III - Alchemy

Alchemy in the Golden Dawn

A Brief Discussion

Many of the members of the Golden Dawn first approached practical magic through the medium of alchemy.  Examination in alchemy was an element of progress through Golden Dawn Initiation, and while there is evidence that some members probably knew only the most general theoretical elements, many maintained laboratories, and conducted alchemical experimentation.

We know from the historical discussion that Alchemy is ancient.  While much of the influence on medieval alchemy was Arabic, through Gerber and others, Alchemy returned to Europe early, through the work of Paracelsus and others. 

Real Alchemy

It is important to understand that the point of alchemy is not "turning iron into gold," or in general any other mundane goal.  Certainly there is the philosophy of alchemy and the applied science, but even the applied science is not wholly aimed at any specific operation. 

Alchemical thought is related to Neo-Platonic thought.  If there is one central concept in Alchemy it is that the physical reality of our universe mirrors the spiritual reality of our universe. 

The Alchemist endeavors, through a series of procedures, to produce the "Great Work" or Philosopher's Stone.   What is the Philosopher's Stone?  It is a physical substance of ultimate purity.  It is the basic perfect solid, of which all other solids are impure corruptions.   At the same time, the soul of the Alchemist is refined and purged of purity - thus the one process is the mirror and visible symbol of the other. 

It is true that the obvious implication of the process is that base metals can be "transmuted" or "purified" into higher metals.  The Alchemical view of the universe predates the periodic table - to the Alchemist, Iron is not a separate metal, but the same universal substance as Gold, only with greater impurity.  Silver and Gold are held to be the highest, purest, of elements.  It is a logical extrapolation that Silver and gold can be produced by "transmuting" base metals - the process of transmutation in minerals is assumed to be the equivalent of the process of fermentation in the vegetable kingdom. 

Certainly there is a great deal of miscellaneous chemical lore caught up in Alchemy, and the "Great Work" is no more the only aim of the Alchemist than the "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel" is the only aim of the Ritualist. 

Common themes in Alchemy were the creation of the Elixir of Life, which would prolong human life indefinitely, and the creation of artificial life, or homonculi.   Both of these practices survived into the Victorian era, and the entire Rosicrucian myth - which begins with the concept of several hundred year old magi, assumes the existence of the Elixir of Life. 

But to simply mix the ingredients in Alchemy was pointless.  Unless the temperament of the Alchemist was in harmony with the result, the operation would not be successful.  Thus the discipline of Alchemy complimented the ritual disciplines of the Golden Dawn closely.

Technical Aspects:

All elements of the vegatable and mineral kingdom contain positive and negative force. 

  • The positive force is quintessence or "Mercury." 
  • The negative force is the salt
  • The positive force of all vegetable matter is the same, and that of all mineral matter the same
  • The negative force, or salts differ.
Alchemists work with three elements: Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury.  Alchemical sulphur is not the same as common brimstone, and neither is Salt common sodium chloride, or alchemical mercury quicksilver. 

Sulphur is found in its oily form adhering to the Mercury of a substance.  In mineral alchemy it must be separated from the Mercury, but in vegetable alchemy it is usually satisfactory to leave it combined with the Mercury.  Thus in most vegetable alchemical operations there are two elements (the Mercury and Sulphur combined) and the Salt.
Processes of Vegetable Alchemy:
These processes aim at making an "extract"
  • Macreation - the herb is soaked in water and left standing at room temperature
  • Circulation - the herb is "percolated" in a condenser
  • Extraction- the herb is put in a Soxhlet Extractor
Alcohol is generally the "essence" or spirit of the thing from which it is extracted.  Thus grain spirits are the "essence of grain." In alchemy, the Spirit of Wine is invariably used.  There are many particulars for this.
  • Take alcohol
  • Rectify the Alcohol
  • Grind the Herb using a mortar and Pestle
  • Place the Herb in the extraction apparatus
Soxhlet Extractor and Condenser pictured at Right

Alchemical Symbols:

Alchemists are accustomed to using a common "shorthand" for recording their work, and as well may use codes and ciphers.  A few of the most common are given here.  Click Here to pursue several pages that show some of the more common alchemical symbols 

Mineral Alchemy:

Having given a bit of background on vegetable alchemy, I'll give an illustrative example of mineral alchemy. A Treatise of Mercury and Philosophers Stone by Sir George Ripley.  You'll get the impression that it is more complex 


A Good Glossary of Basic Alchemical Terms

Further Resources

Alchemy Resources

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