Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

The study of the changing of base metals into gold seems to reach the top favorite of occult topics for many. Steeped in a rich history, all who study it have their various reasons for loving Alchemy and why not? What’s not to like? The idea that one can start out with an imperfect substance and through labor and effort transform it into one of the most precious and perfect metals desired is to be desired itself.

Alchemy has a long history that modern science has reduced into one sentence of otherwise large and heavy textbooks — Alchemy failed.

This statement hardly gives any indication that there were brilliant minds involved in this once noble science. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were no sycophants or charlatans and they were deeply respected (and still are) for their enormous and varied contributions to science. Why, then, did Alchemy not make the cut? The answer is quite simple — well kind of — Alchemists were playing with the wrong stuff.

Fundamentally and generally speaking Alchemy is based on transformation. This is the process of taking a metal, like lead, and changing it into another metal, such as gold. In order to do this, an alchemist would need to reach into the center of an atom, into its nucleus (or essence if you would like to call it), and add or take away one of its major components: protons.

Protons at the Center of a Nucleus

This is no easy task. Atoms tend to really like their protons right where they are – at their center. This is because the number of protons provides the atom with a level of stability while giving them their identity. For example, hydrogen has one proton, helium has two, lithium has three, and so on. You can imagine how very important protons are. So much so, that atoms protect their nucleus with layers of small but really powerful particles called electrons.

These super tiny subatomic particles are what alchemists were working with back in the day instead of the needed protons. To put it metaphorically, alchemists were working on the peel of an avocado rather than inside the seed. At the height of Alchemy, in the High Renaissance, the existence of protons wasn’t known so alchemists weren’t able to change their tactics to get things right. This is the reason transmutation continually evaded them… and why Alchemy eventually failed. Or did it?

Modern science owes much to Alchemy. If Newton’s statement holds true that he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants, then Chemistry today stands on the shoulders of Alchemy. It is because of Alchemy that advancements in the periodic table took place, that the nature of metals is more thoroughly understood, and the development of the atomic theory progressed from its proto-theories into our current quantum understanding.

Can it be called coincidence that the Father of Chemistry is none other than the beloved alchemist Robert Boyle? I do not believe so. What the alchemists gave us, among other things, is better knowledge of chemical behavior. So did Alchemy fail in its purpose of transmutation? Yes, it did. But it didn’t fail us all together.

An Alchemist in His Laboratory

Imagine an old laboratory room full of musty and sour scents with bubbling concoctions of a variety about it. Sitting at his workbench is a hunched-over bearded man, deep in contemplation as he stares intensely at the flask in front of him. It isn’t a difficult scene to picture but what is harder to imagine are the silent and mysterious thoughts of this unknown man. Why is he looking at the blackened substance with such complexity? With such expectation?

It is because that mass of material represents his very essence, and he doesn’t understand it. Not one bit. You see Alchemy isn’t just about transformations of materials like its successor Nuclear Chemistry. It is about tying one’s personal evolution and transformation to that lump in the flask. This prima materia, as it is called, is the proxy of the alchemist and he will make it undergo numerous experiments. The constant subjecting of the substrate to fire, acid, and time is emblematic of the alchemist unlocking the conditions and behaviors that block him from reaching perfection or the Philosopher’s Stone.

This stone is achieved only through the agony of self-scrutiny and long hours at the workbench. It represents gold or the perfected material and is the ultimate achievement of any alchemist, if accomplished. There is something profound and beautiful about this intense exploration and application. Alchemy is the very symbol of Man realizing that he, at his most basic level, is no more understood than the substrate he has captured in his round bottom flask. And that he can become more than this undefined mound if he truly works for it.

The Alchemist by Sir William Fettes Douglas

Alchemy failed on one level but it has found supremacy on another. There is more than value in trying to understand our human nature through the nature of other things. That value is purpose and we find it through personification. Personification of our universe has been our means of communication with it. The laboratory has been and can be another way we personify our hidden nature. It enlivens our senses like no textbook can. And our senses are the gateway to experience and authentic knowledge.

We should look to Alchemy as a spiritual method of self-discovery and actualization and not a valid empirical science of transmutation. The latter holds no future in its outdated form, but the former holds the potential of all of our greatness.

The Merovingians

The Merovingians

This is the third of a rambling three-part exploration of Middle and Dark Age Europe, birthplace of much myth concerning Western religious and esoteric teachings. Never was myth and make believe more true than with the Merovingians. There is a pain over my left eye when people talk about how the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. It begins as somewhat of a sinus headache, moving into full blown brain burn as the person goes on about how it was possible and descendants of Christ are alive and well and are French. They go about this by tying the fish symbology of the early Christians to the name Merovech, assumed founder of the Merovingian dynasty.

Thanks, Dan Brown, And Christopher Knight. And Robert Lomas.

clovis-iIn my younger days, I too went down this path of how-history-gets-corrupted-by-pop-culture and fell down a deep rabbit hole researching the Knights Templar. Inevitably, this lead me to the Cathars and Merovingians, Lomas and Knight, and yes, I was a swirling mess of mythology masquerading as fiction masquerading as fact. Of course it could have happened. Of course. It’s right here on the Internet.

I finally grew up, after a few smackings from real historians, and got on the bandwagon of facts. Like a reformed smoker, I went whole hog into finding out “true” history. My library is a testament to finding a glimmering moment of fact amongst the ashes of primary sources. Primary sources and logical research are the keywords everyone who wants to know about history should revere. The sensational is fun but it certainly isn’t always, maybe usually, true. Another historian and researcher taught me early on that “real history is generally way more interesting than what people make up.” He was right.

With the Merovingians, the history is nowhere near as exciting as most people think. The founder of the dynasty was Merovech, whence the name Merovingians emerges. Merovech was the first to unite the barbarian Franks into a kingdom commonly known as Francia, later France. The Franks were, up until this time, a loose confederation of different tribes, warring as the Roman Empire fell apart. Around 458, Merovech’s son Childric I successfully won ground against the Visigoths, Saxons, and Germanic tribes to unite the Franks into common cause. However, it was his son Clovis I who united most of the northern Franks into a single kingdom to battle against the remaining Romans and Germanic tribes to form Francia. The dynasty continued for three hundred years, when they finally succumbed to inter-kingdom strife, the influence of the Christian Pope, and personal feuds. It wasn’t a particularly glorious end to a long-ruling empire; it was more a very human one.

frenchkingsMany people believe that the beginning of the country of France began with Clovis uniting all of the different Frankish tribes under his rule, and he set the tone for how the future of France would evolve. Hence, the Merovingian dynasty has a place in the heart of the modern French psyche. It’s no wonder that a strong, late 20th century mythology built on a hoax would stir the French as well as the rest of the world.

Pierre Plantard, in the mid-20th Century C.E., created a hoax which involved forged documents, a “secret” of regal lineage, and co-conspirators that would make even the best con man proud. Over the course of thirty plus years, Plantard promoted an organization named the Priory of Sion, purported to  have created the Templars, discovered hidden documents found in Rennes-le-Château proving the bloodline of Christ was really Merovingian, amongst other things. The entire setup was an elaborate hoax that perpetuated until the late 1990’s when the entire fraud was brought to light. Not before, however, several “historians,” fiction writers, and even “60 Minutes” were dragged into strengthening this mythology.

Books like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “The DaVinci Code” have perpetuated and sensationalized the stories until the claims have become a little insane. Rennes-le-Château was in the heart of Cathar territory and claims about the Church of Mary Magdalene increased the myth. As we discussed previously, the Cathars revered Mary Magdalene, so it is no surprise that there is a church in her honor in the Cathar “homeland.” By tying the mythology of the Merovingian fish, an elaborate birth tale of Merovech’s parents being part woman and part sea God, the idea was this must be a secret message that the Merovingians were tied to the lineage of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, who brought herself and the Christ’s unborn child to France when Jesus was killed. You add to this the spice that Mary must have carried the Holy Grail, or that she was the Holy Grail, sprinkle it with a few false documents and true biblical references, and you have the makings of a great feast of fiction and conspiracy theory.

Killjoy, I hear you say.

Let’s just say, I think the facts make a much better story. We don’t need to sensationalize to get a good dose of interesting intrigue and human strife, tragedy, and hope. The Merovingians were an interesting story unto themselves, having been really the first rulers of a modern France. They established cultural identity that lives to this day and can be seen in the remnants of laws, mores, architecture, and language. They established a rule that was the precursor to feudalism and were strong supporters of the early and medieval Catholic Church. Dozens of Merovingians were prominent church leaders and/saints. The Merovingians were the seeds of a long and deep nationalism that affects world thought today. This is why they are really to be remembered and discussed.

Meister_des_Sakramentarium_Gelasianum_001Freemasons search for truth and in their own origins, I would think they would search hardest. There are elements of the Knights Templar, the Cathars, and even the Merovingians in the foundation stones of Freemasonry. How could there not be? These were groups whose ideas and ideals were radical for their time; groups of people who formed new ways of being and thinking in their time periods, from the early 5th Century all the way through the late Middle Ages. Rebels. Mold breakers. Liberators. For people who are themselves trying to change the world for better, I can’t really think of better icons.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” – Colton

Who Were the Cathars?

Who Were the Cathars?

Whenever the Templars are mentioned, the Cathars are generally not far behind. Tied together with some interesting data and facts, they tend to be the focus of intense esoteric and mystical knowledge. Taking a look at them with the facts we have may answer questions, or create deeper ones.

The Cathars were the followers of a 12th to 14th C.E. Gnostic movement in Southern France and Italy. This movement, Catharism, comes from the Greek word katharoi, or “Pure Ones.” Scholars agree that the people who practiced this religion did not call themselves by this name; in all honesty, it seems unclear what they did call themselves except “The Good Christians.” The movement first took hold in the small town of Albi, in France, and the followers were also known as the Albigensians, especially to the CatholicsThe ideas of Catharism were around for centuries before this larger movement took place, and possibly has its roots in what is called Paulicianism.

In the Paulicianism belief system, the adherents do not believe in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and in fact believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God to be his “son” and endure the necessary trials. Paulicianism was vibrant around the 7th to 9th centuries C.E., particularly in Armenia. Cathars, like the Paulicians, primarily believed in a dualistic Christian system, wherein the were two “Gods,” one good, one evil, as well as deeper Gnostic concepts. The basic tenants of the Cathar religion seem to have come from a single priest, Bogomil, during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 10th century C.E. as a response to the rise of feudalism. In other words, the oppression and slavery of Feudalistic ideas spurred this priest and his followers toward a mindset of individual freewill and worth. Like later Cathars, Bogomilism did not believe in the ecclesiastical hierarchy nor did they believe in the need for church buildings. In a sense, Bogomils, and then Cathars, were an itinerant religion, spread by men and women of the church elite – Travelers.

Most of their beliefs were radical to a still-struggling Catholic Church, and in a time prior to Luther, Catholic ideas were the only “Christian” meal to be had. The church had struggled for over a thousand years to get itself “right,” and it did not need yet one more renegade group to get in its way. Cathars believed in reincarnation of humans and animals, and did not eat the flesh of animals for this reason. They had a vibrant tradition in their troubadours, and were traveling craftsmen of many trades. Men and women were mainly seen as equals, although it is thought that their last incarnation needed to be male in order to be “close to God.” Their Good God was the creator of all that was spiritual, ethereal and thought, while the Evil God was the creator all that was material. They did not believe in hell, it being the earth in which we currently live, but heaven was populated by angels and spirits performing the will of the Good God. By living their aesthetic life, they believed themselves to be the truest Christians, where the Catholic Church was a corruption of all of the Christian teachings.

Cathars had two levels of knowledge, for lack of a better term, to distinguish the teachers from the lay follower. Know as “Perfects,” or “Parfaits,” both men and women could be come one of the elites and were both known to travel and spread the doctrine. This seems to mimic some of the early Christian sects, who also adopted from the Cult of Mithras, Bacchus, and a few other mystery schools.

What is important to note as that for the first 500 to 700 years of its life, Christianity was nowhere near the juggernaut that it became in the 14th to 19th centuries. Out of the remains of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church rose to reinvent itself to be that empire once again, using religion instead of soldiers to find its way. There was not just one Council of Nicaea but seven over the course of 400 years.

The doctrine of the church was not set in stone – more like several tributaries that were flowing to a single great river. It took hundreds of years and thousands of theological discussions to get to where it is today – still fragmented but fairly solid. It is in the period of the Bogomils and Cathars that we see the Catholic Church coming into its own power, and asserting its right as the divine authority over layman and royalty alike all through Western Europe. It is also important to remember that this was a time before Luther – before the idea that the human could come to God in other ways and not via their connection to a priest. At this time, the spiritual afterlife of every person lay in the hands of the Catholic Church.

Clearly, the Catholic Church had money. And royalty. There was not much that was going to get in the way of it becoming the dominant force in Western Europe. In fact, many new ideas of suppression were tried on the Cathars, tools the Catholic Church would further expand as it moved through Europe imposing its will. The Catholic Church did see the Cathars as a heretical sect; yet, they debated whether they were even Christians. Either way, they could not survive.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on the Albigensian region of Languedoc, which was not part of France at the time but its own kingdom. Known as the Albigensian Crusade, or later by the name of Cathar Wars, the killing of human beings was indiscriminate. Many Catholics, Jews, and Cathars died in these wars. This genocide bred the first use of the now-common phrase, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” This was the first time a crusade had been waged within the confines of conventional Western Europe, and by all accounts the Catholic Church called it a success. This was followed by what would be called the first Inquisition, whereupon torture and death were used to force conversation back to the true religion, Catholicism. The Crusade itself was ended in 1244, the date when the castle at Montsegur fell to the crusaders. The Inquisition continued well into the 14th century. The last known Cathar elite (called Perfect, as was their custom) was burned there in 1321 C.E..

Cathars did continue to exist in hiding and by all accounts, had eventually died off as a continuing sect. There are some who believe that that elements of the Cathar religion rose with Luther and Protestantism but there are no real supporting documents or links to this supposition.

Additionally, there was and is a supposition that the Cathars held a secret “treasure” which was spirited away prior to the fall of Montsegur; no evidence has been found of this treasure, although some believe it is knowledge rather than an actual treasure. There is also an idea that this treasure went to the Knights Templar, who were just being formed. Indeed, the one link between the Templars and the Cathars was Bernard of Clarvaux, later St. Bernard. Bernard is seen to have held some of the same ideas of the Cathars, even if he did see them as heretics to be eradicated. He had continued correspondence with a bishop of the Cathars and indeed visited. Bernard was also prominent in bringing the worship of the Virgin Mary to popularity, which was in keeping with Cathar beliefs.

The Cathars were and are an interesting off-shoot of the Christian religion from its earliest days, and it is a shame that not more of its own writings exists. Many have speculated if the Cathars still exist and if so, in what form. It may just be a single, dead branch of a tree that has its roots in far older and mysterious teachings. There are a few books about the Cathars; the one by Malcom Barber, who also wrote about the Templars, is interesting and factual. There is also another book about a woman who remembers her past life as a Cathar, in the 13th century C.E., titled “The Cathars and Reincarnation,” by Arthur Guirdham. It is relatively short with some descriptions of places and drawings associated with them. It is an entertaining read, and will leave it up to the reader to validate their own beliefs about the teller’s story. There is also a very thorough website, which has a lot of great references for anyone who wants to know more.

The Nature of Fractals – Part I: The World Around Us

The Nature of Fractals – Part I: The World Around Us

Man continually seeks deeper understanding of the world around him. From the deepest reaches of space, to the depths of our oceans, to the smallest particle, Humanity seeks to gain ever more profound insight into this world we all experience together. However, what if the clues to gaining some insight into our existence lie right before our eyes?

As I journey through my life, it continues to amaze me how complex and yet simple our existence really is. Humans have a remarkable ability to discern patterns. Repeating patterns are a phenomenon seen throughout nature, such as the fractal. Could our ability to discern those patterns and their existence be an indication of deeper truths for this reality?

Example of a Fractal

A fractal is defined as a “natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” No matter what magnification the observer uses, the same pattern is evident, just at a larger or smaller scale depending on the magnification used. The Mandelbrot Set is one such fractal and is illustrated to the left. Mandelbrot described the fractal as “…a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole…” (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.)

One example of a fractal is seen in a hyperbolic fractal tessellation. A tessellation is a closed, countable set of tiles arranged so that they do not overlap with a repeating pattern. They essentially form a two-dimensional shape within the Euclidian Plane. A hyperbolic fractal tessellation combines the traits of a tessellation and a fractal in a manner similar to the illustration at the right.

Fractals can be seen in our daily lives. The manner in which this article was assembled has fractal patterns – start at the highest level, build a framework (outline), select one of the subsections and write to that, inserting a sub-framework around which the words are assembled, repeat until the depth of detail desired is reached. The antennas used in cell phones are fractal in design as well. This design was selected to solve an early problem with cell phones – the large number of different frequencies each phone had to receive. The length of an antenna must be a whole fraction of the wavelength of the signal for the signal to be received. Dr. Nathan Cohen discovered in 1988 that an antenna designed as a fractal could receive multiple signals because a fractal antenna realized antennas of multiple different lengths, either matching or a whole fraction of the wavelengths of the received signals.

Fractal Pattern in Nature

Fractals are ubiquitous throughout nature as well. From a certain perspective, the fractal antenna above was successful because it replicated the concept seen in nature. Some of the more commonly seen fractals include trees and ferns. For trees, think about how the trunk is the base for multiple large branches, which form the foundation for smaller branches, so and so forth to the leaves at the end of the smallest branches. Certain sea shells also exhibit a fractal pattern. You may wonder why natural systems behave in this manner. As quoted from Dr. David Pincus:

Essentially, fractal systems have many opportunities for growth, change and re-organization. Yet they also are very robust. They maintain their coherence; they hold together well, even under tough circumstances. They are balanced in this respect, between order and chaos. They are simple, yet also very complex. This balance is often referred to as “criticality.”

And the term “self-organized” is often added because systems tend to become fractal on their own, simply by putting a lot of system components together and allowing them to exchange information. Think of a party. All you need to do is come up with enough people at the same place and time and they will start to form complex patterns of connection with one another.”  (Z.McGee, n.d.) I like to think that fractals are so complex that they are simple.

Fractal Pattern in the Brain

It turns out that the brain is fractal, both in the way it is organized physically and functionally. On the physical level, at the smallest scales are the pyramidal neuron, which is the most common neuronal structure in the brain. These form into cortical columns, consisting of numerous pyramidal neurons. Finally, the Columnar Complex consists of a number of cortical columns. All of these structures exhibit branching both into and out of the arrangement.  (The Fractal Brain Theory, n.d.)

Indeed, illustrations of the neuron and its surroundings depict a fractal type of construction. Even the way the brain works is fractal in nature. Psychologists discovered in recent years that behavior patterns and social behavior adhere to those principles. So Humanity exhibits a fractal nature from the smallest to the most gross scale, which may explain our connectivity to Nature itself. One author describes this connectedness as “broadband connectivity” and explains how that may be related to our consciousness.  (Ph.D., 2009)

 

With Passion

With Passion

I recently attended a Masonic Philosophical Society discussion about compassion – what was it, what is it, and how did it get from there to here. In the course of the discussion, many people discussed kindness and manners but little discussion about compassion took place.

The word comes from the roots of ‘with’ and ‘passion.’ The modern, Webster’s version of the word means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” As language evolves, and many of the things that philosophers study are dusty with age and wear, it was important to see where the word began. From its Latin beginnings through Old French, the word actually meant “suffer with.” From the 14th Century C.E. backward, the word is associated with suffering. To look at meanings, suffering and sympathy/concern are two wholly different experiences. What is interesting is the the word “suffer” also comes from the Old French, in about the same time period as compassion, and the word originally meant “the be under the burden of something, to ensure, to hold up.” The word sympathy shows up much later in vocabulary, around 1570, and is of two Greek roots – “together” (sym) and feeling (pathos).

compassionrockIn his book, “Sympathy: A History,” author Eric Schliesser puts the confusion between sympathy and compassion to rest. He breaks down, right in the introduction, the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy, which are often confused for one another, are different breeds. Empathy, a word from the 12th century C.E., was created, the author states, to describe the German concept of Einfuhlung, or the state of entering into someone else’s feelings. That is, in empathy, the person is actually “in” the emotions of others, whereas with sympathy, the person experiencing it is recreating what their imagination can create, from the building blocks of society, family, and learned experience. The person in sympathy is not actually feeling the same emotions as the person conveying the experience.

So, the question bears asking: are compassion and empathy related? How can one suffer without actually feeling the suffering?

The Chopra Center has an interesting distinction for the word compassion. They state:

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

In other words, you need to have both empathy and sympathy to be able to motivate yourself to compassion. Compassion is also action; it is the desire to relieve the suffering of the other person with real and meaningful work.

pairThe interesting difference between kindness and compassion is in the suffering. It is kind to hold the door open for people. It is compassionate to bring someone into your home and away from the cold. Kindness involves a gentle mindset and may be necessary for compassion; however, compassion demands more. It demands action that is substantial enough to relieve true suffering, a true burden. It’s not taking the burden off someone’s shoulders, or living the pain with the person. That achieves nothing. It is not only lifting the burden with someone but working on ways to bring the cause of the suffering to an end. The compassionate person has distance from the emotional weight and can therefore see more clearly what may be accomplished. In conjunction with the other, that clear-headed person can provide a guide through the suffering.

Compassion requires a higher thought, a higher attention to the greater good. It also seems to require an integrated person – someone who can truly see the person in all their different forms and deliver what is required. Compassion isn’t kindness.

Kindness is a quality of being gentle and generous. Empathy is the ability to actually feel the suffering of another, while sympathy is the ability to imagine that suffering. Compassion takes all of those facets and creates an action plan. We might equate kindness with the physical, empathy with the emotional, sympathy with the mental, and compassion with the spirit, if we were breaking this down in the sense of human experience. The highest emotion, in this human drama, then, is compassion. It requires the most energy, delivering the most gain. In other words, sometimes the kindest, and toughest act of compassion may appear to be harsh of difficult for the person to achieve. Saying “no” to the alcoholic is compassionate, as is saying “no” to the person who always wants the answer. Telling the intelligent person that their poor work is the result of laziness is kindness, empathy, and sympathy rolled up into a greater purpose – it is compassion. Enablement is not compassion: it is destruction.aroundcompassion

Freemasonry teaches you how to act but not how to think or feel. Freemasons are regularly taught to be kind and compassionate, yet subdue strong emotions in favor of thoughtful discourse.

Freemasonry also teaches you to act instead of standing on the sidelines and watching and simply thinking about a thing. Freemasonry provides opportunities for its adherents to be able to speak openly and view themselves authentically. Everyone requires a second set of eyes and experiences to become better, and it is in the bonds of fraternal love that compassion can be delivered. It requires different thought than the general society. It expects the Mason to not only learn to be compassionate but also to be able to receive that compassion. It becomes a true bond of fraternity, when honesty is the cement that not only binds us but supports us.

Are Freemasons perfect? Not by a long shot. It is in the compassion found in fraternal bonds that Masons can become better human beings and thereby better members and examples in the larger society.