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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Contribution of Alchemy to the Renaissance

Paul Kiritsis - Monday, December 12, 2011

 

Contrary to what the occult dilettante or historical romanticist may think, the esoteric undercurrent known as Hermeticism has never been a distinctive philosophical edifice in its own right, nor has it competed for cultural prominence against the major monotheistic religions–Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Perhaps the best way to grasp it is to return to the cultural milieu in which it originated, the world of Graeco-Roman Egypt. If Hermeticism was an equilateral triangle, the principal characteristics conferring form to each of its three corners would be revelation, secrecy and initiation. Alternatively, one can think of the discipline as a cosmogony that acknowledges God’s absolute transcendence, a reality made partially comprehensible to human beings through an intellectually stimulated and intuitively felt participation called gnosis.[1] The obligatory oath of silence as well as the initiatory rites which accompanied and governed the whole endeavour was no doubt inherited directly from the mystical Pythagorean tradition during the cross-cultural efflux that emanated from Alexandria between c.300bce-300ce.

Following literary devices that typified the wisdom literature of the autochthonous culture, Hermetic discourse was usually didactic and instructional; teachings were usually imparted from higher moral and ethical ground by a pseudopigraphical persona, usually a semi-divine father or teacher to his pupil or son, for the purpose of realigning oneself with a salvific quest which sought to reconcile the soul with its divine source, the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, and the Empyrean of God. The philosophical and theological protoplasm brewing in Alexandria after the third century bce also generated a fusion between the ibis-headed moon god Thoth and the Hellenistic Hermes, whereby traits belonging to either one – the invention of writing, mercurial thought, the enforcement of physical and divine law, the authorship of knowledge, as well as the mediumship between worlds – were eventually recast under the aegis of the composite Hermes-Thoth. Sometime during the second century onwards the deity also acquired the epithet “thrice-greatest” and became known as Hermes Trismegistus.[2] This was the champion of Hermeticism, or at least the egregore to which its adherents payed homage. Just as the moon reflects the supernal light from the sun during the nocturnal hours so too did Hermes Trismegistus possess the minds of the literati so that the genealogy of primordial knowledge would be transcribed onto parchments of papyrus, or so they thought.  

What made a text Hermetic wasn’t the philosophical or theological tradition to which it adhered, but rather an outright appeal to the Egyptian sage himself and a conviction that the primeval knowledge, which by some lamentable lapse was lost some time ago, had existed for time immemorial. Therefore the authenticity and validity of the Hermetic institution was precariously hinged on emphatic claims that were fabricated and bundled into legitimation legends before being inserted into texts for the sole purpose of perpetuating that conviction. Moreover, they all advocated the same animistic and vitalistic perspective; the divine, which can anatomically be divided into physical and paraphysical elements, infuses all levels of creation. In such a holistic worldview where created nature is considered a living entity, everything is qualitatively and quantitatively connected to everything else through cosmic sympathies and antipathies. Standing on the uppermost echelon is the wholly transcendental and benevolent God, the hen to pan (one is all), who ruminates in perfect solitude. Emanating from that One is a hierarchical order of beings or formative planetary forces that encompass ethereal intelligences and bestow incarnating souls with particular powers or qualities (i.e. the Mercurial sphere grants cunning, the Venusian desire, the Jovian ambition and so forth).

In this way the macrocosm, the cosmos at large, and the corporeal protohuman, the microcosm, are inextricably linked through a system of correspondences that both reflect and coherently express the divine Intellect, the Empyrean of God. Further still the texts implicate a practical approach to the primeval knowledge which enabled adherents to either bend nature to their will, accelerate its perfection through chrysopoeia (gold-making) or discern time frames decreed by the heavenly arrangement to be auspicious for certain activities like divination. Hermeticism, then, was akin to the Egyptian sacred science from its humble beginnings, a philosophia pia that syncretized theology, philosophy, mysticism, natural science and medicine with the dignified disciplines of alchemy, astrology and theurgy posing an intensely practical and operative approach. The French philosopher Andre-Jean Festugiere (1898-1982ce) categorized the heterogeneous texts according to their content, a division which remains valid to this day.[3] On one hand there were the “philosophical Hermetica” that concerned themselves with philosophical speculation, and on the other there were the “technical Hermetica” that reinforced philosophical knowledge of God through practical means. Both denominations belonged to a curriculum which actively sought regressus ad uterum for its postulants, a consciously generated reaccession through the seven celestial spheres and reunification with God in the eighth.

Alchemy itself, the epitome of operative Hermeticism, seems to have emerged from the Alexandrine marriage of Aristotelian natural science to Gnostic and Egyptian mythology as well as Neo-Platonism.[4] The quintessential entelecheia at the heart of the alchemical teleology stems from hen to pan, the notion that all matter, tangible or intangible, originates from the base substance of the universe, the prima materia. Only through such a cosmology do outlandish feats of perfecting nature including the synthesis of the Elixir of Life or the scintillating ruby red Philosopher’s Stone make any sense. According to alchemical doctrine, the qualities of spirit and matter, in addition to ether or quintessence and prima materia, stand opposite to one another on the cosmological totem pole. The ether prompts a fourfold differentiation of the latter into the elements of fire, air, water, and earth, all of which are comprised of two auxiliary qualities; fire is dry and hot, air is hot and wet, water is wet and cold and earth is cold and dry. Each element shares a secondary quality with two others, aligning them into a forward-moving cycle known as elemental rotation where a succeeding condition is potentially latent in an existing one. This makes possible a realm of endless feasibility; the transmutation of metals, the creation of precious stones, the purification of substances, and, dare I say it, the “raising of vibrations” or consciousness. The square born from the circle, or the number four which segregates from the One, is an exoteric expression of the conferral of form from the amorphous base substance. There were four ethereal elements and seasons (Nature, inferior) that proceeded from a fourfold celestial arrangement (Empyrean, superior) to generate a unique equilibrium of four cardinal humours in the human being (Man, inferior-superior); phlegm (phlegma), black gall (melancholia), yellow gall (cholera) and blood (sanguis). Thus the correct mixture of elemental corpuscles facilitated the restoration of health and the materialisation of gold – corporeal, spiritual or otherwise. There was even a latent chemico-medical formula for life eternal.

By the second century ce, alchemy had emerged in the West as a syncretised mystical and chemico-operative art. The life and testaments of an active Pythagorean named Pseudo-Democritus or Bolus of Mendes who lived in the Deltaic Egyptian city of Mendes during the second century bce certainly attests to such.[5] Known for his mystical approach to the artisanal crafts, Bolus wrote a rather lengthy alchemical treatise entitled Physika kai Mystika (Physical and Mystical Matters) of which only segments have survived. What remains of this text reveals a deep preoccupation with both the physical and paraphysical; spagyreia, a principle concern of the Chinese and later of the Arabian alchemists, is given special prominence here. He transcribes the therapeutic and medical competences of many herbs along with the propensity of some to evoke the voice of the gods and cause psychedelic visions. While eliciting an understanding and awareness of word intonation and breathing techniques in the casting of magical spells, Bolus’s treatise delineates a process whereby a base substance or the prima materia, usually lead or mercury, is used to prepare gold, the Great Work or Philosopher’s Stone. In this, the earliest known prototype of metallic transmutation, transformation and exaltation of the “stone” is marked by four distinct phases of colouration that serve as exoteric markers of a deduction process instigated by the laws of cosmic sympathy and antipathy. Thus the “stone” or noble metal is conferred form only after undergoing putrefaction through melanosis (nigredo), bleaching through leucosis (albedo), yellowing through xanthosis (citrinitas) and finally reddening through iosis (rubedo). Purple sometimes takes the place of red in the last of these stages, hinting at the spiritual ennoblement bubbling directly beneath a chemical process which at first appears to be little more than the transcription of the colouration and purification of metals.    

Given that Hermetism[6] and alchemy foster esoteric monotheism and fiercely resist dogmatic compartmentalization of the divine, one would expect their assimilation by Christianity as a propaedeutic to the first truths revealed in the New Testament to have been a straightforward and harmonious affair. In actual fact, alchemy partakes of the same Aristotelian empirical methodology which would henceforth entwine itself around Christian dogma to produce a highly resistant strain of Middle Age deductive reasoning known as Aristotelian Scholasticism.  This is yet another reason why it should have evaded the vehement polemics of the early theologians. Lamentably the opposite holds true. Writing at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354-430) decried the Hermetic Asclepius for its reinforcement of Platonic demonology and theurgic conjuration which sought to ensorcel spirits into statues for the sake of listening to prayers and granting wishes. For Augustine Hermes was a pagan sorcerer whose idolatrous ways could not be reconciled with an alternate image of him as the harbinger of God the Son in Jesus Christ. Paramount to early Christian apologetics, these sentiments naturally extended to chema, the operative art. Tertullian (160-220), Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and a horde of other apologetical narrators were convinced that knowledge of the chemical arts were compiled into books by fallen angels who’d embarked on indecent liaisons with corrupted mortals.[7] Secondly, alchemy’s ambition to recapitulate the wonder of the cosmos before the fall ran too close to the heresy of Gnostic revelation which postulated that original gnosis was lost when the androgynous protohuman ruptured into its male and female constituents, Adam and Eve. The Gnostic affiliation was the last straw. When Constantine inducted Christianity into the Roman Empire as the official religion, he outlawed chema and submitted all texts referencing it to the fate of a giant conflagration. But the art was not extinguished; it subsisted in the progressive Arab world and returned, albeit in modified and exalted form, through Latin translations of texts made in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries from Toledo in Spain.      

Right up until the twelfth century, the operational knowledge contained in alchemy was faithfully left to the Arabian polymaths who ascribed it to the tutelage of Hermes Trismegistus. In a lost ninth-century frame narrative called Kitab al-Uluf it is revealed that there were in fact three sages called Hermes.[8] The first, an antediluvian ancestor, transcribed the primeval Adamic knowledge onto stelae inside the Upper Egyptian temple of Akhmim (Panopolis). The second, on the other hand, rediscovered the knowledge for the betterment of humanity and the third authored a plethora of alchemical treatises. A supernal legitimation legend from the Arabic frame narrative Treasure of Alexander the Great tells of a golden book that had been locked into a chest and subsequently smuggled into the walls of a monastery by Antiochus I. Inside the book is a passage intimating that the King of Macedon had been initiated into the Adamic knowledge by the third of these figures, King Hermes the Alchemist. At the prompting of his tutor Aristotle, Alexander had meticulously studied the primeval wisdom through ten Hermetic volumes composed chiefly of chemico-operative and medical content. The aforementioned treatise was in widespread circulation during the early modern period under the title of Liber de Compositione Alchemiae (Book on the System of Alchemy), having been translated into Latin by Morienus the Greek. We can be certain of this because the Hermetic legitimation legends based on Alexander the Great were emphatically retold in Praefatio Castrensis, a prefatory note to Morienus’s work written by Robert of Chester, the translator’s preface accompanying the Septem Tractatus Hermetis (Seven Tractates of Hermes) as well as the preface to the Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI rerum principiis (Book of the Triple Hermes-Mercury on the six principles of things).

Another ninth-century legend, this one from Greece proper, reveals that Alexander once had a beautiful sister called Gorgona.[9] At one time the beloved siblings conspired to steal the Elixir of Life from a gruesome dragon that lived in the subterranean. They eventually tasted success but it was short lived, for Gorgona dropped the flask onto the ground whilst fleeing from the fiend and splattered its contents onto the ground. Alexander’s cussing was so potent that it turned her into a gargantuan mermaid. The character of Alexander the Great as an archetypal world hero held widespread appeal in the Middle Ages, just as Prince Khaemuas, the fourth son of Ramses the Great, gained a dignified place as the mythologised protagonist of many fables which adhered to the magical demotic literature of Egypt’s Late Period. Alexander’s tutor Aristotle was also a very popular subject in the Arabic world, so popular in fact that he was hailed as the author of treatises whose belief systems were incompatible with his empirical methods.  Foremost were The Theology of Aristotle and Liber de causis, texts that conceived of the universe as an interacting realm of physical and paraphysical forces partly intelligible to revelation. This worldview was closely adhered to by the Muslim philosophers Al-Kindi (c.801-873), Al-Farabi (c.872-950/1), Avicenna (c.980-1037) and Averroes (c.1126-1198). The incessant juxtaposition of alchemical doctrine with Platonic metaphysics in the Arabic interpretation of Hermeticism had a profound effect on the discipline of alchemy, which returned to the Latin West after a marked absence couched in Neo-Platonic terminology.  

By far the most pivotal document regarding the transmission of the Hellenistic and Arabian operative art was the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, an apocryphal summa of alchemical knowledge set within a philosophical treatise titled Book of the Secrets of Creation. Ascribed to Balinas, the Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana, and translated from Arabic into Latin by Hugo von Santalla in the late twelfth century,[10] this text endeavours to anatomically dissect the cosmological principles which underpin the universe. It explores, among other things, the many names which define the intangible sphere of God and blatantly recapitulates the birth of the cosmos within the context of Aristotle’s theories of matter. The etheric bodies or planets of the primum mobile just below the Empyrean spur ontological differentiation of the primeval matter into three separate realms; the mineral kingdom with its stones and gems, vegetable kingdom with its plants and trees, and the animal kingdom with its dogs and dears. Being a miniature replica of the macrocosm, the human being possesses a very exalted place in this hierarchy and is particularly susceptible to interlinking forces of mutual attraction known as cosmic sympathies. The latter descries a condition of mutual attraction, correspondence and fundamental interconnectedness where everything below is caused by and is a debased reflection of everything above. Concluding Balinas’s Book of the Secrets of Creation is the enigmatic prose of the Tabula Smaragdina, which offers an abridged summa describing natural processes in the context of entelechy. Emphasis is placed on the dependence of all life on the two celestial luminaries and fire or heat is implicated as the primal mover and root power of chemical processes like sublimation, dissolution, and calcination. A great many philosophers like Albertus Magnus (c.1193/1206-1280) and Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294) attempted to decode this cryptic text in the thirteenth century with little to no success. The most comprehensive and memorable interpretation, at least the one which encompassed far-reaching consequences for Renaissance alchemy, was given by Hortulanus in the fourteenth century who postulated that the vague doctrine alluded to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. His perspective graced nearly all early modern publications of the text. [11]

I would be remiss not to mention two other Arabic texts that played a crucial role in the highly furbished version of alchemy that flowed into the early Renaissance. These were the Secreta Secretorum, a tenth-century Arabic text that was translated into Latin in c.1120 by John of Seville and then again in c.1232 by Phillipus Tripolitanus, and the Turba Philosophorum or Assembly of Philosophers, a late-thirteenth-century Latin translation of a tenth-century Arabic text tentatively ascribed to Uthman ibn Suwaid of Akhmim (c.900). The first of these, a spiel on a syncretic occultism combining alchemical, astrological and theurgical concepts, is presented within the literary framework of a pseudopigraphical letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great. Native to the text are select commentaries on the Tabula Smaragdina, an early translation of the latter itself, and a meticulous transcription outlining the process whereby the “red stone” is brought into existence. The second, the Turba Philosophorum, implicated pre-Socratic and classical philosophers of the calibre of Pythagoras, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Parmenides to have been individual beads forming a theological-philosophical necklace known as the prisca theologia that stretched across the sands of time, a concept which would flower and gain widespread acceptance during the early Renaissance with the humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499).[12] More importantly, the text preserved the kernel of the Hellenistic tradition in fragments of Pseudo-Democritus’s Physika kai Mystika without bringing to light innovative concepts inlaid into the esoteric art by the Arabian polymaths. In the Turba, for instance, synthesis of the elixir or panacea does not mirror the sex act whereby the sulphurous male and the mercurial female, otherwise stand ins for Sulphur and Mercury, are subjected to a sequence of solve et coagula, or dissolutions and coagulations until the matter in the alembic can jettison all impurity. This dualistic and animistic conception of matter was first described by a contemporary manuscript in the Corpus Jabirianum, a cache of over five hundred alchemical texts attributed to the Arab Geber, or Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.721-815).[13]        

It appears that alchemy’s intercourse with the empirical and rationalistic outgrowth of Islamic world melted and reformed its Aristotelian nucleus into something much more exotic and flamboyant. Over and above modification of its practical and exoteric aspects there was a major shift in its philosophical perspectives. Extending the Aristotelian vision of nature philosophy, the Arab Geber postulated that the four ethereal elements of the prima materia further differentiated into philosophical sulphur and mercury or argent vive. The fusion of the latter two crystallised a particular balance of elemental qualities which created the metals under the aegis of the seven planetary powers. With this came the genesis of the empirical method and quantitative analysis, heeded by chemico-operative alchemists who promptly shifted their attention away from the synthesis of material gold to a far more ambitious endeavour–the preservation of life. Many Arabian polymaths sought to apply their knowledge of chemical processes to manufacture alchemical tinctures and medicines for the restoration of bodily health, giving credence and paving the way for the subsequent emergence of Paracelsian iatrochemistry. According to Jabir these potent medicines could be prepared using base matter from any of the three kingdoms.[14] He also consolidated upon Aristotle’s teleology and entertained roads frequently travelled by the romanticism of possibilities in reasoning that if man were indeed a microcosm, then he should in fact possess intrinsic powers enabling him to imitate or recapitulate the natural processes of the macrocosm or cosmos on a smaller scale, perhaps even to artificially manipulate matter’s elemental corpuscles in his hermetically sealed flask. Many Arabian alchemists believed that under auspicious stellar arrangements, achieving chemical equilibrium in animal matter might in fact generate diminutive artificial creatures in their image called homunculi. Creating life, curing ailments, palingenesis, and the prolongation and prevention of human expiry comprised some elite avant-garde alchemical pursuits that eventually entered mainstream thought.

From the twelfth century all the way up until the dawn of the early Renaissance in the fourteenth, all theologians and philosophers advanced along a theoretical and practical path hewn out by their Hellenistic and Islamic forebears. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon both conducted extensive research into the chemical processes of the operative art and searched diligently for the panacea, detailing their findings in the publications Libellus di Alchemia and Compendium Philosophiae, respectively. During this period Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was of upmost importance to the dignity of the tradition, given that he made feasible attempts to marry the revolutionary experimental method with Christian dogma. With respect to the latter there were some inroads made by Iberian physician and alchemist Arnold of Villanova (1235-1312) who juxtaposed necrosis (nigredo), a stage in which matter in the retort or alembic blackens and putrefies, with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In layman’s terms, Arnold was alluding to the passion of Christ as exemplar par excellence of solve et coagula or the dismemberment and creation of a new unity between the ethereal elements. Attributed to this personage is also the idea of a coveted vital life principle,[15] otherwise known as an essence or a quintessence, for all that exists that can allegedly be isolated through chemical processes like infusion, distillation, and maceration. This notion was enchanting and novel to Renaissance thought, inspiring fourteenth-century Franciscan monk Johannes de Rupescissa who related his lifelong quest for it in a treatise entitled De consideration quintae. The all-encompassing tenet infused Renaissance alchemy with an unprecedented poise and remains anchored to the collective subconscious until this very day, most notably in the spagyrical method of Dr Albert Richard Riedel or Frater Albertus (1911-1984).[16]

Changes to the cultural and intellectual climate of early modern Europe wrought by the Renaissance were not uniform, yet scholars have established invisible markers to draw a definitive distinction between the former and the late Middle Ages the way distinctive borders on a political map may anatomically divide two countries. Three main developments in the fourteenth century symbolise the passage from one era to the next. The first was Johannes Guntenburg’s invention of the printing press which fundamentally enabled translations of Hellenistic, Arabic and Latin texts from all disciplines to transcend the niche monastic circles to which they were usually confined and achieve a much wider distribution. In this way they would became far more influential. The second is inextricably linked with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a lamentable collapse that saw many Byzantine scholars desert their posts and move to Western Europe, particularly Florence. One might say that the seed of transformation was carried there in the form of a Greek manuscript titled Corpus Hermeticum by a monk named Leonardo de Pistoia. Translated into Tuscan Italian by the scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), the philosophical-theological cosmology underpinned by the first fourteen treatises that comprise this Hermetic text added considerable weight to the holistic schema as descried by Neo-Platonism. This newfound consonance was ammunition for a system of thought that was in vehement politicisation against Aristotelian Scholasticism;[17] it enabled a conduit for esotericism to enter mainstream thought and served as the light source for the flowering of the sixteenth-century reformation that saw the emergence of what would become contemporary science. The third was a by-product of the intellectual re-emergence of classical sources; Ficino’s translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Platonic dialogues, the Orphic Hymns, and other Neo-Platonic texts made gel the diffusionist ideology of Renaissance humanism, the philosophia perennis or prisca theologia which treated Hermes Trismegistus as one of its sages and the Christian revelation its final cause and culmination.           

Without a doubt the induction of Man or microcosm, into the prestigious and opulent cosmic hall of fame as hermetic archmagus to the transcendent God would have seduced the Renaissance humanists. The promotion can be traced to Neo-Platonic ontology which blatantly asserts that the realms above the sublunary and below the Empyrean – the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, the primum mobile, and the seven planets – were subject to transitory states and the condition of becoming. Their newfound accessibility to intermediary spheres that adjudicated over the inferior world of generation explicitly empowered humans with the ability to manipulate natural processes through a system of correspondences. Hence together with dignity, the reawakening of active imagination, willpower, reprise and mystical extravagance, the Neo-Platonic vision gave back to humanity part of the original inheritance and glory hinted at by Alexandrian alchemy. In themselves, plants, trees, minerals, stones, and animals were little more than elemental corpuscles of detritus and dust, an amalgamation of the four elements revealed through the key qualities of hot, cold, dry and moist in addition to secondary ones like soft, hard, sweet and sour. What spirited them to life was an auric, ethereal and occult web of vital life force that derived from the stars and was qualitative in nature. Known as the anima mundi or World Soul, this intangible energy infused itself into created matter and adhered intrinsically to the anatomical features of each object or substance. In addition it inveigled the spiritus mundi or World Spirit, and the material realm, the corpus mundi or World Body, into an indissoluble cosmic triangle, not only mediating between them but conferring form upon the latter.  

Ficino’s treatise De vita coelitus comparanda reconciled Aristotle’s theory of matter with Platonic metaphysics by implicating that the spiritus mundi and the alchemical quintessence or vital force described by both Arnold of Villanova and Johannes de Rupescissa to be one and the same entity.[18] Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535) faithfully added to and cultivated Ficino’s promising innovation, painting the elements in an alchemical light and further asserting that the endeavour of natural magic was precariously hinged on understanding the threefold anatomical structure of the elements. In his De occulta philosophia he reasoned that the unknowable and ubiquitous essence of the anima mundi manifested in five different hypostases – in the four Aristotelian elements as well as the fifth, the quintessence. In the mineral realm it worked through ethereal earth to garner expression through mathematical principles, whilst in plants and trees it manifested as the associative kingdom’s formative force under the aegis of ethereal water. Alternatively, it morphed into ethereal air to express itself as the carnal drive of all animals and spontaneously toiled through ethereal fire as the torch of human reason. In the first four hypostases the anima mundi acted as a universal curative or panacea, but in its fifth and purest incarnation, otherwise known as ether or spirit, it attained full expression as a formative force to be reckoned with. Here it became spiritus mundi or the Philosopher’s Stone, a power able to attract and influence the planetary intelligences, transmute metals, and create or recreate corporeal life. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century interpretations of the Tabula Smaragdina as a cryptic and hallowed ode to the World Soul attest the popularity of this cosmological revelation.

Comprised of an unruly union between Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian ontology, this newborn hybrid of Renaissance alchemy remained deeply embedded in holism and fixated on understanding the inner regularity of all created forms. These philosophical premises would go on to dominate the sixteenth and seventeenth-century outlook of Hermetic philosophy.[19] One would not be unjust in claiming that the climactic moment or apotheosis of this syncretic alchemy finally came with Paracelsus of Hohenheim (1493-1541), a man who harmonized with the cosmological footprints impressed upon the rapidly crystallizing alchemical clay by Marsilio Ficino and Agrippa. Adhering to conventional alchemical thought and terminology Paracelsus believed in the causal differentiation of the prima materia into the elements of Spirit, Soul and Body and the quintessence or panacea which interpenetrated and hypostasised itself within nature’s threefold kingdom in alternate states. These he assimilated into his chemico-medical interpretation of the world under the designations Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, as well as archeus for the latter.[20] Like all progressive minds, Paracelsus was inclined to view the cosmos as a by-product of large-scale operations carried out by the supernal being of God. But God wasn’t just any alchemist, he was “The Alchemist” who unravelled creation ex deo by distilling the agglomeration of chaos in his alembic, over and over, until the gold of consciousness had been set free. Every substance, every particle of matter that existed represented a particular stage in his cycle of distillations.

Just like Agrippa, Paracelsus also agreed that the anatomy of the universe, the meaningful connections between objects or substances as well as their fundamental makeup had to be understood before one could exact a cure for a disease or simply spark knee-jerk reaction on nature’s part. Of course the key to unlocking nature’s cryptic hieroglyphs, Paracelsus argued, lay in the correct interpretation of individual signatures or occult virtues that originated from the cupola of the heavens and pertained to each corporeal object or substance. Knowing the occult property of each one enabled the Hermeticist to directly affect others which lay in a direct path of sympathetic correspondence. Let’s proceed with an example. If Paracelsus was alive today he’d interpret the kava kava root’s ability to induce euphoria and psychedelic visions as tangible proof of its subordination to the generative forces of the lunar sphere. Hence rendered into a tincture of sorts it would make a potent remedy for an ailing organ ruled by that planetary power, in this case the brain. A true testament to his ingenuity was a spagyrical-based method of fabricating metal-based detoxified drugs and homeopathic tonics to correct chemical imbalances caused by celestially-derived parasites and poisons. These practical developments were made from theoretical premises that causally linked the wellbeing and auric life force of the body’s anatomical features to the vacillating energies of planetary intelligences, a Paracelsian stance which completely rejected the highly resistant strain of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine based on a disproportion of the four humours and temperaments. From this perspective the chemical composition of the microcosm was, so to speak, a corporeal reflection of energetic temperaments emanating from the planetary spheres.  

In hindsight, what we have with Paracelsus is a man with one leg planted in the early paradigm of empirical science with its objective methodology and the other firmly entrenched in a spiritual world pervaded by hidden intelligences. The latter, soon to be confined to the occult dustbin as an eclectic eccentricity of the criminally insane, dictated Paracelsian reasoning to a substantial degree. With respect to the synthesis and administration of antidotes, for instance, Paracelsus monitored the astrological movement. Planetary conjunctions, oppositions, or eclipses involving those celestial bodies ascribed rulership over plants or metals intended for use had to be monitored, for certain times and arrangements were more likely to garner potency (or lack thereof) for a herbal elixir than others. Therefore timing, a qualitative measure under rug swept by mechanistic analysis, was everything to the endeavour. Paracelsus’s panentheistic cosmogony was based on an unwavering intercourse of subtle energies between the planets, the human body, and the anatomical parts of nature herself for the sake of equilibrium, forcing three distinct disciplines (i.e. astrology, medicine, alchemy) which had existed in symbiotic enantiodromia [21]during the Middle Ages to finally conjunct.   

The philosophical and speculative contributions bestowed upon Renaissance thought by alchemy were not novel, for they had subsisted and survived in variant forms during the Middle Ages. In fact, a full-fledged mystical and chemico-operative alchemy had arisen from the Alexandrian marriage of Aristotelian natural philosophy to Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and aspects of Egyptian mythology as early as the second century bce. Built upon a solid theoretical framework, its practical objectives encompassed everything from chrysopoeia and argyropoeia to spagyrics and the fabrication of precious stones. Lamentably the coming of the Christian dispensation scattered the technical art from the Latin West. Christianity’s foremost theologian of the time, Augustine of Hippo, painted a heretical picture of Hermes as a pantheistic sorcerer and his teachings the inspiration of demons. Consequently chema was guilty by association. Remarkably, the seventh and eighth centuries were something of a godsend for they enabled the tradition to continue its evolution under a more progressive Islamic milieu. Islamic polymaths of the calibre of Jabir, Rhazes and Avicenna pioneered chemico-operative methods, invented a crude form of the contemporary scientific method and extended theoretical premises to include the Mercury-Sulphur theory, a dualistic interpretation of matter, as well as the search for a universal elixir which hypostasised in three states. For the Arabs Hermes wasn’t a god or demigod; he was a magician whose alchemical secrets had been discovered by Alexander the Great at the prompting of Aristotle. During this time many pseudepigraphical Arabic writings attributed to the latter were in wide circulation, with the vast majority inveigling alchemical doctrine into the occult cosmology and subsequently dressing it in Neo-Platonic terminology. The transcription of a great number of these Arabic manuscripts into Latin by the Toledo School of Translators during the twelfth century ensured the operative art returned to the Christian West wholly dignified and reformed.

Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the philosophers and theologians practicing the art remained faithful to the theoretical premises made by its Arabic and Hellenistic forerunners while concurrently adhering to the sociol-political and religious conventions of the Middle Ages. Albertus Magnus and Robert Bacon explored transmutation and the Philosopher’s Stone from a purely mechanistic perspective to avoid attracting the enmity of the church. Thomas Aquinas was also an avid believer in transmutation and wished to harmonise it with the Christian faith although it wasn’t until Arnold of Villanova that theoretical inroads were finally made. Arnold not only equated the alchemical stage of necrosis (nigredo) with Jesus’s crucifixion but developed the idea of a vital life force for each substance or object that could be separated through chemical distillation. This novel train of thought would become the lifelong obsession of Johannes de Rupescissa and an alchemical overture during the Renaissance. An unlikely union between the Aristotelian theory of matter and Platonic metaphysics inspired the philosopher Hortulanus who garnered an enduring fourteenth-century interpretation of the Tabula Smaragdina as an allegorical exposition of the Philosopher’s Stone. Two separate alchemical perspectives then met in Ficino and Agrippa, who added another twist to operative hermeneutics by causally overlapping the Platonic World Soul with Villanova’s vital force. The overarching take of the aforementioned scholars was so popular that it supplanted Hortulanus’s version and dominated alchemical esotericism until the end of the seventeenth century. Greatly inspired by this syncretised holism bent on understanding the inner regularity of created forms, Paracelsus developed his paradigm of iatrochemistry, the homeopathic approach to medicine. At this time the ultimate fate of alchemy and its doctrines was integration into the sacred science of Renaissance man, the new Adam. This multi-eyed microcosm, with each lens tuned to a different occupation –hermetic archmagus, physician, mystic, philosopher, alchemist, and astrologer–enabled him to bend nature, to coerce and correct it, to align it to the heimarmene or even pervert it. Regardless, the jack-of-all-trades approach gave him the Midas touch–officially divine, at last.            



[1] Roelof van den Broek , ‘Gnosticism I: Gnostic Religion’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter, J. Hanegraaf and others, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005), I, pp. 402.

[2] Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times, trans. by Lorton, David (London, UK: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 6.

[3] Roelof van den Broek, ‘Hermetic Literature I: Antiquity’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (see Broek, above) ,pp. 487-488. 

[4] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (see Broek, above),  pp. 22.

[5] Stanton, J. Linden, The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 38.  

[6]Antoine Faivre, ‘Hermetic Literature IV: Renaissance – Present’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (see Broek, above), pp. 534.

[7] C.J.S. Thompson, The Lure and Romance of Alchemy (London, UK: Random House, 1990), pp. 11.

[8] Ebeling, pp. 45.

[9]John, L. Tomkinson, Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires and Other Exotica, (Athens, GR: Anagnosis Books, 2004), pp. 68.

[10] Ebeling, pp. 49.

[11] Ibid., pp. 51.

[12] Antoine Faivre, ‘Ancient and Medieval Sources of Modern Esoteric Movements’, in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, ed. by Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1992), pp. 47-48.

[13] Thompson, pp. 60-61.

[14] Bernard, D. Haage, ‘Alchemy II: Antiquity-12th Century’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (see Broek, above), pp. 27.

[15] Thompson, pp. 83.

[16] Frater Albertus, The Alchemist’s Handbook (Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 1974), pp. 18-19.

[17] Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: a Brief History of Secret Knowledge, trans. by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (London, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2005), pp. 49-50.

[18] Newman, William, R. and Grafton, Anthony, ‘Introduction: The Problematic Status of Astrology and Alchemy in Premodern Europe’, in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Newman, William, R. and Grafton, Anthony (London, UK: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 24.

[19] Ebeling, pp. 80.

[20] Kocku von Stuckrad, pp. 68-69.

[21] Term coined by Heraclitus of to denote a similarity in core values despite differences in aim, the term is widely discussed in Phillip Wheelwright, The Presocratics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966).     

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