By Br. Serephah
With the growing popularity of spiritual thought, we see a surging of interest in our mystical heritage. There can be heard, over the maelstrom of modern life, a sweet song of yearning, of sincere and passionate seeking.
“Everything is soul and flowering.” - Rumi
For the aspiring student who has felt the stirrings of this song from
deep within his own being, he must know that it comes not just from
within himself but it is the secret fire of life within all things.
It is becoming conscious of it and seeking to know it that
changes him from a person of the world to a being of the Spirit; from
a mere civilized beast, to an initiate in the Mysteries. He/she
becomes a conscious participant in his/her own evolution.
Laboratory alchemy, as it has been practiced for millennia, is an ancient and profound tool for just this reason. It is the study and application of the evolutionary mechanism in Nature (and hence, the blessed secrets of Nature herself – who She is, Her purpose, how She has come into being, how She works, and all of Her veiled mysteries) that is realized through a series of works and experiments carried out in the three kingdoms – the mineral, vegetable, and animal. These works have as their reward the production of a specific kind of medicine that treats the energetic structure and consciousness of the alchemist as well as the physical body; genuine elixirs of profound transformational potency. These elixirs and tinctures, and their ingestion, allow for the student a deeper receptivity and openness for the flow of that secret fire which is awakening within him and leading him - heart and mind - ever closer to true wisdom and understanding. Alchemy is a path to a deep understanding of the laws at work in the Cosmos as well as within the student.
These laws, as subtle and complex as they are, can be boiled down into a single basic statement which forms the catch-phrase of alchemy: solve et coagula, Latin for dissolve and recombine, or more accurately, take apart, purify and re-assemble. This formula is no more than the application in the laboratory of the ancient and profound principle taught in the venerable Mystery Schools of the Mediterranean and Near East (and no doubt in all esoteric traditions the world over): that of death and resurrection. The Mystery Schools of the ancient world recognized that the Secrets of Nature are fundamental to birth, life, death and rebirth. All things are born, all things grow, all things die, and from death, new life arises. It is by this continuous cycle that Nature achieves Her work. In death, the old life is renewed and given fresh clothing. Death is therefore the key to life, and not its ending. It was this insightful understanding that fueled the Hermetic philosophers at work in their laboratories. The secrets hinted at in the word “solve” are the secrets of death, and the secrets hinted at in the word “coagula” are the secrets of regeneration. It may be said therefore that initiates of the Mystery Schools of the past – of elder Egypt, Greece and later Rome – were concerned with only one thing: rebirth into a new life. Like the caterpillar re-emerging as the butterfly, the regulus separated from its ore, or the spirit distilled from its matrix, the initiates sought the means whereby matter might be raised into the life of the Spirit.
As stated by Bidez in the preface to his Catalogue des manuscripts alchemiques grecs (1924), ancient alchemical emblems and symbols teach the conscious spiritualization of matter (as in the fourth Ennead of Plotinus), an attitude that is in stark contrast to modern chemistry and physics which today seems solely concerned with the materialization of the spirit.
Thus, the song that calls us to spirit, to the source of all life, paradoxically draws us into the transformational mysteries of the Underworld (daat) where – as obliquely expressed in the opium-induced poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the sacred river Alph runs in darkness “through caverns measureless to man,” downward to the sunless sea.
This spiritual river – in mythic art the subterranean Alpheus, aged offspring of Oceanus and Tethys – runs through the world filling and setting alight every molecule, every cell and atom of every stone, tree and crawling thing, filling it with a sacred and invisible igneous spirit. It is the ultimate cause of all generation, all growth, maturation, and perfection. This song, this eternal current, is responsible for every such thing from the ripening of fruit, the blooming of a flower, the birth of a star, the growth of a seed into a tree, the budding womanhood of a young girl, the growing self-awareness and emotional maturity of an adult individual, and the dawning of enlightenment in human consciousness. It is the secret soul of Nature, given the name of Azoth. It is alchemy: the driving force behind all regeneration or metamorphosis, the heart and meaning of Chymical Philosophy.
In the laboratory (the place of ‘labor’ where the work of fire proceeds in secret), the experiments carried out upon solid matter replicate a kind of controlled death and rebirth within the “inner life” of the subject. The alchemist in this way observes how all things are composed of an inert body (salt), an animating principle (sulphur), and a seemingly subtle essence or spirit (mercury), operating through the four elements – air, fire, water and earth. We may likewise describe this triad of principals in terms of (1) the fixed matter, form or presence of a thing, (2) the energy, potency, or force latent therein, and (3) the intelligence, consciousness or aim to which a thing is intended – which in electrical terms, surprisingly enough, corresponds to what is called ‘negative,’ ‘positive’ and ‘neutral’ charges and to which again on the atomic plane, what we call ‘electrons,’ ‘protons’ and ‘neutrons.’ You may even compare this to the divine Trinity in many of the world's religious traditions. Yet again, we may compare this trinity to the three aspects of the soul in Qabbalistic teachings: the Ruach, Nephesch and Neschamah.
The three Principles are energetically charged networks that initiate polarity. The combination of any two principles operating in tandem produces the primary quanta. Every action, every transformation, on whatever plane we are considering, must be the result of the interplay of these principles.
Now, as we explained, we name these three principles (tria prima) Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, respectively. All three run through and are seen in everything, everywhere, and operating throughout all Nature, although in different proportions and with differing results. In death, it is the binding between these three principles that is sundered. So in the laboratory, when we putrefy or ferment a matter, we loosen the bonds of its principles and the matter falls apart. This falling apart is called a “Philosophic Death” or “Solve.”
As the master Paracelsus stated, “The three substances are held together in forms by the power of life. If you take the three invisible substances and add to them the power of life, you will have three invisible substances in a visible form. The three constitute the form, and become separated only after the power of life deserts them. They are hidden by life, and joined together by life. Their combined qualities constitute the qualities of the form, and only when life departs their separate qualities become manifest.”
What is evident in this statement is that when one speaks of the principles, one is not speaking of physical substances but of fundamental and intangible ‘forces’ acting through a particular substance. You may understand this better by reminding yourself of what it means to speak in electrical terms about a thing's negative, positive or neutral charge. The so called ‘charge’ is not a thing-in-itself; it is not a substance or material body, but rather an energized state, a quality of relative charge participating in the material form. For instance, when working within the plant kingdom we may say that the volatile oils of an herb act as the physical vehicle for the intangible Sulphur, the potash or nitre extracted from the calcined ashes of the herb carries its Salt, and the alcohol made from fermentation of the herb manifests as its Mercury. Thus we talk of extracting the Salt of a substance or extracting a thing’s Sulphur, etc., but this does not mean that either the Salt, Sulphur or Mercury is something, as such, that exists in material form.
What is also hinted at in the above quote by Paracelsus, is that it is only through death that the principles and elements become evident and thus manipulable.
“Man does not see the action of these three substances [and four elements] as long as they are held together by life,” Paracelsus continues, “but he may perceive their qualities at the time of the destruction of their form. The invisible fire is in the sulphur, the soluble element in the salt, and the volatile element in the mercury. The fire burns, the mercury produces smoke, and the salt remains in the ashes; but as long as the form is alive there is neither fire, nor ashes, nor smoke.”
Once we have these three principles isolated from each other in the breakdown of substances in the laboratory, we may proceed to subject them to several cycles of purification. This releases the dross that holds back the flow of each essence through its respective material vessel. This dross we call the Crow, or the Caput Mortuum, or death’s head, and it is that aspect of the matter which carries all things to inevitable decay and death. Again, we must remember that when separating out the Caput Mortuum we are operating on the physical carrier of a non-physical thing. This is a very important aspect of our labor, for many have been led astray by an improper understanding of the philosophical nature of this work.
The Caput Mortuum is a major and significant condition of Nature. It is the source of all inertial forces, the outcome of entropy, both physical and spiritual. We see it eminently defined in Newton’s fundamental laws of thermodynamics. It is what resists the force of life in matter and as a serpent eating its own tail has been metaphysically likened to Chronos or Time. Without it, we would have no cycle of birth and rebirth that comes with the seasons, no revolution or change. It is the opposite and necessary side of the coin of the fiery Azoth. It is death, decay, putrefaction. Psychologically, it is that within us which holds us back from our own inner growth.
Whole volumes of text have been written on the processes involved in liberating the principles from this condition, which is the primary aim of alchemy. However, a single image from nature may serve to encapsulate all the many different processes one may utilize to this end. In the Golden Chain of Homer, one of the most profound alchemical texts ever written, the author goes into great detail discussing the alchemical operations of Nature. The most elaborately detailed section is a discussion of how the three principals are separated, refined, and condensed in the endless circulation of the precipitation cycle.
As the modern alchemist Rubaphilos states, “A little more contemplation on this concept and it is not hard to see that our entire planet, when viewed in the bigger picture, and considered (al)-chemically, is just a larger model of a pelicanisation or circulation. At the centre of this enclosed system is a huge mass of 'matter', composed of animal, vegetable and mineral substances. A relatively huge volume of liquid is constantly circulating within the vessel, being distilled by the heat of the sun and by heat welling up from the centre of the earth, then condensing in the atmosphere, and returning to the earth, where it soaks in to everything, washes everything, and macerates all matter laying on and in the earth's surface. Exactly the same mechanism is operating inside the alchemist's pelican (circulatory vessel), and we know from a long and careful study of alchemy that circulation is one of the 'key' techniques of the alchemical process.”
We may see in this “circulation” not just a cycle of water, but of the principles, ceaselessly trafficking between heaven and earth by virtue of the distillation and condensation of the earth's vapor. It is a kind of wheel (or Rota as the alchemists referred to it). This wheel is precisely the current , or closed circuit of Azoth, ceaselessly turning back upon itself – biting its own tail, as it were – ever seeking fruition through the infinite forms of life in the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms. It is very much a universal mechanism, operating not just in the earth's ecosphere, but in the holographic template within every living system, guiding each system to its own maturity. As the Golden Chain of Homer most eloquently expresses, “The Lover of Natural Knowledge may clearly learn here how the Effluvium of one Element becomes the food and nourishment of the others, until converted therein; the same takes place with us and our food, as, for instance, we eat Bread and drink Wine, we discharge the superfluities of our food, which are used for manure on the land; seed is sown therein and out of such superfluities grows again our food.
“A Tree looses its leaves during Winter, the leaves fall to the Root, where they putrefy and become humidity which penetrates to the Root and feeds the Tree again.”
“Observe this well and you will fully comprehend the Superius and Inferious of Hermes, and our Catena Homeri or Platonic Ring. Thus you will see a continual transmutation of Matter that is a conditional change or modification, whilst the inward central fire of Nature remains always the same, as it was in the beginning.” It was often said by the alchemists that the work in the lab merely accelerates what is a natural process. This natural process is exactly what is being referred to here. Rubaphilos explains, “as alchemists studied this basic rotary process, and closely looked at what was happening at each of its stages, they developed ways of improving on the mechanism. This is what is meant by the phrase that ... 'art improves where nature has left off' [my paraphrase] ... which is often repeated by alchemical writers. The alchemist has taken what nature has to offer and has tweaked her process 'artfully' to improve upon it. So we can imagine, somewhat analogically, that during his working of the circulatory process, the alchemist can stop it at certain points, remove pieces of the mechanism and tweak them by more efficient methods, place the pieces back in the mechanism, and restart the process. By this means he can greatly speed up the work. From centuries of alchemical research we have therefore developed the spagyric mechanism from a basic circulatory to include all manner of dissolutions, using many and various solvents, calcinations, imbibitions, sublimations, desiccations, deliquescences, etc., etc. In this manner, for example, a salt which may take years to dissolve in a liquid by simple circulation, can be dissolved in minutes if it is removed from the circulatory and volatised by some technique, then replaced back in the pelican - and so on.”
In this manner, are we able to “open up” and release the hidden potencies in matter; the potencies only present when the “inward central fire” of the Azoth is running more clear and pure, and less hampered by the natural condition.
To quote from Paracelsus, “There are hundreds of different kinds of salt, sulphur, and mercury in the universe and in the human system, and the greatest arcana (potencies) are contained in them. All things are hidden in them in the same sense as a pear is hidden in a pear tree and grapes in a vine.”
The metaphor of fruit growing on the tree or vine is not without significance. This is not a transformation from one thing to another completely different thing. The fruit already exists in the seed of the tree, in potential. It is a matter of the right conditions being present in order for the growth and fruition to take place. In the same way, the creation of an elixir (arcana) as well as its transformational effects (known as rejuvenation) is an unfolding of the potencies hidden within the matter. It is a natural ripening process; the process that is at the heart of Nature - the song of Azoth.
It begins to become clear then that these arcana, or medicines, when ingested, effect a similar ripening within the human system; a physical, spiritual and energetic regeneration - purifying the three principals as they are present in the person and allowing the inner spiritual fire to flow more freely. The experiences associated with alchemical rejuvenation border on the legendary. The Philosopher's Stone is said to be the ultimate arcana; a substance that has the Azoth, the force of evolution, flowing at its most pure. Ultimately however, the goal is to become, oneself, the Stone.
To purge matter of its mortality, to overcome entropy, to transcend time – this indeed is the Esclepian ‘work’ of alchemy. As the Persian mystic Ostanes once stated it, "nature is delighted by nature, nature conquers nature, nature rises above nature" but only with the help of the technes, the alchemical ‘technician,’ ‘laborant’ or ‘artificer.’ The alchemist is thus in himself the fulfillment of nature in its own overcoming. But we must labor to know that fulfillment, to remove the dross, the Caput Mortuum, and let the song sing through us.