alchemy by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino via Flickr

Wikipedia gives a wonderful summary of Alchemy, worthy of being repeated here:

Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose practitioners have, from antiquity, claimed it to be the precursor to profound powers. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied, but historically have typically included one or more of the following goals: the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone; the ability to transform base metals into the noble metals (gold or silver); and development of an elixir of life, which would confer youth and longevity. Alchemy is recognized as a protoscience that contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Alchemists developed a framework of theory, terminology, experimental process and basic laboratory techniques that are still recognizable today. But alchemy differs significantly from modern science in its inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, magic, religion, and spirituality

With this brief summary under our belt, let’s highlight some of the main facets of alchemy—at least, those which might be most helpful for spiritual seekers.

In everyday usage, the word alchemy describes a psychological dynamic within and, according to C. G. Jung, among real people. Its etymology points to the actual practice of alchemy, derived via Arabic from the Greek chemeia.

Alchemy (2) by Tom Holmberg via Flickr

Historically, alchemy involved the mixing of heated chemicals and mineral substances with a view toward artificially transforming base metals into gold. The ancient Greeks in Alexandria around 300 BCE practiced the art, as did the Arabs and Chinese. During the Middle Ages, many shams posing as alchemists arose in England. There was great interest, especially among the nobility, because these shams said they could make gold out of base metals.

Few realize that Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) wrote on alchemy, and his writings were unpublished in his lifetime. The theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also wrote on alchemy. And in the sixteenth-century the Swiss physician Paracelsus wrote extensively on alchemy. Moreover, the poet John Donne claimed that “some can finde out Alchimy” by reading the Bible. Astrologers, too, were keen on alchemy. In medieval Europe 12 distinct alchemical stages were associated with the 12 astrological houses of the zodiac.

The depth psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed that alchemists not only transformed substances but also practiced a psycho-spiritual technique. Jung claimed that, because the alchemists’ were closely connected to their work, the transmutation of substances paralleled their own psycho-spiritual development. Along these lines, raw sulfur (prima materia) was transformed into gold (the philosopher’s stone) through various boiling and chemical treatments. So, Jung’s thinking goes, baser aspects of the psyche were likewise transmuted to a higher awareness, leading to a more comprehensive outlook. This transformation involved stages, culminating in a ‘mystical union’ of the male anima and female animus archetypes within the self, which Jung believes are universal.²

Alchemist Sendivogius.
Alchemist Sendivogius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Discounting the historical frauds who faked the creation of gold to try to scam aristocrats, Jungians tend to see alchemy as a personal quest for wholeness and immortality. This quest usually entails a sequence of a psychological deaths and rebirths. For Jung these deaths and rebirths are not just symbolic. Instead, good and bad psychological states accompy each stage of the process. And we apparently feel them, making them emotionally real.

Some students of mythology tend to see the theme of dismemberment and restoration (best exemplified by the Egyptian Osiris) as a mythic parallel to the alchemical process. The Romanian religion scholar Mircea Eliade maintains that the alchemists quickened the natural pace of geological change. And without really explaining too much or saying why he says so, Eliade says the alchemists were altering time. Eliade also wrote novels. So perhaps his literary side was emerging here. But that doesn’t really help us to pin down what he was alluding to. Just more mystery.

Having said that, it seems Eliade is not referring to the subjective experience of time but rather to cheating the laws of nature. Transforming raw elements into refined forms (such as carbon to diamond) normally demands precise geological conditions and a definite duration. By quickening the process, Eliade says the alchemists overcame a natural process and thus mastered time, itself.³

An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Al...
An Alchemical Laboratory, from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Assuming it’s not all quackery, the alchemical process might accelerate the geological rate of change. But Jungian Marie-Louise Von-Franz claims that the alchemical stages follow their own temporal logic, representing general phases in the process of psychological transformation. Although usually painful, Von-Franz says the alchemical stages cannot be quickened. The mythic and yet subtly visceral ‘boilings’ and ‘dismemberments’ of the psyche undergoing these changes must be patiently endured, with the ultimate hope that maturity and wisdom – what the alchemists call the elixir of life – will eventually rise from the ‘fire’ of suffering.

Perhaps most interesting in all this, however, is Jung’s assertion that the metaphor of alchemy can be extended to the dynamic of human relationship. That is, relationships are like chemical interactions. Accordingly, Jung wrote a piece called “Marriage as a Psychological Relationship” (1925). And he dabbled with the parapsychological idea that mystical relationships could occur at a distance, an idea far more discussed today than in Jung’s time.

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² This view has been critiqued, notably by Naomi R. Goldenberg. See Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions.

³ Eliade’s thinking on alchemy and time is confusing or maybe just underdeveloped or possibly understated. A similar argument about time could be made in the context of buying a fast food hamburger instead of raising and slaughtering cows, and then cooking the meat for oneself. Is the nature of time really altered by buying a hamburger? It’s hard to know if Eliade is just playing intellectual word games or if he actually believed he was hinting at something deeper, something too profound for the masses to get at that time.



  1. true alchemy is about spiritual transformation; not the matieral, although that can definitely be a consequential effect.



  2. I disagree with your statement about Eliade. You could go buy a diamond from J. Micheal’s Jewlers as easily as the fast food burger (well, it might cost you a tiny but more:) But you have had nothing to do with the process of creating the diamond/burger. A more apt metaphor would be for you to take a cow patty and add powdered something or other and boil it for a week to ‘make’ a delicious burger. Yum.


    • Thanks for your comment. It’s been a while since I looked at that book. But from what I remember, Eliade makes the statement that they’re playing with time, or something like that, without really explaining what he means in any great detail.

      So I think my response to that has to do with my just trying to figure out what he meant. I still don’t really get what he was trying to say. If you’d like to explain a bit more how you see it, by all means…


  3. “One might say that Eliade is merely playing word games as the nature of time is not truly altered in either instance.”

    The nature of time has to do with more than seconds ticking into minutes ticking into hours. Time (duration)=distance (work)/speed (rate of work). Mathematically speaking, if it takes God 300 million years to mash raw carbon into a diamond (natural geological law including time, work and a predictable rate of work) and a alchemist comes along and twiddles with the numbers, he or she is altering the equation…i.e. mastering time itself.


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