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.

St. John the Evangelist and Involution

St. John the Evangelist and Involution

There’s been much written about the patron saint of Freemasonry, Saint John the Baptist. His feast day, celebrated by Freemasons over the world, is in June – the time of greatest light in the northern hemisphere. This feast day, June 24, is typically the time of Summer Solstice celebrations. There is another patron saint of Freemasonry, Saint John the Evangelist, of which less is spoken or discussed. St. John the Evangelist has as his feast day December 27, roughly the time of Winter Solstice. There is an excellent paper on the Saints John in a popular Masonic site called Pietre-Stones. In it, the author discusses the possibilities of how the Saints John became the patrons of Freemasonry. In the end, he concludes that we really don’t know the actual reason that they are Freemason’s patrons.

One thing, though, that Freemasons are wonderful with is speculation. After all, it’s what we are – speculative Masons. So, let us speculate.

Freemasonry itself has a lot of analogies related to light and with Light. There’s an archetypal idea, mostly associated with Plato and the allegory of the cave and the analogy of the sun, which associate Light (in the form of the Sun) with Truth. These archetypical forms are what Plato (via Socrates) considers to be that for which the philosopher-king is ever searching. These ideas have been incorporated into Freemasonry in myriad passages and ritual elements. Many Freemasons consider Freemasonry to be a “solar” ritual, as opposed to a lunar ritual. In this aspect, they see “solar” as an active, outgoing, and Western in nature, whereas a “lunar” type of ritual is receptive, inward, and Eastern. Where some initiatory schools are inward looking, solstice1Freemasonry is outward viewing. Like the symbol of Yin and Yang, this does not mean it is devoid of lunar aspects; however, the primary focus of Freemasonry is the improvement of mankind.

It makes sense, then, that Freemasonry would concern itself with solstices. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s path (as seen from Earth) comes to a stop before reversing direction. These are trajectories of the sun’s path and in understanding these movements, we understand more about how our world, how nature, works. In understanding nature, we are able to move through it with easy and achieve greater good. However, Freemasonry goes far deeper than the simple knowledge of nature. These movements become metaphors and analogies for the “a-ha” moments which make up a Freemasonic life.

For thousands of years, mystery schools and myths taught humanity about the cycle of life. When we moved away from superstition into speculation, we realized that special gods did not bring back the sun to continue life – it was simply the way that Nature worked. Humanity learned that while there might or might not be a Divine hand behind the creation of the world and the Nature it housed, we could learn to understand how it worked to our advantage. We learned to move away from fear and into exploration. The myths and mystery schools became a way to explore not only what happened in this world but perhaps what happened after we die, and help us contemplate the reasons for our existence, humanity’s existence. The greatest time of philosophical and physical exploration within these schools of thought came during the Age of Aries. The Age of Aries was a time of identifying humanity into civilizations, when there was the fire of invention, innovation, and inspiration.

With the onset of our current Piscine-age, mystery schools and myths faded in the bright light of more dogmatic and directive religions. With the rise of Abrahamic religions, our concepts of Light have morphed. In the Western Hemisphere, we began to associate people which archetypes. Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Muhammad, who said “I am the light of Allaah and everything is from my light.” Gods of all locales had and have been associated with the Sun or Light, but this Piscine age was the beginning of a time when living human beings began to be associated with light, and Light from divine sources. As Christianity spread, it sought to incorporate many cultures into its fold, thus continuing the influences of the Roman Empire – conquering with assimilation rather than johns5domination. In this assimilation, many “feast days” and “saint’s days” were integrated with, and overtook, colloquial celebrations. It is not a coincidence that the Feast day of Christ (the Light of the World) is also the celebrated feast day of Mithras, a Sun God worshiped in Ancient Rome.

Two of the most important figures of the Christian Bible, and specifically the Christian religion, are Saint John the Evangelist (John of the gospels) and Saint John the Baptist. An extremely good overview of St. John the Evangelist is located at this link. According to this, since the fifth century, December 27 has been the acknowledged feast or celebratory day of St. John the Evangelist.

Every Christian knows, at the very least in passing, about John the Baptist. They might say different things, but the core of the story is essentially that John the Baptist was born to a woman named Elizabeth, six months earlier than Jesus’ birth. There is some speculation that Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were related in some way. John was a bit of a wild man, calling on the nation of Israel to repent because “their savior was nearly upon them.” John began baptizing people by way of water, to “wash away their sins” and be ready for the Christ. Thus, John the Baptist was the herald of the coming of the Christian savior, even before knowing who he was. John the Baptist is known as the one who recognized the “son of God” and identified him to the world. (John 1:31-34)

John the Evangelist was a different story. John The Evangelist, brother of St. James, was one of the first disciples of Jesus and was the only disciple not to be martyred for his faith. This John wrote his gospel, letters to leaders of the early church and later, in Patmos, his Revelation. He apparently died in Ephesus, a priest and scholar. He was known in the Byzantine Church as “John the Theologian.” What we know of this John is only what he himself has, ostensibly, written.

This does little to explain why these two disparate personalities are linked to Freemasonry. My speculation goes on here. I believe these two Johns are archetypes in which Freemasonry has housed certain ideals and, perhaps, more esoteric teachings. John the Baptist is a fiery personality, who used water to cleanse the people for the coming of “the True Light.” He was vocal, verbal, an expression of the element of air and yet, he was a man of the wilderness, whose earthiness lead people to belief and faith. In other words, he was an elemental man, full of life of this material world. He shone during the highest point of the year, the time of most Light in the material world. He isjohns2 the archetype of material expression in its highest form. It could not be clearer why he is the Patron Saint of Freemasonry at the brightest time of the year.

John the Evangelist, however, was none of these things. He is a reflection of the teaching of the Christ, someone who took the Light and transmuted it into thought. He was a scholar, someone for whom thought created life. He represents the mental aspects of humanity, the time when contemplation and reflection are necessary to achieve progress. He was the energy of the Light transferred to thought and in its purest form, the Mind. Where John the Baptist represents Evolution, John the Evangelist represents Involution. These two Johns are the boundaries of the circle of human attainment – maximum involution and maximum evolution – the spirit turned to word and the word turned to spirit again. We see this as a icon of Freemasonry when we see the two Johns displayed beside a circle with a point in the exact center. This center is the point of pure Light within the human form, from which perfect balance of humanity is attained. These two Johns are the archetypes of the best of two facets of mankind, icons of the Piscean age.

This current age, in the procession of the equinoxes, is coming to a close and we find ourselves beginning a new age – an Aquarian age. While there is a technological overtone to the age, this is also the age of consciousness. The influences of nature continues to push us toward new ways of thinking, new influences. They push us away, perhaps, from the avatars and archetypes of an earlier age. The pictures that humans need vary and perhaps these two will become even further abstract in their meaning as we progress. Humans will continue to look to nature, and need to look to nature, to understand their own progress. Perhaps these archetypes of Involution and Evolution will change in the new age, and Freemasonry’s symbols will change with it. For now, these two Saints’ John stand guard and the highest and lowest moments of Light, reminding us that both edges of the spectrum are necessary for progress to be achieved and nature to be understood.