Origins of the Word
To begin to understand alchemy we can examine the word itself. Alchemy comes from two words put together: Al-chem. Al is an Arabic affix, which in this context is used to denote origin. So al means “of the” or “from”. Chem comes from the word that ancient Egyptians gave to their own land “Khemit”. “Khemit” translates in English to two things concurrently: “black” and “earth/land”. This was because Egypt was the land of the black soil. So, the word alchemy literally means “from-Egypt” or “from-black-earth”. There is another possible (esoteric) meaning to this definition. Alchemy is sometimes called the “Black Art”, not because it deals with black magic or dark forces, but often because alchemy is an art where nothing is discarded. Quite often in fact, the darkest, blackest, most seemingly negative things are not thrown away. Instead they are highly prized – everything is used because even the darkest aspects of nature and ourselves contain the greatest energy for transformation: something black is purified to white by fire, becomes exalted and is ultimately reborn on a higher octave of being. In the same way, the darkest parts of ourselves that we may want to repress, ignore or distract ourselves from actually contain our philosophical gold, the seed for transformation in our lives – if we know how to access and use this untapped energy. Indeed, the darkness is where alchemists seek to explore in their being to retrieve the energy and transform it.
Alchemists in classical times were called “Philosophers of Fire”. Fire is the tool of the alchemist. Whether a literal fire as a flame or the inner light of true imagination – fire is the driving force of the universe. The universe creates and destroys itself, combusting energy in an endless cycle symbolised by the ouroboros, the snake which eats its own tail. Actually this is one of the secrets of alchemy, that matter and Spirit are actually two expressions of the same One Thing. Spirit yearns to exists as form and incarnates into Matter. Matter slowly evolves, becomes conscious and rises to unite once more with Spirit. Alchemists then are people who use fire to help facilitate this cycle and speed up evolution. With special training they assist the exaltation of the universe. By understanding the Hermetic principle of the Doctrine of Correspondences (shown at right), an alchemist can identify the hidden signature of something and use alchemical methods to transform it to the next stage of change.
Where and When Did Alchemy Start?
This is hard to pinpoint. The caduceus shown on the left originates in ancient Mesopotamia and is a symbol long associated with alchemy. We also know that astrology and the seven planet cycle that is key to alchemy started in the same time. The origin stories such as those found in the Jewish Book of Enoch, the creation myths of Ancient Egypt and Sumeria all share some common themes: a Great Flood, contact with divine beings from “above” and the gifting of knowledge to humanity from a God of magic. Whether knowledge came to the first people from a symbolic inner reality (archetypal symbols from the universe), visitors in a literal sense (aliens) or some other means, we cannot be sure.
What we do know is that from a historical standpoint we can see in the last Hellenistic dynasty of Egyptian Kings & Queens the emergence of the central God of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus (pictured at the top of the page). Hermes Trismegistus is actually a blending of two gods – Thoth, the Egyptian God of magic, writing and medicine and the Greek God Hermes. The central text of alchemy and indeed the touchstone containing the whole of the art is the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. There is much more to say about this text, suffice to say for now that around this time we see the emergence of the Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum – containing the earliest texts of alchemy at or around 1st century BCE in Alexandrian Egypt.
What Are Some of the Key Principles of Alchemy?
In alchemy we start out with philosophy and seek to test that philosophy. This is the origin of the modern scientific method where we have a hypothesis and reality-test it. The hypotheses of alchemy are what makes it unique and sets it apart, philosophically, from other esoteric arts. One of these hypotheses is that consciousness is a force in nature. What this means is that consciousness or “being aware that we are aware” is not just something arbitrary that exists only inside the human mind. But rather, that the whole universe is, to some degree, conscious – at least on a rudimentary level. By exploring, understanding and using this philosophy, an alchemist can achieve transformations that are not possible without the focused, intended use of consciousness.
We also believe that all things consist, to some degree, of a body (salt), soul (sulphur) and spirit (mercury)- the symbols for these are at the right. By separating, purifying and recombining these parts of something we can exalt or increase the vibration of the thing.
What is the Relevance of Alchemy Today?
Modern chemistry is what evolved out of alchemy. Again, these words share a common root – “chem”. Chemistry started when Robert Boyle published his book “The Sceptical Chymist” in 1661 AD. This time marks, in many ways, the most crucial time in the development of Western civilisation and the Western psyche in relation to where society is at now.
Boyle was attempting to examine in his book the behaviour of matter in and of itself i.e. without a god or observer. He wanted to understand – how does matter interact with itself? This was a new idea because up until this point, spirituality and science were the One Thing in the art of alchemy. Boyle’s hypothesis reduced the universe simply to a machine, only matter that is not conscious. This is why science, up until the emergence of quantum physics in the 20th century, had this fundamental split from observer and observed. Until the discoveries of quantum mechanics, science sought to understand how matter behaves without the involvement of people. Which is, of course, an obvious paradox because all science that has ever been conducted has been done with the interaction of people with matter. The mechanistic scientific worldview, although extremely useful for explaining the behaviour of matter until the subatomic level, is essentially what has enabled people to use and abuse the earth to the point where we are now facing a great deal of ecological, social and political crisis. It is also a worldview that has led to a capitalist-materialist cage, a view of self where modern people feel cut off from their world at large, from each other and from the universal One Mind (consciousness) that binds everything together within and without.
Alchemy puts people in touch with this animating force and helps people to see the connection between their mind and matter. When this connection is completely understood life becomes magical. The light of imagination influencing the light of the world makes the unmanifest appear and possibilities become real. The First Matter of transmutation is our own lives, turning philosophical lead into gold. This living Stone of power inside each and every one of us is waiting to be awakened. The pattern alchemy teaches has many wondrous applications for our lives, indeed, it can be used in whatever we desire to turn this touchstone towards.