As an aspect of the Egyptian Tradition, particularly as it was transformed and Hellenized in the Hermetic milieu, alchemy constitutes an authentic traditional science. However, it is improper to speak of it as an integral tradition in and of itself. Rather, it is a spiritual science that uses artisanal operations (originally metallurgy but later including traditional crafts as well as other domains) as outward supports for the inward transformation of the soul. To understand the nature of alchemy we must first comprehend the primary defining characteristic of traditional society, that is, the fact that all aspects of life are oriented toward and reflective of the Divine Reality and so are bestowed with a sacred quality. The phenomena of alchemy emerges from the manner in which the labor of the artisan or the craftsman and their materials possess a sacred dimension arising from their intrinsic symbolism and thereby take on the function of an external or “additional” support for religion, that which “binds one back to God”.
To attempt to use alchemy outside the province of religion is to commit the error of the occultists by removing a method from its traditional context thereby secularizing it or divesting it of its sacred content. In such a state of destitution it is subject to all manner of false interpretation and perversion as attempts are made to fill the resultant void with something other than the appropriate sacred function bestowed upon it by tradition. It is first necessary for the alchemist to “bind himself back to God” using the means which God himself has provided us in the form of the revelations of His Prophets. As we are instructed in the Sophic Hydrolith, “When you are in inward harmony with God’s world, outward conformity will not be wanting. Yet our artist can do nothing but sow, plant, and water: God must give the increase. Therefore, if anyone be the enemy of God, all nature declares war against him, but to one who loves God, heaven and earth and all the elements must lend their assistance.”
This situation is particularly hazardous in consideration of the maleficent properties of the metals employed in metallurgical operations. The article by Guenon on “The Significance of Metallurgy” that was used as the basis for this discussion is concerned precisely with this issue. He writes that, historically, metals are subject to a taboo in some traditions such as the Hebrew while in others they are given special reverence such as in the Kabiric Mysteries. This is owing to an inherent two-fold symbolism. Metals are manifestations of the same spiritual archetypes as the planets and so possess the same dual “beneficent” and “maleficent” properties. However, owing to their participation within the infernal as opposed to celestial regions, their maleficent influences naturally predominate while their beneficent influences require a special intervention in order to take effect. According to Guenon,
“…if the metallic influences are taken in their ‘beneficent’ aspect by making use of them in a manner truly ‘ritual’, in the most complete sense of the word, they are susceptible of transmutation and ‘sublimation’, and are then all the more capable of becoming a spiritual ‘support’, since whatever is at the lowest level corresponds by inverse analogy, to what is at the highest level; the whole mineral symbolism of alchemy is based on this very fact, and so is the symbolism of the ancient Kabiric initiations. On the other hand, when nothing is in question but the profane utilization of metals, in view of the fact that the profane point of view as such necessarily brings with it the cutting off of all communication with superior principles, nothing is then left that is capable of effective action save the ‘maleficent’ side of the metallic influences, and this will develop all the more strongly because it will inevitably be isolated from everything that could restrain it or counterbalance it; this particular instance of an exclusively profane utilization is clearly one which is realized in all its fullness in the modern world.”
Although the traditional doctrines and methods are concealed within the enigmatic figures, symbols, and parables of the classic texts, alchemy is fundamentally an oral tradition to which the texts lend support. It requires for its efficacy possession of understanding founded upon interior illumination inspired by God in addition to the traditional instruction of a living adept. To quote the Testament of Alchemy of Morienus to King Khalid, the first alchemical treatise translated from Arabic into Latin,
“Almighty God in his power created powerless servants who can neither undo what he has done nor advance what he holds back. Nor can they even know anything except by the strength that same God has conferred upon them. And from among his servants, he chose select ones to seek after the knowledge he had established that rescues him who masters it from the wretchedness of this world and assures him riches to come, God willing. While those so chosen used to hand down this knowledge to their own heirs, it was at last lost and its masters dispossessed of it when none could be found any more who knew it. But of the books which set forth the matter correctly their remained a few by the ancient seers who went before us. They left their knowledge as a legacy to their successors, whom God had chosen to become adepts according to the methods that had been explained truthfully and forthrightly by their predecessors.”
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who in his younger days, he has stated, used to seek out such living adepts, the alchemical tradition survived in Europe until the 18th century when it was discredited through its conflict with the prevailing paradigms of modern science. The few students of the art remaining in the 19th century then traveled to Fez in Morocco in order to reestablish contact with the tradition. This situation begs the question of what exactly is the value of the study of alchemy in the absence of a valid link to this traditional heritage of oral instruction. To adequately answer this question we will first need to examine some of its various facets and adaptations.
Alchemy is a composite system composed of a cosmological doctrine, artisanal method, and comprehensive symbolism allied to that method. It is cosmological in so far as it describes and affects the exterior and interior realms, the body and soul of nature and of man. Its particular province is what may be identified in a general way with the Lesser Mysteries, or first stage of the initiatic path which accomplishes the full realization of the possibilities of the human state or, to use the traditional symbolism of Abrahamic monotheism, “the restoration of man’s primordial adamic state antecedent to the fall.” In this sense, Alchemy may, but does not necessarily serve as a foundation for the Greater Mysteries which pertain to the realization of supra-human states or otherwise of “Supreme Union” which falls under the province of mysticism.
In so far as it is limited to cosmology and does not possess a system of theology, Alchemy was capable of assimilation within both the Islamic and Christian worlds where it was seen simply as another traditional science akin to Astrology and others. Its composite nature and comprehensive symbolism made it capable of application within a variety of different contexts including, as previously mentioned, the traditional crafts but also within the esoteric and therefore mystical dimensions of the religion itself. In Chapter 12 of his treatise on Alchemy, Titus Burckhardt gives as significant overview of “The Alchemy of Prayer” demonstrating how, as Rene Guenon stated, its symbolism is capable of being transposed so as to give it a truly spiritual and initiatic value. By transposition is meant adoption of the symbolism by and adaptation to another operative domain endowing the latter with a complex and functional symbolic language. A brief anecdote by William Stoddart is sufficient to illustrate the situation. In his pithy treatise on Sufism, he writes,
“The symbolism of alchemy is sometimes used to describe the practice of dhikr. The soul in its chaotic unregenerate state is ‘lead’. The Philosopher’s Stone is the Divine Name, in contact with which the ‘leaden’ soul is transmuted into ‘gold’, which is its true nature. This true nature has been lost, but is recovered by the practice of dhikr. The ‘alchemical work’ thus symbolizes the ‘work of spiritual realization’. In either case the essential operation is a ‘transmutation’ of that which is ‘base’ into that which is ‘noble’. The science of the macrocosm (the outward world) thus analogically coincides with the science of the microcosm (the inward world or soul).”
The mysterious art of alchemy has long been a subject of great interest to me so I feel that it is necessary to acknowledge its dignity as a traditional science and to demonstrate why the study of its doctrine and symbolism is relevant even with the loss of its traditional operative method. At a time when it has been subject to the grossest of misinterpretations and misapplications particularly at the hands of occultists eager to adopt its symbolism as their own and psychiatrists who see within it the imaginary world of schizophrenics, I also believe that it is important to identify authentic sources of information from which to conduct further research.