What is Alchemy?

Ancient writers call it a thing of small price, because it is lightly esteemed by the merchants, and no one that finds it cares to pick it up, any more than if it were an ounce of dirt. Few will believe that it is a pearl of great price, for it is known to none but the wise. Thus have I laid bare to you a great secret, more plainly than any of the dead masters.

– Thomas Norton

Just what is Alchemy, that fabled Hermetic Art ? Is it just some medieval delusion (the purpose of which is the acquisition of alleged magical powers)? Is it a debased and foolhardy get-rich-quick scheme? Is it pure nonsense peddled by quacks and fraudsters? Is it, as some say, a symbolic journey into the depths of the soul – an attempt to transmute our unregenerate self into its true spiritual state? Or, even, none of the above? In this series of articles I’ll be covering this question in a serious way, unmasking much of the obscurity about the Hermetic Art, looking into its history and development through its greatest practitioners. By the end, you’ll know what Alchemy really is – and you’ll be let in on the mysterious Great Secret. So where do we start?

Well, it’s clear that there are few subjects as misunderstood as Alchemy – otherwise known as the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Great Work. It’s also associated with obscure medieval writings purporting to give recipes for turning base metals into Gold. The sceptics (at least) allow that it’s also a forerunner of modern chemistry and therefore not entirely worthless. However, they’re quick to point out that no alchemist from history has ever brought conclusive proof that his experiments ended with the manufacture of real gold. Of course, the practice was bound to attracted those ignoramuses who set about in the attempt to become wealthy overnight:

‘Many are aflame with the desire of gain, but amongst a thousand thousand scarce three are chosen. There are many called to knowledge, noble and poor, learned and ignorant, but they will not submit to toil, or await the time; they do not attain to the goal because they are ungrateful.’1

In other words, the alchemist must be driven by pure motives – by the desire for genuine enlightenment, and not by the vanities of ‘occult knowledge’ or the attraction of material things. This is still a controversial issue among sceptics who dismiss Alchemy as worthless. The real question is, then, just why do the alchemists of old go to all that trouble to inform us that theirs is a noble Art, always worth the effort and struggle it entails? Was the enigmatic Philosopher’s Stone worth the striving? The sixteenth century magician-philosopher Paracelsus was in no doubt:

‘The power and potency of the Philosophic Stone is exalted to so wonderful an extent that it is impossible to trace how it can be naturally brought about ; and unless most evident signs lay open to our eyes, it would be incredible that men could perfect and accomplish such wonderful things.’ 2

Paracelsus is saying that to understand Alchemy you need new ‘eyes’ – you need to use your intuitions to see its great truths. This already sounds a little like some of the more modern claims made on behalf of the Law of Attraction and Positive Thinking, and as we’ll see eventually, that’s precisely what Alchemy is! Here’s another quote from an anonymous Hermetic text of the 1600’s, The Sophic Hydrolith Or, Water Stone Of The Wise:

‘For the study of this Art is such a perfect guide to excellence that a good knowledge of its principles will (as it were, against your will) hurry you on to an understanding of all the wonderful things of God, and teach you to rate all temporal and worldly things at their true value.3

Though it’s obvious that the Natural Philosopher esteems his Art very highly indeed, it is never very clear what alchemists really mean. The mystic poet W.B. Yeats in his Rosa Alchemica only marginally gets nearer to an explanation when he affirms that he found that ‘their doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.’ In Robert Valens Rugl’s The Glory Of The World, the author explains just why their language is so opaque:

‘It is described in obscure terms, yet openly named by all, and known to all. But if all knew its secret, no one would work, and it would lose its value. On this account it would be impious to describe it in universally intelligible language. He to whom God will reveal it, may understand these dark expressions.’4

You can treat these words as alchemists’ hyperbole or take them seriously, but here’s that tantalising hint of a Great Secret to be had, the revelation of which seems to be right under our noses. The Secret, then, is apparently so precious that it must not be lost but, instead, preserved in obscure language,

‘clothed and concealed the truth in allegorical language that even now only very few are able to understand their instruction and turn it to practical account. For this practice [alchemists] had a very good reason … they did not wish the pearls to be cast before swine. For they knew that if it were made known to the wicked world, men would greedily desire nothing but this one thing, neglect all labour, and give themselves up to a dissolute and degraded life.’5

And so, though it is ‘lightly esteemed’ by some and comparable to an ounce of dirt, it’s a ‘perfect guide to excellence’ that leads to ‘an understanding of all the wonderful things of God.’ Plus, it is something that can also be ‘turned to practical account’. Alchemist Basil Valentine added that ‘in order to arrive at this Art, neither great labour nor trouble is required, and the expenses are small.’ Hence it is something valued highly, yet which takes little effort to achieve. And yet most people don’t see it for what it is. Even those who undertake the study:

‘But although the said philosophers have treated this subject with so great a variety of … curious parables, and strange and fanciful words … they all agree in pointing out the same goal, and one and the same Matter as essential to the right conduct of the Art. Nevertheless, many students of the Art have entirely missed their meaning, and the secret Matter of which they speak [and] a large number of … grave and learned men, who have sought this knowledge with unwearied industry, have not been able to attain to it.6

We find exactly the same situation today, do we not, with those who complain that Positive Thinking doesn’t work for them? But imagine how much more frustrating it was for students of Alchemy long ago who had to contend with all those ‘fanciful words’. However, if the principles of Hermetic Philosophy are really so simple (and they are!) then why not just come out and state them in plain English?

Well, one major cause of this deliberate obscurity was the need for personal safety. European Alchemy from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance had to be veiled carefully lest it be seen to contradict Christianity. The men practising the Hermetic art were essentially dabblers in the Occult, and magic was deeply frowned upon by the Catholic Church which, at the time, wielded an immense amount of power. A successful conviction for ‘sorcery’ meant one was in league with Satan, therefore a heretic. You might be given the chance to repent before being burned at the stake. You might even be allowed to live, but your career as an alchemist would be over.

The other reason for secrecy is given above by the Sophic Hydrolith – to protect it from falling into the wrong hands. That is, if the Secret were made available it might be put to the wrong uses, just as when atomic power became available to those who would wage deadly war. The result – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But concern about this is mostly unnecessary, and Robert Valens Rugl even gives us the reason why:

‘But because most men do not understand … they are inclined to regard our Art as impossible, and the Sages are branded as wicked men and swindlers. Learned doctors, who thus speak of us [alchemists], have it before their eyes every day, but they do not understand it, because they never attend to it And then, forsooth, they deny the possibility of finding [it]; nor will any one ever be able to convince them of the reality of our Art, so long as they blindly follow their own bent and inclination.’7

Thus if the Art is regarded as impossible, it won’t even be attempted. If no one can convince even learned doctors that Alchemy works then it surely must be worthless. The parallels with Positive Thinking are perfect here – for it’s always the orthodox professional (especially coming from a scientific background) who is first to dismiss spiritual matters or ‘the influence of Mind Power’ . But this is also how the Great Secret guards itself: the essence of Alchemy cannot be obtained if you don’t believe there’s anything in it in the first place! If you don’t, the secret is ‘safe’!

One eminent gentleman from the seventeenth century who certainly believed there was something in it was Isaac Newton, the grandfather of modern science as we know it today. Responsible for the discovery of gravity, for his pioneering work into the properties of light and revolutionary Laws of Motion, he was the typical eccentric, lone scientist more in love with his work than anything else. But as it’s been said, Newton wasn’t ‘the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…’ His well documented interest in Alchemy is perplexing to those with only basic notions of the subject.

Newton has said himself, in its defence that ‘alchemy does not trade with metals as ignorant vulgars think’ rather it leads to ‘profit and to edification inducing first the knowledge of God … in his wonderful works. ’ He defined its purpose as being ‘to teach a man how to live well.’ This comes from someone who was voted the most influential thinker and pioneer in the field of science – by modern scientists themselves.

But look at Newton’s choice of words – he simply states that it teaches us how to live well, since it introduces us to the Almighty’s wonderful works. He already sounds like one of those Christian-leaning authors who wrote all those Positive Thinking books in the early-mid twentieth century. He sounds like Norman Vincent Peale, in fact. This, in turn, is no accident, for behind all of alchemy’s lavish obscurity, all those strange symbols and Latin names, it is nothing more than a programme of spiritual self-development, one geared towards the improvement and success of the individual. You transform and change as a person and your life changes along with it. Yes, it’s really The Power of Positive Thinking from days of yore. Robert Collier (echoing Newton) put it well when he wrote:

‘Your future is of your own making. For the only law of Infinite Energy is the law of supply. The “Life Principle” is your principle. To survive, to win through, to triumphantly surmount all obstacles has been its everyday practice since the beginning of time ..You have but to supply the urge, to work in harmony with it, to get from it anything you may need.’8

1. The Golden Tripod. Second Tract. The Chemical Treatise of Thomas Norton, The Englishman, Called Believe-Me, Or The Ordinal Of Alchemy. The Hermetic Museum, Vol. Ii, Waite, Arthur Edward, London: J. Elliot, 1893.
2. The Hermetic And Alchemical Writings Of Paracelsus. London: James Elliott And Co., Temple Chambers, Falcon Court, Fleet Street, E.G. 1894.
3. The Sophic Hydrolith Or, Water Stone Of The Wise, Hermetic Museum.
4.The Glory Of The World, Robert Valens Rugl, Hermetic Museum.
5. The Sophic Hydrolith, op cit.
6. ibid.
7. The Glory Of The World, op cit.
8. The Secret Of The Ages, Robert Collier, Vol 1, Publisher, 599 Fifth Avenue, New York, 1926.