Presenting a history of alchemy is a difficult prospect. Even the origin of the word alchemy is debated. It is often given that it is derived from “al” meaning God or divine and “Khemi” meaning “from Khem” or the Land of Egypt, suggesting that it references divine and secret teachings stemming from Egypt. Egypt was, even in antiquity, considered to be a mysterious place from which mystical secrets arose. Another possible meaning of the Egypt connection is the fertile black soil of the land of Khem, referencing the fecundity and generation implied by alchemical secrets.

It is not impossible that alchemy is in some way derived from Egyptian teachings, but, at least the alchemy of the Western World seems probably to find it's origins in Greece and the Hellenistic world. Many of the ideas on which alchemy is based stem from ideas in Greek philosophy and Greek and Roman medicine. Empodecles, Plato, Aristotle, and Galen provide foundational concepts on which alchemy is based. The roots of alchemical practice predate the Middle Ages, with which they are often associated, as they were present in Arabic medical and magical texts. The secrets of alchemy were preserved in the Eastern Empire after the fall of the Empire in the West suggesting they were already developing before the fall of Rome. The alchemical texts of Arabia also reference figures such as Apollonius of Tyana and Hermes Trismegistus suggesting they stem from first and second century philosophy and early Hermeticism.

While the rest of Hermeticism is unknown to the average citizen of the modern world, Alchemy is often mocked and derided, more so than other mystical and magical traditions. It is viewed as a pseudo-science and the purview of flim flam artists and snake oil salesmen. It has the impossible goal of converting lead into gold and granting immortality. Even many magicians and mystics ignore alchemy or attempt to relegate it to a series of spiritual or psychological allegories. We'll address this allegorical issue shortly, but first, it should be pointed out that alchemy's history is one which suggests that it should be respected, not derided.

Alchemy is often discounted as a pseudo-science at worst, a protoscience at best. Generally it is given as an antecedent of chemistry. Personally I am not a fan of this idea. While alchemy has operations which involve techniques of chemistry, and alchemy provided those techniques to modern chemistry, modern chemistry truly owes itself to particle physics. When attempting to relate alchemy and modern chemistry the similarities are rather superficial. Alchemy gives more to metallurgy, herbalism, and medicine than it does to chemistry. That said, we still must acknowledge that it was part of the road to the development of chemistry.

The historical honor alchemy holds is more in those who practiced it and the fact that it contributed to the modes of thinking used to create the foundations of Western science. Robert Boyle who is credited as the father of chemistry was an alchemist. Paracelsus who is credited as the father of modern medical thinking was an alchemist. Isaac Newton who gave us Calculus and Kinematics spent more of his time on alchemy than on the sciences for which he is known. St. Thomas Aquinas, the principle thinker in systematizing Catholic theology was an alchemist. Roger Bacon who is often given as the father of the scientific method was an alchemist, in fact, he drew his scientific method in part from the teachings of Aristotle and in part from Arabic sources.

Many of the famous scientists and thinkers of the middle ages and renaissance were involved in alchemy. It was a normal part of education at the time rather than some sort of sensationalist scam. A papal bull regarding alchemy in the 14th century distinguished actual alchemical pursuits from the “charcoal puffers” who tried to scam people regarding turning lead into gold. The legitimate alchemists of the time were concerned with understanding the natural world and its mysteries and how they related to divine mysteries. While we often associate protestantism with a rejection of mysticism, Martin Luther acknowledged the alignment between alchemy and Christianity. This same alignment was accepted by many notable and important clergy of the time.

Alchemy remained a pursuit of the educated into the 18th century and eventually became primarily an activity of the leisure classes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It did not become some forgotten or rejected system revealed to have been a pseudo-scientific scam, it simply drifted out of the common course of intellectual discourse with the same social developments that impacted the rest of magic, and astrology, and the like. With that in mind, we should recognize that alchemy has a similar place in our occult history as the other systems now being revived.

Despite alchemy fitting in with the rest of magic, and despite it's illustrious associations, many modern magicians still feel a little odd about embracing it, and think of it as fake science. Many still don't want to toss it out completely and acknowledge that spiritual or philosophical alchemy made sense. Many suggest that all alchemy was only ever allegory. Jung treated alchemy extensively in his exploration of archetypes and mythology in relation to his theories of psychology. As a result, Israel Regardie wrote about alchemy in the same way. Regardie's writings are one of the main influential forces impacting the development of modern magic. So for those not wanting to accept the reality of alchemy it was easy for them to accept it simply as psychology posing as spirituality. After all, many magicians wish to relegate magic to psychology posing as spirituality. I once spoke with two magicians who were very excited to report that after attending a lecture on alchemy by a noted professor of religious studies known for his work on magic in the classical world that this same professor had confirmed that alchemical writings were all about allegory for spiritual processes and not about actual laboratory work at all. The evidence does not however support this, even remotely.

We have many records of famous alchemists writing about actual laboratory experiments. We also have modern scientists who have experimented with the instructions in alchemical texts and found that the methods describe produce the results described, proving that they were in fact intended as actual laboratory processes. Further we can note the influence of alchemy on basic chemistry techniques as further evidence that alchemical processes were actual laboratory processes.

All in all, one should understand a few things. Alchemy has its roots back to antiquity. Alchemy was largely considered a respectable pursuit. Alchemy contributed greatly to the development of Western thought. More importantly alchemy illustrates and develops a great deal of what a magician must know and understand. The concept of the Great Work is largely connected to alchemy. Alchemy also presents a prototype for initiation within the Western Mystery Tradition. In short, its study is indispensable.

Classes on Alchemy

WBL Alchemy Class Series Class 1: Mercury

Audio recording of the first class in a three part series on alchemy taught at William Blake Lodge of the OTO

WBL Alchemy Class Series Class 2: Sulfur

Audio recording of the second class in a three part series on alchemy taught at William Blake Lodge of the OTO

WBL Alchemy Class Series Class 3: Salt

Audio recording of the third class in a three part series on alchemy taught at William Blake Lodge of the OTO

Alchemy Articles

Alchemy Explained

Transcript of an explanation of alchemy given to a young chemistry student with no background or participation in magic or alchemy

On The Emerald Tablet

An explanation of the history of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, with several versions provided, and an analysis of the Tablet's meaning

Confection of a Spagyric Plant Stone

A PDF providing an early experiment attempting spagyry complete with photos.

On Being and Essence

An important text by St. Thomas Aquinas. This gives the basis of the concept of transubstantiation and also provides the underlying metaphysical concepts involved in alchemical transmutation

Books on Alchemy

The Alchemist's Handbook by Frater Albertus

One of the principal books on modern laboratory alchemy. Written by the founder of the Paracelsus Research Society.

Spagyrics by Manfred Junius

Originally published as Practical Plant Alchemy, a much more complete and thorough treatment than Fr. Albertus's with more science and theory. This book was for years the second most popular manual of practical alchemy.

Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy by Brian Cotnoir

This is one of my favorite books on alchemy. It is brief and too the point giving a good mix of theory with practical exercises broken down step by step.

Real Alchemy by Robert Bartlett

Robert Bartlett was a student of Fr. Albertus and became the Chief Chemist at Paralab. This was his first book, a basic guide to practical alchemy.

The Way of the Crucible by Robert Bartlett

Second book on alchemy by Robert Bartlett

Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos Science of the Soul by Burkhardt

Titus Burkhardt was a writer from the Traditionalist School who wrote on art history and spirituality. His book addresses spiritual alchemy and its philosophy and history. It rejects the ideas of Jung and is an excellent companion for the laboratory alchemist looking to gain deeper insight into alchemical thought. This is one of my favorite books on alchemy.

The Hermetic Tradition by Julius Evola

An important work by one of the most important writers of the Traditionalist School on alchemical symbolism and imagery

The Mystery of the Grail by Julius Evola

This was originally intended as part of The Hermetic Tradition but was published separately as a follow up

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