Alchemy is considered to be one of the early branches of natural philosophy, shaped in the first centuries A.D. under the influence of the Alexandrian School. And although there the old and new ideas were indeed united into a unique synthesis, yet the Alexandrians did not create it. Rather, they collected and organized the Corpus Hermeticum texts, which have given Alchemy a kind of spiritual and philosophical identity. In addition, one of the main inspirations for the alchemists can be found in Aristotle’s much older works, in his idea of the “prime matter”, from which arise the four basic elements – fire, air, water and earth, which in various proportions construct everything we know.
Perhaps there is no other theme that has been subjected to so many speculations and fundamentally different interpretations, but we can confidently declare that Alchemy is a continuation of an ancient mythology, where the symbolic and psychological content of legendary characters is being replaced by the somewhat more universal notions of the chemical elements. Carl Jung explicitly emphasizes its timeless actuality: „[…] the world of alchemical symbols definitely does not belong to the rubbish heap of the past, but stands in a very real and living relationship to our most recent discoveries concerning the psychology of the unconscious. [….] They are not “metaphysical” speculations but, as we would expect, symptoms of the uniformity of Homo sapiens”[i].
The various ways of interpreting alchemical processes are integrated in the very name of this science, given by the Arabs to denote its Egyptian origins. And although Egypt was called Khem, if we are a bit more informed, we would know that the name Khem came from the word which Copts used to name the dark sand in the Nile Delta. And further knowledge would help us understand that they used the same word to designate the “prime matter”.
Here’s how we encounter different levels of interpretation, even before we have started investigating the actual art of Alchemy. Today we can confidently call it art, since in the late Middle Ages the science of chemistry was separated from Alchemy. Although this “royal art” has been quite mythologized, it has given the world significant practical benefits, such as the creation of pharmacy by the Arabic alchemists in XII-XIII century, and the formation of traditional medicine. One of the most prominent alchemists was Paracelsus, the father of the scientific approach, who states unequivocally: “Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines”.
Despite the array of scientific discoveries and practical concepts we have inherited from Alchemy, its efforts have always been directed to what is known as “the transmutation (transformation) of base metals into noble metals”, along with the search for a number of abstract substances, such as the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, Panacea, and Alcahest (the universal solvent). Perhaps here it is appropriate to mention that modern physics is already able to convert other metals into gold, for example by radioactive beta-decay of mercury 197. And although this is an unprofitable process, at least it manages to imply that the purpose of Alchemy, at least for true alchemists, is not making physical gold but something else.
We have already mentioned Paracelsus as one of the most prominent alchemists. If we add others such as Albert the Great, Isaac Newton, and Roger Bacon, then, not surprisingly, we can establish that they all are figures with an exceptional social position, largely due to their recognized and fruitful intellect, and last but not least, they are also highly religious. From the early stages of their existence, not only contemporary psychoanalysis, but also theology, knew that gold, with its nobleness, purity and unchanging nature, had always been a symbol of the spirit. That is why Paracelsus distinguishes lower and higher Alchemy. So, in this article, we will try briefly and schematically to clarify the actual psychological content of the veiled symbolic notions which the alchemists have articulated, and the processes that they have accomplished or at least attempted.
For some it will be surprising, and for others, quite logical, if we imply that the special laboratory, in which the alchemical experiments are conducted, is the human individual in its entirety, and the special laboratory vessels are the body, certain organs and some psychological attitudes.
Not by accident, Alchemy, when consciously conducted, is called the Royal art or the Masterpiece (Magnum opus); today the expression Magnum opus is used, for example, to denote the greatest masterpiece in an artist’s life. As for Alchemy, it considers the Masterpiece as being composed of three main phases (in the early centuries – four), established by their color characteristics: nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening), rubedo (reddening). At the final fourth phase, the Philosopher’s Stone, which turns everything into gold, is considered to be discovered. In general, these three phases represent the development of a human psyche, which first passes through the realization of its own darkness and its acceptance (nigredo); then, through humility, it achieves its own purification and receptivity for the Light (albedo); the ultimate result is that the Light enters the blood of the alchemist (rubedo), thus transforming into a way of living, in service of God and man. This type of color differentiation of the phases of alchemical transformation is described in a corresponding symbolic way in the first entirely alchemical text, written by the gnostic Zosim (his Greek terms are melanosis, leukosis, iosis). The text is from III-IV century, but describes events of the I century.
In the subsequent development of Alchemy and its adaptation to the ever growing complexity of human thought process, the color phases are further divided, usually adapted to the universality of the figure 7. They are thus bound to the influences of certain planets, and as we know, the properties of certain metals. And as Paracelsus himself hints: the metals correspond to spiritual qualities.
We can quickly sketch the links as follows: Mercury is the yellow (or brown) color represented by the element of mercury, and means a new way of thinking; Venus is the green color, represented by the element of copper, and means a new way of feeling; Mars is the red color, represented by the element of iron, and means a new will; Jupiter is the blue color, represented by the element of tin, and means overcoming arrogance and criticism; Uranus is the indigo color, represented by the element of zinc, and means letting go of all resistance, and thus – illumination of everything that has so far been considered irrational; Neptune is the violet color, represented by the element of cobalt, and means letting go of the human notions, and direct connection with the Spirit.
Since Alchemy is in fact also an ongoing process of searching, there are variations in this seven-dimensional scheme, which sometimes involve the gray lead of Saturn, and the black Pluto, with its element of bismuth; and of course, as basic symbols of Soul and Spirit – the silver Moon and the golden Sun.
Apart from this, some alchemists thought that all metals (soul qualities) are composed of different proportions of mercury, sulfur and salt, where “gold” is the product of their proper mixing. Mercury and sulfur here represent the opposites of the dialectical world, and salt is the element that reconciles and unites them.
[i] C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Princeton University Press, 2nd Edition, 1970, pp. 15-16.