What’s alchemy? That’s easy. It’s potions and stuff.
Well, kind of.
Alchemy is one thing that became two things: the study of transforming substances, which became a method for transforming yourself.
See, ancient wise men and wizards (at least, folks who thought of themselves as wizards) had a clever theory about the way the world works: “The Theory of Correspondences.” The idea is that things that are like each other affect each other, and that the universe is like a gigantic human, and that a human is like a tiny universe. If you’ve heard the phrase “As Above, So Below”, that’s what this is. As it is in heaven, so it is on earth – as it is in the universe, so it is in the human body, mind, and soul.
Alchemists started out mixing metals together, melting copper and mingling it with salt and refining gold. They wanted to understand how things worked, what they were made of, why they changed from one thing into another. As time went on, they started seeing symbols and drawing the dots between transforming substances and transforming the soul – refining gold and refining yourself. Alchemy became a symbolic study of how to become a better person, and how to draw closer to God.
Thousands of years ago, folks learned to grow their own food and raise their own livestock. Before, we’d hunted down our prey and gathered our meals from the wild. With agriculture came fixed dwellings, and as we mastered food production we didn’t have to live day to day so much anymore. We could store food up for later, and produce surpluses. It was these surpluses that allowed some of us to specialise, creating a class that didn’t need have anything to do with making food. These were scribes and scholars, and various kinds of craftspeople: carpenters, sculptors, metal workers. This was the start of civilisation.
We didn’t see much distinction between things like religion and technology, not back then. Growing food had to be done according to certain rituals, taking into account the will of the gods and the cycles of the stars. Life was fragile, and people were insecure. Superstitions abounded. There were times of the year that were best suited to sowing certain kinds of grain, times suited to weaving certain kinds of cloth, times suited to marrying and having children and moving house. Were the gods pleased? Were the stars right? Had you said the right words, did you perform the right rituals?
Metal working was no exception. Melting particular metals, forming particular alloys, and forging particular items – everything had to be done just right. The planets and stars had significance associated with particular metals: the sun and moon were gold and silver, Mars was iron, Venus was copper. Mercury speaks for itself.
Each metal had its own properties, too. Its own effects, when used correctly, whether it was curing certain diseases or granting certain powers: strength in battle, skill in craftsmanship, luck in love. Everything had a purpose, and everything fit symbolically into a grand and divine pattern.
So, if you could learn what the metals were for, and the right times and seasons to melt and mix them, it was only logical that you could learn how to meld their properties and refine them into the greatest material of all: the Philosopher’s Stone, the Stone of Sages, the Elixir of Life. Able to cure any disease, to restore lost limbs, even to prolong life indefinitely.
There’s more to it, of course: the cultural transmission of spiritual ideas from one civilisation to another, the philosophical underpinnings of what matter is and how it is transformed, and – as I said – the spiritual teachings that the whole process was said to symbolise.
But that’s a good start, for now. We’ve got an idea of where alchemy came from, down at its very basics.
Next, we peer behind the curtain to see how the theory of matter and chemical changes developed and evolved.
Want to know more? Find my sources here.