Circumambulating the Alchemical Mysterium

Aaron Cheak, PhD

The following article is reproduced from my book, Alchemical Traditions. 

‘One is the serpent whose poison is doubly composed’ — Cleopatra.

‘One is the serpent whose poison is doubly composed’ — Cleopatra.

A L C H E M Y  may be described, in the words of Baudelaire, as a process of ‘distilling the eternal from the transient’. [1] As the art of transmutation par excellence, the classical applications of alchemy have always been twofold: chrysopoeia and apotheosis (gold-making and god-making)—the perfection of metals and mortals. In seeking to turn ‘poison into wine’, alchemy, like tantra, engages material existence—often at its most dissolute or corruptible—in order to transform it into a vehicle of liberation. Like theurgy, it seeks not only personal liberation—the redemption of the soul from the cycles of generation and corruption—but also the liberation (or perfection) of nature herself through participation in the cosmic demiurgy. In its highest sense, therefore, alchemy conforms to what Lurianic kabbalists would call tikkun, the restoration of the world.

Almost invariably, the earliest alchemical texts describe procedures for creating elixirs of immortality—of extracting transformative essences from physical substances in order to render metals golden and mortals divine. Through this, the earliest alchemists innovated physical processes such as distillation and fermentation, extraction and refinement, and the analysis and synthesis of various chemical substances. However, it must not be forgotten that the earliest contexts of ‘material’ alchemy were not proto-scientific, but ritualistic. Whether one looks at the Taiqing (Great Clarity) tradition of third-to-sixth century China, the Siddha traditions of early medieval India, or the magical and theurgical milieux of Hellenistic Egypt, the most concrete alchemical practices were always inseparable from ritual invocations to and supplications of the divinities whose ranks the alchemist wished to enter. Moreover, in east and west alike, the alchemical techniques themselves were allegedly passed down from divinity to humanity. Alchemy was a divine art (hieratikē technē).

Whether stemming from the entheogenic properties of physical elixirs, or developing independently, the desire to encounter the divine directly through inner experience (gnōsis, jnāna) was soon cultivated via internal practices of a meditative or metaphysiological character. Here the elixir began to be generated within the vessels of the human body in order to transform it into an alchemical body of glory. Thus, the two basic traditions—external and internal alchemy; neidan and waidan, laboratory and oratory—can, in the final analysis, be regarded as complimentary approaches to the same end: the attainment of perfection through liberation from conditioned existence.

Despite these generalising remarks, and despite the unusual aptness of Baudelaire’s phrase, it must nevertheless be conceded that the effort to define alchemy to everyone’s satisfaction may well be impossible. On one hand, alchemy needs to be defined in a way that encapsulates the living breadth and depth of the world’s alchemical traditions. On the other hand, such a definition must also be internally consistent with the many specific, historically contingent (and at timescontradictory) expressions of alchemy. Moreover, the very attempt to strike such a ‘golden mean’ between the universal and particular, between the ‘synchronic’ and the ‘diachronic’, is something of an alchemical act in and of itself—the elusive, indeed transformative, point where ‘art’ becomes science and ‘science’, art. In this respect, alchemy may well be seen to inhere precisely in such ‘nodal points of qualitative change’ (as Jack Lindsay called them in his landmark study of Graeco-Egyptian alchemy), [2] or in instances of ‘qualitative exaltation’ (as the twentieth-century alchemist, René Schwaller de Lubicz, described them with regards to the ‘teratological proliferations’ of biological species). [3]

Rather than offer a single, rigid definition (which will quickly become restrictive), what I would like to do in this introduction is present a series of linguistic, historiographical, and phenomenological ‘circumambulations’ around the alchemical mysterium. In so doing, I seek to trace some of the more salient contours of the alchemical landscape, and, if possible, glimpse the presence of its elusive ‘centre’. One of the merits of approaching alchemy by circumambulation is that it affords a much wider circumscription of the phenomenon than the narrowly fixed parameters of disciplinal specificity usually permit; it therefore allows a more eidetic or phenomenological insight to develop—an approach that, in German philosophical traditions, is seen to promote actual understanding (Verstehen) rather mere explanation (Erklären). [4] As Hans Thomas Hakl points out in a recent study of Julius Evola’s alchemical works, circumambulatio is precisely the approach taken in order to engender an actual experience of the realities that allegedly underpin the multiplicity of Hermetic symbols. [5] It is, potentially, a method of ‘knowledge by presence’ rather than simple ‘representational knowledge’. Of course, such approaches, which are fundamentally morphological in their method, are also ahistorical in character, and so what must be offered here is not an exclusivelyphenomenological approach, but a circumambulation that is also tempered in the fires of historical rigour. Such an approach, in my experience, is fundamentally more balanced than either of the extremes.

At the same time, it must be recognised that there is an inherent tension to this balance; a tension that requires one to embrace a Heraclitean ‘harmony of contraries’ between deeply opposed methodologies. In circumambulating a centre, whether as an ‘essentialist’ or ‘relativist’, the ultimate nature of the centre, indeed the substantial existence of the centre itself, must remain an open question. As the Dao de Jingremarks, ‘thirty spokes meet in the hub of the wheel, but the function of the wheel is in the empty part’. Without the concrete spokes of empirical-historical data, we may not become aware of the centre, and yet this centre, which is empty, is precisely the function (the phenomenological Verstehen) around which the spokes revolve, giving them their form, their function and thus their meaning. Both aspects are interdependent and both must be equally accounted for. Thus, before we open up to any deeper phenomenological perceptions, our circumambulations must begin by first situating alchemy in its concrete historical-linguistic and historiographic contexts.



The historical purview of what came to be called alchemy includes an undeniable current of influence stemming from Pharaonic and Hellenistic Egypt on one hand, and another stemming from ancient China, medieval India and Tibet on the other―currents that appear to have cross-fertilised before converging in Arabic alchemy, whence the term proper: al-kīmiyā[6] Scholars have long known that the word alchemy points to an Arabic transmission (alkīmiyā becomes Spanishalquimia, Latin alchimia, French alchimie, German Alchemie, etc.) [7] The Arabic definite article al- points clearly to this, yet the precise origin of the lexeme kīmiyā is far from certain. Academic consensus has generally favoured Greek sources, notably those published by Marcellin Berthelot, [8] suggesting an origin from the term chyma(‘that which is poured out’; ‘flows, fluid’; ‘ingot, bar’; metaphorically, ‘confused mass, aggregate, crowd’; ‘materials, constituents’), whence chymeia, ‘the art of alloying metals’) named from its supposed inventor, Chymēs[9] As Harris observes in his 1704 Lexicon Technicum:

Chymisty, is variously defined, but the design of this Art is to separate usefully the Purer Parts of any mix’d Body from the more Gross and Impure. It seems probably to be derived from the Greek word chymos, which signifies a Juice, or the purer Substance of a mix’d Body; though some will have it to come from cheein, to melt. It is also called the Spagyrick, Hermetick, and Pyrotechnick Art, as also by some Alchymy. [10]

The idea of fluid essences, extracts or elixirs is clearly central to the alchemical purview, and as will be seen throughout this volume, it is also inherent to the very names for alchemy in Chinese and Indo-Tibetan traditions (Chinese dao jindan, Sanskrit rasāyana, Tibetan bcud len). In addition, the Greek etymology distinctly emphasises the idea of metallic fusibility, and the idea that metals are fundamentallyfusible entities proves central to the alchemical perception. The word ‘metal’ itself (metallonmetalleion) is homophonous with—and most likely derived from—a whole series of words indicating ‘transformation’, such as metalloiōsis, which is formed from the preposition meta– (‘between, with, after; taking a different position or state’) and the substantive alloiōsis (‘alteration’ or ‘change’). [11]

Whether derived from chymachymeiaChymēs, or chymos, the term alchemy appears to come to the Latin west from late Greek sources through the same kinds of channels that preserved Platonic and Aristotelian texts, in Arabic translation, after the fall of the Greek Academy. While the lines of historical transmission are well known, matters are not quite as simple as they first appear. Egyptologists and Sinologists have both brought forward diverging evidence that the origins of alchemy lay not in Greece but in the Ancient Near or Far East.

The Egyptian Etymology

In addition to the Greek etymology, the root kīmiyā has also been traced to the Egyptian name for Egypt, km.t (Coptic kemekēmi), which Plutarch gives as chēmia,‘the blackest earth’ (malista melangeion). [12] The implications of this etymology are explored in detail elsewhere in this volume. [13] Suffice it to say for now that a wealth of theological and cosmological significations deeply pertinent to alchemy emerge from Plutarch’s identification of the name of Egypt with not only the blackness of the soil, but also with the blackness of the pupil of the eye. On a basic, symbolic level, this coheres with the fact that the Nilotic black earth, which literally (and geographically) defined Egypt, was fertile soil—the perfect receptor of life-giving seed; in the same way, the transparent openness that forms the pupil of the eye is the perfect receptor of light.

As will be seen, these significations directly tie the early conception of alchemy to genuine Egyptian theological conceptions on one hand, and to the Greek Hermetic corpus on the other, a point that has already been articulated in some detail by Erik Iversen with regard to the Memphite cosmology of the Shabaka stone and its clear recapitulation in the Corpus Hermeticum itself. [14] Furthermore, as the late Algis Uždavinys makes abundantly clear, this current of alchemy cannot be divorced from the numerous morphological continuities that exist between Egyptian mortuary cult on one hand, and Homeric, Orphic, Pythagorean, Platonic and hieratic Neoplatonic traditions on the other. [15] And as scholars such as Peter Kingsley have shown, these morphological connections are not merely apparent: they are deeply rooted in a fine web of mutual historical and geographical interactions between the initiatic traditions not only of Egypt itself, but those of southern Italy and Sicily (whence the Pythagorean current that would retain such a strong presence in the Hermetic tradition down through the centuries, from Bolus of Mendes to the Turba Philosophorum). [16]

The Chinese Origin of the Chem- Etymon

Joseph Needham, in the alchemical volumes of his magisterial Science and Civilisation in China, makes a very plausible case for the Greek and Arabic borrowing of the Chinese term jin (‘gold’) or jin i (‘gold juice, gold ferment’), terms explicitly linked to aurifaction, aurifiction and elixirs for perfecting bodies, all of which appears to place kīmiyā in an original context not only of Taoist metallurgical practices, but also of traditions of physical immortality (macrobiotics). [17] After one of the most lucid and thorough surveys of the existing etymological evidence for alchemy, Needham, concludes:

If some have found an influence of jin (kiem) on chēmeia (chimeiachymeia) difficult to accept, there has been less desire to question its influence on al-kīmiyā. No Arabic etymologist ever produced a plausible derivation of the word from Semitic roots, and there is the further point that both jin i and kīmiyā could and did mean an actual substance or elixir as well as the art of making elixirs, while chēmeia does not seem to have been used as a concrete noun of that kind. We are left with the possibility that the name of the Chinese ‘gold art’, crystallised in the syllable jin(kiem), spread over the length and breadth of the Old World, evoking first the Greek terms for chemistry and then, indirectly or directly, the Arabic one. [18]

Needham makes it saliently clear that alchemy is not simply a product of Hellenistic culture. Although it is difficult to accept an exclusively Chinese origin for alchemy, the copious evidence adduced by Needham and his collaborators over four large volumes irrevocably transforms (and complicates) the overall picture of the genesis of alchemy. In short, not only must one come to terms with the Ancient Near Eastern influence upon Hellenistic and Islamicate alchemical traditions, one must also contend with the Ancient Far Eastern influences upon the intellectual and technical history of alchemy. This is especially pertinent given the attested lines of cultural exchange between the Asian, European and African landmasses along the Silk Road, which were established during the Han Dynasty (206 bce – 220 ce).

The most important Chinese term for alchemy was jindan, or ‘golden elixir’, which was conceived in both an external sense (as a macrobiogen) and an internal sense (as a spiritual embryo). [19] Jindan also referred especially to cinnabar, the red salt of sulphur and mercury, and the raw ingredient from which mercury was refined. As such, cinnabar points to one of the most ancient and pervasive mineral theophanies of the world’s alchemical traditions: the marriage of mineral sulphur and metallic mercury to form a red crystalline stone (mercuric sulphide). Around this naturally occurring substance, multiple layers of historical, cultural and mythological meaning would accrue not only in Chinese and Indo-Tibetan but also in Islamicate and European alchemical traditions.

With regard to our previous remarks on metal as a quintessentially fluid substance, it may also be added here that in ancient Chinese cosmology, metal (for which jin was also a generic term) was regarded as one of the five elements (wu xing); not only was it regarded as the ‘mother’ of the water element, the metal element itself was defined precisely by its double capacity to melt and to solidify into new form (as in a mould).[20] This ability to revert from a solid form to an amorphous or liquid state, and back again, is a very important principle. In the western alchemical canon it would inhere in the formula: solve et coagula, ‘dissolve and coagulate’, a formula that possesses deep symbolic value in regards to ontologies of ‘flux’ and ‘permanence’ (pointing to a more paradoxical ontology embracing both ‘permanence in flux’ and ‘flux in permanence’). It also underscores the universal value almost unanimously given to mercury as the ‘essence’ of metals. For next to gold and cinnabar, mercury figures as the most universal of all alchemical substances in eastern and western traditions alike. When alchemically refined, moreover, it came to be regarded less as a ‘substance’ per se, as more as the underlying principle of pure sublimity—of absolute volatilitywith the unique power to penetrate and transform all things, especially minerals and metals (the most dense things).

Historiographical Considerations

Due to the very nature of the topic, the study of alchemy has bordered on a surprisingly large number of disciplines. Generally, and significantly, it may be said to straddle both the history of science and the history of religions. Moreover, due to the wide, cross-cultural purview of alchemy, these dual histories have converged in Egyptological, Sinological, Classical, Islamic, Indo-Tibetan, medieval western, early modern and modern western contexts. [21] More recently, following the efforts of scholars such as Antoine Faivre, alchemy has become a topos in the history of western esotericism (i.e. the history of Hermeticism, gnosis, alchemy and related currents), which has become increasingly established as an academic discipline. [22]

As in other areas, scholars have started to speak less of ‘alchemy’ and more of ‘alchemies’, and an increasing effort has been made to distinguish and contextualise the individual currents or expressions of alchemy over and against the idea of alchemy as a sweeping, monolithic tradition. With this distinction comes the recognition that the idea of alchemy as a single, unified phenomenon is more the product of an esoteric interpretation of history (e.g. metahistory or hierohistory) rather than a strictly empirical description of historical phenomena. The idea of a Hermetic or alchemical ‘tradition’ thus says as much about the formulation of esoteric identity as it does about the complex historical and social vicissitudes of the phenomenon in question; [23] and yet, as Kingsley has noted, the idea of Hermeticism itself is bound precisely to a tradition of interpretation and translation (hermēneus) between traditions. [24] Moreover, as Faivre has noted, alchemy, like magic and astrology, evinces a strong cross-cultural character. With these considerations in mind, it is important to speak of alchemical traditions in the plural to emphasise the diversity and uniqueness of the different historical expressions of alchemy; this is not to preclude the possibility that broader unities may be discerned among them, but simply to ensure that they do not displace the individual care and attention that each current or tradition requires in order to be understood on its own terms. At the same time, grand, unifying perspectives, often unpopular in the post-modern academy, should not be abandoned, for they provide important heuristic tools that help elucidate and coordinate deeper thematic and morphological integrities.

Because a large part of the historiography of alchemy has typically been formulated within the context of the history of science, and because a virulent polemic against alchemy was pivotal to the establishment of a rationalised science, this has resulted in an overwhelmingly positivist and dualistic intellectual heritage in the study of alchemy. In the one-sided criticism advanced by positivist histories of science, alchemy is summarily dismissed as merely erroneous proto-chemistry. Fortunately, much of the effort in the historiography of alchemy over the past fifty years has been successful in slowly dismantling this lingering attitude so that more balanced perspectives have been able to prevail. [25]

Misconceptions in the historiography of alchemy from the perspective of science are, of course, matched by those advanced from the perspective of religion and spirituality. With the turn of the scientific revolution towards the end of the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry, previously synonymous under the term chymistry, were vociferously differentiated and, although the esoteric rhetoric of alchemy continued, its operative aspect was largely (though by no means entirely) abandoned. [26] By the Victorian era, this current culminated in the works of Mary Anne Atwood and the affirmation of an exclusively spiritual alchemy in which the operative element would be dismissed entirely. [27] ‘There is no evidence’, remarks Principe, ‘that a majority, or even a significant fraction of pre-18th century European alchemical writers and practitioners saw their work as anything other than natural philosophical in character, as even the prolific occult writer, A. E. Waite (1857–1942) was forced to admit toward the end of his career in 1926’. [28] Such remarks are useful for establishing broad lines of development, and while on the large accurate, must also be taken with a grain of salt, especially in light of statements by pre-eighteenth century alchemists such as Stephanos of Alexandria (seventh century), who explicitly emphasises intellectual and theological aims, most notably in his admonition: ‘Put away the material theory so that you may be deemed worthy to see with your intellectual eyes the hidden mystery’. [29] (This counter-example is important, for Stephanos’ work is explicitly linked to the Byzantine and Arabic traditions that form the foundations of European alchemy).

Despite such nuances, many scholars remain increasingly critical of not only the spiritual interpretations of alchemy popular in the nineteenth century, but also the psychological interpretations of alchemy that emerged in the twentieth. The scholarly discontent with these interpretations appears to derive from the fact that they strongly colour many people’s assumptions about alchemy. These scholars therefore see themselves as undertaking the ‘continuous dismantling of erroneous views of alchemy promulgated since the Enlightenment which have, despite their dubious qualifications and origins, deeply tinctured a major part of the literature on alchemy written during the 19th and 20th centuries’. [30] Such attitudes are particularly directed against the very influential work of Carl Jung, for whom processes in the alchemical vessel are a screen for the archetypal projections of the psyche. [31] Not surprisingly, Jung has come under increasing historical criticism in this regard; Lawrence M. Principe, for instance, has suggested that the work of Jung is merely an extension of the ‘deleterious outgrowth’ of Victorian occultism. [32]Principe, whose own area of specialty is early modern European alchemy, is particularly critical of the occult-spiritual and psychological interpretations as he finds them in especial contrast to his findings in the works of early modernchymists, such as Starkey, Philalethes, Boyle, and Newton, among others.

While the excesses of the spiritualist and psychological interpretations are recognisable when circumscribed to their proper contexts, this by no means precludes more nuanced approaches to the question of psychological and spiritual alchemies. In this respect, in the early modern period alone, some of Principe and Newman’s own oversimplifications have been countered by the more nuanced studies of the spiritual dimension in early modern alchemy proffered by scholars such as Hereward Tilton, who observes: ‘The historiography proposed by Principe and Newman can only be upheld by portraying early modern laboratory alchemy as purely ‘chemical’ research (conceived in crypto-positivist terms), and by erasing from history the development of alchemical thought subsequent to the seventeenth century. For researchers in the history of western esotericism, this modus operandiis entirely inadequate’. [33] Indeed, too rigid an insistence on an overtly or exclusively operative alchemy cannot be sustained nor extended beyond its proper contexts, any more than can an exclusively spiritual alchemy; this becomes especially evident once one steps outside the relatively narrow period of early modern and modern western Europe, whereupon the picture changes drastically. The broader picture offered by the history of religions opens up a far deeper perspective on the relationship between operative and spiritual alchemies. David Gordon White’s magisterial study of rasāyana siddha traditions in Medieval India, for instance, lays bare a blatantly alchemical world in which the transmutation of the mortal human body into an immortal, divine body was explicitly homologised with metallurgical transmutations according to the formula: ‘as in metals, so in the body’. [34] Here, the whole elixir tradition takes centre stage, the origins of which take us back to the deeply Taoist alchemy of ancient China, which, per the work of Needham, Sivin and Pregadio, shows no contradiction at all between the inner (neidan) and outer (waidan) elixirs. [35] The case becomes even more explicit in the Tibetan Buddhist alchemy of the Kalacakra Tantra, in which metallurgical, medicinal, and metaphysical aims are thoroughly intertwined; here, metallurgical and botanical processes are used in the creation of iatrochemical elixirs designed to prolong life not for its own sake, but in order to ‘buy time’ to achieve liberation in life (jivanmukti) through the actualisation of the initiate’s Buddha Nature (buddha-dhātu,tathāgatagarbha). [36] Elsewhere, the work of Henry Corbin on the Persian alchemist Jaldakī shows the deep insistence that was placed in Islamicate tradition on alchemy as an ars hieratica, and the distinct relationship that was seen to exist between the metallurgical process, the animation of statues, and the creation of a resurrection body. [37]

The deep relationship that emerges here between metallurgical and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine. Therefore, inasmuch as general statements about alchemy are to be advanced cautiously, if at all, the fact that alchemy has traditionally been studied from the twin vantages of the history of science and the history of religions appears to reflect a strong tendency in alchemy toward the unification of the material and the spiritual.

Alchemy as Nondual Process

A child of metallurgy and the traditional crafts, alchemy cannot be easily separated from the concrete aspect of existence any more than it can be separated from the transcendent. Indeed, both become interfusible, interdependent and interchangeable. If alchemy appears elusive, it is precisely because it cuts across categories ordinarily seen as mutually exclusive. For this reason, alchemy may be better approached not so much as a fixed domain of activity, but as a nondualprocess. Indeed, its sphere of operation is better comprehended as existing betweendomains, or better yet, as the medium in which more ‘fixed’ domains proceed. Like the fusible nature of metals, this medium may be regarded as the ‘substance’ from which fixed forms ‘solidify’, and into which they ‘dissolve’. As such, it is the conditio sine qua non for transmutation and dissolution, for converting one form into another, and for dissolving and abrogating the familiar boundaries or borders between apparently fixed states.

One explicit example of this is the fact that the key object of the western alchemical quest itself—the philosopher’s stone or ‘universal medicine’ (the perfecting agent par excellence) is also, literally, a universal poison. In the Greek alchemical manuscripts, the expression is given as katholikon pharmakon. The word katholikonmeans ‘universal, whole’, while pharmakon, a very ambiguous word, means not only ‘medicine’, but also ‘poison’, and ‘magical philtre’. According to the mercurial Jacques Derrida (who perhaps understood ambivalence better than anyone):

this ‘medicine’, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be—alternately or simultaneously—beneficent or maleficent’.[38]

‘If the pharmakon is ambivalent’ continues Derrida, ‘it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (soul/body, good/evil, inside/outside, memory/forgetfulness, speech/writing, etc.)’ [39]Thus, in conjunction with its ability for transformation, the (universal) pharmakon is also a medium for cosmic enantiodromia.

This capacity for fluid interweaving between different states of existence is perhaps most eloquently expressed within alchemical tradition proper by the seventeenth century Sufi, Muhzin Fayz Kāshānī, who described a process in which ‘spirits are corporealised and bodies spiritualised’, a process that, according to Henry Corbin, takes place in an ontologically real, yet liminal, zone—the mundus imaginalis—which Corbin defined precisely as a juncture between the eternal and the transient, the intelligible and the sensible: the intermonde or intermediary realm par excellence.[40] Importantly, Corbin’s phraseology is not only drawn from Persian and Arabic mystical texts (which deeply tinctured the alchemy of the time), it is also consonant with other, earlier Islamicate alchemical sources, such as the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar(Latin: Secretum Secretorum), whose Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) famously states: ‘that which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above, to perform the miracles of the one thing’. [41] This formula, which is further ascribed to [pseudo] Apollonius of Tyana’s Book of the Secret of Creation, orBook of Causes (Kitāb Sirr al-ḫalīqa, or Kitāb al-῾ilal), bears a still deeper identity to the hieratic art as practiced by the Neoplatonic theurgists. According to Proclus,

the theurguists established their sacred knowledge after observing that all things were in all things from the sympathy that exists between all phenomena and between them and their invisible causes, and being amazed by that they saw the lowest things in the highest and the highest in the lowest.[42]

In the alchemical purview, the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ aspects of existence are ultimately reciprocal and interdependent expressions of a deeper, more inclusive reality. Thus, to separate alchemy into a purely material and a purely spiritual aspect in a mutually exclusive fashion, without recognising their fundamental complementarity, is to miss the greater flux between the volatile and the fixed with which alchemy is almost invariably concerned. As a hieratic art, the alchemical vision of reality encompasses all levels of existence within the holarchical monad, and as such engages the world—including the world of duality, which is subsumed in the greater whole—as a nondual reality: a simultaneously abstract and concrete integrum.

In speaking of alchemy as a nondual process it is important to understand just what is meant when the term ‘nondual’ is used. The word itself is a formal translation of the Sanskrit word advaita (a- + dvaita, ‘not dual’), [43] and is used to indicate an epistemology in which both ‘seer’ and ‘seen’ are experienced not as separate entities but as a unity, a single act of being in which both the subject and object of experience become agent and patient of one divine act. While nondualism forms the basis of three of the broadest currents in eastern metaphysics (Buddhism, Taoism and Vedānta), it is also expressed explicitly or implicitly in the western philosophical canon by figures such as Plotinus, Eckhart, Böhme, Blake, Spinoza, Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead and Bohm, to name but a few. Despite this, the idea of nondualism has not been readily understood or accepted in the west, and this is because western constructions of reality, especially after Decartes and Kant, are based precisely upon a strict affirmation of mind-matter or subject-object dualism. At the root of the matter lie two fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world. One is the ‘everyday’ experience available to everyone; the other proceeds from a metaphysical experience theoretically available to, but not necessarily attained by, everyone. Although dualism and nondualism describe two different experiences of the world, it is not simply a recapitulation of the materialist-idealist divide (which is simply another dualism). As David Loy remarks:

none of these three [Buddhism, Taoism, Vedānta] denies the dualistic ‘relative’ world that we are familiar with and presuppose as ‘common sense’: the world as a collection of discrete objects, interacting causally in space and time. Their claim is rather than there is another, nondual way of experiencing the world, and that this other mode of experience is actually more veridical and superior to the dualistic mode we usually take for granted. The difference between such nondualistic approaches and the contemporary Western one (which, given its global influence, can hardly be labelled Western any more) is that the latter has constructed its metaphysics on the basis of dualistic experience only, whereas the former acknowledges the deep significance of nondual experience by constructing its metaphysical categories according to what it reveals. [44]

What is proposed, therefore, is to begin to understand certain forms of alchemy as an expression of a nondual experience of (and engagement with) the world, not only with regard to the dualities of spirit and matter, but also their corollaries: subjective experience and objective experiment. As Prussian poet and Kulturphilosoph Jean Gebser observes with regard to the structures of consciousness that underpin entire modalities of civilisation, nondualistic or aperspectival epistemologies do not exclude but integrate more perspectivally-bound epistemologies within a diaphanous whole. [45] What this means is that apparent dualities are not ultimate; rather, they are relative expressions of a deeper reality that is ultimately free from the limitations of dualism and opposition. It means that one can see all things in the ‘ultimate’ reality, and reciprocally, the ‘ultimate’ reality in all things. It is to see, with Blake, ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’ and ‘Eternity in an hour’. [46] According to this view, one eventually fails to distinguish between the ultimate and the relative in a rigidly dualistic way, abandoning the attribution of any inherent ontological primacy to one or the other. Because there is no longer any essential contradiction or opposition perceived to exist between them, so-called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities become co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper, ‘existentiating’ field of being. [47]What is more, according to the ancient epistemology ‘like knows like’, the nondual, aperspectival or integral nature of reality, in both its relative and ultimate expressions, can only be known by the nondual, aperspectival or integralconsciousness. It is in this sense that alchemy, in its more profound sense, necessitates a metaphysics of perception.

Agent and Patient of One Divine Act

To illustrate the dynamics of this process and to conclude our circumambulations, let us have a look at a series of interrelated alchemical formulæ from Persian and Graeco-Egyptian antiquity—a series of formulas that not only persist in various permutations throughout the Graeco-Egyptian, Islamicate and European alchemicalcorpora, but which are also mirrored in the alchemical symbolism of the far east. As will be seen, these formulas all revolve around the image of the ouroboros: the beginningless serpent that swallows its own tail.

The image of the ouroboros itself can be traced as far back as the Egyptian mehen serpent (circa 1500 BCE). The complex historical origins of the ouroboric formulas, however (which are replete throughout the Graeco-Egyptian alchemical canon), are linked to a mysterious Persian magos named Ostanes, who allegedly passed the knowledge of his science on to the Greek philosopher, Democritus. [48] The tradition linking Ostanes to Democritus was transmitted, some say invented, by the Hellenistic alchemist Bolus of Mendes (c. 200 BCE), who tells us that Ostanes was summoned from Hades in a rite of necromancy to divulge the secrets of his alchemical science. According to the text, Physika kai mystika, Ostanes directed his necromantic inquirer to the temple, where Democritus reportedly found the lost texts inside a pillar (stēlē). [49] Intimating the explicitly self-reflexive nature of the alchemical process, the science of Ostanes preserved in these texts was distilled in the following formula:

nature delights in nature; nature overcomes nature; nature rules nature.
hē physis tē physei terpetai, hē physis tēs physin nika, hē physis tēn physin kratei[50]

In support of this tradition, Synesius informs us that Democritus was ‘initiated into the mysteries by the great Ostanes in the temple of Memphis along with all the priests of Egypt’, while the Greek chronicler George Syncellus not only corroborates the presence of Ostanes in Egypt, but informs us that he was sent there to preside over the Egyptian priests. [51] The motif appears to be further corroborated by the correspondence preserved in a water-damaged Syriac manuscript between a Persian magos called ‘Ostron’ (probably from āsrōn, ‘priest’) and an Egyptian philosopher by the name of Pebechius. [52] Pebechius announces to Ostron that he has discovered the books of Ostanes, written in Persian, in Egypt, and he asks for Ostron’s assistance in translating them. The texts contain distinct alchemical references, including a series of inscriptions on ‘seven sacred stelæ [or tablets] of Hermes’ (foreshadowing the famous tabula smaragdina of Hermes Trismegistus), which are hidden behind seven portals, each associated with the seven planetary metals. After a lacuna in the manuscript, mention is made of a ‘dragon that eats its tail’, alongside ‘other works of art of a symbolic character’. [53]

Illustrations to pseudo-Cleopatra's Chrysopoeia (Aurifaction, or Gold-making), Codex Marcianus

According to the formula of Ostanes, nature enjoys, conquers and rules herself like an ouroboric serpent. In order to understand what this formula means, we must comprehend its double character. This is most evocatively signalled in the quote from Cleopatra’s Chrysopoeia that we placed at the beginning of this chapter: ‘One is the serpent, which has its poison according to two compositions’. Cleopatra’s formula comes from a fascinating illustrated Greek manuscript depicting the dual-natured, self-returning serpent. Here, two inscriptions nested in concentric circles form a stylised ouroboros. The outer coil reads: ‘One [is] the all (hēn to pan), the source of all, and the culmination of all; if the all did not contain the all, it would be nothing’. The inner coil reads: ‘One is the serpent (ophis), which has its poison (ion) according to two compositions (synthēmata)’. [54] At the centre of the circle are the Hellenistic symbols for sun, moon and mercury.

The line is an elaboration of the root formula, hēn to pan, ‘one [is] the all’, expressing the self-contained, self-reflexive, thus ‘Hermetically sealed’ character of the alchemical process. Perhaps the most revealing key to this formula is provided by the Egyptian alchemist, Zosimos of Panopolis—one of the earliest and most important figures of the western alchemical canon. In a text entitled ‘On the Divine/Sulphurous Water’ (Peri tou theiou hydatos), Zosimos prefaces a version of the ancient Democritian formula by saying that the divine water possesses ‘two natures’ but ‘one essence’ (dyo physeis, mia ousia): ‘It is the all, and from it the all [comes], and by it all [exists]’.[55]

Detail: Stylised ouroboros from Cleopatra’s Chrysopoeia. The outer coil reads: ‘One [is] the all, the source of all, and the culmination of all; if the all did not contain the all, it would be nothing’. The inner coil reads: ‘One is the serpent, which has its poison according to two compositions’. Left-to-right, the symbols at the centre are the Hellenistic signs for moon, mercury and sun

The theme of two alchemical natures as complimentary expressions of one underlying pan-unity would dominate alchemical symbolism right down to the early modern period. According to the overarching schematic of the alchemical perception, reality unfolds from a single essence that polarises itself into two natures: one that separates, and one that unites. The struggle and interplay of these two natures embody the twin processes active in the constitution of reality. Thus conceived, reality as such evolves from one primordial nature or ‘substance’, which polarises itself, acts upon itself, and reacts to its own activity to create the multiplicity of phenomena in which we are situated. Reality, according to this ouroboric perception, consists of one nature acting upon itself, dividing itself, multiplying itself, and finally returning to itself. 

In the eastern alchemies, this same ‘double natured single essence’ is expressed in the simultaneous bi-unity and bi-polarity of masculine and feminine principles (Chinese yang-yin, Sanskrit shiva-shakti, Tibetan yab-yum, etc.), where the two gendered polarities represent the complementary aspects of an active-passive, mutually interpenetrating and inter-receiving integrum[56] Dual natures were thus seen to inform the dynamic of a unitary reality, a conception readily seen in the Taoist taijitu (‘chart of the supreme ultimate’) through the harmonious interplay of dark and light (yin-yang). In accordance with this symbolism, images of ancient Chinese tail-eating dragons are attested as early as the Zhou dynasty (ninth to sixth centuries, BCE). [57] They signify the processes of duality and multiplicity emerging from and returning to its primordial unicity (the dao) through the separation and unification of opposites.

Jade ouroboric dragon coloured with cinnabar, Shang-Zhou Dynasty, circa 1150–950 BCE. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Jade ouroboric dragon coloured with cinnabar, Shang-Zhou Dynasty, circa 1150–950 BCE. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One notable example, dated to the Shang-Zhou dynasty (c. 1150-950 BCE) and preserved in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is fashioned from jade and coloured with cinnabar. The minerals are alchemically significant. Jade represents the principle of celestial immortality, while cinnabar (sulphur and mercury, components of the elixir) represent the two natures or polarities (yang-yin) that emerge from the primordial ground of being, and which must be refined and united in order to realise celestial immortality. The ouroboric form itself, moreover, is best understood as an augmentation of the exceedingly ancient bi discs (flat discs of jade with a hole in the centre). Dating back to Neolithic times, the bi discs possess a cosmological significance that remained influential down to the Warring States and Han periods. Specifically, they represent the idea of a heavenly covering (gaitian) revolving upon a central axis. [58] The Chinese ouroboros is thus assimilated to the primordial, eternally circumambulating celestial unity, and like its Hellenistic counterpart, is imbued with two ‘poisons’ or natures.

Just as polarity emerges from the primordial ouroboric eternity, so too is it swallowed up by this eternity. The two alchemical phases, the cosmogonic emergence and its reabsorption, thus form two arcs of one cycle. Taoist alchemy proceeds precisely by the reversal of the cosmogony. [59] The return from multiplicity to the primordial Tao thus constitutes the alchemical path. [60]

These two arcs or orientations—one creative and the other de-creativeare pivotal for comprehending the seemingly opposing aims of alchemy across traditions. In some currents of alchemy, the art is explicitly connected with participation in the divine demiurgy and thus the catalysis of the cosmogonic process, [61] whereas in other currents of alchemy it is precisely the reversal of the cosmogony and the reabsorption of creation into the primordial, pre-creative substratum that is sought. It is why practicing, laboratory alchemists begin with reincrudation (the reversion of a metal to its primordial, living state); it is what Sufi alchemists call ta’wil (the process of ‘interpretation’ by which a phenomenon is taken back to its creative source); and what Taoists alchemists call reversal (ni) or inversion (huan) of the normal order by which things come into existence (i.e. the reversal of the dao or ‘way’ by which the cosmogonic process instantiates itself). The two orientations go a long way to explaining the respective material and mystical emphases of alchemy, and when both arcs are understood as interrelated phases within a greater ouroboric cycle, the antinomy between the two can be resolved. The snake must destroy itself to create itself.

Through a fluid process of constant creation and dissolution towards an ever-present, primordial perfection, one encounters a series of polarities that, when engaged, transmuted and refined, lead back to the principle from which they originated. Like the fertile black earth, and like the god Osiris, the ouroboros represents the principle of regenerative death underpinning embodied existence. At the same time, however, it is also the principle of celestial deathlessness that transcends all earthly generation and corruption. While on one level, the divergent approaches may be understood as two phases within a single cycle, on another level they are actively and simultaneously conflicting. Indeed, it is precisely the tensionbetween them that is of interest, for it forms a ‘harmony of contraries’ in which opposition is actually integral to the greater constitution. Indeed, more than anything else, it is the Heraclitean principle of ‘counterstretched harmony’ (palintonos harmoniē), that provides the most convincing Ariadne’s thread out of the alchemical labyrinth.

The Hermetically sealed, ‘henadic’ ontology is both agent and patient of its own transmutation, which is effected precisely through the act of dismemberment (separation) and reunification (reintegration) according to what Zosimos calls ‘the rigour of harmony’ (systasin harmonias). [62] Here, alchemical processes are not ‘operations with natures alien one from the other’; they are ‘one thing’, that is to say, ‘one nature, acting upon itself’: [63]

One nature transforms itself. For all things are woven together and all things are taken apart and all things are mingled and all things combined and all things mixed and all things separated and all things are moistened and all things are dried and all things bud and all things blossom in the altar shaped like a bowl. For each, by method and by weight of the four elements, the interlacing and separation of the whole is accomplished for no bond can be made without method. The method is natural, breathing in and breathing out, keeping the orders of the method, increasing and decreasing. And all things by division and union come together in a harmony, the method not being neglected, the Nature is transformed. For the Nature, turning on itself, is changed. And the Nature is both the nature of the virtue and the bond of the world. [64]

These ‘rigours of harmony’—in which all things are ‘mixed’ and ‘separated’, ‘woven together’ and ‘taken apart’, and which ‘by division and union come together in a harmony’—pertain to the most quintessential methods in the alchemical path to perfection. Generally speaking, transmutation towards perfection proceeds by means of separation (purification) and unification (reintegration), or in Empedoclean terms, ‘Love’ and ‘Strife’. This is as true of eastern as well as western alchemies, both of which proceed by separating and purifying the primordial polarities (the two poisons or natures, whether sun-moon, sulphur-mercury, yang-yin, and their many symbolic homologues) before recombining them in their purified forms (the cohabation or ‘chymical wedding’ in European alchemythe formation of the ‘golden embryo’ in Taoist alchemy; the ‘union of wisdom and method’ in Tibetan alchemy, etc.) However in doing this, it is imperative to realise that alchemy is not creating something ‘new’; rather, it is ultimately seeking to render the pristine ontology—the nondual ground of being—present to living perception. This underscores a significant point, for in understanding the goal of alchemy as ‘perfection’, it must be realised that the perfection in question is not teleological, but perennial. That is to say, the originary or primordial nature does not exist in the future, nor should it be confused with the past; it is, in the words of Gebser, ever-present and ever-originating:

Origin is ever-present. It is not a beginning, since all beginning is linked with time. And the present is not just the ‘now’, today, the moment or a unit of time. It is ever-originating, an achievement of full integration and continuous renewal. Anyone able to ‘concretize’, i.e., to realize and effect the reality of origin and the present in its entirety, supersedes ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ and the mere here and now.[65]

Whether this ever-present origin is cast in terms of the Taoist golden elixir (jindan), the Buddha-element of Tibetan alchemy (buddha-dhātu), or, in western alchemical cosmologies, as the logos or potential cosmos subsisting as both initium and telos in the originary chaos, many of the world’s alchemical traditions cohere in viewing the ‘goal’ of alchemy not as the creation of some future perfection, but as the rendering present of a pre-existent, eternal incorruptibility. Whether alchemy proceeds by ‘progress’ or ‘reversal’, the core of the process must not be understood as reversion or advancement in a rigidly temporal sense, but rather as a process of ‘polishing the mirror’. It is a purification of temporal accretions in order to let the boundless existentiating Urgrund shine forth in an unobstructed, uninhibited manner according to its innate, diaphanous nature.


1. Charles Baudelaire, ‘L’Art romantique’, in Œuvres completes de Charles Baudelaire (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1885), vol. 3, 68: ‘de tirer l’éternel du transitoire’.

2. Jack Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (London: Frederick Muller, 1970), 382-92. Lindsay came very close to encapsulating the ‘essence’ of the alchemical process when he said it consisted in ‘the vision of unitary process and nodal points of qualitative change’. It was this qualitative and unitive element which defined the spirit of alchemy; modern chemistry, lacking this qualitative spirit, was by contrast ‘not just alchemy without the nonsense; it was alchemy tamed, reduced wholly to a quantitative level, and thus giving up its ghost’. Lindsay observes that the methodological precisions of quantitative science were necessary but the science that emerged developed at the expense of the essential vision of and relationship with the qualititative aspect of nature that was the unique province of alchemy.

3. See my contribution to part two Alchemical Traditions: ‘Agent of all Mutations: Metallurgical, Biological and Spiritual Evolution in the Alchemy of René Schwaller de Lubicz’.

4. Principally Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. See in particular Dilthey, Selected Works, vol. 1 (ed. and trans. Makkreel and Rodi, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), who was in fact reviving a long-standing tradition of textual interpretation rooted in biblical exegesis; and Steven D. Kepnes, ‘Bridging the Gap between Understanding and Explanation: Approaches to the Study of Religion’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25 (1986): 504-12.

5. H. T. Hakl, ‘The Symbology of Hermeticism According to Julius Evola’ in Lux in Tenebris: The Visual and the Symbolic in Western Esotericism (ed. Peter Forshaw, et al.; forthcoming, Leiden: Brill, 2013).

6. Given this interweaving lineage, the term alchemy itself is perhaps intentionally polyvalent, being intended to evoke not a single linguistic origin, per modern linguistic requirements, but rather, through the associations of ‘folk’ etymology, to encapsulate something of the multiplicity of meanings that have adhered to the term over time. Be that as it may, the clearest notes of etymological resonance have been struck in the Chinese and Graeco-Egyptian linguistic registers.

7. See in particular: F. Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (Leiden: Brill, 1971), IV, 1-299; M. Ullmann, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 144-270; Ullmann, ‘al-kīmiyā’ in Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition (Leiden: Brill, 1986), V, 110-15; Ullmann, ‘al-kīmiyā,’ in Wörterbuch der klassischen arabischen Sprache, 1 (Wiesbaden, 1970-); Z. R. W. M. von Martels, ed., Alchemy Revisited (Leiden: Brill, 1990); Charles Burnett, ‘The Astrologer’s Assay of the Alchemist: Early References to Alchemy in Arabic and Latin Texts,’ Ambix 39, 3 (1992): 103-9.

8. Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: Georges Steinheil, 1887).

9. LSJ, vide: χυμα; On the Greek metallurgical etymology in refutation of the Egyptian etymology, see H. Diels, Antike Technik: Sechs Vorträge (Leipzig: Teubner, 1914). The Greek etymology itself goes back at least as far as the turn of the seventeenth century.

10. Cf. John Harris, Lexicon Technicum: or, an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves (London, 1704), unpaginated. Note here that Harris adduces chymos, ‘juice’, on which the Chinese and Indian terminology must be compared (see below: jin irasāyana).

11. For further discussion, see the very interesting essay by Procopios D. Zacharias, ‘Chymeutike: The Real Hellenic Chemistry’, Ambix 5 (1956): 117-8. Zacharias draws on the generally neglected work of K. Stephanides, who ‘in fourteen publications between 1903 and 1910, commented on and corrected the work of Berthelot, and by consideration of other sources threw much light on this obscure and misunderstood aspect of the history of chemistry’ (116).

12. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 33; Frank Cole Babbitt (trans.), Moralia vol. V (Loeb, 1936), 83. The Egyptian thesis (chēmia  chem-) appears to have been first put forward in modern times by Hermann Conring, De Hermetica Medicina (1648), 19; though, as Bain suggests (see discussion in chapter 1, with refs), it appears to have been current in antiquity.

13. Cheak, ‘The Perfect Black: Egypt and Alchemy’.

14. Erik Iversen, Egyptian and Hermetic Doctrine (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1984), passim.

15. See Uždavinys’ contribution to the present volume: ‘Telestic Transformation and Philosophical Rebirth: From Ancient Egypt to Neoplatonism’.

16. Peter Kingsley, ‘From Pythagoras to the Turba Philosophorum: Egypt and Pythagorean Tradition’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 57 (1994): 1-13; Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition(Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1995), 55-68, 298-9, 317 ff, 335-347, 371-91.

17. Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 4: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories, Gifts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 353, citing Mahdihassan: jin i, ‘gold juice, gold liquid’; on ‘gold fluid, potable gold’, cf. further: Wu Lu-ch’iang, and Tenney L. Davis, ‘An Ancient Chinese Alchemical Classic: Ko Hung on the Gold Medicine and on the Yellow and the White; The Fourth and Sixteenth Chapters of the Pao-p’u-tzu’, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 70 (1935): 221-84; of jin i, Needham remarks: ‘the ancient pronunciation […] would have been kiem iak’. Cf. Homer H. Dubs, ‘The Origin of Alchemy’, Ambix 9 (1961): 34: ‘This Chinese phrase, jin-yi […], was pronounced in T’ang times at the imperial capital as ki[e]m-iök. This phrase means, literally, ‘the juice (or sperm) of gold’. It was one of the common Chinese names for the elixir of immortality. Like other alchemical phrases, it disappeared from usage with the decay of Chinese alchemy’.

18. Needham, 5.4, 355; transliteration modified.

19. See especially Fabrizio Pregadio, ‘Jindan’, The Encyclopedia of Taoism (ed. Fabrizio Pregadio, London: Routledge, 2008), vol. 1, 551-55.

20. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 243 ff.

21. Notable studies in these fields include M. Berthelot and C. E. Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs, 3 vols. (Paris: Georges Steinheil, 1888–1889)Ruska,Arabische Alchimisten (Weisbaden, 1924; reprint 1977); Julius Ruska, Tabula Smaragdina: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hermetischen Literatur (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1926); Ruska, Turba Philosophorum: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Alchemie(Berlin: Julius Springer, 1931); Ruska, Das Buch der Alaune und Salze: Ein Grundwerk der spätlateinischen Alchemie (Berlin: Verlag Chemie, 1935); Ruska, Al-Razes Buch Geheminis der Geheimnisse mit Einleitung und Erläuterungen in deutscher Ubersetzung (Berlin, 1937); Paul Kraus, Jabir ibn Hayyan: Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, 2 vols. (Cairo: 1942-3; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1986); E. O. von Lippman, Austehung und Verbreitung der Alchemie, 3 vols. (Berlin: Springer, 1919, 1931; Weinheim/Bergstrasse: Verlag Chemie, 1954); Joseph Needham,Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954–2008); Mircea Eliade, Forgerons et alchimistes (Paris: Flammarion, 1956) = The Forge and the Crucible (New York: Harper, 1962); Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (London: Rider & Co., 1960); Nathan Sivin, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1968); Jack Lindsay,The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (London: Frederick Muller, 1970); Martin Plessner, Vorsokratische Philosophie und griechische Alchemie in arabisch-lateinischer Überlieferung (Weisbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1975); Edward Todd Fenner, Rasayana Siddhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras (PhD dissertation: University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1979); Robert Halleux, Les Textes alchimiques: Typologie des sources du moyen age occidental (Turnhout-Belgium: Brepols, 1979); François Daumas, ‘L’Alchimie a-t-elle une origine égyptienne?’, in Das römisch-byzantinische Ägypten: Akten des internationalen Symposions 26.–30. September 1978 in Trier (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1983); Henry Corbin, Alchimie comme art hiératique (ed. Pierre Lory, Paris: L’Herne, 1986); Phillipe Derchaine, ‘L’Atelier des Orfèvres à Dendara et les origines de l’alchimie’, Chronique d’Égypte 129 (1990): 219–42; David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Sidha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994); B. D. Haage, Alchemie im Mittelalter: Ideen und Bilder—von Zosimos bis Paracelsus (Munich: Artemis &Winkler, 1996); William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), to name but a few.

22. Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); ‘Questions of Terminology Proper to the Study of Esoteric Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe’, in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion: Selected Papers Presented at the 17th Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Mexico City, 1995, eds. Antoine Faivre and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1998), 1–10; Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (1995): 99–129; ‘The Birth of a Discipline’, in Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, vii-xvii; ‘On the Construction of ‘Esoteric Traditions’’, in WesternEsotericism and the Science of Religion, 11–61; ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’, Aries 1, 1 (2001): 5–37.

23. Cf. Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge(London: Equinox, 2005), 6–11, who makes the distinction between a religious or esoteric ‘tradition’ and a religious or esoteric ‘field of discourse’; he also discusses the importance of recognising the complexity of esoteric identities.

24. See Kingsley, ‘Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993): 1-24.

25. Significant studies in this respect include the work of J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, 4 vols. (London, MacMillan. 1961–1970); Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel: Karger, 1982); Allen G. Debus, The English Paracelsians (Oldbourne Press: History of science library, 1965); Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1977, 2002); A. G. Debus and M. T. Walton, eds., Reading the Book of Nature: The Other Side of the Scientific Revolution (Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies) (Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1998); Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954–2008); Mircea Eliade, Forgerons et alchimistes (Paris: Flammarion, 1956); Henry Corbin, Alchimie comme art hiératique (ed. Pierre Lory, Paris: L’Herne, 1986); William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), amongst others.

26. On the term chymistry, see William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake’, Early Science and Medicine, 3, 1 (1998): 32–65.

27. Cf. in particular Mary Anne Atwood, A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery (Belfast: William Tait, 1918).

28. Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Alchemy I: Introduction’, in Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. W. Hanegraaff (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 13.

29. See F. Sherwood Taylor, ‘The Alchemical Works of Stephanos of Alexandria: Translation and Commentary, Part I’, Ambix 1 (1937): 116–39; ‘The Alchemical Works of Stephanos of Alexandria: Translation and Commentary, Part II’, Ambix 1 (1937): 39–49. Quotation modified.

30. Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Alchemy’, DGWE, 12.

31. Carl Gustav Jung, Psychologie und Alchemie (Zurich, 1944); Jung, Mysterium coniunctionis: Untersuchungen über die Trennung und Zusammensetzung der seelischen Gegensatze in der alchemie (Zurich, 1955); Jung, ‘Studien über alchemistische Vorstellungen’, C. G. Jung Gesammelte Werke, vol. 13 (Freiburg im Breisgau: Walter-Verlag, 1978).

32. Principe, ‘Alchemy’, DGWE, 14.

33. Hereward Tilton, The Quest for the Phoenix: Spiritual Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the Work of Count Michael Maier (1569–1622) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 256, with 9–18, 235–6, 253–6.

34. Rasārnava 17. 164–5: yathā lohe tathā dehe kartavhah sūtakah sadā/ samānam kurute devi pravishan dehalohayoh/ pūrvam lohe parīksheta tato dehe prayojayet; David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 315 with 446 n. 21, and passim.

35. Nathan Sivin, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1968); Sivin, ‘Chinese Alchemy and the Manipulation of Time’, Isis67, no. 4 (1976): 513–26; Sivin, ‘The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy’, in Joseph Needham et al., Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), vol. 5.4, 210–305; Fabrizio Pregadio, Awakening to Reality: The ‘Regulated Verses’ of the Wuzhen pian, a Taoist Classic of Internal Alchemy (Golden Elixir Press, 2009); Pregadio, The Seal of the Unity of the Three, vol. 1: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Taoist Way of the Golden Elixir(Golden Elixir Press, 2011).

36. See Edward Todd Fenner, Rasayana Siddhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1979).

37. Corbin, ‘Le « Livre des sept Statues » d’Apollonios de Tyane, commenté par Jaldakī’, Alchimie comme art hiératique, ed. Pierre Lory (Paris: L’Herne, 1986), 63-4, 71-3.

38. Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in Dissemination (trans. Barbara Johnson, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 70.

39. Derrida, Dissemination, 127.

40. Kalimāt maknūna (Sayings Kept Secret), ch. xxx (Teheran, 1801), 68-70; (Bombay, 1296/1878), 69-72; trans. Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, 177. 

41. In Latin: Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.

42. Proclus, Hier. Art., 148, cited in Uždavinys, ed., The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004), 300.

43. Here the a- as alpha privativum indicates not simply ‘negation of’ but ‘freedom from’ duality.

44. David Loy, Nondualism: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1988), 3.

45. Gebser’s seminal work, Ursprung und Gegenwart, is contained in hisGesamtausgabe, vols. 2-4 (ed. Hämmerli, Schaffhausen: Novalis, 1999); cf. The Ever-Present Origin (trans. Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985). What Gebser describes requires an effort to place the entire basis of rational epistemology within a deeper, more complex, and ultimately more integral process—one that incorporates, but is not exclusively reduced to, the ontologies of its component ‘parts’.

46. William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, The Ballads (or Pickering) Manuscript, c. 1801–3:  ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand’ / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour’.

47. Just as alchemy straddles the history of science and religion, so too may this ‘ground’ or ‘field’ of being be understood from both scientific and spiritual perspectives, e.g. via David Bohm’s ‘implicate’ versus ‘explicate’ orders of existence in quantum cosmology, or via the concept of āśraya, the ‘primordial ground of being’ in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Such layers, though, must be understood as kataphatic attempts at explicating what in the final analysis remains apophatic.

48. For discussion, see especially Kevin Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 48-54.

49. Berthelot, CAAG, 1.2.1.

50. Berthelot, CAAG, 1.2.1: ‘La nature jouit de la nature; la nature triomphe de la nature; la nature maîtrise la nature’.

51. Berthelot, CAAG, 2.3; George Syncellus, 297.23–25 (§471); Alden A. Mosshammer, ed., Georgii Syncelli Ecloga chronographica (Leipzig: Teubner, 1984).

52. Berthelot, La Chimie au moyen age, ‘Lettres de Pébéchius’, vol. 2, 309-12; Kevin Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes, 48-50.

53. ‘Lettres de Pébéchius’, in Berthelot, La Chimie au moyen age, vol. 2, 312: ‘il retraça un dragon qui mange sa queue … des images, œuvres d’art d’un caractère symbolique’.

54. Berthelot, CAAG, 1.1. Synthemata is a technical term in theurgy; it can be translated as ‘synthemes, symbols, signatures, talismans’.

55. Zosimos, ‘Peri tou theiou hydatos’; Berthelot, CAAG, 3.9.

56. Needless to say, this commonplace of comparative mythography also applies to the sun-moon or sulphur-mercury dyads of the Graeco-Egyptian, Islamicate and European alchemical traditions.

57. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5.4, 382-3.

58. Teng Shu-P’Ing, ‘The Original Significance of Bi Discs: Insights Based on Liangzhu Jade Bi with Incised Symbolic Motifs’, Journal of East Asian Archaeology, 2.1-2 (2000): 165-194.

59. The path of cosmogenesis is epitomised in the Daodejing as follows: ‘The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things’;Daodejing § 42, trans. James Legge; Sacred Books of the East, vol. 39; ed. Max Müller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1891.

60. The Daodejing’s formula of cosmogonic processio and its alchemical reversal is mirrored by the axiom of Maria Prophetissa, a Hellenistic Jewish alchemist from the first centures ce: ‘One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth’.

61. Cf. especially Eliade , Forgerons et alchimistes (Paris: Flammarion, 1956), passim.

62. CAAG, 3.1,: ‘règles de la combinaison’. English translation: F. Sherwood Taylor, ‘The Visions of Zosimos’, Ambix 1.1 (1937), 88-92.

63. CAAG, 3.1; Taylor, ‘The Visions of Zosimos’, 88-92.

64. Berthelot, CAAG, 3.1; Taylor, ‘The Visions of Zosimos’, 88-92.

65. Gebser, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 2, 15: ‘Der Ursprung ist immer gegenwärtig. Er ist kein Anfang, denn aller Anfang ist zeitgebunden. Und die Gegenwart ist nicht das bloße Jetzt, das Heute, oder der Augenblick. Sie ist nicht ein Zeitteil, sondern eine ganzheitliche Leistung und damit auch immer ursprünglich. Wer es vermag, Ursprung und Gegenwart als Ganzheit zu Wirkung und Wirklichkeit zu bringen, sie zu konkretisieren, der überwindet Anfang und Ende und die bloß heutige Zeit’. Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (trans. Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985), xxvii.