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Isn’t alchemy a spiritual tradition? by Peter J. Forshaw
Well, kind of, depending on how you defĳine “spiritual” and the particular type of alchemy you’re talking about. The new historiography of alchemy prefers to speak of quite a wide variety of alchemies, rather than one generalised notion, and “spiritual alchemy” is a pretty contentious subject.
In the antique environs of third-century BCE Hellenistic Egypt, we fĳirst fĳind a concern with decidedly material procedures: the imitation of pearls and the colouring of metals to look like gold, by means of a “spiritual” tinc-ture, leading eventually to early attempts at Chrysopoeia (Gold-Making), the transmutation of base metals, like lead, into that most precious substance, gold. Greek traditions were adopted and transformed by the Persians and Arabs, from the eighth century CE, where we fĳind the Sufĳi Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. ca. 721-ca. 815), for example, promoting his Sulphur-Mercury theory of the composition of the Philosophers’ Stone and the idea of the production of an elixir capable of both curing human diseases and transforming lesser metals into gold. From the same period we have the earliest version (in Arabic) of what is arguably the most famous text of alchemy, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a short work that has been interpreted in a multitude of ways, as concerning gold-making, curing human sickness, personal transformation, and so on and so forth.
There is an undeniable interest in spirits in the work of the Persian polymath Rhazes (865-925) whose Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets) explicitly discusses four “spirits,” but these are volatile substances, including Mercury, Sal ammo-niac, Arsenic, Sulphur and have nothing to do with the “spiritual” development of the alchemist. However, a representative of alchemy as an inner science of spiritual transformation can be found in a work by the Andalusian scholar and mystic Ibn ʿArabi (1165-1240), a chapter of the Kitâb Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Book of the Meccan Revelations), titled “On the knowledge of the alchemy of happiness and of its secret truths.” Ibn ʿArabi makes no claims to manual laboratory experience, but is aware of the theories of fellow Sufĳi Jabir and claims that alchemy is a science natural, spiritual and divine.1
When alchemical texts fĳirst began to be translated from Arabic into Latin in twelfth-century Europe, the Christian West came to learn about Greek and Arab laboratory practice. The fĳirst known translation, in 1144, De Ibn ‘Arabi, L’alchimie du bonheur parfait. compositione alchimie (On the Composition of Alchemy), a work attributed to the Christian monk Morienus, is presented as “a book divine and completely
2 Fulfiled with divinity.” This can of course be understood as the claim that the book was divinely inspired, while sticking to material goals. There is, however, some ambiguity, for in the midst of what certainly sounds like laboratory practice, we fĳind such enigmatic statements as, “Truly, this matter is that created by God which is fĳirmly captive within you yourself, inseparable from you, wherever you be, and any creature of God deprived of it will die.”3
In the Christian Middle Ages we begin to see the interpenetration of alchemy and religion, in particular in the use of the story of Christ as an exemplum for the various processes of the Great Work, in which the prepara-tion of the alchemical elixir is seen as analogous to the conception, nativity, passion, and resurrection of Christ.4 While this could not really be argued to indicate any form of “spiritual” development, it is an example of what has come to be called Theo-Alchemy, an approach that related religious material (and considerations) to laboratory practice. The English Franciscan Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294) advocated the use of alchemy as a way of resist-ing and surviving the assault of the Antichrist.5 In the following century, another Franciscan, John of Rupescissa (ca. 1310-1366) wrote the Liber de Consideratione quintae essentiae omnium rerum (Book on the Consideration of the Quintessence of All Things, 1351-1352), in which he described the distillation of quintessences, including the preparation of alcohol distilled from wine, to produce the paradoxical aqua ardens or “burning water” of the alchemists.6 Rupescissa’s religious opinions about the goals of alchemy are recorded in the Liber Lucis (Book of Light, ca. 1350), where he claims that the Philosophers’ Stone will be of great benefĳit to the Roman Church during the time of the Antichrist.7 The gold and silver produced by alchemy will help attenuate the poverty of the elect of God, the Spiritual Franciscans, and provide them with the material means to fĳight against their adversary (who will also, incidentally, make use of his own malign alchemy).8 In the fĳifteenth century yet another Franciscan friar, Frater Ulmannus, composed Das Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity), which discusses laboratory alchemy in a heady mixture of imperial German politics and Mar-ian theology, including images of Christ as an alchemical eagle and Lucifer (with his mother!) as an alchemical hermaphrodite, symbols respectively of correct and misguided laboratory practice, with some consideration of the moral nature of the practitioner thrown in for good measure.
If this all sounds rather disappointing for anyone hoping for more lofty dimensions to alchemy, we also occasionally fĳind expressions of a belief in a supernatural form. In his Pretiosa margarita novella (New Pearl of Great Price, 1330), the Italian physician Petrus Bonus of Ferrara introduced this new per-spective by claiming that alchemy was natural, supernatural, and divine. He went so far as to claim that a knowledge of the generation of the Philosophers’ Stone had provided pagan philosophers knowledge (and even observable proof) of Christian doctrines.9 This notion of a supernatural alchemy came to prominence in the early modern works of fĳigures like Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), and Robert Boyle (1627-1691). While all three were deeply interested in physico-chemistry, they intimated that in addition to its more material concerns with transmutation or healing, some products of the laboratory, such as supernatural “magical” and “angelical” stones, produced by adept philosophers, could help in understanding the language of animals, banishing evil spirits, and communicating with angels.10 This supernatural dimension appears in a diffferent way in the manuscripts of English astrologer, alchemist, and physician Simon Forman (1552-1611), whose plans for laboratory practice included casting astrological charts in order to check for the malign presence of evil spirits or benefĳicial aid of angels.11
Some of the expanded claims about the properties of the Philosophers’ Stone were undoubtedly due to the influence of the rebellious, revolutionary Swiss Chymist Theophrastus Paracelsus of Hohenheim (1493-1541). Although some had already begun to consider alchemy’s investigation of matter useful for medical purposes in medieval Arabic texts, this came to the fore in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe when Paracelsus horrifĳied the conservative, deeply classical, academic medical community by promoting two kinds of medical alchemy, Chymiatria and Spagyria, advocating, for instance, the use of homeopathic doses of poisonous mineral and metal-lic spirits for the treatment of what were held to be incurable corporeal diseases (e.g., leprosy, syphilis, gout) as well as what he termed ”spiritual diseases” (mania, epilepsy, lunacy).12 In his idiosyncratic way, Paracelsus also encouraged the combination of astrology and magic with alchemy. In his genuine and pseudo-epigraphic works we fĳind an enthusiasm for practical laboratory alchemy, with a focus on the distillation of arcana for treatment of human illness, alongside works discussing elemental beings, man’s ethereal body, and contact with spirits.
All of these alchemies, to one extent or another, would claim to be concerned with spirit, but few exponents, however pious, would consider themselves practitioners of a specifĳically spiritual alchemy. Nowadays, most people do not really have these kinds of spirits or notions of “spiritual” in mind when they think of spiritual alchemy. A quick browse on the shelves of occult and esoteric bookstores instead discovers books about alchemy as a process of self-purifĳication, of spiritual exaltation and self-transformation, “as an inherently spiritual exercise which elevates the practitioner by some esoteric illumination.”13 Those familiar, for instance, with the internal and external alchemy of Chinese Taoism, may suspect that Western alchemy is, or includes, an “art of internal meditation or illumination” as much as “an external manipulation of apparatus and chemicals.”14 For some there is a consideration of “the role of the will and the mind of the spiritually purifĳied adept in manipulating the matter of the physical world.”15 Others go still further and claim that “real” alchemy has nothing at all to do with the mate-rial laboratory but with the spiritual enlightenment or development of the practitioner. As inspiring as such ideas of self-perfection or transfĳiguration may be, it must be exasperating to hear from a historian that there is not much clear evidence of such beliefs in the early history of alchemy.
One of the earliest overt signs of double (or multiple) readings of alchemy, implying that it was concerned not only with the purifĳication or transmuta-tion of matter in the laboratory but was being considered as a practice of self-transformation, appears in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century in the Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom, 1595/1609) of the German theosopher Heinrich Khunrath of Leipzig. Khunrath explicitly promoted physico-chemical experiment in the laboratory, with an interest in the properties of matter, metallic transmutation, and Paracelsian chemical medicine; but he was unusual in his insistence on the absolutely necessary combination of alchemy, magic and cabala.16 From this highly original standpoint he spoke of the purgation of his body, spirit and soul in alchemical terms, connecting this with his novel alchemo-theological declaration that the Philosophers’ Stone is the fĳilius macrocosmi(Son of the World), working in harmony with Christ as the fĳilius microcosmi (Son of Man). Khunrath described a threefold Stone (Macrocosmic, Microcosmic, and Divine). The fĳirst of these apparently accomplished many of the feats of medieval alchemy (transmutation of metals, creating precious stones from pebbles, producing a perpetually-burning water for use in ever-burning lamps). The second Stone is far more medicinal, with physical and psychological benefĳits for the human being, purging and preserving the body, conferring long life, driving away evil spirits and melancholy, exalting the memory, and so forth. The third, Divine Stone is “the Formula of our Spiritual and corporeal Regeneration,” and “the living Image of the mystery of the indivisible union of the Divine Sacrosanct Trinity.”17 The medical metaphor of regeneration and rejuvenation was already a prominent motif, for example, in the Book of the Holy Trinity.18 Here, in the context of Khunrath’s theo-alchemy, regeneration stands at times for the physical regeneration of the glorifĳied body of the pious Christian adept,19 at times for the heavenly body of the homo spiritualis within us, or the spiritual rebirth of the individual believer through the Holy Spirit.20 Like Ashmole and Boyle after him, Khunrath claims a supernatural, revelatory dimension to the Divine Stone, which is described as the “Urim and Thum-mim by which Thrice Great YHVH Cabalistically gives an answer, speaks and utters his sayings about great and hidden things, to the Theo-Sopher.”21
From close reading of the Clavis philosophiae et alchimiae Fluddanae (Key of Fluddean Philosophy and Alchemy, 1633) of the English Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd (1574-1637), who was familiar with Khunrath’s work, Hereward Tilton has discovered possibly the fĳirst use of the phrases “spiritual alchemy” (Alchymia spiritualis) and “spiritual alchemist” (Al-chymista spiritualis) in an early modern esoteric context.22 They appear in a passage where Fludd is defending himself against the attacks of the energetic promoter of Mechanical Philosophy, the Minim priest Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), friend of René Descartes: “Thus the impious and unrighteous man, glorifĳied by this spiritual alchemy (Alchymia spirituali), is elevated from the darkness into the light sphere of piety and righteousness.”23 Such a man is a not a “spurious” alchymist, but one “mystic and true,” who “by efffect of this kind of Alchemy, that is the truly Theo-philosophical Stone, can reach the height of immortality.”24
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) is, like Khunrath and Fludd, deeply committed to a pious Christian theosophy or cultivation of divine wisdom. While Khunrath’s theosophy included an interest in the transmutation of matter as part of God’s creation, Boehme was far more intent on the transformation or spiritual rebirth and salvation of man. Partly inspired by theo-alchemical literature, in works like the Aurora (1612), Boehme promulgated ideas that were to be of great influence in the following centuries with those who were eventually to promote a radical separation between alchemy and chemistry.25
Let us leapfrog from the seventeenth century, over the Enlightenment, into the nineteenth century, which was witness to a host of spiritualists, theosophists, and occultists fascinated by the transformative potential of spiritual alchemy. Here let one example sufffĳice. Inspired by both Khunrath and Boehme, in her Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery (1850), the Mesmerist Mary Anne Atwood (1817-1910) argues that “Man … is the true laboratory of the Hermetic art; his life the subject, the grand distillatory, the thing distilling and the thing distilled, and Self-Knowledge … at the root of all Alchemical tradition.”26 She enthuses about a “universal art of vital chem-istry, which by fermenting the human spirit, purifĳies, and fĳinally dissolving it, opens the elementary germ into new life and consciousness.”27 Alchemy is no less than a “Divine Chemistry,” concerned with “the transmutation of Life.”28 Rather than being an exclusively spiritual form of alchemy – if by that is meant a focus on the human spirit (or soul) – Atwood’s work seems to suggest a practice that is also an attempt to spiritualise the body.
Dr. Dee, but others also who had part of that precious Power brought unto them by Spirits, and expected great matters of it, were all cheated and gull’d … by those Spiritual Chymists.”
The idea of spiritual alchemy flourishes in a particularly vigorous way in the realm of psychology. The Viennese psychoanalyst and Freemason Herbert Silberer (1882-1923), who moved in the circle of Freud, was one of the fĳirst to write of the psychological insights he discovered in alchemical material, when he declared in Probleme der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik (Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism, 1914) that “Alchemy is the separation of the impure from a purer substance. This is quite as true of the chemical as of the spiritual alchemy.”29
Nowadays, the best known proponents of an alchemy of self-transmutation or transformation are found among the followers of the Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Following an initial encounter with a translation of the Chinese Taoist classic of inner alchemy, The Secret of the Golden Flower (1929), Jung was to become fascinated with what he chose to call “Philosophical Alchemy,” and reflected extensively on, for example, Zosimos of Panopolis’s alchemical dream visions of a fĳiery spirit and the torture and sacrifĳice of a brazen and then a leaden man, of the writings of Khunrath, and most notably those of Paracelsus, whom he considered not only a pioneer of chemical medicine but also of psychology and psychotherapy.30 Jung’s ideas on the relevance of alchemical symbolism to psychology were developed in three main works: Psychology and Alchemy (1953), Alchemical Studies (1967), and Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy (1970). The foremost student of Jung, Marie Louise von Franz (1915-1998), contributed to the notion of extraverted and introverted traditions of alchemy in Alchemical Active Imagination (1997), with technologists and laboratory practitioners like Rhazes being extraverted, while representatives of the introverted approach included Zosimos.31
Both Jung and Von Franz found inspiration and support for their ideas in works of the Flemish Paracelsian alchemist Gérard Dorn (ca. 1530-1584), who draws parallels between the alchemical opus and the moral-intellectual transformation of man. There is the implication that any success in the transmutation of base metals into gold was dependent upon a corresponding inward transmutation of the alchemical operator’s soul into spiritual gold: “you will never make the one thing that you seek from other things, unless you fĳirst of all make one thing of yourself.”32 In De Philosophia meditativa
(On Meditative Philosophy), and De Philosophia chemica ad meditativam comparata (On Chemical Philosophy compared to Meditative Philosophy), Dorn provides material that encourages a spiritual or psychological interpre-tation of the alchemical goal: “If man knows how to transmute things in the greater world … how much more shall he know how to do in the microcosm, that is, in himself, what he is able to do outside himself, if he but know that the greatest treasure of man dwells in man, and not outside him.”33
While Jung preferred to speak of “philosophical alchemy,” his successors tend to write of either “spiritual alchemy,”34 a “psychological alchemy” of “states of mind, catharsis, sublimation, purifĳication and the attainment of unity and equilibrium,”35 or “alchemical psychology.”36 Although many of his followers downplay the laboratory aspect of alchemy, Jung does bear it in mind, as in this distinction he himself makes between alchemy and psychology:
Both disciplines, it is true, are aiming at a “spiritual” goal: the alchemist undertakes to produce a new, volatile (hence aerial or “spiritual”) entity endowed with corpus, anima, et spiritus, where corpus is naturally un-derstood as a “subtle” body or “breath” body; the analyst tries to bring about a certain attitude or frame of mind, a certain “spirit” therefore.37
So, in conclusion, while it is relatively easy to fĳind references to spirits and substances in spiritual form in alchemical literature, the vast majority of alchemical records, at least in Western alchemy, are resoundingly “un-spiritual,” in the sense intended in works of nineteenth-century mesmerists and theosophists or twentieth-century psychologists. True, there are rare, tantalising early modern references to such things as “Archetypal Alchemy,” “Alchimia Mystica,” and “Archymagia”; plus the seventeenth-century heyday of “Emblematic Alchemy,” that coincided with an effflorescence of “Mytho-Alchemy” (the notion that ancient Egyptian and Greek myths concealed the secrets of laboratory work),38 but far more common are the more worldly pursuits of producing gold and preparing chemical medicine.