The True Nature of Hermetic Alchemy

Hermetic Alchemy remains the most misunderstood of occult sciences. The reason why alchemy is so misunderstood is that its nature and processes still remain the most carefully guarded secrets of the Western esoteric tradition.

There are numerous instances, however, where even a misunderstanding of the true nature of alchemy has proven to be a great boon to mankind. For example, a literal and materialistic misinterpretation of the goals of alchemy led directly to the birth of many aspects of modern science. Pseudo-alchemists, for example, interested only in cooking gold inadvertently led to the birth of modern chemistry. Roger Bacon’s and Sir Isaac Newton’s interest in alchemy also led to major contributions of these individuals to modern science. Paracelsus' spagerical medicine, moreover, while likewise rooted in a misunderstanding of alchemy, nonetheless led to the birth of pharmacology as a cornerstone of modern medicine. All of these advances, however, as valuable as they are in their own right, reveal nothing about the true nature of Hermetic alchemy.

The secrecy surrounding the nature of alchemy has also proven fertile soil to grow new, modern misinterpretations of alchemy. The 20th century Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, for example, used alchemical images to shore up his psychological theories, as evidence for what Jung called 'archetypes of the collective unconscious.'

Indeed, the cryptic, symbolical nature of alchemical imagery readily lends itself to such a psychological misinterpretation.  Jung saw in alchemical images what he wanted to, by projecting his psychological theories upon their symbolical matrix. Despite the fact that Jung never grasped the hidden nature of Hermetic alchemy, his misunderstanding nonetheless led to a yet another contribution of alchemy to modern science, this time in the field of depth psychology.

Adam MacLean is perhaps the greatest living encyclopedist of alchemical texts and images. His “alchemy website” is a great contribution to mankind. Unfortunately, however, Mr. MacLean draws a mistaken distinction between “physical” alchemy and “spiritual or philosophical” alchemy to justify his own “mystical” interpretation of alchemy. As has already been the case with the ‘gold-cookers’, medical spagerists, and depth psychologists, however, even Adam MacLean’s ‘mystical’ misinterpretation, although it misses the point entirely, will probably bear positive and unexpected fruit nonetheless.

The continuing secrecy surrounding the true nature of Hermetic alchemy unfortunately also enables hucksters and con men to deliberately deceive an unsuspecting public. 'Schools of alchemy' based on hot air are popping up like mushrooms on the internet. 

Hermetic alchemy, however, remains an occult science that can only be properly understood by initiates. To the uninitiated, alchemical truth forever remains a book sealed with seven seals. The initiatic keys that unlock the sublime secrets of Hermetic alchemy still exist today and are taught in S. L. MacGregor Mathers' Alpha et Omega. The A.O. announced in 1999 that we include Hermetic alchemy in our Roscirucian Second Order, the R.R. et A.C. As soon as we disclosed this, the pseudo-Golden Dawn orders copying us on the internet jumped on the alchemical bandwagon as well. Suddenly, nearly every group calling itself ‘Golden Dawn’ began to advertise on their websites that they teach ‘alchemy.’

Scratch the surface of these would be ‘alchemical’ schools, however, and you find nothing but Paracelsian spagery or nonsense about “Spiritual Alchemy,” which is but a synonym for “spiritual growth” or a repackaging of Jung’s psychological speculations. In response to such deception and misleading of the pubic, the Alpha et Omega has decided to lift the veil and reveal something more substantial about the true nature of Hermetic alchemy. The problem with the ‘Golden Dawn copycats' is not only that they lack the initiatic keys to unlock the secrets of Hermetic alchemy, but that they have not even understood its true nature.

Hermetic Alchemy Unveiled

Despite popular misunderstandings about a gold-making pseudo-science, Hermetic inner alchemy comprises the highest and most secret practices of both the Hermetic and Rosicrucian traditions. Hermetic inner alchemy is in reality a system that uses the subtle fires of the human body, including love and sexuality, as potent tools for spiritual development by transmuting the matter of the physical body into ever purer and more refined forms of energy. Developed as the 'Royal Art,' alchemy in ancient Egypt was originally reserved for the Pharaoh and the ruling class, as once was Taoist sexual practice for the Chinese Emperors. From Ptolomaic Alexandria with its confluence of Hellenic and Egyptian cultures, Hermetic alchemy spread across the Mediterranean to Europe with the Greek and the Roman Empires. In Greece, alchemy became enshrined in the Pythagoreanism, whereas in Rome it became a cornerstone of the Hermetic tradition.

The emergence of Christianity posed a unique threat to the survival of alchemy. To protect the 'Royal Art' from destruction with the emergence of Christianity, many of its practices were encoded in the rites and stories of the new religion, whose true meanings were secretly and carefully preserved by initiates for centuries. When the Inquisition arrived and the church became more dangerously repressive, the myth of a materialistic pseudo-science was created whose aim it was to 'manufacture gold.' Hermetic symbolism and allegory were used to conceal alchemical truth from the profane, yet nonetheless preserve and communicate it among initiates.

Enlightened modern attitudes toward sexuality today permit the true nature of the 'Royal Art' to be revealed as the 'alchemy of love.' Although the erotic nature of Hermetic alchemy has been kept secret in the West for centuries, any other interpretation is based on misunderstanding. Whereas certain plant elixirs prepared using spagyry (commonly known as 'plant alchemy') do indeed have medicinal value in themselves, the processes of so-called, 'laboratory' alchemy are by and large merely analogous for the actual processes of Hermetic inner alchemy. Indeed, the mistaken, literal interpretation of 'laboratory' alchemy has cost certain, would-be alchemists their lives by foolishly poisoning themselves, consuming quicksilver (mercury) in elixirs prepared with literally misunderstood, 'laboratory' processes.

Reading Alchemical Symbolism

Among classical alchemical literature, there exist three classes of documents. Firstly, there are series of alchemical images clothed in Hermetic symbolism. Secondly, there are documents that describe laboratory processes, yet conceal certain parts using hermetic symbolism or other code devices. In addition to this symbolical veil, the laboratory processes themselves are frequently analogous for hidden processes of Hermetic inner alchemy, the original 'alchemy of love.' Finally, there are fakes prepared by non-alchemists having no inherent value.

In certain instances the meaning of alchemical imagery is quite obvious for those with eyes to understand. For example, the images of the Rosarium Philosophorum, as illustrated below, clearly depict the erotic nature of Hermetic alchemy.

That images or descriptions of processes may be taken literally (as in the case of the above image from the 'Rosarium Philosophorum'), however, tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the vast majority of authentic alchemical documents or series of images must be read as poetry rather than as prose. In other words, one must look beyond the content, beyond the obvious, and attempt to understand as in poetry what is intended by analogy and by metaphor.

This becomes is a simpler task once the erotic nature of Hermetic alchemy is understood. It is also helpful to bear in mind why alchemical documents and images were created to begin with; in order to communicate certain truths between alchemists, yet simultaneously preventing understanding them.understanding by non-initiates.

This alchemical image, for example, contrasts popular misunderstandings about 'laboratory' alchemy (as a proto- or pseudo- science) with its true nature as the 'alchemy of love.' This is not obvious, however, to anyone unaware of the erotic nature of Hermetic alchemy. Here we see a supposed alchemical laboratory to the right in the image, with all of its attendant apparatus; oven, retorts, flasks, etc., labeled as the 'Mechanical Opus.' To the left, however, we see a disrobed and winged female figure seated upon a tree, upon which are inscribed the words 'Natural Opus' in Latin. Thus we may best read this image as saying: "Nature calls to the true alchemist, revealing to him that the 'Opus Magnum' (Great Work) is not a dry operation to be carried out in some dark laboratory, but rather with love in the heart of nature."

The erotic nature of the Hermetic alchemy is symbolized not only by the female figure, but also by the fire which burns beneath her. Her wings indicate that, for a man woman holds the wings to spiritual ascent. Finally, she is crowned with the symbols of the seven ancient planets. This indicates the importance of astrology and astrological cycles in Hermetic alchemy.

The Aim of Alchemy

It is only by understanding the relationship between astrology and alchemy that the allegory of the transmutation of lead and lesser metals into gold may be correctly understood. The traditional correspondences between the alchemical metals and the ancient planets are as follows: Saturn - Lead, Moon - Silver, Mercury - Quicksilver, Venus - Copper, Jupiter - Tin, and Sun - Gold.

Saturn is the planet associated in astrology with time and that rules over matter. Thus 'Lead' in Hermetic alchemy actually represents our physical bodies, the 'prima materia' or 'first matter' with which we may begin the 'Opus Magnum' (Great Work). Thus the allegory of the transmutation of lesser metals into gold actually represents the transmutation of the physical body into ever more refined forms of energy and the cultivation of ever more subtle bodies and higher consciousness.

Thus the hermetic and alchemical traditions do not view 'soul' as something existing inherently and equally in all human beings, but rather to be actively cultivated and developed. According to the Hermetic tradition, each of us possesses only the seed of a soul. It is up to each of us to cultivate this seed or not. Thus the transmutation of Lead into Gold refers by analogy to the cultivation of soul, the refinement of matter into ever purer forms of energy, and ultimately the giving birth to a 'body of light' or 'solar body.' At the moment of death, the alchemist projects his or her consciousness into this 'solar body,' achieving liberation from further incarnation and becoming consciously immortal.

This transmutation occurs using the transmutative properties of the 'Philosopher's Stone.' The true nature of the Stone is one ot the greatest secrets of Hermetic alchemy. Although Hermetic rules prohibit the direct revelation of the true nature of the Philosopher's Stone, much has been said about it, including that "it is a most potent elixir of life, having both the power to prolong youth and to confer immortality." Today, S.L. Macgregor Mathers Alpha et Omega teaches the highest mysteries of Hermetic inner alchemy in the highest grades of our Third Order, including the secret preparation, rectification, and multiplication of the Philosopher's Stone.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn set an amazing precedent in 1888 when it allowed women and men into the order equally and embraced fully the essential Hermetic principles of polarity and gender. The concept of sexual polarity is an essential cornerstone of classical Golden Dawn teachings and is enshrined throughout the symbolism of its initiation rituals and traditional magical system. Since inception of the Golden Dawn, the teachings and practices of Hermetic inner alchemy have been carefully concealed in the highest grades of the order. This remains the case today in the Third Order of S.L. MacGregor Mathers' A.O.

In the spirit of the classical and traditional Golden Dawn, the Alpha et Omega does not, however, practice nor engage in sexual activity in rituals, nor are there orgies of any kind, nor sexual experimentation like was carried out by Aleister Crowley. Slogans like 'Beware: No Sex Magic in the Traditional Golden Dawn' being used by copycat groups are merely fear based marketing tactics designed to frighten people away from our order. Groups spreading such rumors have merely underscored how ignorant they remain of the doctrine of sexual polarity, a core element of classical Golden Dawn teachings and its substantial oral tradition. Curiosly, these same groups elsewhere advertise that they teach alchemy. Considering what we have revealed in this present article, it is obvious that the 'Golden Dawn copycats' not only miss the initiatic keys of Hermetic alchemy, but that they have not even understood its true nature.

(Our order is the sole and exclusive owner of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn® trademark in the European Union (reg. 000063925). We additionally own the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn International® trademark in Canada (CIPO Reg. TMA510387). We operate in the United States by legal agreement adopted by the United States District Court as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, outer order of the Rosicrucian Order of Alpha et Omega.®)