Of course we all know about the ‘alchemists’ of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance–attempting to “turn lead into gold”. What isn’t as well known is that there was a lot more to Alchemy than just that: it was actually proto-science: for example, they figured out by long trial and error how to make substances like ‘nitric acid’—many of the initial and practical ‘baby steps’ that made our modern theory of chemistry possible later (thanks mostly to Lavoisier (1743–1794) —a colleague of Benjamin Franklin in Paris). Likewise for medicine, metallurgy, glass making, and various other proto-technologies.
The surviving alchemical literature is really quite extensive, and in addition to the various initial attempts at practical science, there is indeed a lot about ‘transforming lead into gold’. But within all of this there is yet another literary stream, in which the writers use ‘transforming lead into gold’ as a metaphor for transforming the Human Heart from ‘lead’ into ‘gold’–in other words, Spiritual Enlightenment. (In this context it’s worth remembering Biblical metaphors such as “He (God) is like a refiner’s fire.”). These writers used the symbolism of Alchemy to write about the Spiritual Path, and by using the symbolism of Alchemy they were able to do so under the radar of the Inquisition (with varying degrees of success!). This literary stream has come to be known as “Inner Alchemy”.
Possibly the earliest, and certainly still one of the most important authors/researchers on Inner Alchemy is Carl Jung (1875–1961).
And there’s not just ‘alchemical literature’—there’s also a great deal of ‘alchemical Art’—fabulous images unlike anything else I have ever seen. They range from amazing charts and diagrams (an example below), to fantastic landscape-type images (future blogs).
J. Böhme, Wunderauge der Ewigkeit (click for larger version)
And Alchemy isn’t limited to just the West. To be sure, the Western Alchemical literature (and iconography) makes heavy use of Christian and Jewish symbolism, but there is also Islamic and even Chinese Alchemy.
When I view these images, they take me to a magical place that makes me want to write music about it. (Hence this blog, and new piece!)
Here’s an example, an image by Jakob Böhme (1575–1624), from his Wunderauge der Ewigkeit (“The Miraculous Eye of Eternity”). Böhme was born in Germany, grew up a Lutheran and became a shoemaker. But he had mystical visions throughout his life, and in 1610 he started writing books. These did not set well with the Lutheran authorities and he spent the rest of his life writing and dodging charges of Heresy (potentially a capital crime).
In this image, on the left is the world of darkness (as Böhme writes): “when the eye of wonder enters nature”, on the right is the world of light, “when the Divine Mystery has passed through the fire and dwells in majestic light.” The cruciform reflective axes mark the sphere of the magic fire “from which both the angels and the soul of man originate”.
“Everything that wishes to have divine light must go through the dying, magic fire and exist in it, just as the heart on the cross must exist in the fire of God.”
I’ve taken the liberty of re-imagining this chart in more 21st century garb:
"The Dying, Magic Fire" (click for larger version)
And of course I have an accompanying piece of music, also titled “The Dying, Magic Fire”, scored for glass armonica and string orchestra:
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