ALCHEMY, THE GREAT WORK

An investigation into the relationship between Astrology, Alchemy and the Mystical

by Allan Tidmarsh

Copyright 1998

[This article was originally published under the above title in the magazine Astrolore, Number 1]

Introduction

   The word alchemy is derived from the arabic 'Al Kimiya’, used in the Islamic world to denote not only the art of producing the elixir or philosopher's stone but also the substance or medium of transformation. Western Alchemy is essentially derived from Islamic Alchemy, and the first alchemical texts were translated from the arabic in the 12th century. Western Alchemy was also influenced by Hellenistic Alchemy through the translation of greek texts into arabic and then into latin (Astrological texts also came into western Europe by the same route). One of these works was the Emerald Tablet nominally written by Hermes Trimegistus. There were two types of Alchemy - philosophical/mystical and experimental/chemical; it's the former we're concerned with here. Beginning with the search for the Holy Grail, we'll continue by examining how astrological and alchemical symbolism were used in the 'western esoteric tradition’ and how this relates to other traditions.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

   Arthur sets up the round table at which he presides, with his queen Guinivere, over the gathering of his knights. At this assembly the deeds of the knights are told, and the law of the kingdom is upheld. Some medieval manuscript pictures show the assembly, but with the Holy Grail rising from the centre of the round table.

   Briefly, the search for the grail involves Arthur's Knights. The Grail is located at the spiritual centre of the land. The Grail, when found heals the kingdom. The grail quest stories may originate in a Celtic cycle of hero myths, which were enacted during the year ending at the main religious centre of the area or kingdom. The Celtic cauldrons of rebirth, inspiration and plenty became in the 12th century romances the Holy Grail; which in turn became the Alchemical vessels.

The Centre of the Land

   The civil and religious centres of a Celtic kingdom were nominally located at the geographic midpoint of the kingdom; the religious centre was commonly the nearest site to this location which had the right 'vibes' - the holy sanctuary. The kingdom was divided into 4 subkingdoms which were further divided into 3 more areas, making 12 divisions in total. These twelve divisions represent the 12 winds/directions and also the 12 signs of the zodiac. The division of the realm into 12 around the centre of the land was developed to symbolise the union of earth with the heavens (‘as above so below’). The king of the realm (or high king) assigned his best men (or knights) to rule over the twelve divisions. When the king summoned his assembly they would attend his personage at the centre of the kingdom where laws were promulgated, judgements were pronounced and religious ceremonies were held around, or in the holy sanctuary. Notice the similarity to King Arthur and his knights meeting at the round table. The high king was believed to be in union with the land. The functions of the priests at the Holy Sanctuary was to keep the land free of evil and the crops plentiful. One of the activities that the priests did to achieve this was to perform ritual chants.

The Holy Sanctuary

   There are two well known places in Britain which have links to Arthurian legends - Stonehenge (the Giant's Dance) and Glastonbury (Avalon). Glastonbury is well known as a religious centre. Stonehenge has been shown to be a Solar and Lunar observatory (through astro-archaeological research). These two sites also have something not immediately obvious in common; they are apparently laid out on a groundplan of the same dimensions. The diagram below shows the layout of the chapel at Glastonbury - the size of the circle containing the octagon is the same as that of the sarsen circle at Stonehenge.

Glastonbury Mary Chapel Plan

Figure 1 - Groundplan Mary Chapel Glastonbury

   The measurements of the dimensions of the groundplan of Stonehenge contain meaning relating to the ancient science of Gematria. This is a system of allocating a number to each letter of the Greek alphabet. When the numerical values of the letters of a word, or a phrase, are added up they result in a number which is used as a measurement in groundplan, encoding wisdom into dimensions (for details of this you should refer, to City of Revelation by John Michell). Similar systems were applied to other alphabets. The arabic script system was known as the science of letters. The letters of the arabic alphabet were organised into 4 groups: Fire, Air, Water and Earth. The gematric numbers of most interest to astrologers are:

   Before considering the following, one should bear in mind a rule in Gematria that says you can add or subtract one to the number without affecting its significance. Some sample dimensions of the groundplan of Stonehenge:    The holy sanctuary or temple was laid out, with measurements built into it to symbolise the marriage of the Solar (male) and the Lunar (female), as well as the union of heaven and earth. Tradition has it that the Holy Grail or the Philosophers stone was buried at Glastonbury, this could relate to symbolic fusion hidden in the measurements of the groundplan.

   Other cathedrals and abbeys appear to have been laid out in various methods in order to symbolise the union of heaven and earth in their structures - most of these being built during the 12th and 13th Centuries. For example: Chartres - the structure appears laid out in part using a seven pointed star. The layout of Salisbury uses an Octagon/rhombus. The idea of the Gothic cathedral was to create a sacred space to enhance the spiritual awareness of the congregation. One of the elements in achieving this was the use of music - gregorian chanting.

The Zodiac Wheel and the Planets

   The diagram below shows the planets as rulers of the signs (original 7 not including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto). The Zodiac wheel and the planetary rulerships can be used to represent the concepts of involution and evolution.

Zodiac Wheel
Figure2 - Zodiac Wheel

   Involution is the descent of the soul from the macrocosm through the planetary spheres to the earth (microcosm) gaining aspects/qualities of the planets. Evolution is the ascent of the soul to the celestial sphere, losing or transcending the limiting qualities of the planets.

The Alchemical Work

   The aim of the alchemical work was to transmute Lead (or other base metals) into Gold. I am only looking at the psychological and spiritual side of alchemy. The alchemist sought to unify male and female (gold and silver) in himself to complete the work, through the agency of Mercurius (Hermes). This unity is also symbolised in the cadeucus that Hermes carries, around which are entwined two serpents. The glyphs for the planets have symbolic meaning, and are made up of 4 components: Emergence (dot), Spirit (circle), Soul/Receptivity (half-circle), Matter (plus sign). These are shown below alongside the metals for each planet.

Astrological Symbols
Figure 3 - Astrological Symbols

So the glyphs have symbolic meaning as follows :

   The above diagram and the symbolism of the planetary glyphs provides a meaning to the stages of alchemy. The path of involution is achieved by the successive transformation of 'metals' from Lead through to Gold. The following alchemical transformation of metals is based on the 'writings of Edward Kelley; the Elizabethan renaissance alchemist (from his Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy). It consists of 6 stages.
  1. Preparation: Before the work can start the prima materia must be made ready. This is the preparation of the alchemist's soul for its awakening. The imperfect soul is 'dissolved' so that it could be recoagulated into a purer form.
  2. Lead (saturn) into Tin (jupiter): The soul awakes, emerges from matter and has effectively transcended it. The receptive soul can now experience spirit - but only dimly. During this stage the Mercurius' transforming agent is released from the Prima Materia.
  3. Tin (jupiter) into Iron (mars): The life force stirs, spirit is experienced in greater depth (the principle of life). Spirit has now to emerge from its material chains.
  4. Iron (mars) into Copper (venus): The spirit emerges from matter, though it remains linked to it.
  5. Copper (venus) into Mercury or Quicksilver (mercury): The alchemical work nears completion. Spirit and soul are ready for the final step.
  6. Fusion: Gold (sun) and Silver (moon) are joined with Mercury (mercury), and the alchemical marriage occurs between the Father sun and Mother moon. God is experienced. The mystical marriage was achieved with the formation of the androgyne, effectively the union of active/passive, male/female and spirit/soul.
   An essential ingredient in the alchemical process was the philosopher's stone, without which the final transformation into gold could not occur. During the work, astrology was used-to determine the best time to start the work and specific steps in the work, i.e. when the celestial influences were most favourable. Some alchemical texts say that you must find a master of the Alchemical work to provide the seeker with direction and guidance. The opus (or work) illustrates the process of individuation; the step by step development of the self; from an unconscious state to a conscious one.

Alchemy and its use in Mystical Thought

The Rosicrucians

   Alchemy was a vital 'ingredient' of the Rosicrucian movement and writings. The Fama (1614) tells of the existence of the brotherhood and how it was started. The Confessio (1615) again stated their aims, and the Chemical Wedding (1616) was an allegory of inner transformation. Analysis of the Chemical Wedding text yields a seven fold structure in the story - this can be interpreted as being related to the seven planets. There exists a tentative links between the Rosicrucian brotherhood and Masonry. The two earliest known speculative masons (in England): Sir Robert Moray (c. 1600-1765) and Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), were deeply interested in Rosicrucianism. Ashmole was also into alchemy. Robert Fludd (1574-1637) was an apologist for rosicrucians and published books which tried to unite the Christian, cabbalistic, hermetic, astrological and alchemical ideas into a single esoteric system.

Christian Mystics

   Jacob Boehme (1 575-1624) used alchemical symbolism in his writings to express the process of the mystical quest. He inspired the use of alchemical symbolism by others. In Christian alchemical writings the stone (lapis), which was the agent of transformation, was equated with Christ.

Lslamic/Sufi

   The earliest texts translated into latin from the arabic were written by Jabir Ibn el-Hayyan El-Sufi (known in Europe as Geber). In his works he acknowledges the Imam Jafar Sadiq, a great Sufl teacher, as his spiritual master. Alchemy was used as allegory in teaching stories. In the Sufi tradition the stone or elixir was regarded as a state of mind. In Sufi development the seeker has to pass through seven stages of preparation, these stages called 'men' are degrees of transmutation of consciousness. The seven stages are:
 

  1. The individual out of personal control; the depraved/commanding man.
  2. The dawn of self-awareness; the self accusing man.
  3. The beginning of real mental integration, the inspired man
  4. Equilibrium of individuality; the serene man.
  5. The fulfilled man.
  6. The fulfilling man.
  7. The purified and complete man (capable of teaching others).


Conclusion

    It would appear that alchemy is a western spiritual method which used the symbolism of chemical properties and astrology - this included elements from Islamic and Indian Yogic traditions. The modern world is dominated by the Rational (Solar) mode of thinking. This is slowly being changed. More people are trying to find themselves and this is resulting in experiences of the alternative Intuitional (Lunar) mode. It will be no good if we just swap the Intuitional way for the Rational way of thinking, as it will result in a different set of problems. If humanity is to progress both modes of thinking must be used by all - this is the challenge for us all as we enter into the age of Aquarius.
 

References

  1. New Light on the Ancient Mysteries of Glastonbury, John Michell
  2. The City of Revelation, John Michell
  3. Twelve Tribe Nations, John Michell
  4. The Mysteries of Chartre Cathedral, Louis Charpentier
  5. Glastonbury and Britain, a study in Patterns (RILKO)
  6. The Cosmic Wisdom Behind Astrology, Adrian Gilbert
  7. The Opening Eye, Frank McGillion
  8. SUFI - the Mystic quest, Laleh Baktiah