The demiurgic dreams of metallurgists and alchemists.
This past week I read two interesting texts centred around alchemy; the first was The Forge and The Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy (1956) by Romania historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade. I thoroughly enjoyed his take on the origins of human interaction with metal and it’s sacred significance around the world.
He examines alchemical operations from various cultures who worked with metal; European, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian, as well as touching upon the practices of metal-workers in Africa and other parts of Asia. There is a significant undercurrent of mystical reverence for metals and those who forge them, whether it be admiration or fear. The cultures he investigates also all display elements of the belief that the alchemical process is a gestational procedure. He wanders through time to explore the relationship humans have had to various metals as well as their shamanic and ritual significance. The alchemist appears to have forebears in both the metallurgic and spiritual practitioners of many cultures.
Eliade speaks of the belief that the earth itself is a womb wherein elements are ‘gestated’ and then ‘born’ through rivers, caves and mines. The deciding factor for this transformational process – whereby one element can become another – is time. Those that work with metals – the metallurgists and smiths – can take these embryonic gifts from the womb of the earth and accelerate the process of change through elemental application, namely fire. So, with this view of the gestational earth, it stands to reason that the alchemist can also force these metamorphoses through a variety of judiciously applied operations.
Throughout the book Eliade seeks to understand whether the ancient alchemists were interested in mere transmutation of base substances into gold or whether the material operations were a coded language for another kind of immaterial process.
“We have seen that ores and metals were regarded as living organisms: one spoke of their gestation growth, birth and even marriage. The alchemists adopted and gave new significance to these primitive beliefs… Herein lies the novelty of the alchemical perspective: the life of Matter is no longer designated in terms of ‘vital’ hierophanies as it was in the outlook of primitive man; it has acquired a spiritual dimension; in other words, by taking on the initiatory significance of drama and suffering, matter also takes on the destiny of the spirit. The ‘initiation tests’ which, on the spiritual plane, culminate in freedom, illumination and immortality, culminate on the material plane, in transmutation, in the Philosopher’s Stone.”
P152 Eliade, M. (1956) The Forge and the Crucible, The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, University of Chicago Press
“Alchemy, as we shall see, takes it’s place in the same spiritual category: the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of Nature, while at the same time working to ‘make’ himself.” p47
I particularly enjoyed when Eliade considers the nature of the Philosophers Stone. It’s fascinating because it’s such a contradictory concept; is it a physical thing? An idea? A journey? A way of being? An incorporeal energy? My friend artist and writer Justine Giles wrote a piece to accompany my work (2016) where she postulated that the search for the stone IS the stone – personally, I love that idea.
On the nature and ubiquity of the materia prima English alchemist George Ripley (c.1415-90) writes: “The philosophers say that the birds and fishes bring the Stone to us, each man possess it, it is everywhere, in you, in me, in all things, in time and in space. It presents itself in base guise (vili figura). And from it springs our aqua permanens.” (divine water, eternal water – translation mine).
Zosimos of Panopolis (c.3rd-4th century AD) describes “this stone which is not a stone, a precious thing which has no value, a thing of many shapes which has no shapes, this unknown which is known of all.”
Instruction from Gerhard Dorn (c.1530-1584) on transforming oneself INTO the Stone:
“Transform yourself from dead stones into living philosophic stones.”
‘Transmutemini de lapidibus mortuis in vivos lapides philosophicos.”
Quoted by Jung P367 Psychologie and Alchemie.
I have read another work by Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane (1959) – where he observes the divide between the experiences of secularity and sacredness in contemporary society. It’s a fascinating read and I continued to pick up a similar thread as in this book of the author seeming slightly regretful that humanity has lost it’s awe and wonder in the wake of scientific discovery. There is a passage where he expresses this in a most bittersweet way – when speaking of the sacred experience of nature by the primitive human:
“It would be vain to wish to reconstitute his experiences; too much time has elapsed since the cosmos has been desanctified as a result of the triumph of the experimental sciences. Modern man is incapable of experiencing the sacred in his dealings with matter; at most he can achieve an aesthetic experience…
…it is clear that a thinking dominated by cosmological symbolism created a world vastly different from that accessible to modern man.”
While there is great beauty in the unveiling of scientific discovery, I can understand his feeling around the loss of sanctity in modern life. My counter to this would be that there are things science can show us that, for me at least, evoke the same level of awe and wonder. It’s postulated that humans have an inbuilt propensity for religiosity and, despite being atheistic, I know that I have this inside of me. My fascination with esoterica and mysticism are born out of this sense of wonder and searching, but so is my interest in astrophysics, which seems to fulfil the same desire.
In contrast to Eliade’s discussion of the history of alchemy and metallurgy, Basilian Aphorisms is a translation of a collection of old hermetic canons that first appeared around 1608. Drs Mirco A. Mannucci and Aaron Cheak have done a lovely job of presenting the history and provenance of this work along with very interesting commentary on each canon. This is the sort of book you return to because it’s hard the canons are fairly inscrutable at first but are likely to reveals themselves over time.
After reading Eliades work immediately prior, there was a canon that jumped out to me:
Thus the Hermetic Bird once locked inside the Cave, which is the Oven, is to be roused gradually by the continuous heat of our vaporous fire, til it opens up and heals everything with it’s birth.”
This recalls the ideas that Eliade put forward around the gestational nature of alchemy. The Avis Hermetis is locked inside the womb of the earth where heat is applied as in a furnace (or forge). This speeds up time, transforming the bird into it’s new form. The bird then hatches, born anew.
The very interesting Basilian Aphorisms can be obtained from Rubedo Press.