4 October 2015


Sean Martin. Alchemy and Alchemists. Pocket Essentials, 2015.

This paperback book of 160 pages is a recently published addition to Pocket Essentials, a range of books produced in the same format on a wide range of diverse subjects. At first glance, to produce a pocket-sized guide to a subject as complex and mysterious as alchemy might seem to be an extremely difficult if not impossible task.
The same might be said of alchemy itself, which, in the popular imagination, concerns the attempt to transform base matter or metal such as lead, into the noblest of metals, gold. Therefore, it would be useful to know whether this book uncovers the ultimate secret of the philosopher's stone, that mysterious alchemical substance which symbolises ultimate perfection, enlightenment, bliss, rejuvenation, immortality, and all the other related goals of what is called the Magnum Opus, or Great Work. The answer, as is so familiar to seekers of truth, is a definite Yes and No.

Although this book provides many historical examples of this transmutation being successfully accomplished, at least to the satisfaction of onlookers who had the opportunity to test the purity of the gold substance that was manifested in these cases, there is no case presented that may be taken as definitive 'proof' in the modern scientific sense. The author makes this interesting comment on the practical feasibility of such a physical transmutation: "In perhaps the supreme irony, particle physics has shown that it is theoretically possible to turn lead into gold, if the number of molecules in the lead atom were to be increased. This would require vast expense and particle accelerators, which obviously the medieval alchemist of popular imagination did not have".

In this quoted passage, Martin shows that science is not his strong point. It is a great howler of an error to say that atoms have molecules. The definition of the scientific term 'molecule' is: "A group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical element or compound that has the chemical properties of that element or compound". That is to say, molecules are made of atoms, not the other way round. What the author presumably meant to say was that atoms are made of subatomic particles, i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atoms must have an equal number of protons and electrons. But also, the lead atom has 82 protons, whereas gold has 79, so rather than increasing the protons in lead atoms to produce gold one would have to decrease them. Adding or subtracting one or more protons from an atom creates a different element, which goes some way to explain the potential for transmutation in physical and chemical terms. There is no need to labour this point further, but it is surprising that the author could make such a fundamental error, and even more so that it was not picked up during proof-reading and editing of the manuscript.

While science may be his weak point, Sean Martin's strengths lie in his overview and understanding of history, philosophy, psychology and universal mysteries. It is difficult to do justice to the breadth and depth of information that Martin manages to pack into this deceptively compact book. As the author of books on the Knights Templar and the Cathars, amongst other subjects, he is clearly adept at presenting deep and complex subjects with great clarity and wisdom. Take this sentence as an example: "The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that, whatever sort of gold the alchemists were looking for, they had in fact discovered the unconscious, and that their frequently strong, challenging images were portraits of various states of consciousness that could lead us into a greater understanding of ourselves."

Also, regarding the need for discernment when deciphering the meaning of alchemical texts: "Alchemists were masters of wordplay. Many alchemical texts claim that they are 'hiding a secret openly', meaning that initiates will understand them, and that everyone else will see complete gibberish. (Gibberish, incidentally, is alchemical in origin; it was coined to describe the apparent incomprehensibility of the writings ascribed to Jabir, or Geber, as he was known in Latin.)"

As he says in his introduction: "It has been called the mightiest secret that a man (or woman) can possess, yet it has also been portrayed as a fraudulent, delusional quest for wealth and worldly power.....but has also been regarded as a Divine art, the highest gift of God, one that should only be practised by the sincere seeker and the pure of heart".

The book consists of five main chapters: Basic Ideas and Themes, Alchemy in the West, Alchemy in the East, Modern Alchemy, and the Golden Chain. Everything and everyone of importance is included, and much that will be new even to those readers with a good working knowledge of the subject. The title of the final chapter is explained thus: "Alchemy is a solitary path that does not lend itself to being taught in the environment of mystery schools or secret societies. For guidance, alchemists traditionally had their teacher, their intuition and the writings of other alchemists. Both the teachers and the writings form what is called the aurea catena or Golden Chain." There then follows a list of 130 known alchemists from Hermes Trismegistus down to the present century, with a summary of their lives and work. The book concludes with a very long and comprehensive list of suggested books for further reading, a few recommended websites, two pieces of music inspired by alchemy, and finally a full index of subjects and names.

Wary of being duped by charlatans, rulers throughout history have often banned the art of alchemy. As early as 144 BC the Chinese Emperor issued an edict forbidding the manufacture of gold, as did Pope John XXII in his bull of 1317: "Poor themselves, the alchemists promise riches which are not forthcoming; wise also in their own conceit , they fall into the ditch which they themselves have digged". In England, Henry IV made it illegal in 1403.

Yet, as Martin points out, for all the rulers who banned the art, many more either practised the art or at least encouraged it, attracted by the reputed gifts of infinite wealth, longevity and other strange powers. For example, King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) carried out experiments at Stirling Castle, and Charles II had his own private laboratory beneath the royal bedchamber. Perhaps most famously of all, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1611) was obsessed by the art, even to the neglect of affairs of state.

One of England's greatest scholars, Dr John Dee of Mortlake, expert in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, navigation and occult philosophy can certainly be considered to have been an alchemist. He was alleged to have found the philosopher's stone in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Dee and Edward Kelley, his brilliant but roguish assistant over many years, engaged in strenuous efforts to gain secret spiritual knowledge and to succeed in the alchemical manufacture of gold.

 It was claimed that they achieved their first successful sublimation on 19 December 1586. In that year they had arrived in Prague to a warm welcome from the aforementioned Rudolph II, who was greatly intrigued by their work. Their stay was cut short after several months when the Pope demanded that Rudolph dismiss them or even imprison and execute them.

After living for a while in Krakow, they became guests of King Stephen of Poland, having convinced him that he was the one to replace Emperor Rudolph II. Finally Stephen grew tired of their constant demands for money. Dee and Kelley fell out after Dee at last began to realise that Kelley was under evil influences. Having returned to England in 1589, Dee faced many more trying circumstances until he eventually died in poverty at Mortlake at the age of 81. All of this shows that Dee, for all his great learning and experience, had not mastered the art of sublimation. The greatest of riches that he found were in the form of knowledge, and for that which has come down to us we can all be grateful.

Other eminent medieval scholars such as Albertus Magnus, Moses Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Francis Bacon were profoundly interested in the art of transmutation. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson wrote about the themes of alchemy, generally mocking those fraudulent 'puffers' (so called because of their use of bellows for their furnaces and their emission of hot air in making false claims). Even those thought of as rational scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were practising alchemists. Boyle, regarded as the father of modern chemistry, searched for the philosopher's stone and, during the 1650s while at Oxford, performed many experiments with mercury as a candidate for the mysterious substance. Newton, regarded as the father of modern physics, "...spoke of the art as concealing secrets that would be dangerous should they fall into the wrong hands, which has led some to believe that he understood, or intuited, the secrets of nuclear power".

 In this regard Newton was certainly ahead of his time, for we now know that the gold found within our planet was formed by intense nuclear reactions within massive stars which finally exploded with spectacular force as supernova, thus forming the heavier elements such as gold; alternatively that super-dense neutron stars colliding many billions of years ago, detectable to scientific instruments today as gamma-ray bursts, could produce vast amounts of gold.

 Whether Newton intuited these wonders or not, "... he saw Nature as a unity, a vast puzzle to be solved by the devout seeker. It is ironic that the world that Newton helped create has anything but a unified view of Nature, a world whose short-sightedness and materialistic greed threaten Nature herself, and humanity as a whole". For some reason known only to himself, in his old age Newton destroyed and burned a great many of his papers. One can only wonder what knowledge or insights they may have contained. The author suggests that modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, is returning us gradually to that lost unity, where consciousness itself is the vital ingredient, not matter itself. This indeed could be the elusive philosopher's stone, ultimately a latent quality in the seeker that is revealed or developed. It is the idea that the experimenter can actually manipulate matter through strong visualisation or imagination.

The alchemical work begins with the first matter. This is the Lesser Work: Nigredo. For Egyptian alchemists that prima materia may have been the black earth fed by the Nile. Al-kimia comes from the ancient name of Egypt, meaning "black land". So, in the laboratory, the practitioner would choose some material to work with. It could indeed be common soil, but Isaac Newton chose antimony as his first agent, whereas Nicholas Flamel used mercury.

Others may have thought that they must use the most vile and base substance as prime matter, such as dung or urine. Indeed, Hennig Brand, the German alchemist, inadvertently discovered the element phosphorus in 1669 after boiling down large amounts of human urine, thinking that its yellow colour may indicate the presence of gold. He heated the residues on his furnace until the retort was red-hot, and liquid dripped out, spontaneously bursting into flames. He found that he could store this strange liquid in glass jars, where it solidified and gave off a pale-green glow. This inspired him to name the substance 'phosphorus' from the Greek word meaning 'light bearing'. Brand kept his discovery secret, as did all alchemists, while he continued to try to extract gold from the substance he had discovered. No doubt he must have thought he had discovered the "philosopher's stone", for it came from a man, containing life force, and miraculously emitted light.

In Jungian alchemy this would be the raw unrefined state of the unconscious before any inner work was undertaken. The semi-mythical first century adept Mary Prophetissa equated this stage with a spiritual or metaphorical death. In any case it corresponds with the confused and conflicted state of the alchemist at the beginning of the work.

The second stage, Albedo, deals with whitening or cleansing the matter, and its inner meaning could be physical discipline, fasting or abstinences to prepare for full realisation of the soul.

The final stage, or Greater Work, is the climax in which the philosopher's stone or elixir is achieved, and the alchemical marriage takes place, the wedding of king and queen or sun and moon. Because of all the esoteric variables, the work would be repeated again and again, even for many years or a lifetime, in the quest for ultimate success and completion.

Thus the deeper meaning of alchemy, the efforts that one must make within the crucible of one's life through all its ups and downs, blessings and adversities, to keep going and make sense of it all within the Cosmic play, this is the real gift of this book. Sean Martin puts it in these words: "The final stage of the work, the rubedo, is left up to the individual. This is the opportunity to take one's knowledge a step further, to consciously marry the disparate elements of one's experience and weld them into a complimentary whole, or as Gerard Dorn said, to 'become transmuted into living philosophical stones'. Once this is achieved, then we have completed the Great Work, we have redeemed ourselves, and, in doing so, redeemed the Cosmos. Alchemists of all ages would agree with the old Hebrew proverb that 'he who saves one life saves the world entire.' " -- Kevin Murphy

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