, heavy, karmic lead of the soul into the bright, purified, and incorruptible gold of spirit.”
Beyond spiritual transformation, laboratory alchemy is pursued as a means of making the theoretical practical as described by Mr. Hauck:
“Unlike academic disciplines, alchemy can actually take root in you and grow into something that is more than the sum of its parts. This is when the true secret teachings of alchemy begin and when the magic happens.”
Unlike strict academic study of spiritual concepts and philosophies, the combined power of laboratory and spiritual alchemy provides a potent reaction within the alchemist themselves. As the alchemist performs the combined laboratory and spiritual activities, the alchemist themselves is literally transformed by the process.
Consider the following passage from The Way of Hermes:
“Hermetic sentences get mysterious carved in your memory. They are still at work on your mind even when you do not think of them. For it dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws up iron.”
Within their writings, alchemists refer to a “secret fire” which is awakened and stoked through the practice of alchemy across three phases; the Philosophicum which consists of an in-depth study of history and philosophy; the Theoreticum which is comprised of a study and application spiritual and practical principles; and the Practicum where alchemical principles are applied to the real world. Work must be accomplished across all three phases.
The Perennial Philosophy
Earlier we discussed how the alchemist is seeking the divine spark, or quintessence within the material to be transformed. According to Dennis William Hauck, “To perform his transformation, the alchemist attempts to understand and connect with the unseen reality behind the manifest world.”
Key to this understanding and search is the Perennial Philosophy. In simple terms, the Perennial Philosophy is the idea that the Cosmic is comprised of One thing; ultimately there is One Truth, but there are many paths to access this One Truth. A major difference between Perennial Philosophy and dogmatic belief and religion is that there is not a single path to god. Contrarily, the Perennial Philosophy states that there are as many roads to God as there are people in the world. It is up to each person to discover their own path to God.
According to Mr. Hauck, there are three fundamental tenets of alchemy as it relates to the Perennial Philosophy:
“The three fundamental tenets of alchemy and the Perennial Philosophy of which it is a part are:
- The material world is not the only reality. Another hidden level of reality exists that determine our existence. The physical world is a shadow or projection of a higher reality that cannot be grasped by the senses. Only the higher faculties of the human mind and spirit can perceive it.
2. The basic duality of material versus nonmaterial realities is mirrored in human beings. Our material body is subject to the physical laws of birth and death; our nonmaterial body (called soul or spirit) is not subject to decay or loss and carries the essence of who we are. This divine energy at the heart of everything is known as the Quintessence, the Fifth Element, in alchemy, or the life force in most other traditions.
3. All human beings possess the capacity to perceive these separate levels of reality, both in themselves and in nature, but we are taught to ignore the subtle clues to this greater reality. The perception and application of this ultimate truth is the goal of human beings and the purpose of our existence.
What makes alchemy different from other mystical systems that are part of the Perennial Philosophy is that alchemy attempts to apply this wisdom in practical ways in the everyday world. No other discipline has taken such a down-to-earth and in-your-face approach to working with these mystical principles.”
Again, the Perennial Philosophy states that there is a world beyond our senses, this material versus nonmaterial duality is mirrored within human beings, and as human beings, we are able to perceive the separate levels of reality.
How Does One Become an Alchemist?
In the past, becoming an alchemist began with a long apprenticeship or training period that traditionally involved a very specific path of initiation. In the ancient mystery schools, the teachings were arranged into three levels of mastery:
-The Philosophicum (knowing what is really there)
-The Theoreticum (knowing how it works)
-The Practicum (knowing how to do it)
Obviously, initiatory alchemy was a very personal process that usually involved a one-on-one relationship with an adept that lasted many years.
Modern training of alchemy takes place at a faster pace on all three levels of initiation at once. On the philosophical level, the objective is to achieve an awareness of the lower and the higher worlds in which the alchemist works. The goal of the theoretical work is to understand how to interact and control the unseen energies of those realms. The practical work is concerned with learning the personal and laboratory techniques of transformation and is, in turn, presented in three phases: the plant work, the mineral work, and the animal work.
How to Find Instruction in Alchemy
Unfortunately there is not a one-stop-shop for learning alchemy. However the following options are available for those interested in gaining alchemy instruction:
-Inquire with the International Alchemy Guild (IAG) to locate practicing alchemists who take on students in your area.
-The Alchemy Study Program offered by the International Alchemy Guild.
-Paracelsus College: Institute of Parachemistry.
-The Institute for Hermetic Studies (IHS) of Pennsylvania and Al-Kemi in Oregon offers seminars on mineral and plant alchemy
-Scottish archivist Adam McLean offers several online courses in deciphering alchemical symbols.
-AMORC San Jose sometimes offers summer classes in plant and mineral alchemy.
Recently I have discovered and have had success with the Alchemy Study Program (ASP), offered by Dr. Alex Hayden and Dennis William Hauck, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy” among other alchemy related texts. Mr. Hauck is also coordinating the building of the Alchemy Museum in Rosicrucian Park; this will be the first museum of its kind in the United States and will be the largest Alchemy Museum in the world. The Alchemy Study Program provides a self paced, structured, and credentialed program for those wishing to pursue formalized study in alchemy.
As you may see there are a number of alternatives for those wishing to study the three levels of alchemy. An interesting fact relating to alchemical training is that according to the International Alchemy Guild (IAG), more licensed practical alchemists exist today than at any time in history.
The following key points should be remembered when considering this introduction to alchemy:
-Alchemy is creative transformation; the art of taking something imperfect and bringing it closer to perfection through a process of separation and recombination.
-Alchemy originated in Egypt approximately 10,000 years ago as communicated through Divine beings to Thoth.
-Thoth is considered the first alchemist and is known as the scribe of the Gods. Thoth is also known as Hermes within Greek tradition and Mercury within Roman tradition. However, Thoth appears across many other cultural and religious traditions.
-The work of alchemy occurs on three levels – the philosophical, theoretical, and practical. Transformation of matter within the laboratory is secondary to the spiritual changes that occur within the alchemist themselves.
-The perennial philosophy states that there is One Truth but there are many paths to this One Truth. There exist as many paths to the One Truth as there are individuals pursuing this One Truth.
-One becomes an alchemist through initiatory training across three levels – the philosophical, theoretical, and practical.
-One may seek training in alchemy by means of locating a trained alchemist through the International Alchemy Guild (IAG) or seeking out a formal curriculum such as those offered by the Alchemy Study Program (ASP) or individual classes such as those offered by AMORC San Jose.
The following is a list of references that were used to develop this introduction to alchemy:
1. Al-Kemi. The Three Levels – Introduction: http://al-kemi.com/alchemy/articles/the-three-levels
2. Alchemy by Manly P. Hall.
3. Alchemy Study Program: http://alchemystudy.com/
4. Alchemy Study Program Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/alchemystudents/
5. AMORC. Rosicrucian Park. Alchemy Museum: http://www.rosicrucianpark.org/alchemy-museum
6. Paracelsus College: Institute of Parachemistry: http://homepages.ihug.com.au/~panopus/
7. Paracelsus College: Institute of Parachemistry Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Paracelsus-College-Institute-of-Parachemistry-297086263998/
8. Quest for the Soul, pages 27-28, 152.
9. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy by Dennis William Hauck.
10. The Morning of the Magicians, page 118.
11. The Way of Hermes: New Translations of The Corpus Hermeticum and The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, page 105.