earliest recorded practices of alchemy come from Ancient China. These
specifically take the form of Taoist writings that detail alchemical practices.
The goal of this Chinese alchemy was to purify the Mind, Body, and Soul through
medicine and knowledge of the body. Much like Western alchemy the goal of
Chinese alchemy was to gain immortality through the consumption of particular
elixirs. These practices would eventually evolve into a system of energy
practices where the goal was to open the body up to Qi and balance the five
elements (Chinese philosophy) within the body. The view that a person's
well-being was based on having their inner elements balanced would later be
adopted by Hippocrates who would greatly influence the philosophy of Galen
which would dominate Western psychological thought for centuries.
history of Western Alchemy allegedly begins in Egypt with the teachings of
Hermes Trismegistus. Occult history states that Hermes was the greatest
teacher of all-time and that he is the one that brought the gift of writing to
Man. He is also believed to have ascended to godhood in the form of Thoth and
would go on to be the Greek god Hermes. At the core of Hermes’ teachings was
that the entire Universe was created by the Mind. This theory would eventually
emerge in the philosophy of Plato. Two other teachings credited to Hermes
appear even earlier in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Both of these thinkers
proposed that the world is in constant motion and that opposites are not
separate entities, but the same thing in different degrees. Hermes took these
ideas further and applied them to the Mind. He claimed that a person's Mind was
constantly changing between different degrees, but by exerting willpower one
could stop this motion and eventually master it.
Western history the most important of Hermes’ teachings were those regarding
alchemy. It is claimed that Hermes not only gave writing to the Earth, but also
the art of alchemy. The most basic teachings of which are said to have been
given in the form of the Emerald Tablet. In the Western school of thought,
alchemy was often portrayed with having the ultimate goal of creating the
Philosopher's Stone. A substance that allegedly able to turn any mineral into
gold as well as create an elixir that granted immortality. After the fall
of the Roman Empire these claims would be investigated by the likes of Albertus
Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. While Aquinas was not exactly an alchemist, it is
through his study of alchemy that would allow him to lay down the groundwork
for the scientific method.
Magnus and Aquinas the first true alchemist of the Middle Ages was Roger Bacon.
Bacon, a Franciscan believed that knowledge could come from authority,
reasoning, and experience. It was his firm belief however that knowledge
was only effective if it came through experience. It is also believed that
Bacon is one of the main perpetuators of the Philosopher's Stone story.
this point alchemy was widely accepted by the Church as a way to learn more
about theology. It was believed that if a process could turn minerals into
gold, then a similar process could be applied to Man to purify its mind, body,
and soul. After the writings of William of Ockham alchemy began to fall into
disfavor with the Church and the clergy was banned from studying it. This led
to a long period where most of the philosophy of alchemy was neglected and instead
it became more occult in nature.
remained in this state until the Renaissance with the work of Paracelsus.
Paracelsus believed that through observation and experimentation there was much
to be learned about the human body. While accepting most of the neo-Platonic,
Pythagorean, and Hermetical philosophies, Paracelsus rejected most of the
magical writings that had been incorporated into alchemy. Through his research
Paracelsus would go on to become the first major proponent for medicine. He
believed that the human body grew sick because of an imbalance in chemicals and
that balance was restored through various tinctures and elixirs.
Paracelsus’ work alchemy quickly faded away in favor of modern scientific
practices. While alchemy had helped create many of the principles science would
follow it was discarded as an esoteric pseudoscience. Beginning in the 19th
century and continuing throughout the 20th century alchemical writings would
lose much of the jargon and esoterica that had shrouded them for centuries. The
writings now reflected a more personal form of alchemy. The goal of alchemy was
no longer to create the Philosopher's Stone, but to transform one's self into a
perfect being. The belief was that one could change their Mind and by extension
their Body and Soul through meditation and willpower.
Jung would pick up on this belief and apply it to psychology in 1944 with the
release of his book Psychology and Alchemy. Jung argued that the symbols used
by the alchemists of the Renaissance and Medieval Europe were not merely
esoterica, but were in fact manifestations of the psyche. Jung would then go on
to show how the Great Work of the alchemists was a symbol for the reintegration
of the psyche in a person. This would lead Jung to conclude that spirituality
was key in a person's mental well being.