Esoteric or Rosicrucian Level of Interpretation
Basic Beliefs of Alchemy
A complete explanation of the beliefs and associated techniques of Alchemy is far beyond the scope of this website. However, I will attempt to provide a very bare skeleton of this extremely complex system. Most alchemists, whether ancient or modern, would probably agree with the following seven basic beliefs:
1) Organicism - the entire universe is considered to be a single living organic being.
2) Emanations - a kind of seven-stage cosmic ladder exists which connects the celestial world with the physical world on Earth. The souls of men are believed to be able to move up and down this ladder; movement from one stage of the ladder to another was referred to as an emanation. Each stage of the ladder was associated with one of the seven naked-eye planets and with a musical sound on the seven-note Pythagorean scale. See my discussion of the Law of Seven.
3) Correspondence - there is a correspondence or connection between celestial and terrestrial objects which is expressed by the alchemical axiom "as above, so below."
4) Introspection - internal inspection of both the conscious self (such as through meditation) and the unconscious self (such as through dreams and visions) are valid sources of knowledge.
5) Transmutation - transformation of humans to achieve higher states of consciousness and/or spirituality is metaphorically analogous to the transmutation of base metals to metals of a finer substance. Such transformations are not only possible but should become the basic goal of all human beings. These transmutations occur in accordance with the concept of emanations known as the Law of Seven (see above) and with the dialectical Law of Three.
6) Secret Oral Tradition - instruction necessary to achieve true metaphysical knowledge and higher states of consciousness should mainly be provided on either an oral or an experiential basis. Due to the non-discursive nature of most significant metaphysical ideas, it is not possible to put such knowledge into writing except through the use of abstruse metaphors and symbolique* imagery. Only extremely worthy individuals should receive this knowledge, which is obtainable from a very few secret societies still existing on Earth.
* To 20th century alchemist, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, the words "symbolique" and "symbol" communicate two entirely different concepts. In his book entitled Sacred Science (page 120), de Lubicz tells us the following:
The symbolique includes imaged writing as well as gestures and colors, all aimed at transcribing in a functional manner the esoteric significance of a teaching whose inner meaning remains inexpressible by any other form. “Symbolique” and “esoterism” are two words not often correctly understood. What can be said clearly and described objectively has no need of symbol. What is visible, tangible, or objective, however, can hold an irrational or an esoteric idea. This aspect of the object demands a symbol which can sometimes be replaced by parable.
Irrationality is not to be understood here in the mathematical sense, as for example, the “root of two,” or the number corresponding to the coefficient pi. These are numbers that never find their term, fulfilling only a geometric function: the diagonal of a square and the diameter of the circle; they are only mathematically indefinable. This is not esotericism, nor does it contain an inner meaning such as intuition alone can apprehend.
The situation is different when one speaks of the original “Trinity,” of the “divine Trinity”; Catholic dogma says “Three persons in One,” which is also irrational and unimaginable, an abstraction which the triangle can symbolize. Here there is symbolique. It pertains to an unobjectifiable fact and a creative function at the same time. Hermetic art often and in different forms evokes this original state, more especially by the word “chaos.” It can therefore be said that the symbolique is the means of evoking the intuition of a function which eludes rationalization; it therefore applies only to theogony, to theology, to sacred science, in fine, to knowledge of a world of causes.
7) Ancient High Civilization - all of the existing civilizations of the Earth ultimately derive from a single ancient civilization which existed during a metaphorically "Golden Age."
Types of Alchemy
There are two basic types of Alchemy: 1) Laboratory Alchemy involving actual chemical experiments in the lab which may lead to creating the Philosophers Stone; and 2) Psychological Alchemy which may lead to the achievement of a higher conscious state in the individual human being. At my Alchemists of the Twentieth Century website, I discuss five 20th century men who I regard as real alchemists. Two of these men were Laboratory Alchemists, i.e., R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz and Fulcanelli. The other three men were Psychological Alchemists, i.e., Carl Jung, G. I. Gurdjieff, and P. D. Ouspensky.
Constituents of Alchemy
As will quickly be noted below, the constituents of Alchemy are frequently set forth in groups of three or seven. The Fourth Way Masters, G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky explained this by identifying two basic laws governing both humans and the Cosmos, i.e., the Law of Three and the Law of Seven.
Three Primary Principles (Tria Principia):
Sulphur - Omnipresent Spirit of Life
Mercury - Fluid Connection between the High and the Low
Salt - Base Matter
Four Basic Elements:
Four Primary Qualities:
Each quality may be associated with no more than two of the four elements as follows:
Dry - Fire and Earth
Hot - Fire and Air
Moist - Air and Water
Cold - Water and Earth
Fifth Element (Quintessence):
Most alchemists would also acknowledge the existence of a fifth element, sometimes called the Quintessence. Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to postulate its existence; he named it the "Ether" which was believed to uniformly permeate the entire Cosmos. Aristotle's teacher, Plato, had previously described such a phenomenon as the lowest level of his three-level Hypostases system. Plato called this level the "World Soul." Psychologist Carl Jung's concept of the "Collective Unconscious" is very similar to Plato's World Soul. Twenty-first century cosmologists have calculated the only 5% of the mass of the universe is actually visible matter and energy. The other 95% of the mass is composed of dark matter (25%) and dark energy (70%). The dark energy is believed to be uniformly distributed throughout the entire universe. This dark energy seems to be almost eerily similar to Aristotle's Ether and Plato's World Soul! The Medieval and Renaissance alchemists also believed in the Platonic World Soul, for which they used the Latin term of Anima Mundi.
Seven Ancient Naked-Eye Planets (Wanderers) and Their Effects on Humanity:
* The Seven Vices were called the Seven Deadly Sins by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.
** The four Platonic Virtues are also called the Cardinal Virtues; they were discussed by Plato at some depth in his dialogue entitled The Republic. The three Theological Virtues are frequently called the Christian Virtues as they were added to the four Platonic ones during the Middle Ages by the Roman Catholic Church
Seven Metals Known to the Ancients:
Seven Operations of Alchemy:
Three Stages of Alchemy:
As mentioned above, there are two basic types of Alchemy: 1) Laboratory Alchemy involving actual chemical experiments in the lab which may lead to creating the Philosophers Stone; and 2) Psychological Alchemy which may lead to the achievement of a higher conscious state in the individual human being. Each of the three Alchemical stages (see below) is accomplished in seven steps in accordance with the Law of Seven. Accordingly, to complete all three stages, a total of 21 steps must be satisfactorily accomplished.
1. Negredo or Blackening
2. Albedo or Whitening
3. Rubedo or Reddening
Possible Connection of the Major Arcana of the Tarot with The Magic Flute
The original 1791 libretto of The Magic Flute divides the opera into an overture plus 21 numbered musical parts for a total of 22 pieces. M. F. M. van den Berk, in his recently published (2004) book entitled Die Zauberflöte. An Alchemical Allegory, (see pages 511-512), makes the following observation concerning these 22 pieces (22 Stücken):
In this context we can think of the Tarot deck with its 22 major Arcana cards. In that deck the first card is also unnumbered. In the years that the opera was performed, the esoteric meaning of the Tarot deck was very much a topical subject. In 1781 the Freemason Court de Gebelin in the eighth volume of his Monde Primitif was the first who attempted to demonstrate that the Tarot cards in fact constitute the lost Book of Thoth, a treatise on the ancient Egyptian Mysteries! Thomas von Trattner, in whose house Mozart lived during the months prior to becoming a Freemason, was one of the first to sign up for Gebelin's work. We know that the Mozart family were avid Tarock players and that Schikaneder rarely missed a hand! It is legitimate to assume that a closer study will bring to light far-reaching similarities between scenes from the opera and the themes depicted in the Tarot deck. We should not forget that for a long time our opera was known as Egyptische Geheimnisse (Egyptian Mysteries). Only at a very late point in time was the name Die Zauberflöte favored over Egyptische Geheimnisse.
The Major Arcana (trump suit) of the classic Tarot card deck contains 21 numbered cards plus one other card called the Fool (Joker) which has no number. In my opinion, the symbolic images on the numbered trumps may be used to represent the 21 steps of a psychological Alchemical process leading to a higher state of consciousness for the individual practitioner.
The Fool (Le Mat) - Unnumbered (Zero) Card: The unnumbered Fool card is usually considered to symbolize the god Hermes or Mercury. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered this god to take the role of mediator between the Olympian gods and men on Earth. He was the Psychopomp or guide to the souls of men. At various times, Hermes was also believed to assume the role of a "trickster god" or "holy fool," hence his association with the Joker or Fool card. Hermes usually was depicted as carrying the Caduceus; this was a staff with two snakes entwined around it in a double helix pattern similar to that of DNA. The Greeks associated Hermes with either the Egyptian god Thoth or the god Osiris. In Islamic lore, a personality similar to Hermes is described under the name of Al-Khidr (literally means "The Green One"). He is almost certainly cited in the Koran (see Sura XVIII) as the unnamed servant of God who initiates Moses into the mysteries and paradoxes of life. He also is similar to the Green Man of pagan religious lore.