What is Alchemy?

Today I’d like to introduce you to a new series I’m starting here on “The Rhetoric of Magic” about Alchemy.

This topic of Alchemy is one that has always intrigued me. I’ve been captivated by the strange symbolism which, although unusual, nonetheless always manages to strike a chord deep within that resonates with unexplained meaning.

My goal here is to chronicle my transformation from an absolute alchemical novice to perhaps a serious Philosopher, if all goes well. I hope you all will care to join me on this journey. It is my sincere hope that many of you will engage with the material and share your own experiences as apprentice alchemists with us in the comments. And for those who are interested, please note that I’ll be using Dennis William Hauck’s text on Alchemy as my primary resource, along with other materials which I’ll mention as I come across them in my work.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I want to start by asking, “What is Alchemy, anyway?” Is it really about turning cheap lead into the highly valued element of gold? Is this some strange medieval get-rich-quick scheme, or is there more to it than this?

Well, according to Hauck, the most fundamental thing we can say about it is that “Alchemy is the art of transformation.”

As mentioned earlier, when most of us hear the word “Alchemy,” the first thing that comes to mind is an eccentric man alone in his lab with glass beakers and instruments, boiling substances and rising smoke, all in the services of creating wealth from something with little value. Some will know that alchemy is in fact the origins of our modern science of chemistry, but few understand the link between them, as well as the fundamental differences in purpose.

However, even in the context of the lab, we can say that the process involves taking an “inferior” substance as the base from which to create something precious or “superior.” This process refines the original material, improving the quality (or purity) of what we have begun with.

But the lab is simply one setting in which the alchemical process can take place. The transformational process of alchemy encompasses a variety of different situations, using different materials to arrive at different outcomes. The following three types of alchemy listed by Hauck provide just a narrow sampling on the fields in which this process can be applied:

  • Plant Alchemy – the production of tinctures, tonics, elixirs, etc. that have healing properties
  • Mineral (or Practical) Alchemy – the laboratory-based science of turning lead (such as that found in a common pencil) into gold through a series of chemical reactions and processes
  • Psychological Alchemy – the transformation of the mind and emotions into a higher state of consciousness, or from negative feelings to positive, healthier ones
  • Spiritual Alchemy – the “lead” of the soul is transformed into spiritual “gold”

Though it is recognized that Alchemy can take different forms, to the alchemist who knows his subject well, there is really little difference between them. They all use the same systems of transformation to create a pure, valuable type of matter from one which is impure and of little value. We will learn more about why this is possible in future posts about alchemical philosophy. So stay tuned!

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