in the Alchemical Tradition
Adam McLean – Levity.com
Alchemy, as I perceive it, is a spiritual tradition, a means for exploring our inner space and the layers which clothe the precious essence of our innermost soul. It is a path, a way, a practical method for investigating the substance of our being, by meditating upon chemical processes. The alchemists worked with their retorts, heating, calcining, subliming, distilling substances, watching all the while the transformations within their experiments. They used events in their experiments as seed images for meditations, forming visual mantras from chemical changes. The alchemists reflected and mirrored these outward events into their interior world. They saw the processes in their flasks as an interaction and linking of the spiritual and the material. The spirit rose up, separating from the substance at the bottom of their flasks and descended again to spiritualise the material into an essence or tincture. As the alchemists reworked these experiments over in their souls, they further drew parallels with the greater laboratory of Nature. They saw the work within their flasks as a kind of microcosm of macrocosmic Nature. The living energies and beings in Nature were metaphorically drawn into their retorts, as they began to picture the living alchemical processes through animal symbols. For example, a black toad was a good image for the seething black mass of substance digesting in the flask, while a white eagle was a beautiful way of describing the white steam or fumes which rose up into the neck of the flask from the substance being heated below.
I would just like us to consider some of the more important of these animal symbols. Alchemists were, of course, individualists who worked alone, rather than being members of sodalities or secret orders, yet despite their writings being a result of their own experiences, the animal metaphors rapidly developed into a universal language. In the centuries before the invention of printing, key alchemical manuscripts, often with beautiful illuminated illustrations, circulated quite widely. Works like the Aurora Consurgens (attributed to Thomas Aquinas), the Buch der Heiligen Dreigaltigheit, the works of Ramon Lull, Roger Bacon, Arnold of Villa Nova, exist in many manuscript collections from this period, and with this exchange of ideas a quite coherent set of metaphors emerged in the European Alchemical tradition. It was the coherence and universality of this set of alchemical symbols that lead Carl Jung to the concept of the collective unconscious. The alchemists though pursuing their inner work independently as individuals, nevertheless found in their interior descent a coherent language of symbols.
At the core of this was a vision of an alchemical process occurring through a cycle of colour changes, from an initial blackness to the perfection of the quintessence.
The alchemist envisaged each stage of the process being heralded by a colour change and a meeting with certain animals.
Blackening – Black Crow, Raven, Toad, Massa Confusa.
Whitening – White Swan, White Eagle, skeleton.
Greening – Green Lion.
Rapid cycling through iridescent colours – Peacock’s Tail.
White Stone – Unicorn.
Reddening – Pelican feeding young with its own blood, cockerel.
Final transmutation – Phoenix reborn from the fire.
The phase of Blackening which usually marked the beginning of the work, was brought about either by heating the prima materia in the process of Calcination (the ‘dry way’ of the alchemists), or by the process of Putrefaction, a slow rotting or digestion over a period of weeks or months (the so-called ‘wet way’). The Black Crow or Raven was often associated with this Calcination, for on vigorous heating the calcined material would usually carbonise and layers would flake off and move like a crow’s wings in the flask. The Toad was a better symbol of the Putrefaction, the decaying mass slowly pulsating and shifting as gasses were given off, while the substance rotted down to a black mass. Another symbol of this stage was the dragon, a familiar inhabitant of the alchemists flasks. The dragon is however a more complex symbol and is also used when winged as a symbol for the spiritualising of the earthly substance. Thus to the alchemists the dragon appeared at the beginning and at the end of the work.
The alchemists paralleled these experiences in their souls as a withdrawal into the darkness of their interior space, a darkness pregnant with possibility. We have to a great extent lost the sense that still lived in the medieval and renaissance alchemists, that this darkness contained all potentialities. Like children we fear the dark, and for twentieth century humanity darkness often holds only an existential dread – philosophers of science have in the last decade brought us this terrible image of the ‘Black Hole’ which swallows up and annihilates everything that comes into its orbit. Perhaps we do not gaze enough at the blackness of the heavens. For if we look deep into the blackness of space on a clear night, we will sense more stars hidden between the known visible stars, especially in the vast star fields of the Milky Way. Cosmic space is pregnant with the possibility of other worlds as yet unseen. It is this image of blackness we must try to recover if we are to become alchemists. An echo of this perhaps remains in the often used phrase “a profound darkness”. In alchemy, to meet with the black crow is a good omen. Thus in the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, as our hero sets out on his journey of transformation, he meets with a Crow which by a turn of fate decides which among the various paths open to him is the one that will lead him to the Castle of the King.
The temporary phase of whitening which followed on the black stage was symbolised by the white eagle or white swan. As the black mass of the calcination was reacted with other substances and heated, it took on a white crust or dusty layer which sometimes puffed up and flew in a cloud in the flask, as heat exploded bubbles of gas out of the black substance below. This was the White Eagle of the dry way. In the wet way, the dark putrefying matter sometimes began to form white patches, often fungal growths floating on the surface, or white crystals growing out of the mass. This could be pictured as the White Swan, which was at home upon the surface of the water yet fed off of the dark mud at the bottom of the stream or lake. Its whiteness contrasting with the mud on which it is observed to feed, made it a fine symbol of how spiritual purity could be gained from the unpromising primal material.
The whitening is a phase when we sense or have a prevision of the end of the work. It is a polar swing from out of the blackening – the appearance of seeds of the future development of the work. It is that stage of catharsis after some intense experience of being consumed in the crucible, when we glimpse the appearance, however fragmentary, of a new possibility – a flickering light in our souls which draws us towards its promise of change. We all experience these alchemical phases in our inner life, though nowadays, immersed as we are in twentieth century images which often lack a spiritual core, we often fail to recognise these to be of any value, but if we are able to use the alchemical view of inner transformation, which we might need to mould and shape to suite our present consciousness, we can gain much inner perception and growth. For our blackness becomes a pregnant space, and a mere fleeting show of the whiteness, is a significant step towards out goal of integration of the spiritual and the material in our beings.
Thus in alchemy these two phases so fundamentally linked, were sometimes seen as the chaining of a toad and an eagle. The eagle of the spirit is held down by the earthly weight of the toad, while the earthly part of our being (the toad symbol) is lifted up towards the spirit. The hermetic philosopher Michael Maier incorporated this symbol into his coat of arms. The image of the earthly dragon bearing wings was sometimes used to express this same idea. If we can sense within our souls the need to link the spirit and the material, the spiritualising of the material and the materialising of the spirit, then we truly have made progress through the blackening to the stage of the whitening.
At this point the alchemists would often encounter the Peacock’s Tail, a sudden appearance of a rush of colours, an iridescence on the surface of the material in the flask, which made some think they had achieved their goal. This could arise through the formation of a layer of oil on the surface of the watery mass (in the wet way) or some oxidation-reduction reactions, say on the surface of liquid metal (in the dry way). It was a fleeting show of colour changes, that pointed to the fact that one was on the right path, and reabsorbed the energies released in initial emergence of the polarities. It was a midway point of the process, which could be seen as a false conclusion. Many people who have this experience in their inner life often falsely assume they have reached the end of the work, and attained inner transformation and enlightenment. The inner vision of the PeacockÕs Tail, beautiful though it may be, is merely a digestion of the polarities of the black and white stage. These must be transformed further into spiritual tinctures, if we hope to have any permanent transformation within the soul.
Not all alchemists used the symbolism of the Peacock’s Tail, and another stage often met at this point in the cycle was the meeting with the Green Lion. Physically the Green Lion was usually a name for vitriol, or the sulphuric acid created by distilling the green crystals of iron sulphate in a flask. Iron sulphate was formed when iron ores rich in sulphides were left to oxidise in the air, so was readily available to medieval alchemists. The sharp penetrating sulphuric acid could create major chemical changes in many materials even to the extent of dissolving metals like iron, and copper. The Green Lion could also be the nitric acid formed from heating saltpeter or nitre and iron sulphate. Nitric acid when mixed with the acid derived from common salt, hydrochloric acid, produced aqua regia, a greenish tinged liquid that could dissolve even the noble metal gold. The Green Lion devouring the sun is a famous image in alchemy being depicted in many manuscripts and engravings, and can be thought of as aqua regia dissolving the solar gold and forming a solution which could readily tinge metals with gold.
To other alchemists who worked primarily with vegetable matter and processes, rather than the mineral work, the Green Lion was an image of the green raw energy of nature, “the green fuse which drives the flower” as Dylan Thomas elegantly expressed it in one of his poems. Here the Green Lion which devours the sun is the green pigment chlorophyll. The green leaves of the plant are formed out of the energy of sunlight. Alchemists often attempted to create living processes in their flasks and looked especially for precipitates or crystallisations which resembled leaves or plant forms. The Green Lion here could be a plant sap extract which was often the prima materia for their alchemical work. The Gryphon, half-eagle and half-lion, was sometimes associated with the end of this stage. The eagle nature of the Gryphon gave this hybrid being an ability to ascend in the flask, so it marked, in a sense, the spiritualisation of the Green Lion.
In the work with minerals, the metal antimony was referred to as the Grey Wolf, because when molten it greedily swallowed up many other metals, such as copper, tin and lead, by forming alloys. In this sense it behaved like metallic mercury which also readily amalgamated with metals. The Grey Wolf of antimony became especially important in early 17th century alchemy – its curative properties being popularised through the writings published under the name of Basil Valentine. To an extent it became an analogue for the work with minerals of the Green Lion of the work with plant substance.
After the Peacock’s Tail or the greening of the Lion, alchemists looked for the appearance of a stage of whitening then a reddening in their flasks marking an new integration of the polarities which had emerged in the initial blackening and whitening and then been digested.
The white stage was the formation of the white tincture or stone, and was derived from though not to be confused with the earlier whitening which followed the calcination or putrefaction, for to have proceeded to this stage meant one was on a higher level of spiritual attainment. This was often pictured as the appearance of a queen dressed in shining white robes in the flask. The white tincture marked a process of inner change when the alchemist was able to experience and bring into an integrated harmony the feminine component of the soul. Often this sexual element is stressed in alchemy. The Rosarium Philosophorum, a key work of the mid 16th century, shows the coupling of the male and female as a central facet of the process. Regrettably, some 20th century commentators have sought to link this symbolism with the practice of so called ‘sex-magic’, in which people seek to use the sexual act as a basis for magical working. The alchemical manuscripts and books do not seem to support such an interpretation at all. The male and female copulating in the flask were for the alchemists symbols for aspect of our inner being uniting together. They saw metals, plants and minerals as being masculine and feminine in some degree and projected the transformations of these in their retorts into their inner space, in order to explore their own masculine and feminine natures. Acids, for example, which could penetrate and dissolve metal ores, were seen as masculine. Substances exhibited a femininity when they were connected with the forces of growth and nourishment of processes in the flask and the melding of substances together into a new unity. Metallic Mercury was seen as hermaphrodite as it both dissolved and brought together other metals into an amalgam.
The White Stone was sometimes symbolised by the Unicorn, partly because of its white horn, but also because the Unicorn could only be tamed by the touch of a pure woman. Thus the White Tincture can only be experienced by purifying the feminine forces within our beings.
The reddening or formation of the Red Stone was pictured through the symbol of the Pelican. The white pelican bird with its long bill reaching down over its breast, was in medieval times mistakenly observed piercing its breast with its bill and feeding its young on its own blood. What actually happens is that the bird regurgitates food it has caught earlier and its young feed on this ground up fish, bits of which fall onto the breast of the pelican and it appears as if its breast is bleeding. This myth of the sacrificial act of the Pelican in feeding its young on its own blood, was more powerful than the prosaic reality and during medieval times the Pelican became a symbol for ChristÕs sacrifice of his blood. Alchemists also took this symbol aboard and readily incorporated it into their symbolic menagerie.
The reddening marked the formation of the Red Tincture, which transformed the masculine forces of the soul, ennobled them, and brought them into a new harmony and was often symbolised by the appearance of a Red King in the flask. In our inner work, we begin to possess the red tincture when we have entered on the task of transforming the raw energies of the masculine component of our souls, sometimes pictured by the alchemists as a knight brandishing a sword, into a more creative force.
The tinctures in alchemy relate also to the substances of the Mass, the red wine, the blood, and the white wafer, the body of Christ. Administration of the Sacraments was seen as spiritualising the souls of the partakers. In alchemical terms these white and red stones or tinctures served much the same purpose, though the alchemists achieved this, not through the intermediacy of a priest but by their own inner work of transmutation. Here alchemy links directly with the Grail stories which use similar parallels between the Grail and the Sacraments. The red tincture was occasionally symbolised by a stag bearing antlers. The stag being seen as a noble masculine animal. This links in with the Unicorn as a symbol of the white or feminine tincture. In some alchemical illustrations, such as that of the late 16th century Book of Lambspring, the Stag and Unicorn meet in the forest of the soul as part of the process of inner transformation.
The final stage of the work was often symbolised by the Phoenix rising from the flames. This goes back to the Greek myth of the Phoenix bird which renewed itself every 500 years by immolating itself on a pyre. This is thus a kind of resurrection and was paralleled with the symbol of Christ rising from the tomb. In interior terms its marks the rebirth of the personality from out of the crucible of transformation. The alchemists in meditating on processes in their flasks threw themselves into a sea of strange experiences, and as they worked these within their meditations and sought to grasp the inner parallels and significance of each of the stages of the process they had embarked upon, in a sense they experienced an inner death and rebirth in attaining the Philosophers’ Stone. This stone was actually experienced as the formation of a solid ground within the shifting sea of their inner world. Once this solid ground in the soul was found, the alchemists were able to take hold of their lives in a creative way, they could root their personality on a solid foundation or ground of inner experience.
One symbol of the stone was that of the Ouroboros, the snake holding its tail. As we begin the work, we are all rather unformed (the ‘Massa Confusa’ or confused mass is a good image) and often victims at the mercy of the sway of polarities in the soul, psychic energies that constantly shift from one pole to another, from joy to despair, from overbearing positivity to deep melancholy and negativity, from light to dark, energy to inertia. Our consciousness naturally follows the cycle of wakefulness and sleep, reflecting the cycle of day and night and the Seasons in Nature. This duality becomes reflected in many of our inner experiences. The snake often was used as a symbol for duality – its long drawn out body separating the polarities of head and tail. Sometimes the figure of a winged dragon was used here in place of the snake, in order to close the circle with the dragon at the beginning of the work. When the snake or dragon seized its tail it united the polarities into a circle, a symbol to the alchemists for achieving solidity amongst the dualistic energies of the soul forces. The creation of the Philosophers’stone, was the formation of solid inner ground upon which the alchemical philosophers could build their personalities, and experience the full potentiality of being human.
Thus alchemists could pursue their cycle of inner transformation as embarking on a journey in which they met with archetypal animal figures. The steps on their journey were paralleled in their experiments in their flasks, and the detailed images of processes of change were worked together with the animal archetypes of that stage into a mandala-like picture which they used as the basis for their meditations.