1902 Encyclopedia > Alchemy > Alchemy - The Sacred Art

(Part 3)



Paganism, at the time when it was engaged in its last struggle with Christianity, had long ceased to be exclusively Greek or Roman. It had assimilated Mithratic, Chaldean, and Egyptian mysteries, and even allied itself to a certain extent with the Helleno-Hebraism of the Cabala. It was not likely, then, to reject what purer times whould have regarded as an utter profanation. The narrow ground on which the battle was fought, the intellectual affinities between such men as St Basil and the emperor Julian rendered the struggle as desperate and sanguinary as any struggle can be when the combatants are only rival creeds. The sacred and divine art, the sacred science, was one of the mysteries which paganism derived from the dim religious light of the temple. But we may presume that the sacred art of the Alexandrians was no longer the same as that of the ancient Egyptians, that their Hermes was not the Hermes of Egypt, that the pseudo-Democritus is not the true Democritus, that Pythagoras, as retouched by Iamblicus, is not the original Pythagoras. No epoch was so full of forgeries as the 3d and 4th centuries A.D.; and these forgeries were in one sense fabricated in good faith. An age of eclecticism is as eager for original documents as a parvenue is for a coat of arms or a genealogical tree. These forgeries were no obtacle to human progress; but in an age when the learning of Egypt was the fashion, it was natural that Persian, Jewish, and Platonic doctrines should be tricked out in an Egyptian dress. One of the masters of the sacred art, Alexander of Aphrodisias, invented the term chyics (khuikon [Gk.], from kheo [Gk.], to pour, cheueo [Gk.], to fuse or melt), to describe the operations of the laboratory. Hence the word chemics, a word unknown in the 4th century, and only popular some centuries later. The reason is, that the true etymology of the word chemic is logical, and has therefore no charms for the psychological spirit of the age. Later on, when men began to reflect that the ancient name for Egypt was Cham or Chemia, because, according to Plutarch, its soil was black like the pupil of the eye (khemeia tou ophthalmou [Gk.]), it flattered the chemists to call chemistry "the art of the ancient Chemi." Hence from a false derivation the art received a fresh impulse.

The discovery of the principal manuscripts of the sacred art we owe to the labour of M. Ferdinand Hoefer. We can take no safer guide than the judicious and profound author of the History of Chemistry in investigating the delusions into which a master of the sacred art was most likely to fall.

"Let us forget for an instant the advances which this science has made since the 5th century. Let us fancy ourselves for a moment transported to the laboratory of one of the great masters of the sacred art, and watch as neophytes some of his operations. 1st Experiment. - Some common water is heated in an open vessel. The water boils and changes to an aeriform body (steam), leaving at the bottom of the vessel a white earth in the form of powder. Conclusion - water changes into air and earth. What objection could we make to this inference, if we were wholly ignorant of the substances which water holds in solution, and which are, after evaporation, deposited at the bottom of the vessel? 2d Experiment.- A piece of red-hot iron is put under a bell which rests in a basin full of water. The water diminishes in volume, and a candle being introduced into the bell sets fire at once to the has inside. Conclusions - water changes into fire. It's not this the natural conclusions which would present itself to any one who was ignorant that water is a composite body, consisting of two gases, one of which, oxygen, is absorbed by the iron, while the other, hydrogen, is ignited by contact with the flame? 3d experiment. - A piece of lead, or any other metal except gold or silver, is burned (calcined) in contact with the air. It immediately loses its primitive properties, and is transformed into a powder or species of ashes or lime. The ashes, which are the product of the death of the metal are again taken and heated in a crucible together with some grains of wheat, and the metal is seen rising from its ashes and reassuming its original form and properties. Conclusions-metals are destroyed by fire and revivified by wheat and heat. No objection could be raised against this inference, for the reduction of oxides by means of carbon, such as wheat, was as little known as the phenomenon of the oxidation of metals. It was from this power of resuscitating and reviving dead, i.e., calcined metals, that grains of wheat were made the symbol; of the resurrection and life eternal. 4th Experiment. - Argentiferous lead is burned in cupels composed of ashes or pulverized bones, the lead disappears, and at the end of the operation there remains in the cupel a nugget of pure silver. Nothing was more natural than to conclude that the lead was transformed into silver; and to build on this and analogous facts, the theory of the transmutation of metals, a theory which, later on, led to the search for the philosopher's stone. 5th Experiment. - A strong acid is poured on copper, the metal is acted upon, and in process of time disappears, or rather is transformed into a green transparent liquid. Then a thin plate of iron is plunged into this liquid, and the copper is seen to reappear in its ordinary aspect, while the iron in its turn is dissolved. What more natural than to conclude that iron is transformed into copper? If instead of the solution of copper, a solution of lead, silver, or gold had been employed, they would have held that iron was transformed into lead, silver, or gold. 6th Experiment. - Mercury is poured in a gentle shower on melted sulphur, and a substance is produced as black as a raven's wing. This substance, when warmed in a closed vessel, is volatilized without changing, and assumes a brilliant red colour. Must not this curious phenomenon, which even science in the present day is unable to explain, have struck with amazement the worshippers of the sacred art, the more as in their eyes black and red were nothing less than the symbols of light and darkness, the good and evil principles, and that the union of these two principles represented in the moral order of things their God-universe. 7th and last Experiment.- Organic substances are heated in a still, and from the liquids which are removed by distillation and the essences which escape, there remains a solid residuum. Was it not likely that results such as these would go far to establish the theory which made earth, air, fire, and water the four elements of the world?

But neither M.F. Hoefer's explanation of the appearances which the first master of the sacred art mistook for fact, nor the metaphysical theory of Nemesius, will enable us to understand how Zosimus the Theban, in the very infancy of the art, succeeded in discovering in sulphuric acid a solvent of metals; in assigning to mercury (which he called "holy water") its proper function, a function which succeeding generations of alchemists so monstrously exaggerated; and finally in disengaging from the red oxide of mercury oxygen has, that Proteus which so often eluded the grasp of the alchemists, till at last it was held fast by the subtle analysis of Lavoisier. For we must remember that solid metals were considered as living bodies, and gases as souls which they allowed to escape. Of all the ingenious inventions of the Jewess Maria for regulating fusions and distillations, the only one that has survived is the Balneum Marioe. The principle it depends on, viz that the calcinations of violent heat is less powerful as a solvent or component than the liquefaction produced by gentle heat, was afterwards reasserted by the Arabian Geber, and advocated by Francis Bacon. M. Hoeder imagines that maria the Jewess discovered hydrochloric acid, the formidable rival of sulphuric acid. Succeeding writers on the history of chemistry have remarked that the bandages of Egyptian mummies were not more numerous than the mysteries of the sacred art, and the injunctions not to divulge its secrets, "under pain of the peach tree," or, to translate into modern English the language of an ancient papyrus, under pain of being poisoned by prussic acid. We should be wrong in thinking that all these allegories had no meaning for the initiated , and that this mystical tendency of the sacred art arrested its growth at starting. Rather the truth is, that these myths, which at a later stage prevented the free development of alchemy, at first served to stimulate its nascent powers.

Modern critics have pronounced some traditional sayings of Hermes Trismegistus to be apocryphal, but they have not given sufficient weight to the remarkable circumstance that it is precisely because these sayings are a medley of the cabalistic, Gnostic, and Greek ideas with which Alexandria was then seething, that the seven golden chapters, the Emerald Table, and the Pimander obtained their authority-an authority they would never have possessed had they been only a translation of some obscure Egyptian treatise. No Egyptian pries could have written a sentence like that we find so often quoted as an axiom by subsequent alchemists: - "Natura naturam siperat; deinde vero natura naturae congaudet; tandem natura naturan continet." Plato adds (not the disciple of Socrates, but a pseudo-Plato in the famous collection called Turba Philosophorum) - "continens autem omnia terra est." For, translated into modern language, this means that there may indeed be in this universe things which pass our intellectual ken; but that all that exists, all that is produced by the strife and changes of the elements, all in a word, that appears to us supernatural, is really natural. That this is his meaning we may gather from the singularly bold comment which Plato himself adds,, and which we may thus translate - " Every thing, even heaven and hell, are of this earth." It is true that the alchemists failed to draw any very definite conclusions from this fundamental axiom. But if we consider it carefully, we shall see that this earliest doctrine of the sacred art, which was now rapidly passing into alchemy, by thus excluding the supernatural, was making a great advance in the direction of positive science. This early advance was, however, counterbalanced by an early error (which itself arose from a noble ambition), viz, that art is as powerful as nature. The Emerald Table begins with a sentence no less celebrated than that quoted above.:- "This is true, and far distant from a lie; whatsoever is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below. By this are acquired and perfected the miracles of the one thing." To understand the importance of this emphatic and categorical exordium, we must forget the sharp distinction we now draw between art, science, and literature; we must think of that foolishness of which St Paul speaks, by which he sought to save those that believe, because of the insufficiency of human reason. The seekers for the philosopher's stone were in the same case. In the absence of clear facts and just notions, reason for them was not sufficient. Thus it was that they and the masters of the sacred art, and after them the Arabs and in later times the alchemists, one and all listened eagerly to the "foolishness" of Trismegistus's doctrine which, in a modern form, would run thus: "We go further than the Zohar-the sacred book of the cabala-which says that as soon as an man appeared, the world above and the world beneath were consummated, seeing that man is the crown of creation and unites all forms. We go further than the Zohar, which says in another place that the lower world was created after the similitude of the upper world. We perfect the doctrine of a microcosm and a macrocosm, and declare that there is no such thing as high or low - as heaven or earth, for the earth is a planet, and the planets are earths; we affirm that the chemical processes of our alembics are similar to those of the sidereal laboratories. All is in all. Everywhere analogy infers the same laws." From analogy to identity was an easy step for the theorists; and in the full light of the 19th century we find Hegel, a devoted admirer of the mystic Bohme, falling into this pitfall. If the spectrum analysis had been known, the Alexandrians, the Arabs, and the alchemists would have been able to verify and limit the sweeping generalization by which they established a vast system of correspondecies between the three worlds, the physical or material, the rational or intermediary, and the psychical or spiritual. Between the heavens and earth and man's nature they were ever seeking to discover affinities, and ignoring differences which would have been fatal to their system. Thus, according to them, even heaven-the abode of spirits-was partly physical; and even in the mineral world there was a spiritual element - viz, colour, brightness, or, in their language, tincture. Neither Linnaeus, Berzelius, nor Cuvier had yet classified living beings and things. The distinction between the animal, the vegetable, and the inorganic world was unknown, and indeed it was impossible that is should be known. The alchemists sought for physical conditions in the invisible and spiritual world, and for a spirit even in stocks and stones. This explains the magic which they found in nature, and which they tried to imitate by their art. But to establish this harmony between heaven, man, and nature, they required some fixed standard or scale, for in their eclectic system they were bound to find room for Pythagoras. Where was this scale to be found? In the heavens, for there must be the sphere of true music. Hence arose chemical, medical, and physionomical astrology. (See ASTROLOGY.) Hence the sun, which vivifies all nature, the most active heavenly energy, or rather being- for with them everything had life-in the syngamia [Gk.], or marriage between heaven and earth, represented the male principle, ita ut coelum agat et terra patiatur; and appearing in all terrestrial objects, since everything is penetrated by heat, fire, or sulphur, presided principally over the generation of gold - his image or antitype-in the bowels of the earth. Hence, too, the moon represented silver, Venus copper, Mercury (the planet and the gold) the metal of the same name, Mars iron, Jupiter tin; while to Saturn, the most distant and coldest of the planets, lead, the most unsightly of metals, was dedicated. It was an old belief that there was a time when gods and men dwelt together on earth, a belief, moreover, for which they could quote chapter and verse. Was it not written pasin ouraniois koinan gainan [Gk.]? Further, seeing that there were three worlds, it followed that there were three heavens, three suns, and three gold. For spirits still engrossed with matter the philosopher's stone meant the search for riches-the gold of the third world. For other spirits which belonged to the first world it signified the healing art-the preservation of humanity by means of the universal panacea and a universal theory of morals. Hence two rival systems, the first of which culminated in the great doctor Paracelsus, the second in the great Illuminato Postel. Did not Dante, the bitter foe, not of the science of alchemy, but of that miserable search for gold - for the riches of this world-which, with keen irony, he calls Peltro (tin whitened by mercury) - did not Dante himself write his great poem in order to bring back humanity to the right road from which it had strayed (svia), misled by those who should have been its true guides, the pope and the emperor. For the symbolism of those ancient masters included an alchemy of morals as well as alchemy of medicine and metallurgy, though the first was even less known and less appreciated.

Recurring to our former illustration, it was this "foolishness" of St Paul - this divine madness-which inspired the Alexandrians, the Arabs, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and the host of anonymous alchemists of the middle ages: such was the madness which cast a ray of genius over the daring spirit of even a second-rate author like Raymond Lully, which sustained Robert Fludd, Paracelsus, and Postel, who tired to find the universal panacea in universall peace. The fundamental axiom, the stronghold from which these terribly logical madmen were never wholly dislodged, may perhaps be summarized in a single sentence. The saying of Galen, in natura nihil plane sincerym, was adopted by his implacable adversaries: - Nature, they said, is in appearance an illegible scrawl, but when deciphered there will be found a single element, a single force, to separate and reunite, to produce decay and growth-knowledge is power. To know the process of generation in this triple universe, wherein one world resembles another; to know by its signatures this universe, which is a living organism in the eyes of all alchemists (save indeed Jacob Bohme, who, anticipating Hegel, regarded it as a mighty tree); this is the first step towards counterfeiting nature. Monstrosities are the production of disease metals (rea9lly alloys), which, if properly treated, may be cured, and will turn to gold, or at least silver. The second stage in this imitation of nature is to obtain by tincture or projection solid or liquid gold- the cure of all evils. Finally, to surpass material and rational nature, this is the crowning end. For God delegates his power to the sage.

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