To most of us the word 'alchemy' calls up the picture of a medieval and slightly sinister laboratory in which an aged, black-robed wizard brooded over the crucibles and alembics that were to bring within his reach the Philosophers' Stone, and with that discovery the formula for the elixir of life and the transmutation of metals. But one can scarcely dismiss so lightly the science--or art, if you will--which won to its service the lifelong devotion of men of culture and attainment from every race and clime over a period of hundreds, or, indeed, thousands, of years, for the beginnings of alchemy are hidden in the mists of time. Such a science is something far more than an outlet for a few eccentric old men in their dotage.
What was the motive behind the constant strivings, the never-failing patience in the unravelling of the mysteries, the tenacity of purpose in the face of persecution and ridicule through the countless ages that led the alchemist to pursue undaunted his appointed way? Something far greater, surely, than a mere vainglorious desire to transmute the base metals into gold, or to brew a potion to prolong a little longer this earthly span, for the devotees of
alchemy in the main cared little for these things. The accounts of their lives almost without exception lead us to believe that they were concerned with things spiritual rather than with things temporal. Rather were these men inspired by a vision, a vision of man made perfect, of man freed from disease and the limitations of warring faculties both mental and physical, standing as a god in the realization of a power that even at this very moment of time is lying hidden in the deeper strata of his consciousness, a vision of man made truly in the image and likeness of the one Divine Life in all its Perfection, Beauty, and Harmony.
To appreciate and understand these adepts' visions it is necessary to trace to some extent the history of their cult, so let us for a space step back into the past to catch a glimpse of these men, of their work and ideals, and more important still, of the possibilities that their life-work might bring to those who to-day are seeking for fuller knowledge and wider horizons.
References are to be found in the myths and legends of China. From a book written by Edward Chalmers Werner, a late member of the Chinese Government's Historiological Bureau, Peking, comes this quotation from old Chinese records:
'Chang Tao-Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born in A.D. 35 in the reign of the Emperor Kuang Wu Ti of the Han dynasty. His birthplace is variously given as the T'ien-mu Shan, "Eye of Heaven Mountain," in Lin-an-Hsien in Chekiang, and Feng-yang Eu in Anhui. He devoted himself wholly to study and meditation, declining all offers to enter the service of the State.
[paragraph continues] He preferred to take up his abode in the mountains of Western China where he persevered in the study of alchemy and in cultivating the virtues of purity and mental abstraction. From the hands of Lao Tzu he received supernaturally a mystic treatise, by following the instructions in which he was successful in his search for the Elixir of Life.'
This reference demonstrates that alchemy was studied in China as early as the commencement of the Christian era, so that its origin must probably lie far back in Chinese history.
From China we must now travel to Egypt, whence alchemy as known in the West seems to have sprung. The great Egyptian adept king, named by the Greeks Hermes Trismegistus, is thought to have been the founder of the art. Reputed to have lived about 1900 B.C., he was highly celebrated for his wisdom and skill in the operation of nature, but of the works attributed to him only a few fragments escaped the destroying hand of the Emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D., namely, the Asclepian Dialogues and the Divine Poemanda. If we may judge from these fragments (both preserved in the Latin by Fianus and translated into English by Dr. Everard) it would seem to be of inestimable loss to the world that none of these works have survived in their entirety.
The famous Smaragdine Table of Hermes (Tabula Smaragdina) I have placed at the beginning of this book, for although it would be difficult to prove its origin, yet it still represents a good example of Hermetic phraseology. There have been various stories of the origin of the Tract, one being that the original emerald
slab upon which the precepts were said to be inscribcd in Phnician characters was discovered in the tomb of Hermes by Alexander the Great. In the Berne edition (1545) of the Summa Perfectionis the Latin version is printed under the heading:
'The Emerald Tables of Hermes the Thrice Great concerning Chymistry, Translator unknown. The words of the Secrets of Hermes which were written on the Tablet of Emerald found between his hands in a dark cave wherein his body was discovered buried.'
An Arabic version of the text was discovered in a work ascribed to Jabir, which was probably made about the ninth century. In any case it must be one of the oldest alchemical fragments known, and that it is a piece of Hermetic teaching I have no doubt, as it corresponds to teaching in the Poemanda and 'Fragments of a Faith Forgotten' in relation to the teaching of the thrice-greatest Hermes. It also teaches the unity of matter and the truth that all form is a manifestation from one root, the Aether, which teaching corroborates the theory of our present-day scientists. This table, in conjunction with the Tractatus Aureus or Golden Treatise which I have inserted at the end of this book, is well worth reading, particularly in the light of my elucidation of the general alchemical symbolism. Unhappily, it is all that remains to us of the Egyptian sacred art.
The third century A.D. seems to have been a period when the science was widely practised, but it was also during this century, in the year 296, that Diocletian sought out and burnt all the Egyptian books on alchemy and the other occult sciences, and in so doing destroyed
all evidence of progress made up to that date. In the fourth century Zosimus the Panopolite wrote his express treatise on 'The Divine Art of Making Gold and Silver,' and in the fifth Morienus, a hermit of Rome, left his native city and set out to seek the sage Adfar, a solitary adept whose fame had reached him from Alexandria. He found him, and after gaining his confidence became his disciple. After the death of his patron Morienus came into touch with King Calid, and a very attractive work purporting to be a dialogue between himself and the King is still extant under the name of Morienus. In this century Cedrenus also appeared, a magician who professed alchemy.
The next name of note, that of Geber, occurs in or about A.D. 750. Geber's true name was Abou Moussah Djfar--Al Sofi, or The Wise. Born at Houran in Mesoptamia, he is generally esteemed by adepts as the greatest of them all after Hermes. Of the five hundred treatises said to have been composed by him only three remain to posterity--'The Sum of the Perfect Magistery,' 'The Investigation of Perfection,' and his' Testament.' It is to him, too, that we are indebted for the first mention of corrosive sublimate, red oxide of mercury and nitrate of silver. Skilfully indeed did Geber veil his discovery, for from his mysterious style of writing we derive the word' geber' or gibberish, but those who have really understood Geber, his adept compeers, declare with one accord that he has declared the truth, albeit disguisedly, with great acuteness and precision.
Rhasis, another Arabian alchemist, became famous for his practical displays in the art of transmutation of base metals into gold.
In the tenth century Al Farabi enjoyed the reputation of being the most learned man of his age, and another great alchemist of this century was Avicenna, whose real name was Ebu Cinna. Born at Bokara in A.D. 980, he was the last of Egyptian Philosophers of note.