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

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The Elixir of Life

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, October 09, 2011

 

Much of the quixotic appeal of alchemy derives from its fantastical ambitions to perfect nature, to make “gold” of detritus and stardust. For humanity as a whole, the fascination with such a tradition no doubt stems from an inherent curiosity as to whether or not limitations imposed by Mother Nature herself can ever be transcended. This question of paramount importance has plagued aspiring, amateur and “master” alchemists alike for centuries on end, and the rhetorical enigma attached to the tail end of it explains, at least partially, the persistence of a chemico-operative stream that first appeared in China during the fourth century bce as a quest for the Elixir of Life, an elusive herbal medicine intended to either prolong life or grant life eternal. Echoing the concerns of the Chinese alchemists, as well as the ambitions of the Egypto-Hellenic, Arabic and medieval variants who came afterword, many contemporary esotericists and other intellectual rebels have ventured along the same paths and cultivated the same tottering earth. Those whose gusto and resolve keeps them from abandoning the quest early inevitably reach a forked road presided over by a Theban sphinx which asks: “Can base metals like lead, mercury and whatever else be transmutated into silver and gold? Does the Philosopher’s Stone, that elusive red powder with magical powers of projection, actually exist?”

Before we attempt to answer such questions prematurely and tempt our own fate in the process, two things should first be established: the authenticity of alchemical theory as a possible framework for the cosmos, and the properties pertaining to the Philosopher’s Stone such as those described in alchemical treatises on the Lesser and Greater Work clearly delineated. Logically, for the quest of material alchemy to be viable the end product must exist and the theory presupposed by the practice which creates it vindicated. If a case for alchemical theory cannot be established and a nexus of qualities belonging to the Philosopher’s Stone cannot be identified, then the pillars holding aloft the mysteries of the Grand Arcanum and the possibility of metallic transmutation invariably crumble in the manner that Atlantis was razed to the ground by earthquakes and then sunk to the bottom of the ocean deep in the dark recesses of Plato’s own mind, some two thousand four-hundred years ago.       

The appearance and operation of the Philosopher’s Stone is virtually absent from the revelatory visions, parables, conundrums and recipes of the early Alexandrian literature on alchemy. In fact, the earliest known allusion to it comes from seventh to ninth century texts written in Arabic and attributed to such legendary figures as Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815ce) and Balinas, the Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana. Through their engagement with Egypto-Hellenistic alchemy in Alexandria and other intellectual centres, these pioneers of the Arab alchemical tradition produced notable works such as the “Second Book of the Elements of Foundation” and the “Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature” which preserve the earliest known fragments of the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, a cosmological text that achieved widespread circulation in the fourteenth century and became known as the Bible of all medieval alchemists. In this compressed summa or compendium of alchemical knowledge, we learn that the Stone’s father is the solar orb (also fire or philosophical sulphur) and its mother the lunar orb (also water or philosophical argent vive). The wind, on the other hand, is implicated as the womb which carried it and the volatile and moist humus that is earth is cast in the presiding role of wet nurse. For the most part, this description is rather abstract and ambiguous and it isn’t really until the advent of the “transmutational” history, a genre of literature which arose as a knee-jerk reaction to the growing fame of alchemy in the early modern period (from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries), that we have a more concrete description of the Philosopher’s Stone. 

Although there appears to be some discrepancies amongst the primary alchemical writers with respect to the Stone’s form and colour, all appear to echo a unanimous verdict when it comes to its quintessential features. The alchemists describe the “red stone” as being a refined and delicate powder, usually quite heavy, that emitted a potent odour and scintillated when held up towards a light source like shards of broken glass. Indigenous to the Stone was a scarlet red colour, although others like gold, auburn-red, orange-red, emerald green and cobalt blue have also been suggested. For instance, Flemish chemist and physician Jon Baptiste van Helmont (1579-1644ce) was of the opinion that it possessed a saffron colour and sparkled whilst the alchemist Beregard claims almost emphatically that it encompassed a vibrant hue like that of a wild poppy and gave off the moist odour of sea-salt.  Differences of opinion are also ample when it comes to its powers of projection, perhaps due to the waxing and waning forces of Mother Nature which are governed by the astrological movement. Anything from a hundred to a million times the projection of its own weight in pure silver or gold has been proposed, explicitly from authorities like Arnaldus de Villa Nova (1235-1311ce), Isaac of Holland (c.1600ce) and Roger Bacon (1214-1294ce).

Once alchemical literature had firmly established the nature of the “red stone”, comprehensive eyewitness accounts laying bare the transmutational feats of medieval laypersons began doing the rounds. Foremost and most renowned amongst these was the “Flamel legend”, a quasi-historical narrative that transcribed the life of a prosperous medieval Parisian by the name of Nicholas Flamel who acquired an enigmatic manuscript entitled “The Book of Abraham the Jew”. Subsequent intercourse with one particular man, a physician named Master Canches, equipped him with requisite knowledge to descry the chemical formulae bubbling beneath the book’s hieroglyphic figures and allegorical illustrations. After three years of failed experiments and abortions, we learn that he finally succeeded in synthesising the “red stone”. This golden moment occurred around midday on Monday 17th January 1382ce, when half a pound of red mercury spontaneously morphed into silver. The inbound tide of serendipity didn’t stop there; on April 25th of the same year, at about 5 p.m., Flamel used the red powder to transmute another half a pound of mercury into pure gold. All this was apparently witnessed by the closest and most faithful of his confidantes, his wife Perrenelle. A further three successful transmutations took place between 1382 and 1413ce, and the unprecedented accumulation of wealth it brought Flamel spurred noble, philanthropic acts on his part that included the founding of fourteen hospitals, seven churches and three chapels in Paris and Boulogne.   

Another successful transmutation occurred roughly two centuries later, when the Scottish alchemist Alexander Seton stunned a Dutch seafarer at a modest dwelling in Enkhuysen just outside Amsterdam by transmuting minute quantities of lead into gold right in front of him. In this case the divine metamorphosis unravelled around 4 p.m. on March 13th 1602ce. Forty-six years after that, on January 15th,  alchemist Richthausen of Vienna allegedly impressed Emperor Ferdinand III at his Imperial Court in Prague by sprinkling granules of a mysterious red powder onto three pounds of mercury. The projection transfigured the latter into gold, an exhibition which so mesmerized the Emperor that he proceeded to knight Richthausen and had a medal struck to commemorate the event. On Saturday 25th of May 1782ce, James Price, a member of the Fellows of the Royal Society conducted a public demonstration of alchemical transmutation at his personal laboratory in Guildford where he cast an alchemical powder called “red earth” or the “powder of projection” in a crucible of heated mercury and then took a backward step to watch the transitory expressions on the faces of some very learned onlookers as it morphed into gold. Public incredulity and criticism incited by the literati of the times soon forced Price into surrendering his transmuted product to an assay-master and an Oxford goldsmith for closer scrutiny and observation. One can only imagine the satisfaction and smugness on the part of Price when both examiners confirmed it to be authentic. The latter of these generated much hullaballoo by adding that it was superior to English gold. Reports of the acquisition or manufacture of similar transmutational powders, real or imagined, are subtlety interwoven into the biographies of monks like Wenzel Seiler and John Dastin (1288-1334ce), and seventeenth century scientists of the calibre of Robert Boyle (1627-1691ce)  and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727ce).  Boyle and Newton were contemporaries and rather hypocritical and duplicitous when it came to their professional profiles; they rigorously and unashamedly denounced alchemy as fraudulent, writing contemptuously of the art to please the academic world whilst simultaneously ensconced in alchemical endeavours of their own.           

If these eyewitness reports are to be believed, then there very well may be an alchemical powder of projection in existence known only by adepts under a proverbial oath of secrecy. Of course, the empiricists and those reluctant to veer from established scientific conventions of our times would scoff at such a notion and point to the many loopholes inherent to the anecdotal evidence. Indeed, the authenticity of many of these transmutational “accounts” will forever remain suspect given that they were circulated and transcribed before the advent of the printing press in 1440ce; consequently, they may be nothing more than radical mythologisations of real historical figures or even completely fictional inventions aimed at validating the chemico-operative tradition and “selling” it to the exoteric simpletons. Why, for instance, is there a complete absence of birthdates for the “master” alchemists? It is because the essence of their being is so mercurial that nobody, not even their own mothers, are able to remember the date and time of their birth or is it because they never existed?  Most of us would probably say the second. On the other hand how could a chemico-operative enterprise that was based on nonsensical theories and absurdities have survived for as long as it did without an ounce of credibility? How could it have drawn in and fooled hordes of people belonging to all areas of critical inquiry and across vast expanses of time, including some of the most prominent intellectuals and rigorous scientists in Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle?  

A contemporary parallel to this enigma can be seen in Atlantis. If Atlantis is nothing more than a figment of Plato’s imagination, and those who qualify as Atlantean romanticists bide their time searching for submerged walls, temples and other architectural wonders of the lost city in the depths of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, there’s going to be a profusion of very disgruntled and disillusioned individuals entering psych wards of public and private hospitals as well as nursing homes in a few decades from now. Similarly, one would think that if the chemico-operative stream of alchemy with its desire to synthesise an agent of projection called “red earth” is nothing more than a symbolic transcription of psychological processes of individuation or self-actualisation, as Carl Gustov Jung would have us believe, then the operative quest with its purely materialistic outcomes is defunct and entertaining it nothing short of madness. Right? Perhaps the only way to disentangle this Gordian knot, so to speak, would be to disentomb evidence implicating alchemy as a syncretised and holistic knowledge system that may have been lost when human consciousness was appropriated by the dominant left hemisphere of the brain, the side that comes to know reality through quantitative analysis along with the reductionist and monocular perspectives of the five physical senses. If a case for alchemical theory can be established and supported through empirical evidence of some sort, then there is no reason why so-called “red earth” shouldn’t exist or why transmutational feats shouldn’t be feasible.

According to alchemy’s metaphysical system, each planetary force is supposed enact some kind of influence over the base matter in the retort during the course of the operation. The formative forces of Saturn, Jupiter and the moon exert their effects during the first stage known as the Lesser Work, a cycle of processes which have as their aim the synthesis of the “white stone”; alternatively, those of Venus, Mars and the sun come to the forefront during the second stage known as the Greater Work, another cluster of processes which further act upon the “white stone” to garner the “red stone”. Pivotal to the entire Magnum Opus and its culmination is the timing chosen by the alchemist to commence his or her work. Traditionally, the favoured period is spring or between the months of March and May, a time when the generative powers of Mother Nature are proliferating. It should also be worth noting that in a great number of successful cases, metallic transmutation involving a metamorphosis of red mercury or quicksilver into gold was juxtaposed by a conjunction between their celestial counterparts in the starry heavens, in this case Mercury and the sun. Hermetic author Nick Kollostrom examined this topic in his book The Metal-Planet Relationship: A Study of Celestial Influence (1993) and found that five out of seven astrological charts demarcating the exact moment a “master” alchemist engaged projection or made gold were marked by an auspicious condition in the heavens where the planet Mercury and the solar orb stood within five degrees of one another. This study becomes much more substantial when one discerns that only four of the seven charts examined involved red mercury as the base metal. The other two were lead and silver, respectively. All this seems to suggest that the formative forces of Planet Earth, the World Soul or Anima Mundi, and the astrological movement are key players when it comes to the synthesis of “red earth” and the divine metamorphosis of first matter or base metals into gold. Speaking in a context apprehensible to the alchemists and in harmony with the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below”, we could say that the active planetary powers subtly and “divinely” influence the matter in the crucible. But for all this to be viable the ancient connection between the planets and their respective metals must stand up to the mechanistic scrutiny of scientific method and analysis. Is there really a connection between the metal lead and Saturn, quicksilver and Mercury, silver and the moon or gold and the sun, or is it all just ancient superstition and scrambled guesswork?

The implication of an energetic syncretisation between the planets, the metals and human consciousness falls way outside the scope of conventionally orientated thought at this point in time. As preposterous as it may seem at first, the idea begins to suspend disbelief if we proceed along the logical avenue that all planetary bodies (including the earth) are like magnets and that each exerts a gravitational pull on the others. If one continued along this same train of thought–entirely scientific and credible I ought to add–he or she would see that the waxing and waning of this gravitational force is hinged entirely upon the planet’s relative position to the other heavenly spheres. Indeed, humans and all living creatures are unconsciously wired to them, though it appears that only the more intellectually adroit and curiously inclined ever come to terms with this fact during the course of their lives. When the shamans of many primordial tribes and the priests and priestesses of past matriarchal religions discerned these living, interacting energies that pervaded the cosmos, it mattered not that their naked eye could see no further than Jupiter, or that the sun and moon were erroneously thought to be planets; the celestial spheres were merely exoteric markers for the qualitative powers that governed our multidimensional and majestic universe.   

Interestingly, this perceptible association between the planetary spheres and their rulership over the metals becomes even more of a reality when we take into account a series of experiments that were conducted by Frau Lily Kolisko, a follower and confidante of anthroposophist Dr. Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925ce). Kolisko was convinced that the planet-metal relationship rudimentary to the holistic cosmology of most primordial cultures wasn’t imagined and illusory at all; it was, on the contrary, real, observable and quantifiable. She devised a chromatographical method whereby filter papers were used to transcribe or record chemical changes that occurred in metal salt solutions when their celestial constituents entered into conjunctions and oppositions with one another. Under strictly controlled conditions, Kolisko was able to show that the images or pictures produced by the silver salt solutions encompassed a striking resemblance to the crater-ravaged surface of the moon, and that certain characteristics manifested at the appearance of each lunar phase, particularly the full and new moons.

Some of Kolisko’s most dramatic experiments involved exploring the sun and the metal gold. To discern a hermetic connection between the two, she set up a series of tightly controlled experiments whose primary aim was to observe changes that could occur on filter papers dipped in metallic salt solutions of gold chloride before, during the course of, and after a solar eclipse. When gold chloride remained unobstructed in conditions of pitch darkness, Kolisko and her assistants noted that it manifested scarlet reds, bright yellows, royal purples and other auric colours onto filter paper films. To provide a condensed summa of her results, Kolisko found that during the course of a solar eclipse which occurred on June 29th 1927ce, the salt solutions reacting in the laboratory didn’t produce customary pictures of the radiant and vibrant aurora. Instead, they showed up as an agglomeration of filthy reddish and purple-browns, as if an invisible hand had somehow reached out, smudged them over with a paintbrush and subsequently dotted them over with black specks. At this time, the gold chloride also lost its aptitude to rise along the length of the filter papers, mirroring the condition of a solar orb temporarily emasculated by the overspreading sphere of the moon. After the eclipse the qualities and behaviours exhibited by reactions of gold chloride in a dark room returned to normal. The implications of Kolisko’s results were comprehensive and stupefying; against all odds, it appeared that the gold was unconsciously wired to express the prevailing condition of its celestial equivalent.  Just as the solar energies were blunted by the eclipse, so too was the eternal metal prevented from expressing its cheerfulness and splendour through the manifestation of brilliant colours like scarlet red, golden yellow and magenta. When the lunar disc finally liberated the formative powers of the sun again, so did the powers of gold wax upon the face of the earth.

From the 1920s until the 1960s, Kolisko expanded the breadth of her monumental research to encompass the behaviour of other metallic salts during solar eclipses. In an ensuing cycle of experiments, she was able to show that filter paper films dipped in a reagent of gold chloride and silver nitrate acquired a stonewashed violent hue that degenerated into Stygian darkness the exact moment the lunar disc passed over the sun. This indicated, among other things, that the silver was imitating its planetary constituent in the heavens by eclipsing the rich colours of gold chloride. Moreover, the films laid bare subtle changes to the inner texture of the participating metals that were obviously the result of a previously unknown chemical reaction or interaction of some kind. If such a phenomenon applied to all metals and planetary bodies, then mercury bichloride and gold chloride should behave in a similar fashion upon a conjunction of Mercury and the sun, the two planetary forces intimately entwined in the abovementioned examples of metallic transmutation. True?

Agnes Fyfe, a researcher from a cancer clinic at Arlesheim in Switzerland launched an exhaustive investigation into the corporeal effects of a sun-Mercury conjunction using the diluted sap of plants traditionally ascribed to the rulership of their respective planets, in this case mistletoe and iris. Her results revealed a change in the reagent during the superior and inferior conjunctions, with the former demonstrating a definite reaction by rising along the herbal filter papers. Aside from the inference that the mistletoe plant comes under the aegis of the solar signature, her experiments did little to shed little upon the dynamics of the Sun-Mercury conjunction. Fyfe supplanted the metallic salts with plant saps on the premise that living matter would react more robustly to celestial phenomena than any “inert” material might. Her method may have been partially influenced by the fact that mercury bichloride is colourless and thus excruciatingly difficult to quantify in controlled settings. In the end, the decision to shift the focus away from the mineral kingdom may have been premature, for in doing so she introduced unforseen variables and controls into her experimental method that left her vulnerable to a barrage of attacks such as the ones that were to come from elite members of the scientific community shortly afterwards. At any rate Fyfe’s blunders and misfortunes should not deter the intellectually rebellious and progressive from exploring the reactions of a mercury bichloride-gold chloride reagent over Sun-Mercury conjunctions, as subtle changes spurred by the astrological movement may very well provide the necessary clues to unravelling the paradox of chemical transmutation.   

In 1978ce, Fyfe used a filter paper method not unlike the one that was used by Kolisko to descry whether the annual planetary movements of Venus would have any discernible effect upon one percept copper acetate solutions that had been placed inside extracts of plant sap. Just like the planet enacted its most powerful impression upon human consciousness when it was allowed to shine in the twilight glow of early morning as the Eosphoros (Bringer of Dawn) or in the late evening as Hesperos (Star of the Evening), the metallic reactions on the filter papers were strongest when Venus assumed positions in the sky in which it remained unobstructed by the sun. Kolisko’s experiments using gold chloride and copper salt solutions to discern changes in filter papers during a solar-Venusian conjunction were equally astonishing, revealing a dramatic precipitation of light green along the plastic films when Venus was at its highest point in the sky.

A curious observation that came to light during the experimentation phase of the solar-Venusian experiments was that the reaction rate varied with the changing of the seasons. This was both odd and extraordinary. How could a chemical reaction vary according to the time of the year? Strange, no? Orthodox science remains curiously silent on such issues, given that its doctrines decree that chemical reactions should not vary with seasonal rotation. Kolisko claimed that the strength of the reactions dissipated and disappeared between December and January, only to reappear again stronger than ever between the months of March and May. Save for being the equinoctial marker for spring, the said months comprise the premium time in which the laborious processes of the alchemical Great Work should commence. Astrologically it is the period in which the sun rises in the constellation of Taurus, a time in which the Venusian energy becomes most expressive and powerful. As we can see, the occult connections are plentiful and far too meaningful to be purely coincidental.

Many of Kolisko’s experiments, particularly those that traced the Mars (iron)-Saturn (lead) conjunction, were replicated in 1949ce by Theodore Schwenck and again in 1964ce by Dr. Karl Voss of Hamburg. Both scholars successfully reproduced the same results and dutifully arrived at the same conclusions as Kolisko, publishing their works in various astrology journals in an attempt to spur further studies in astrochemistry and eventually integrate these scientifically demonstrable theories into our communal knowledge. Sadly, the implications of such were perceived to be heretical and controversial by the scientific community, and before long the negative sentiment had spilt over to the greater community–to the literati, university presses and media–all of whom ignored them completely. The reception of silence ensured that, in time, all memory and trace of experimental data in support of qualitative content and the holistic cosmology of our ancestors would be forgotten completely.

A similar fate has befallen the life works of the late Thomas Charles Lethbridge (1901-1971ce), a man who might be described as a scholar of alternative history, archaeology and parapsychology. Anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with Lethbridge’s theories would know that he was a conscientiously minded and intensely practical individual who believed that avenues to knowledge should remain just as open to the channel of imagination and intuition as they did to the clocks and rulers of quantitative analysis. In tracing the many intersections, twists and turns that map out his life, it becomes evident that Lethbridge pertained to a progressive school of thought which condemned the conventional scientific method of the times for becoming too mechanical in its ways, a mode of inquiry that resorted all too frequently to compartmentalisation and division without a thought for quality, essence and holism, a science which lacked soul, far removed from the human plight and ambition. His family were phlegmatic, level-headed and well-integrated citizens that had studied and graduated from Oxford University. Lethbridge parted with this tradition, initiating something that might be described as a symbolic schism, and went to Cambridge instead. Whilst he was there he devoted himself to the study of archaeology with much fervour and enthusiasm, a full-fledged interest for which he was honoured and acknowledged when he became Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities at the Archaeology Museum in Cambridge. During that time he met a rather odd but extraordinary woman named Margaret Murray who nurtured his innate eccentricity and radical curiosity. Prompted by their manifold encounters and by an unprecedented archaeological discovery of a statue of Matrona, the Celtic Great Mother Goddess, near an Iron Age fort called Wandlebury Camp, Lethbridge ventured along paths less travelled and released a book titled Gogmagog, The Buried Gods, in which he established a case for the existence of a nature-based wicca religion that had thrived on the British Isles before the coming of the Christian dispensation. In the eyes of the “academic trade unionists” and the Cambridge academics, the publication went against classical and conservative rationalism and was an outright heresy. Displeasing the literati didn’t seem to bother Lethbridge one bit; he proceeded to sever his ties with Cambridge and moved to Hole House in Devon where his investigations brought him face to face with the almost forgotten inheritance and sensitiveness of the right-brain hemisphere. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.  

Whilst living in Devon, his empirical approach to knowledge coupled with an unwavering thirst to assume the role of detective propelled him towards virgin terrain where he made many original discoveries. By far the most intriguing and comprehensive of all was one made with a pendulum. On day, whilst attempting to determine the length of string most appropriate for a pendulum to be used for dowsing purposes, he ran into a curious oddity. It appeared that the pendulum would gyrate at a different length for each individual object or substance. The usual method Lethbridge employed to obtain a “rate” (in inches) was to stand directly above the object and unwind the string until the gyration begun.  Moreover a great many heterogeneous items reacted to the same “rate”, with the only way of telling the difference between two or more in a single group being to count the number of individual gyrations. Over the years, he launched a full-fledged investigation into this phenomenon, testing as many different objects and substances as he could get his hands on. Immaterial things like emotions and ideas also had “rates”, which spurred Lethbridge to the realisation that everything, tangible and intangible, must be composed of vibrations. His view definitely corresponds with M-theory, a fundamental framework for the universe put forth by modern theoretical physics in its desperate attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. The model in question was proposed by Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study and aims to define quarks, electrons and the fundamental forces of the cosmos in the context of one-dimensional oscillating strings that permeate eleven separate dimensions.

Before long Lethbridge had amassed a wide and healthy range of pendulum “rates” which he plotted onto a 360-degree rose compass. He meticulously divided it into forty sections, given that all reactions obtained ranged between one and forty, and proceeded to mark up the name of each substance or object in the appropriate slot on the inner rim of the disc. On the whole, qualities that could subliminally be described as inert, unbecoming, mechanical and generally less “conscious” were enumerated higher on the compass whilst those of a sentient, active and spirited nature that are coming-to-be were associated with lower digits. The obvious insinuation that is being made here is that those on the higher end of the scale are probably subject to a greater number of laws and characterised by lower vibrations, whilst the opposite holds true for those on the lower end. In addition, a great many fundamental qualities tended to be found on or around the rose compass’s four main pillars, comprised of the forty-inch, thirty-inch, twenty-inch and ten-inch “rates”. The compass indicated that the shade of black, the cardinal direction of north, the element of air, as well as thoughts pertaining to the just mentioned responded to the forty-inch “rate”, whilst white, south, heat and thoughts about each of those reacted to the twenty-inch “rate”. Alternatively the colour green, the cardinal direct of west, the element of water and thoughts involving those responded to the thirty-inch “rate” whilst red, east, fire and thoughts pertaining to those all reacted to the ten-inch “rate”. As one should expect, light and dark are to be found on the polar ends of the compass; the first responds to a ten-inch “rate” and the second to a forty-inch “rate”. Death is to be found on the forty-inch “rate” and life on the twenty-inch “rate”. Contrary to what many sexists and bigoted peoples would have us believe, male and female are not opposites; the first has a “rate” of twenty-four inches and the second twenty-nine inches. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the rates for female and gold are identical either. When we shift gears and turn our attention to the metals, mercury is to be found on twelve-point-five inches, lead and silver on twenty-two, tin on twenty-eight, gold on twenty-nine, copper on thirty-point-five and iron on thirty-two. Two substances or objects which share the same “rate” can be differentiated from one another by counting the number of gyrations; in the case of lead and silver, for instance, these happen to be sixteen and twenty-two, respectively. What should be evident thus far is that the “rate” by inches and the number of gyrations form a signature unique to an object, substance or thought.

According to alchemical esotericism, everything that exists– whether that be a plant, mineral, rock, metal, tree, planet or star–has an occult signature, an individual mark that originates from the formative spirit of God and connects the piece of created matter with the tapestry of Mother Nature, the Anima Mundi or World Soul and with the cosmos at large. The correct interpretation of the signature enables a practitioner of the occult arts, whether that be a Neoplatonic magus, a theurgist or an alchemist, to bend nature to his will in quite the same way that striking the patella tendon will incite a knee-jerk reaction. To give an example, the root of the kava-kava plant induces intoxicating effects like euphoria and narcosis once ingested. Kava kava’s strong association with the condition of passivity and with the realm of dreams betrays a qualitative connection to the moon, the sphere of reflection. Its occult virtue, in other words its intrinsic nature, is wholly lunar. Hence if one wished to draw upon themselves the influences of the lunar signature and of the Great Mother Goddess, they would grind sun-dried kava kava roots into a fine powder, mix it into mead and consume it. The doctrine of signatures formed a vital component of Pythagorean mysticism, Platonic metaphysics and the holistic theories of Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus of Hohenheim (1493-1591ce). Anyone trying to make sense out of Lethbridge’s compass of vibrational “rates” or attempting to determine a feasible connection with other cosmological systems will inevitably arrive at the same crossroad: are the four central pillars around which a vast majority of “rates” cluster the four ethereal elements of air, water, earth and fire the alchemists of all ages always speak of? Or are they the stages of nigredo, cauda pavonis, albedo and rubedo that characterise a fourfold subdivision of the entire alchemical opus? These are questions that beg to be answered. Conversely, are Lethbridge’s pendulum rates and the esoteric concept of signatures one and the same thing? In all probability, yes.        

One consequent discovery that shall here concern us was made at the Iron Age hill fort of Pilsdon Pen in Dorset with the assistance of his wife Mina. Whilst perusing the site, it dawned upon Lethbridge that he should examine some of the pebbles about the fort. What he found really mystified him. As expected the pebbles reacted to the “rate” for silica, but they also responded to the “rates” for male sex and thought, the former at twenty-four and the latter at twenty-seven inches. The whole situation was bizarre. Why was there more than one signature on the pebbles? To a man with such detective acumen and adroitness as Thomas Lethbridge, the answer was obvious. The “rates” had somehow been induced into or impressed upon the stones, perhaps by events which had transpired hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Further investigations confirmed as such. Pebbles picked with gloves and tongs from a nearby beach only reacted to the fourteen-inch rate for silica. When they were grappled they also reacted to the “rate” for thought. On another note when the pebbles were thrown with brute force against a wall they reacted to an additional “rate”, that for male sex or gender. Defying all reason and logic, the pebbles could differentiate between which of the two genders had manhandled them; those thrown by Lethbridge reacted to the male “rate” and those by Mina to the female “rate”.

Anyone who didn’t know that an experiential approach or procedure had been used to uncover a sublime fundamental plan such as the one demonstrated by Lethbridge’s rose compass of “rates” would obviously think the idea was no more than a fanciful delusion or absurdity. Yet here it is! Where the scope of human perception and the quantitative analysis of traditional science either fail or remain silent the pendulum succeeds and tells the truth, pardon the pun. And in this case the truth is that there is a subtle interchange of formative energy that occurs between all inhabitants of the cosmos, irrespective of whether they belong to the mineral, animal or plant kingdom. Lethbridge’s results also demonstrate that an object’s individual signature or unique cosmic blueprint can be modified to some extent through external force. The greater the force, the more profound and lasting the changes that occur. Rocks that had been thrown in battle centuries ago were still giving off “rates” for the male gender and for thought, a fact which entertains the idea that friction and potentiality caused on the physical plane by violence and bloodshed or on the psychic one by outbursts of anger and the outpouring of emotion might somehow contribute to a modification of an object’s inner texture. Lethbridge’s exposition per se is that external forces exhibit the ability to impress a foreign signature or “rate” onto objects, substances and thoughts, especially when they come from living entities like human beings. If this is true, then there’s no reason why an abnormally powerful force shouldn’t be able to purge and replace the indigenous “rate” with a different one, especially if it transpires under the auspices of the astrological movement. In Lethbridge’s terms, then, red mercury, the base metal with an occult signature or ‘rate” of twelve-point-five inches would have to be impressed with the twenty-nine inch rate for gold and then purged of its original blueprint for a successful transmutation to occur. This phenomenon, literally and metaphorically speaking, would be gold.

Lethbridge’s hidden cosmological system would have probably found a spirited ally and counterpart in the Paracelsian-based teachings of Albert Richard Riedel (1911-1984ce) had the two ever met. Riedel, the self-styled “Frater Albertus”, served as a key figure in the transmission of alchemical esotericism and practical alchemy to many parts of the United States from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Albertus placed a profound emphasis on the art of spagyria, the laboratory practice of extracting the vital essence of herbs through processes of maceration, circulation and extraction to produce synthetic tinctures and elixirs many times more powerful than anything the unaided hand of Mother Nature or the pharmaceutical companies can produce. His vision of alchemy was probably an outcome of applying Parecelsian doctrine, especially where it concerned the triad of spirit, soul and body or philosophical sulphur, mercury and salt, to chemical processes and outcomes that can be demonstrated in laboratory settings and replicated a million times over. This practical method proved to be an enormous success, for it allowed a neophyte to come to terms with and correctly interpret the fundamental principles of alchemical theory and its objectives without becoming overwhelmed by obscure and cryptic references such as those to be found in Renaissance treatises dealing with alchemical recipes and formulae. Between 1960 and 1984ce, Albertus inaugurated the Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City, in Utah, and took hundreds of aspiring alchemists under his wing. Most were members of contemporary theosophical movements like the Golden Dawn and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), but there were also independent researchers from fields as disparately related as parapsychology and chemistry. During the time that the facility was operational, Albertus was assiduous in his aspiration to bring what he believed to be alchemy’s principal tenets to an American audience: he initiated and maintained a quarterly publication based on the Hermetic traditions called “Parachemy”, conferred upon various alchemical texts a second chance at fame by translating them from their indigenous German, Spanish, Italian and French into English, and wrote ten books, his most renown being The Seven Rays of the QBL (1981ce) and The Alchemist’s Handbook (1960ce).

In the United States, Frater Albertus’s reputation was augmented when he claimed to have prepared the “oil”, “essence” or philosophical sulphur of lead, copper and gold. For his devout students and those convinced of the reality of mineral and metallic transmutation, the statement vindicated Albertus’s undisputed “adepthood”. Conversely, for his detractors it merely substantiated the belief that he was an illegitimate charlatan. Whichever the case, Albertus was of a depth and complexity which bewildered and intimidated those who remained outside his immediate circle and the iron-clad doors of the Paracelsus Research Society. Likewise when it came to the feasibility of plant, mineral and metallic work in alchemy, he was convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. For instance, when occultist and writer Israel Regardie (1907-1985ce) visited Albertus at his research centre, his purely psycho-spiritual conception of alchemy went out the window. Whatever Regardie saw or experienced inside Albertus’s laboratory complex clearly exerted a profound effect on him, enough at least to reignite his faith in alchemical craft practice and to spur a public retraction of this opinion in a subsequent edition of his book, The Philosopher’s Stone (1938ce). We can only guess that Regardie’s polar shift of opinion was motivated by technical procedures involving the extraction of vital life force or “signatures” from dried herbs such as those outlined in Albertus’s practical manual for laboratory work, The Alchemist’s Handbook. This concise and articulately written book, to which we will shortly turn our attention, is pivotal to Albertus’s personal vision along with the current study as a whole for it gives a clear and concise definition of what alchemy actually is. Alchemy, Albertus dutifully informs us, must be understood in the context of a cosmological process aimed at “raising vibrations”. The motif is mentioned in the introduction and reiterated time and time again, as if Albertus was espousing the metaphysical technique of positive affirmation to wire it into his readers’ subconscious minds. Alchemy aims, hopes, wishes, begs, wants and aspires to raise “the level of vibrations”. Anyone who hasn’t heard of Albertus would think the idea had been plucked straight out of Lethbridge’s rose compass of “rates”. 

In The Alchemist’s Handbook, Frater Albertus makes a very clear distinction between the Lesser Work, or lesser circulation as he calls it, and the Greater Work or greater circulation. The first of these, which Albertus describes in painstaking detail, has to make do with the preparation of the plant or vegetable “stone” and with the separation of the eternal vital principle or occult “signature” of a herb from its destructible body; the second alludes to metallic transmutation, a much more coveted and elusive operation which cannot and must not reveal itself as a blatant transcription of the written word. “Those who wait for a complete description in similar language, of the Great Arcanum,” he says, “will wait in vain. It cannot be given. It is not permissible.” Here, it might be worth mentioning that those who see in alchemy a breeding ground for outdated superstitions or regard transmutation as a by-product of the unrelenting story of the human imagination would probably stop reading at this point, but for anyone familiar with Albertus’s glowing success with spagyric techniques and with chemico-operative methods, the statement would only fuel his or her curiosity and serve as impetus to continue. And a little deeper into the text the reader may begin to feel a mixture of elation and relief for not having parted with this cute little manual prematurely. According to Albertus, the reasons as to why most novices become disillusioned with the pragmatic and operative approach to alchemical truth and eventually desert it is because they either perform certain experiments prematurely, or because they are without the requisite theoretical knowledge necessary to work with substances pertaining to each of the three kingdoms.

Alchemical doctrine acknowledges three kingdoms, the plant, animal and mineral, as well as three principles associated with each one–philosophical mercury, sulphur and salt. Mercury is positively-charged, sulphur is negatively-charged and salt, the binding force, is neutral. When alchemists speak of philosophical mercury, they refer not to the elemental variant of the same name, but to the intangible life-bestowing formative force that animates all created matter. Philosophical or alchemical mercury is also the fifth ethereal element, the ether or quintessence of the mystical philosophers and sages. Disregarding what modern mechanistic science has to say about the nature of living matter, alchemy decrees that philosophical mercury, also the blueprint or signature, can be separated from living or “dead” matter through a cycle of distillations using  alcohol as a primary saturating agent or menstruum  for the extraction. The alchemical mercury is of a different vibratory rate in each kingdom; lowest in the plant, higher in the animal and highest in the mineral and/or metallic realm. In its most refined state, mercury looks like a runny jelloid substance of yellowish tinge. The slight colouration is caused by delicate oil within the mercury. This is philosophical sulphur, a fiery principle which can be isolated from the mercury by subjecting the whole substance to a further cycle of distillation. The separation of mercury and sulphur isn’t as crucial when working spagyric techniques to synthesise the vegetable “stone” as it is when preparing mineral and metallic tinctures such as “oils” or “sulphurs” from the seven planetary metals. Additionally, the binding force which holds these two complimentary principles together is salt, and can be seen when the dead residue of any herb is reduced to black ash via calcination. Salt encompasses the defining characteristics and is unique to the organism, irrespective of whether it belongs to the plant, animal or mineral realm.         

If everything that Albertus is telling us is to be taken at face value, then extracting the life force of plants and creating the herbal elixir should indeed be nothing but child’s play. All that is needed is a ready supply of alcohol, the herb one intends to work with and a Soxlet apparatus or something of the like to complete the extraction. The aspirant is to grind the selected herb into a fine powder and place it into the filter-paper cylinder or thimble of the apparatus. To complete the rudimentary phase he or she should half-fill the flask with alcohol and realign it with the distillation train. Once the heat source beneath the flask is ignited, the extraction will begin. After a short time smoke-like vapour emanating from the alcohol should diffuse through the filter paper cylinder containing the pulverized herb, enter a condenser tube above and gravitate there momentarily before running back down into the flask. A cycle of three or four distillations should bring about an alteration to the colourless transparency of the water-like extract in the flask; it should now be a light yellow. This is the differentiating essence of the plant or its philosophical mercury, and the ensuing changes to the liquid’s texture and colour can be attributed to the presence of a delicate yellowish oil, its philosophical sulphur. At the conclusion of the distillatory procedure the dead residue can be disengaged from the thimble of filter paper, placed in a petri dish and ignited. This will reduce it to black ash or “salt”.

Once this has come to pass the aspirant should scoop up the charred remains of the herb and empty them back into the flask, preferably with the aid of a plastic funnel. These should be washed over with extract, as much of it as they will soak up. The flask should then be reattached to the Soxlet apparatus and the distillatory procedure repeated over and over and over again, until there are no further changes to the extract’s texture or colouration. By now the only thing remaining should be an oily jelloid substance that can manifest through numerous forms; in actual fact, the substance should convert into a runny liquid when the temperature rises and miraculously solidify when it cools back down again. What the aspirant is now gazing upon is the principal form of the herbal elixir, its first state. One can increase its density and thus strengthen its potency by subjecting it to calcination. Frater Albertus alleges that each time this is done, its efficacy doubles. Moreover the refined extract, which contains the indestructible and eternal couplet of philosophical mercury and sulphur as well as the “salt” which binds them together, can be hermetically sealed in a glass flask and subjected to a low summering heat to create a plant or vegetable “stone”, the  crown jewel of the Lesser Work or lesser circulation. It is, in conjunction with its dynamic therapeutic qualities, more powerful than any elixir and can extract the triune “soul” of any herb or plant via alchemical immersion.

Like many an alchemist before him, Frater Albertus stops well short of revealing the mystery of the Grand Arcanum. He does, though, kindle within the aspirant the flame of faith by declaring that anyone with the skill, patience and ingenuity to generate the vegetable “stone” can surely attain the mineral “stone”. Of pivotal importance to the latter is a psycho-spiritual condition Albertus describes as “readiness”. In order to successfully complete the greater circulation, he says, the aspirant must be ready. His statement brings to mind the Christian act of receiving Holy Communion, and the physical and spiritual cleansing that must transpire before a supplicant can the symbolically receive the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In any case this is as far as Frater Albertus is willing to go, and from here we are pretty much left to our own devices. If there is any credence to Albertus’s notion that the vibration rates of minerals and metals is of a higher frequency that those of plants or animals, and if the creative and formative forces of the cosmos all originate from the unconscious prima materia, then the answer to the riddle may rest firmly on the shoulders of each individual alchemist, or in their heads rather. Processes related to the lesser circulation require no active participation on the part of the alchemist’s mind simply because the vibratory “rates” of the plant kingdom are lower than that of animals. The same does not hold true for “dead” minerals and metals, whose “rates” are much higher than that of humans. The answer, then, may lie firmly entrenched in successfully inducing a ruminative state of creative tension during a certain point in the greater circulation, enough to “raise the vibrations”. Perhaps the twenty-nine inch rate for gold can somehow be imprinted onto base matter reacting in the retort or alembic. If thoughts can be imprinted onto rocks, as Thomas Lethbridge was able to demonstrate with his pendulum, then why not metals too? If a pendulum can recapitulate the “rate” or occult signature of a particular substance or object in response to a fleeting thought about it, then who’s to say that the thought of gold or its transmutation can’t permanently reconfigure the extract of a metal, especially if the enterprise were driven by a profusion of unconscious willpower. Seeing as the astrological movement and the formative forces of Mother Nature are also crucial to the success of the operation, this would have to occur over a Sun-Mercury or Sun-Saturn conjunction, depending on which of the two–red mercury or lead–was being used as first matter. It’s a fascinating proposition, albeit one orthodox science would ridicule and vehemently combat for centuries to come. Then again, these inferences could be little more than the hyperactive musings of an author’s inwardly-turned and boundless imagination.    

But what if…

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