Making Sense of Practical Alchemy

Demystifying the physical procedures in alchemy is in fact quite easy once one thing is established: alchemy is the art of natural change. Our physical world is the great equalizer, we all exist here in our flesh on this earth and can witness the great cycles of nature for ourselves. The chorus of ‘transfiguration of lead into gold’ is confusing when taken at face value, but if we break this phrase down into the symbols it represents past the language used to communicate, the intention is far easier to understand. 

Transfiguration is often used in a spiritual context, think ‘the transfiguration of Jesus Christ’, to express a great change. This is the art of change I spoke of— we’re all familiar with change in our own lives and in the world around us. We see it every day, the leaves are changing colour, we grow new wrinkles, start a new job, lose something important, watch the rain fall, and these experiences are the magic of the alchemy. The next axiom from alchemy some may already know is ‘one is all’. You might have heard this expressed as there being a galaxy inside of us. Natural processes and cosmic events are reflected within, and we can see ourselves and our internal worlds on the outside. This is the nature of symbolism, the reaction evoked from us by a widely recognized experience— we feel the chaos of a wildebeest being taken down in a nature documentary, we feel it inside us. We feel calm gazing at a swan drifting on a lake. We protect ourselves on the swan and the swan is internalized within us. This is symbolism. 

The lead is symbolic, as is the gold.

For change to happen something has to change and the ‘something’ is lead, the subject to be transfigured. Lead is the unrefined and beginning stages of change. It’s a specific point in the cycle. Piss on the sidewalk evaporating up to the heavens to fall as rain, raw stone to be carved into a sculpture, this is what is meant by lead. With this symbolism understood, the concept of gold rings true. The philosophical gold isn’t something of money value, nothing so crude. The sculpture isn’t worth the price it goes for— art isn’t a series of price tags. What we see as the gold we speak of is the satisfaction, the completion, the inherent worth of something so much effort has been out into.

One calls a masterpiece their magnum opus, their great work, but the origin of this idea comes from the creation, or better phrased, the discovery of the philosopher’s stone. Demystifying the stone one first glance seems more complicated than explaining alchemy itself, but I’m here to tell you as a skeptic mystic (and mystic skeptic) that the stone is real and is only as magic as the effects of sunlight or pull of the ocean waves. 

There’s nothing unnatural about alchemy. We’ve learnt about nature through alchemy. Though there are many different orders of processes to achieve the philosopher’s stone, there are some widely corroborated terms.

Steffan Michelspacher (1616)

Many will be familiar. Most know of distillation, invented by alchemists and now such an important process today. All of these terms are still used in diverse fields of study and are undeniably real, true. They are natural actions, reactions. Coagulation is a natural behaviour of substances. Distillation harnesses the innate nature of water. These processes illustrate changes in a matter’s state of being, which brings us to what the philosopher’s stone actually is: a state of being. 

The substance it’s made of is technically unknown, but many including myself believe it can be made of literally anything. Traditionally physical matter that was properly transfigured would end up in a final crystallized form, hence the origin of the word ‘stone’. One reason that it’s believed to be able to be created from anything is that it’s the process of creating the stone that brings the alchemist to the ‘gold’, as while doing so the mind and spirit also follow a process of transformation. 

After the trials and tribulations often involving a lifetime’s work, substance and the soul achieve a state of gold.

How do chemistry experiments change a person’s internal world? It all comes back to symbolism. When becoming acquainted with the delicate workings of the material world, the act of exploring life has a profound effect. The allegorical world of alchemy is actually quite romantic, full of drama and of course, philosophizing. 

We call liquor ‘spirits’ because alchemists believed the alcohol produced by biomatter contained the mercurial spirit of that matter. The word ‘mercury’ is also an allegory to the fluid life force within a being, ergo the spirit of a being, whether that be a human, plant, or animal. By connecting a metaphysical philosophy to a natural aspect of life (the nature of living, alcohol, and the chemical element of mercury) words are allowed the flexibility to transcend into the realm of internal psychology. 

Alchemy allows the human mind to conceptualize what it means to be alive. Called the ‘tria prima’, mercury or the life force takes one point of the triangle while opposed is sulfur, or the soul. 

When I use the word soul, I use it in two senses depending on the context. In mundane writings I speak of the body-mind-soul triad in place of the tria prima as it’s usually more digestible, but when speaking alchemical, this previous use of ‘soul’ would more properly correspond with the alchemists understanding of the word ‘spirit’ in the mercurial sense. The spirit connects the alchemical soul to the body, and in alchemy the mind or consciousness would usually be closer associated with this soul, or sulfur.

In alchemy, sulfur represents our personal signature, or our force of will. In the chemical processes they considered this to be the oil of the being. This is where the ‘essential’ comes from in essential oil. As a child I was only privy to researching these passions of mine but as an adult my gateway to pursuing a true understanding of alchemy was the distillation of essential oils. By being involved in such an intimate procedure of extracting this vital oil so full of powerful chemicals, I felt I could finally understand how this oil could be considered a unique soul. 

Why call it sulfur though? The same reason the third aspect of a being is called salt. If you know anything about sulfur, you know it’s volatile and explosive, forceful like the will of the mind. It represents fire in the way mercury is to water, and salt to earth. They are the characteristics of the things, the states of being, as we know is so important to understanding concepts in alchemy. States of being are what are subject to change. 

Salt, earth, this is the physicality of the being. This is our connection between us and the world around us. Think about the salt in our sweat, in our blood, our tears, and how it could represent our body. It’s the one substance of the three we can safely ingest and we constantly crave it. 

The mercurial spirit is fluid, the sulphuric spirit is willful, and the salted body grounded. 

By connecting our understanding of what it means to be alive to these esoteric symbols we can begin to understand certain equations and relationships in this interconnected, interwoven, all-is-one-one-is-all world.

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