The Spiritual Interpretation of Alchemy

September 24, 2020



It is necessary to state at the outset that the spiritual interpretation of the literature of the physical Mystics is not a new interpretation. It began openly with Jacob Bohme, but it was first systematically developed in the Suggestive inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery and Alchemy. However, both in the writings of the Teutonic Theosophist, and in the wonderful elaboration by the daughter of Mr. South, or again in the hundred and one successors in the “spiritual hermeneutics” of transmutation literature – from Hitchcock to Hartmann, from Eliphas Levi to the “adept” Papus – the system has dealt only with the department of Hermetic psychology. It has never been discerned that the principles which work mystically in the soul can be applied outwardly in the body of man – that if alchemy in its higher significance can inform us of the soul’s development, and of the end of the soul therein, it has something also to tell us of the mystery of our physical evolution, and of a coming glory in the manifest even as in the withdrawn order. But the adornment of the vessel of philosophy is of the mystery of our physical evolution, and of a coming glory in the manifest even as in the withdrawn order. But the adornment of the vessel of philosophy is of high importance in our holy art. The redemption of the body must be accomplished along with “the salvation of the soul.” We must not underrate the importance of the vehicle of interior perfection, for we are incarnate here to no purpose if we neglect our bodies. The law of evolution must fulfil its course both in the outward and inward man. The exclusively spiritual interpretation is, we think, an error of enthusiasm which has operated on suggestive texts and ignored the context, and has forgotten that the lives of the alchemists were in many cases those of laborious investigators into natural secrets, distinct from arch-natural experience. There is no doubt, at the same time, that the texts to which we refer are sufficient in number and gravity to excuse, if they do not warrant, the conclusion, while there are many individual cases which possess a peculiar force. “As soon as any one discerns the intention of the philosophers from the seeming sense of the letter, the dark night of ignorance will fly away a glorious morning of light and knowledge will break forth.” Here, as in a multitude of similar cases, there is stronger language than could be reasonably used in connection with a physical secret, and it derives a fresh significance when it is compared with the dark hints that are found in writers like Norton, who refer to an operation that is not of metals or minerals, but belongs to a high order, is comprehended by few, and is truly philosophical in character. This is that work which begins with a heavenly Mercury and an imperfect body purified, while the white glory of its triumphing conclusion is the whole end, as it is also one ecstasy of the illuminated and the wise.


The investigators of old, being unacquainted with the doctrine of continuity, and not having defined that limit of scientific possibility beyond which facts are forbidden to stray except at their own peril, conducted their experiment into the scope of unknown forces with an almost exuberant license. Thanks now to the doctrine of continuity, the philosophy of the unknowable, and other salutary provisions which have been proclaimed as immutable law, a matronly character, an almost rotund respectability, and a solid and general sobriety, have been infused into physical science. She has forgotten the follies of her youth, her multitudinous initial extravagances. She has forgotten that she believed once in God and the angels, in Paradise and Heaven, in immortality and beatitude, and the law of the world to come. She has forgotten, above all, that she once believed in miracles, in the transmutation of metals, in the elixir of rejuvenated life, in the magical resurrection of the dead, in sorcery, spells, and witchcraft. If there be any who have faith in these now, they are a perishing remnant of benighted votaries, and she counsels her confessors and disciples not so much as to speak with them. Yet this vagrant old world science instructed the men of Eld in the mysteries of their own constitution, on its interior side, and in the depths of Nature’s heart. To modern knowledge, as to Peter Bell, a primrose is a yellow primrose, and nothing more; the mesmeric trance is an abnormal sleep, and hypnotism is a pathological condition. But the primrose was more than a primrose to the past masters of Mysticism; it was a little world which contained the great as in a miniature. That was the position of the Mystics, and the difference between them and the luminous expositors of modern botanical physics was the difference between Peter Bell and his poet –


To whom the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


For them, consequently, trance and the hypnotic state were not simply conditions to be observed, but possibilities which were to be developed, and just as Professor Max Muller has discovered a religion which is behind all religions, so is it affirmed that the Mystics to the abiding and permanent wonder which is behind the common flux of all magical marvels, to the evolution which is within evolution, to the subsistent spirituality which is behind all souls, to the life which is beyond life. A fact in the sphere of the abnormal was fertilized by their vivid perceptions and pursued in all its ramifications as far as experiment could extend. If a patient in a certain stage of a malady developed the sense of sight at the pit of the stomach, or at the extremities of the hands and feet, at Mystics recognized that the house of life had more than seven windows, and to them the opening of a new window, for however brief a period, suggested the possibility that new views could be obtained from the new standpoint, and they conducted their experiments accordingly. And the alchemists in particular proceeded after precisely this manner, with the same eager scrutiny, the same keen eye, the same open mind; in the continual presence of the unexplored possibility of Nature they may be said to have worked and lived. No matter what the operation in hand, for them always there was a higher achievement in the same or an analogical order. The breadth of their view was in consequence of the scope of their theory, which comprised all being within a single principle, having a special theory, which was the inheritance of their initiation. They applied it in the mineral kingdom, and they evolved perfect metals, “better than those of the mines”; they applied it in the kingdom of humanity – the result was their crowned Dian and the and the supernatural Son of the Sun.


We have spoken already of the identity in both evolutions, and we shall speak of it more fully hereafter. For the moment it will be sufficient to say that as throughout their literature the alchemists treat of things physical in the terminology of the spiritual world, so also their alchemical processes possess a pneumatic side and admit without distortion a spiritual transliteration.


Let us take a typical example the alchemical significance of ANIMA, and let us have recourse to the Dictionarium Alchemia of Rulandus, not because it will best serve for our purpose, but rather because, with its tedious metallurgical and mineralogical catalogues, it is in appearance the least promising of its species. Martinus Rulandus was a chemist and a physician of his period, and all that is of chemistry and medicine in his ponderous quarto is dull, laborious, and German. The more sprightly Langlet du Fresnoy, though he also compiled catalogues, dismisses it in a single sentence, C’est peu de chose. But Rulandus was also an alchemist, and that which is alchemical in his treatise runs through its tedious pages with a certain flash and coruscation which vitalizes the in-animate mass, and at times veritable Rose of Hermes blossoms in the barren desert. Accepting him at his best for the moment, let us read in the book of Rulandus with an interpretation, and give the sense so that we can see the meaning. “As the Philosophers conceive three principles, Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, so also they conceive three other divisions” – that is to say, divisions on another, lighter, interior, and intelligent plane – “Soul, Spirit, and Body; not that the Soul and the Spirit are to be distinguished as cattle from men, but by way of similitude. The Soul is nothing else but a living, formed body, which is turned into Mercury” – here we must remember that, according to a proverbial Hermetic maxim, there is concealed in the philosophical Mercury the thing which is desired by the wise – “and when this is done to the dead Body and Spirit, then the whole is made living Elixir.” Now, the ancient alchemical theory supposes that the inferior metals are smitten by a leprosy, or by some complaint or disease, of which they may be healed by Art, and when the Artist has thus healed them, they will become and will attain to the statue of perfect metals. This can only be effected by the confection of the mysterious Medicine of Metals, or the Metallic Elixir, and this Elixir, regarded in another aspect, or in its applied state, is itself the one absolute and perfect triumph of the mineral kingdom. And when the Great Subject, Man, has been elaborated by arcane evolution till the Soul and the Body, hitherto spiritually dead, have been transformed by the Mercury of the Spirit, then is the whole man made also a “living Elixir.” He has become a part of the force of evolution, of the law which “makes for righteousness.” There is no action and there is no thought which is, traceably or not, without its effect on the universe, and the accomplishment of the grand master by one individual makes the mystic passage more easy to all others. when the crown of evolution has been reached, the whole race will itself be a living Elixir for the transmutation of the generations to come. In another sense, the passage which we have been interpreting deals with a dual regeneration – namely, spirit-quickening, and the development deals with the arch-natural body. “Therefore, make no mistake,” says Rulandus, “when the Philosophers speak of one Soul instead of two Souls” – that is to say, when they make use of the generic and popular division of man into a material and spiritual being – “for it is all one thing.” In other words, we are not to be misled by terminology; there is but ultimately one real Man; isolated from the impulse of God, divorced from the divine, there is only dead body or dwindling astral shell’ true individuality, constituting true Man, is impossible when we are apart from the Absolute. Whatever the best of us may exhibit of individuality here is but the result of an electric contact with the eternal verve of God. “The Mercury has in itself the Soul, and is called our Mercury, which is the House and dwelling of the Soul”; in like manner the arch-natural body contains the eternal essence, as a medicine is enclosed in a capsule. The eternal essence is the one and true Medicine both for body and mind; it is the spiritual all-healer and the transmuting agent. But in the passage just quoted it will be seen that the Soul is referred to as if it were the highest part of Man. In his next sentence Rulandus explains his mode. “Also the Soul is called Spirit, and the Spirit is called Soul.” As a fact, this arises in two ways: (i) By the common confusions of an uninstructed terminology which prevails through much Christian theology. (ii) By the instructed confusion of Hermetic writers, who, justifiably or not, seem often to have misled their readers. “The Spirit producers the Soul from the Body, and returns it when it is white.” Note well this point, and the arcane mystery that is here alluded to – the material world contributing to the to the substance of the Soul, the Soul in this life still in course of formation, present environment operated upon by the resident divinity in man, its quintessence extracted for the basis of a future environment. “Therefore it is called the Life of the Soul,” Vita Anima, the theological Anima Anima. “Should the Spirit depart from the Soul, it would not give the Life.” The Spirit is thus the seat of life; the overshadowing of the Spirit – always psychologically at a distance from the objective organism – produces, as it were, the exterior life unites and conjoins the married, body and spirit.” Here it is the true philosophy of the nuptial state, and, as Vaughan hath it, “how one should use a wife.” There is an intercourse of the interior body as well as of external sex, and this is called commonly a communion of souls; but note that there is another marriage, that of spirits, which is higher than any physical union and note also that the Soul partakes of the sensual nature, and in the transcendental order there is a joy of the sense of Soul. “So the Spirit unites the Soul with the Body till it is all one thing. There are two Souls – one of gold, one of silver. The Soul of the gold must remain, and cannot do so without the Spirit, nor yet the Spirit remain without the Soul.” Thus the presence of the divine essence preserves the union of Soul and Body, and as all esoteric philosophy in-undying Souls. At first the Soul lies hidden under the Spirit, finally the Soul and Spirit remain hidden under the Body.” At this point there is actually no interpretation needed, for the sense is transparently spiritual. It is a plain statement, spiritually accepted, that the first subjective, or psychic (paradisiacal) state, is originally potential in the Spirit, as the Spirit itself was potential once in the timeless and the God-consciousness; afterwards the First Man, or first objective, immaterial, psychic state, and that which indwells or broods over, which, in fact, in a certain sense, may be said to overlap the psychic man, were, as they now are, both hidden in the physical, exterior man, whom we all desire to be dissolved that we may be with Christ, albeit that without dying we may all see God. “Then dost thou first behold pure Mercury.” It is man only that pure and eternal intelligence first became manifested on this material earth. We now – that is, normally, at least – only behold pure Mercury imprisoned in a body; but there will come a day, and then indeed the Morning Stars shall sing together, when we all shall behold it, and that without a body – namely, the body of our death – a pure, fixed, intelligible, constant fire of ungenerable Spirit. Then without flesh shall we see God; then also in God shall we see and possess all things, and be united to all desirable subjects with a completeness and intimacy of essential union, which, as we shall learn hereafter, it is impossible to experience when we are separated from those subjects by any form of environment. “Through the crude Spirit is the pure Mercury taken away from the released body.” That is to say, the psychic principle, as appears from what has preceded, when separated at death from the physical environment, departs, still enclosing the eternal man, the form and font of our humanity. “This is a fixed ash, remaining behind to be dissolved further,” as indeed occurs physically to the abandoned exterior form. But there is also a death of the body which is only esoterically known, and it is “out of this,” as Rulandus continues, that there “is extracted a petrine incombustible Olitet, or germ, which vivifies, unites and welds the natures together; and as they separated the natures through the Spirit, accordingly through the Soul they unite them again.” Now, the separation which takes place after regeneration between the desires of the body and the desires of the mind, which has been made pure, occasions a species of impermanent division between the individual and personal man, which occurs through the Spirit; in other words, the action of the Spirit within us draws us away from our lower part, and it is in this sense that Christ came not to bring peace but a sword, to set father against son and wife against husband. But when our aspirations and desires have been caught up through the power of the approximating Spirit into the region of the Soul, a compensating action follows, and the influence of the Spirit is extended into the phenomenal man, who is strengthened, purified, and transfigured, until, by a more complete and harmonious interaction and rhythmic correspondence between the triadic natures, the complete man is manifested, whole and one. “This Olitet preserves the color of the Spirit, even to thickening,” and so the physical body in his wholeness as a triad, he exhibits at the apex of his being the eternal presidence of pure essential mind, and at the base, as it were, thickened spirit, that which is above made manifest below in a concrete form, but still preserving a coloring or permeation of the splendor of the summit. “Then is it for the production of royal weapons and metallic figures.” That is to say, the adepts has control over the energies of the universe, and he shapes these forces to his purpose; he can possess the power of the king, symbolized by weapons of warfare, or the power of the pontiff, represented by the figures or images, which are also said to be of metal, because both forces are in their ultimate of the same nature. “It manifests itself as golden in gold and as argentine in silver,” because there is but one substance infinitely differentiated in the universe. “The Soul’s ascent is when the Body becomes white, clear, and fluid,” that is, the inner man is exalted in the purification of the outer man. The state of whiteness signifies the clarity or molecular refulgence of physical of regeneration; the fluidic state is the dissolution of the hardness of the material condition, and signifies that the possession of a physical environment is no longer an invincible obstacle to an interior progress, but that the body itself passes on with the other principles, even as a stream flows, from ascension to ascension. “Immediately they are one and living.” When the Body has been thus operated upon, there is a consanguinity of life subsisting throughout the triad. “Then is there is danger. If the Soul should escape or burn, it is lost.” The universal voice of occultism bears witness to the dangerous period which must inevitably follow the first plunge into the mysteries of the Inner Way. All initiation symbolizes it; and takes shape;” here the necessity of the phenomenal manifestation of the Body is shadowed forth. “The Soul proceeds out of the unified Body; she is herself the living Body.” Here the reference includes two Mysteries. When the physical body has become atomically unified with the higher principles, its quintessence, or subtlest and purest part, is made use of the constitution of the inner or spiritual body, which is the envelope of disembodied humanity. Thus, one of its uses is to provide an environment for the next stage of subsistence, and the evolution of the arch-natural man, by another compensating action, creates a more perfect correspondence between the psychal and the physical man, and will actually, with the progress of the race, manifest the Soul as a transfiguration of the atomic body, and then, in a sense, the Soul will be actually the living body. To this conception the alchemists gave the names – Rebis, Animal Stone, Blood, Sulphur, Olitet, etc.

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