Home ~ Alchemy Index
Mary A. ATWOOD
Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy
A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery
An Exoteric View of the Progress and Theory of Alchemy
Chapter I ~ A Preliminary Account of the Hermetic Philosophy, with the more Salient Points of its Public History
Chapter II ~ Of the Theory of Transmutation in General, and of the First Matter
Chapter III ~ The Golden Treatise of Hermes Trismegistus Concerning the Physical Secret of the Philosophers’ Stone, in Seven Sections
A More Esoteric Consideration of the Hermetic Art and its Mysteries
Chapter I ~ Of the True Subject of the Hermetic Art and its Concealed Root.
Chapter II ~ Of the Mysteries
Chapter III ~ The Mysteries Continued
Chapter IV ~ The Mysteries Concluded
Concerning the Laws and Vital Conditions of the Hermetic Experiment
Chapter I ~ Of the Experimental Method and Fermentations of the Philosophic Subject According to the Paracelsian Alchemists and Some Others
Chapter II ~ A Further Analysis of the Initial Principle and Its Education into Light
Chapter III ~ Of the Manifestations of the Philosophic Matter
Chapter IV ~ Of the Mental Requisites and Impediments Incidental to Individuals, Either as Masters or Students, in the Hermetic Art
The Hermetic Practice
Chapter I ~ Of the Vital Purification, Commonly Called the Gross Work
Chapter II ~ Of the Philosophic or Subtle Work
Chapter III ~ The Six Keys of Eudoxus
Chapter IV ~ The Conclusion
An Exoteric View of the Progress and Theory of Alchemy
Of the Theory of Transmutation in General, and of the First Matter
Est in Mercurio quicquid quaerunt Sapientes --- Turba Ecercit.1.
The theory of Alchemy, though arcane, is very simple; its basis indeed may be comprehended in that only statement of Arnold di Villanova, in his Speculum, --- That there abides in nature a certain pure matter, which, being discovered and brought by art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches.
And this would seem to be the true ground of metalline transmutation, and of every other; namely, the homogeneity of the radical substance of things; and on the alleged fact that metals, minerals, and all diversified natures, being of the same created first principles, may be reduced into their common basis or mercurial first matter, the whole Hermetic doctrine appears to hinge and proceed.
The multiform body of the world lies open, but the source everywhere is occult; nor does ordinary analysis at all discover this Universal Matter of the adepts. It has been accordingly objected, that natural species cannot be transmutable, because the transmutation of different species one into another necessarily implies mixtion and a spurious offspring: thus, that if it were even admitted possible by any means to infuse gold into lead or other inferior form, it would still remain imperfect, and the better species be defiled by the vile admixture; that the result would not in fact be gold at all, but of a middle nature, according to the proportionate virtue of the metals conjoining, golden or leaden, or as the case might be. Since species are indestructible, therefore, the transmutation of metals has been regarded as a sophistical proposition and not a true art.
And this argument the alchemists also admitting, have sometimes seemed to contradict themselves and their science; but such is not really the case and only from want of understanding them has it been supposed so. It is not species that they profess to transmute; nor do they ever teach in theory that lead as lead, or mercury as mercury specificate, can be changed into gold, any more than a dog into a horse; a tulip into a daisy, or vice versa, in this way, anything of unlike kind; but it is the subject-matter of these metals, the radical moisture of which they are uniformly composed, that they say may be withdrawn by art and transported from inferior Forms, being set free by the force of a superior ferment or attraction.
Species, says Friar Bacon, are not transmuted, but their subject-matter rather, Species non transmutantur, sed subjecta specierum optime et propriisime: --- therefore the first work is to reduce the body into water, that is, into mercury, and this is called Solution, which is the foundation of the whole art (1). And the first preparation and foundation of the Hermetic art, says the author of the Rosarium, is Solution and a reduction of the body into water, which is argent vive: for it is well known to artists that species cannot, as themselves, be transmuted, since they are not liable to sensible action and corruption; but the Subjects of species rather, since they are corruptible and may be changed; yet neither can the Subjects of species be transmuted, unless they are reduced first into their first matter, and made free to pass from one into another form. But this is not contrary to reason, because one form being expelled, another may be introduced, as is evident in rustic operations --- as in the making of glass from flints, stones and ashes: much more then should the experienced philosopher be able to corrupt the Subject-matter of natures and to introduce a new Form (2). Arnold, also admitting that species are indestructible, advises therefore that the Subject be freed by an artificial reduction (3). Species non transmutari sed individual specierum (4). And Avicenna (5), and Aristotle (6), who is also quoted from by Ripley.
As the Philosopher who in the Book of Meteors did wryte,
That the likeness of bodyes metallyne be not transmutable.
But afterwards he added theis words of more delyte,
Without they be reduced to their beginning materiable;
Wherefore such bodies as in nature be liquable
Mineral and metalline may be mercurizate,
Conceive ye may theis science is not opinable,
But very true by Raymond and others determinate (7).
When therefore Lully, speaking of the Art, declares tha species are absolute and cannot be changed one into another, --- Elementiva habent vera conditiones et una species se non transmutet in aliam (8), --- We shall not understand him as denying the art by any means, but a false position of it only; the fundamental possibility and principle of transmutation being not of species, but of their Universal Subject or first matter.
An this Universal Subject is the alleged foundation of the whole Hermetic experiment; not only the thing transmutable in natures, as is above the thing transmutable in natures, as is above shown, but the thing transmuting also, when set free and segregated in its proper essentiality, the fermented Spirit assimilates the Light throughout. --- Trust not, says the adept, those imposters who tell you of a sulphur tingens, and I know not what fables; who pin also the narrow name of Chemia on a science ancient and infinite. It is the Light only that can be truly multiplied, for this ascends and descends from the first fountain of multiplication and generation. This Light (discovered and perfected by art) applied to any body, exalts and perfects it in its own kind: if to animals, it exalts animals; if to vegetables, vegetables; if to minerals, ir refines minerals, and translates them from the worst to the best condition; where, note by the way, that every body hath passive principles in itself for this Light to work upon, and therefore needs not to borrow any from gold or silver (9).
This last advice is given to correct a common error, that the alchemists extracted from the Form out of these metals to transmute and increase with. Gross misconception of their initial principle has indeed caused their positions frequently to appear ridiculous; as of the common talk, for instance, of weighing and proportioning the elements so exactly as to constitute them into lasting accord; of consolidating the metalline vapor by heat artificially introduced, or by the rays of the sun and moon drawn to simultaneous cooperation, and several such-like literally imputed follies, far from their minds, who protested against such misunderstanding, having assumed to themselves another principle and another method of generating metals, by which they were enabled to follow nature independently, and help her to exceed the ordinary limits of her law: not by the condensation of imaginary vapors in the mines, or by the assistance of the great luminary or lunar light, but by working, as it is said, the only universal living and occult nature by and through itself, scientifically, which contains within itself the original of all these, even of the whole manifested existence. Thus, we read, in the Lucerna Solis,
A certain thing is found in the world
Which is also in every thing and in every place.
It is not earth, nor fire, nor air, nor water,
Albeit it wants neither of these things,
Nay it can become to be fire, air, water, and earth;
For it contains all nature in itself purely and sincerely;
It becomes white and red, is hot and cold,
It is moist and dry and is diversifiable every way.
The band of Sages only have known it,
And they call it their salt.
It is extracted from their earth:
And has been the ruin of many a fool;
For the common earth is worth nothing here,
Nor the vulgar salt in any manner,
But rather the salt of the world,
Which contains in itself all Life:
Of it is made that medicine which will preserve you from all maladies (10).
The Stone is one, says the monk in his Rosary; the medicine is one, in which the whole mystery consists, to which we add nothing nor take away anything, only in the preparation, removing superfluities (11). All is made of Mercury, says Geber; for when Sol is reduced to his first original, i.e., the mercury, then nature embraceth nature, and by open and manifest proof we have concluded that our Stone is no other than a foetant spirit and living water, which we have named dry water, by natural proportion cleansed and united with such union, that they can never more be absent each from other (12). And Aquinas says, --- It is Mercury alone which perfects in our work, and we find in it all we have need of; nothing different must be added. Some, mistaking, believe that the work cannot be perfected with mercury alone without his sister (i.e., as agent and patient) that thou addest nothing different from mercury; and know also that gold and silver are not unlike in kind to this our Mercury; for it is their root: if thou workest therefore with Mercury alone, without foreign intervention, thou obtainest thy desire. The White and Red proceed from one root, for it dissolves and coagulates itself ---whitens, rubifies, and makes itself to be both yellow and black; it unites with itself, conceives itself, and brings itself forth, to the full perfecting of its intention (13).
It is only in her manifold changes that nature is known and made apparent in ordinary life; but, since these alchemists profess to have enjoyed another experience, and through their Art to have discovered her in her simple essentiality, to be that total which works all conditionedly throughout existence, it will therefore be requisite to consider their whole doctrine with reference to this presumed unity, and by no means be led aside by their metaphoric language into a common misconstruction of its meaning; but since, according to the old maxim, All is in Mercury which the wise men seek, let us seek therefore if we may be able at all to identify this mercury, and whether the same ancient material be yet on earth,
It is well known, that the Greeks and eastern sages derived all things in common from a certain pure and hidden fire; Stoics, Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Peripatetics view with each other in celebrating the occult virtues of the Ether; its all-pervading essence and perfective power: in it they place the providential regulation of nature; it was the very life and substance of their theosophy, in which from the highest to the lowest confines of existence, from Jove to the last link in the infernal monarchy, all were inhabiting the ethereal world; for, as Virgil says, it lights and nourishes the innermost earth as well as the air and starry heavens.
Principio coelum, ac terras, composque liquentes,
Lucentemque globum Lunae, Titaniaque astra,
Spiritus intus alit; totamque infusa per artus
Mens agitat molem, et magno se corpore miscet (14).
And the assertions of the Ethnics, about the Anima Mundi, differ very little or nothing in substance from the Hebrew doctrine, but in words only; neither are their opinions so heinous or ridiculous as the zealous policy of ignorance, under a Christian guise, has too often caused them to appear. That there is a fluid or vitalizing principle invisibly permeating all things, and resident in the air we breathe, common experience indicates, for life cannot subsist without air, not in all kinds of air; but there is some one quality or ingredient in the atmosphere which is a secret food of life, and on which it immediately depends; what this aliment is, though many names have been invented, the moderns in default of knowledge are not agreed; and seeing it escapes the test of their closest vessels and analyses, and that it can be neither seen, heard, felt, nor naturally understood, the ancient theory of the One Element has been very much derided. The chemist, Homberg, indeed, with Boerhaave, Boyle, and others eminent of that period, hold with the alchemists, that there is a distinct substance universally diffused, though sensible only in its mixed forms and powerful effects; that it is the alone pure and active source of all things, and most firm bond of the natural elements, giving life to all bodies, penetrating and sustaining all things, and enlivening all; that this mighty Ether moreover is always at hand, ready to break forth into action on predisposed subjects; fermenting, producing, destroying, and governing the total course of nature. Bishop Berkeley, too, in his Siris, contends learnedly in favor of the same universal material, which he likewise calls ether, and a pure invisible fire --- the most subtle and elastic of all bodies pervading all, and considers that it is from thence, and not from any mingled property, that the air has its power of sustenance and vitalization.
These then, with a few others, in recent times have so far concurred with the ancients in distinguishing the fontal Spirit of nature, apart from its manifestation, and as distinct from that elementary ignition with which we are sensibly familiar; for they do not allow that to be fire indeed, but an excitation only or effect of the antecedent potency which they describe. But then they could adduce no tangible proof of their doctrine. The worked could not see their invisible fire. It has therefore been regarded as a mere speculative chimera (which in part it was perhaps, in their minds, without experience), and, accordingly, disbelieved. For philosophy, at length, laudably anxious to prove all things, yet too idle to theorize, will suppose nothing that is not openly shown; how then should she recognize that recondite fire?
Neither are we desirous absolutely to assume it here, for though experiments of recent date seem to supply concurrent evidence, and the phenomena of Mesmerism have helped to force again on the minds of the more observing portion of mankind the supposition of a New Imponderable, or Odic Force, yet, few believe; and we pass it now to continue our research concerning that elder Quintessence of the magi which they introduce, not as a being of speculation merely, but of experimental science; not perceptible only in mingled forms, in the common air or elementary water, but as an essence compact and tangible without heterogeneity; in which pure estate, the Kabalists, also describing, call it, Lumen Vestimenti, the Vehicle of Light; and the Greeks, the Free Ether, that is to say, freed from the prison of gross matter, and able to work of itself intimately by the virtue of its own included light. Thus Zeno defines it, --- Ignem esse artificiosum, ad gignendum progredientem via; --- as a plastic fire, ever generating by rule. And Cicero, as that coelestis alstissima aethereaque natura, id est ignea aquae per se omnia gignat, --- that most heavenly high ethereal igneous nature, which spontaneously begets all things (15).
That light of life; the vital draught
That forms the food of every living thing,
And e’en the high, enthroned, all-sparkling eye
Of ever-mounting fire; th’ immense expanse,
The viewless Ether in his genial arms
Clasping the earth; Him call thou Lord and Jove (16).
It is requisite, however, to distinguish airs here, lest we speak profanely, calling that Jove which is not Jove; and mistaking Olympus, embrace some cloud whilst the life-giving Juno is far away above all our idea and sight. For the goddess is subtilely mingled in nature commonly observable in her action only, as adepts say, and to the world unknown, as we, as we may observe Lully, amongst others telling us, she is of another birth, and cannot be brought to knowledge without sagacious handling and human help. --- Imo argentums vivum nostrum est aqua alterius naturae, quae reperiri non potest supra terram, cum in actionem venire non posit per naturam, absque adjutorio ingenii et humanarum manuum operationibus (17).
Hoc vere nulibi est quod quaerimus.
Nowhere; for the ethereal spirit does not subsist of itself, separate or tangibly on earth; but, giving subsistence to other beings, is occultated even in their life, and defiled. It is moreover, an especial doctrine of adepts, that nature operates her ordinary manifestation in direct contrariety to her perfect law; that, as darkness and imperfection are now apparent, the true Light is made occult; and that neither sanity nor beauty can permanently supervene in bodies, unless the contrary be operated in them; so that that which is fixed becoming volatile and the volatile nature fixed, the adventitious or externally generated image may be constricted utterly, and the central form contrariwise developed into life and act.
Si fixum solvas faciasqu volare solutum
Et volucrem figas, facient te vivere tutum:
Solve, Coagula, Fige.
Thus, it is said that by a real experimental inversion, the Hermetic Art has proved imperfections to be accidental to nature, and introduced to her from without; that as water, spread abroad upon a many-colored surface of earth, salts, or spices takes the hue and flavor of the spot on which it rests, so it is with the prolific source of things; specie subsist in it adventitiously, as it were, by sufferance, and may be expelled, and ought to be for the attainment of perfection. --- Whoever desires to attain this end, says Arnold, let him understand the conversion of the elements, to make light things heavy, and to make spirits no spirits, then he shall not work in a strange thing. Converte elementa et quod quaeris invenies (18).
And if any skillful minister of nature shall apply force to nature; and, by design, torture and vex it in order to its annihilation, says the philosopher; it, on the contrary, being brought to this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the Creator can annihilate it or truly destroy; so that, at length, running through the whole circle of transformations, and completing its period, it in some degree restores itself, if the force be continued. And that method of torturing or detaining will prove the most effectual and expeditious which makes use of manacles and fetters; i.e., lays hold and works upon matter in the extremist degree (19).
So much does Lord Bacon assume upon the declaration of Democritus; our philosopher had in him the bright light of genius, which enabled in him independently of experience to conceive well and grapple with the possibility of nature. His mind glanced intuitively through and beyond the darkness which time had cast before the Wisdom of antiquity, and he discerned her yet beaming afar off with venerable splendor in her old domain. Though chained to the superficies, observing and collecting facts, he honored those sages who long before him had experimented into the center, and proved there a firm and immutable foundation of truth; but thither he was not himself able to pass, for he knew nothing of their Great Art, or of its subject even, and naturally mistook their hidden ground. Had the smallest glimpse only been revealed to him, he would have imagined all differently, or even proposed that the dissolution of nature should be attempted mechanically, or by help of such “particular digesters applied to the fire”, as in the Sylva Sylvarum he seriously designs for this end (20).
Such instruments do, in fact, expel the very nature which the ancients prized; leaving us without all recompense in the dead ashes of her consuming vesture; whereas, the proposal of Democritus is not only to reduce the matter, with her false forms, to the verge of annihilation, but to entrap the bare spirit and help her on from thence to operate her own intrinsical freed will, which according to this testimony she possesses, and is able to manifest, wrapping herself spontaneously about it, even to a recreation. But if she is suffered to depart invisibly without pursuit or amendment, which is the common catastrophe, then she is caught up by other external compellants, and becoming defiled, is imprisoned by them and no better than she was before. The contrariation proposed by the proposed by the alchemists, indeed, is not the power of ordinary art, any more than of nature herself; but she passes through death from one form into another, as in the chemic vessels, without self-discovery, being instigated by a most forcible excentric will, which she has no power but to obey: yet, as the passage runs, --- If any skillful minister shall apply another force, and by design torture and vex the spirit in order to its annihilation, it, being brought under this necessity, transforms and presently restores itself, the force being continued.
And that magic, says Paracelsus, is the most singular secret that directed such an entrance into nature; which, if it were divinely done by God alone, it would be to no purpose to study for it. But the Deity doth not make himself especially operative herein: if that magic then were natural, certainly it was most wonderful, very excellent for quickness of separation, the like whereof nature can neither give nor express. For whilst that is at work, beyond all things fall apart into their elements, breaking forth into their act and simple essence. The greatest miracle of all in philosophy is separation: separation was the principle and beginning of all generation. And as it was in the great mystery, so it is in the lesser. The truphat, or matter of the metals, brings everything into its due form (21). --- Convert the elements, says Arnold, and you will find what you seek; for our operation is nothing else than a mutation of natures, and the method of conversion in our Argent vive is the reduction of natures to their first root (22). The elements of Mercury being separated, says Ripley, and again commixed by equal weight or proportion, make the elixir complete (23).
Now as we are taught from the beginning, that the whole of the Hermetic theory and practice proceeds upon the assumption of a certain Universal Being in nature, which is occult, and since the whole Art therefore has respect to this, we may be careful to observe that in speaking of elements, our authors do not allude to the common elements --- as of fire, air and water --- with which we are familiarly conversant, or to those subtler gases, so called simples of modern Chemistry, all of which are impure and equally irrelevant to this philosophy but the elements they speak of, as being introverted and transformed are the elements of the Mercury, properties of the universal spirit; in which, and by which alone, they profess to have operated the perfective miracle of their Stone. We must not limit, says Paracelsus, an element to a bodily substance or quality. That which we see is only the receptacle; the true element is a spirit of life, and grows in all things, as the soul in the body of man. This is the First Matter of the elements, which can neither be seen nor felt, and yet is in all things; and the first matter of the elements of the elements is nothing else but that life which the creatures have; and it is these magical elements which are of such an excellent and quick activity that nothing besides can be found or imagined like them (24).
We do not know whether we have set the position clearly, that the order of natural procedure ought to be introverted for a true and perfect manifestation; the point is subtle, and as it may be more easily apprehended hereafter on more intimate ground, we leave it for the present to consider especially what that nature was, which the alchemists profess to have revolutionized, in order that gathering their definitions of the whole, we may be better able afterwards to conceive the particulars. ---
Qui Proteum non novit, adeum Pana.
Fortis subtilis Pan, integer et generalis;
Et totus ignis, aura, terra, sive aqua,
Qui resides solio cum tempore semper eodem
Medio, supreme et infimo regno tuo.
Concipiens, generans, producens, omnia servans,
Exordium rerumque finis omnium (26).
Yet not in his elementary immanifest diffusion let us invoke the most Ancient Nature, but as he was discovered by the Hermetic masters; whole, and singularly, and before any alteration had been induced in his uniform substance by their art. Thus Albertus Magnus defines the mercury of the wise to be a watery element, cold and moist, a permanent water, an unctuous vapor, and the spirit of body; and again, --- the first material of the metals is an unctuous subtle humidity, forcibly incorporated with a subtle terrestreity (27). Atrephius describes it as a white fume, in substance like to pure silver, resolving bodies into their original whiteness; and as a vegetable life making all things to grow, multiply and resuscitate (28). Which Lully, not dissimilarly viewing, calls Hyle, saying, that it is a clear compounded water, most like in substance to argent vive, that it is found flowing upon earth, and is generated in every compound out of the substance of the air, therefore the moisture is extremely heavy (29). Seek our Argent vive, says Arnold, and you will have all you desire from it; it is a stone and no stone, in which the whole Art consists, spirit, soul and body; which if thou coagulatest, it will be coagulated; an if thou makest it fly, it will fly; for it is volatile, and clear as a tear. And afterwards, it is made citrine, then saltish, but without crystals; and no man may touch it with his tongue, for it is a deadly poison. Behold, I have described it to thee; but I have not named it, lest it should become common in the hands of all; nevertheless, I will in a manner name it, and tell thee that if thou say it is water, thou dost say truth; and if thou sayest it is not water, thou dost lie. Be not therefore deceived with manifold descriptions and operations, for it is One Thing to which nothing extraneous is added (30). There is another found speaking after the same sense --- Belus, in the classic synod of Aristaeus; and this, he says, amongst all great philosophers is magisterial, that our stone is no stone; though with the ignorant this is ridiculous; for who will believe that water can be made a stone, or a stone water; noting is more different than these two? Yet, in very truth, it is so; for this very permanent water is the stone, but whilst it is water it is no stone (31). Again: ---
It is a stone and no stone,
In which the whole art consists;
Nature has made it such,
But has not yet brought it to perfection.
You will not find it on earth, since there it has no growth;
It grows only in the caverns of the mountains.
The whole art depends on it;
For he who has the vapor of this thing,
Has the gilded splendor of the Red Lyon,
The pure and clear Mercury.
And he who knows the red Sulfur which it contains,
Has within his power the whole foundation (32).
Basil Valentine, more intimately defining the nature of the First Matter, declares it to be comparable to no manifested particular whatever, and that all description fails in respect of it, without the light of true experience. And Rupecissa says the same: and Ripley, that is not like any common water or earthy material, but a middle substance, --- Aquosa substantia sicca reperta, --- partaking of extremes celestial and terrestrial; and though it may seem contradictory so to speak of a fist matter, as of a middle, or third; yet this is done in respect to its generation by active and passive relations of the Universal Spirit, whence it proceeds as a third, yet homogeneal from its radix; Lully also calls it tertium, and compounded in this sense; and Basil Valentine, ---
Corpus anima spiritus in duobus existit,
Ex quibus tota res procedit:
Procedit ex uno et est res una,
Volatile et fixum simul colliga,
Sunt duo et tria et saltem unum
Si non intelliges, nihil obtines (33).
And Vaughan, for example of a modern authority, say that the First Matter is indeed the union of masculine and feminine spirits; the quintessence of four, the ternary of three, and the tetract of one; and that these are his generations, physical and metaphysical. The thing itself, continues he, is a world without form, a divine animated mass of complexion like silver, neither mere power nor perfect action, but a weak virgin substance, a certain soft prolific Venus, the very love and seed of nature, the mixture and moisture of heaven and earth (34). As Sendivogius likewise declares, --- Our water is heavenly, not wetting the hands, not of the vulgar, but almost rain water (35); and by such familiar analogies as tears, rain, dew, milk, wine, and oil, the fermental principle of the spirit and her distilled quintessence are very ordinarily denoted. We conclude these verbal instructions with the following summary passage from the ancient book of Synesius, and the New Light --- It is, says this esteemed author, speaking of the same Matter, a clear Light, which fills with true virtue every mind that has once perceived it; it is the nucleus and bond of all the elements which are contained in it, and the spirit which nourishes all things, and by means of which nature operates universally; it is the virtue, true beginning, and end of the whole world; in plain terms, the quintessence is no other than our viscous celestial and glorious soul drawn from its minera by our magistery. But nature alone engenders it; it is not possible to make it by art; for to create is proper to God alone; but to make things that are not perceived, but which lie in the shadow to appear, and to take from them their veil, is granted to an intelligent philosopher by God, through nature. And this Latex is the sharp vinegar which makes gold a pure spirit, seeing she is even that blessed water which engenders al things, Our subject is presented to the eyes of the whole world, and it is not known! O our heaven, O our water, O our mercury, O our slat nitre, abiding in the sea of the world! O our vegetable; O our sulfur, fixed and volatile; O our caput mortuum, or dead head, or foeces of our sea! Our water, that wets not the hands; without which nothing grows or is generated in the whole world! And these are the Epithetes of Hermes, his Bird, which is never at rest. It is of small account, yet no body can be without it, and so thou hast discovered to thee a ting more precious than the whole world; which I plainly tell thee is nothing else than our sea water, which is congealed in gold and silver, and extracted by the help of our chalybs, or steel, by the art of philosophers, in a wonderful manner by a prudent son of science.
Thus obscure, after all, is the true Matter of the Alchemists; and if we presume to add here, that it is the simple generated substance of life and light, immanifestly flowing throughout nature, and define it as that without which nothing that exists is able to be, we are not for this yet wiser how to obtain or work it apart; nor are words sufficient to convey a just notion where there is no ground of apprehension; and whether a thing be most like water, earth, fire, quicksilver, azote, or ether, is indifferent to the mind, needing actual experience to fix its idea. This the art promises to a patient and true philosopher, but as a reward of individual labor and perseverance only. We may content ourselves thus early, therefore, with the exclusive assurance that it is no one of the many things with which sense brings us acquainted; that it is neither water, nor earth, nor air, nor fire, though it contains in principle the nature of all these; neither gold, nor silver, nor mercury, nor antimony, nor any alkali, or gas, or vitriol of the vulgar; though these titles are found interspersed abundantly with others, equally deceptive, in the pages of the adepts. Neither is it animal absolutely, or vegetable, or mineral, or any natural particular whatever: but the alone Laelia Aelia latent in and about all, which the Enigma celebrates as comprehending all; but which the Alchemists alone teach experimentally to expound.
The ordinary phenomena of light, however, may occur, as not dissimilar from those which they describe; only that they are shadowy and mingled, compared with the alleged virtue and perfective properties of the Philosophic Subject. Yet as colors --- blue, red, yellow and purple --- are blended in the one uniform solar light, and are shown apart simply by a prismatic parting of the rays, or particles of their essence; and again, when the disposition is exchanged, relapsing, they exhibit the uniform whiteness whence they came; so is it said to be with the Alchemical Pan, who, being but one himself, is in his offspring multitudinous, and manifold in every diversity of form, hue, and complexion.
The ever varying substance of the whole
Etherial, watery, earthy general soul,
Immortal Fire! Even all the world is thine
And pars of thee, O Proteus, power divine;
Since all things nature first to thee consigned,
And in thy essence omniform combined.
Then, again, as light and heat mingle with bodies entering their composition, hardening some, softening others, destroying or cherishing, changing their aspect continually, and modifying their qualities; so is the Mercurial quintessence said to produce all various effects, but within itself consummately without external reference, or elementary confusion. Hitherto we have had account of the Matter only as it first appears, pure, as they say, and white, out of the philosophical contrition; and so far, we find the testimony sufficiently congruous: --- but when the wise artist has brought all into this annihilate condition, and pressed out the waters of her extreme life; nature re-acting, as it is said, exhibits from out her unity three great magnetic principles of being --- the Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury of adepts, in relation to each other of agent, patient, and offspring universal, --- perpetually flowing forth to multitudinous manifestation. For Pan contains Proteus, as we have seen before from Democritus, and exhibits himself through this god; evolving every particular property and form of beings, out of his central will, of necessity, as the Orphic oracles declares; also of Mercury, with like allusion.
“Hear me, O Mercury, and Son of Maia; the bright expositor of things!”.
This Proteus, then, or Mercury, or quintessence of philosophers, is warily concealed by them under an infinity of names, all more or less applicable, yet delusive; for though every epithet is admissible, inasmuch as nothing can be said amiss of a Universal Subjet, yet the right conception is hard to gather from their books. In its artificial fermentation and progress towards perfection, the changes it undergoes are manifold; and as the common life of nature, it becomes any and every conceivable thing in turn that it wills to be; now it is mineral, now vegetable, now animal; by predominance of either principle, it is fire, spirit, body, air, earth, and water; a stone, a vapor, or an aqua sicca; an essential oil of life, and a most sharp vinegar, a phoenix, a salamander, a poisonous devouring dragon, and a chameleon; every color, every thought is included in its circulations; nourishing, destroying, living, dying, corrupting, purifying, it is all things; and, anon, it is nothing, --- but a potential chaos and egg of philosophers; a precedential, nameless principle, always in mutation, becoming to be, --- first, last, greatest, least, the servant of art and queen of nature. Proceeding homogeneal through each omniform variety, and returning into herself manifestly the life and all phenomena which she as constantly supplies, the great Identity is as herself unchanged;
Et, quanto illa magis formas se vertet in omnes,
Tanto, nate, magis tenacia vincla (37).
Adepts have taken advantage of the mutable nature of their subject, to baffle the blind searcher, as well to confound false premises as to led the intelligent to a discovery of the simple truth; and where we find them speaking confusedly of elements, colors, and operations, it is very requisite to bear in mind the idiosyncracy of their ground, and that it is to the qualities and changes which take place during the preparation, and multiplying the Mercury by its proper Light, they allude, and not to any superficial phenomena or those elements which the moderns have so triumphantly decomposed. The three principles, the Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury, are merely different as modes of being of the same thing, and the many names arising out of the action and passion of these, do but indicate the stages of progress and development, as of a tree, which with its leaves, trunk, flowers, buds, fruit and branches, all differing, is nevertheless one individual, of one original, and of one root.
In the common estate, as the Spirit is in nature, said to be everywhere, it is called a thing vile and cheap; in its perfectly prepared form, a medicine the most potent and precious in the whole world; and the intermediate stages partake of the predominance of either extreme; being sublimed at first, it is called a serpent, dragon, or green lion, on account of its strength and crude vitality, which putrefying, becomes a stronger poison, and their venomous toad; which afterwards appearing calcined by its proper fire, is called magnesia and lead of the wise; which again dissolving, becomes their vitriolic solvent and most sharp acetum; and this afterwards is changed into an oil, which, whitening, is called milk, dew, quintessence, and by may other names; until raised to the final perfection, it is henceforth a phoenix, salamander, their royal essence and Red Stone.
Our great Elixir most high of price,
Our Azot, our Basiliske, and our Adrop, our Cockatrice.
Some call it also a substance exuberate,
Some call it Mercury of metalline essence,
Some limus derti from his body evacuate,
Some the Eagle flying fro’ the northwith violence,
Some call it a Toade for his great vehemence,
But few or none at all doe name it in its kinde,
It is a privy quintessence; keepe it well in minde (38).
Some speaking of it thus in metaphor, others in abstract terms, and all ambiguously; one regarding only certain properties, which another as entirely passes by, now describing in the natural state, then in its purified condition, or otherwise in any one of the intermediate stages through which it passes, without note of order in the art; altogether it passes, without note of order in the art; altogether it is by no means wonderful that so many erroneous conclusions have arisen respecting it, ingenuity having been rather directed to obscure than reveal the truth, which indeed can hardly be well conceived, without an insight into the experimental ground. And there are other difficulties which beset an exoteric theory of occult science, and inconsistencies will continually appear betwixt the sound of alchemical writings and their true sense, until the initial ground is understood. Practice in the beginning is required, therefore, to interrogate and discern, from amongst so many shadowy representatives, the true light. Constantly holding in mind the simplicity of the Substance, whence these images are all derived, we may nevertheless be enabled to thread in comparative security this Hermetic labyrinth of birds and wild beasts: and when Geber says, that the thing which perfects in minerals, is the substance of argent vive and sulfur, proportionally commixt in the bowels of clean inspissate earth (39); or Sendivogius, that the matter of the metals is twofold (40);or Lully, or Ripley, or Basil, calls it a third thing; we shall not understand them, or any others so speaking, as of a variety of things, of sulfur, mercury, or earth in a commonsense interpretation, but of the magnetic relation, action, and passion of the Ethereal being in itself.
And from the foregoing we may also judge that when Hermes says that the separation of the ancient philosophers is made upon Water, dividing into four substances (41), that it is not the common elementated water to which he alludes; any more than did Thales when he said that all things were generated from thence, or Moses when he taught that the Spirit of God moved creatively upon the face of the same. This water they speak of is not the fluid with which in this life we are conversant, either as dew, or of clouds, or air condensed in caverns of the earth, or artificially distilled in a receiver out of sea fountains, either of pits, or rivers, as the empirical chemists formerly imagined --- but it is the ethereal body of life and light which they profess to have discovered, --- a certain tortured water, having suffered alteration by art and becomes corporified. O how wonderful, exclaims the Arabian, is that thing which has in itself all things which we seek, to which we add nothing different or extract, only in the separation removing superfluities (42)!
The sense of all these philosophers is the same and from their gathered evidence we may infer that their stone is nothing more or less than the pure Ethereality of nature, separated by artificial means, purified and made concrete by constriction and scientific multiplication of its proper Light --- the preparation, generation, birth, specification --- all proceeding, arte mirabili, on the hidden basis of its primal eduction. Earliest and easiest it attains to the perfection of the mineral kingdom; and the seed of gold, says the adept, is a fiery form of Light inspissate, and this is the Stone of Fire; --- Lapis noster, hic est ignis, ex igne creatus, et in ignem veritur, et anima ejus in igna moratur (43). Thus nature, by the help of art, is said to transcend herself, and Light is the true fermental principle which perfects the Ether in its proper kind.
Nor can one be so stupid as to think
That water of its own accord should cause
Within itself so great a change, and link
Sulphur and mercury with so firm laws,
Its own dimensions to penetrate
So many times a metal to create.
No, there must be an inward agent granted,
Else would a thing unchanged still remain;
This agent is the form that matter wanted,
While it its proper nature did retain;
This Form is Light, the source of central heat,
Which clothed with mater doth a seed beget.
The seed no sooner is produced, but soon
Essays to bring the matter to a change,
On it it stamps its character, which done,
The Matter lives, and that which may seem strange,
Co-worketh with the Form t’attain the end
To which the seed implanted doth intend... (44).
This of the mineral kingdom, where the Formal Light, by multiplication in its Ethe, is said to produce gold; through superior skill and coction in the vegetal life, the elixir of the wise; and more rarely yet in the animal kingdom, and most of all in man; wherein all these are include, and a mystery of Universal being, profound and difficult to govern and no less arduous than glorious to sustain. For though the material is one throughout, forms are diverse, and in him it assumes an Image that is Divine and more potent than all the rest: which is in this life yet an embryo, but when unfolded through a new birth in universal intelligence, transcends the limits of this nether sphere, and passes into communion with the highest life, power, science, and most perfect felicity.
Of the phenomena of light, electricity, magnetism, etc., great account is taken at the present day; both to exhibit them, and to apply their various potencies to the affairs of life: but of the real source of these potencies, or of the true efficient in any case, nothing is known. The beam has been tried and tortured, through prismatic glasses and crystals, every chemical agent has been exhausted upon it, and electrical machines have been instituted to trap the fluid, but in vain. The learned are free to admit that, though they have discovered much of the mysterious influences of light, the more is discovered the more miraculous do they appear. --- It has passed through every test without revealing its secrets, and even the effects which it produces in its path are unexplained problems still to tax the intellects of men (45). These phenomena are effects then of a Cause unknown, and that very unknown Cause it was the alleged object of the Hermetic experiment to prove. Shall we no therefore revert t the inquiry, and search to ascertain whether, recovering the ancient method of philosophizing, we may advance by it to the same end?
Truth is no where manifested upon the earth, because her forms or sulfurs are perplexed, and the passive spirit of nature is included and impure. She is moreover specified elsewhere, and does not consequently, as a true passive, reflect without truly to itself. But by the Hermetic dissolution the right recipient is said to be obtained, the pure is separated from the impure, the subtle from the gross, and the agent and the patient are one identity, as in the Emerald Table it is graven, --- That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is below is as that which is above, for the performing of the miracles of the One Thing whence all the rest proceed by adaptation. --- And on this unitary basis of production the metamorphosis of species is not so ridiculous. Have we not example in the common process of fermentation, the mild juice of grapes converted into wine, and milk into butte and cheese and whey; and these each proceeding out of one thing without requiring the addition of anything different: but only by operation of their own ferment they become changed into different specific natures? Just so is the Vital Spirit said to be, by the art of Alchemy, promoted from one form of being into another by its won prepared must or leaven; and as such, in turn, it reacts convertively on the elements of its original extraction; having previously passed on, through many stages, from imperfection to perfection. Analogy of this, likewise, we have in the animal kingdom; caterpillars changing their neuter forms quiescently, and becoming winged moths. There remains the great difference, however, that whereas, in these familiar examples, imprisoned nature rests necessarily within the limiting law of her species; the will of the philosophic Proteus is free to be drawn without hindrance to form itself about the universal magnet of its own infinite self-multiplicative Light; which being transmuted, transmutes; and multiplying, multiplies its proper substance freely, in proportion to the virtue which it has acquired in the fermentation. And hence it may be better conceived, perhaps, how this fermented Spirit or Stone, (as in the crystalline perfectness of its essence it has been called,) when brought into contact with the crude life of nature whence it sprung, transmutes, i.e., attracts the same away from other forms into intimate coalescence with its own assimilative light. And notwithstanding metals and all things in the world, as the adepts say, derive their origin from the same Spirit, yet nothing is reputed so nearly allied to it as gold; for in all other metals there is some impurity, and therefore a certain weight is lost in transmuting from them; but in gold there is none, but the Formal Light is wholly swallowed up in it without residue, dissolving intimately, gently, and naturally, as they compare it to ice in warm water; an excellent simile, by the way, inasmuch as the commingling natures differ in state only and were originally one. And I say to you, adds Sendivogius, that you must seek for that hidden thing, out of which is made, after a wonderful manner, such a moisture or humidity which doth dissolve gold without violence or noise, but sweetly and naturally; if you find this out you have that thing out of which gold is produced by nature. And although all metals have their origin from thence, yet nothing is so friendly to it as gold; it is even like a mother to it; and so finally I conclude (46).
And the method of working to this discovery, and to supply the deficiency of Form to the purified body of the Spirit, is described as the same in each of the three kingdoms of nature: the preparation only being diversified according to the variety of things indigent or intended to be changed. And if the Art has been more frequently proved in the mineral kingdom than in the other two, we learn that this has happened, not because the power is limited here, or because adepts have desired gold above every other good, but because the metalline radix first presents itself in the experimental process, and is most easily apportioned; and because the responsibility involved is less vital and consequential, it has been more freely exhibited and worked at large. In metals,says Geber, is lesser perfection than in animals; and the perfection of them consists more in proportion and composition than in anything else. Therefore, seeing in them less perfection than the other, we can more freely perfect these. For the Most High hath so distinguished perfections from each other in many forms; and those things in which the natural composition were weakest (i.e., where life predominates over corporeal consistency), are by God endued with greater and more ignoble perfection, viz., that which is from the way of proportionate mixtion of the matter (57). But metals, notwithstanding their inferiority of proportion, are said to be produced originally, as all other things are produced, from metalline seeds out of the Universal Spirit or Mercury, by which also they may be exalted and multiplies, and by no other thing; for that without this spirit growth is impossible, or transmutation or increase, and by it all natures are generated externally in their proper kinds. And the reason that is given why metals which thus include the prolific principle do not naturally increase, is a deficiency of heat, the Spirit being overcome in the gross, preponderating elements of their hard composition, so that they cannot fructify, unless they be first purged from their terrestreity and their tincture set free in the subtle Origin of all life. Vulgar gold Sendivogius compares to a herb without seed, which when it is ripe bears seed; and as trees from southern climates cease to blossom and bear fruit when transplanted into colder soils, so it is with the metals hindered by the crud earth f which they are composed. But, he adds, if at any time nature be sweetly and wittily helped, then art may perfect that which nature could not: gold may yield fruit and seed in which it multiplies itself by the industry of a skillful artificer, who knows how to exalt nature, and this by no other medium than fire or heat; but seeing this cannot be done, since in a congealed metallic body there appear no spirits, it is necessary that the body be loosened and dissolved, and the pores thereof opened, whereof nature may work (48). And thus, continues another, when the mineral spirit is pure, it will, by its especial forms, do more than generate their forms to produce something like themselves, for it will work such an alteration in things of like nature with themselves, that they shall equalize the Philosophical Elixir, whose divine virtues wise men so much admire, and fools condemn because their blinded eyes cannot penetrate within to the center of the mystery (49).
We do not presume to suppose that such a view of nature will be immediately acceptable, or that the Hermetic theory presents itself even in a plausible aspect as yet; the Laws on this ground are directly inverse to our ordinary notions of natural procedure and to our acquired conception of simplicity and specific variation. But we are not investigating for those who make their mere individual experience a negative measure of belief, and who understand the possibilities of nature and art so far as to limit them; but for such who, more observing, see reason for hope beyond their present vision, and are able to imagine at least those surpassing realities which the ancients assert convectively as having apprehended in intellect and experimentally known. We have hitherto brought their testimony so far only as to the existence of a Homogeneal Subject in nature, showing that the same was the material basis of their philosophy, and the only principle of transmutation, life, increase, and perfection. We have endeavored also to explain (as well as the fence without which we placed ourselves for the preliminary discussion would admit), that the reduction of bodies to their original matter, by introversion of the generated life, is requisite to a true manifestation and permanence in any form, as by the ordinary process of unassisted nature, as is evident; indeed, she never withstands or alters for an instant her mode of being or vital perpetuity. It is vain, therefore, to seek for that in nature which is an effect beyond her strength; she must be helped, that she may exceed herself, or all will be useless. For the Mercury of the philosophers is not found of itself on earth, nor can be detained or perfected without this occult and needful Art assisting her. And these are the grand desiderate, to know what the true matter is, where and how it may be taken, and to find an artist able and fitted to perfect it: --- without the former we are advised to attempt nothing; and without the latter the former can be preactically of no avail.
Having premised thus much concerning the matter with the ground of the hermetic theory, so far only, however, as may enable us to guard against gross misapprehension; we propose, previous to entering on a more intimate discussion, to set the whole fairly before the reader’s judgment, in the following translation of the Tractatus Aureus, or Golden Treatise of Hermes, concerning the Physical Secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, which has been considered to be one of the most ancient and complete pieces of alchemical writing extant; and may be regarded as an exposition in epitome of the whole Art. Mystical and disorderly as this relic is, and must especially appear at first to any one unaccustomed to the antique style, we trust that the short pains may not be grudged that it will cost in passing on with us to the discovery of its idea. The treatise has been held in high esteem by the alchemists, and the Scholia given in part may assist in the perusal. Whoever the author may have been (for, though it bears the name of Hermes, the true origin is doubtful), it wears the impress of very great antiquity, and claims better than to be frivolously judged of by those who are uninitiated in science and ignorant of the kind of wisdom it unfolds. Prudence, patience, and penetration, the author owns, are required to understand him, and more than these for the discovery of his Great Art. Books were not written in those days for the information of the illiterate, as though any vulgar distiller or mechanic might carry away the golden fleece; or in such a guise that the covetous, who made gold their only idol, should readily, without research or the due Herculean labor, gather the apples of the Hesperides: not yet that any, though learned, as the adept adds, should by once or twice overly and slightly reading, as the dogs lap the waters of Nilus, straightway be made a philosopher. No, the magistery of this science forbids so great a sacrilege: our books are made for those who have been or intend to become conversant about the search of nature (50). For this is the first step towards the recovery of truth, to be diligent in the investigation; other requirements there are and reasons for the extraordinary caution that has been used to keep the Art concealed, which may in the sequel be appreciated when it is intimately understood.
And ye may trust me ‘tis no small inginn,
To know all the secrets pertaining to this myne,
For it is most profound philosophy,
This subtill science of holy Alkimy... (51).
(1) See Roger Bacon, Radix Mundi et Speculum Alchemiae
(2) Adverte carissime... Rosar. Abbrev., Tract ii. De Lapide in Thet. Chem., vol iii
(3) Species metallorum... Liber Perfect. Magist., sub initio.
(4) Speculum Alchymiae Arnoldi, Octava Dispositio.
(5) Sciant Artifices Alchimiae, Lib. ii, Tractat. i, Cap. iv, De Operat.Med. Sing.
(6) Metalla autem omnia... Metoer lib. iii cap. iv
(7) Epistle to King Edward, stanza 10
(8) De Arto Magna, part ix
(9) See Vaughan’s Anima Magia Abscondita, p. 30
(10) Lucerna Salis, from the Latin verse
(11) Rosar., Abbrev. Tract. iii and iv
(12) Investigation of Perfection, cap. xi
(13) Roasrium Abbrev. Tract. iii and v
(14) Aenid, lib. vi 724
(15) De Nat. Deor., lib. ii
(16) Euripides. See Blackwells’s Letters on Mythology
(17) Lullii Theorica et Practica in Theat. Chem., vol. iv
(18) Arnoldi Speculum, Octava Dispositio, etc.
(19) See Bacon, De Sapientia Veterum, Fable of Proteus
(20) See the Sylva Sylvarum, in two places; and the History of Rarity and Density.
(21) To the Athenians, book i, text 9
(22) Speculum Alchimiae, Octava Dispositio
(23) Medulla Alchimiae, cap. i
(24) To the Athenians, book ii, text 2 and 5
(25) Tractatus Aureus, cap. i, prop. 4 See also Lullii Theoriea et Practica, c. iii
(26) Orpheus Hymni
(27) Mercurius Sapeintum est elementum... -- De Mineralibus, cap. ii et Breve Compendium in That. Chem. vol. ii
(28) See Liber Secretissimus Artefii.
(29) R. Lullii Theorica et Practica, cap. iii. De Forma Minori.
(30) Lapis est et non lapis... Speculum Alchimiae, Octava Disp.
(31) Ecce dita in hoc despecto... --- Turba Philosophoru, Sermo Vigesima
(32) Lucerna Salis Phil.
(33) B. Valentinii, De Prima Materia, in Museo Hermetico, Lullii Theor. Et Pract., cap. iii
(34) Lumen de Lumine
(35) New Light of Alchemy, Tract 10, Of the Supernatural Generation
(36) See the treatise of Synesius, and Sendivogius, New Light of Alchemy
(37) Georgics, lib. iv, 411
(38) Bloomfield’s Camp of Philosophy, book I, in Ashmole
(39) Investig. Of Perfection, cap. i
(40) New Lihgt, Tract. 3
(41) Tract. Aur., cap. i, prop. v
(42) Rosarium, Aristotele Arabus
(43) Rosarium, Democritus Phil. Artis. Auriferae, vol. ii
(44) Eiranaeus, Marrow of Alchemy, book i, 45
(45) See Hunt’s Poetry of Science
(46) New Light of Alchemy, Preface to the Phil. Enigma
(47) Invnestig. Of Perfection
(48) New Light of Alchemy, Tract 10; also Augurellus Chrysopaea, lib. i
(49) Nuysement, Sal, Lumen et Spiritus Mundi, Phil. ed. Combachius
(50) See Eiraneaeus, Ripley Revived
(51) Norton’s Ordinal
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