Alchemy

“It is no stone; it is in every man & in every place, & at all seasons, & is called the end of all philosophers.”

–  Pseudo-Aristotle to Alexander, ca. 12th century or earlier[i]

The inspiration to write this blog entry came to me a few nights after I read Lawrence W. Principe’s book on alchemy, The Secrets of Alchemy.[ii]  Principe, a historian of science with two PhDs, has an impressive breadth and depth of learning, to be sure, but his survey and evaluation in his book of the use of alchemy during and after the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century occult revival, its use in literary works over the course of its history, and the hermetic tradition in general are imbalanced and myopic.[iii]

Mary Ann Atwood, Principe says, was the first to suggest that man is “the true laboratory of the Hermetic Art” in A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. Principe claims that this interpretation and description of alchemy – as an esoteric, pseudo-religious tradition whose aim is the transformation of the human body and mind – is “simply wrong.”[iv] Principe provides no evidence to support this claim other than another (baseless) claim that Atwood is the originator of the idea that alchemy was and is a “self-transformative psychic practice” and that her beliefs are merely a product of the craze for Mesmerism in the 1840s.[v]

I will address Principe’s disregard for Atwood and her claims by showing that Atwood is not the originator of the notion of alchemy as a psychic transformation, and that both an “inner” or “occult” tradition and an “outer” or “material” tradition existed centuries before her publication. Indeed, Atwood gained the ability and desire to create discourse about alchemy in this way through Mesmerism and the subsequent cultural craze for it (that is, its principles gave Atwood and her father the necessary framework and awareness to conceive in a new way what alchemists had been disguising as alchemical doctrine for centuries).

Atwood is not the originator of the dualistic “inner vs. outer” or “esoteric vs. exoteric” view of alchemy. (In fact, the notion of traditions having an esoteric and an exoteric side to them originates with teachings as early as Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Lucian, but more on this in my next blog entry.) In the literature of the English alchemical tradition, there are many instances of the acknowledgement of an underlying doctrine beneath alchemical terms, but the most striking example of this is in Patrick Scot’s The Tillage of Light. In the first few pages of this short treatise, Scot outlines the purpose of his short piece – to elucidate the “allegoricall sense” of the philosopher’s work:

[…] we are heare to consider, specially what nature and art can doe, either joined or severed, in reducing of mettalls to the perfection and multiplication of millions, by projection of an Elixar upon unrefined metalicall substances, and whether the phylosophers perfection is literally to bee understood of a material Elixar, or whether Urim and Thummim, aurum dei, Ezekiells coals of fire, quintessence, and Phylosophers elixir are meant of multiplication of gold by art, or whether Alchemists have wrongfully enforced these titles upon the Phylosophers worke, which are onely to be understood in an allegoricall sense.[vi]

Later, Scot expresses one of the basic tenets of so-called “spiritual alchemy”:

Man is the Microscosmos, or abridgement of the Creation; the Philosophers worke is the abridgement of mans Formation. As the World was made of two severall parts, the one intelligible, sensible, and corruptible, the other, untelligible, insensible, and incorruptible: So man was made the middle peece of both, and perfection of the Intellectual parts, which hee hath meanes of the body…[vii]

And, in the last few pages of his Tillage, Scot concludes:

…all [the Alchemist’s] Ignitions, Calcinations, Dissolutions, Amalgations, Circulations, Sublimations, Fixations, and Multiplications, otherwise then in a spirituall sense, are but borrowed words of Art, Smoake to ruine craz’d estates, or trumpery to uphold Mountebanckes upon the charges of the more curious then wise.[viii]

To summarize, Scot claims, in the middle of the seventeenth century,  1) that alchemy and the alchemical process are to be understood allegorically and spiritually, 2) that anyone who interprets the “art” otherwise gives their attention to mere trumpery, or worthless ornamentation, and 3) that the alchemical process is an “abridgment” of the “formation” of the human being. Principe’s analysis of Atwood, then, is proven wrong by this one example, as it is clear that, to Scot, the human body is the alchemical vessel and the alchemical process is a spiritual process; Atwood was not at all the originator of this idea. However, I will provide one more example.

A second example of a strong delineation between esoteric and exoteric meanings in the alchemical tradition comes from a Polish alchemist named Michael Sendivogius, who published The New Chemical Light in 1608. The delineation appears in the first several pages of the preface:

…I dedicate the following pages, which embody the results of my experience, to the sons of knowledge, that by a careful study of the working of Nature they may be enabled to lift the veil, and enter her inmost sanctuary. To this final goal of our sacred philosophy they must travel by the royal road which Nature herself has marked out for them. Let me therefore admonish the gentle reader that my meaning is to be apprehended not so much from the outward husk of my words, as from the inward spirit of Nature. If this warning is neglected, he may spend his time, labour, and money in vain. Let him consider that this mystery is for vise men, and not for fools.[ix]

That is, the meaning that Sendivogius desires his readers to take from his work is spiritual, and, similar to the warning in Scot’s Tillage, if his meaning is taken too literally, the reader may “spend his time, labour, and money in vain.” Again we see a distinct and intentional separation between the spiritual meaning and the “outward husk” of alchemical teachings, contrary to Principe’s claims.

Though these are the most prominent and blatant examples (in my opinion) of a clear delineation between an inner or esoteric and an outer or exoteric alchemical tradition centuries before Atwood, there are dozens more examples of this delineation, including in works by Geoffrey Chaucer (from whose works Principe selectively quotes), John Gower, and Elias Ashmole. However, we must establish that one side of the tradition is neither primary nor greater than the other side. I do not doubt that both traditions simultaneously circulated the western scientific and occult traditions, commingling as one and the same but in reality having strikingly different aims. One tradition was symbol and allegory disguised as the transmutation of metals; the other was material and literal, with aims to achieve unfathomable riches. However, the spiritual side did exist long before Atwood and Mesmerism, and to say otherwise is myopic and inane.

“For is not our art cabalistic,” asks Artephius [ca. 1150], “and full of mysteries? And you, fool, believe we teach the secret of secrets openly, and understand our words according to the letter; be assured, we are not envious, but he that takes the philosophers’ saying according to the outward sense and signification has already lost the clue to Ariadne, and wanders up and down the labyrinth, and it would be of the same benefit to him as if he had thrown his money into the sea.”[x]

I can only assume that to Principe, Atwood’s ideas seem far-fetched and far-removed from his conception of alchemy because of his unfamiliarity with the symbolist tradition in literature, of which the esoteric alchemical tradition is certainly a part. I should also mention that despite his position, I found Principe’s book very valuable.

To support me, and keep me writing blogs, you can buy Principe’s book via my Amazon Associates Store here:

The Secrets of Alchemy (Kindle)

The Secrets of Alchemy (Paperback)

Or check out the other books in my recommended reading list (created via astore) at the top of this page.


[i] Wilder, Alexander. New Platonism and Alchemy. 1869. pp. 27-28.

[ii] Principe, Lawrence W. The Secrets of Alchemy. 2012.

[iii] Principe also dismisses psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s life’s work by merely revealing his association with the occult tradition by the mention of the title of his doctoral dissertation. However, despite Principe’s unintentionally misleading nearsightedness, I am grateful he was able to include a broad survey of the “esoteric” side of alchemy at all, given his scientistic education, specialization, and perspective.

[iv] Principe, 97. Seriously, that’s his argument.

[v] Ibid, 96.

[vi] Scot, Patrick. The Tillage of Light. 1623. p. 4.

[vii] Ibid, pp. 41-42.

[viii] Ibid, 46.

[ix] Sendivogius, Preface to The New Chemical Light. <http://www.levity.com/alchemy/newchem1.html>

[x] Quoted in Mary Anne Atwood’s Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery

Material, Mammon, and the Loss of Spirit in Elizabethan Tragedy

In a time of great change in philosophy, technology, religion and culture, Elizabethan playwrights and poets concerned themselves with the loss of spiritual truth in their age.  The tragedies analyzed in this essay – Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflect this loss of connection with and aspiration toward spiritual truth. Through these plays – two externalizations of the inner world of the human psyche or soul – these two playwrights give insight into their own perspectives on the general spiritual problems of the Elizabethan age. In alchemy and the occult, a black magician is a magician who uses his magic to accrue material wealth and superficial knowledge. He is the alchemist who pursues the literal alchemical gold and riches (the biblical Mammon), often invoking the name of Satan to do so. However, a white magician or alchemist pursues the metaphorical alchemical gold, symbolic of the developed, individuated, mature, enlightened self, comparable to the Hindu concept of atma (meaning literally “true self”). Faustus, in Doctor Faustus, is one of the former magicians: he pursues material riches with his spirits. In Hamlet, Shakespeare divides humanity’s spiritual nature into several aspects: Claudius is representative of the corrupt self, King Hamlet is symbolic of the true or higher spiritual self, and Prince Hamlet is the soul of collective humanity; in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the corrupt self has usurped the spiritual self’s position and misguides – and even attempts to eliminate – the soul of humanity. Poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era concerned themselves with this loss of spiritual truth, expressing cause and diagnosis through complex symbol and allegory.

Faustus, a black magician, makes it clear early in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus that he does not understand the conception of the development of the higher self. The chorus introduces him, explaining that “He surfeits upon cursed necromancy” (Prologue.25). He ironically flaunts the “depth of [his studies]” when he explains that “Bene disserere est finis logices” – to carry on a disputation well is the end of logic (1.1.1, 7). To the proud and superficial learner, the purpose of logic may be such; however, the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, otherwise known as the trivium, had a much higher end: the study of the Word and the development of the self. To scholars in the Middle Ages, to study the trivium was to pursue philosophical and spiritual truth, and not, as Faustus professes, to simply dispute well with his brethren. Reason and logic are not ends of themselves, but means to a spiritual end. This utter lack of understanding points also toward the lack of pursuance of spiritual truth dramatized in Marlowe’s tragedy.

Faustus, an unwittingly misguided alchemical pursuant, uses his spirits – his intelligence – to, as the evil angel encourages, “Be…on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements” (1.i.76-7) to “fetch [himself] what [he] please[s]” (1.1.79). Meanwhile, the good angel begs him to “heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head: / Read, read the Scriptures…” (1.1.72-3). These Scriptures, the Bible, would help Faustus discover and develop spiritual truth:  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth,” says the Gospel of Matthew “where moth and decay destroy and thieves break in and steal…Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” However, Faustus turns away from scripture to pursue superficial knowledge and material wealth, worshipping Mammon, the false god of material riches of the New Testament.

Doctor Faustus symbolizes humanity, and Faustus’ “tragical history” is a tragical history of humanity up to (and perhaps just past) the authorship of this play. Like Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Faustus attended Wittenberg, where he studied theology. During Marlowe’s life, not a century after Luther’s 95 Theses, a majority of the population of Northern Europe were Lutheran. This fact creates a parallel between our tragical hero, also Germanic, and the population of Northern Europe. Misguided in their pursuits, Marlowe explains, the educated population of Northern Europe worships superficial knowledge, material wealth, and Mammon, and they use their superficial intelligences to be masters of the elements on earth rather than pursue spiritual truth.

In Hamlet, also documenting an ostensibly misguided humanity, in the spirit of the alchemist’s doctrines, Shakespeare represents religio-spiritual aspects of the heavens and earth with several character symbols. If we borrow traditional alchemical symbols, the father figures of the play symbolize aspects of the self. Claudius represents the corrupt self who has usurped his position from King Hamlet, the true spiritual self, now merely a ghost. Prince Hamlet, whose name comes from Hammond, which means “human,” is representative of the soul of humanity (the soul being the religio-spiritual aspect of the human which may commune with the spirit). Gertrude, the soul’s mother, is the material realm. Though other character symbols may be analyzed to complicate and illuminate the spiritual problems highlighted in Hamlet further, these four main characters and religio-spiritual aspects will suffice for this short essay, it being such a short and cursory analysis of these tragedies.

The ghost of King Hamlet explains to his son, Prince Hamlet, late in the night that he is his “father’s spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk in the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires…” (1.5.10-2). In Elizabethan times, the soul was thought to, during the night, leave the physical body to mingle in another realm during the dream state, which is called in occult philosophy the astral plane. Spirits dwelling in this plane are those who have passed from the physical plane. This belief explains why Hamlet’s father is doomed to walk only in the night: the former King Hamlet, the spiritual self and higher spiritual truth, has been eliminated from communion with the human soul. This, of course, occurs during the day, as the Ghost explains:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distillment. (1.v.60-5)

During the day, the spiritual self was sleeping, eventually to be usurped by the baser, false self Claudius. When human consciousness uses its senses most, the false self took dominion over Elsinore. The ‘distillment’ poured into the ear of King Hamlet symbolizes the false self’s thoughts and ideas seeping their way into consciousness through the senses. The name Claudius means “lame,” thus appropriately representing the false self. Though not as explicitly as Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare complicates further the issue by pointing the blame for man’s loss of the spiritual self and truth at Claudius, the corrupt self that controls the senses.

Claudius not only usurps the throne, but usurps the marriage between King Hamlet and Gertrude, father and mother, or the spiritual self and the earth. Because husband and wife are one flesh when they are married, and become one when they conceive a child, as the soul may be present in both spirit and flesh, to remarry is adulterous, and to marry the brother of your husband – your brother – is incestuous. Prince Hamlet broods over this concept frequently in Hamlet, highlighting its importance in the play. To analogize this to the underlying spiritual message, the corrupt self – obsessed with the senses – has married the earthly realm.

These tragedies outline the spiritual problems of man in the Elizabethan age, problems which continue even now in an age of a mass commercialized market in the west, which, like Faustus, serves Mammon. Marlowe in Doctor Faustus highlights the development of this problem, showing that man is headed toward the black arts – pursuing earthly riches rather than philosophical and spiritual truth. Shakespeare in Hamlet blames not man himself but Claudius – the false self-conception reinforced by our senses and by others who are misguided.