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About Alchemy

About Alchemy

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Published by virgil
Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion of consciousness and the
development of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents to
the initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter consciousness and
connect the human soul to the Divine.
Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion of consciousness and the
development of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents to
the initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter consciousness and
connect the human soul to the Divine.

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Published by: virgil on Oct 14, 2013
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 Alchemy is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion of consciousness and thedevelopment of insight and intuition through images. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents tothe initiate a system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter consciousness andconnect the human soul to the Divine. Alchemy is part of the mystical and mystery traditions of both East and West. In the West, it dates to ancientEgypt, where adepts first developed it as an early form of chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptians alchemists usedtheir art to make alloys, dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewelry, and to embalm the dead.The early Arabs made significant contributions to alchemy, such as by emphasizing the mysticism of numbers(quantities and lengths of time for processes). The Arabs also gave us the term 'alchemy', from the Arabic term'alchimia', which loosely translated means 'the Egyptian art'.During medieval and Renaissance times, alchemy spread through the Western world, and was further developed byKabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other occultists. It functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual.On a mundane level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such as lead into gold.On a spiritual level, alchemists worked to purify themselves by eliminating the "base" material of the self andachieving the 'gold' of enlightenment.By Renaissance times, many alchemists believed that the spiritual purification was necessary in order to achievethe mundane transformations of metals.The alchemists relied heavily upon their dreams, inspirations and visions for guidance in perfecting their art.In order to protect their secrets, they recorded diaries filled with mysterious symbols rather than text. Thesesymbols remain exceptionally potent for changing states of consciousness. Alchemy is a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tried to transform base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life. Alchemy was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought that corresponds toastrology, which is apparently an older tradition. Both represent attempts to discover the relationship of man tothe cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these objectives may be calledscientific, the second technological. Astrology is concerned with man's relationship to "the stars" (includingthe members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature. But the distinction is far from absolute,since both are interested in the influence of the stars on terrestrial events. Moreover, both have always beenpursued in the belief that the processes human beings witness in heaven and on earth manifest the will of theCreator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to the Creator's intentions.Nature and significanceThat both astrology and alchemy may be regarded as fundamental aspects of thought is indicated by their apparentuniversality. It is notable, however, that the evidence is not equally substantial in all times and places.Evidence from ancient Middle America (Aztecs, Mayans) is still almost nonexistent; evidence from India istenuous and from ancient China, Greece, and Islamic lands is only relatively more plentiful. A single manuscriptof some 80,000 words is the principal source for the history of Greek alchemy. Chinese alchemy is largelyrecorded in about 100 "books" that are part of the Taoist canon. Neither Indian nor Islamic alchemy has ever beencollected, and scholars are thus dependent for their knowledge of the subject on occasional allusions in works of natural philosophy and medicine, plus a few specifically alchemical works.Nor is it really clear what alchemy was (or is). The word is a European one, derived from Arabic, but theorigin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words similar to it have been found in most ancient languages, with1
different meanings, but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians usuallyreferred to what Westerners call alchemy as "The Art," or by terms denoting change or transmutation.The chemistry of alchemySuperficially, the chemistry involved in alchemy appears a hopelessly complicated succession of heatings of multiple mixtures of obscurely named materials, but it seems likely that a relative simplicity underlies thiscomplexity. The metals gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy.Mercury, the liquid metal, certainly known before 300 BC, when it appears in both Eastern and Western sources,was crucial to alchemy. Sulfur, "the stone that burns," was also crucial. It was known from prehistoric times innative deposits and was also given off in metallurgic processes (the "roasting" of sulfide ores). Mercuryunited with most of the other metals, and the amalgam formed coloured powders (the sulfides) when treated withsulfur. Mercury itself occurs in nature in a red sulfide, cinnabar, which can also be made artificially. All of these, except possibly the last, were operations known to the metallurgist and were adopted by the alchemist.The alchemist added the action on metals of a number of corrosive salts, mainly the vitriols (copper and ironsulfates), alums (the aluminum sulfates of potassium and ammonium), and the chlorides of sodium and ammonium. And he made much of arsenic's property of colouring metals. All of these materials, except the chloride of ammonia, were known in ancient times. Known as sal ammoniac in the West, nao sha in China, nao sadar in India,and nushadir in Persia and Arabic lands, the chloride of ammonia first became known to the West in the Chou-its'an t'ung ch'i, a Chinese treatise of the 2nd century AD. It was to be crucial to alchemy, for on sublimationit dissociates into antagonistic corrosive materials, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which readily attack themetals. Until the 9th century it seems to have come from a single source, the Flame Mountain (Huo-yen Shan)near T'u-lu-p'an (Turfan), in Central Asia.Finally, the manipulation of these materials was to lead to the discovery of the mineral acids, the history of which began in Europe in the 13th century. The first was probably nitric acid, made by distilling together saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and vitriol or alum. More difficult to discover was sulfuric acid, which wasdistilled from vitriol or alum alone but required apparatus resistant to corrosion and heat. And most difficultwas hydrochloric acid, distilled from common salt or sal ammoniac and vitriol or alum, for the vapours of thisacid cannot be simply condensed but must be dissolved in water.Goals"Transmutation" is the key word characterizing alchemy, and it may be understood in several ways: in the changesthat are called chemical, in physiological changes such as passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old age to youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence. Alchemicalchanges seem always to have been positive, never involving degradation except as an intermediate stage in aprocess having a "happy ending." Alchemy aimed at the great human "goods": wealth, longevity, and immortality. Alchemy was not original in seeking these goals, for it had been preceded by religion, medicine, and metallurgy.The first chemists were metallurgists, who were perhaps the most successful practitioners of the arts inantiquity. Their theories seem to have come not from science but from folklore and religion. The miner andmetallurgist, like the agriculturalist, in this view, accelerate the normal maturation of the fruits of the earth,in a magico-religious relationship with nature. In primitive societies the metallurgist is often a member of anoccult religious society.But the first ventures into natural philosophy, the beginnings of what is called the scientific view, alsopreceded alchemy. Systems of five almost identical basic elements were postulated in China, India, and Greece,according to a view in which nature comprised antagonistic, opposite forces--hot and cold, positive and negative,and male and female; i.e., primitive versions of the modern conception of energy. Drawing on a similar astrological heritage, philosophers found correspondences among the elements, planets, and metals. In short, boththe chemical arts and the theories of the philosophers of nature had become complex before alchemy appeared.2
Regional variationsChinese alchemyNeither in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins of alchemy, but the evidencesin China appear to be slightly older. Indeed, Chinese alchemy was connected with an enterprise older thanmetallurgy--i.e., medicine. Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th centuryBC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th century BC. The magical drug, namelythe "elixir of life" (elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, "drinkable gold," which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the1st century BC--many centuries before it is heard of in the West. Although non-Chinese influences (especially Indian) are possible, the genesis of alchemy in China may have beena purely domestic affair. It emerged during a period of political turmoil, the Warring States Period (from the5th to the 3rd century BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism--a mystical religion founded by the6th-century-BC sage Lao-tzu--and its sacred book, the Tao-te Ching ("Classic of the Way of Power"). The Taoistswere a miscellaneous collection of "outsiders"--in relation to the prevailing Confucians--and such mysticaldoctrines as alchemy were soon grafted onto the Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese alchemy is mainly owing tothat graft, and especially to a collection known as Y¸n chi ch'i ch'ien ("Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel"),which is dated 1023. Thus, sources on alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier writings.The oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i ("Commentary on the I Ching"). Inthe main it is an apocryphal interpretation of the I Ching ("Classic of Changes"), an ancient classicespecially esteemed by the Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical mathematics of the 64 hexagrams(six-line figures used for divination). Its relationship to chemical practice is tenuous, but it mentionsmaterials (including sal ammoniac) and implies chemical operations. The first Chinese alchemist who isreasonably well known was Ko Hung (AD 283-343), whose book Pao-p'u-tzu (pseudonym of Ko Hung) contains twochapters with obscure recipes for elixirs, mostly based on mercury or arsenic compounds. The most famous Chinesealchemical book is the Tan chin yao ch¸eh ("Great Secrets of Alchemy"), probably by Sun Ssu-miao (AD 581-after 673). It is a practical treatise on creating elixirs (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of mercury and arsenic areprominent) for the attainment of immortality, plus a few for specific cures for disease and such other purposesas the fabrication of precious stones. Altogether, the similarities between the materials used and the elixirs made in China, India, and the West aremore remarkable than are their differences. Nonetheless, Chinese alchemy differed from that of the West in itsobjective. Whereas in the West the objective seems to have evolved from gold to elixirs of immortality to simplysuperior medicines, neither the first nor the last of these objectives seems ever to have been very important inChina.Chinese alchemy was consistent from first to last, and there was relatively little controversy among itspractitioners, who seem to have varied only in their prescriptions for the elixir of immortality or perhaps onlyover their names for it, of which one Sinologist has counted about 1,000. In the West there were conflictsbetween advocates of herbal and "chemical" (i.e., mineral) pharmacy, but in China mineral remedies were alwaysaccepted. There were, in Europe, conflicts between alchemists who favoured gold making and those who thoughtmedicine the proper goal, but the Chinese always favoured the latter. Since alchemy rarely achieved any of thesegoals, it was an advantage to the Western alchemist to have the situation obscured, and the art survived inEurope long after Chinese alchemy had simply faded away.Chinese alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its numerous religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to fulfill that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions inrespect to promises of immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical elixirsthat were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent exertions to moderate those poisons,either through variation of the ingredients or through chemical manipulations. The fact that immortality was sodesirable and the alchemist correspondingly valued enabled the British historian of science Joseph Needham to3

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