The esoteric traditions of the West: part II: Alchemy

The first branch of Western esotericism that I want to write about is alchemy. Of course there are different explanations to give to the word in the sense of tradition, but I will use the word “Alchemy” to refer to the ages-old tradition. When I write “alchemy” without a capital, I refer to what most people think off when hearing the word “alchemy” being ‘early science’, but more about that later.
The ancient tradition has received different names in different times by different writers. Some people use the word “Hermeticism” to refer to it, but in the article about hermeticism that will follow some time, I will say how I use that word myself. Maybe “Ars Regia” (royal art) would a good term, but I prefer to say “Alchemy”.

One of the most interesting facts about alchemy, is that three traditions started roughly at the same time in three very different places on the earth. There is an Alchemical tradition from China, one from India and one from the West. In China it is mostly a tradition based on Taoism and in India on Hinduism. All three Alchemical traditions tell about two forms of alchemy. One materialistic, one spiritual. It is only quite recently that writers seriously look at the spiritual forms of alchemy which makes it a lot more than just ‘early science’. As these series are called “the esoteric tradition(s) of the west”, I will speak mostly of the Western alchemical tradition.

The origins of Western Alchemy

It is hard to trace when and where the Alchemical tradition of the West began. As mentioned in the previous article, the esoteric tradition in general is as old as humanity and it is quite easy to form a fairly general view of alchemy making it a synonym for the esoteric tradition as a whole. When Alchemy is understood as the esoteric tradition with both a materialistic and spiritual side and in both cases trying to take the ‘rough material’ to a higher level, I think we have to look for the origins of Alchemy in Egypt, just like with other Western esoteric traditions as we will see later.

Where the oldest-known Chinese practise of alchemy is of 350 BC and metallurgy would already have been practised in India as early as the 5th century BC, there was a (legendary) Egyptian called Imhotep who lived 5500 years ago who is regarded as the father of medical science and an alchemist. The ancient Greeks called him “Asclepius”, which is of course the legendary Hermes’ student and also the title one of the great Hermetic scriptures (about which in a later article) and -also remarkable- the Indian (alchemical) ‘elixer’ “soma” is most likely extracted from the climbing-plant “asclepius acids”! If not already legendary, Asclepius was taken as the patron-saint by many Western esoteric groups, under who the alchemists.
However not really alchemical writings, the Egyptian Book Of The Dead (or better said: The Book Of Appearing By Day) are also from this time. The earliest versions are found in a 5000 year old piramide of the pharao Unas.

Anyway, since scientists say that the Egyptian civilisation started around 3000BC, the first Egyptian would already have been a master is various sciences, which may seem a little implausible. It is true however that even today scientists still can’t explain how a high civilisation as that of the Egyptians could just appear out of nothing.
But let us stick to the facts. The Egyptians have worked with metals a pretty long time ago. A museum in Cairo has a mummie that is dated 3000BC on which the makers already had the deceaseds face made in copper! Even back then the Egyptians knew how to melt metal from ores. By the time of the XVIIIth dynasty (1538 – 1296BC) they were able to make copper as pure as 99,9% as nowadays metallurgers have discovered.
I suppose it is safe to say that 5000 years ago the Egyptian civilisation did not just started without origin.
They sure have been working with both metallurgical and spiritual matters for a long long time. No wonder that we can trace elements of our society to the Egyptian civilisation.

The ancient Greeks wrote about the Egyptians that they used mercury to split ore from gold and silver which is in a way an alchemical practise. The result of this process was a black powder to which miraculous qualities were suscribed. The black powder is also referred to in early Egyptian mythology. The ‘mysteries of Tehuti’ (Thoth the god of writing and knowledge and often the patron-saint for alchemists and the like) speak of Ra (sungod) giving birth to a ‘stone of light’ and a gum that was used to make the mummie of the deceased imperishable. This seems to be the earliest reference to the ‘philosophers stone’. Also there are references to ‘amulets of the City of Gold’ changing Heru (Horus) into a falcon of gold.

An ironic fact is that the Egyptians were not only skilled in metallurgy, but also in the imitation of gold, silver and the colour purple. The oldest-known practical alchemical text proudly tells how the writer was able to to make forged gold silver and purple paint (purple was so hard to make that it was actually valuable). The so-called “Leiden-papyrus” (after the place where it is now kept) gives recipes and instructions how to make metals shine like gold or silver. The papyrus is dated 300BC and was found in the tomb of a magician from Thebe, but I asume the techniques are of a (much) older date.

The dating of the Leiden-papyrus, I will use to make a leap in time to the period of decay of the Egyptian civilisation In 700 and 525BC parts of Egypt were conquered and in 332BC Alexander the Greek finished the process by his occupation of the country and the taking over control. Immediately the well-known Greek city in Egypt was build and named after the conquerer. Of course I am talking about Alexandria. Here the Egyptian and Greek civilisations met and later people from different parts of the world and backgrounds came to live in the tollerant city. A flourishing civilisation of mixing the cultures of Egypt, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Hebrews and later the early Christians. Much was started in this period and Alexandria will be dealt with in other articles in these series as well.

Transition to modern times

The Greek already had quite a history in philosophical thinking. Empedocles (494-434BC) had come up with the idea of the four elements. Plato (427-347BC) made furore with his theory of ‘idea-forms’, but also said that Empedocles elements were not four completely seperate things, but could ‘go-over’ into eachother. Water freezes to ice, being stone or earth or it evaporates to steam or air. Later Aristotle (384-222BC) came along, not only adding the fifth element ether (bringing western alchemy in line with the Chinese and Indian versions at this point), but also bringing things back to the materialistic plane. He did follow Plato in the idea that the elements could be changed into eachother, but he added qualities to the elements, which made fire hot and dry, air hot and moist, water cold and moist and earth cold and dry. This is roughly the basis on which modern western alchemists based their theories, practices and complex calculations. The loveliest description of the link between materialistic and spiritual alchemy is the Aristotelian saying that as humans strive to achieve their highest forms, also do metals. The ultimate goal for a metal is to become gold and alchemists help them to achieve that as fast as possible.

Many great alchemists have come from Alexandria like Cleopatra (the alchemist of course), Mary the Jew, Zosimus, Theosebia, Stephanus and many more. Some of them left scriptures like the famous papyrus of Cleopatra with the Ouroboros in the down left corner.

It was halfway the Alexandrian period that a peculiar man lived and taught in Judea. Especially two of his followers formed churches and later Christianity became an institution that grew rapidly. Early Christians also lived in Alexandria and initially in peace with the other inhabitents of the city. 300 Years after the ‘founder’ of Christianity died, the Church had a lot of power in the mediteranian area and eventually they had enough power to decry and eventually try to destroy all non-Christian convictions. This resulted in the burning of ‘heretic’ writings and even the 300.000 scrolls library of Alexandria in 392AD. Alexandria mostly died with it and many people fleed. After this almost the entire esoteric tradition from the west was stopped, forbidden and eventually even forgotten as the grip of the Catholic church on Europe and the near east got tighter.

Our saviour Mohammed

Of course this is quite an ironic opener because it were Mohammeds early followers that would turn out to be the keeper of ‘our’ knowledge, but let me continue with the story.

As Alexandria fell to pieces, the few scrolls that were saved and the few people not Christianised by force, fled to Bagdad. This is a bit too shortly told though.
There had been quite a lot of Arabs in Alexandria who studied and followed the Alexandrian alchemists. They nearly worshipped Democrites, Mary the Jew, Zosimus and Stephanus and added legendary alchemists to their list of great people. Moses of the Jews, Zarathustra, Ostanes of the Perses, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle of the Greek and more. Alexandrian alchemists first sought refuse in the near east. The Sabeans of Harran were widely known for their enormous astronomical knowledge and capabilities and they were more than interested in the alchemical knowledge of the newcomers. They were forced to move to Mesopotamia in 489 and eventually to Persia. The Sabeans translated many books from Greek to old-Syrian under which Alexandrian alchemistical texts.

In 571 Mohammed was born in Mecca as the sproud of the Quraysh-tribe. However there was not really a national or regional religion, Mecca was already a holy place and Allah the name for the highest Divinity. Mohammed reached enlightenment from solitary meditations around the age of 40. His teachings got a rapidly increasing number of followers and soon Islam became the religion for the middle East. Muslims were a friendly kind of people. Having lived between Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians for such a long time, they recognised and respected all the ‘people from the book’, meaning, all believes based on holy scriptures. Coming across alchemical/Hermetic people who showed them their ancient texts, they were allowed to keep their convictions and live in Muslim states. In this friendly climate the new Western centre of knowlegde was formed in the Muslim state Iraq, Bagdad to be more precise. This was around the year 750.

The Muslims knew the Hermes of the Greek, being the Enoch of the Jews and called him Idris. Many Muslims were interested in the tradition of Idris and alchemy and studied and translated all the books that they could find. There was famous group of Hermetic Muslims called Ikhwan al-Sufa or brothers of purity. This group produced a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia called Rasai’l (epistles) between 909 and 965. Later Muslims started their own investigations and brought forth their own influential alchemists. The earliest of them was called Khalid ibn Yazid who lived from 660 to 704 and who had as many alchemists come to his castle with all their writings and had them translated and he wrote a few books himself.
The greatest Muslim alchemist was Jabir ibn Hayyan who became known in the West as Geber. Jabir wrote a massive amount of books and had translations of many more. We owe it to him that we have gotten back many Western alchemical writings. For example the oldest known version of the famous Tabula Smaragdina (emerald tablet) comes from Jabirs writings. Jabir also wrote corrections on Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc. and he had a very complex numerilogical system of alchemy that inspired many of the medieval alchemists.
Another Muslim alchemist was Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya, better knows as Al-Razi or Rhazes in the West. Rhazes wrote many classics on alchemy, medicines and theology.

Inspite of quarrels within the Muslim community the area of Muslim reign enlarged and eventually the biggest part of southern Europe came to fall under Muslim government. However rapidly fought out of France by Christian troops, Spain has fallen under Muslim authority for a quite long time and actually in relative peace. Cordoba became the new centre of knowledge and Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in this gigantic city. The crossbreed of ideas resulted in some new Jewish sacred texts like the Zohar (book of splendour) and the Sepher Jetzirah (book of form(ation)) which gave birth to Kabbalism. Also alchemy came back in the West and many books were translated (back) from Arab to Latin to make them available to the Europeans again. Also great alchemists appeared in this environment like Abu’l Qasim Maslamah ibn Ahmed, Muhammad ibn Umail, rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Robert of Chester.

Medieval and renaissance alchemy

Even when the Muslims were driven out of Europe in the 13th century, the new philosophy that has originated by their presence spread rapidly. This resulted in new forms of mysticism that can be found in the Grail- mythology, Gothic architecture, the stories of the Knight Templars and a new wave of magicians like Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Cosimo de’ Medici, Thomas of Aquino, etc.

Later people like Ramon Lull, Michael Maier and Italians like Pico della Mirandola took over the torch. So much happened and so much is written in these centuries that this would take an article (or two) on its own. There was a clear division between materialistic and spiritual alchemy (with much stress on the first in the beginning) and enormous and many works were written about both. Laboratories could be found all over Europe and every possible experiments to make the ‘philosophers stone’ or the ‘elixer of life’ was tested, but of only a handfull it is said that they succeeded.

Alchemists could carry out their experiments freely until the 16th century. The ‘enlightenment’ of the Renaissance spread over Europe and materialism and rigid Catholism became the official worldviews. The inquisition was installed to get rid off heretics and great minds like Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake in 1600) or Tomasso Campanella were persecuted while Athanasius Kircher was ordered to help pope Innocentius X.
Inspite of the problems with the Catholic church, the alchemical tradition continued to flourish. The rise of the ‘Rosicrucians’ was -so to say- the first alchemical organisation with maybe not many members, but a few great names in their ranks. Also the court of emperor Rudolph II in Prague was a safe place for many alchemists and magicians.

Around the end of the 17th century Isaac Newton started his investigations of nature. It is an ironic fact that Newton was heavily interested in alchemy and did many experiments himself, but that he was the start of the fall from grace of it. The scientific revolution set in and alchemy became a retarted philosophy or at its best the forrunner of science. This is the idea that many people in our time still have of it.

However nowadays there are still a handfull of alchemists scattered over the globe, in most people’s minds alchemy is a mystery from the past.

And what about the philosopher’s stone? Well, it is of course often written about, given different names, said to be a stone, a diamond, a powder, a liquid or the essence of the soul. It depends on if you are reading about a materialistic of spiritual alchemist what answer you will get.

Writing this article I came to the conclusion that there is so much to write that this article would be ten times as long. It was difficult to give information without having to use too long explanations, but the lack is of course that now I haven’t been able to work anything out more. Maybe I should pick something and work it out more in a seperate article. As a very rough introductionary article I hope it was helpfull. There are some good books to be bought nowadays and also the internet has some descent pages. I suggest you continue your investigation if I sparkeled your interest.
<29/4/02>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 × 1 =