Home > Blog Posts, Series 1: Alchemy > Alchemy Unveiled – Part 1: What is Alchemy?

Alchemy Unveiled – Part 1: What is Alchemy?

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be posting here exploring the arcana and art of alchemy. I do not claim to have all the answers on the topic, but through a series of recent miracles, I have been given something of the practical arcana of the Royal Art. I have been given some degree of freedom to share what I have learned. Still, all arcana require practice and application for full understanding. As such, I can only reveal so much, so I will do my best to make it count.

I have chosen to name this series after one of the books which I have found to be most helpful to me in my study of alchemy: Alchemy Unveiled by Johannes Helmond (English translation copyright 1991 Gerhard Hanswille and Deborah Brumlich). The publishers, Merkur Publishing, have kindly permitted me to quote extensively from the text, so these articles will largely take the form of commentaries upon portions of Helmond’s work. I pray that my own writing does honor to the work of the Order of the Hermetic Initiated Gold- and Rosicrucians, and all other Hermetic adepts who have opened the way for me.

All that said, let’s begin.

What is alchemy? It is not a simple thing to define, like horticulture or cooking. We may say that alchemy is the Hermetic art of transmutation, but that still leaves us with many questions. What do we mean by “Hermetic”? Transmutation of what? And to what end? What are the methods used? And so on. So let us begin with these and see where they lead.

What do we mean by “Hermetic”? There are multiple ways to answer this, each useful in its way. First, we have the common use of the word: hermetically sealed. This point will become more clear in later articles, but for now it is enough to know that the principle work of alchemy is performed within the alchemist, who must make of himself an athanor, a sealed vessel wherein the transmutations take place. There are many techniques used to establish and maintain this seal. One of the most famous, but also most often neglected, is to keep silent. This refers specifically to silence concerning your alchemical practices and interests. The more detail you reveal to others, the more gaps you create in the seal; each one may be relatively small, or temporary and easily fixed, but if you keep creating those small gaps, they add up and the seal is never perfect. Good general advice along these lines is to only tell those very close to you about your interest in alchemy, and do not share any details with any but your most trusted friends who also share an interest in the topic.

Alchemy is also Hermetic in that it is based on the teachings of Hermes Trismegistos, that great semi-mythical adept of ages long past who left for us the Emerald Tablet. In fact, study of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes can alone reveal much about alchemy, though I personally have found that there is always more to coax out of it.

Next, alchemy is an art insofar as it cannot be performed according to unchanging formulae like a chemistry experiment. It has often been believed that alchemy is simply a primitive form of chemistry. The fact is, they are not even terribly closely related disciplines. It has been said, not without some truth, that chemistry and alchemy are not even family, they just live in the same house. Alchemy requires discipline and study like a science, but it also requires creativity, inspiration, and revelation.

Johannes Helmond says it well: “True alchemy, in reality, is a Kabbalistic art which requires a patient examination of the genuine Hermetic writings and a deep-founded study of Nature. It also requires a revelation, either through an initiated adept or through an inner divine illumination.” (Helmond, pp 13-14) Alchemy is “Kabbalistic” in the sense that it is transmitted “from mouth to ear”, personally from teacher to student. The teacher need not be a living human being, though that is an obvious possibility. It is founded upon the study and observation of nature, certainly, but without illumination all the study in the world cannot make an alchemist.

Transmutation is perhaps more difficult to explain. Obviously, transmutation is the changing of one substance into another. The important thing to understand here is that there must be the seed of the desired substance within the original substance in order for the transmutation to take place. If there were not the essence of gold in the lead, it could not be changed into gold and all effort would be wasted. Luckily for us, the essence of the gold we truly desire lies at the core of all other substances with which we might begin.

What substances are those, then? There can be no pat answer to this question, but the most important substance, the one which must be transmuted before any other transmutation can have full effect, the materia must be the total human being:

“The subjectum artis of the alchemists is therefore the human being — not the human being in the common external sense, but as an internal Paracelsic microcosm and a small worldly astral firmament.” (Helmond pg 22)

The precise meaning of this “internal Paracelsic microcosm” will be made clearer in later parts of this series. For now, we must be content with the knowledge that it is, indeed, the human being that we are trying to transmute and perfect, transforming it utterly.

What, then, of the laboratory side of the art, with its transformation of plant, mineral and animal substances into medicines, precious metals and gems, and so on? This is the romance of alchemy in the popular mind, but it is truthfully a relatively small part of it. Not to say that it is totally unimportant, but it is not the essence. Something of the “practical” applications of alchemy will be said in conclusion of this series of articles.

So, that is all that can really be said by way of a short introduction to the Royal Art of Alchemy. Details will have to await future installments. For now, we at least have something like a definition which can provide a basic intellectual foundation as we move forward.

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