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Experiential practical alchemy No. 1

By Adam McLean. First published in the Hermetic Journal Winter 1981.

In the past issues of the Hermetic Journal, the Hermetic Meditation feature has provided an introductory series of meditative exercises, which have allowed us to approach the work of alchemy in a state of inner preparedness. These exercises, the inner work within the retort of the Soul, and the work with the internalising of external natural processes, will have given birth, at least in germ, to inner soul organs which we can now use for the alchemical observation of substance. Thus our Hermetic Meditation feature is here metamorphosed into an experiential working with practical alchemy, and this will continue over the next few issues, providing an introductory course for the alchemical working with substance. All of the experiments/exercises outlined here will be, in fact, explorations of our relationship with substances and processes, that will in time give rise to inwardly forming an alchemical view of substance rather than a material chemical perspective. Thus it is the observation of the experiment that is important here, our relationship with the substances and processes in the flask, rather than the end product of the experiment. At present no subtle transformations are involved merely simple chemical experiments. The essence, however, of this phase of the work is that we inwardly relate to the substances and processes through meditation, in a sense making these live within us, and our work with the Hermetic Meditations will be found to have been of great value as preparation for this task. We, as alchemists, must learn to truly experience substance, to see the different ways in which different types of matter and processes within this matter behave, and in this way to approach the essence of substance. We will take substances and experience them with our outer senses, their smell, colour, form, etc. , and we must try always to bear something of their essence into our inner world, so that we connect with the being of a substance. Thus we can inwardly encounter the etheric/spiritual body of a substance as well as its material embodiment. We shall also experience various alchemical processes - SOLUTION, SUBLIMATION, DISTILLATION, etc. , and see the ways in which these transform matter, subtly changing its essence and form. All this will be introductory, but in time will lead us to more subtle work.


We should try to obtain a wide range of the fundamental substances that were known and were of interest to the early alchemists. For our initial experiments we will need the following (large crystals rather than powder).

SODA              Sodium carbonate Na2CO3.10H2O          Cs   Cr 
LYE, ALKALI       Sodium hydroxide NaOH                  Cs   Cr   P
BLUE VITRIOL      Copper (Cupric) sulphate CuSO4.5H20              P
GREEN VITRIOL     Iron (Ferrous) sulphate FeSO4.7H20               P
WHITE VITRIOL     Zinc sulphate ZnSO4.6H20                         P
VOLATILE ALKALI   Ammonia NH4OH                          Cs   Cr   P

As some of these substances are caustic (Cs), Corrosive (Cr) or poisonous (P) (I will not initially include any very dangerous poisons) we have to observe certain sensible precautions when handling these. We must keep our substances away from food, secure in clear, labelled and sealed glass bottles, on a shelf or locked away from the prying hands of children. It is preferable to have a secure room one can set aside as a laboratory, but with proper precautions these simple experiments can be carried out in less ideal conditions. So we must respect our substances. Few of these occur in their present form on the Earth, but are here found purified and concentrated. Thus their focussed power is strong and we should not treat them lightly, for if treated with respect, they can reveal to us much of the spiritual forces bound up in their concentrated material form. Some of these are readily available, but for others one will have to visit a laboratory supplier.


Next, we require some items of laboratory equipment. It is best to use the 'Quickfit' or ground glass jointed apparatus, as this is most easy to assemble. We require for our first experiments an initial modest outlay

Stand and clamps
100m1 and 250m1 round bottomed flasks
Spatulas and tweezers
Eye droppers
Dropping funnel with pressure equalising tube 100m1
Ground glass stoppers to fit above
Watch glasses

Make sure that the bore of all equipment is compatible and interchangeable and try to obtain as wide a bore as possible (24mm, say) as this facilitates the placing of substances in our flasks.


Our initial experiments will be those of Solution and Precipitation and thus we are investigating the interface of the solid and liquid phases, of how substance moves from an earth form to a water form and vice versa. As our observation of the experiments is of prime import, it is best if we can focus clearly on the flask, and the isolation of this from the background can readily be obtained by conducting the experiments in a dark room, with the flask illuminated from below by a torch or other device (this should be secured in a fixed position rather than hand-held). I have used my own design of colour analyser for this purpose and it might be of help to others if they could make a similar device. This consists of three primary coloured bulbs each with a separate dimmer switch to enable a precise control of the colour illuminating the flask. However, although of great value for observation this is not entirely necessary for experimentation. A small torch with pieces of coloured cellophane or "coloured theatrical gels" placed over the lens is almost as useful. It is however best to have the flask lit from below.


Fill a 100ml round bottomed flask, held in the clamp and stand, about a half full of pure water, and place into this a few crystals of one of our substances (always use tongs, tweezers or a spatula to handle chemicals). Observe minutely the way in which the substance dissolves. One might for example, see streams of coloured liquid rising from the crystals, or a denser layer of liquid forming at the surface of the crystals may descend in the flask forming a layer at the bottom. Use illumination from the bottom and observe the changes using different colours of light. In some experiments, gently heat the base of the flask (the flask must not be sealed when this is done). Use a spirit lamp (not a candle as this will only soot up the base of the flask). The colour analyser uses three 60 watt bulbs and can generate some considerable heat on its own. One will see convection currents forming in the flask, and dissolved material will be carried upwards and mix through the whole solute. Meditate upon this phenomenon, using the technique outlined in Hermetic Meditation No 10, bearing the experience into one's inner world, inwardly picturing it, and allowing this inner picture to take on its own life. Return outwardly to the experiment in progress, and absorbing with one's senses the continuing events in the flask, then inwardly digest these again.


Here we will examine the ways in which the soluble salts of the metals can be made to precipitate themselves from solution through the addition of a solution of Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Carbonate or Ammonia. These precipitates consist chemically of metal Hydroxides, Carbonates or basic Carbonates, and in the case of Copper and Zinc, complex ammonium compounds are formed. Make up a solution of one of our vitriols in a beaker, and also another solution of one of our reagents, lye or soda (ammonia is of course obtainable as a liquid solution). The precise strengths of these solutions will be left to the investigator to experiment with (begin say with a 10% volume for volume solution).

For our first experiment, place the solution of the metal salt in the 100 ml round bottomed flask, held in a clamp, to about a half full. Then fit the dropping funnel (one with pressure equalising tube) to the flask, and with the stopcock closed, place one of our reagents into this funnel. (Alternatively one could use an eye dropper, picking up a small quantity of the reagent at a time, to drop into the open flask). Turn the stopcock gently, and allow a single drop of reagent (say carbonate) to fall into the metal, say Copper Sulphate - blue vitriol solution). Examine the precipitate formed in different coloured lights, and at the same time add further drops of carbonate to the flask. Try to inwardly picture how the clear solution becomes instantly materialised into the precipitate (water immediately becoming earth). The precipitate will begin to rise and fall in the flask on convection currents. Allow this to become pictured inwardly though meditation. The clear solution holding in potential this precipitate of insoluble metal carbonate. (In the case of Copper, this is the basic carbonate, which is chemically identical with Malachite - the green precious gemstone - the formation of Malachite in the Earth probably took place in a similar-manner).

With the hydroxide precipitates (the experiments in which lye solution is run into the metal salt) of Iron and Copper, in particular, one will note a gradual colour change through the oxidation of these. Oxidation is a process which further earths substances (as in the rusting process), bringing them into a more stable state. Its opposite - Reduction - produces a more potentially reactive binding of unstable energies (valencies in potential) in the substance.

These experiments should be repeated in reverse, i.e. dropping the metal salts, in turn, into a flask containing solutions of sodium carbonate or Hhydroxide or ammonia.

Finally, as another variant, one can place large crystals of metal salts into solutions of carbonate, hydroxide or ammonia, and examine the growth of precipitate on the surface. And this can also be done in reverse, adding crystals of carbonate and hydroxide to the vitriols in solution.

The essence of these experiments is to aquaint the alchemical experimenter with the process of Solution and Precipitation, and nothing will have been achieved unless the experimenter undertakes to meditate upon the experiences, working with this inwardly. It is the cultivation of an inner experience of what is revealed in the changes in our flask, that constitutes the work of this type of soul alchemy. One must lead the outer changes in the flask, into one's soul and let this pattern structure one's inner experience. In this way, one touches upon the inner meaning of Solution or Precipitation. One cannot discover this by mental work alone, nor merely as the results of experiments, but only through connecting these two realms, uniting Theoria with Praxis.

These initial experiments (some 17 in all) should not be hurried but done over a few weeks or months and provide a starting point and basis for working alchemically with substance.