Modern students researching the practices and philosophies of Alchemy will often read the general definition of alchemy as “the art of transformation.” In actuality, there are various definitions and explanations attempting to define just what it is that Alchemy is. There are definitions that represent Transmutation, chemical marriages, raising of vibrations, and so on. These varying definitions lead many to misuse the term Alchemy and attribute it to many new age philosophies or healing practices that may or may not reflect the true nature of the word. Muddying up the practice, and inaccurately defining the word, we now see things in our society like: “Alchemical Massage, Alchemically prepared chocolates, Alchemy in Business, etc.” In no way do I wish to diminish these practices or modes of thinking, but taking something and using it to make something else is not necessarily what Alchemy truly is.
This article, “what is alchemy,” is an exploration into the definition of the word alchemy. This defining is intended to help make alchemical practices and theories clear, distinct, and relevant. Through explanation and exploration of the word alchemy I wish to define alchemy, and also call for a standardization of the definition throughout the alchemical community, and beyond, into adjacent realms of study – which, when understood and applied, can be found to be relevant to all things, all people, and areas of interest. To uncover the true essence of the art of alchemy, it is necessary to explore ancient alchemical texts themselves. The exploration of these texts reveals what the alchemists of old believed their Art to be. To do this, two of the most authoritative texts from eastern and western alchemical traditions will be used - the Emerald Tablet and the Rig Veda. The Emerald Tablet is reported to be more than three thousand years old and was referenced by alchemists of the west. Even today it is considered a corner stone in the beginning studies of any fledgling alchemist, and is quoted in almost every modern book pertaining to the study and practice of alchemy. The Rig Veda is believed to be at least six thousand years old and was the text used primarily by Indian alchemists. Indian alchemy and the studies of rasashastra are becoming more widely recognized and studied, making this a worthy resource for understanding alchemy on whole.
Though these texts come from vastly different places and different times, when compared side by side there are remarkable similarities. Although many ancient and sacred texts can be referenced and quoted for the sake of this exploration, only the two will be used as to maintain an air of simplicity.
Enough with prefaces, let’s explore how ancient alchemists thought of their own study and practice so that we may define and understand Alchemy.
From the Emerald Tablet:
“That which is below corresponds to that which is above, and that which is above corresponds to that which is below, in the accomplishment of the miracle of one thing”
And from the Rig Veda:
“He who knows the Father of this world as that which is below, associated with that which is above, and that which is above associated with that which is below, will have the mind of a sage.”
-Mandala 1, hymn CLXIV: 18
What does all that mean? And how does this talk of above and below explain what alchemy is?
Pulling apart these verses helps to isolate the truths that these texts are woven from.
We see that the Rig Veda describes the “Father of this world” as the Association of that which is above to that which is below. The Emerald Tablet also states that “all things have come from this one thing” (the association) - that “one thing” in the Emerald Tablet is the “father” we hear of in the Rig Veda.
What is this “one thing?” who or what is the “father?”
As stated above, the Father (the One thing) is defined as the Association of the “above corresponding to that which is below.”
ok, the “one thing/Father” is the association. But what is the “above and below” that are being referred to in these texts, and that our “one thing” is associated to and with.
The above was seen as the “heavens” - the macrocosm - that which is bigger than the biggest, or infinity. It was an inner world, a divine world, which gave birth to all that is.
The below was seen as the “Earth” – the physical manifestation - the microcosm - that which is smaller than the smallest – or the infinitesimal. It was the physicality of reality that was born from the Above.
In the Vedic perspective, the concept of below was known as point, and in contrast the concept of Above was known as infinite. To the Vedic sages, both of these concepts – the above and the below – were considered to be aspects of the self. Defining these in Sanskrit we see them named as Ananta – the infinite self, and Jiva – the point self or individual self.
Applying ancient Vedic perspective to our readings and understandings of the Emerald tablet helps to shed light on just what this thing called alchemy is.
Knowing the Above and below as aspects of the self we can see that when the infinite self (above) adopted a “point of view” to know itself, it became an individual (Jiva – the below) while still remaining infinite. This was known classically to the Vedics as Kshetragyah – the knower of the field. The “knower” was the one who has adopted a point of view as an individual to see itself as an infinite being of pure and unbounded consciousness. So then the “knower” becomes everything in between point and infinity. The Knower becomes the association between the above and the below.
The “one thing” who is the “father of this world” this “association” has now become the self. It is you. The self is not only the individual self and surely not the individual body, but rather the association between the individual and infinite, which is the whole. Whole can be defined as: Undivided, entire, or total. Whole signifies no separation, and no separation means there are no divisions between you and “it.” The world and the self. You, the association are the inside and the outside, the above and the below.
The association of the above and the below is the consciousness (which is you) - the awareness of the individual that proclaims to the self (consciousness) that “I exist – I am.” Consciousness in alchemical perspective was understood as Sulfur, which constitutes the soul of any individual form found in the universe. (Further readings pertaining to this topic – sulfur/soul - can be found in Truth of the Matter.)
Possessing true and unadulterated consciousness, one is made aware of both the individual self and infinite consciousness as the source of all. This individual, this knower, stands in-between point and infinity. His feet planted in the below and his head reaching into the above.
Understanding this association between the above and the below is the key to understanding the relationship between consciousness and matter which is the true essence of the science of Alchemy. By first understanding the association between consciousness and matter, one can then move on to the next step and become that association, becoming the “knower” of all that lies in-between point and infinity. The art and practice of alchemy is an avenue in which one can come to know that association and “know thy self.”
To answer the question of “What is alchemy?” in plain language: Alchemy is the understanding of the relationship between consciousness and matter. When these understandings are employed practically in the laboratory work, and internally to the psyche, the science and art of alchemy become manifest. Then the creations that come from the alchemist’s laboratory become the tools that he may use to direct his awareness back towards divine consciousness.
It is this definition of alchemy that must be standardized for truth to root into the minds and being of all. If alchemy is at all an “art of transformation” it is one that understands how consciousness creates and transforms itself into matter. Knowing alchemy as a practice and theory that recognizes the relationship of consciousness to matter, we can then unlock the general principles that structure alchemical theory (sulfur, mercury, & salt – The 4 elements – prima materia – etc.) Opening the doors to these understandings gives the power of wisdom back to every individual. Alchemy is just one of many paths that can be walked to know this and all as so. Understanding and incorporating this definition of alchemy is one step in recognizing the truths that alchemy points to and embodies.
Avery is the lead Alchemist at Kymia Arts and routinely shares information on general alchemy topics as well as our methods and products.
All content on this site is for informational or research purposes only. The statements on this site have not been evaluated by the FDA and these products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a qualified natural physician prior to use, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs.
The Paracelsus Award is presented by the International Alchemy Guild (IAG) to English, German, Spanish, Russian, and French language web sites. The purpose of the award is to recognize and honor outstanding web resources, archives, and commercial, organizational, and personal URLs that elucidate the philosophy of alchemy or apply alchemical methods to the arts and sciences.