Posts Tagged ‘Pythogorean’
At its most basic level: alchemy is a philosophy. It advocates the idea that things are changeable. That they are transmutable from one form to another: from base to gold, solid to liquid, young to old and back again. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when the practice of alchemy was at its peak; alchemy came to be applied not just to natural elements such as metals, but to nature and people as well. For several centuries, ‘Alchemy’ became the category under which magickal transformations were shelved. Alchemy was both an early form of science and a continuing form of practical magick. Indeed, the work of the alchemists of the 16th -18th centuries formed both the basis for the modern study of chemistry, as well as the foundation of traditional high magick as we know it today. The studies perpetuated by these same alchemists also continued the tradition of philosophic, mathematical, and supernatural studies of the Pythagoreans and practitioners of Qabbalah who had tread the same transcendental pathways over the previous centuries. Despite the pseudo-scientific reputation that alchemy often receives in modern pop culture, it is a very real and very important part of the magickal traditions which are carried on today by all esoteric forms of worship categorized under the ‘New Age’ umbrella.
Alchemy is by no means a unified discipline. There is not codified set of facts which one would learn in order to become an alchemist. Alchemy was more a spiritual and educational pursuit than it was a strict science of any uniform kind.
True, alchemists gleaned their knowledge from studying the works of their predecessors and being mentored by them. True, also, that some universities included forms of alchemy amongst their curriculum. Brotherhoods of scholars interested in esoteric learning formed, and among their subjects was alchemy. But despite these forms of learning, none of these men and women were necessarily learning the same curriculum. Even with the advent of the printing press, not all the books on alchemy were disseminated by each alchemist, nor were all the branches of alchemy studied by every practitioner. Each alchemist had his own agenda: using alchemy variously to heal, to make gold, or to find youth. Alchemy was an intellectual movement that walked in different spheres of life, spanning the society of its times. By the Seventeenth century, it connected the fraudulent drunk on the streets with the scholars of the university; the highest echelons of late Renaissance society at the royal court with the witch on the pyre: all with a common philosophical idea which worked towards a variety of their purposes.
Indeed, alchemy operated much like the study of magick today perpetuates itself. Witches, wiccans, and pagans alike are deeply devoted to a pursuit of learning esoteric knowledge, but not everyone from each path chooses to learn the same thing. It is ultimately a personal quest, a search for knowledge in order to achieve a personal transformation.
Alchemy as a Science
Before we delve deeper into the more easily recognized esoteric accolades of this lost art: let us look at the more scientific side of alchemy, of alchemy as a system of trial and error which was propagated in the universities of the time and by some of its greatest academics. Alchemy was a precursor to the science which we recognize today as fact. And though science may seem the antithesis of magick, they are really just part and parcel of the same thing.
Initially, alchemical knowledge was collected informally and without passing through the conventional educational institutions which had sprung up in Europe since the Dark Ages. Paracelsus, sometimes considered the greatest alchemist of the Renaissance, never completed his university studies. He collected his alchemist’s secrets by travelling and observing folk remedies he combined with metallurgical practices. But with science’s new interest in the idea of a scientific method, which alchemy was already utilizing: alchemy became employed by some of the greatest minds of the time, at some of the greatest of the universities. In fact, the two great libraries, the Bodleian at Oxford and the Ashmolean at Cambridge respectively, were based off of the alchemical collections of Duke Humphrey and Elias Ashmole. Even the great Sir Isaac Newton is considered an alchemist for his research into ancient Egyptian hermeticists and through later connections made by alchemical groups like the Rosicrucians. But he also saw the science in alchemy and used some aspects of his laboratories at Cambridge University to study it. Sir Fancis Bacon is likewise called an alchemist for his association with esoteric societies, like the Rosicrucians and Freemasons and his literary endeavor The Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, which he wrote in honor of the marriage between Frederick V of the Rhineland Palatinate and Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England, who, incidentally were all also wrapped up in alchemical studies of very differing kinds. Bacon’s works set up the Baconian method that we today know vernacularly as the aforementioned ‘scientific method.’ Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, began his education as an alchemist; though did not continue to teach alchemy once he himself became a professor.
Outside of England, particularly in the Northern and Central areas of mainland Europe, alchemy was also finding a niche among scholars. The Danish antiquarian Doctor Ole Worm was given papal permission to collect so-called oddities, which came to include various texts and items of a magickal nature, later inspiring H.P. Lovecraft to include him in his twentieth century work Necronomicron. Some were not so lucky in support for the new science, like Theodore Zwinger, ~a professor of medicine at the University of Basel was penalized by the University for inclusions in his teachings work done by Paracelsus. But unlike the University of Basel, others, like the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. championed alchemy and supported multiple alchemists on its faculty and taught alchemical methodology in its classes on chemistry and anatomy.
The leading doctors, the mathematicians and physicists of the day; all studied the ratios of alchemy and its history out of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The scientific method alchemy had long been unintentionally advocating became recognized as the basis for all modern experimentation and creation. The study of alchemy in schools or independently by professors of these schools working outside their professional capacity helped shape the minds of generations of men and women, leading up to the modern science of today.
Alchemy & The Witch Hunts
Despite this flourishing of alchemy among academia, it was a subject best approached with care. By the sixteenth century, some elements of alchemy’s esoteric studies had unfortunately come to be associated with the dark arts of witch craft and sorcery. The logic of the Burning Times decreed that how else would these men and women know the secrets of the universe unless the devil himself had whispered them into alchemist’s ears? Alchemists devised erudite languages and metaphors to transcribe their secrets in, ones they hoped that would not create alarm among their witch hunting neighbors. But they were not always successful and some alchemists were branded witches and sorcerers for their naïve scholarly endeavors. And many were persecuted alongside the wisewomen, innocents, and political victims who fell prey to the Witch Trials or Burning Times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Bookmakers who published grimores of alchemy were particularly susceptible and often had to move towns to avoid an uprising against their shops.
The mighty Catholic Church was particularly skeptical of the new alchemical sciences that were springing up. For they threatened previously held notions of God and man and their relationship to the universe, which in turn threatened the church’s power. And if alchemists weren’t careful to make provisions for the Church’s scrutiny, they faced severe consequences. Sir Isaac Newton cleverly combined church sanctioned theology with his science, for instance, to explain his theory of gravity, Newton wrote, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” He justified his science in the eyes of the church, but others were not so clever or else refused to concede. The scholar Giordano Bruno was sentenced to burn at the stake for refusing to recant his alchemy-based theories regarding ideas about the transmutation of the soul and the transubstantiation of the Catholic Mass. He was charged with the practices of divination and witchcraft, both of which had technically been outlawed under church law since the ratification of church doctrine at the Council of Nicea in the 4th century in continuation of earlier Roman laws. However, until the Burning Times, few cases were executed under such charges.
While many of the alchemists charged for witchcraft during the Burning Times may never have actually practiced direct magickal acts (only studied magickal/scientific topics), others most likely did engage in acts some might call Dark Arts. Giordano Bruno and his one-time mentor the British royal advisor John Dee may have darker and more occult areas of alchemy. Often these pursuits focused on communication between the spirits and bordered on necromancy. Dee was at one point kicked out of Prague by Pope Sixtus V for committing acts of black magic in the city.
Along with these Dark Arts and the politically motivated Church persecution, alchemy earned an even worse reputation from the slew of fraudulent schemers who pretended to be alchemists to con people out of money and goods. These faux-alchemists would practice simple chemical tricks, rigged to make it appear they could produce gold out of charcoal or other such feats to trick wealthy and gullible lords out of money. This was such a widespread stigma of the day that Dante Aligheri immortalized it in his social commentary of the day, The Divine Comedy, by placing the alchemists on the tenth level of Hell in his Inferno.
Alchemy in Power
Despite the stigma attached to alchemy, there are many historical instances of European princes, kings, and queens participating and encouraging alchemy from both ends of the spectrum (i.e. as a science and as magic). Many rulers had alchemists as their advisors or as their doctors. Johann Friedrich Helvetius was the personal physician to William of Orange of the Netherlands, Johann Joachim Becher to Leopold I of Austria, Ole Worm to the skeptic Holy Roman Emperor Christian IV, and his predecessor Rudolph II went through a whole series of doctors with an alchemy sideline. Rudolph also utilized alchemists as his advisors, most notably, that king among alchemists, Michael Maier. Maier also spent some time at the court of James I of England. Queen Elizabeth II depended on her spy John Dee. And according to the social commentary inherent in the theatre of the day, James I of England (VI of Scotland) kept three alchemist witches as military advisors. These ‘advisors’ and James’ interest in the occult were included in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Holinshead histories.
Some rulers went beyond their advice and medical attention and are suspected by historians of studying alchemy themselves. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I personally ransacked a Benedictine archive in Rome looking for an ancient treatise on alchemy believed to be hidden within. Queen Barbara, the wife of Sigismund Vasa III of Poland is accused by history of being not only an alchemist, but a witch. James I of England and Rudolf II of Hungary delved deep into the arcane as rulers and alchemists. James I of England wrote his own Daemonologie in 1597, a witch-hunter’s guide written by a man perhaps too close to his subject to be perfectly free of the taint of magick. He was careful to lightly persecute others in his realm suspected of witchcraft and the like to avoid church persecution himself (though as leader of the aforementioned church, it was easy to get away with). The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II set up a veritable playland for alchemists and other scientists of the day, which included an observatory, various labs, and libraries of grimoires. He himself was said to participate in alchemical experiments and work closely within the commune of scholars he had collected. His personal goal was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a stone which, once created, would continue to spill forth an elixir of youth and the ability to turn things into gold.
We cannot really know today just how much the alchemists and the philosophy of alchemy had on the rulers of this time period, or of how much their appreciation of what this arcane subject influenced their judgments and rulings over their respective countries. Nor can we really know what was known by the public at the time regarding the alchemy activities related above, or if they would have even wanted to know. All of these leaders made allowances for church dogma in order to avoid persecution. But were they actually religious beyond this façade? It is difficult for the historian to know or even to judge correctly. Regardless, we can at least state that alchemy must have had at least some influence over them.
The history of alchemy is representative of a myriad of magickal movements and motivations. It is symbolic of both the persecution of magick and the championship of it. It represents both the veracity of knowledge gained and of the deception man is capable of using such knowledge for. It embodies the advancement of the human mind and the human race, of our wonder for the mysterious, and our quest to discover and control the laws of nature and the gods. The use of alchemy, pseudo-science that it may be considered now, encouraged the growth of other sciences still seen as legitimate. It inspired advancements in other fields, seeing the growth of library science in the modern age, and was the muse for multiple works of widely regarded literature. It was a profound step on man and woman-kind’s journey towards enlightenment. And it and its alchemists should not be forgotten. For we today are their descendents. The research scientists in labs, the doctors, pharmacists and nurses in their hospitals, the astronomers looking up at the night sky, the chefs in their kitchen, the students at their books: in our desire to learn something more, we are all alchemists.
Want to learn more about historical magickal movements and the witches behind them? Keep your eyes peeled for History of Witches in the Western World, a new class from the College of the Sacred Mists on the Witches of Antiquity. Coming later this year!
Cobb, C. & Goldwhite, H. 1995. Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum Press.
Fernando, D. 1998. Alchemy: An Illustrated A-Z. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Moran, B.T. 2005. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rice University. The Galileo Project.
Note: Image at top is William Fettes Douglas’ The Alchemist (1853).