In order to understand the alchemic writer, it is necessary to follow his mental processes, to enter into the same mental view. It would be an easy task for him to name his two ingredients, and to describe, step by step, what he does with them. But such a revelation would inevitably result in national and international chaos.
The alchemist wishes to make himself known to the unknown brethren, who have also done the work. He craves the society of those with whom he can converse freely of these wonderful things; those with whom he can reside, and travel, without a continual restraint upon his words and actions. On this aspect, read the 13th Chapter of An Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King, by Eirenaeus Philalethes; and Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers, by A.E. Waite; Thomas Norton's account of Thomas Daulton's experiences, in the Ordinal of Alchemy, and also the account of the persecution and death of the adept who was the master of Sendivogius.
The alchemists who, like Ripley and Valentine, already had a safe and chosen retreats in their monasteries, desired yet to leave on record their testimony that the art was true, and not "a cunningly devised fable." The ancient manuscripts were rare, and these later men were able, by the intervention of printing, to make known in their books, vital excerpts from these unobtainable manuscripts. It is obvious that the alchemist dared not openly name his materials in the practical part of his book: neither did he describe in detail his handling of these materials. These important points he apparently hinted at in a very circuitous way in his theory or philosophy; and where for all I know to the contrary, he may have remedied the omission for those who have patience and intuition.
The speech of the philosopher is not ignorant in the matter of which he is treating, for he is a Master. But he displays ignorance of the true explanation of the phenomena of nature. These he is using as figures of speech, as analogies, and as presumed parallelism; therefore, as proofs.
The alchemic writer has a very difficult task: he wishes to testify to a process, very difficult to be explained; that is—as to why it happens. To explain the laboratory work was easy, for the work was easy; but to explain why, according to the then accepted topsy-turvy explanation of natural phenomena, was not mere difficulty, it was sheer impossibility. But he did his best according to his ability; none can do more, and many of us do less.
The alchemist had been taught by the scientific dicta of his day to believe in the spontaneous generation of insects, flies, worms, snakes, and even higher forms of life, and in the evolution of barnacle geese from bi-valves. Also, that sea currents flowed up to the north pole by the magnetic attraction of the arctic pole, entered there, traversed the "Axle-tree of the world," and emerged at the south pole. They used these supposed facts to illustrate, and even as proof of, their art. But, however impatient this may make us, it should not lead us to conclude that the whole art is as untrue as the attempted proof. The attempted proof, though convincing, would not have proved the art true, neither does its failure prove the art false.
Many a modern man would make a hash of trying to prove the right angled triangle theorem, but his failure does not disprove it. For ages men tried to account for the apparent motion of the sun, planets and stars; their explanation was wrong. For years chemists explained the behavior of oxygen by the phlogiston theory; they also were wrong. But the earth still revolved on its axis, and travelled in its path around the sun; oxygen still continued its manifestations.
The discovery of evolution as applied to plants and animals, was of the last generation; in the next generation it may be found to apply to minerals and metals; if, indeed, it be not already as well known as it is suspected. It is, therefore, abundantly obvious that a wrong explanation of an occurrence does not affect the occurrence. Much less do these wrong explanations of phenomenon x. affect the truth of phenomenon y. being only used as analogies, or parallel illustrations. We have daily evidence of this, when children give most weird explanations of things which have come under their notice. The same type of error is observed when an aboriginal native or an inexperienced kitten, sees its reflection in a mirror for the first time.
But the wrong explanation does not make us pooh-pooh the occurrence. Quite the contrary, indeed, the very earnestness of the child convinces us that something has happened. Similarly, I think, we should hold it not only as unfair, but also unscientific to dismiss as an "illusive chimera" this art, merely on the grounds of the falsity of the supposed analogic illustrations advanced as proofs.
The History of Chemistry is crammed full of blunders in nomenclature, action, re-action and composition; but the substances have not been "scrapped" or condemned on that account; they have been investigated, analyzed, and re-named.
As the ancient chemists were ignorant of natural law outside their laboratory, so to-day a botanist of world-wide fame may be ignorant of mathematics; a theologian, of medicine; and so on. We do not, therefore, deride them as inefficient in their own special life's work. Here also are men who lived and worked, and discovered elements and compounds, who testified—centuries before Darwin—that a law of evolution exists in the mineral realm, and that they had proved it practically.
In nature it often happens that the obvious is false and the concealed is true. So it is in the speech of the philosophers; and many have discovered this. In their presentment of the method of Practice. Here the verbal surface which conceals their "snowy splendour" is "blacker than black."
It would, indeed, in some respects, be easier to follow their methods, if blank spaces, or mere letters of the alphabet, or numerals, were substituted for most of the names given. The student would then—instead of wasting his thought, time, and means on the wrongly named materials—be compelled to guide himself by the properties of the things. As matters are he probably works on things which, though indicated, or even named, by alchemic writers, could not possibly accomplish the work, because they are not in the true evolutionary path to silver and gold.
The following points should be considered.--1.The place where the substance is found. 2. Whether liquid or solid. 3. How treated. 4. Any change when heated. 5. Its action in contact with other bodies. 6. Does it evaporate? 8. Is it easily distilled or with difficulty, and great heat? 9. Its scent or taste. 10. Its ordinary outward appearance. 11. Is it acid or alkaline? 12. On mixture does it evolve heat, or produce cold? 13. If a fluid, does it swim on, mix with, or sink in other fluids? These and other signs will aid in determining whether or not the worker has succeeded in "spotting" the materials used by the alchemist. All this is very elementary; but apparently students usually rush at the thing which the writer has called antimony—for instance—and try to force from it the signs and reactions described. If much more thought were used, before the actual practice began, these blunders would be less frequent.
It does not appear to be necessary to discuss the intangible "elements," earth, air, fire and water; they are exhaustively treated of in ancient and modern books on alchemy. As regards the three "principles." mercury, sulphur, and salt, I gather that they are definite entities, cognizable by our senses, and capable of being investigated by the process of modern chemistry. They are discussed elsewhere; but it is impossible to avoid frequent mention of them in any section of a treatise on alchemy.
The metals are named after the sun and planets, our earth excepted; and the astronomical signs of the heavenly bodies are also used for the metals. Besides being assigned to gold, the word Sol means: positive, active agent, heat, dryness, fire, masculine: Luna, or Lune, indicates the opposite attributes, viz.: negative, passivity, cold, moisture, feminine. Silver, the metal, and mercury, the metal, have the attributes of Sol, so has Antimony, all metals being "masculine." The philosophic "mercury" and the philosophic "salt" are both feminine; the former, when elaborated, is ascribed to the moon, and frequently called Luna, or Lune, and Argent Vive.
The philosophic "sulphur' is masculine. Venus, or copper, is variously considered; copper being acted on by acids or alkalies is often spoken of as the hermaphrodite. The alchemists have taken advantage of this to call their secret substance—which is hermaphroditic also—copper and Venus. The word copper is used throughout the Turba Philosophorum to indicate their elaborated base. Others term it lead, antimony, litharge and many other names.
Eudoxus says in the Hermetical Triumph : "The philosophers speak the truth negatively." which saying should be indelibly written in the student's mind.
Artephius writes: :But these things are so set down by the Obscure Philosophers, to deceive the unwary as we have before spoken; for it is not this Ars Cabalistica, or a secret and hidden Art? Is it not an Art full of secrets? And believest thou, O fool, that we plainly teach this Secret of Secrets, taking our words according to their literal signification? Truly, I tell the (that as for my Self I am in no ways self-seeking or envious as others are; but), he that takes the Words of the other Philosophers, according to their common Signification; he even already (having lost Ariadne's clue of Thread) wanders in the midst of the Labyrinth, multiplies Errors, and casts away his Money for nought."
According to these words, most students, and all would-be critics, wander hopelessly in the Labyrinth, seeing they take the words of the philosophers literally. The sage called a certain product of his work red lead, and it is red lead accordingly, to the critic; another writer calls the same substance "our vermillion or cinnabar" and straightaway, to the critic, that which before was oxide of lead has become sulphide of mercury!
Eirenaeus Philalethes writes in Ripley Revived: "Take this from one that knows best the sense of what he has written; where we speak most plainly, there be most circumspect (for we do not go about to betray that Secrets of Nature) especially in those places which seem to give Receipts so plain as you would desire, suspect either a Metaphor, or else be sure that something is suppressed which thou wilt hardly find of thyself, without Inspiration, yet to a Son of Art, we have written that which never heretofore was by any revealed."
If this art could be accomplished out of any one of twenty different things, or their combination or even out of the then known seven metals, it would have been common property long ago. But the materials of the Rebis are so common, and the work so easy, that ingenious minds cannot stoop to the simplicity of it. Eirenaeus expresses himself thus: "I do verily admiringly adore the Wisdom of God herein, that an Art so true, so natural, so easy, so much desired and sought after, should yet be so rarely found, that the generality of men, learned and unlearned, do laugh at it as a fable; it is therefore most certainly the Gift of God, who is, and ever will be, the Dispenser of it, according to his good pleasure." And so say the other philosophers.
In the process the name "Saturn" is not used to indicate lead; but things compact, earthy, and particularly it alludes to cold, moist darkness. For unless you get this obscuration of your matter, and blackness, you accomplish nothing." Out of this darkness comes light, and the empire of Jupiter; not tin. It was so in the creation: "waste and void and darkness"; "and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said 'Let there be light' and light was."
Exoteric analogies to this esoteric art exist in all other arts; in the teachings of philosophy; in the sacred writings of various religions, and in their rituals; as also in the rituals of freemasonry, and the Rosicrucian cult. Where, indeed, may they not be found? So multitudinous are the sources from which analogies may be brought, and used fairly, that similes are used such as the baking of bread, the making of wine, brewing of beer; marriage, birth, life, death, resurrection; the parable of the "sower of the seed, that went forth to sow.' The art is typified, at different stages of the work, by names of all sorts of birds, beasts, fishes, creeping things, and reptiles, on account of their appearances, habitations, or actions. These similitudes are so apt, that authors copy each other, instead of substituting some other type or allegory.
They also write, as Basil Valentine has written, thus; "For I have written nothing but what I shall bear witness unto after my death, and at the Resurrection of my body." In his Short Way and Repetition, Basil Valentine gives the following seriatim illustration of the work, viz.: a crowned lion, a crowned eagle, a crowned serpent without wings, an uncrowned flying dragon, a crow or raven, a peacock, a swan, a pelican, feeding its brood with its own blood. The crowned lion, eagle and serpent are transmuted; they are of the process. Basil Valentine described his process, as if done out of ordinary gold; but this metal he did not use as his base; for, as he says, it would require about ten pounds weight of the vitriol of gold to do so. But as gold is the ultimate product or offspring, therefore, it is permissible to call the parent, or sire, gold also. This substance the philosophers called immature or unripe gold, or the "Green" Lion. In the second stage of the work—the analysis of the green lion—a white salt ascends, like snow, and adheres to the sides of the vessel, "much like sublimate," as Ripley says. This is their Eagle, Sublimate, Arsenic, Sal Alembroth,Sal Ammoniac, Nitre, Sea salt, ergo Aphrodite or Venus, Sulphur of Nature, Icarus, etc. Its importance cannot be exaggerated.
The "serpent that creeps in and out of stony places" is wingless and remains below. It is non-volatile, and plastic, and also assists in the transmutation. The entire volatile spirit has passed on into the receiver, if one is being used. These three are the body, soul, and spirit of the Lion. The wonderful manner in which the "soul" leaves the corrupting "body," and unites with the "spirit," is indicated by many writers; and also the manner in which spirit and soul return to the altered body, unite with it, and resurrect it in purity. On uniting these and placing them in an hermetically sealed glass, they pass through the stages of the crow, peacock, swan.
The multiplication in quality and quantity is symbolized by the pelican; and by another metaphor in Valentine's eleventh key. The crow, peacock and swan symbolize respectively the black, the iridescent, and the white, the latter being the White Stone. The Red Stone is symbolized by the Phoenix.
The curious names used—since the writers cannot use the real names—indicate, as before remarked, properties cognisable by the senses; if this be kept constantly in mind, it may be that the correct name(or names) will fit into the proper place. By the association of ideas in the student, it is quite possible to alight on the association of ideas which led the writers to select these obscure but permissibly relevant terms. An instance has already been given, viz.: that hermaphroditic copper—called also the prostitute of metals—suggested the name Venus-Venus is allotted to the zodiacal sign of Taurus; therefore, Sendivogius writes: "This is the Wood and Garden of our Nymph Venus," having previously spoken of a Wood in which were Bulls (Taurus).
Similarly, they speak of "the warlike god that dwells in the house of Aries" (Ripley Revived). This is Mars, or Iron; but this riddle is too easy, and the obvious solution should be suspect. Treasure is usually buried, not scattered in full view. There is, however, a substance they call Ferrum Philosophorum, which is a white salt, innocent of, or not derived from, iron. A further reference to Aries occurs in the section on the Mercury of the Philosophers.
In the present day we are seriously handicapped by our scientific training in our attempts to probe these tergiversations. We are taught to attach one meaning to one word, so far as the limits of language allow. We strive to get the "currency of thought" as pure and unadulterated as possible. Thus we naturally fall easy victims to an apparent simplicity and candor (the critics call it ignorance), which is in reality a deliberately designed subtlety.
Here is an example from Eirenaeus, the cleverest Sphinx of them all : "Know, therefore, that Mercury hath in itself a Sulphur, which, being inactive, our Art is to multiply in it a living active Sulphur, which comes out of the loins of our Hermaphroditical Body, whose Father is a Metal, and his Mother a Mineral; Take then the most beloved Daughter of Saturn whose arms are a Circle Argent, and on it a Sable Cross on a Black Field, which is the signal note of the great world, espouse her to the most warlike God, who dwells in the house of Aries, and thou shalt find the Salt of Nature; with this Salt actuate thy water as thou best knowest, and thou shalt have the Lunary bath in which the Sun will be amended." Three pages further on, he says: "Our Diana hath a wood. . . In this wood are at last found two Doves, for at about the end of three weeks the Soul of the Mercury ascends, with the Soul of the dissolved Gold; these are infolded in the everlasting Arms of Venus," etc.
Taking these seriatim, we here have suggested the following metallic substances, viz.: Cinnabar Antimony and Iron (commonly called the Martial Stellate Regulus), Salt, Diana or Silver, Gold, Copper. We should remind ourselves that the man who composed this riddle was no "child in these matters." According to Eugenious (in Euphrates, Pars. 26, 27 and Appendix) men, himself included, have worked for years with these materials, and without result. The other authors who condemn antimony are too numerous to mention.
We find mention of two doves of Venus, and also of the ensigns of Diana. The ensign of Diana is a crescent moon; if two of these are mounted on two signs of Venus we get a mercury sign duplicated: the substance is indeed the Mercury Duplex of the Philosophers, and is not a combination of common silver and copper. What then is the substance, the proxima materia of the alchemists? According to Norton, its colour is sub-albide, not quite white; when dissolved it is apparently red. The alchemists, if they speak of it at all, mix it up with the prima materia. Eugenius in Euphrates calls it "Water and Earth, or, to speak more obscurely, mercury and sulphur"; notice the word "more. "Other descriptions are that it is "cheap," "common," "thrown away." The writers say that it is not likely that a student can find in one book all that is necessary to the art. Each writer elucidates one or more points, but the beginners cannot find any point more elucidated than another; and consequently might not find the point or points of the secret art. In the Lives of the Alchemystical Philosophers are given instances of men who toiled for years unsuccessfully until at last they sat down, and collated the writings of many men, noting their agreements and apparent differences, and ultimately grasped the truth.
Jean d'Espagnet writes : "A studious tyro of a quick wit, constant mind, inflamed with the study of philosophy, very skilful in natural philosophy of a pure heart, complete in manners, mightily devoted to God, though ignorant of practical chemistry, may, with confidence, enter into the highway of Nature and peruse the books of the best philosophers; let him seek out an ingenious and sedulous companion for himself, and not despair of obtaining his desire." This applied perhaps to the student at the commencement of the 17th century; it may not apply so aptly at the beginning of the 20th.
The trouble is not entirely with the parables and the analogies, many of which are of as much force and appropriateness now as then: it is also with the names of chemicals, and the difficulty of estimating exactly what substances they new. Again, it is certainly that they handled things which were then unnamed, things which to-day are well known. It is of assistance to get the most ancient books on chemistry such as Boerhaave, Maquer, and work up through Ure and other men to the present day. Also books on mining and metallurgy from Basil Valentine, and so consecutively to the 20th century. It is curious that, even to-day, men of scientific attainments do not repeat correctly that which the alchemists have said plainly enough.
One author writes: "A white colour indicating that the Stone is now capable of converting 'base' metals into silver; this passes through orange into (iii) a red colour, which shows that the Stone is now perfect and will transmute 'base' metals into gold." Not quite so; it is necessary to ferment the white stone with silver, and the red stone with gold; otherwise the process has to be continued for some time.
Again, the white and red stones, after having been "fermented" and matured, will not transmute base metals into silver and gold, for they must, in the very first instance, be projected upon melted silver or gold respectively. In Fasciculus Chemicus, it is said: "Thou, must with all care and providence, take heed lest through ignorance of the right form of projection the Divine work (when it is now brought to its complement, and degree above perfection) should be destroyed. Therefore, he must know, that upon whatsoever body thou shalt first project the medicine, it will change it into dust answerable to the nature of the body on which thou didst project it, which indeed is mystical, and to be wondered at: If, therefore, thou desirest to bring thy elixir to the sun, let thy first projection be made upon the sun, that in the sun it may be specificated. And so with the moon to the moon, thou must thence proceed as hath been manifested clearly enough from the authority of most approved philosophers."
Also in item 15 of Things to be Observed : "Many men through ignorance have destroyed their work, when at the first they made projection of the medicine, upon the imperfect metals. For on whatsoever body thou first of all projectest thy medicine, that same is converted into a frangible mass, and shall be an elixir according to the nature of the body upon which it is projected. So, as that if the projection be made upon Jupiter, or Venus, it shall be a medicine which not only converteth the imperfect bodies into Jupiter, or Venus, but also reduceth perfect bodies (to wit, the sun and moon) into imperfect bodies; according to the nature of the body upon which the medicine shall first be projected : which caused the most learned Raymond (struck with admiration) to cry out in these words, "What! Is Nature Retrograde? Some few candid writers have definitely given instructions to project thus on melted silver or gold; others have passed it by in silence.
As regards the colours observed in the work, they are black, then white, and thirdly, red. The alchemists who give accounts of their own working, say they saw these colours, and in this order. This cannot, therefore, be an a priori bit of reasoning, but a statement of an obsrerved and accomplished fact. Basil Valentine says he did the work more than once. Flamel writes : "I have done the Mastery three times"; and also "I had indeed enough when I had once done it, but I found exceeding great pleasure, in seeing and contemplating the admirable works of Nature, within the vessels. To signify unto thee, then, how I have done it three times. . ." And so other writers.
The author of the Story of Alchemy, on account of his sulphide of mercury theory, had no use for the white; he could not fit it in, and required only black and red. But every student knows—if he knows nothing else—that the writers never contradict each other on this point; the confection must be black in forty days, and continue some time; then other colours—green, azure and blue are mentioned—then citrine turning to white. Decoction with increased heat produces red.
Not only are the three colours, black, white and red absolutely essential; but this order of sequence is a sine qua non. "If it be orange colour,or half red within some small time after you have begun your work, without doubt your fire is too hot; for these are tokens that you have burnt the radical humour and vivacity of the stone. Laton must be blanched and made white. This blackness doth manifest a conjunction of the male and female,or rather of four elements. Orange colour then doth show that the body hath not yet sufficient digestion, and that the humidity (whereof the colours of black, blue and azure do come) is but half overcome by the dryness. When dryness doth predominate, then all will be white powder,etc."
No useful purpose would be served by multiplying extracts from the sages' writings upon this point. Reverting for a moment to the theory of spontaneous generation, it ought in all fairness to be conceded that the philosopher, in searching for parallel illustrations, was handicapped, and not assisted, by this theory. His work, as is abundantly evident, required two parents for his noble offspring. He said his art was founded on universal law; and here he was confronted by an unaccountable lapse on the part of Nature. In the vegetable world, thorns, nettles, thistles, sprang up where none were before, and therefore, apparently, no seed; and in the animal kingdom, snakes, worms, scorpions, flies, ants, etc., were produced without parental influence. He had to apologize for these things.
In reality, the law governing his art was more universal than he imagined—if the solecism may be allowed. Our freedom from this false theory only dates from the discoveries of Pasteur. We now know this dictum of the alchemist to be true : "Nothing is generated but in its like, of the same species." Having said this, because he had proved it, he called the first substance "green lion" and "unripe gold," for so it was.
When the sage speaks of a single simple mercury, it is necessary to remind oneself that, for all we know to the contrary, the substances may have been compounds, it would make no difference for if the working were the same method as used by the alchemist we should get the same results, if operating on the same subjects. But it might make a difference mentally, when trying to discover what these"simple" things might be.
A "simple" thing to an ancient chemist's mind was one he could not de-compound or split up into two ore more dissimilar parts. The same definition applies to-day. Such a substance he styled as belonging to the fossil kingdom, in other words, a "stone." Thus, salts and also alcohol were considered in Boerhaave's time to belong to the class of simple fossils. These few examples of the dark sayings of the philosophers, and the brief comments on them, must suffice, though it is evident that the correct interpretation of their words and phrases is the only key which avails to unlock the mystery.