Historical Traditions of Alchemy

Alchemy was not restricted to one culture or group. So among the many traditions it should be possible to find one that resonates for your personal alchemy. Any technique or practice the is going to be effective for personal change must be one you can feel comfortable with from he start.

For hundreds of years alchemists toiled in their laboratories to produce a mythical substance known as the philosopher’s stone. The supposedly dense, waxy, red material was said to enable the process that has become synonymous with alchemy—chrysopoeia, the metamorphosis, or transmutation, of base metals such as lead into gold. We now know that their efforts at the physical level were in vain but on the spiritual, philosophical and psychological levels, hey have left a rich legacy for us to explore.

Hellenist Egypt

The start of western alchemy is generally be traced to Hellenistic Egypt, where the city of Alexandria was a center of knowledge through most of the Greek and Roman periods. Here, elements of technology, religion, mythology, and Hellenistic philosophy, each with their own much longer histories, combined to form the earliest traditions. Zosimos of Panopolis was an Egyptian alchemist and Gnostic mystic who lived around the the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD.  He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, which he called “Cheirokmeta,” using the Greek word for “things made by hand.” Pieces of this work survive in the original Greek and Syriac and Arabic translations.                                                                                                                       


The use of the element mercury for alchemy is first documented in the 3rd– or 4th–century Arthashastra an encyclopedic volume on political economy, social issues and other subjects. Buddhist texts from the 2nd to 5th centuries mention the transmutation of base metals to gold. 

The 11th-century Persian chemist and physician Abū Rayḥān Al-Bīrūnī, visited the province  of Gujarat and wrote

They have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which in Sanskrit is called Rasayāna and in Persian Rasavātam. It means the art of obtaining/manipulating Rasa: nectar, mercury, and juice. This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, many of which have mercury as their core element. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age.” 

So there was a health and medicine component in Indian alchemy.  Additional goals of alchemy in India included the creation of a divine body (Sanskrit divya-deham) and immortality while still embodied (Sanskrit jīvan-mukti).

Muslim world

After the fall of the Roman Empire, alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. The roots of Muslim alchemy came from the Greek. Arab scholars saved and preserved the Hellenistic works that were otherwise lost, translating them, creating commentaries on Greek authors and incorporating many of their theories and technical terms into Arabic alchemy works. This extensive writing is why much more is known about Islamic alchemy because it was better documented. This knowledge came partly through direct contact in Egypt, partly through the medium of Syrian Christian translators, and partly by way of Persia. Persian influence is evident through linguistic clues in technical terms and in names of minerals. Noticeably, many of the principal Muslim alchemists were Persians.   The word alchemy itself was derived from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā’ (الكيمياء). 


Whereas European alchemy eventually centered on the transmutation of base metals into noble metals, Chinese alchemy had a more obvious connection to medicine. The philosopher’s stone of European alchemists can be compared to the Grand Elixir of Immortality    sought by Chinese alchemists. However, in the hermetic view, these two goals were not unconnected, and the philosopher’s stone was often equated with the universal panacea; therefore, the two traditions may have had more in common than initially appears.

Black powder may have been an important invention of Chinese alchemists. As previously stated above, Chinese alchemy was more related to medicine. It is said that the Chinese invented gunpowder while trying to find a potion for eternal life. Described in 9th-century texts[citation needed] and used in fireworks in China by the 10th century[citation needed], it was used in cannons by 1290[citation needed]. From China, the use of gunpowder spread to Japan, the Mongols, the Muslim world, and Europe. Gunpowder was used by the Mongols against the Hungarians in 1241, and in Europe by the 14th century.

Chinese alchemy was closely connected to Taoist forms of traditional Chinese medicine, such as Acupuncture and Moxibustion, and to martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan[citation needed] and Kung Fu (although some Tai Chi schools believe that their art derives from the philosophical or hygienic branches of Taoism, not Alchemical). In fact, in the early Song dynasty, followers of this Taoist idea (chiefly the elite and upper class) would ingest mercuric sulfide, which, though tolerable in low levels, led many to suicide[citation needed]. Thinking that this consequential death would lead to freedom and access to the Taoist heavens, the ensuing deaths encouraged people to eschew this method of alchemy in favor of external sources[citation needed](the aforementioned Tai Chi Chuan[citation needed], mastering of the qi[citation needed], etc.).


Personal Alchemy for a New Year

Water - Personal AlchemyI was fascinated by alchemy long before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While I never believed you could turn lead into gold or really wanted to, I did find the history of the subject fascinating. So many colorful characters, including the Nicholas Flamel mentioned in Harry Potter.  Alchemy was not only the forerunner of modern chemistry but a basis for much philosophy and spiritual thought. Then, many years ago I went to a Barnes & Noble with my friend Maryann and found a book that I had to take a look at, Alchemical Psychology by Thom F Cavelli PhD. While Maryann perused the books she had chosen to look at and we drank our coffee I dove into the book. It was so interesting I bought it. I recently pulled it out to revisit for my winter reading list.

The combining of alchemical thought and psychology was new to me when I first saw the book, but the author was far from the first to examine this. In alchemy the main object is the Magnum Opus or Great Work. This was initially considered the complicated process of creating the philosopher’s stone, which could transmute base elements into gold, but later was applied to the perfection of the self as well. Carl Jung is credited with rescuing the idea that the work of transubstantiation also represented a symbolic process of bringing the inner and outer worlds of man into harmony and wholeness. The self improvement section of any bookstore or library will tell you, while alchemy is no longer a common practice, many people are still actively interested in working to better themselves.

The Knight's Dream painting by Antonio de Pereda
The Knight’s Dream Antonio de Pereda [Public domain],

In the winter we are naturally inclined to sleep and sleep leads to dreams. Up until the last few years when health problems disrupted sleep I recalled my dreams almost every night. I would like to recapture that inner exploration. I have begun to dream again quite a bit but recall is very fragmentary. Winter will be a good time to work on that and incorporate alchemy into my plans for a better new year. I have been sleeping more quite naturally and starting to remember at least sections of my dreams. Dreams speak to us in symbols and that is also the language of alchemy.

Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby of The alchemist
The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby ,

I am appreciative of the many blessings I have but I also know that it would not take much to loose them. Even in the developed world hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, are living on the brink of disaster. It might be a flood, tornado or hurricane, but it might also be a lost job or a serious illness. Having only a single source of income is a recipe for trouble. I would like to change this in my own life and for others but it seems very difficult. Thus the search inside myself for more focus, more determination and more energy. I want to turn the lead in my life to gold. Alchemy is about transformation and I intend to use it as a tool to make my life better, to achieve needed goals and in the process help others to do the same. In his world today you need focus, determination and energy just to get by, never mind get ahead. I want to turn the base metal of stress into he gold of physical energy. doubt, discouragement and depression into confidence, positive thinking and healthy assertiveness. And so he journey begins.

Green Tara, Red Lotus

170px-GreenTara150The days moved strangely. Tethered to home by the need to be nearby for Mosby I found myself not only cleaning but cleaning out. Mindful that each day was a step closer to the time of parting awareness of the impermanence of life became foremost in my mind. It is easy to view possessions with much less attachment in such an atmosphere. The boxes filled with donations to the charity thrift stores and space opened up in the house. I also found that time opened up and it seemed too precious to waste on anything connected to the world outside. I spent it instead on keeping myself calm and positive. The other cats knew Mosby was sick, if for no other reason than his change of scent. Even I could  detect this.

There wass no need to make matters worse by filling the house with negative emotional energy. I listened to the Green Tara mantra version by Su Ching Yen. Her voice is beautiful and it is impossible to be sad when listening. I listened to the music of singing bowls, and falling rain tracks, and monks chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. The cats clustered around the laptop and listened and fell asleep, including Mosby, although he tried to show his independence by sunning in the dining room window. In the morning he would sit in my lap in the kitchen while I had my coffee.  Then he was still eating and still getting hungry but bowlfuls at a time had gradually become spoonfuls at a time. Time, time, time. We could close the windows and the curtain to keep out the heat of the day, we could play soft music  to keep the sadness at bay but time was a different matter. We could only color it’s quality. I believe cats are fortunate in their ability to live in the present moment. While I know Mosby was bothered by his illness he was not anticipating all the things that I was.

So the mantra of Green Tara became more than just soothing music. In the Tibetan tradition Green Tara embodies both intense compassion and readiness for action. She offers protection from fear  and the eight  obscurations: lions (pride), wild elephants (delusion/ignorance), fires (hatred and anger), snakes (jealousy), bandits and thieves (wrong views, including fanatical views), bondage ( avarice and miserliness), floods ( desire and attachment), and evil spirits and demons ( deluded doubts). Who better to appeal to for both Mosby and I to prepare us for what was to come, me for the sorrow of life without him and he for protection and guidance in passing into that other world.


.What better symbol of all that we shared than the red lotus, the lotus of love and compassion, the lotus of the heart in it’s original purity What better thing to contemplate to remind me of his precious gift of unconditional love. Green Tara. Red lotus

The Glass is Full – Air is an Element


A teacher of mine asked the old question “Is the glass half empty or half full?” to groups on a regular basis. Only occasionally would someone volunteer the answer he was looking for, the third un-thought-of possibility. “The glass is completely full, half with water and half with air.”  Repeated exposure to this little piece of personal alchemy has helped me to slowly grasp how to rise up from darkness.

While Mosby’s illness manifested suddenly, I have been given time to assimilate things. The glass is not half empty. It is half full with the years we have had together, years he would not have had at all had he been turned in to the shelter. Turn-ins are not given much time in the shelters, if lucky 72 hours. It is half full with getting to know a cat who liked cabbage and bok choy but turned down sushi and could open any door that wasn’t dead bolted.  It is half full with the nights he patiently moved so I could change position when my arthritis bothered me and came back to sleep on top of me, a living hot pad on my pain. The glass is half full with the water of the past which we see so easily.

In the last few weeks as he has soldiered on, stubbornly eating his dry food as it became harder to pick up, I fully realized at last what it is to see the air in the glass. While the intellectual concept was imprinted in my brain, a cat with cancer put it’s true fulfillment in my heart. Every day I see patience, endurance, and an ability to live in the moment few humans ever realize. I see humility in a proud and fastidious creature who has reluctantly allowed me to help him wash. I see the importance of each moment spent together, even when we are in separate rooms, for he must have his independence as long as he can. Yes, the air is also an element, but to see it in the stillness, recognizing it as filling the glass, is a true gift indeed.





Mosby Grey

Mosby Grey

This is my beautiful and gentle companion, who has entered the abyss with me. He was diagnosed with cancer just two weeks ago but he first got sick three weeks before that. My ignorance may not have doomed him but it has shortened his life. It will be a long time before I forgive myself for not being an aggressive, demanding bitch when they hemmed and hawed and stalled around about his case. This is truly the darkest darkness one can know. Why was I running around doing research to get answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask? Why weren’t my phone calls returned in a timely manner? Useless to ask why, there is no good answer.

I can only console myself with an idea. While meditating I heard a voice say ” Cats have a different sense of time. They live in an eternal present. Do as he does, make the best of the time that is given you. You have already given him five years of future he would not have had.” Afterward I seemed to recall Gandalf the Grey saying much the same about what we do with the time that is given us to Frodo and thought perhaps Mosby the Grey might fight his enemy into darkness and shadow and defeating it, return someday, somewhere as as Gandalf did, to be Mosby the White.

When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Since I began to delve into the Nigredo in my search for understanding, nothing has gone well. My understanding improves only at very high cost. A very expensive car repair, an accident not of my causing, serious illness in my feline companion accompanied by enormous bills just to get a diagnosis, which was cancer, all came within three months. Then a routine maintenance on the vehicle revealed two new and expensive problems and I have to make serious decisions about my Mosby’s medical care. That, too, will be costly, both financially and emotionally. I swing between the two extremes of anger and depression, surely the realms of darkness, seeking the light of understanding, clarity and the courage not to give in to despair. This is my first attempt to battle out of the writer’s block that accompanied all this and so it will be brief. I will not seek perfection here, only a step in the battle upward.