Lecture II 9th May, 1 941
In the last lecture, I gave you a summary of the contents of my earlier lectures, in a very condensed form.
Before going on to the quotations concerning the alchemists’ attitude to their work (where we broke off before Easter) you will perhaps permit me to make a few general remarks about the importance of alchemy and the place which it occupies in the history of science.
Alchemy and astrology are pre-stages of modern science.
Modern science has created an entirely new picture of the world, a curious picture which would have astonished our forefather’s and been quite incomprehensible to them.
The old image of the world was of a religious nature, which is the last thing one could say of modern science.
This is the reason for the frequent disputes, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, between knowledge and faith.
Our age simply cannot imagine a world in which scientific concepts do not play the leading role.
But science, as it has gradually develop ed in the course of the last two hundred years, is exclusively a matter of intellect and observation.
These faculties, however, only represent one half of the human psyche.
The old picture of the world, on the other hand, because of its religious nature, included the other half: feeling and intuition.
Natural science was part of the whole conception of the world, which was definitely of a religious nature, and therefore alchemy was embedded in a general religious image of the world, an image in which the religious aspect was far more important than the scientific, as we understand the term today.
Our forefathers, nevertheless, made diligent use of both the intellect and observation.
The old masters say again and again: “Ars tatum requirit hominem” (the art requires the whole man).
Naturally “the art” includes the idea of being able to, that is, of mastering the technique.
It is only recently that art no longer necessarily includes a thorough technical knowledge.
The old picture of the world was really the unfolding of the image of God, God revealed himself in nature, so knowledge of nature was simultaneously knowledge of God. Nature, therefore, supplied our forefathers with a direct approach to the Deity.
The opus of the alchemists, the scientific work par excellence, included nature, God and man.
For the alchemist, man is not separate from nature, he is 14 contained in nature, together with the Deity, or rather nature and man are included in God.
For antique and medieval man there was still a path to the Deity which led through nature, a path followed by the alchemists in their characteristic art and science (they themselves use both terms: ars and scientia).
Alchemy roas indeed this approach. It was a path which led through contemplation, experience and knowledge of the processes of nature, in order to reach the neighbourhood of the divine activity.
And because of the fact that man is contained in nature and nature in the Deity, the work which changed nature necessarily simultaneously changed man.
It would no longer occur to a scientist of today that his scientific experiments in the laboratory could possibly change him himself, for his whole mind is set on changing his chemical ingredients.
And it is very difficult to understand how one could affect the other.
But it is the old image of the world, where nature was included in God, that enables us to compare alchemy with other spiritual methods, such as eastern Yoga, medieval devotional movements and the Ignatian exercitia spiritualia.
The goal of all these methods is to reunite man, through transformation, with the divine primal cause.
It was necessary to tell you all this in advance, in order that you may be able to understand the attitude of these old masters towards their investigation of nature.
Judging by the language they use, understanding nature and her processes was the most important thing to them, and these processes indirectly elucidated God.
You will remember in the last Semester, that I read you many excerpts from the writings of the alchemists, in order to introduce you to the abstruse material of alchemy.
These quotations were on the meaning of alchemy, on the thesaurus (treasure), on the arcanum (secret) , on the mysterium (mystery), and on the secret language.
The treatises quoted extended from the first century A.D. to the seventeenth century.
Numerous books on alchemy appeared after the seventeenth century, it is true, but for the most part they are of little value, anything worth having is usually quoted from the alchemistic classics which came to an end about the same time as the sixteenth century.
The last spontaneous flowering of alchemy was due to Paracelsus (1493-1541).
He wrote alchemistic treatises himself and he had a most stimulating effect.
Dorneus was his pupil, and Khunrath, Maier and other alchemists were greatly influenced by him.
The seventeenth century produced a lot of valuable material, but the development of science was already visible, in that alchemy had divided into two camps; one devoting itself to mineralogy, pharmacology and chemistry, and the other to mystical speculation.
I will only mention two names in this connection: JAKOB BOEHME and CHRISTIAN ROSENKREUTZ.
The former is really the prototype of the alchemist who never touched chemical matter.
He was a chemist without a laboratory, he used no apparatus, but had become wholly a mystic.
The same is true of Rosenkreutz. With this split, alchemy ceased to exist as an art or science.
But, as I already told you in the last Semester, the idea of alchemy did not by any means come to an end.
On the contrary it bore various fruits.
I will not mention any intervening steps, but will speak again of the great masterpiece which is founded directly on seventeenth century alchemy: the second part of Faust.
Of course this great alchemistic work has no relation to chemistry but, on the other hand, it is closely related to the whole spiritual side of alchemy insofar as this was known to Goethe.
He was well acquainted with at least one alchemistic chef d’ceuvre: CHRISTIAN ROSENKREUTZ’: “Chymis che Hochzeit”; this work is indeed a forerunner of the second p art of Faust.
We find a great many allusions there which reappear in Faust. Rosenkreutz refers back to the very beginning of alchemy; there are passages, for instance, which go back to the third century, to the old alchemist and Gnostic, Zosimos of Panopolis.
I have already quoted several passages from the writings of Zosimos; he has left us a great number of treatises.
Many of these are preserved in the “Codex Marcianus” in the library of St. Marco in Venice.
He worked on the art from the aspects, on the one side there are mystical speculations, philosophy and Gnosis, and on the other experiments with chemical substances.
Some of his most beautiful philosophic fragments are to be found in his treatise on apparatus and ovens.
There is remarkably little in this particular treatise about apparatus or ovens, but it contains all the more of his characteristic philosophy.
But, as I told you, the origins of alchemy are much older than Zosimos, they go back to the Greek philosophy of nature, Stoic philosophy, Hellenistic syncretistic and Gnosticism.
There are parts of the treatises of Zosimos which are particularly enlightening as to the attitude of mind which is advisable, or really indispensable, to enable the alchemist to carry through the opus.
Perhaps you think that I trouble you with a great deal of detail.
But unfortunately it would be impossible to elucidate the peculiar character of the efforts of which alchemy consists, except by means of the texts themselves.
The problem is peculiarly extensive and complicated.
Were I only to tell you about it, without allowing the texts to speak for themselves, we should lose all contact with the earth; for there is nothing that one can compare to the peculiar atmosphere of these texts.
It is not possible to translate them into a different kind of language, for they originate in the lives of these people and in impression of a spiritual endeavour which it is still possible to think ourselvesnto, though it is perhaps very strange to us.
Passages are to be found in rich profusion in the writings of the alchemists on the subject of attitude. Zosimos says:
“One must ask God for instruction, for men do not impart this science.”
This is said very often in the literature of alchemy, one cannot get the most important things from men but only from God. Zosimos also writes:
“Do not explain such a possession to anyone but be sufficient unto thyself, for fear that in speaking thou shouldst destroy thyself. And silence teaches the art.”
This is advice which you could find just as well in Zen Buddhism, a philosophy which was originally Chinese and still flourishes in Japan today.
Zosimos says in another place:
“The science and wisdom come from olden times. Their origin is without royal flavour, it follows its own laws and is immaterial. It does not seek anything from material or transitory substances. It operates without outer influences, supported by prayer and grace. The symbol of chemistry is This means that the alchemist takes the creation of the world as his model. He creates a cosmos, a world, in his opus.
“for those, who rescue and purify the divine soul imprisoned in the elements, and especially for those who separate the divine spirit from the flesh in which it is entangled. As there is a sun, flower of the fire, a celestial sun, right eye of the world, so also will copper when it has been transformed into a flower through purification, become an earthly sun, which is King on the earth as the sun is King in the heavens.”
And in another passage Zosimos writes:
“When thou discoverest our treasures, leave the gold to those who would destroy themselves.”
I must remind you that Zosimos wrote his chief works to his spiritual friend, Theosebeia, which was probably a kind of “nom de plume ” if one can use such an expression.
He wrote to her:
“Do not allow thyself to be led astray, 0 woman . . . and do not wander about, when thou art seeking God. But remain quietly seated in thine own home, and God will come to the e ; He, who is everywhere and nowhere. He is not confined in the nethermost region, like the demons. Relax thy body, calm thy passions, resist the temptations of desire, anger, sorrow and the twelve moirai (fatalities) of death.”
The twelve moirai are the goddesses of fate, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, through which the sun runs its course; so the twelve “moirai” represent the constellations by which man is governed. We find exactly the same idea with the astrologists of today.
A specific time contains the corresponding qualities which bring about certain fates, and in olden days the same thing was called the “moirai”, the fatal goddesses of death.
For the man who is under the Heimarmene, the compulsion of the stars, is under the power of death and is mortal, and it is from this state that the redeemer frees man.
The whole effort of these people is towards liberation from the Heimarmene, that is really from heredity and one’s innate character.
It is as if a modern man should realise that he is an imperfect human being, in need of redemption.
With this insight he might change, and say afterwards that he had become an entirely different person.
This about expresses the old idea.
“With this attitude, thou wilt call the Divine Being to thee. And thus will He come, He who is everywhere and nowhere. Without being called upon, bring thy sacrifices, but not advantageous ones which nourish and please them, but such as destroy them and drive them away.”
It is not very clear who “they” are, but probably they are the twelve.
Sacrifices are to be made to them, but not such as would please and nourish them.
That is: the sacrifices must not strengthen the original condition of man, they should rather destroy its power. The sacrifices are the alchemistic opus.
“That is those (the sacrifices) that Membres proposed when he appealed to Solomon, and especially those which Solomon himself described, according to his own wisdom.”
This Membres is Jambres, one of the old Egyptian magicians mentioned in Exodus VII.
Two of these sorcerers are mentioned by name in II Tim. III. 8: “Jannes and Jambres.”
The sorcerers cast down their rods before Pharaoh and they became serpents.
Of course we do not know whether this Membres really proposed certain sacrifices.
Zosimos refers to a treatise, that was attributed to this Jambres or Membres, which still existed in the time of Zosimos.
Solomon is the old king of Israel, and this refers to treatises attributed to him, for naturally there is nothing about it in the Bible.
He was a great magician, and in the f e of Zosimos Solomon was regarded as an important authority in the sphere of magic and of alchemy in particular.
“In proceeding thus, thou wilt obtain the suitable, authentic and natural tinctures.”
The suitable gifts for sacrifice, then, are the right tinctures, these must be given to the gods in order to propitiate them.
It is essential that it should be the right tinctures, the right elements in the language of the Church, for others might have a bad influence.
With the mention of the tinctures we come into the chemical sphere.
If the work was carried out correctly the gods would help the alchemists to find the right tinctures.
Tinctures were dyes, the dyes which could colour the elements with which the alchemists were working.
They assumed, for instance, that the essence of gold depended on the colour, that iron, lead or silver could become real gold if correctly dyed.
The text continues:
“Work in this way till thou hast wholly perfected thy soul (or, till thou art perfected in thy soul).”
This is an ambiguous passage.
The soul in many texts undoubtedly refers to the human soul, to the soul of the artist or chemist himself; whereas the same words, “anima” and “psyche”, are also used for the soul of the substances.
A divine soul was said to live in the substances, as natural substances they contained, as their innermost essence, the spark of the Deity, the scintilla or spinther, the divine spark.
In that one transformed these substances, the soul became transformed, in the substances and in the alchemist.
It is one and the same soul, the same divine spark, in nature as in man.
“But when thou knowest it to be perfected, then beware of the physical in the materia, and, descending to the Poimandres, and having been immersed in the krater, ascend at once to thine own kind.”
This passage again is very obscure.
It refers, if one may say so, to a philosophic sect, the sect of the Poimandres.
Poimandres is really the shepherd or leader of men. We find this figure also in an early Christian book: “The Shepherd of Hermas.”
But the Poimandres in the Zosimos text, though he is a good shepherd, is not Christ, but a pagan mystagogue (teacher of the initiants) , that is a mediator or saviour.
Zosimos was not a Christian, but apparently he belonged to some cult (though we know nothing definite about it) which had a baptismal rite consummated mated in the so-called krater.
This was a sort of vessel used for mixing, in which one mixed wine and water, and, in that people dipped themselves in it, a kind of plunge bath.
Evidently the people who belonged to this cult, like the candidates for baptism in the early church, immersed themselves in order to become “renatus “, to be born into a new childhood.
Through the plunge into the krater, they were dyed by the divine tinctures and were transformed in a miraculous manner.
In this way they came to their original self, back to their divine nature, an idea which we are also familiar with in Christianity.
Zosimos was to a certain extent affected by Christianity, but he was not a Christian.
He was very much under the influence of the Gnostic literature, from which Christianity took a good many of its ideas.
A vessel, in which a dying process or transformation through baptism takes place, is a basic idea in alchemy right through the centuries.
The “vas hermetis” (hermetic vase) is one of the chief parts of the alchemistic apparatus.
This vessel had to be carefully sealed during the operation, so that no foreign bodies could enter and no content escape.
The common expression “hermetically sealed” comes from this, so you see how certain turns of speech have been preserved from those olden days.
The expression ” Poimandres” refers to Hermes himself, the two are closely related. We find the same word used, in connection with the divine vessel of transformation, in the “Corpus Hermeticum”, a collection of treatises; one of these treatises is called “Poimandres”.
An old legend in this collection relates that the creator of the world made men imperfectly, they could not walk upright and they were anoi, without understanding, unconscious.
But there were some among them who longed for consciousness, and God took compassion on these, and created a vessel which he filled with “Nous”.
Nous like Pneuma means mind, spiritual mind or spirit.
So he filled this vessel with spirit and sent it down to earth, so that those, who yearned for consciousness, could dip themselves in it.
The word “baptisma” is also used for substances which are to be dyed, and is connected with the idea of dipping.
Baptism has become the word for this rite in the Christian Church.
You see in this text how an old alchemist gave advice to his spiritual friend as to how she should proceed in the art.
This text also gives you an excellent insight into the inner meaning of the alchemistic procedure.
We can assume that this is the instruction of a pupil by a master, a real educational introduction into the art, telling Theosebeia the attitude she should have towards it.
As regards the work of transformation you know that this same transformation is of primary importance in the Christian religion, especially the transformation of the elements in the Mass.
But I must emphasize again that these ideas are not Christian but pre-Christian.
The next passage is also from the Greek alchemists, it probably belongs to about the fourth or fifth century but is attributed to Demokritos.
The title of the treatise is: l “The Morals of the Philosopher”, and the sub title: “What moral qualities (ethe) should he have who pursues the study of this science (episteme)? ”
This is a question which is no longer asked today, morals and science have no connection, because modern science only demands half the man, not the whole.
The author says:
“He who treads the path of this knowledge must above all be a lover of God and of his fellow men, self-possessed, free from avarice, shunning lies, and he must also avoid all fraud, evil doing, and envy, indeed he must be a true and faithful child of the holy, consubstantial and coeternal Trinity.”
This is the language used in the Eastern Church about the date of this treatise (fourth or fifth century).
The word “consubstantial” refers to the “homoousia” which means that the substance of the Trinity is one and the same.
The text continues:
“He who does not possess these most beautiful qualities, which are pleasing in the sight of God, or who does not strive to acquire them, deludes himself, for he is then trying to reach after the inaccessible. He will only injure himself.”
This means that people who do not possess these qualities should leave the art alone.
Another text of about the same date (which we find in the next chapter of Berthelot, entitled “Concerning the Assembly of the Philosophers”) says:
” . . . Nothing will lead to the goal, not even at the cost of 50 denars. But the Lord God has given it freely for the sake of beggars and those who despair.”
This passage needs no further elucidation. We will turn n o w to the “Dedication”, a Greek poem, which appears as an introduction to the Codex Marcianus.
It is addressed to a certain Theodorus, a contemporary of the Emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610-641 and who is also supposed to have been a great alchemist.
The text runs:
“Friend of the Muses, whoever thou art, look on this book as one which contains a hidden happiness.”
“This book” refers to the collection of treatises in this Codex.
“But if thou wouldst seek to explore its golden arteries, so cunningly hidden, then raise the clear eye of the mind to the divine natures with complete sincerity; make thy way through this most wise text and thou wilt discover the treasure of a higher knowledge, in that thou seekest and explorest that thrice blessed nature which alone overcomes the natures in a divine manner; which alone engenders the glittering gold, which creates everything and which can only be found by those lovers of the divine gnosis, whom the Muses inspire. I will not say who he is who discovered it. Admire the mind, the wisdom of these men, filled with God (entheoi), the creator of these bodies and spirits (pneumata) , marvel at the way they attained the sublime height of the gnosis so that they are able to animate the soul, kill it and revivify it, and how they create strangely and form strangely.
“Oh marvel at the sovereign, the blessed materia! (Hyle). Who is it understands and knows the mysteriously concealed developments? It is the understanding, the highly honoured and eminent mind, of Theodorus which acquired riches in a divine manner, he the faithful defender of princes.
In this book he has collected and arranged a rare collection of learned trains of thought.
Watch over him, protecting him, 0 Christ, Lord of all ! (christe pantanax!)”
This text shows you how the art was understood by those who practised it.
It is really a religious “praeparatio”, this dedication might be the preface of the Ignatian exercises or some other religious meditation.
In reality it is a preface to chemical experiments or transformations, but which, in a miraculous manner, also transform the soul.
For this reason, as we are dealing with the soul from the historical standpoint, we cannot omit alchemy.
This fact has not been recognised before, because these texts were always read from the point of view of chemistry, from which angle they make little or no sense.
The next passage comes from a text belonging to about the sixth century, written by a Byzantine monk, who app ears in Berthelot as the Christian Philosopher or the Christian, and shows a considerable relationship to Gnosticism.
” . . . We place the principal thing in the middle of our demonstration: As the centre of the circle determines the rays which lead to the circumference, so the inexhaustible spring, which flows out from the centre of Paradise, provides all people with a drinkable and fruitful fluid. In like manner the midday sun also, in the zenith of one of the four centres, illuminates without shadow the whole hemisphere above the earth. In the same way the moon lights the earth beneath the heavens, and with her disc, shining with light borrowed from the sun, she dispels the sadness of the night. Without the philosopher’s fluids there is no possibility of completing the desired result.”
This again is a psychical transformation, and it is compared here with the sacred and redeeming waters of paradise, another direct reference to the Bible, for Christ also is likened to this water.
As you know four rivers arise from the spring in Paradise.
This water is the eternal or divine water, as the alchemists call it, which plays the greatest role possible throughout the whole history of alchemy till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This water is the quinta essentia, or tincture, which brings about the transformation.
The consecrated baptismal water, which as you know is endowed with the power of re-birth in the Church font, is really this same water.
The next passage also comes from the “Alchimistes Grecs”, from OLYMPIODOR, a commentator on Zosimos, belonging to the fifth century.
” In order that the combination should come about, Zosimos says, pray to God that he may instruct you, for men do not impart the science, they are jealous of each other, and one does not find the way . . . The demon Ophiuchus hinders our research, creeping about inside as well as out, now filling us with fear, now bringing about something unforeseen and, under certain circumstances, causing melancholy depressions and chastening us, with the intention of making us abandon the work – But I shall say to him : Whoever thou art, 0 demon, I shall not yield to thee in any way, till I know the result at the end of my labour. I shall not allow myself to be beaten, inasmuch as I have endurance and can struggle on, because I take refuge in an honourable life and in the purifying rites of the philosophers.”
We learn something very interesting here, namely that the old alchemists had certain difficulties with their work which we also experience; so we see that these difficulties are by no means modern.
We are told in this text that a certain demon, called Ophiuchus, plagued them while they were working.
Ophiuchus means “the holder of the serpent, which is the astronomical constellation of Serpentarius.
We learn from the Father of the Church, Hippolytus, that the serpent was held in this constellation for a certain purpose.
It was always trying to reach the Corona, and should it succeed it would be crowned, that is, perfected.
And when a snake is crowned it becomes the Agathodaemon, the good, helpful daemon, which is always represented with a crown of light.
So this demon, Ophiuchus, tried to prevent the alchemist from completing his work, in that he kept the snake (that is the unconscious, animal being) from reaching enlightenment. ~Carl Jung, ETH, Pages 144-152.