The Central Quest of Alchemy: An Undefinable Something: A Summary of Alchemical Theory, Part 4 of 5
The Central Quest of Alchemy: An Undefinable “Something” :A Summary of Alchemical Theory, Part 4 of 5
The central quest of alchemy was the quest of an undefined and undefinable something wherein was supposed to be contained all the powers and potencies of life, and whatever makes life worth living.
The names given to this mystical something were as many as the properties which were assigned to it. It was called the one thing, the essence, the philosopher’s stone, the stone of wisdom, the heavenly balm, the divine water, the virgin water, the carbuncle of the sun, the old dragon, the lion, the basilisk, the phœnix; and many other names were given to it.
We may come near to expressing the alchemist’s view of the essential character of the object of their search by naming it the soul of all things. “Alchemy,” a modern writer says, “is the science of the soul of all things.”
The essence was supposed to have a material form, an ethereal or middle nature, and an immaterial or spiritual life.
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No one might hope to make this essence from any one substance, because, as one of the alchemists says, “It is the attribute of God alone to make one out of one; you must produce one thing out of two by natural generation.” The alchemists did not pretend to create gold, but only to produce it from other things.
The author of A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby says: “We do not, as is sometimes said, profess to create gold and silver, but only to find an agent which … is capable of entering into an intimate and maturing union with the Mercury of the base metals.” And again: “Our Art … only arrogates to itself the power of developing, through the removal of all defects and superfluities, the golden nature which the baser metals possess.” Bonus, in his tract on The New Pearl of Great Price (16th century), says: “The Art of Alchemy … does not create metals, or even develop them out of the metallic first-substance; it only takes up the unfinished handicraft of Nature and completes it…. Nature has only left a comparatively small thing for the artist to do—the completion of that which she has already begun.”
If the essence were ever attained, it would be by following the course which nature follows in producing the perfect plant from the imperfect seed, by discovering and separating the seed of metals, and bringing that seed under the conditions which alone are suitable for its growth. Metals must have seed, the alchemists said, for it would be absurd to suppose they have none. “What prerogative have vegetables above metals,” exclaims one of them, “that God should give seed to the one and withhold it from the other? Are not metals as much in His sight as trees?”
As metals, then, possess seed, it is evident how this seed is to be made active; the seed of a plant is quickened by descending into the earth, therefore the seed of metals must be destroyed before it becomes life-producing. “The processes of our art must begin with dissolution of gold; they must terminate in a restoration of the essential quality of gold.” “Gold does not easily give up its nature, and will fight for its life; but our agent is strong enough to overcome and kill it, and then it also has power to restore it to life, and to change the lifeless remains into a new and pure body.”
The application of the doctrine of the existence of seed in metals led to the performance of many experiments, and, hence, to the accumulation of a considerable body of facts established by experimental inquiries. The belief of the alchemists that all natural events are connected by a hidden thread, that everything has an influence on other things, that “what is above is as what is below,” constrained them to place stress on the supposed connexion between the planets and the metals, and to further their metallic transformations by performing them at times when certain planets were in conjunction. The seven principal planets and the seven principal metals were called by the same names: Sol (gold), Luna (silver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), Mars (iron), Venus (copper), and Mercury (mercury). The author of The New Chemical Light taught that one metal could be propagated from another only in the order of superiority of the planets. He placed the seven planets in the following descending order: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, Luna. “The virtues of the planets descend,” he said, “but do not ascend”; it is easy to change Mars (iron) into Venus (copper), for instance, but Venus cannot be transformed into Mars.
an excerpt from THE STORY OF ALCHEMY AND THE BEGINNINGS OF CHEMISTRY BY M. M. PATTISON MUIR, M.A