Until recently, alchemy was a big bag of bullshit to me.
For those who are not familiar with it, let me describe the main goals of an alchemist.
- Create the philosopher’s stone, a red stone that can transform any metal into gold.
- Create the elixir of life, a liquid that gives you immortality.
Do you see now the reason for my skepticism?
This was the medieval science. The precursor of chemistry and material science. But underneath it lies an elegant metaphor of the human condition and it’s evolution through out a life time.
Before we start I must make something clear.
Alchemy is filled with mysticism and symbolism. It’s never clear what the real intent behind all the paintings and texts but people have been trying to make sense of it. Carl Jung was one of those, dedicating a lot of time making connections between alchemy and the individuation process (Jung’s expression for self growth). This post leans mainly in Jung’s work but of course, don’t take it literally.
Some things are best communicated using metaphors and allegories. Personally, the process of self improvement greatly benefits from this approach. So open your mind and let’s dive in!
The Magnus Opus
Latin for “The Great Work”, it refers to the process of creating the Philosopher’s stone.
This stone supposedly can turn lesser metals into precious metals and on top of that grant immortality. It sounds like someone did a good job at marketing this stone.
Many believe that the Philosopher’s Stone symbolizes the quest for perfection, the personal journey towards enlightenment.
What I really appreciate about this allegory is the implied sense of action. The pursue of self growth requires the alchemist to act and actively seek to craft a physical object with extraordinary properties. Both the knowledge and the practice are celebrated.
In one of my favorite books, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, an Englishmen asked the greatest alchemist to teach him how to transform lead into gold. The alchemist simply replied:
Go and try.
In today’s era of information, it is extremely easy to gather all the knowledge on a subject down to its minor details, analyze them and formulate an opinion without actually practicing anything.
Knowledge without executing is meaningless. Unfortunately this remands me a lot of my times in university.
An alchemist should always have it’s forge burning.
The Trinity of Elements
Due to the activity of an alchemist in attempting to transmutate metals, it is to be expected that an alchemist should have a vast understanding of chemistry and material science.
And indeed most of the alchemists could be called the chemists of the medieval era. ( By the way, this could make for a very interesting character on Game of Thrones)
Like in chemistry, alchemists also tried to define the building blocks of matter. Instead of atoms, three distinct base materials called primes were used: Salt, Mercury and Sulphur.
Stick with me. Here is where the best part begins.
Many believe that these primes not only refer to the different building of nature but more especially to the building blocks of the human condition.
Salt represents the body, the physical dimension.
Sulphur represents the soul, the intangible dimension. It’s shapeless and volatile.
And the Mercury represents the mind, the mediator between the physical and the intangible dimensions.
In my opinion, this Trinity proposes an interesting model to look at self improvement. The alchemist needs to have control over these three elements in order to craft the philosopher’s stone.
Going down the rabbit hole…
Alchemy gets way more complicated than this. Way more…
Every element, metal, process… everything has a symbol associated to it. Sometimes the name of the symbol also represents a concept or contains a reference to a bigger narrative.
Take the example of the prime element, Mercury. It represents the mind, the connection between body and soul. Mercury is also the name of a Roman god, the bridge between the upper and lower worlds.
The sun and moon also represent something. It can refer to the precious metals gold and silver but it can also refer to the male and female energies. Once you start decoding the symbols, you can begin trying to interpret the hundred illustrations on alchemy…
Here is where I started to lose interest in alchemy as a way to personify the self development process. At some point, it gets too cryptic and over analysed.
The narrative of alchemy fits well in arts and its lore can produce very interesting concepts. Like I mentioned before, “The Alchemist” of Paulo Coelho is one of my favorite books exactly because it incorporate these mystical elements into the narrative. Also Fullmetal Alchemist is a must watch for any anime fan.
Alchemy is interesting and intriguing. It has in it a beautiful allegory for life’s journey. The great work of transmutation of oneself into a precious metal, improving in salt, sulphur and mercury.