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From operative to speculative alchemy

You may have ran into the discussion when and how Freemasonry went from being “operative” (workmen doing their job) to “speculative” (thinking about the symbolism of the job and its tools). A similar distinction is sometimes made for Alchemy. Some alchemists actually tried to make gold from base metals, while others called such people “puffers” and were of the opinion that the transformation should take place within the alchemist himself. In a 1894 article in six parts What Is Alchemy? the British author Arthur Waite (1857-1942) suggests that alchemy had a similar transition from ‘operative’ and ‘speculative’, or at least, that these two approaches existed.

Waite uses the descriptions: “physical and transcendental alchemy” and wonders where both originate. Waite has various places of ‘origin’ of Alchemy: Egypt/Greece, Byzantium, Arabia and Syria. Later, following a lead of Helena Blavatsky, he adds China to the list. Alchemy in these countries and regions did (of course) not entirely flourish on their own. Also Waite does not place the birth of Alchemy in times immemorial, but rather around the third century A.D (just like the Hermetic texts). Chinese Alchemy, on the other hand, appears to be some six centuries older.

The question when Alchemy went from being “operative” to “speculative” is easier to ask than to answer. The oldest known text (in Waite’s text) is the Leyden Papyrus X (after the place where it is kept, Leiden in the Netherlands). It was found in Egypt and appears to be from Greek Egypt, so we have Alexandria as the birth city of (Western) Alchemy. The Leyden Papyrus contains simple recipes.

Waite also describes a Byzantine collection which appears to contain texts of Greek alchemists. “They use the same language, much of the same symbolism, and methods that are identical with those of the mediaeval Latin adepts, whose writings are the material on which the transcendental hypothesis of alchemy has been exclusively based.”

So Waite seems to see “mediaeval Latin adepts” starting to “speculate” about the recipes and instructions. He also refers to a Greek text ascribed to Democritus (460-370 BC) (but that cannot be true) saying that it is “unmistakably chemical; although it does term the tincture, the Medicine of the Soul and the deliverance from all evil”. The latter remarks are -of course- of little practical value.

In the fifth part of his paper, Waite proves to be happy with recently published translations of M. Berthelot of Syrian and Arabic alchemical texts. Waite now says that these Syrian and Arabic texts where the sources for both Latin and Greek alchemical texts. Hence: it was in the Middle East that people started to speculate about the texts. Yet: “The existence of a purely transcendental application of alchemical symbolism is evidently neither known nor dreamed by M. Berthelot”.

The glass-makers, the metallurgists, the potters, the dyers, the painters, the jewellers, and the goldsmiths, from the days of the Roman Empire, and throughout the Carolingian period, and still onward were the preservers of this ancient technical tradition. Unless these crafts had perished this was obviously and necessarily the case. To what extent it was really and integrally connected with the mystical tradition of Latin alchemical literature is, however, another question.

Actually, it is exactly this element that we also find in histories of Freemasonry. There were many guilds or similar organisations for different types of work. Such organisations could only survive if the masters kept training new apprentices, transferring the tricks of the trade. Was the transmission of knowledge (always) only practical?

Later on, when Waite moves his gaze to China, both ‘sorts’ of Alchemy may find their origins in the very far East, but he keeps coming back to the Middle Eastern hypothesis. Waite did not yet have the sources that we have today.

The (in)famous author Adam McLean has been writing about Alchemy since the late 1970’ies. His classic (and classic looking) website has many texts available. He distinguishes between “physical” and “philosophical” Alchemy. In his book How To Read Alchemical Texts (2011) McLean speaks about “practical” and “philosophical” and later also uses the term “spiritual” Alchemy. In this book you get plenty examples of different (types of) alchemical texts. When he writes about philosophical texts, McLean says:

There are many texts which we recognise as alchemical and yet which are not directly concerned with describing actual laboratory experiments. Even early in the history of alchemical texts we find many works which take a more philosophical perspective. We see this, for example, in the writings of Zosimos dating from the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., often thought of as the earliest of alchemical texts. Some of his writings are accounts of practical operations while other sections are of a philosophical nature.

Zosimos of Panopolis “was born in Panopolis (present day Akhmim, in the south of Roman Egypt)” according to Wikipedia (1). He lived late 3rd / early 4th century and wrote some of the oldest known texts. These were immediately “accounts of practical operations while other sections are of a philosophical nature”. Does that mean that both approaches to Alchemy rose at the same time or just that by the time Alchemists started to write, the “philosophical” approach to Alchemy had evolved? And the fact that Zosimus lived in Roman Egypt, does that mean that Alchemy was forged in the crucible that gave Alchemy its name (“Al Kymia”, the ‘black land’ that was one of Egypt’s names)?

McLean also writes about “cosmological” texts for which he cites a 1651 text of Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666). He also mentions “works that present philosophical theories about alchemy” of which an example is a 15th century text. Would the “transcendental” alchemy of Waite be the “cosmological” alchemy of McLean? Perhaps not, since (quoting Waite):

As a fact, the Arabian Djarber, otherwise Geber, would make a tolerable point of departure for the transcendental hypothesis.

Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (“Jabir” became “Geber”) may have been an early 8th century Muslim author who wrote about a wide variety of subjects, including alchemy. Many texts are falsely ascribed to him, but there are also “genuine” texts that Waite sees as examples of “transcendental” alchemy. It is disputed if Jabir was actually an historical person, but if his texts are dated in the 8th century, his “speculative” texts are much younger than the texts of Zosimus, which makes Greek Egypt the oldest source for “speculative” alchemical texts.

Let us follow Waite’s Chinese lead. Within Taoism two types of alchemy rose: “Waidan, or External Alchemy (lit., “external elixir”)” (2) and “Neidan, or Internal Alchemy (lit., “internal elixir”)”. The quoted website also states: “The first allusions to alchemy in China date from the 2nd century BCE”. That is much earlier than further West. Was Chinese Alchemy anything like Western alchemy and could the former have influenced the latter?

Of course Waidan and Neidan came to be in a much different culture, but there certainly are points of agreement. Chinese alchemy is more focused on prolonging life, but there are also botanical and metallurgical texts. There is an interesting book called Sino-Iranica; Chinese contributions to the history of civilization in ancient Iran (Berthold Laufer 1919) (3) where the author shows that some plants that he found in Iran have been imported from China before the 6th century. This is not strange, because the empire of which Iran was a part, stretched all the way to China. It is -therefor- not unlikely that elements of Chinese culture found its way to the Middle East.

The next question is if there were also Greek/Chinese contacts or if the Greek were influenced by Arabians.
Well, “Sino-Roman relations” (4) predate Christianity. Trade has been conducted as early as the 2nd century BC. Also here it is well possible that Chinese alchemical ideas found their ways to the Ptolemaic Kingdom (Greek presence in Egypt) and developed in the receiving culture.

It starts to become clear that there may have been no transition from “operative” to “speculative” Alchemy at all. Different ‘kinds of Alchemy’ rose in China, undoubtedly with much overlap. Whether this Alchemy started something new in the West or influenced something that was already there, I cannot yet answer, but it does seem that also in the Middle East and the West, different kinds of Alchemy emerged, not sequentially, but simultaneously. Certainly, some practitioners have preferred one kind of Alchemy, but many more may have been involved in different approaches.

It could be an interesting task to see what texts refer to what texts or to see what authors wrote what sorts of texts. Perhaps later.

(1) accessed 28/6/2023
(2) An Introduction to Taoist Alchemy (accessed 28/6/2023)
(3) Sino-Iranica; Chinese contributions to the history of civilization in ancient Iran available online here (accessed 28/6/2023).
(4) Sino-Roman relations – Wikipedia (accessed 28/6/2023)

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