William Wynn Westcott
Chemistry, the modern science of which investigates the constitution of material substances, is the lineal descendent of Mediaeval and Ancient Chemy. The syllable AL is the Arabic indefinite article, like the Hebrew He, meaning ‘The’ chemistry—the Higher Chemistry, treating of the essential nature of the Elements, metals and minerals; while modern chemistry rejoices rather in being a science of utilitarian and commercial uses.
The earliest use of the word Alchemy is believed to be found in the works of Julius Firmicus Maternus, the Astronomer, who lived in the time of the Emperor Constantine. Firmicus wrote that ‘he should be well skilled in Alchemy, who is born when the Moon is in the House of Saturn’. So he was an Astrologer as well; what house does he mean? the Day house (Aquarius), or the Night house (Capricorn) of Saturn? Or does he, like some modern Astrologers, allot one of these, Aquarius, to Uranus?
The Imperial Library of Paris is said to possess the oldest Alchemic Volume known; it is by Zosimus of Panopolis, written in Greek about 400 A.D. and entitled the Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver. The next oldest tract upon Alchemy known to exist is by Aeneas Gazius, written in Greek about 480 A.D.
The Mediaeval authors often call Alchemy ‘Hermetic Art’, implying an origin from Hermes Trismegistos of Egypt, the prehistoric demi-god, or inspired teacher, to whom we owe the Emerald Tablet. It it stated by one old Greek writer that the Hermetic secrets were buried in the tomb of Hermes and were preserved until the time of Alexander the Great who caused his Tomb to be opened, to search for these secrets, and that he found the documents, but that his wise men could not understand them. Many portions of human wisdom have from time to time died out of Human understanding.
After the Fall of the Intellectual freedom of Alexandria, scientific attainments were almost entirely restricted to the Arabs, who made great progress in science—; yet some monks in Christian monasteries also studied these matter in retirement and some have become famous as alchemists and magicians; and further some of these rose to eminence also in the Church, becoming Vicars, Abbots, and even Bishops. Those who succeeded most, wrote least, and hence are almost, if not quite, unknown to us.
An infinity of books have been written upon Alchemy, and they are of all sorts,—good, bad and indifferent; learned and superficial; wise and foolish—some are by good men, some by great men, others are by fools, some are by knaves. This is because Alchemy has existed as a Science upon several planes; and there have been true and successful students of Alchemy on each plane; and there have been fraudulent professors and knavish authors concerned with the Alchemy of the lower planes.
Some modern students have written upon Alchemy wisely, and some unwisely; but the modern error has notably been in going to extremes of opinion. Some modern authors have insisted that all Alchemy was folly; some that all Alchemy was Chemistry; and a third party, dominant at present, have convinced themselves that all Alchemy was Religion. I am firmly convinced that each class of teacher is partly wrong—let me take the middle path.
The science of Alchemy has existed, has been studied and taught upon Four planes.
Upon Assiah, there has been the Ancient occult Chemistry, the Chemistry of the Adept; who added to facility and knowledge of materials, the magical skill and Will Power of the ability to act on the ‘Soul of things’—their astral counterparts. Here transmutation is a physical fact, and possibility.—This was both practised and pretended, and real Treatises were written.
Upon Yetzirah, is psychic alchemy, the power of creation of living forms.—This was practised, but rarely preached.
Upon Briah is Mental Alchemy;—the creations of Art and Genius, the ensouled music, picture and statue;—this was practised and not preached
until modern times.
Upon the Highest Plane, the Spiritual, the practice was almost unknown except to a few entirely hidden Magi; but it was written about by some good and true philosophers, who couched their views on man’s origin and destiny, his descent from God, and his possible re-ascent to God, in the language of the Material Plane to avoid persecution and destruction, at the hands of the priests of established churches.
By the pretence of chemistry, they saved themselves from penalties for heterodoxy: by the absence of Chemical apparatus, they saved themselves from extortion and torture as Alchemists.
As to Material Alchemy, the first mentioned, but few professors confessed to success and most of them lost their lives thereby. No man’s life would be safe, or even tolerable—even today, who succeeded in transmutation, and confessed to it. I am entirely convinced that Transmutation of the lower metals to Gold and Silver is possible and that it has been often done; but not by Chemistry only, but by correlating with physical processes, the Will—action, and the power over the ‘Soul of Nature’, and the ‘Soul of things’, which the purity of life, and the training of the Adept can alone supply. The true Alchemist would be the last to publish his success to the world—and if he did, he would probably thereby lose his power. His elixirs and powders that succeeded but yesterday, would be powerless today,—for Isis does not sanction any tampering with the Virgin purity of Her shrine. Personal aggrandisement, as an end, or as a result, would wreck any success in practical magical working; and the last student to succeed, would be he who cast a look behind upon the lusts of the flesh, pride of Life, and the ambition of the Devil.
Let no man study Alchemy to enrich himself. Let no man study Occultism to secure the gratification of passion; it is the unpardonable Sin. Hence we may say that even Material Alchemy is a high and gracious art, for success proves purity, Adeptship and spiritual power; the Chemist alone, may be successful in his limited sphere, whatever his character, and however soiled be his ego—intellect alone sufficeth him.
Pardon this digression, but alchemy has a moral and spiritual aspect, although it seems to me that my dear friend Anna Kingsford erred, when she saw Religion and morals in every Alchemic process. The Alchemist professed the knowledge and encouraged the pupil to search for three things above all:
The Red Elixir to transform Base metals to Gold;
The White Elixir to transform Base Metals to Silver;
The Elixir Vitae to administer to Vegetable and animal; to intensify the life, to prolong life, and to expand the life.
Health and length of Life are much to be desired, for art is long, I believe the first and second Elixirs were not sought so much for their own powers, as because they were steps leading to the Elixir Vitae—the art of prolonging life and opportunities of the Adept, that he might lose less time in his progress to a spiritually exalted goal—less than he would lose by living more and shorter lives—with passive intervals. Surely there is an advantage in living years after ‘Adeptship in the Inner’ is gained : — rather than early death followed by long periods of rest and then childhood. To the true student who learns to teach other men now, individuals and, perhaps, in higher lives—to guide nations; surely continuity is an advantage!
Spiritual progress, which hastens to be done with man and Earth is not (say the Easterns) the highest form of Buddhahood or Enlightenment. The Buddha of compassion, who renounces spiritual joys, to assist the grovellers upon earth, or near it,— is a higher type. I believe then in the three chiefs of the Rosy Cross whose earthly years of work count by hundreds; they are allegoric and symbolic possibly in name and number of years, but they express a truth, that progress in adeptship links some great Souls to earth workers: and that such a goal for usefulness, is a worthy aim and aspiration for every one who enters here, and views the symbolic form of the Master C.R.
If I am asked why the Alchemic Books are so full of the Transmutation to Silver, and to Gold, I answer that these steps being necessary precedents to the art of the Elixir Vitae, have naturally had more attention and experiment, and more professors than the third superior step, which is almost altogether shrouded from the profane. I must supplement these remarks by saying that I believe that many of the Alchemic treatises were really treatises written in the light of the Chemistry of the Age, and record real attempts at chemical processes in search of the secret of transmutation into Gold, by people who were really the chemists of the day, who did want real Gold, and who had no spiritual intuitions, and who did nothing but fail in Transmutation.
To return to physical chemistry and Alchemy on the plane of Assiah.—Note—the curious, and not denied, statement that certain Gold frames have been known to be struck by lightning and discoloured by the Flash, and that this discoloration has shown traces of Sulphur.—What of this incident? Either the Sulphur was in the Gold, as ancient Alchemy taught ‘a Sulphur was’; or the Sulphur was in the Lightning, which modern Science says is Electricity and contains no Sulphur. But added Sulphur is not found in other matters which contain none, when they are lightning struck. The Hermetic doctrine is that all Matter is but one in its essence, and is the lowest fall of the spirit, the most passive aspect of the Lux.
From the one Eus, came two contraries, thence three principles, and four elements;—on all planes of matter, the one base is Hyle—of the Greek philosophers. Then arose from the Homogeneous—variation. The Heterogeneous arose by development. Under Sephirotic impulse on the plane of Assiah, differentiation spread, and forms and combinations were produced during ages of time. During the ages of gradual concretion, and setting together of atoms, the elementary substance of modern chemistry, the Metals and the Matalloids, the halogens and the earths, became definite types and permanent of constitution. They became fixed in their molecular structure, and are now in the Kali Yuga, so far in time from their origin; practically Elements in the Modern sense of structure indissoluble to all known material processes. I assert that to the Adept they are still convertible and analysable, but even apart from Adeptship, some so called Elements will be even yet disintegrated by modern science alone. But while science prides itself on its progress, it is fatuous enough to demand implicit belief in its attitude of authority day by day. Modern Science howls down today the man who will tomorrow succeed in demonstrating its error. Science is but little less a Bigot than has Religion ever been.
The Metals then, and our present Elements must have been formed, defined, and set in their present type by the work of ages. By the slow processes of Nature, by heat, by light, by electricity, by condensation, by pressure, have the metals grown in the veins of stone. Sudden, and violent agencies no doubt also produced an effect, perhaps some metals, have been only produced by the convulsions, and not by the gradual processes of Nature.
Who knows but that the Gold found native and pure, as few metals are found, was produced by the Lightning and the Earthquake. Intense pressure and intense heat, would be likely to make a new combination from existing ones. Gold is intense in its weight—its specific gravity: intense pressure and high fusion point, would be likely to produce such a body, pure, homogeneous, heavy.
The Alchemist taught that the well known Metals, now called Elements, were not so—were not simple substances. The ‘Elements’ of the Alchemicist were states; states and processes. They taught that each metal, say lead, consisted of a Metallic Root, and certain other matter—sulphurs. The nature and quantity of their sulphurs, determined the Metal.—By taking a low metal,—coarse, common, easily altered metal, by purging it from these sulphurs, stage by stage, they taught that each metal might be produced in turn, until the last transmutation produced Gold. I believe the theory is true, I believe the practice is possible, by working in the astral, contemporaneously with action on the physical basis. But if Gold could be so made, Cui Bono? What good would that be? No sooner is Gold thus made, as it were from nought—than its value ceases—it is the rarity of Gold that makes it of commercial value—that makes it buy bread and luxuries. If it be produced at will, it will be of no more value than any other dust.
As to the Alchemist, who, as adept, does succeed in making transmutation, he will be so constituted that riches have no temptation for him and pride no attraction. He will know too, that wealth will be but ill spent, when gained, if squandered upon those who will not help themselves: he will know that individual progress, national progress, and world progress depend not on doles which pauperise, but on the will and effort of individual, nation, and world. The temptation to wish one could but transmute a little, just to help some one friend, or neighbour, just to provide oneself with some thing earnestly desired—for one’s good—is I believe a folly, and would be an evil if attained.
How few of us have not wished this tribute to our efforts?
How few men of the world do not wish it? What proportion of men who are wealthy, spend daily on themselves what is best for them and no more, and give the remainder to the friend, the neighbour, the deserving? Do you say—oh, I am an initiate, I should do differently? My friend—with greater opportunities, comes a great responsibility. I will not judge such, nor you, but in my heart, I thank God I have not the power of transmutation now. God knows,—and I know—how easy it is to fall.
But I constantly digress into the Spiritual, although what I really came to say, is a word on the material and physical aspect. I still defer these remarks, however, to quote two passages, one in prose narrating the sequence of the process of Alchemic work: and the other a poem written in English, translated from an old French prose account of Alchemic work, in allegoric language and myth. The first quotation is Astrological, and Astrology is inextricably mixed up with Alchemy. The second is beautiful in its poetry, and will well repay contemplation.
The first quotation reads:
“The Great Work must be begun when the Sun is in the Night house of Saturn: the Blackness appears in forty days when Sun is in the Day house of Saturn: the Blackness deepens into the Night house of Jupiter on reaching Aries a separation occurs. The Whiteness of Luna develops when the Sun is in the house Cancer of Luna The Sun begins his special form of change in Leo his own house. Redness is produced in the day house of the Red metal of Copper, Venus, this is Libra, next Scorpio follows, and the Work reaches completion in Saggitarius the day house of Jupiter.”
This is a good example of Allegoric description, which has no doubt a physical basis,—and clearly refers to the Soul of things, matters, seasons and processes on the astral plane of evolution.
The second quotation reads:
I: Within the golden portal
Of the garden of the wise,
Watching by the seven sprayed fountain,
The Hesperian Dragon lies.
Like the ever burning Branches
In the dream of holy seer;
Like the types of Asia’s churches
Those glorious jets appear.
Three times the magic waters
Must the Winged Dragon drain
Then his scales shall burst asunder
And his Heart be rent in twain.
Forth shall flow an emanation
Forth shall spring a shape divine,
And if Sol and Cynthia and thee
Shall the charmed Key be thine.
II: In the solemn groves of Wisdom
Where black pines their shadows fling
Near the haunted cell of Hermes,
Three lovely flowrets spring:
The Violet damask tinted
In scent all flowers above:
The milk white vestal Lily
And the purple flower of Love.
Red Sol a sign shall give thee
Where the Sapphire Violets gleam,
Watered by the rills that wander
From the viewless golden stream:
One Violet shalt thou gather—
But ah—beware, beware ! —
The Lily and the Amaranth
Demand thy chiefest care.
III: With in the lake of crystal,
Roseate as Sol’s first ray
With eyes of diamond lustre,
A thousand fishes play
A net within that water
A net with web of gold
If cast where air bills glitter
One shining fish shall hold.
IV: Amid the oldest mountains
Whose tops are next the Sun,
The everlasting rivers
Through glowing channels run,
Those channels are of gold
And thence the countless treasures
Of the kings of earth are rolled.
But far—far must he wander
O’er realms and seas unknown
Who seeks the Ancient Mountains
Where shines the Wondrous Stone.
You have already been taught two symbolic schemes for allotting the metals to the Sephiroth—each is capable of defence —for pointing out certain alliances and the alchemical relations of these Metals. I add here a scheme, of my own, for allotting to the Decad ten non-metallic lighter elements recognised by modern chemistry.
Nitrogen = Binah, always a Gas—very passive—neither supports life nor combustion.
Fluorine = a Gas—very active, almost intangible.
Chlorine = a Gas—yellow in colour like gold, acrid, caustic.
Bromine = heavier, baser, red liquid.
Iodine = a red copper and hermaphraditical Brass.
Carbon = Tiphereth, is the most notable non—metal—it combines with others, forming alliances with other elements of immense number—all vegetable and animal substances are compounds formed on Carbon as a Basis.
Phosphorous and Sulphur, represent Yesod and Malkuth, both solids, and complete the scale.
The analogies are very curious, and can be greatly extended. It may be possible also to rank the true metals along with the Sephiroth in the Chemical Order of their actual purity and as they the more nearly approach pure Basic Hyle, or the ‘one matter’, in addition to the G.D. Forms. The Sephiroth are progressive Emanations, each less exalted than the former, and they pass down plane after plane, and may be looked upon each as more material than the last. And in Assiah there may be scales alike of Metals, Metalloids, and other substances, in similar ratios. If such were the case, the Alchemical theory of successive steps of purification would in natural course transmute each metal into the one above. The Lead into Copper, the Copper into Silver, the Silver into Gold, the Gold into the Elixir Vitae, the gold of Vegetable and Animal life.
Alchemy taught that all metals consisted of the Mercury of the Philosophers and of a Sulphur, which fixed it—made it solid. The Merc. Phil. was not the Quicksilver of commerce, not the Hydrogen of the modern Chemist—the one fluid metal.
Our Mercury they called Hydrardgyram,—Water of silver— fluid, silver-coloured. They thought it to be Silver in a state of ‘low temperature fusion’—They also called it ‘Proteus’ = of diverse forms. The Alchemists found Gold to be extremely heavy, so they experimented chiefly with those other metals which were most heavy;—lead, quicksilver and copper, believing they must be nearest to Gold in order of steps of change, or that each heavy metal needed fewer processes for conversion, or less purification.
They argued—for example—Lead nearly resembles Gold in weight, therefore Lead consists almost entirely of Mercury Philosophorum and Gold. If a body be found, which will so work on the Lead, as to burn out of it all that is not Mercury Phios, and then we fix that Mercury by a Sulphur, we should obtain Gold as the result. Relative weights of equal bulks are about:
Iron and Tin 7
Many of the ‘Elements’ so called from 1750 to 1800 have been since broken up, by analysis; notably Potash and Soda, which were shown to be compounds in 1807—by Davey. The Alchemist recognised three principal ways of making Gold.
First, by Separation; for many minerals contain some Gold.
Second, by Maturation, by processes designed to subtilise, purify, and digest Mercury; which convert it into a heavier body, and at last into Gold itself.
They looked on Mercury as an Alloy of Gold and Something: by processes of Fire, and by adding suitable material for combustion; the impurity was to be burned off and pure Gold to remain.
Thirdly, by fusing with base metals, some of that peculiar compound, the Stone of the Philosophers, a perfect transmutation was to occur, the faeces would be burned off, and the Metallic Root appear as Gold.
For example of Alchemical argument, I have read ‘if we take 19 ounces of Lead and fuse it with a proper Agent, and so dissipate 8 ounces we shall have 11 ounces remaining, and this can be nothing but pure Gold, because Gold and Lead are as 19 to 11. Otherwise if the process be gradation, and we reduce 19 to 14 first, the result will be Mercury, but then the process may be continued and the further reduction to 11 will equally be Gold, as without the middle step’.
From another point of view, they said ‘the Stone of the Philosopher’s is a most subtle, fixed and concentrated fiery body which when it is added to a molten metal does, as if by a magnetic virtue, unite itself to the Mercurial body of the metal, vitalises and cleans off, all that is impure, and so there remains a molten mass of pure Sol.’ But as aforesaid,—I believe it is useless for any one to waste time on purely chemical experiments. To perform Alchemical processes, requires a simultaneous operation on the Astral plane with that on the physical. Unless you are Adept enough to act by Will power, as well as by heat and moisture; by life force, as well as by electricity, there will be no adequate result.
So far as I know,—I do not speak by order—power of transmutation may arise, side by side with other magical attainments—Labor omnia vincit. It is not conferred by any Grade—it is occasionally rediscovered by the private student: it is never actually taught in so many words. It may dawn on any one of you,—or the magic event may occur when least expected!
1. Le Dictionaire Mytho-Hermetique, states ‘The Fountain found within the Garden’, is the ‘Mercury of the Wise’, which comes from divers sources because it is the ‘Principle’ of the seven metals, and is formed by the influence of the seven planets, although the Sun alone is properly speaking the Father, and Luna, the Mother. The Dragon who three times drinks, is the putrefaction which overcomes the matter, and is so called from its black colour, and this Dragon loses his scales, or skin, when the Grey colour succeeds the Black. You will only succeed if Sol and Luna aid thee; by means of the regimen of Fire you must bleach the Grey colour to the Whiteness of the Moon (and then obtain the redness of Sol as the last stage). By the ‘Fishes’, is meant bubbles in the heated crucible. ‘Lake’ often means vase, retort, flask, alembic’.