Spiritual Alchemy – Casting Light on a Secret Science
Spiritual alchemy is closely linked to secret knowledge and many who have attained this level of wisdom later decided to withdraw from it as they found they were not ready to receive it. The purpose of spiritual alchemy is attaining an ancient state which allows access to answers to the following questions: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we heading?” Many say the Kabala describes the road and the destination, but alchemy describes the process and the transformations needed to find the required answers.
Physical to Spiritual Alchemy
Medieval alchemy has its origins in Egypt as it spread from this area towards Europe. Since that time, alchemy has often been described as “Ars Laboriosa Convertens Humiditate Ignea Metala In Mercuris”, referring to the transformation of fire’s humidity into mercury. In other words, it is the art of turning lead into gold.
‘Alchemist Sendivogius ’ (1566–1636) by Jan Matejko, 1867. ( Public Domain )
In spiritual alchemy, this is seen as turning a person’s “lead” (personality) into spiritual “gold”. Alchemists used to speak of human occult anatomy. The energy that surrounds the body surpassing its borders is known as the “aura” and nerve connections at a subtle level, often called “chakras,” are two examples of this secret anatomy. Occult anatomy is a type of human anatomy which is not visible.
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Isaac Newton is one famous historical figure who has been proven to have been an alchemist. When he died, many were waiting to enter his study to take his work on physics and mathematics. They were surprised to find that numerous works were on alchemy and only a few were related to physics and mathematics.
Spiritual Alchemy in the Hindu Tradition
The Hindu tradition describes three main energetic channels: the Ida, the Pingala, and the Sushumna. Furthermore, it says the human mind is formed by three parts with connections between them. These parts are the sensorial mind, the intermediary mind, and the interior mind.
The Hindu tradition also speaks of certain “ages of humanity”. These are: the Krita Yuga (Golden Age) when people used to be spiritual and innocent, the Treta Yuga (Silver Age) when knowledge begins to lose light, the Duapara Yuga (Bronze Age) when wars start and, finally, the Kali Yuga (Iron Age) when humans need interior transformation due to distancing themselves from the light and developing negative habits.
There are also elements which make humans go further away from the light. In Christianity, these elements are called “the Seven Deadly Sins”. In Tibet they are known as psychic conglomerates. In Egypt they were known as “Seth’s Red Demons”.
The Importance of Mercury and Sulfur
Seth was the God who tried to dethrone Osiris. After being tricked, Osiris came back to life as a symbol of the resurrection of positive values. In Ancient Greece, the negative elements were believed to be invincible mythological beasts; but heroes always found ways to outsmart them. As a reward, they would then obtain symbols of their interior capacities. For alchemists, these elements were known as “the dry mercury”. This signified the struggle against something negative which came from within.
Egyptian God Osiris featured in a frieze on a wall of tomb QV66, the burial place of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 BC). ( Public Domain )
Alchemists describe several alchemic processes as follows: Calcinatio, Solutio (Dissolution), Elementorum (Separatio), Conjuctio, Putrefactio, Coagulatio, Cibatio, Sublimatio, Fermentatio, Exaltatio, Augumentatio and Proiectio (Projection). Mercury is the primal matter in alchemy and, as it is silver, it is linked to the moon. It symbolizes all the internal energies: mental, emotional, instinctive, moving, and sexual. By using these forces, the alchemist can attain the Philosopher’s Stone inside his own being. Also, as a god, Mercury is the “Messenger of the Gods” - the link between the human and the divine.
Mandala illustrating common alchemical concepts, symbols, and processes. From Spiegel der Kunst und Natur. ( Public Domain )
Sulfur is viewed as the secret fire. By combining fire and water, one obtains the Philosopher’s Stone. In Hinduism, it is said that Kundalini is achieved. In Egypt, mercury is combined with sulfur in the form of the snake and the eagle from the pharaoh’s crown. The eagle, as a symbol of the spirit, shows that the individual has reached the divine level of the spirit. By combining mercury and sulfur along with salt, as the neutral energy that unites two opposite poles, one obtains the To Soma Heliakon, the solar bodies, namely a set of values that previously did not exist. In the Kabala, the bodies obtained are the Malchuth (physical), Yesod (vital), Hod (astral), Netzah (mental), Tiphereth (causal), Geburah (conscience), Hesed (atman), Binah (holy spirit), Hokmah (son) and Kether (father). They are depicted in the Sephiroth and the first seven represent the colors of the rainbow.
Impure mercury is to be cleared and purified of all that is bad (oxides). When this work is done, certain specific stages are said to appear. They are as follows: the black raven (a saturnian bird linked to death), the white dove, the yellow eagle, and the red pheasant. The resulting creature is the four-colored griffin that lives in a closed glass bottle.
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An alchemy book called the “Mutus Liber”, the “Mute Book,” contains a number of alchemic drawings that need to be interpreted in order to be understood. There are also cases that describe symbols in dreams. Once, Saint Jacob allegedly fell asleep and dreamt of a stairway that led to heaven where the angels sang. There, a situation of choice-making arose and there were two options: humans could use heaven’s dew or they could not.
The formula “Solve Et Coagula” refers to dissolving the dry mercury (the seven deadly sins) and the poisonous sulfur (deformed instincts). This is how one goes up Jacob’s ladder, depending on the level of inner transformation. The term “Coagula” refers to obtaining the golden bodies. Having developed the To Soma Heliakon, one is said to be able to enter the fourth dimension - the superior regions of existence.
"Landscape with the Dream of Jacob" showing the famous ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (circa 1691) by Michael Willmann. ( Public Domain )
Symbols Veiling Sacred Knowledge
Alchemists have used all sorts of methods to hide their secrets, such as a method known as the Notaricon technique of writing backwards. Because of the Inquisition, alchemists had to protect themselves by hiding their knowledge under a veil of symbols as well.
"Squaring the circle": an alchemical symbol (17th century) of the creation of the philosopher's stone. ( Public Domain )
In symbolic language, one symbol can express an entire phrase. That’s why alchemists used a wide range of universal symbols. The first such symbol was the cross. The cross has existed since ancient times. Long ago in the city of Veracruz, Spaniards accompanied by fanatic priests wanted to spread Christianity and teach the meaning of the “true cross” to locals. However, when they got there the locals took them to their temples and showed them that they too had their own cross, the cross of Quetzalcoatl.
The snake is a symbol with a double meaning. In the Bible, it stands as a negative symbol of temptation, but also as a positive one in the form of the snake from the Exodus which was used to cure the Israelites. The snake represents an important force in the universe. Two entwined snakes symbolize a duality that must be brought to balance, while the Mayan snake with two heads can crawl in two opposite directions, towards good or towards evil. Another symbol of duality is the Yin-Yang, which stands for feminine-masculine.
The Yin Yang symbol. (DonkeyHotey/ CC BY 2.0 )
Wheat symbolizes wisdom, while wine stands for something that was in a certain state - fermented and transformed. This is another symbol for the alchemic transformation. Other symbols include the seal of Solomon and the labyrinth. The labyrinth stands as a symbol of the human mind. Those who bring order to the labyrinth are thought to succeed as they manage to bring order to their own minds.
Silver coin with labyrinth design from Knossos, Crete. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Philosopher’s Stone and the Alchemist’s Lab
The Philosopher’s Stone, the Lapis Philosophorum, is believed to be a stone with a perfect cube shape. In spiritual alchemy, it is the symbol of the interior force that conveys perfection. The Magnus Opus, the Great Work, represents the journey from the initial state until reaching the final phase by putting into practice alchemic wisdom. Before the appearance of medieval alchemists, the concept embodied by the Philosopher’s Stone was known as the Golden Fleece which led the Argonauts to face many monsters. The Philosopher’s Stone is said to be obtained by purifying mercury. Upon completing the Great Work, the alchemist obtains the Donum Dei, the Gift of the Gods, meaning the ability to understand the mysteries of life and death. This results in the possibility of going beyond the boundaries of good and evil. The way of obtaining the Donum Dei is thinking, feeling, and acting correctly.
Philosopher's stone as pictured in Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 21. ( Public Domain )
In spiritual alchemy, the alchemist’s lab is a symbol for the human being. The formula VITRIOL (Visita Interiore Terrae Rectificando Invenies Ocultum Lapidum) stands for visiting the interior lands and finding the hidden stone by rectification. To represent this idea, alchemists came up with engravings depicting the alchemist working underground. But the ground looks very much like a human skull and is a symbol of the human psyche. The philosophical soil stands for human psychology, where teachings reach and can catch roots and flourish - or not. The alchemist’s oven expresses the interior of the human body and its internal fire.
Alchemists refer to two opposite forces that reside inside the individual. The morning dew is collected and placed in the oven. Two equal bottles result from this process. After more distillations, a flower with six petals appears, just as Solomon’s seal has six corners. In the Kabala, the number six represents indecision, thus this is a moment of choice of what to do with the mercury. Once the choice is made, other crystallizations follow and the god Saturn devours a child representing the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins.”
Page from alchemic treatise, 16th century. ( Public Domain )
The next symbol is the balance (scale), which is something the alchemist must achieve, so the result is poured from two plates at the same time - expressing both balance and precision. All this results in obtaining the state of man as a king of nature. This is where the symbols of the king and queen are encountered, along with the rainbow as the sacred link between man and god. In Nordic mythology, one must walk over the rainbow in order to enter the city of the gods. In spiritual alchemy, the rainbow stands for the first seven bodies of the To Soma Heliakon. This is when the individual becomes androgynous on an interior level with a perfect interior balance.
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Key Traits for an Alchemist
To be able to undergo this entire process the alchemist needs many things. First, he must work a lot on balance and his emotions to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, which is perfection. He must work with dedication and love. Then he needs to control energies, knowing when to speak and when to be silent - as it is flawed to speak when one should be silent and as it is also flawed to be silent when one should speak.
‘The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone’ by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771. ( Public Domain )
The alchemist must not be driven by pride because his work demands simplicity. Thomas de Kempis used to say about himself: “I am always what I am” as the internal value never changes. The alchemist also needs to have faith, as Saint Jacob used to say that “faith without actions is dead in itself”. A good alchemist also can get over failure without becoming depressed since both success and failure will occur. He also needs to be hard working and perseverant (the emblem of all alchemists) as one must live alchemy in order to understand it.
When all this is considered, the alchemist’s path reaches its destination (consumatum est). This is expressed by the Ouroboros, the snake that bites its own tail to end the cycle - a symbol of accomplishing oneself. And there is also the symbol of the Imperator, that of a man taking his place once more as a king over nature. The accomplished alchemist is his own master, he is not subject to influence but is continuously balanced and has power over all things.
Ouroboros eats its own tail. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: ‘An alchemist being tempted by Luxuria.’ Oil painting after Marten de Vos. Source: Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0
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