I. Ancient Alchemy Signs and Symbols
The study of alchemy has been a time honored tradition of interested individuals for at least the past 2,500 years. The ancient practice focused primarily on trying to change base metals like iron or lead into gold and trying to discover an “elixir of life.” The practical aspects and techniques of alchemy actually became the foundation for what is now inorganic chemistry even though the identification of a method that turned other metals into gold or a liquid that allowed eternal life (at least extended longevity) were never found. However, it was also a type of philosophy unto itself whereby the practitioners were attempting to achieve a type of ultimate wisdom and improve their souls in the process of mystical scientific discoveries.
A complex yet interconnected system of various philosophies and schools dedicated to these practices spans several thousand years and the entire globe as the Mesopotamians, Greco-Romans, ancient Egyptians, Persians, ancient Chinese, medieval Islamic peoples, and medieval Europeans all practiced a form of alchemy at some point in their history. Alchemists developed system of symbols for their work trying to achieve inner transformations through the philosophical and deeper spiritual meanings of these symbols. These designs became very important to the alchemists of medieval Europe as they needed to disguise their sciences from the very powerful and very intolerant Christian church who warred against them because they thought the ascension offered by alchemy was a way to achieve salvation outside of their chosen methodologies. Yet, the figures that are pictorial depictions have special meanings unto themselves for the entire study of alchemy.
The charm of “abracadabra” actually has its origins from the Hebrew initials for father, son, and holy spirit and is used as a charm in Kabbalah. Its link to alchemy though goes back almost as far as its first uses in those religions. Abracadabra is an ancient alchemy symbol that was utilized as an antidote for multiple illnesses and used to inspire natural healing processes. In order to perform these tasks, abracadabra was written on a piece of parchment in its special upside down triangle formation and was then suspended from the neck of the person who needed healing by a simple thread.
This symbol is also the ancient Roman symbol for the god Mercury. It is basically a figure of two serpents wrapped around a center rod with a pair of wings sprouting from the top. Today, the caduceus is seen in modern medical circles. Most alchemists agree with the use of this symbol in the medical realm as it calls for balance and unity on an internal level which can prove to be very helpful in healing a person who is ill. The design itself has three parts to create its meaning. The central rod is a symbol for transformative alchemy powers. Then, the two serpents represent duality and polarity. The wings pull in a meaning of balance to create a whole design of balance, duality, and then leading to the process of unity.
The cube is a shape that has importance in many ancient traditions such as in the philosophy school of Plato and Pythagorean theories. Egypt embraces the cube by showing the pharaoh sitting on a cube shaped throne. Many Indian deities are frequently depicted standing on cubes with one under each foot. The cube itself is acknowledged as a basic building block for all matter, and alchemists insist that supernatural abilities within the cube are almost limitless. While the cube can be applied to almost anything through its nature of versatility, the basic and general meaning of the cube in alchemy is that it represents the earth from which the king of spiritualism can spring forth.
Even though the current reputation of the pentacle is a design of evil and dissent, the pentacle in alchemy studies is actually a sign of health, mystic powers, and harmony. The ancient Greeks who followed the philosophy of Pythagoras used it to represent the marriage between earth and the heavens in addition to being a formation for health. Since this symbol can be used to represent heaven, earth, and the human body and mind, alchemists consider it to be extremely powerful in nature. Both alchemists and ancient magicians used it as a protection emblem. Alchemists in particular would press the symbol to special books to emphasize that their contained knowledge was sacred and protected and even inscribe it in the covers of the books as well.
This symbol is a special arrangement of five diamond shaped figures held within a square. Traditionally, it was used to infuse the worlds of man, the earth as nature, and the stars. In alchemy, it is used to represent the idea of the whole being more than the sum of its composing parts. The quincunx was also used to describe how each man and woman possesses the four levels of physical elements (man, animal, stone, and plant), but they are able to ascend from these four natural, common elements to the final fifth one that is a truly enlightened state of being almost godlike in its stature amongst alchemists. In the mineral world of alchemy, the quincunx occurs in the formation of metals such as their atomic structure. Since a large portion of alchemy is focused on a way to turn base metals into gold, this symbol was very powerful in its own right to represent the ultimate goal of that branch of study.
Ergon is the ancient spiritual symbol for the right eye of the soul. It is a design possibly based off the ancient Egyptian udjat or “Eye of Ra” that alchemists adopted and altered slightly to represent a focus on the higher, more refined vibrations of the spiritual world which require increased concentration to feel. The ergon is supposed to be always looking toward the eternal more than the left eye of the soul would. It also sees into the infinite nature of our human souls and the capability of men and women to tap into the infinite universe with enough study, work, and practice.
Another symbol from the ancient tradition of Kabbalah, the aleph is actually the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Kabbalah actually means the “secret tradition” when translated, and until very recently the study of it was restricted to a very few number of people as it was thought that looking into this tradition might cause problems for the confused and make things worse for them if they were not ready to understand. This idea in Kabbalah is linked strongly to that of alchemy as many alchemists believe that it is not a practice for novice hands. Therefore, the closeness between these two traditions make them draw from each other’s symbology. The aleph in particular is considered to be the spiritual root of all harmony in the world and even in the universe for alchemists.
Gothic circular windows in the shape of a rose are commonly seen as stained glass in giant cathedrals. However, alchemists see the beautiful dodecahedron as a symbol that is connected to the ether (or enlightened fifth element that all alchemists were attempting to achieve). Looking at the windows was thought to have a transformational effect on the viewer that carried them into an altered state of perception.
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II. The Mysterious First Matter
The Spiritization of Matter
It must never be supposed that the practice of alchemy consists only in the exercise of the mind, will, and imagination, or that the products obtained are imaginary and intangible or invisible to mortal eyes. The fact is that no alchemical process can be accomplished without the presence of visible and tangible matter, since alchemy is, so to speak, a spiritualizing of matter.
In fact, there is really no transformation of matter into spirit, as some people mistakenly believe, for each of the seven principles (the Emerald Formula) of the eternal nature is unchangeable, and remains forever within its own center — in the same sense as darkness cannot be turned into light, although a light may be kindled within the darkness, in consequence of which the darkness will disappear. Likewise within each material form, there sleeps the divine spirit, the Light, which may become awakened to life and activity and illuminate the body and cause it to live and to grow. Of the qualities of the powers of that Light, or even of its existence, modern chemistry has no knowledge and no terminology to describe it.
In other words, there is visible matter and invisible matter. Or in alchemical terms, there is tangible Water that is beyond the reach of perception by the physical senses; a visible Fire and an invisible Secret Fire. Neither of these can accomplish anything without the other, for in the practice of alchemy, as in the regeneration of man which is Above must be made to penetrate that which is Below, so that the lower may enter into a higher state of existence. If we wish to know nature we must learn to know God, and God cannot be know without knowledge of one’s own divine self.
The First Matter
The spiritual substance of which external visible nature is an expression and manifestation has been called the Materia Prima (First Matter) by alchemists. It is the material for the formation of a new heaven and a new earth. It is like alchemical Water, or a crystalline ocean, if compared with our grossly materialized earth; it is at once Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — corporeal in its essence and nevertheless incorporeal relative to our own physical forms.
In this primordial Chaos is contained the germ or seeds of potencies of all things that ever existed and of all that ever will exist in the future. It is the universal soul, or the Corpus of nature, and by means of the Secret Fire it may be extricated from all substances and be rendered corporeal and visible.
It is both unity and a trinity according to its inherent aspects of Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. These three are distinct qualities characterizing the spirit of Light, and nevertheless they are nothing different from the essence of the Light. This Light is eternal nature, the Anima Mundi or Soul of the World.
The primordial matter contains the powers that form minerals and metals, vegetables and animals, and everything that breathes; all forms are hidden within its depths, and it is therefore, the true principium or beginning of all things. It is the play and battleground far all the hidden influences that came from the stars and the birthplace of the beings that inhabit the astral planes, as well as those that are born into the visible world. The First Matter is the womb of eternal nature from which everything that exists is born by the power of the spirit acting within.
From its fertile soil are produced good and evil fruits, wholesome and noxious plants, harmless and poisonous animals, for the Mind of God is no distinguisher of persons nor favorer of any particular individual; each receives its share of life and will according to its capacity to receive, and each becomes ultimately that which its own character destines it to be.
First Matter and the Ether of the Ancients
(from Ether and Reality by Sir Oliver Lodge)
Apollonius of Tyana is said to have asked the Brahmins of what they supposed the Cosmos to be composed. “Of the five elements,” came the reply. “How can there be a fifth” demanded Apollonius, “beside Water and Air and Earth and Fire?” “There is the Ether,” replied the Brahmin, “which we must regard as the element of which the gods are made, for just as all mortal creatures inhale the air, so do immortal and divine natures inhale the Ether.”
What you choose to call this unifying something is of no consequence. The Ancients sometimes spoke of the Ether, possibly as an addition to the usual four elements. Sir Isaac Newton adopted this term for the connecting medium of the whole universe. He believed the optical medium connects the particles together in a solid or a liquid, and the same medium connects the heavenly bodies together into systems and clusters and constellations and nebulae and Milky Way. All pieces of matter and all particles are connected together by the Ether and by nothing else. In it they move freely, and of it they may be composed. We must study the kind of connection between matter and the Ether (between manifested matter and the First Matter).
The particles emanating from the Ether are not independent of it; they are closely connected with it, and it is probable that they are formed out of it. They are not like grains of sand suspended in water (as our modern scientists believe); they seem more like minute crystals forming out of a mother liquor or supersaturated solution. Speculatively and intuitively we feel to be more in direct touch with the Ether than with matter. How we can act on matter is a mystery. How we are created and how we move our bodies, we do not know, yet we are apt to identify ourselves with our bodies.
But there is evidence that shows that we are really independent, that we continue in existence and can leave our bodies behind. Matter is not part of our real being, not of our essential nature. It is but an instrument that we use for a time and then discard. Probably we do not act directly upon matter at all. Our will, our mind, our psychic fife, probably act directly only upon the Ether, only through it, indirectly, on matter. Ether is our real primary and permanent instrument of creation. It is in connection with the Ether that our real being consists; and through it we are able to manipulate the atoms of matter, to move them, to rearrange them, and thus employ them to express our thoughts and feelings and to manifest ourselves to other individual entities who, in the long course of evolution have been enabled to construct and employ similar most ingenious, though always imperfect, instruments of manifestation.
By means of the Ether, we can become aware of a multitude of existences, the whole animal and vegetable kingdom, of which otherwise we might have remained ignorant; by means of the Ether, our conceptions of existence have been enlarged and extended, the possibilities of friendship enhanced, the perception of a new realm of law and order attained.
And thus is our own nature enriched by the effort and experiences belonging to a new and most interesting — though from our point of view imperfect and rebellious — physical mode of existence.’
The Ether (First Matter of the alchemists) is the primary instrument of Mind, the vehicle of Soul, the habitation of Spirit. Truly it may be called the “Living Garment of God.”
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For more on alchemy and mythology:
Open Myth Source: A New Book & Film Project About Mythology and the Sustainability Age from Willi Paul and PlanetShifter.com Magazine