Alchemy, a Sacred Art or an Occult Science? A Summary of Alchemical Theory, Part 1 of 5

Alchemy, a Sacred Art or an Occult Science? A Summary of Alchemical Theory, Part 1of5

The system which began to be called alchemy in the 6th and 7th centuries of our era had no special name before that time, but was known as the sacred art, the divine science, the occult science, the art of Hermes.


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A commentator on Aristotle, writing in the 4th century A.D., calls certain instruments used for fusion and calcination “chuika organa,” that is, instruments for melting and pouring. Hence, probably, came the adjective chyic or chymic, and, at a somewhat later time, the word chemia as the name of that art which deals with calcinations, fusions, meltings, and the like. The writer of a treatise on astrology, in the 5th century, speaking of the influences of the stars on the dispositions of man, says: “If a man is born under Mercury he will give himself to astronomy; if Mars, he will follow the profession of arms; if Saturn, he will devote himself to the science of alchemy (Scientia alchemiae).” The word alchemia which appears in this treatise, was formed by prefixing the Arabic al (meaning the) to chemia, a word, as we have seen, of Greek origin.

It is the growth, development, and transformation into chemistry, of this alchemia which we have to consider.

Alchemy, that is, the art of melting, pouring, and transforming, must necessarily pay much attention to working with crucibles, furnaces, alembics, and other vessels wherein things are fused, distilled, calcined, and dissolved. The old drawings of alchemical operations show us men busy calcining, cohobating, distilling, dissolving, digesting, and performing other processes of like character to these.

The alchemists could not be accused of laziness or aversion to work in their laboratories. Paracelsus (16th century) says of them: “They are not given to idleness, nor go in a proud habit, or plush and velvet garments, often showing their rings on their fingers, or wearing swords with silver hilts by their sides, or fine and gay gloves on their hands; but diligently follow their labours, sweating whole days and nights by their furnaces. They do not spend their time abroad for recreation, but take delight in their laboratories. They put their fingers among coals, into clay and filth, not into gold rings. They are sooty and black, like smiths and miners, and do not pride themselves upon clean and beautiful faces.”

In these respects the chemist of to-day faithfully follows the practice of the alchemists who were his predecessors. You can nose a chemist in a crowd by the smell of the laboratory which hangs about him; you can pick him out by the stains on his hands and clothes. He also “takes delight in his laboratory”; he does not always “pride himself on a clean and beautiful face”; he “sweats whole days and nights by his furnace.”

Why does the chemist toil so eagerly? Why did the alchemists so untiringly pursue their quest? I think it is not unfair to say: the chemist experiments in order that he “may liken his imaginings to the facts which he observes”; the alchemist toiled that he might liken the facts which he observed to his imaginings. The difference may be put in another way by saying: the chemist’s object is to discover “how changes happen in combinations of the unchanging”; the alchemist’s endeavour was to prove the truth of his fundamental assertion, “that every substance contains undeveloped resources and potentialities, and can be brought outward and forward into perfection.”