You have probably heard the legend that alchemists–wizards of some kind who were like combination’s of chemist and magician–could turn, or tried to turn, lead into gold. But is alchemy really just about getting rich quick? Or is the precursor and root of modern day chemistry something deeper than that?
First off, we can find clue to what alchemy is really all about when we study the origins of the word. What does alchemy really mean, anyway? Well, one translation is “art of the black earth” because the original name for the lands of the ancient Egyptians is “khem”. The soil along the Nile river is black and considered to have life-giving and spiritual qualities. Let’s not forget how magical-minded and focused on the Afterlife the ancient Egyptians were. But after this, we can also look to its alluding to the Greek word “chemeia” which is found in the writings of Diocletian. This root of alchemy refers to the arts for making metal ingots. And then we have another Greek word, “chumeia”, and when we consider this root, meaning “juice” and implied as coming from a plant (so a “secretion”, which gives us our modern day English word “secret”) it refers to taking extracts from plants and using them for medical purposes.
It is said that the ancient Egyptian alchemists (priests) knew how to create a sacred white powder that gave them a second sight and possibly had other “magical” qualities. In the tradition of modern alchemy, this sacred white powder, often depicted in Egyptian drawings as piled up in a cone like the shape of a traditional wizard’s hat, is probably what is now known as The Philosopher’s Stone.
This Philosopher’s Stone is now regarded as the catalyst that makes the transition from lead into gold possible. Those who are familiar with modern chemistry know the importance of a catalyst to make any reaction possible. Some people today even believe that this Philosopher’s Stone is really the ancient, mysterious “manna” and that it is a created form of gold that can bestow psychic powers and immortality upon those who eat it. The Philosopher’s Stone in traditional alchemy is also thought to be able to bestow immortality by being dissolved into an Elixir of Life and drunk. As to actually making lead into gold, the alchemist allegedly knew how to apply a magical plant tincture to the process to use it as the catalyst: there’s our “chumeia” at work.
But we also need to look at the chemical elements said to involved in all alchemical reactions: mercury, sulfur, and salt. All three of these have well-known symbols attached to them. Mercury is “spirit”; sulfur is “soul”; and salt is “earth” or “the body”. It is probably very telling that mercury or quicksilver (mercury is silver in color and liquid at room temperature) is used chemically to help extract gold from its naturally occurring ores. Sulfur is used to make sulfuric acid which of course is used in metal working such as etching. And salt is the great preservative: “You are the salt of the earth!” Incidentally, gold and platinum (a more rare chemical form of gold) are the most efficient conductors of electricity among all metals. Gold is also used by space exploration agencies to shield satellites and spacecraft from cosmic rays.
What does all this mean for us, though? Well, the great psychologist and explorer of esoterica Carl Jung said that the alchemists projected something of their own subconscious minds upon their work. By this, he meant to say that manifesting gold by using alchemy to make it out of lead–the basest of metals–is really a metaphor for transforming a base or animal-like human nature–one obsessed with appetite, cravings, and raw emotions–into an illuminated or spiritual being. There is a process involved in this transformation, a process that in real or more literal terms takes a long time, perhaps decades of one’s life, to achieve. The catalyst to all this, the Philosopher’s Stone, would symbolize someone’s being turned on to the truth that the great philosopher Socrates spoke: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
What of the literal process by which gold can be turned into a Sacred Bread (this would also be a way of transforming the “base” gold into the “spiritual” gold, paralleling the lead-into-gold transformation) that bestows great powers and immortality? Is it for real? Perhaps time will tell. But in the meantime, we can contemplate the process of alchemy as a ritual for transforming our lives from those of want and emotional crassness into extraordinary experiences, and manifest our own inner gold–our own inner abundance–that way.