The Philosopher’s Stone, the Hermetic androgene or pure energy? The elixir vitae, aqua vita or vital force is a concept familiar to homeopaths, a sexless concept, a god/dess head which has had so many names throughout the ages, it is now quite difficult to grasp the concept behind it all.
The alchemists used all these names and many more; to guide mystics in the know and to hide these ideas from the dangerous ignorant. The Church and the Inquisition were extremely dangerous!
The alchemists did not have the benefit of agreed scientific concepts or terminology. Today, we can all agree on the general meaning behind scientific ideas, even if we do not understand the terminology or the science. However, in the middle ages no one had been allowed to examine such ideas since the classical age.
So they described and discussed ideas and concepts in odd ways; for example the liquid menstruum or dragon, which means the sexless vital force, half man, half female, defined by colours, yellow for the sun (male) and blue for the mood (female); or expressed in terms of classical god heads, for example Apollo terrorizing Juno, which is in effect the same thing expressed in a different way.
Of course mystics would have understood these convoluted descriptions. The dangerous ignorant would be suspicious, but couldn’t prove anything.
The Alchemists were the inheritors of the ancient mysteries. Metalworking goes back a very long way and was always linked to mysteries, religious rites, pagan of course. When mixing metals, cooper gives way to iron and so on; amalgams and new alloys – chemical weddings, so to speak – when you take two things and make a third – conjunctions, pregnancies, conceptions, nourishment…
The early alchemists believed that all metals came originally from mixing sulphur and mercury – gold and silver in colour – and if you use them to make alloys – well you end up with more than you started with. It must have all seemed so… well religious… so mystical. They could create something new – a power only given to a god head. They could destroy something and resurrect it as something else.
The image of the phoenix comes from the ashes of creation and destruction. The elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, the virgin, the child…
Once you slip into the mind set of these alchemical ancestors and start to understand their classical world view and their use of metaphor, you can get glimpses of their knowledge. Whereas today we use language deliberately designed to describe scientific process, something they didn’t have access to back then.
What they did have was a rich pantheon of gods and goddeses which had described the world for millenia, and variously understood by the educated. In fact, you could say that all that has changed since those times is the language, and they invented the language we still use today: calcination, distillation, sublimation, solution, putrefaction, transmutation, metamorphosis etc.
The alchemists also used simile: urine, dragon’s milk, chaos, toad, vitriol, adder, lion, dismembering a man with a sword, marriage, monsters etc. Remember, every age has its mystical secrets and these have never been for the uneducated masses.
Roger Bacon said he was researching the quinta essencia, the conjoining menstruum, the Hermetic stream. He was seeking the union of fire and water because the Greeks said it could not be done. For a Franciscan friar, it was allowed for him to do what the ancients could not because this proved how superior Christianity was.
It was all the excuse he needed to study Aristotle, mix silver and gold (read lunar (moon) and sol (sun)) or water and fire – all these things refer to the same thing. He ended up with alcohol! Well is this a union of fire and water? Roger Bacon would have said that this was part of the Great Work, and it is no surprise to me that Google could only come up with this Masonic article today as the only remaining use of that term.
The Emerald Table had recently appeared in the West and was most certainly considered ‘forbidden knowledge’, but Roger Bacon may well have heard mumblings.
The myths surrounding it are endless, for example, that Alexander took it from the Tomb of Hermes, another mystic analogy as gods did not have tombs because they were immortal, so this means ‘ancient knowledge’ to those ‘in the know’.
Another myth says Sarah the wife of Abraham took it from the tomb of Hermes, a mystical reference to the Egyptians and through them to the Arabs, because Sarah was supposed to be a Priestess of a classical cult, definitely ‘forbidden knowledge’.
The Emerald Table was purported to be the concealed form of the Philosopher’s Stone, and to describe the Great Work. Many thought it came from Egypt and so it was treasured because so little was known about the Egyptians and so much was surmised.
Others thought it came from ancient Syria or other places outside the Christian world, more metaphors for the lost classical world and well beyond the remit of the Church.
The Emerald Table was referred to by many hidden names to keep discussion of it safe, so it became the Tabula Smaragdina or the Philosopher’s Stone or the Unity of All Things or the Combination of Earth, Air and Water or the Sealed Vessel or the Glory of the Whole World.
Mystics knew what it meant, but the dangerous ignorant could only writhe in suspicion. When Paracelsus added salt to mercury and sulphur, the mystics knew what he meant!
In the early 15th century, matter and mind had no rigid distinction, they were simple continuous aspects of the Great Process leading towards refinement and perfection, or mists, smokes, exhalations, air, ether, spirits, soul, spiritual beings. The Greek word Ourboros means simply ‘one is all’. Mystics knew what it meant.
So when mystics talk of metals born from mercury, they mean the spirit; from sulphur, the soul; from salt, the body. These were known as the three serpents. The liquid menstruum was the sea and the two fishes were the spirit and the soul. This is obviously code.
Mercury is a liquid metal volatile unchanged by fire, so it is fire and water, the spirit or phlegma. Sulphur is inflammable and volatile, so it is air and fire, the soul or fat. Salt is non inflammable and found in the ashes, the body or ash. As the alchemists would say ‘old sins have long shadows’.
Mystics knew that pure matter abides in nature. They knew the ancients knew about magic elixirs or magic stones. They knew the ancients knew how to regenerate the body and the soul.
One wonders if the alchemists must have heard about mummification? It must have driven people crazy with curiosity. The Great Work or preparing the stone, a guest, labourers in the fire – hints of the process of sending the pharaoh into the stars?
The alchemists talk about ‘heavy shining powder’, a ‘strong and pleasant odour’ and the ‘power of projection’. They say red transmutes into gold and white transmutes into silver, all code, all of it! We can only wonder about it now.
Laurence Gardner has written a book called the Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark which attempts a more modern analysis. The 17th Century philosopher Eiranaeus Philalethes who was a Royal Society Fellow, said “nothing but gold digested to its highest degree of purity… called a stone by virtue of its fixed nature… gold, more pure than the purest… but its appearance is that of a very fine powder.”
The Crusaders discovered things in the 11th century, many went native never to return home, but ideas and knowledge travels along trade routes as well as wine and silks. By the time this information reached the West, it would have to be in code.
The alchemists called themselves the ‘sons of Hermes’ and the mystics understood. ‘The philosopher’s Stone is known to all but it is esteemed vile’. it is easy to understand this now.
The Hermetic vessel was an egg, it contained gold and transmutes Sophic sulphur (yellow) and silver (white) into Sophic mercury – all sealed with a flame and submitted to the Great Work with the addition of Sophic salt. Sophia was the ancient goddess of wisdom, now prescribed, and divine classical goddesses were definitely forbidden by the Church! She became Athene instead.
Multiplication enhances the process. This incubator is hermetically sealed and heated by fire and guarded by the sons of Hermes. The chick that arises from this egg will conquer iron and fire. ‘Nothing may hinder your desires more than ignorance of the heat of your fires’. Hephaestus is lame and has a wooden leg. We can almost get it.
The alchemists suggested twelve stages in the process of the Great Work because of the twelve signs of the zodiac (even though there is a thirteen sign zodiac, this presumably had to be Christianised as well).
Seven metals, seven planets, seven days, the Philosopher’s month lasted forty days, of which Saturn (blackness) lasted from the 40th to the 19th day. We can almost get the code. The Great Work starts in the zodiac sign of the archer with the moon in the ram, ending under the conjunctive influence of the sun and the moon in the lion. Black, white, citrine and red. Watch for the rainbow colours of the peacock’s tail. We can almost get it.
The alchemists trawled the forbidden knowledge of the classical world. Pythagoras linked number, music and harmony in his ‘harmony of the spheres’, so harmonious chemical, physical, astrological elements had to be accompanied by music and be free from sin. ‘Vile their secrets with rustic speech’ people said.
Count Michael Maier had to be extremely careful. He played with the four elements from god, fire, air, water and earth, the three principles from nature sulphur, salt and mercury and the two seeds from the metals, masculine (sol or gold) and feminine (white or silver). This was the tincture, one fruit from art. The symbols used for these fundamentals were thought to be Chaldean in origin.
So far we have this table:
Sun = gold
Moon = silver
Mars = iron
Mercury = quicksilver
Saturn = lead
Jupiter = tin
Venus = copper
Plus the salts of these metals – silver nitrate, copper sulphate, lead acetate, ferrous sulphate etc. So we get the Red King (gold, suplhur), the Stone (white, blue), the Queen (silver, mercury), the Grey Wolf (antimony sulphide and the Black Crow (putrefied or mortified matter) etc.
The Riddle of the Stone, or vitriol acrostic is a code devised to keep all this secret. Its invention was associated with the Emerald Table. Basil Valentine puts it thus ‘Visit the inward parts of the Earth, by rectifying thou shalt find the hidden stone’. This code now shows the conjunction of sol and lunar under astrological influences, and becomes the ‘holy grail’ symbols of physical and pure life.
The bath or fountain is code for the liquid menstruum and it contains five lions on the stairs of Solomon or five metals from one root or the sun and moon (king and queen in the bath), on the marriage bed, in the garden with the tree and the apples of the Hesperides.
The code diversifies into Abraham who was the king who killed a great multitude of little infants and put the blood into a great vessel while the mothers wept. The sun and the moon came to bathe in the vessel (Herod). Such were the convolutions, twisting and turnings it had to endure.
Note that anti Jewish twist designed to keep the Church happy, but the mystics knew what it meant.
Basil Valentine also mentions twelve keys, ‘the door to the most ancient stone of our ancestors and the most secret fountain of health’. He goes on, ‘take a fierce grey wolf and feed him the body of a king and burn him entirely to ashes in a great fire three times’. This translates as antimony sulphide and lead will unite with all the metals except gold. In other words, the white woman is married to the red man. When all the colours of the world have shown themselves, this is a configuration (a union).
Flamel continues: ‘the dragon and the snake, a virgin swallowed up by serpents. A cross where the serpent was crucified. The serpents issue from many fair fountains’. Bablylon becomes the symbol of the sun god, a serpent that ruled over the realms of everlasting sorrow. The Stone is the one rejected by Soloman and the builders of the Temple. Does this refer to the ‘mysteries of the future resurrection, the day of judgement, the coming of Jesus’? Or is it just more code?
From the alchemists we get terms still in use today. ‘The black night of the soul’ means the ‘black stage within the Hermetic vase’, in other words, keep boiling it until the black crow appears! The white is the ‘morning light of a new intelligence’ or Sophia again. Red becomes the ‘contemplative life of love’ as Hephaestus or Vulcan presides over the labourers of the fire as they esteem Athene, goddess of Wisdom, or Sophia again.
In 1612 Ben Johnson’s play The Alchemist, he writes ‘Was not all the knowledge of the Egyptians writ in mystic symbols? Speak not the Scriptures oft in parables? Are not the choicest fables of the poets that were the fountains and first springs of wisdom wrapped in perpetual allegories?’
The code is constantly refined. The earth is now a grotesque female figure suckling an infant with a she wolf at her feet suckling a she goat also suckling (Romulus and Remus – or Jupiter). Saturn (old father time) is given a stone to eat instead of his new born son Jupiter, an ‘unorthodox diet’ (ala Herod sipping at the vessel filled with blood).
The alchemists were nonetheless learning, gold is given a number, 192, devised by numerology, very close to its actual atomic weight. The four corners (winds, spirits, angels, rivers in paradise etc) become a tetrahedron or ‘quadrivalent’ carbon.
Numerology becomes the main stay of the alchemical code. Pythagoras (music) and Hermes (patron of music) and Athene (goddess of wisdom = maths) now accompany alchemy everywhere. The Pentagram becomes the badge of Pythagoras (number 5), and sacred music ‘disperses sadness’.
Fugues (style of writing music) now have three voices, the third voice becomes the apple in the path and the three voices also represent the Stone, the philosopher and the obstacles in the way. The labour in the fire produces results, Libavius explains the preparation of sugar candy and alcohol. Basil Valentine describes antimony, reported to be the very first monograph on a chemical element.
The alchemists go on to describe distillation, solution, putrefaction, extraction, calcinations, reverberation, sublimation, fixation, separation, reduction, coagulation, tincture etc. Not bad for a load of code gobbledygook!
Paracelsus wanted to study medicince and forget god. He condemned herbalism and Galen and Avicenna and burnt their books. He was eventually expelled from Basle university and branded an opium eater. However, Basil Valentine backed him up and they worked together on antimony.
Paracelsus was very cross that Galen and Avicenna did not ‘even trouble to enquire in what way the medicines they prescribe are prepared’ and ‘Antimony has hidden within it a wonderful medicine’ but that it must be ‘freed of its poison by our spagyric art…’
And so Paracelsus gave birth to modern pharmacy and the alchemists gave birth to modern chemistry.
Johannes Baptista van Helmont ditched Artistotle in favour of Thales because he sought the primordial principle in water and not in the four elements as Aristotle had. Here we can see the disjunction between the theological allegories of the code and the state of understanding of these 16th century protoscientists.
Luther had freed scholars in Protestant Europe from the terrors of the Inquisition and they no longer need to fear them or learn the code. So they cast about looking for other classical traditions, not understanding the earlier struggle.
Chemistry in Protestant Europe becomes a chair at many universities and much work is done. Interest in mysticism and alchemy is becoming rather blase and though the Philosopher’s Stone and items of the code are still mentioned, the disconnect is gaining momentum.
Soon no one will understand it at all.
There are many important chemists in this period that I could mention. However, this story is now taken up in my first essay, a history of Chemistry for the Homeopath, and I do not intend to repeat myself, as I am sure you will all be glad to hear!
However, before I end this essay, of course there is a deeper, spiritual, even religious aspect to alchemy (Al khame – the science that overcomes blackness/ignorance), which is essentially female (Sophia) through the divine menstruum, designated with a circle with a dot in the centre (all seeing eye) and a triangle with a dot in the centre (doorway to the light). In the Song of Soloman 1:5 it is described as ‘black but beautiful’ (intelligence – not colour of skin), associated with the monthly female essence, the Lady of Life.
Female bloodlines have always been associated with ‘the sacred bloodline’ and with ‘serpents of the night’. It has long been known in mystic literature that Jehovah had a consort (Asherah the exiled queen) and a son (Baal) and a daughter (Anath). This female godhead was represented by the chalice (womb) and called by a conglomerate term, the Shekhinah (Holy Spirit/Ghost, originally Tiamat the Dragon or wisdom (Sophia)), the Dragon or the Serpent.
To make matters worse, the original female queen of heaven, Lilith, was defined in Sumerian texts as the ‘tree of knowledge’, the Holy Spirit/ghost, which was always female, now referred to as the ‘lost bride’ and also an ‘exiled queen’. Knowledge of any of this stuff would get you burnt by the Inquisition, now wonder alchemy went underground!
So it is not at all suprising that the Roman Church and the Jehovah fearing Jews had long ago demonised the sacred female and the serpent!
Anyway, all they had were mistranslations of both the Old and New Testaments, whether this was through ignorance or design, it was life threatening in the extreme to go against orthodoxy.
The errors in the Bible became concrete, the non canonical texts however, remained proliferate in underground mystic and secret societies as they had been for millenia anyway.
The Islamic world preserved a great deal more that the forgotten Greek and Roman classical knowledge, they also preserved ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and even Sumerian knowledge, not all of which was mistranslated, and so this corpus of knowledge incorprotates the closest transmission of information from the ancient world which fed directly into the west via the secret societies.
Of course, archaeologists have now dug up the original Sumerian and Babylonian libraries, and today we can see the complete record for ourselves.
However, throughout the last two thousand years, alchemy was our only source for this knowledge in the West. Even today, these ancient libraries are contentious, just like the Dead Sea Scrolls are contentious.
It is still dangerous to contradict orthodoxy, but today this is commonly done anyway. This secret, alchemical knowledge is constantly flooding out into modern thinking, as the Davinci Code demonstrates. Feminists and radical thinkers have known this stuff for ages. The maternal bloodline, the female menstruum, has always been understood in secret.
It is fascinating that Jewish and Islamic tradition of halal (bloodless meat) contradicts so with Christian tradition of ingestion of blood (albeit via the Eucharist). This implies knowledge one way or the other about Sangreal, the Royal or Sacred blood in ancient times.
It is fascinating that Dragons are always female. Our language reflects more than we know, for example flower (she who flows), scarlet women (sacred priestess), ritual (red gold/black gold), secret (secretions), truth (ritu – redness/blackness), amen (hidden), word (logos/serpent), harlot (sacred woman), whores (hores – believed ones), kundalini (serpent) – there are so many more examples.
The keen intuitive knowledge of the subtle mind and the implied association with death (blackness – generation/genesis in the womb/tomb) as the route to higher knowledge is self explanatory. In essence (essene – secret/mystic physician) this is direct connection with the divine (theurgy) and all of the oestoteric teachings that result.
Most definitely, this knowledge had to be kept hidden and symbolically coded. Ultimately, this is the meaning of the transmutation of base metal into gold, of the Philosopher’s Stone, and of the Great Work. It is a thread that connects us to the ancient world of Sophia itself, back to a time when Dragons ruled the world and gods walked with us in the garden.
No wonder the Church doesn’t want us to know this stuff!