The Theosophical Forum – January 1950

ALCHEMY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: I — H. P. Blavatsky

(Translated by Thomas Williams from La Revue Theosophique)

The language of archaic chemistry or Alchemy has always been, like that of the earlier religions, symbolical.

We have shown in the Secret Doctrine that everything in this world of effects has three attributes or the triple synthesis of the seven principles. In order to state this more clearly, let us say that everything which exists in the world around us is made up of three principles and four aspects just as we have shown to be the case with man.

As man is a complex unity consisting of a body, a rational soul and an immortal spirit so each object in nature possesses an objective exterior, a vital soul, and a divine spark which is purely spiritual and subjective.

The first of this threefold proposition cannot be denied, the second cannot logically be objected to, for if we admit that metals, certain woods, minerals and drugs possess inherent powers to produce effects on living organisms, then official science practically admits its truth. As for the third, of the presence of an absolute quintessence in each atom, materialism, which deals only with the anima mundi, denies it utterly.

Much good may it derive from this agnostic attitude. We for our part, finding in materialism an undoubted proof of the existence of moral and spiritual blindness, make no account of the denial and, leaving the blind to lead the blind, proceed with our subject.

Thus as with natural objects, so every science has its three fundamental principles and may be applied through all three or by the use of only one of them.

Before Alchemy existed as a science its quintessence alone acted in nature's correlations (as indeed it still does) and in all its planes.

When there appeared on earth men endowed with a superior intelligence they allowed this supreme power to have full and uncontrolled action and from it they learnt their first lessons. All that they had to do was to imitate it. But in order to reproduce the same effects by an effort of individual will, they were obliged to develop in their human constitution a power called Kriyasakti in occult phraseology.

This faculty is creative, and is so simply because it is the agent on an objective plane of the first creative principle. It resembles a lightning conductor in that it conducts and gives definite direction to the creative quintessence which otherwise, if led blindly into the lower planes, kills; but which brought down through the channel of the human intellect creates according to a predetermined plan.

From this Alchemy was born; and magnetic magic, and many other branches of the tree of occult science.

When in the course of ages nations grew up so intensely saturated with egotism and vanity as to be convinced of their complete superiority to all others living in the present, or who had lived in the past; when the development of Kriyasakti became more difficult and the divine faculty had almost disappeared from the earth, then they forgot little by little the wisdom of their ancestors. They even went further and rejected altogether the tradition of their antediluvian parents, denying with contempt the presence of a spirit and of a soul in this the most ancient of all sciences. Of the three great attributes of nature they only accepted the existence of matter or rather its illusory aspect, for of real matter or substance even the materialists themselves confess a complete ignorance; and truly they are right, nor have they even the vaguest conception of what it is.

Thus there grew up the science of modern chemistry.

Change is the constant effect of cyclic evolution. The perfect circle becomes One, a triangle, a quaternary and a quinary. The creative principle issued from the rootless root of absolute existence, which has neither beginning nor end, and of which the symbol is the serpent or perpetuum mobile swallowing its tail in order to reach its head, has become the Azoth of the alchemists of the middle ages. The circle becomes a triangle, emanating the one from the other as Minerva from the head of Jupiter. The circle hypothecates the absolute; the right line issuing from it represents a metaphysical synthesis and the left a physical one. When Mother Nature shall have made of her body a line joining these two, then will come the moment of awakening for the Cosmic Activity. Until then Purush, the spirit, is separated from Prakriti — material nature still unevolved. Its legs exist only in a state of potentiality, and cannot move nor has it arms wherewith to work on the objective forms of things sublunary. Wanting in limits, Purush cannot begin to build until it has mounted into the neck of Prakriti the blind, when the triangle will become the microcosmic star. Before reaching this stage they must both pass through the quaternary state and that of the cross which conceives, this is the cross of earthly mystics, who make a great display of this their beflowered symbol, namely: the cross divided into four parts, which may be read Taro, Ator, and Rota, Tora. The Virgin, or adamic earth substance which was the Holy Spirit of the old Alchemists of the Rosy Cross, has now been changed by the Kabbalists, those flunkeys to modern science, into Na2Co3 Kali (?) and C2H6O or Alcohol.

Ah! Star of the morning, daughter of the dawn, how fallen from thine high estate — poor Alchemy. All on this ancient planet, thrice deceived, is doomed to tire and, sliding into oblivion, to be destroyed; and yet that which once was, is and shall be for ever, even to the end of time. Words change and the meaning underlying them becomes quickly disfigured. But the ideas which are their root and parent shall endure. The ass' skin in which nature's queen wrapped herself in order to deceive fools as in the story of Perrault — for the disciple of the old philosophers will always recognise the truth, no matter under what garb, and will adore it, this ass" skin we must believe is more congenial to the tastes of modern philosophy and materialistic alchemists, who sacrifice the living soul for the empty form, than Royal Nature naked and unadorned. And thus it is that the skin only falls before Prince Charming, who recognises in the ring sent the marriage betrothal.

To all those courtiers who hover round Dame Nature while cutting at her material envelope, she has nothing to present but her outer skin. It is for this reason that they console themselves by giving new names to old things, old indeed as the world itself, declaring loudly the while that they have discovered something new. The necromancy of Moses has in this way become modern Spiritualism; and the Science of the old initiates of the temple, the magnetism of the gymnosophists of India; the healing mesmerism of sculapius "the Savior," is only received now on condition that it is called hypnotism, in other words Black Magic under its proper title.

Modern materialists would have us believe that Alchemy or the transmutation of base metals into gold and silver has from the earliest ages been nothing more than charlatanism. According to them it is not a science but a superstition, and therefore all those who believe, or pretend to believe in it, are either dupes or impostors. Our encyclopaedias are full of abusive epithets levelled at Alchemists and Occultists.

Now, gentlemen of the French Academie, this may be all very well, but if you are so sure of yourselves, let us have at least some clear and irrefutable proof of the absolute impossibility of the transmutations of metals. Tell us how it is that a metallic base is found even in alkalis. We know certain scientists, men of recognized ability even, who think that the idea of reducing the elements to their first state and even to their primordial essence (see for instance Mr. Crookes in his meta-elements) not so stupid as it seemed at first sight. Gentlemen, these elements when once you have admitted that they all existed in the beginning in one igneous mass, from which you say the earth's crust has been formed, these may be reduced again and brought through a series of transmutations to be once more that which they originally were. The question is to find a solvent sufficiently strong to effect in a few days or even years that which nature has taken ages to perform. Chemistry and, above all, Mr. Crookes has sufficiently proved that there exists a relationship between metals so marked as to indicate not only a common source but an identical genesis.

Then, Gentlemen, I would ask you who laugh at alchemy and alchemists with a mirth bred of a consciousness of superior wisdom, how it is that one of your first chemists, M. Berthold, author of La Synthese, deeply read in alchemical lore, is unable to deny to alchemists a most profound knowledge of matter.

And again, how is it that M. Chevreul, that venerable sage, whose great age, no less than his living to the last in the full possession of all his faculties, has moved to wonder our present generation, which, with its over-weening self-sufficiency, is so difficult to penetrate or rouse; how comes it, we say, that he who made so many practical and useful discoveries for modern industry, should have possessed so many works on alchemy.

Is it not possible that the key to his longevity may be found in one of these very works, which according to you is but a collection of superstitions as useless as they are ridiculous.

The fact remains that this great savant, the father of modern chemistry, took the trouble to bequeath after his death, to the library of the Museum, the numerous works he possessed on this "false science," and here in this act of his we have an unmistakable revelation of the estimation in which he held them. Nor have we yet heard that those luminaries of science attached to this sanctuary have thrown these books on alchemy into the waste paper basket as useless rubbish full of fantastic reveries engendered by the sick imagination of a diseased brain.

Besides, our wise men forget two things — in the first place never having found the key to these hermetic books, they have no right to decide whether this jargon preaches truth or falsehood, and secondly, that wisdom was certainly not born for the first time with them, nor must it necessarily disappear from the world on their demise.

Each science, we repeat, has its three aspects; all will grant that there must be two, the objective and the subjective. Under the first head we may put the alchemical transmutations with or without the powder or projection; under the second we place all speculations concerning the nature of the mind. Under the third is hidden a high and spiritual meaning. Now since the symbols of the two first are identical in design and possess moreover, as I have tried to prove in the Secret Doctrine, seven interpretations varying with their application to either of the three natural kingdoms the physical, the psychic, or the purely spiritual, it will be easily understood that only great initiates are able to correctly interpret the jargon of hermetic philosophers. And then again, since there exist more false than true hermetic writings, even those of Hermes himself may be found distorted. Who does not know for example, that a certain series of formulas may be correctly applied to the solving of concrete problems of technical alchemy while these same on being employed to render an idea belonging to the psychological plane will possess an entirely different meaning? Our late brother Kenneth Mackenzie expresses this well when he says, speaking of Hermetic Societies:

For the practical alchemist whose object was the production of gold by the use of laws belonging especially to his own peculiar art, the evolution of a mystic philosophy was of secondary importance, for his work could be carried on without any direct reference to a system of theosophy, whilst the Sage who had raised himself to a superior plane of metaphysical contemplation rejected naturally the simply material part of his studies, finding it beneath his aspirations.
      — Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia

Thus it becomes evident that symbols taken as guides to the transmutation of metals, become of small value to those methods which we now call chemical. There is yet another question we would like to ask: — Who of our great men would dare to treat as impostors such men as Paracelsus, Van Helmont, Roger Bacon, Boerhaven and many other illustrious alchemists?

While French Academicians mock at the Kabbala as well as at alchemy (though at the same time taking from this latter their inspirations and their many discoveries) the Kabbalists and occultists of Europe begin sub rosa to prosecute the Secret sciences of the East. In fact the wisdom of the Orient does not exist for our wise men of the West; it died with the Magi. Nevertheless, alchemy, which if we search diligently we shall find as the foundation of every occult science — comes to them from the far East. Some pretend that it is only the posthumous evolution of the magic of the Chaldeans. We shall try to prove that this latter is only the heir, first to an antediluvian alchemy, and then to an alchemy of the Egyptians. Olaus Borrichius, an authority on this question, tells us to search for its origin in the remotest antiquity.

To what epoch may we ascribe the origin of alchemy? No modern writer is able to tell us exactly. Some give us Adam as its first adept; others place it to the account of an indiscretion of "the sons of God, who seeing that the daughters of man were beautiful, took them for their wives." Moses and Solomon are later adepts in the science, for they were preceded by Abraham, who was in turn antedated in the Science of Sciences by Hermes. Is it not Avicenna who says that the Smaragdine Tablet — the oldest existing treatise on Alchemy — was found on the body of Hermes buried centuries ago at Hebron by Sarah the wife of Abraham? But Hermes never was the name of a man, but a generic title, just as in former times we have the Neo-Platonist, and in the present the Theosophist.

What in fact is known about Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes three times the greatest? Less than we know of Abraham, his wife Sarah and his concubine Agar, which St. Paul declares to be an allegory. Even in the time of Plato, Hermes was already identified with the Thoth of the Egyptians. But this word Thoth does not mean only "intelligence"; it means also "assembly" or school. In truth Thoth Hermes is simply the personification of the voice of the priestly caste of Egypt; that is to say of the Grand Hierophants. And if this is the case can we tell at what epoch of prehistoric times this hierarchy of initiated priests began to flourish in the land of Chemi. And even if this were possible we should still be far from having arrived at a complete solution of our problem. For ancient China, no less than ancient Egypt, claims to be the land of the alkahest and of physical and transcendental alchemy; and China may very probably be right. A missionary, an old resident of Pekin, William A. P. Martin, calls it the "cradle of alchemy." Cradle is hardly the right word perhaps, but it is certain that the celestial empire has the right to class herself amongst the very oldest schools of occult Science. In any case alchemy has penetrated into Europe from China as we shall prove.

In the meantime our reader has a choice of solutions, for another pious missionary, Hood, assures us solemnly that alchemy was born in the garden "planted in Haden on the side towards the east." If we may believe him, it is the offspring of Satan who tempted Eve in the shape of a Serpent; but the good man forgot to follow up his assertion to its legitimate conclusion as is proved even by the name of the science. For the Hebrew word for Serpent is Nahash, plural Naha-shim. Now it is from this last syllable shim that the words chemistry and alchemy are derived. Is this not clear as day and established in agreement with the severest rules of philology?

Let us now pass to our proofs.

The first authorities in archaic sciences — William Godwin amongst others — have shown us on incontestable evidence that, though alchemy was cultivated by nearly all the nations of antiquity long before our era, the Greeks only began to study it after the beginning of the Christian era and that it only became popularised very much later. Of course by this is meant only the lay Greeks, not of course the Initiates. For the adepts of the Hellenic temples of Magna Grecia knew it from the days of the Argonauts. The European origin of alchemy dates therefore from this time, as is well illustrated by the allegorical story of the Golden Fleece.

Thus we need only read that which Suidas says in his lexicon with reference to this expedition of Jason, too well known to require telling here:

Deras, the Golden Fleece which Jason and the Argonauts, after a voyage on the Black Sea in Colchis, took with the aid of Medea, daughter of Metes, of Æetes, of Æa. Only instead of taking that which the poets pretended they took, it was a treatise written on a skin which explained how gold could be made by chemical means. Contemporaries called this skin of a ram the Golden Fleece, most probably because of the great value attaching to the instructions on it.

This explanation is clearer and much more probable than the erudite vagaries of our modern mythologists (1) for we must remember that the Colchis of the Greeks is the modern Meretie of the Black Sea; that the Rion, the big river which crosses the country, is the Phasis of the Ancients, which even to this day contains traces of gold; and that the traditions of the indigenous races who live on the shores of the Black Sea, such as the Mingrelians, the Abhaziens and the Meretiens are all full of this old legend of the golden fleece. Their ancestors say they have all been "makers of gold," that is to say they possessed the secret of transmutation which in modern times we call alchemy.

In any case it is certain that the Greeks were ignorant of the hermetic science up to the time of the Neo-Platonists (towards the end of the fourth and fifth centuries) with the exception of the initiated, and that they knew nothing of the real alchemy of the ancient Egyptians whose secrets were certainly not revealed to the public at large. In the third century we find the Emperor Diocletian publishing his famous edict and ordering a careful search to be made in Egypt for books treating of the fabrication of gold, which were collected together and made into a public auto-da-fe. W. Godwin tells us that after this there did not remain one single work on alchemy above ground in the kingdom of the Pharaohs and for the space of two centuries it was never spoken of. He might have added that there remained underground still a large number of such works written on papyrus and buried with the mummies ten times millenarian. The whole secret lies in the power to recognize such a treatise on alchemy in what appears to be only a fairy tale, such as we have in that of the golden fleece or in the romances of the earlier Pharaohs. But it was not the secret wisdom hidden in the allegories of the papyri which introduced alchemy into Europe or the hermetic sciences. History tells us that alchemy was cultivated in China more than sixteen centuries before our era and that it had never been more flourishing than during the first centuries of Christianity. And it is towards the end of the fourth century, when the East opened its ports to the commerce of the Latin races that alchemy once again penetrated into Europe. Byzantium and Alexandria, the two principal centers of this commerce, were quickly inundated with works on the transmutation.

Let us compare the Chinese system with that which is called Hermetic Science.

1. The twofold object which both schools aim at is identical; the making of gold and the rejuvenating and prolonging of human life by means of the menstruum universale and lapis philosophorum. The third object or true meaning of the "transmutation" has been completely neglected by Christian adepts; for being satisfied with their belief in the immortality of the soul, the adherents of the older alchemists have never properly understood this question. Now, partly through negligence; partly through habit, it has been completely struck out of the summum bonum sought for by the alchemists of Christian countries. Nevertheless it is only this last of the three objects which interests the real Oriental alchemists. All initiated adepts despising gold and having a profound indifference for life, cared very little about the first two.

2. Both these schools recognize the existence of two elixirs: the great and the small one. The use of the second on the physical plane transmutes metals and restores youth. The Great Elixir, which was only symbolically an elixir, conferred the greatest boon of all: the immortality of consciousness in the Spirit, the Nirvana which in the sequence of evolution precedes Paranirvana or absolute union with the One Essence.

3. The principles which form the basis of the two systems are also identical, that is to say: the compound nature of metals and their emanation from one common seminal germ. The letter tsing in the Chinese alphabet which stands for "germ," and t'ai, "matrix," which is found so constantly in Chinese works on alchemy, are the ancestors of the same words which we meet with so frequently in the alchemical treatise of the Hermetists.

4. Mercury and lead, mercury and sulphur are equally in use in the East and in the West, and adding to these many others we find that both schools accepted them under a triple meaning, the last or third of these being that which European alchemists do not understand.

5. The alchemists of both countries accept equally the doctrine of a cycle of transmutation during which the precious metals pass back to their basic elements.

6. Both schools of alchemy are closely allied to astrology and magic.

7. And finally they both make use of a fantastic phraseology, a fact which is noticed by the author of Studies of Alchemy in China (2) who finds that the language of western alchemists, while so entirely different from that of all other western sciences, imitates perfectly the metaphorical jargon of eastern nations, proving that alchemy in Europe had its origin in the far East.

Nor should any prejudices be entertained against alchemy because we say that it is closely connected with astrology and magic. The word magic is an old Persian term which means "knowledge," and embraced the knowledge of all sciences, both physical and metaphysical, studied in those days. The wise and priestly classes of the Chaldeans taught magic, from which came magism and gnosticism. Was not Abraham called a Chaldean? And was it not Joseph, a pious Jew, who, speaking of the patriarch, said that he taught mathematics, or the esoteric science, in Egypt, including the science of the stars, a professor of magism being necessarily an astrologer?

But it would be a great mistake to confuse the alchemy of the middle ages with that of antediluvian times. As it is understood in the present day it has three principal agents: the philosopher's stone used in the transmutation of metals; the alkahest or the universal solvent; and the elixir vitse possessing the property of indefinitely prolonging human life. But neither the real philosophers nor the Initiates occupied themselves with the last two. The three alchemical agents, like the Trinity, one and indivisible, have become three distinct agents solely through falling under the influence of human egotism. While the sacerdotal caste, grasping and ambitious, anthropomorphized the Spiritual One by dividing it into three persons, the false mystics separated the Divine Force from a universal Kriyasakti and turned it into three agents.

(To be concluded.)

FOOTNOTES:

1. M. de Gubernatis (Mythol. Zool, 1427) finds that because "in Sanscrit the ram is called mesha or meha, he who spills or who pours out," so the golden fleece of the Greeks should be "the mist . . . raining down water"; and Mr. Schwartz compares the fleece of a ram to a stormy night and tells us that the ram speaking is the voice which seems to issue from an electric cloud. We imagine these learned men are rather too full of vapours themselves to be ever taken seriously by students. And yet M. P. Decharme, the author of Mythologie de la Grece antique seems to share their opinions. (return to text)

2. By Rev. W. A. Martin, of Pekin. (return to text)


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE