The word Alchemy is a combination of Al and Chemi—Al, like the Hebrew El, meaning the Mighty Sun, Chemi meaning Fire. As Khem was the name of ancient Egypt, it is commonly supposed that the science of Alchemy originated in the land of the Pharaohs. But actually it was born on the old continent of Atlantis. Egypt was merely the land of its rebirth.
Alchemy is said to have been introduced into Egypt by Hermes Trismegistus. Who was the “Thrice-Great”? The name Hermes, like so many other famous names of history, was a generic one common to a long line of Initiates. Thoth-Hermes was one of the King-Instructors, the “Sons of the Fire” who incarnated in the Third Race to instruct infant humanity in the arts and sciences. The Egyptians always regarded Thoth-Hermes as a symbol of the Third Race. But in whichever of his characters Hermes appears, he is always credited as the first to teach the science of magic to the Egyptians.
Since “Hermes” implies a Fraternity of Initiates rather than a single individual, the Books of Hermes must be considered as a collection of writings and not the work of any one man. In the third century B.C. Manetho mentioned 36,000 manuscripts and Seleucus spoke of 20,000. In the fourth century Iamblichus said that he knew of 1200, forty-two of which he had seen. This Neoplatonist declared that the whole of human knowledge was contained in thirty-six of these books, the other six dealing particularly with the science of medicine. A facsimile of one of these medical treatises of Hermes was acquired by the Astor Library of New York many years ago. The original treatise, known as the Ebers Papyrus, consists of a single scroll of yellow-brown papyrus of the finest quality divided into 110 pages, each of which is carefully numbered. It contains a description of over 700 medicines, many of which are unknown to the physicians of the present day.
The Hermetic philosophy passed from Egypt to Greece about the middle of the seventh century B.C. From that time on the Books of Hermes were the text-books of the Greek philosophers and the Egyptian Hermes became the Greek God of Wisdom.
One of the earliest Greek alchemists was Anaxagoras, about whom Norton wrote in his quaint Ordinall of Alchemy:
Anaxagoras wrote plainest of them all
In his Boke of Conversions Naturall;
Of all the old Fathers that I ever founde,
He most discloses of this Science the grounde.
The Alchemy of Anaxagoras concerned itself with Cosmic physics. He taught that Space is filled with a countless number of atoms of infinite variety and divisibility, declaring that the intelligence animating the atoms caused them to aggregate and form the various physical substances. His atomic theory was elaborated by Leucippus and his pupil Democritus of Abdera, who taught that the atoms in space are actuated by ceaseless motion which in turn generates rotatory motion. It is strange that men who erected the modern science of physics upon the basis of Democritus’ atomic theory, as restated by John Dalton, should have overlooked or ignored the fact that Democritus called himself an Alchemist and claimed to have gained all his knowledge from the Books of Hermes.
The line of the Hermetic philosophy was continued by Apollonius of Tyana, whose life reveals his knowledge of many of the secret teachings of Hermes. The Neoplatonists drank deep of the wisdom of Egypt, and one of their number—Iamblichus—founded a school for the perpetuation of the Hermetic philosophy. From that time on the Hermetic and Neoplatonic lines of the Theosophical Movement were closely interwoven. In the fourth century the word Alchemy appeared in the works of Julius Firmicus Maternus. In the following century Zosimus wrote an encyclopedic work on the subject which is now preserved in the Imperial Library in Paris.
During the fifth and sixth centuries, when the Christian Church had come into complete power, the study of Alchemy was prohibited. It was revived, however, with the Mohammedan invasion, and from then on the number of European Alchemists grew. Some of them, unfortunately, were interested only in the physical side of Alchemy. Others were great philosophers who treated with its inner meaning and used the alchemical symbols to keep the ancient Wisdom-Religion alive in the world. These men toiled for something far greater than fame or worldly wealth. Like Plato, they considered knowledge as the only goal worthy of their endeavor. All of them were bound by a single pledge: to dare, to know, and to keep silent. The aim of each was the same: to benefit mankind. The names of these Alchemists are engraved on the records of the Theosophical Movement in letters of gold, for it was they who kept science and philosophy alive during the Dark Ages and paved the way for H.P.B.
What did they understand by Alchemy? Would any of themhave declared, as our modern dictionaries do, that the object of Alchemy was to transmute base metals into gold? The great Alchemist, Eiranaeus Philalethes, writing in the seventeenth century, says:
Would to God that all men might become Adepts in our art. For then gold, the great idol of mankind, would lose its value, and we should prize it only for its scientific teaching. (Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King.)
Let us therefore judge the science of Alchemy by its real exponents, not by the quacks and charlatans who degraded the noble art. A true definition of Alchemy was given by Paracelsus 400 years ago: “To grasp the invisible elements; to attract them by their material correspondences; to control, purify and transform them by the living power of the spirit—this is Alchemy.” (Paragranum.)
This refers to the fact, taught by all true Alchemists and particularly stressed by H.P.B., that nature and man are triune, being composed of a physical body, a soul or indwelling energy, and spirit, which is above the other two. An old alchemical work, published in 1678, says that the art of Alchemy
. . . is carried to perfection according to the virtue of body, soul and spirit. For the body would never be penetrable were it not for the spirit, nor could these two act upon one another without the soul. For the spirit is an invisible thing, nor could it ever appear without another garment, which garment is the soul. (Ripley Revived.)
Of the three constituents of nature and man, the physical body alone is visible. The soul and the spirit are invisible. Alchemy, therefore, is the science which deals with the invisible constituents of nature and man. According to Paracelsus, Alchemy shows men how to attract these invisible elements by their material correspondences. The Hermetic philosophy is based upon the Law of Correspondences, a statement of which was found on the Smaragdine Tablet of Hermes, which opens with the words: “What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below.”
This Law of analogy and correspondence, says H.P.B., is “the guiding law of nature, the only true Ariadne’s thread that can lead us through the inextricable paths of her domain toward her primal and final mysteries.” In Occult Science, this Law is the first and most important key to Cosmic physics, and is therefore the key which will unlock the secrets of Alchemy. Under the operation of this Law the whole of nature is seen to be evolving on parallel lines. From gods to men, from worlds to atoms, from the Sun to the vital heat in the lowest organic being, the entire universe is an immense chain, every link of which is joined to the one which precedes and the one which follows. Thus, Alchemy is the science which discloses the correspondences existing throughout the whole of nature.
The medieval Alchemists knew these correspondences and gave out many hints concerning them, without, however, revealing the whole secret. H.P.B. did the same thing, explaining at the same time the reason for her reticence:
Each principle is correlated to a plane, a planet and a race; and the human principles are, on every plane, correlated to the sevenfold occult forces—those of the higher planes being of tremendous occult power. So that any septenary division at once gives a clue to tremendous occult powers, the abuse of which would cause incalculable evil to humanity. (The Secret Doctrine I, xxxv.)
Paracelsus defines Alchemy as the ability to control, purify and transform nature by the living power of the spirit. Although this is the third and last clause in his definition, it is where every student of Alchemy was obliged to begin. Purification was the first step, a process which must start in the man himself. An old alchemical treatise contains this warning:
Let none set himself up to study Alchemy until, having cleared and purified his heart, he be emptied of all things impure. Let him be charitable, and let him enjoy constant tranquility, so that his mind be lifted up. For, unless it be kindled with the beam of the divine light, it will hardly be able to penetrate the mysteries of nature. (Canons of Espagnet.)
Purification of the mind and heart is the first step. Self-knowledge is the second. The Alchemist Geber, writing in the eighth century, says: “He who knows not natural principles in himself is very remote from the Sacred Science.” In that great alchemical work, Centrum Naturae Concentratum, it is stated that the highest wisdom possible to man is self-knowledge. The student of Alchemy, Alipili says, must apply the art of transmutation to himself, and “then he may go on prosperously and seek with good success the mysteries of all natural things.” The Moravian Alchemist Sendivogius spoke of the esteem which all men felt toward the science of Alchemy, “which, if thou knowest how to know thyself, thou canst easily comprehend.” The subject of the alchemical art is man himself, its object the regeneration and ultimate perfection of man, gained through self-knowledge and the recognition of man’s unity with the whole of nature.
The medieval Alchemists presented these ideas to the world in the form of symbols. Paracelsus declared that man and the universe are composed of “Three Substances”—Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. Salt referred to the physical form, Sulphur symbolized the inner, energizing principles, while Mercury represented the spiritual essence above the other two. When the medieval Alchemists spoke of the four elements they were really describing the four planes of being—physical, psychic, mental, and spiritual. When they spoke of transmutation they meant the process by which the lower nature of man may be transmuted into the pure gold of the Higher Trinity. Their Alkahest was the Higher Self, their Philosopher’s Stone was Atma-Buddhi-Manas, “a triune, or trinity in nature,” as Philalethes expressed it.
The science of Alchemy may be studied under three aspects, the lowest of which is the physical. From this lowest aspect of AIchemy has arisen our modern science of chemistry. How does modern chemistry differ from ancient Alchemy? This question was answered in 1910 by a prominent English chemist, H. Stanley Redgrove:
If I were asked to contrast Alchemy with the chemical and physical science of the nineteenth century I would say that whereas the latter abounds in a wealth of much accurate detail and much relative truth it lacks philosophical depth and insight; whilst Alchemy was characterized by a greater degree of philosophical depth and insight. For the Alchemists did grasp the fundamental truth of the Cosmos. (Alchemy, Ancient and Modern.)
That fundamental truth is that Nature is a living organism, every particle of which is animated by the One Life. The Alchemists declared:
Everything is an expression of the Principle of Life in a material form. The Life is the real thing; the external form is merely the house in which it resides. (Paracelusus: De Pestilate.)
Modern science is rapidly approaching this fundamental proposition of the science of Alchemy, every step forward being a fulfilment of the prediction made fifty years ago by H.P.B., that the science of chemistry would be reborn as the New Alchemy. One of the first of these steps was taken a century ago by an eminent Scottish biologist, Robert Brown. While observing the biological movements of microscopic organisms in liquids he noticed that each variety of animalcule had a specific motion, and that tiny particles of “inert” material such as gamboge, charcoal, etc., showed similar characteristic motions. Theosophical students recognize in the “Brownian Movement” the ceaseless motion of the One Life—the Great Breath—and in the “characteristic” motion the operation of the Law of Karma which “operates on all things and beings from the minutest conceivable atom up to Brahmâ.”
In 1927 Prof. Paul Walden, non-resident lecturer at Cornell University, spoke on the subject: “What can the modern chemist learn from old Alchemy?” “Why,” he asked, “do we modern chemists and narrow specialists not glean some teachings from these past times?” He accused scientists of losing all connection with nature, telling his listeners that chemistry is no longer a natural science, that it no longer represents a knowledge of nature as a whole. He took up the defense of the medieval Alchemists, assuring his listeners that “Alchemy was a Science which included all branches of the technical-chemical industry,” and commenting that: “The modern successors of the old Alchemists, the hyper-chemists and Theosophists, could well maintain from their point of view that the transformation or materialization of energy has long been known to them.”
H.P.B. spent much of her energy pointing out to the scientists of her day that these things were known to the Theosophists, noting that even then Science was “slowly but also surely approaching our domains of the Occult.” During the fifty years since those words were written, science has come still closer to these domains, but the real nature of matter is still unknown. According to a modern writer:
The new 20th century entities—electron, proton, neutron, positron—are just as mystifying in their fundamental meaning as the old conception of the atom was. The long path which men of science followed in the chase of the will-of-the-wisp called Matter has led them to another ghost—Radiation. If we conquer Radiation we may yet understand Matter. (Jaffe: Outposts of Science.)
Perhaps the modern scientists would find the key to the mystery if they followed the advice of the old Alchemists. Dr. Carrel seems inclined to take this point of view. He says that the science of man will be the science of the future. Following in the footsteps of Paracelsus, he deplores the fact that man “as a whole” is still not understood, admitting with regret that “scientific investigation has destroyed the world of the soul.” A new day will dawn for modern knowledge when scientists seriously consider the three fundamental propositions of Alchemy, as stated by Trithemius in the sixteenth century:
The spirit of man is a Unity, creating and forming everything, and by acting through the instrumentality of man it may produce wonderful things. Such processes take place according to Law. You will learn the Law by which these things are accomplished if you learn to know yourselves.