The Soul of the World explores the different worldviews in Western thought, from ancient times until the present day, in which nature was envisioned as living and intelligent.
This short excerpt from chapter 4, “The Light of Nature and the Alchemical Imagination,” introduces the idea of living nature in the alchemical tradition.
The direct experience of living nature has been felt in all times in places but it is in the alchemical tradition where “soul” and “spirit” take on their most tangible, living form. In the alchemical vision, all matter is alive and animated with spirit. The earth is a single living organism. It is fertilized and impregnated by the celestial spirit of the sun, stars, and planets. All matter is evolutionary, striving toward higher forms, and deep within the bowels of the earth all metals are ripening toward gold. Because of this, alchemy is not an attempt to manipulate matter, but the cultivation of a natural process.
Alchemy is rooted in the perception that nature is an unfolding, dynamic process, characterized by the power of transformation. Around 4000 B.C. smelting was applied to copper and bronze, and later, around 1200 B.C., to iron. The workings of the first metallurgists took place as a ritualized activity in an atmosphere of secrecy. Working with molten metals involved risk and directly exposed the practitioners to the elemental and numinous powers of nature. Smelting involved a purification by fire, and the ritual activities of the first metallurgists involved their purification as well.
The beginnings of alchemy are lost in prehistory, but European alchemy begins in Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians had always seen their land as an image of the heavens. The Nile was pictured as terrestrial reflection of the celestial stream on which the gods and planets sailed. The sun is a source of fertility, but in Egypt life depends equally on the cool waters of the Nile. Each year like clockwork in late July, the Nile would flood, depositing rich black silt in the regions surrounding it. The Arabic word al-kemi means “the black land,” an ancient name of Egypt. Dredged up from the depths, moistened by the stream of life, and fertilized by the sun, the black earth of Egypt embodied the vital energies of the gods and cosmic powers. This rich effluence of the earth when cooked by the sun gave birth to crops, animals, and the dazzling pageantry of life. From earth and sun arose the baking of bread, every art and science, and the sound of hymns that reverberated in the temples. From earth and sun arose the entire social structure, culminating in the image of the pharaoh, the divine, golden spark who encapsulated on earth the cosmic powers of regeneration and eternal life. Through the transformation of black earth into the living tapestry of a high civilization, life in Egypt was itself an alchemical process.
The earliest alchemical texts that survive are Greek writings that appeared in Egypt. Some are merely collections of recipes; others endow the alchemical process with spiritual and mystical implications.
Alchemical theory as it has come down to us is heavily influenced by the ideas of Greek philosophy and rests on several assumptions. From the ideas of Democritus and Plato the alchemists assumed that matter is capable of transformation. From the writings of Aristotle the alchemists developed the idea that nature is teleological or developmental. Teleology is most readily seen in living organisms, which unfold in a developmental way. Given an adequate opportunity, it is the nature of an acorn to unfold into an oak tree as it is the nature of a child to grow into a mature, self-realized adult. The Stoics identified the creative power of nature, the Logos, as a “seed power” present in all things. It is the nature of the spermatikos logos or seminal essence to carry all things to the fruition of their essential nature.
Like the unfolding life of plants and animals, metals grow and develop within the womb of the earth. Aristotle taught that the moist exhalations of the earth give birth to metals, which then grow and mature. Veins of metal spread outward from a seed and, given enough time, will grow back if harvested. The active growth process is fueled by the vital power of the sun in the same way that the sun causes plants and other organisms to emerge from the dark soil of the earth.
Ancient Greek mystery religions celebrated the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of heaven and earth that brings forth the fruit of life. Certainly for anyone who lives close to nature, the fertilizing influence of the masculine heavens on the receptive, feminine earth is a fact of daily life. When speaking of the virtues of the sun, Copernicus duly noted that “the Earth conceives from the Sun and is made pregnant with annual offspring.” In the Renaissance, the philosopher Bernardino Telesio wrote that “we can see that the sky and the earth are not merely large parts of the world universe, but are of primary—even principal rank. . . . They are like mother and father to all the others.” His contemporary Giordano Bruno similarly described himself as “a citizen and servant of the world, a child of Father Sun and Mother Earth.”
The early alchemists who saw the entire cosmos as an organism drew upon the ideas of Greek philosophy to offer a coherent explanation of the development of metals within the earth. Behind everything is a type of prime matter which is itself formless. The four elements of fire, air, water, and earth, are qualitative forms of matter that exist in tension with one another. One element can be transformed into another, and the soul, spirit, or pneuma within anything is the determining formal element, the essential spark that bestows qualities on the prima materia.
The Stoics had taught that all matter was alive and dynamic, permeated by spirit and intelligence. This intelligence, the Logos, was often associated with the fire of the heavenly bodies and the life giving power of the sun. Aristotle, too, had spoken of aether, the fifth element or quinta essentia out of which the heavenly bodies were fashioned. Compared to the four elements, this was a pure and heavenly radiance, a glowing aethereal substance akin to spirit. It was practically inevitable that all of these principles would become identified with one another. For the ancient alchemists, aether or the quinta essentia came to be seen as the form-giving logos, the fiery life principle that ensouled plants, animals, and the gestating metals within the womb of the earth. Within each living thing was a spark of star fire, a celestial, animating flame.
In the same way that the universe was composed of the terrestrial sphere and the starry heavens, so too was each thing composed of body and spirit. At night the dew of heaven would descend to the earth, charged with the rays of the glowing celestial bodies. This dew, rich in heavenly and ethereal essences, would nourish plants, revitalize the soul of the earth, and stimulate the generation of metals. As early as Babylonian times the seven metals were identified with the seven planets. The Sun ruled over gold, the Moon silver, Mercury over quicksilver, and so on. And the divine, aethereal rays of the planets seeded their kindred metals to grow in the earth. As the fifth-century alchemist Proclus of Byzantium wrote,
Gold and silver, as found in nature, as well as all other metals and substances, are engendered in the earth by the celestial divinities and the effluvia that come from them. The Sun produces gold; the Moon silver; Saturn lead; and Mars iron.
Seeded by the heavens, matter takes form, yet all matter is evolutionary and aspires to return to a more spiritual state. As Meister Eckhart wrote, “copper is restless until it becomes gold.” Over the course of centuries, metals naturally develop and mature in the earth. The alchemist merely acts as a midwife to accelerate and nurse along the natural process. As one alchemical writer clearly explains, “We help the metals to arrive at maturity, just as a gardener may assist fruit, which by accident is prevented from ripening.” The greatly sought after Philosophers’ Stone was the miraculous catalyst that would speed up the natural process of transformation.
If the Earth is the matrix or womb of gestation, the alchemist’s flask is an artificial womb in which the work takes place. Gazing into the flask, the alchemist discovers every process of nature reflected. Gestation, fermentation, cooking, transformation, sublimation, creative decay, dismemberment, dissolution, coagulation, circulation, and regeneration are all keywords of the alchemical process. There is no absolute distinction between the alchemist and nature, between the inner and outer worlds. All are part of one creative, evolutionary process. Because of this alchemy has always possessed a spiritual dimension, since it is not possible to participate in the Great Work of Nature without experiencing a self-transformation. In order for the work to be successful, total participation is required. Alchemy is a comprehensive science of the cosmos in which both humanity and the larger universe are implicated.
Copyright © 2013 by David Fideler. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be duplicated or republished in any form without the permission of the author.