The Theosophical Forum – February 1950

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

(Translated by Thomas Williams from La Revue Theosophique)

In his Magie Naturelle Baptista Porta tells us this clearly: "I do not promise you mountains of gold nor the philosopher's stone, nor even that golden liquor which renders immortal him who drinks it. . . All that is only visionary; for the world being mutable and subject to change all that it produces must be destroyed."

Geber, the great Arabian alchemist, is even more explicit. He seems, indeed, to have written down the following words with a prophetic forecast of the future: "If we have hidden aught from thee, thou son of science, be not surprised; for we have not hidden it especially from thee, but have made use of a language which will hide the truth from the wicked in order that men who are unjust and ignoble may not understand it. But thou, son of Truth, seek and thou wilt find the gift, the most precious of all. You, sons of folly, impiety, and profane works, cease endeavoring to penetrate the secrets of this science; for they will destroy you and will hurl you into the most profound misery."

Let us see what other writers have to say on the question. Having begun to think that alchemy was after all solely a philosophy entirely metaphysical instead of a physical science (in which they erred), they declared that the extraordinary transmutation of base metals into gold was merely a figurative expression for the transformation of man, freeing him of his hereditary evils and of his infirmities in order that he might attain to a degree of regeneration which would elevate him into a divine Being. (1)

This in fact is the synthesis of transcendental alchemy and is its principal object; but this does not for all that represent every end which this science has in view. Aristotle said in Alexandria that "the philosopher's stone was not a stone at all, that it is in each man, everywhere, at all times, and is called the final aim of all philosophers."

Aristotle was mistaken in his first proposition though right with regard to the second. On the physical kingdom, the secret of the Alkahest produces an ingredient which is called the philosopher's stone; but for those who care not for perishable gold, the alkahest, as Professor Wilder tells us, is only the allgeist, the divine spirit, which dissolves gross matter in order that the unsanctified elements may be destroyed. . . . The elixir vitae therefore is only the waters of life which, as Godwin says, "is a universal medicine possessing the power to rejuvenate man and to prolong life indefinitely."

Dr. Kopp, in Germany, published a History of Chemistry forty years ago. Speaking of alchemy, looked at especially as the forerunner of modern chemistry, the German doctor makes use of a very significant expression such as the Pythagorean and the Platonist will understand at once. "If," says he, "for the word World we substitute the microcosm represented by man, then it becomes easy to interpret."

Irenaeus Philalethes declares that:

The philosopher's stone represents the whole universe (or macrocosm) and possesses all the virtues of the great system collected and compressed into the lesser system This last has a magnetic power which draws to it that which affiintises with it in the universe. It is the celestial virtue which spreads throughout creation, but which is epitomised in a miniature abridgment of itself (as man).

Listen to what Alipile says in one of his translated works:

"He who knows the microcosm cannot long remain ignorant of the macrocosm. This is why the Egyptians, those zealous investigators of nature, so often said: Man, know thy Self." But their disciples, more restricted in their powers of appreciation, took this adage as being allegorical and in their ignorance inscribed it in their temples. But I declare to you, whoever you may be, who desires to plunge into the depths of Nature, that if that which you seek you do not find within yourself you will never find it without. He who aspires to a first place in the ranks of Nature's students will never find a vaster or better subject of study than he himself presents.

Therefore following in this the example of the Egyptians and in agreement with the Truth which has been shown to me by experience, I repeat these very words of the Egyptians with a loud voice and from the very bottom of my soul, "Oh man, know thyself, for the treasure of treasures is entombed within you."

Irenaeus Philalethes, cosmopolitan, an English alchemist and Hermetic philosopher, wrote in 1659 alluding to the persecution to which philosophy was subjected:

Many of those who are strangers to the art think that to possess it they must do such and such a thing, like many others we thought so too, but having become more careful and less ambitious of the three rewards (offered by alchemy), on account of the great peril we run we have chosen the only infallible one and the most hidden. . . .

And in truth the alchemists were wise so to do. For living in an age when for a slight difference of opinion on religious questions men and women were treated as heretics, placed under a ban and proscribed, and when science was stigmatised as sorcery, then it was quite natural, as Professor A. Wilder says, "that men who cultivate ideas which are out of the general line of thought should invent a symbological language and means of communication amongst themselves which should conceal their identity from those thirsting for their blood."

The author reminds us of the Hindu allegory of Krishna ordering his adopted mother to look into his mouth. She did and saw there the entire universe. This agrees exactly with the Kabbalistic teaching which holds that the microcosm is but the faithful reflection of the macrocosm — a photographic copy to him who understands. This is why Cornelius Agrippa, perhaps the most generally known of all the alchemists, says:

It is a created thing, the object of astonishment both to heaven and earth. It is a compound of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, it is found everywhere, though recognised by few, and is called by its real name by no one, for it is buried under numbers, signs, and enigmas without the help of which neither alchemy nor natural magic could reach perfection.

The allusion becomes even clearer if we read a certain passage in the Enchiridion of Alchemists (1672):

Therefore I will render visible to you in this discourse the natural condition of the philosopher's stone wrapped in its triple garment, this stone of richness and of charity, which holds all secrets and which is a divine mystery the like of which Nature in her sublimity has not in all the world. Observe well what I tell you and remember that it has a triple covering, namely: the Body, the Soul, and the Spirit.

In other words this stone contains: the secret of the transmutation of metals, that of the elixir of long life and of conscious immortality.

This last secret was the one which the old philosophers chose to unravel, leaving to the lesser lights of modern times the pleasure of wearing themselves out in the attempt to solve the two first. It is the "Word" or the "infallible name," of which Moses said that there was no need to seek it in distant places "for the Word is close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart."

Philalethes, the English alchemist, says the same thing in other terms.

Our writings will be like a double-edged knife for the world at large, some will use them to hew out works of art, others will only cut their fingers with them. Nevertheless it is not we who are to blame, since we warn most seriously all those who attempt the task that they are undertaking to master the most elevated philosophy in Nature. And this is so whether we write well or badly. For though we write in English, these writings will be Greek to some who will, nevertheless, persist in believing that they have well understood us, while in reality they distort in the most perverse manner that which we teach; for can it be supposed that those who are naturally fools should become wise simply by reading books which testify to their own natures?

Espagnet warned his readers in the same way. He prays the lovers of Nature to read little, and then only those of whom the veracity and intelligence is above suspicion. Let the reader seize quickly a meaning which the author may probably only darkly hint at; for, he adds, truth lives in obscurity; (Hermetic) philosophers deceive most when they appear to write most clearly, and ever divulge more secrets, the more obscurely they write. The truth cannot be given to the public; even less in these days than in those days when the Apostles were advised not to cast pearls before swine. All these fragments which we have just cited are, we hold, so many proofs of that which we have advanced. Outside of the schools of Adepts, almost unapproachable for western students, there does not exist in the whole world — and more especially in Europe, one single work on Occultism, and above all on Alchemy, which is written in clear and precise language, or which offers to the public a system or a method which could be followed as in the physical sciences. All treatises, which come from an Initiate or from an Adept, ancient or modern, unable to reveal all, limit themselves to throwing light on certain problems which are allowed to be disclosed to those worthy of knowing, while remaining at the same time hidden from those who are unworthy of receiving the truth, for fear they should make a selfish use of their knowledge.

Therefore, he, who complaining of the obscurity of writers of the eastern school, should confront them with those of either the middle ages or of modern times which seem to be more clearly written, would prove only two things: first, he deceives his readers in deceiving himself; secondly, he would advertise modern charlatanism, knowing all the time that he is deceiving the public. It is very easy to find semi-modern works which are written with precision and method, but giving only the personal ideas of the writer on the subject, that is to say, of value only to those who know absolutely nothing of the true occult science. We are beginning to make much of Eliphas Levi, who alone knew probably more than all our wise men of the Europe of 1889 put together. But, when once the half-dozen books of the Abbe Louis Constant have been read, re-read and learnt by heart, how far are we advanced in practical Occultism, or even in the understanding of the theories of the Kabbala? His style is poetical and quite charming. His paradoxes, and nearly every phrase in each of his volumes is one, are thoroughly French in character. But even if we learn them so as to repeat them by heart from the beginning to the end, what pray has he really taught us? Nothing, absolutely nothing — except, perhaps, the French language. We know several of the pupils of this great magician of modern times, English, French and German, all men of learning, of iron wills, and many of whom have sacrificed whole years to these studies. One of his disciples made him a life annuity which he paid him for upwards of ten years, besides paying him 100 francs for every letter when he was obliged to be away. This person at the end of ten years knew less of magic and of the Kabbala than a chela of ten years" standing of an Indian astrologer.

We have in the library at Adyar his letters on magic in several volumes of manuscripts, written in French and translated into English, and we defy the admirers of Eliphas Levi to show us one single individual who would have become an Occultist even in theory, by following the teaching of the French magician.

Why is this since he evidently got his secrets from an Initiate? Simply because he never possessed the right to initiate others. Those who know something of occultism will understand what we mean by this; those who are only pretenders will contradict us, and probably hate us all the more for having told such hard truths.

The secret sciences, or rather the key which alone explains the mystery of the jargon in which they are expressed, cannot be developed; like the Sphinx who dies the moment the enigma of its being is guessed by an Œdipus, they are only occult as long as they remain unknown to the uninitiated. Then again they cannot be bought or sold. A Rosicrucian "becomes, he is not made" says an old adage of the Hermetic philosophers, to which the Occultists add, "The science of the gods is mastered by violence; conquered it may be, but it never is to be had for the mere asking." This is exactly what the author of the Acts of the Apostles intended to convey when he wrote the answer of Peter to Simon Magus: "May thy gold perish with thee since thou hast thought that the gifts of God may be bought with money." Occult wisdom should never be used either to make money, or for the attainment of any egotistical ends, or even to minister to personal pride.

Let us go further and say at once that — except in an exceptional case where gold might be the means of saving a whole nation, even the act itself of transmutation when the only motive is the acquisition of riches, becomes black magic. So that neither the secrets of magic nor of occultism, nor of alchemy, can ever be revealed during the existence of our race, which worships the golden calf with an ever increasing frenzy.

Therefore, of what value can those works be which promise to give us the key of initiation for either one or the other of these two sciences, which are in fact only one.

We understand perfectly such Adepts as Paracelsus and Roger Bacon. The first was one of the great harbingers of modern chemistry; the second that of physics. Roger Bacon in his "Treatise on the admirable Forces of Art and of Nature" shows this clearly. We find in it a foreshadowing of all the sciences of our day. He speaks in it of powder for cannons, and predicts the use of steam as a motive power. The hydraulic press, the diving bell, and the kaleidoscope, are all described; he prophesies the invention of flying machines, constructed in such a way that he who is seated in the middle of this mechanical contrivance, in which we easily recognise a type of the modern balloon, has only to turn a mechanism to set in motion artificial wings which begin to beat the air in imitation of those of a bird. Then he defends his brother alchemists against the accusation of using a secret cryptography.

The reason for the secrecy which is maintained by the Wise of all countries is the general contempt and indifference shown for the profounder truths of knowledge, the generality of people being unable to use those things which are of the highest good. Even those amongst them who do have an idea which proves related to something of real utility, owe it generally to chance and their good fortune; so that failing to appreciate its full meaning they fall into scientific errors to the great detriment and ruin, not only of the few, but often of the many.

All of which proves that he who divulges our secrets is worse than foolish, unless he veils that which he discloses to the multitude, and disguises it so cleverly that even the wise understand with difficulty. There are those amongst us who hide their secrets under a certain way of writing, as for example using only consonants so that he who reads this style of writing can only decipher the true meaning when they know the meaning of the words (the hermetic jargon). This kind (of cryptography) was in use amongst the Jews, the Chaldeans, the Syrians, the Arabs, and even the Greeks, and largely adopted in former times especially by the Jews. This is proved by the Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament, the books of Moses or the Pentateuch rendered ten times more fantastic by the introduction of massoretic points. But as with the Bible, which has been made to say everything required of it except that which it really did say, thanks to Massorah and the fathers of the Church, so it was also with kabbalistic and alchemical books. The key of both having been lost centuries ago in Europe, the Kabbala (the good Kabbala of the Marquis de Mirville, according to the ex-rabbi, the Chevalier Drach, the pious and most Catholic Hebrew scholar) serves now as a witness confirmatory of both the New and the Old Testaments. According to modern kabbalists, the Zohar is a book of modern prophecies, especially relating to the Catholic dogmas of the Latin Church, and is the fundamental stone of the Gospel; which indeed might be true if it were admitted that both in the Gospels and in the Bible, each name is symbolical and each story allegorical; just as was the case with all sacred waitings preceding the Christian canon.

Before closing this article, which has already become too long, let us make a rapid resume of what we have said.

I do not know if our argument and copious extracts will have any effect on the generality of our readers. But I am sure, at all events, that what we have said will have the same effect on kabbalists and modern Masters as the waving of a red rag in front of a bull; but we have long ceased to fear the sharpest horns. These Masters owe all their science to the dead letter of the Kabbala; and to the fantastic interpretation placed on it by some few mystics of the present and the last century, on which "Initiates" of libraries and museums have in their turn made variations, so that they are bound to defend them, tooth and nail. People will see only the raging fire of contest, and he who raises the greatest conflagration will remain the victor. Nevertheless — Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

1. It has been asserted that alchemy penetrated into Europe from China, and that falling into profane hands, alchemy (like astrology) is no longer the pure and divine science of the schools of Thoth-Hermes of the first Egyptian Dynasties.

2. It is also certain that the Zohar, of which both Europe and other Christian countries possess fragments, is not the same as the Zohar of Simon Ben Jochai, but a compilation of old writings and traditions collected by Moses de Leon of Cordova in the thirteenth century, who, according to Mosheim, has followed in many cases the interpretations which were given him by Christian Gnostics of Chaldea and Syria he went to seek them. The real, old Zohar is only found whole in the Chaldean Book of Numbers, of which there only now exist two or three incomplete copies, which are in the possession of initiated rabbis.

One of these lived in Poland, in strict seclusion, and he destroyed his copy before dying in 1817; as for the other, the wisest rabbi of Palestine, he emigrated from Jaffa some few years ago.

3. Of the real hermetic books there only remains a fragment known as the "Smaragdine Tablet," of which we shall presently speak. All the works compiled on the books of Thoth have been destroyed and burnt in Egypt by the order of Diocletian in the third century of our era. All the others, including Pymander, are in their present form merely recollections, more or less vague and erroneous of different Greek or even Latin authors, who often did not hesitate to palm them off as genuine hermetic fragments. And even if by chance these exist they would be as incomprehensible to the "Masters" of today as the books of the alchemists of the middle ages. In proof of this we have quoted their own thoroughly sincere confessions. We have shown the reasons they give for this (a) their mysteries were too sacred to be profaned by the ignorant, being written down and explained only for the use of a few initiates; and they are also too dangerous to be trusted in the hands of those who might mistake their use; (b) in the middle ages the precautions taken were ten times as great; for otherwise they stood a good chance of being roasted alive to the great glory of God and His Church.

The key to the jargon of the alchemists and of the real meaning of the symbols and allegories of the Kabbala only are now to be found in the East. Never having been rediscovered in Europe, what now serves as the guiding star to our modern kabbalists so that they shall recognise the truths in the writings of the alchemists and in the small number of treatises which, written by real initiates, are still to be found in our national libraries?

We conclude, therefore, that in rejecting aid from the only quarter from whence in this our century they may expect to find the Key to the old esotericisms and to the Wisdom religion, they, whether kabbalists, elect of God or modern Prophets, throw to the winds their only chance of studying primitive truths and profiting by them.

At all events we may be assured that it is not the Eastern School which loses by the default.

We have permitted ourselves to say that many French kabbalists have often expressed the opinion that the Eastern school could never be worth much, no matter how it may pride itself on possessing secrets unknown to Europeans because it admits women into its ranks.

To this we might answer by repeating the fable told by brother Jos. N. Nutt, Grand Master of the Masonic lodges of the United States for women, to show what women would do if they were not shackled by males — whether as men or as god.

A lion passing close by a monument representing an athletic and powerful figure of a man tearing the jaws of a lion said: "If the scene which this represents had been executed by a lion the two figures would have changed places." The same remark holds good for Woman. If only she were allowed to represent the phases of human life she would distribute the parts in reverse order. She it was who first took Man to the Tree of Knowledge, and made him know Good and Evil; and if she had been let alone and allowed to do that which she wished, she would have led him to the Tree of Life and thus rendered him immortal.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Hermetic Philosophy, by A. Wilder (return to text)


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