The Alchemy web site on Levity.comLIGHT 62(3213) 13 Aug 1942, 257-258
AN INTRODUCTION TO ALCHEMY
Back to Articles by Archibald Cockren page
A few years ago an alchemical society was formed under the auspices of one of our most famous firms of wholesale chemists. Its object was to investigate the writings of the earlier alchemists and by means of practical laboratory experiments to prove or disprove the validity of their claims, which, in all conscience, do appear a little extravagant on the surface. The Society's triumphs were remarkable only by their absence. Meetings were held, lectures were given, but so far as I know the project never reached the laboratory stage, for the learned men who formed its membership were children of the age of reason. Trained as they were in one particular school of thought, they lacked the necessary mental elasticity needed to assimilate and digest a set of formulae differing so widely from their own. Thus their findings were nil - and once again the quest for the great Arcanum was abandoned as a madman's team - the crock of gold beyond the rainbow.
Why did they thus abandon their search with so poor struggle? I am loath to conclude that there are today no men who see visions and dream dreams comparable to those of the past. Yet it would seem so. Perhaps I am wrong; one can be as unduly critical of the faults of a contemporary era as one is over-enamoured of its marvels, and we may have philosophers and thinkers in our midst of whose merit we have no inkling. According to G. B. Shaw you may scratch an Andrew Undershaft and find a philanthropist. So there is yet the possibility that you may scratch a scientist and find a man whose imagination may extend beyond a bug under his microscope.
The point that I always belabour in this argument of materialism versus "idealism" is that these men whom we are so prone to call foolish astrologers, dreamers, impractical mystics, number among themselves some of the world's outstanding brains. What is more, these adepts were not confined to any particular era, class or clime, although some periods of history and some countries did produce more than others. They were usually men of birth and education, because it was to such that the gates of learning were more easily opened, but they were found in every country, in every age, in every stratum of society, and it mattered not whether they were Pope or shoemaker, Hindu or Swiss. China, India, Egypt, Persia and the many States of Europe, all had their alchemists, and many of these are today acknowledged to be the founders of chemistry as we know it. I picked up only recently a Dictionary of Elementary Chemistry, and under the heading of Important Dates, I found the following :-
400 B.C. - A.D. 400. - Aristotle and other Greek chemists put forward certain theories which led to belief in the transmutation of elements and that matter consists of four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
1214 - 1294. - Roger Bacon introduced uses of gunpowder.
15th century. - Basil Valentine obtained ammonia from sal ammoniac. (Basil Valentine has been called the Father of Modern Chemistry.)
1577 - 1644. - Van Helmont discovered carbon dioxide and called it ' Gas Sylvestre,' the Wild Gas of the Woods.
1650. - J. R. Glauber discovered sodium sulphate. (Glauber's work, De Natura Salum, was published in 1658.)
All these men believed in alchemy and its claims, and what is more, they practised it in their laboratories. The fact that it is their discoveries which to this very day we still consider steps of valuable scientific progress precludes the argument that they were capable of dreaming and nothing more. All that remains to be proven is whether their belief in transmutation was a delusion - a slight mania to which men of genius are perhaps more prone than are those of more ordinary calibre - or whether it did have its basis in very fact, which they by their experiments proved, but which we, during the growth of the material age, have lost.
The most generally recognised aspect of the alchemists' work, and that which has brought them most fame or notoriety, as the case may be, is their, alleged power to produce an elixir capable of transmuting the base metals into gold. The aim of the more altruistic of their brotherhood, however - and there were many - was to utilise this elixir for medicinal purposes, as a universal panacea for the curing of all diseases and the prolongation of human life. I would add that the alchemist's knowledge is based on no mean foundations. He is not merely a chemist but an occultist. Following, as he does, the Hermetic teaching, he regards the universe in its entirety, not merely in its component parts. He believes that everything in nature, including man himself, is in process of transmutation from a lower into a higher form of life (alas, in the case of man, how very gradual seems the process!). Man, he believes, will transform his animal tendencies into spiritual qualities which will one day make him in truth a Son of God, in the Image and Likeness of that One Perfect Life from which all other life has come.
In the mineral kingdom he considers that the aim of Nature is to produce gold - as the most precious metal we know - and that all the baser metals, therefore, are in the process of attaining that goal, each one being in a different stage of evolution. They further maintain that there exists in the mineral kingdom a "seed" of metal, a quintessence or fifth principle which, when isolated and purified, has the power of transmutation. It is this quintessence, they say, which has also the power of curing all man's physical ills, and of prolonging his life beyond the expected span. And its curative properties, be it noted, are to consist not of the gingering up of glandular functions, with its attendant result of mental decline and degradation, but of the stimulation and sharpening of the mental processes, so that man is preserved in the prime not merely of his bodily, but of his mental faculties. It is in that last particular that the alchemical elixir differs so vastly from the allopathic remedies with which we are familiar to-day.
Modern medicine labours under great difficulties. Its devotees persist in dealing with effects instead of causes, of dealing with man as a purely physical entity instead of a combination of body, soul and spirit. In healing the body of a man it should always be remembered that the most important part of him is his "etheric" body or nervous system, which controls the visible or coarse physical body. Therefore, to deal solely with his physical manifestation is not merely inadequate, but very often an incorrect procedure. It is the nervous system which is the unknown factor in all diseases, and yet since it can manifest no fixed and visible symptoms as can the physical body, it cannot be treated by any rule of thumb. Hence any suffering entailed by its imperfect functioning is dismissed as "nerves" - nerves in this instance apparently comprising an effort of the patient's imagination. No text book has, as yet, attempted to explain this nervous force, and while the omission persists, medical diagnosis and treatment will remain an incomplete and rather sordid affair of vaccines, injections and synthetic vitamins of various kinds, all measures calculated to pump up and maintain in some kind of running order the physical vehicle. Secondly, all allopathic treatment (treatment by drugs) fails in another way. The drugs are administered in so crude a form that the patient may be cured of his disease only to fall victim to the effects of the drug. The essential in the preparation of alchemical remedies is simplicity itself. They consist purely and simply of the removal of all poisonous elements and the retention of the curative properties. The use of mineral medicines up to the present time has almost always led to disaster where the mineral has been administered in any quantity. Lead and gold salts, mercury and arsenic, all have been tried, but whenever they are administered in sufficiently large doses to ameliorate the symptoms over which they claim victory, it is usually found that the wretched patient, in escaping Scylla has but fallen prey to Charybdis - in this case metallic poisoning.
The failure of allopathy has given homeopathy and its sister, bio-chemistry, their chance. These two methods are both far superior, but they are still not completely satisfactory. By administering infinitesimal doses, the danger of poisoning is eliminated, but much of the virtue of the remedy is lost. The task of alchemy, on the other hand, is to use as its remedy a medium from which all poison has been eliminated and the virtue preserved. This is both scientific and exact.
I have been a student of alchemy for many years - in theory and practice. When I approached the practical side I determined to keep an absolutely open mind, and; to put behind me any ideas of orthodox chemistry I might have cherished. Without this resolution I should not have attained that degree of success which has been my lot. Sufficient it is to say that I have been able to prove the truth of the alchemists' assertions, and the results which I have so far obtained have coincided with their claims. The symbolism in which all their formulas is hidden presents a formidable obstacle to the neophyte, but once mastered, like the key to a code, it ceases to be any more mysterious than does a modern chemical formula. For the rest, I followed out the work in a laboratory fitted up as nearly as possible with the apparatus of the chemist of old, the only improvement; being in the furnaces. Instead of the old cumbersome fire furnaces, which required constant watching night and day, I have been blessed with the modern benefits of electricity and bunsen gas flames, which make it possible to maintain an even temperature night and day over any period of time. And from these processes have been obtained salts as yet unknown to modern chemistry or mineralogy.