Alchemy (Exoteric and Esoteric)

Chemistry, metallurgy, these are alchemy. Awareness of the self is alchemy, religious faith is alchemy. What Alchemy isn’t: dead, fiction, transforming lead to gold, or inaccessible to the modern layman. Due to the crypticism and purging by various authorities over the course of history, what we have of the old teachings is few and difficult to understand but dedicated historians, hermetic philosophers, and esotericists have worked over the last century to make the information approachable.

Alchemy has been an interest of mine for as long as I’ve been fascinated by wizards, dragons, mythology, since early childhood. Something that bound all my wayward obsessions was this strange all too real manifestation of all I fantasized of.

The history of alchemy is deep and wide spreading, originating anciently in Asia, the Middle East, and merging of Greek and Egyptian culture.

What is Alchemy though, really? The most simple description is physical, psychological, and spiritual change. Physical or practical work developed an understanding of chemistry and medicine. Read ‘Debt to Alchemy’ and ‘Making Sense of Practical Alchemy’ for more. For psychological and spiritual alchemy, psychoanalysts and philosophers recognized the value in the teachings of transfiguration. Gold in alchemy isn’t of monetary value— rather it’s the base aspiration of all these fields of study. Much like in early times, greed caused practitioners to lose sight of the true gold. Many P. Hall says in a lecture of the Golden Chain of Homer, “Wealth is the false gold, the fool’s gold.” 

Alchemy isn’t about money or physical gold, it’s about enhancing, uplifting, stabilizing, healing, and fixing in many senses. “Whosoever then shall obtain these Medicines, he shall have incomparable Treasures, above all the Treasures of this World.” Sir George of the 14th to 15th century says it well in Liber Secretisimus. 

This philosophical gold is the happiness money can’t buy. 

From wine-drinking moms watching the Secret and touting the law of attraction, to psychonauts seeking ego death, to neo-wiccans dabbling in shadow work, we haven’t lost our desire for this philosophical gold in the postmodern era. White people will steal sacred Indigenous, Asain, Diasporic African, and Judaic practices despite their qualification to pursue what’s wished to pursue without theft. Even within Alchemy people will fill in gaps in their understanding with cultural philosophies they still don’t understand but which has been packaged by western society for their convenience, often with Jewish mysticism.

If you aren’t Jewish, Indigenous, Asain, or African, practices of those people are not within you. You won’t achieve what they achieve because you haven’t lived with the nuances and experiences of their culture or their diaspora. 

Alchemy is about looking outward and inward. Looking outside means being aware of your immediate, broad, and spiritual environment. Where you are, what you have, what’s below and above you, but as above so below is a reflection— what’s outside is also inside. As creatures of perception and expression we’re constantly internalizing and externalizing.

But what of the elaborate laboratories, the experiments with chemicals, the processing of minerals? When imagining a stereotypical alchemist, they usually wield flasks or beakers. This is a part of understanding the outside and inside. While many practitioners of the old and new would disagree with me, I believe Alchemy can be practiced without the use of science. An understanding of how science has been informed by alchemy and how alchemy started is necessary but all that’s needed is a willingness to understand and change what’s around you. The body is a laboratory, as is a mind. 

For myself, my process does involve an actual laboratory. Since I was young I was entranced by test tubes, microscopes, and ingredients. For generations my family has been interested in the scientific, my great grandfather was a hobbyist geologist and entomologist, my grandmother was a lab technician, and my mother studied veterinary science among others. As an interest in art exists in my blood, so does this other opposite and same world. My grandmother is a wonderful painter, my father an art school dropout— I am an art school dropout who is also a wonderful painter and a practical alchemist. 

The study of chemistry, especially organic chemistry, is rooted in art. How could it not be art to look out at the bizarre and beautiful natural processes and tame them, replicate them? We use nature, the fire, the water, the earth, the air, and we follow its path. Distillation copies the water cycle, forcing water particles to rise up with the warmth of the air to condense and then participate as the rain in the clouds does. This following and reverence of nature is key to alchemy. 

Look around you, what cycles do you see? 

A common symbol in alchemy is the ouroboros, a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. We live a circuitous existence. History repeats itself, what goes up must come down, we do things we promised ourselves we’d never do again, repetition, the food chain and cycle of life, we eat the meat which becomes dirt for grass, who feeds the meat. Some cycles hinder and some let us thrive. Even the hindrances are part of the growth and healing, we make medicine from the poison. 

Medicine equals treasure. There is nothing more valuable than healing. Now perhaps you can understand better the previous words of Ridley and what exactly gold is in alchemy. Gold is all around you and is within you, you must just learn to find it.

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