A paper read at a Seminar held in the West Country, September 2018, discussing the correspondences between Spagyric Alchemy and Spiritual Alchemy.
When did Alchemy begin?
The word Alchemy is medieval Latin derived from the Arabic word al-Kimiya, which some sources (Oxford Classical Dictionary for e.g.) claim is derived from the Greek word Chemia means ’Egypt’ the Black Land –from the Egyptian ‘Km’ = Black, and which in Coptic reads ‘cheme’ the ‘black land’.
Thus, many believe Alchemy arose in Egypt – it is, in short, considered to be the secret art of Egypt. In our tradition the invention of Alchemy is generally attributed to Hermes; See the Hermetic Literature of the 1st – 3rd centuries. Alexandria is thought by many, to be the earliest known centre of Alchemy, although Athens through Plato and Aristotle is also a contender for the title. Other traditions give different origins such as China and India – All of which are true! Furthermore, from the earliest times, knowledge of Alchemy, its techniques, methods formulas and processes, has been restricted and maintained under the strictest secrecy, with any publication being veiled in allegory and symbolism.
Modern thought describes Alchemy as growing out of three activities: Technology, Theory and Occult Religion:
TECHNOLOGY: Glass colouring; metal work, Decorating & colouring stone in Jewellery etc.
THEORY: Cosmology, The 4 Elements, Pneuma (see Aristotle, Plato and the Stoics)
OCCULT RELIGION (synthesising many or all systems of knowledge into a system of spirituality)
Generally speaking, today the Alchemical Art is distinguished from Chemistry and the sciences by its combining mystical and magical elements with technology, but, this is a modern view of things seen from a secular perspective; the simple truth is, Alchemy is the root of chemistry and many of the sciences we know today. Indeed, rather than being thought of as a ‘science’, Alchemy has been referred to as the SACRED ART, and it is the mystery of this SACRED ART that continues to attract so many to ALCHEMY, and, the main thrust of this discussion.
In the Western tradition, Alchemical theory rests heavily upon the teachings of Plato and Aristotle – who discuss among other things: Form; Matter and the Elements.
In his book Timaeus, Plato, describes the creation of the cosmos by the demiurge; (a word deriving from the Greek dēmiourgos, meaning “artisan” or “creator”). He also describes in the Timaeus, how spiritual archetypes or forms, seek expression in the world through a system of interlocking structures in matter (the Platonic Solids).
whereas his student, Aristotle, taught that the cosmos consisted of a primitive matter – prima materia, which had only the ‘Potential’ for existence until impressed with a form. The Form was not only a geometric structure but also the total inner organisation of a thing, the sum of its qualities and properties.
In simple terms, the form turned matter into the four elements through a variation of qualities arising from HEAT, COLD, FLUIDITY, and DRYNESS. Each element had two of these qualities. Thus, four possible sets of combinations arise; hot & dry (fire) hot and fluid (air), cold and fluid (water), cold and dry (earth). In every element a single quality dominated: DRYNESS in Earth, COLDNESS in Water, Fluidity in AIR and Heat in FIRE.
In the same period (4th cent BC) there emerged a movement known as Stoicism. This school of philosophy was founded by Zeno, a Greek philosopher who lived c.334–c.262 B.C. A major contribution of Stoicism was the concept of the Pneuma (the breath, a synonym of the element of AIR)
Pneuma (the spiritual component of Life)
The concept of pneuma had a long history before the emergence of STOICISM. For example, Anaximenes of Miletus c. 6th cent BC, had previously maintained that the cosmos was sustained by the divine air (pneuma) which it breathed. He thought that this pneuma, when rarefied became fire. With this notion of the universe evolving out of air by condensation and rarefaction, he declared: “As our soul, being air holds us together, so do we breathe and air surrounds the whole universe.”
For the Stoics pneuma was air and fire, the active elements or forces of cold and heat. They later added the qualities of dry and moist (earth & Water) in order to distinguish between the pneuma (soul) of animals, and the pneuma (soul) of plants, physis; the animal pneumabeing dry & warm and the plant pneuma being moist & cold. As the pneuma entered into matter it pervaded the whole universe with a series of inter-related archetypes or forms.
Matter, being shapeless & inert, all of its features was considered to be properties of the pneuma (in Stoic terms) or the form (in Platonic terms). Thus ‘Being’ rather than ‘Substance’ took centre stage.The separation and transmutation of which is central in Alchemy, and in which there are many disciplines and traditions. One of these disciplines is Spagyric Alchemy
Spagyric Alchemy, what does it mean?
The word Spagyria is obscure, 16th century, from the Latin spagiricus, first coined by Paracelsus. Today it has come to mean ‘herbal medicine produced by alchemical procedures’, which involve the distillation, fermentation, and the extraction of components from the plant. They may be single remedies (taken from one plant) or complex remedies (taken from several plants.)
The word Spagyria contains two hidden words.
- Spaõ = drawing out/divide/separate
- Ageriõ = gather, draw, bind
The word Spagyric then, means to draw out that which is bound
What is it that is drawn out & from what is it drawn? In Aristotle’s terms it is the Form that is drawn out, and it is drawn out From Matter? This raises the question, what do we mean by the terms form and Matter? Today, modern scientific thought defines Matter as “anything that has mass and takes up space”. Not very helpful really! It is also described as being composed of atoms, which are themselves composed of protons, neutrons, quarks etc. Arguably, we have not really moved on since the time of the Greeks. The truth is, MATTER is essentially indescribable because all descriptions apply to FORM.
The alchemists of old spoke of three distinct components applying to FORM, philosophical: Salt, Mercury and Sulphur. These terms are analogues of spiritual forces, which are, from a Stoic perspective, 3 modes of one invisible Living Entity – the PNEUMA.
To MATTER they applied the four elements – Fire, Air, Water and Earth, which we shall explore a little later.
COMPONENTS OF FORM
We shall begin with looking at the three Philosophical Principles, Sulphur, Mercury and Salt – the Soul, Spirit, Body.
Sulphur – equates with the essential oil of a plant – a unique identity, hence the term Soul:
Mercury – equates with ethyl alcohol, common to all plant-life, thus the term Spirit
Salt – equates with the salts derived from plant-matter, hence the term Body
Much of Spagyric Alchemy is taken up with extracting these 3 components of Being from plants.
The Four Elements:
Consider the significance of this diagram, what does it mean in terms of human experience?
In Aristotle’s terms the elements are modes of Form or Being, which you may recall is not only the geometric structure, but also the total inner organisation of a thing – the sum of its qualities and properties – that gives its unique identity, thus: Fire – Hot & Dry – choleric – yellow bile – Summer – Nervous system – Salamanders. Air – Hot & Moist – Sanguine – Blood – Spring – Lungs & Cardio – Sylphs. Water – Cold & Moist – Phlegmatic – Phlegm – Winter – Blood System & Lymph – Undines. Earth – Dry & Cold – Melancholic – Black Bile – Autumn – Bones & Flesh – Gnomes.
This list could go on indefinitely.
Separating FORM from MATTER has fascinated alchemists for centuries, and has taken many different names and descriptions. So let us take a moment to think about it. How do you distinguish Form and Matter? Consider Chocolate for example. There are many different forms of chocolate, but how do you recognise the primary substance, is it the cocoa plant, the bean, the powder, the paste, WHAT CONSTITUTES the primary matter? Whichever way you look at it, chocolate is simply a Form in itself.
The Neo-Platonist & Neoplatonism
The Hypostases is a well-known model that still serves today. What is significant here is the description of UNDIFFERENTIATED Matter: (Plotinus struggles with it). In the 6th century, Simplikios, also a Neoplatonist states: “Matter is always truly the last sediment. An indescribable bottom line, hence also the Egyptians call it the dregs of the first life, which they symbolically denominate water, matter being as it were a certain mire”. ( Simplikios too struggles to define Matter) As I said earlier, modern scientific thought defines Matter as “anything that has mass and takes up space”. It is a tidy definition but not really any advance on the thinking of the Neo-Platonists. By the want of an opinion I contend that Matter is the reservoir of ‘potential’ that is used by the Soul and the Spirit in engaging with Life.
Separating FORM from MATTER has fascinated alchemists for centuries, and has taken many different names and descriptions. The Kabbalists, viewed creation as defined in the above diagram of the Tree of Life. From top to bottom the ‘ONE-THING’ was depicted as a gradation of BEING. Thus, the Neshamah corresponds with the SPIRITUAL Component, (the world of Atziluth). The Ruach with the RATIONAL, (Briah and Yetzirah) and the Nefesh with the biological and IRRATIONAL, component of BEING (Assiah) Thus constituting three modes of One-Thing;
Neshamah = Spiritual = Soul = Sulphur
Ruach = Rational = Spirit = Mercury
Nefesh = Irrational = Body = Salt
In the Alchemical world, the components of the One-Thing were depicted thus, (see slide above): These are the components the Alchemist works with, and it is the same with Kabbalah. There are many approaches, some are very materialistic, and some are profoundly spiritual. Some are focused upon chemistry, some on metals, and some on plants and medicine (Spagyric). It is to the Spagyric that I am drawn especially to the Spiritual parallels that can and may be made.
So, when we try to imagine or think about the soul, or the Holy Spirit, or the Pneuma, what comes to mind? A confusing medley of thought I imagine. Fortunately, Spagyric Alchemy is a very good analogue of the spiritual life. It enables the student to examine invisible processes that relate directly to the inner life. Thus:
How then do we draw parallels with the human Soul, Spirit and Body?
The Soul – our Philosophical Sulphur, the essential oil – is extracted by using a distillation process. Distillation is the process of separating the components of a liquid mixture by selective boiling and condensation. The plant-matter is exposed to boiling water. The steam carries the essential-oil away from the plant into a condenser where the oil & water condense and run into a receiving vessel. Because oil and water do not mix, they settle with the water below and the oil above (typically).
There are two types of distillation used here.
- Submerged Distillation
- Steam Distillation
SUBMERGED or Water Distillation
In the process of distillation Fire is applied to Water in which the Earth – (plant matter) is submerged and in which the Soul – Air is dispersed. The heat of Fire breaks the bonds that tie the soul to Earth by turning Water into steam, thus loosening the bonds of the soul (Air – Ruach). Thereby separating the soul from the body (Air from Earth) transferring it to water. This is seen in the resultant oil & water (the product of distillation) Setting up a distillation unit requires quiet, patience and concentration. It is the beginning of Applied Meditation
Steam distillation is suitable for temperature sensitive materials such as plants, and is much favoured by spagyric alchemists. It differs from the previous method (Submerged of Water Distillation) in that it the plant material is not submerged but contained in a separate chamber above the water and through which steam is passed, collecting the essential oil as it rises. The result is much the same as the previous method (Oil & Water) but the process is more gentle and easier to control.
In either case, through the physical process of distillation the essential oil (otherwise known as the soul) is separated from the plant (otherwise known as the body). What does this mean? Who among us has ever seen a soul? Who among us has ever seen a spirit? Yet, when we smell a flower or a plant we touch its soul. Separate the oil (soul) from the plant through distillation and we can observe the soul by analogy.
A ‘Soul’ is the “personal nature” of a creature, and the essential oil = the “Soul” or “personal nature” of a plant. We can learn a lot about a plant by exploring and meditating about its essential oil. Furthermore, the essential oil is an analogue of the soul in man. Dispersed it represents the First Adam selfishly fulfilling the laws of nature; Distilled, and gathered together, it is able to serve a purpose different from secular ‘need’. As such it represents the Second Adam and may serve a higher purpose, such as in healing.
Grow the plant – According to the season
Crop the plant – According to Astrological rules
Set up the distillation unit – Meditatively
Distil the oil from the plant – Patiently
Explore its nature – Thoughtfully
Alchemy is first of all a spiritual act.
Alchemy requires a Prayerful & Meditative mind in which every part of the process is to be understood as a unique analogue of the chemistry of consciousness. Thus, growing, cropping, distilling, fermenting, incinerating and calcination are to be explored as analogues of who and what we are.
Alchemy is also a secular act.
The soul of the plant (the Essential Oil) is dispersed through the plant much like the animal soul is dispersed in human kind. The process of distillation is the means (Meditation) by which the soul (essential oil) is gathered together in one place, making it visible, observable and accessible.
After extracting the Soul (the essential oil) the remaining mixture is subjected to fermentation. There are different kinds of fermentation, today we are focussing on alcoholic fermentation. The ‘mixture’ is transferred to a sufficiently large container, to which brewer’s yeast is added. (The addition of yeast is not essential but it does encourage the fermentation process) At room temperature fermentation will start soon enough. A stopper with an airlock is placed in the opening to exclude other organisms growing and to stabilise the internal pressure.
Because Mercury is the same throughout the plant kingdom, and some plants contain very little sugar, some alchemists will add fermentable sugar (for example glucose, maltose). In the fermentation tank, the four elements are present. The plant material including added sugars represent Earth, Water is clearly present in the soup, Air is released in the form of gas (carbon dioxide) Fire in the presence of heat during the fermentation process.
In the midst of the four elements develops alcohol. This is our Philosophical Mercury, one of the three philosophical principles, also known as the Quinta Essentia (the fifth essence, the pure and concentrated essence of a substance); It is also known as Aqua Vitae (water of life). The analogue of the Aqua Vitae and the ‘spirit’ in human kind is best described in the following way: The human spirit is the dynamic element of human consciousness. It is invisible perceived only in our awareness of the aspirations, thoughts and feelings driving our behaviour.
Essentially, the human spirit, serves our instinctive nature, effecting change in all that is. This spirit is no different from the spirit in plants, they are the same, just functioning in different modes. Nor is the Holy Spirit different from the spirit in man; functioning in yet a higher mode.
The spirit in nature brings nature to completion;
The spirit in man brings to completion what is natural in man.
The Holy Spirit brings to completion what takes place spiritually in man. One Spirit, different modes!
The Spirit in alchemy, the Aqua Vitae, needs to be identified, separated, examined and understood; enabling the alchemist to understand its nature and to compare with the human spirit. Although its uses in secular terms are many and varied, (the widespread use of alcohol as a recreational drug for example); in spiritual terms its application as an analogue of the human spirit is profound indeed.
Soul is the individual life essence that activates the body, The Spirit links the Soul and body to the cosmos through everything the creature does, thinks and feels! It – the soul – is knowable to every single living creature who will take the time to be still and observe.
The fermentation process is understood to be complete when the plant material sinks to the bottom. The plant material can now be separated from the soup and dried, preferably in the sun, or in a warm dry place, and kept in a suitable container for later incineration and calcination.
DISTILLATION OF ALCOHOL
After which we can distil and concentrate the alcohol that has emerged in the fermentation process – cleansing it of excess water. To achieve a good separation of Water & Alcohol we use ‘specific columns’. As the escape of vapour is retarded in these columns the vapour with the higher boiling point condenses before reaching the condenser and falls back. Ethyl alcohol boils at 78 degrees Centigrade thus the temperature should not exceed 85 degrees Centigrade. This process should be repeated several times to purify the Alcohol from all water and other impurities.
Salts of Sulphur (Salt of the Soul)
To obtain this we must evaporate the plant ‘soup’ left from the distillation of Mercury. In this way we obtain a material that appears to be similar to honey, otherwise known as the fixed vegetable honey. The salts of Sulphur, some of which are soluble in water and some are not, are obtained through the incineration and calcination of this honey.
To do this we place the honey into an evaporation chamber and slowly heat it on a gas or electric hotplate. (A heat resistant or flameproof glass dish would do very well) The honey gradually turns darker and starts to bubble and splutter. A strong pungent smoke emerges, along with a yellowish vapour appearing from the bubbles. The material grows black and hard. We can now turn up the temperature of the heating until the vegetable matter carbonises. When hard the material may be ground up in a mortar.
In alchemical terms ‘calcination’ means making white like chalk. A long calcination at relatively low temperatures (400-500C) is preferable to a brief violent calcination. Calcining frequently takes several days continuous work to accomplish. In this way the black material gradually turns into a greyish-white ash.
Traditionally, alchemists distinguished between open and closed calcination. With open calcination some of the volatile components are lost. (Sal Armoniacum for example) With closed calcination the whole process takes place hermetically sealed. The material was traditionally wrapped in a thick clay ball and placed in an open fire, or, minus the clay ball, in a tightly sealed furnace where nothing can be lost. With open calcination the carbonised material is spread evenly over the bottom of a flameproof dish and heated from below. Slowly the material turns greyish-white. This process often takes several days.
When the calcining process is complete we are left with two salts of sulphur – a water soluble salt and an insoluble salt. These two must be separated using distilled water. The salts are washed in distilled water several times; each time fresh distilled water is used (and kept).
The insoluble salt (Caput Mortuum) is set aside and the distilled water filtrate is evaporated slowly until a white salt emerges: This is the Salt of Sulphur – it is not the philosophical principle Salt of the Body
Philosophical Salt – (Salt
of the Body)
We obtain the Philosophical Salt from the remaining solid plant residue, which had previously been dried. This material is reduced to ash in a flameproof dish, and the ash is calcined. After which, the water-soluble salts are separated following the same process as the Salt of Sulphur.
Or by using a Soxhlet Extractor. (See illustration) The Soxhlet is made up of three key components.
- The solvent container (distilled water) 1-2
- The Sample container (calcined ash) 3-8
- The Condensor 9-11
The Soxhlet process
The Distilled water is heated (1). The vapour will pass through the tube (3) and rise into the condenser (9).There it condenses and drips down into the sample container (4). Once the condensed vapour reaches the top level of the siphon (6) the sample container will be drained by suction effect. The extracted material will flow back into the water container and mix with the clean distilled water (1). This cycle will continue indefinitely so long as the heat continues and the condenser (10-11) keeps working. When finished the material is extracted from the water by evaporation (1). Again, as with the previous work (the salts of sulphur) we have two salts, one of them is the water soluble. It is the water-soluble salts from the solid plant residue that constitute the Philosophical Salt
So now we have completed the first part of the work – the Solve – by breaking down a plant into its three component parts Philosophical Salt; Philosophical Mercury and Philosophical Sulphur.
Before us we have essential oil, Alcohol, and water-soluble salt – analogues of the human constitution, that is: Soul – the essential oil, Spirit – the Alcohol, Body – water-soluble salt. Each of these three components has remarkable healing properties – essential to Spagyria. When recombined, according to different formulae, they are very potent medicines.
I will end this talk by recommending Manfred Junius, Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy, Inner Traditions International Ltd. New York, 1985. It may not be the last word on the subject but it is a good introduction to a profound subject.
Jack Lindsay The Origins of Alchemy, Frederick Muller, London 1970
Manfred Junius, Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy, Inner Traditions International Ltd. New York, 1985
.Titus Burkhardt, Alchemy, Science of the Cosmos, Stuart Watkins, London 1967.
Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, Cambridge University Press, London, 1975.
Robert Black, Five English Alchemists, Imagier Publishing, Bristol, 2011.
Journal of the Alchemical Society 1913-1915, Editor R.A. Gilbert, Imagier Publishing, Bristol, 2017.
A.E. Taylor, (Trans) Plato: Timaeus and Critias, Metheun & Co. London, 1929.
Aristotle; De Mundo, De Anima; Parvae Naturalia; De Spiritu, also De Generationje & De Corruptione.
Plotinus, Enneads Trans. McKenna
If you would like to know more about Alchemy then I suggest the above references, especially The Journal of the Alchemical Society, see: https://cruciblebooks.co.uk/book/journal-of-the-alchemical-society-by-r-a-gilbert-editor-2/ or: https://cruciblebooks.co.uk/book/journal-of-the-alchemical-society-by-r-a-gilbert-editor/ published by Imagier Publishing in 2017.