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engraving from michael maier's 1618 treatise on alchemy alchemy is the process by which someone tries to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the cosmos by looking at the principles of it's underlying form. not merely a chemical task, alchemy is the pursuit of a higher form of being, in essence a spiritual transformation. an alchemist will rise through the heirachy of knowledge through investigation and experimentation with nature until he becomes, in the chinese alchemical language, a 'zhenren' or 'authentic man'. it is then that the alchemist ascends to a higher state of being and is cut free from the limitations of individuality. the origins of alchemy are difficult to ascertain. early evidence of its activity is in the middle east, greece, china and egypt. the name alchemy itself is believed to arabic, with 'al' meaning 'the' and 'kimya' meaning chemistry, or 'khemeia' meaning 'preparation of the black ore'. 'khem' is also the arabic word for egypt. in any case the power to create metals is an ancient one, dating back to about 2500 BC, where people were learning the art of smelting iron. the investigation of nature in this spiritually creative way has given the activity of alchemy a sense of mysticism and magic. to most people however alchemy only is the skill that transforms impure into pure and in today's popular culture alchemy is associated with the production of gold and the elixir of life.
distillation equipment from greek alchemical manuscripts gold has been attractive to the eyes of humans since the beginning of existence. it's possession throughout time has always been indicative of power and wealth. seen as a perfect metal gold symbolises excellence, wisdom, flawlessness and light. gold was representative of the sun - the giver of life and the centre of many beliefs at the time. hindu sages believed that gold was mineral light and a material token of divine intelligence. ancient incas believed gold was the sweat of the sun and used it to make everything from ceremonial head-dresses to fish hooks. the mystical power that gold created (or seemed to have) has been the driving force of wars and trading through the ages and those with power often turned to alchemy to obtain it. the popular goal of the alchemist was the creation of gold from a base metal. ancient beliefs held that magical powers were present in fluxes and alloys. so whilst the creation of gold had it's obvious benefits it was the process of transmutation that allowed the alchemist to search for a way to achieve spiritual perfection. the changing of a base metal into gold was symbolic of the transmutation of his soul to a state of union with god.
left: kerotakis, in which a substance is heated on a plate within the vessel right: digestion apparatus with condensing flask above, probably for fractional distillation both illustrations of chemical apparatus from a medieval syrian manuscript more than gold however, alchemy goes deeper than simply the creation of sought-after substances. as in philosophy, the chief study of alchemy is the operations of NATURE (remember that some of the great philosophers in history were also considered alchemists). NATURE is not visible and yet it operates visibly, its volatile spirit animating the material world and giving universal life. NATURE can be seen as four regions; the dry, the moist, the warm and the cold and differentiated into male and female. GOD is seen as the beginning and end of NATURE. alchemist try to be like NATURE, that is be truthful, simple, patient and preserving. internal alchemy (called neidan in chinese alchemy) alchemical work takes place on several different levels. whilst there is the activity in physical substances, manipulation of etheric forces there is also a parallel investigation of the inner soul. traditionally the actions of external investigation are reflected internally, there is a period of preparation and a closing ritual so that the powerful energies are formed within a safe structure. these help the alchemist return to the outer world and not get lost in between. the symbol of the alchemical vessel is associated with the inner and outer worlds of alchemy, reflecting the energies contained within a protective circle. the practice of internal alchemy needed much practice as the the forces in the psyche can be powerful and disruptive. symbols were used as a form of control in the contemplation of inner energy, helping focus thought. symbols in their true nature are patterns of energy. meditating upon a symbol forces it to shift in shape and manifest itself in ways that help progress transcendental knowledge. in inner alchemy there are three fundamental archetype symbols; the crucible, the retort and the still.
the crucible is an open dish that substances can be put into and transformed, usually through heat. in external alchemy a metal might be purified and the impure material removed, this can also be reflected in internal alchemy. the internal crucible allows the soul to shed its impure forces and let others enter from the universal spiritual flow. the retort is a sealed flask. using the retort therefore one must have everything one needs within the soul because it is sealed from the rest of the universe. it symbolises the synthesis of the new and is often represented by a man and a woman in a flask, producing a baby. the symbols are used to unite our polarities masculine and feminine, light and fear, life and death. the still represents the process of turning new information or process into a store that we can draw from at a later point. it is a process to gaining understanding of something so that we may be able to use that understanding if we need to. in these cases symbols represent or act as inner apparatus, a focus for emblematic meditation to find spiritual richness. in the 16th and 17th centuries emblematic engravings popular and very beautiful. not merely the representation of symbols these engravings were pictorial aids to help experiment in the interior mind and distill internal energy. of course, symbols are also extremely important in external alchemy but it should also be noted that these pictorial elements appear relatively late in the history of alchemy. they would be used in texts, for recipes, descriptions of ingredients and processes - both astrological and chemical. plato, who was considered an alchemist firmly believe that the knowledge of alchemy should not be written down for the unintelligent masses to access. but by the 13th century pictorial representations of alchemical practices were developed to order the governing principles of the practice. visualisation was also in the forms made in writing, for example text written in rectangular or square forms were semantic points of view and circular forms referred to perfection and cycles in the universe. physical apparatus could be obviously represented in pictorial form, however unobservable processes could not be represented in this diagrammatic way. instead it was far more symbolic, using figures and conceptual elements.
illustration of still heads from andreas libavius’ ‘alchymia’, 1606
letter symbolism designating metals and alchemical operations from the ‘book of the holy trinity’
hand with alchemical symbols at the fingertips
mercury in the form of a serpent decapitating the sun and the soon with gold and silver flowers in a vessel on the fire, circa 15th century
engraving of astrological chart
the aritsotilian elements of earth, water, air and fire
'as above, so it is below' astrology is intimately linked to alchemy. this form of divination looks at the positioning of planets and heavenly bodies with the intention of forecasting or simply understanding movements on earth. in ancient alchemical knowledge metals are ruled over by particular planets, for example the moon corresponds to silver, venus to copper, mars to iron and of course the sun to gold. the art of astrology views the macrocosm of the universe and uses it to deciphers patterns within NATURE. alchemists relied on astrology to tell them when the most opportune moment to carry out an experiment was. isaac newton, the astronomer and physicist was also known to be an alchemist, he sought to understand the structure of all matter that GOD had created. in modern society astrology is still prevalent. we can see horoscopes in daily newspapers and find astrologers determining our future from our birth date. likewise, there continue to be people who use alchemy as a process by which to achieve either spiritual enlightenment, inner purification or to make herbal elixirs (plant alchemy).as far as the transmutation of base metals into gold, there are still those who continue to practice this art of alchemy. even though science has not yet given the answers, like a lot of things in life, the journey is as important as the so-called end. for more examples of alchemic art see 'the alchemy art gallery' and the 'levity website'
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