A few years ago a small group of artists, scientists and thinkers concerned about the rapidity of the earth's destruction and the impending disintegration of social and moral values, joined together to form an organization with a name of peculiar significance for our time — The New Alchemy Institute. The Institute's motto is "To Restore the Lands, Protect the Seas, and Inform the Earth's Stewards." Its members seek a world of "decentralized technology based on ecological principles" and are thus particularly interested in the creation of self-sustaining communities. Their first bulletin states, "The New Alchemists work at the lowest functional level of society on the premise that society, like the planet itself, can be no healthier than the components of which it is constructed." In stating this premise (though still in the mechanistic terms so characteristic of modern thinking), the New Alchemists are the inheritors of an old, now debased, and almost forgotten tradition. But the renewal of human concern for the mother of life, our earth, is bringing this old tradition to light once more.
The study of ecology, if approached properly, can give the modern student of nature a new awareness of basic phenomena. We have come again to consider that life on earth consists of great and small cycles — from the majestic, rhythmic pulsations of the seasons to the metabolic and reproductive processes of plant and animal, and that all cycles are interrelated, from the huge to the microscopic. The pattern is with us constantly in the most intimate aspects of our existence: in the inhalation and exhalation of breath, the systole and diastole of blood circulation, in the continuing round of generation, birth, death, decay and renewal of life that governs every cell of each organism. A sign of this awareness is the growing number of international scientific organizations such as the Society for Biological Rhythm Research (in the U.S.) and the Center for the Study of Fluctuating Phenomena (at the University of Florence in Italy), devoted to examining, correlating and understanding the manifold interactions of cycles, both organic and inorganic.
This belated scientific recognition of the interrelatedness of earthly patterns and cycles is in fact a reformulation for modern times of an ancient idea — that all things on earth are organically connected in a vast, pulsating network. Further, the earth is an organic being, itself in turn reflecting the life of the cosmos. "What is below is above; what is inside is outside." So goes the Hermetic formula, the origin of which supposedly lies far back in Egyptian antiquity. But it is probably as old as human contemplation of nature itself. This cryptically-compressed magical utterance is a motif running through human thought from the pre-literate nomadic religions to Taoism, Buddhism, and Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mysticism.
That the small world is the image of the great world had become such a widespread and universal belief in the past that it became a mere formula, often repeated and little understood. Such a phrase as "Man, the microcosm" has, in this age of debased meanings, lost its original meaning for us. Perhaps now, in the latter part of the twentieth century when science is seeking the synthesis of life in test-tubes and the secret of matter in atomic particles, it is time to remind ourselves of the power this idea has had over the human imagination.
It seems appropriate, then, to return to the past, to try to understand how people viewed the world. One of the clearest statements of the macrocosm-microcosm motif is the following from the Zohar, the great thirteenth-century mystical book of Judaism.
For there is not a member in the human body that does not have its counterpart in the world as a whole. For as a man's body consists of members and parts of varying rank, all acting and reacting upon one another so as to form one organism, so is it with the world at large: it consists of a hierarchy of created things, which, when they properly act and react upon each other, together form one organic body.
What holds this vast 'hierarchy of created things" together in "one organic body"? Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance Neoplatonist, drawing on the same tradition, says it is Love. In his words, "The work of magic is a certain drawing of one thing to another by natural similitude. The parts of this world, like members of one animal, depend all on one Love, and are connected together by natural communion." Like to like — or the system of correspondences, as it was then called — also convinced Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century that
the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains, its muscles are the tufa stone, its blood the springs of its waters, the lake of blood that lies about the heart is the ocean; its breathing is by the increase and decrease of the blood and its pulses, and even so in the earth is the flow and ebb of the sea. And the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which is spread throughout the earth; and the dwelling place of its creative spirit is in the fires (which in diverse parts of the earth are breathed out in baths), and sulphur mines, and in volcanoes. . . .
Giordano Bruno, that enigmatic heretic whose heliocentric cosmology fostered the Copernican revolution and caused his own death at the stake, in his obscure and ecstatic writings depicts the earth as being alive, and the world as a beautiful animal. The underlying order of the cosmos was for him, "one circle that comprises the universe, being without bounds . . . " And "Just as in our body blood and humours run round and back, by virtue of their immanent spirit, so it happens in the world as a whole."
To complete the correspondence, the great world must also be seen in the small. Thus, according to the alchemist of the Gloria Mundi (1648),
Man is to be esteemed a little world, and in all respects he is to be compared to a world. The bones under his skin are likened to mountains, for by them is the body strengthened, even as the earth is by rocks, and the flesh is taken for earth, and the great blood vessels for great rivers, and the little ones for small streams that pour into the great rivers. . . . Whatever else may be discovered inside and outside a man, all according to its kind is compared to the world.
"What is below is above" — tradition has it that Thrice-Great Hermes, the original master of alchemy, spoke the phrase in a dream-vision later recorded in the so-called Emerald Tablet, a fragment of writing from Hellenistic times. It is this document which contains in highly compact form the whole teaching of alchemy, that abstruse and universal ritual of metallurgic transformation, frequently dismissed as a combination of medieval superstition, avarice, and mumbo-jumbo. But are we really to understand this medieval preoccupation with finding the recipe for making gold from base metals as a monumental folly of bemused and befuddled pre-scientific minds? Or does the Hermetic formula point to a deeper meaning, one related to the present task of the New Alchemists?
The literature of alchemy is filled with extravagant and murky phrases — metaphors for the process of transformation and its ultimate goal: the green lion, the coming of the crow, the dying of the king, the philosopher's stone, elixir vitae, the red tincture, the homunculus, the chrysosperm, the quintessence, phoenix, hermaphrodite, white dove, fire in the stone. . . . To the unfamiliar ear and eye, the words, fantastic and colorful though they may be, seem determined to prevent any clear comprehension of the undertaking, as if the alchemists were deliberately obfuscating their endeavors to confound the merely curious. There were doubtless many who called themselves alchemists who practiced a decadent obscurantism and whose motives were corrupted by a search for unlimited wealth. And it has been all too easy for the scientific age that followed to dismiss the "Great Work" as a scheme of vulgar, greedy, half-mad charlatans. But alchemy was then a secret art. The vast number of medieval treatises on the subject did seem to obscure rather than clarify the methods of alchemy, perhaps for that very reason. It was a mystery guild which transcended religious dogmas and sects, and was practiced by Arabs, Jews and Christians without in any way disturbing their own particular beliefs.
If we consider alchemy as its true adepts practiced it, in the light of the magical correspondences of the great and small worlds, we can understand some of the nature of the serious and ennobling quest it was. We can begin to comprehend (though dimly) the symbolic nature of those dense, highly poetic designations and epithets as a way of participating in cycles of cosmic proportions. The philosopher's stone was the transformation, purification and redemption of matter, and the consummation of the work was indeed treasure, as the writings constantly assert. Not literal treasure, however, but the "spiritual gold" — the outcome of reverent care and deep meditation on the nature of mineral changes. Since each natural object, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, was considered a little image of the divine cosmos, and would therefore contain within it a spark of the divine spirit, the alchemists sought in their labor to liberate the highest in the lowest form of matter. Their work was the recovery of the inner essence or gold, which corresponded to the divine spirit in metals.
With our analytic and fragmenting modes of thinking today, it is difficult for us to comprehend this magical conception of the work, with its hidden and anagogical relationships of all things. If we would appreciate the quality of alchemical thought, we must understand such declarations as the following by the German alchemist, Michael Maier, as a kind of densely-packed poetic utterance.
The sun is the image of God, the heart is the sun's image in man.... Gold is the sun's image in the earth.... [Thus] God is known in the gold.
The "fire in the stone" is at once God, sun, heart, gold, and fire. Artists and poets will immediately recognize this way of looking at the world. In artistic creation, debased though much of it has become, we can still see glimmerings of this mode of thought. Paul Klee was certainly imaginatively aware of this when he wrote, "the relation of art to creation is symbolic. Art is an example, just as the earthly is an example of the cosmic." And in the words of a more recent artist and philosopher, Irene Rice-Pereira, it is possible to trace the remarkable continuity of the alchemical mode. "Would it be too conjectural," she wrote in 1956, "to assume that, just as the earth was part of the sun, and man is part of the earth, this energy of the sun is an internal radiating energy in man?"
We must also seek an explanation of the alchemists' physical methods within the magical world-view. Their main piece of equipment was a translucent spherical vessel called the philosopher's egg, hermetic vase, or athanor. This closed system, a microcosm, was to mirror the great world in the transmutation of matter. The vase was heated, cooled and rotated while the various substances within were seen to undergo physical changes which were also spiritual transformations. Dissolving, coagulating, and recombining within its sealed world, the "spiritual blood" circulated to reveal the heart of matter. The alchemist watched carefully, meditating upon the inner meaning of each change, carefully noting the ascent and descent of mercury, the volatile substance which was the model of spirit in matter. The interactions of metals in their various forms, the distillations from solid to liquid, from liquid to gas, or gas to crystal, all prayerfully tended by the alchemist, exemplified the process of purification in the soul.
But before the soul's purity could shine out in its true nature, a new synthesis had to take place. From the violent conflict of contending substances there had to come a grand reconciliation. The great theme of alchemical literature was this wedding of opposites, the "alchemical marriage" of conflicting contraries from whose union would be born the hermaphrodite. This mysterious figure, portrayed in a variety of forms and embellished with richly symbolic images, is the epitome of the alchemical art: the coming-together of the masculine/feminine polarities which combine into a higher unity, a powerfully creative unity. Within the hermaphrodite the circle is completed. Here is the enigmatic meeting-place of left and right, arrival and departure, movement and rest. As the blood flows through the heart and is revivified, so all change flows through this being. Like Hermes, the hermaphrodite becomes the channel between heaven and earth, the messenger between gods and men.
All the alchemist's work, prayer and efforts were directed toward this goal: to awaken the dormant powers of nature, to reconcile her dynamic conflicts and to assist at the birth of a new and higher consciousness. Through the hermaphrodite lay the path beyond good and evil toward liberation from contending dualities.
Alchemy at its best was a form of spiritual dialectic whose synthesis would need the separation of matter and spirit. All activity can take on a sacred value if viewed in this way. Even the most lowly and, to us, profane task can have a spiritual meaning if one performs it with such awareness. Work which today has become so despised and meaningless for many, could be transformed as in the appealing Hasidic story of the holy shoemaker whose devotion in stitching the upper leather to the lower sole was so intense that his activity became a ritual of binding the upper and lower worlds. So the profound meditation of the alchemists became a sacred ritual of reconciliation and purification. This was the gold into which base metals were transformed. This was the coming together of earth and heaven, the completion of the circle of perfection.
If there are those like the New Alchemists who can restore this forgotten sacred vision to our impoverished awareness, then there is hope for a renewal of the earth. Without the vision and the love it brings, all such labors remain meaningless.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1974. Reprinted with permission from Manas, September 18, 1974)