Alchemy began when humans evolved to the point that they were first able to notice patterns in the night sky and the appreciate the life-giving power of the sun. Over the course of thousands of years, fantastic stories grew from these observations. Long before there were telescopes, alchemists intuited that our precious metals were seeded in the earth from far away heavenly bodies. In fact, we now know this to be true: all the precious metals began when the heat required to transmute lead exhausted the capacity of a star and as a result a huge supernova explosion resulted in a dispersion of matter that included precious metals. Planetization is the result of this debris. This process involved coalescing and forming other heavenly bodies, including our planet Earth.
When in the famous Emerald Tablet, we read, As Above So Below for the Making of the One Thing (see below), we understand that alchemists codified the physical and psychological story of creation. In other words, what was once above is mirrored in our earth. Gold for example was seeded in not only into the Earth, the below, but psychologically it is also embedded in ourselves. The work of alchemy involves mining these precious meals. This requires us to dissolve the dense, gross matter and by focusing pure consciousness on the golden seeds embedded in our leaden (shadowy) nature, allow the One Thing, to emerge. This One Thing is synonymous with the Philosopher's Stone, a euphemism that symbolizes the marriage of Above (the Heavens) and the Below (Earth). This is both understood to be a physical, psychological and a spiritual phenomena that somehow exists in what Jung called a psychoid state. It is neither wholly physical (soma) or psychic, but is something that transcends both.
Alchemy formally began in ancient Egypt. Many cite either Bolos of Mendes (300 BC) or Zosimos (300 AD) as marking the beginning of alchemy, but I believe it began much earlier. I cite as evidence the ritual of mummification that involves physical, psychological and spiritual techniques in creating an immortal body, the akh soul. Eventually, alchemy became more specialized between physical and psychological practices. In fact, there are many forms of alchemies that can be found throughout the history of the world. Alchemical practice was especially concentrated in the Middle East and later migrated to Europe. But, almost independently other rich forms of alchemy were practiced in China and India. Other forms of the Philosopher's Stone are found in different countries, so that for example, an elixir of immortality was particularly important in Chinese alchemy, and enlightenment was the goal of Indian alchemy.
When alchemy found its way from the Middle East into Europe through Spain, it slowly merged with nature science and philosophy. Eventually, the chemistry involved in the alchemical attempt to transmute base metals into gold became increasingly popular among academics. Newton, who conducted his alchemical studies at Cambridge was also president of the Royal College in the later part of the 17th century. By this time, a great debate had been waged over that direction science would take: alchemy or what later became known as empirical science. As alchemy fell into disfavor among the nascent empiricists, many adepts including Newton continued their alchemical experiments in secret. Some believe that alchemists purposefully derided their art as way of diverting attention away from their work. But, ironically, this only strengthened the movement toward empirical science, and alchemy seemed to nearly vanish.
Much of this changed in the late 19th century with the discovery of the natural transmutation of thorium into radium. At long last the alchemists claim of transmutation was found to be right all along! Some twenty years later a physicist (Rutherford) had actually performed a transmutation in his physical laboratory. By now there was also a spiritual renaissance of alchemy and it seemed that alchemists and physical scientists were both studying the invisible world of matter. Unfortunately two world wars did much to emphasize physical science over psychological alchemy, save but for the work of C. G. Jung.
Jung spent the last thirty years of his life dedicated to the study of alchemical psychology. He saw in alchemy evidence of his theory of individuation, a process of development that every person undergoes in achieving wholeness and a highly differentiated psyche. Jung believed that the alchemists projected their unconscious onto their materials and in working with various concoctions they were unwittingly working on improving their own psychic condition. Lead was the equivalent to a persons' Shadow and in the first stage of alchemy, the nigredo, a person comes to terms and dissolves these undigested aspects of the psyche that block further development. In the abedo, the person next learns the importance of anima, or how to meaningfully love and interact with others. Finally, the individual undergoes the work of the rubedo in which he or she comes to know God and the true reality of existence.
The Emerald Tablet
(This translation by Isaac Newton was found among his alchemical papers at King’s College, Cambridge University.)
1 Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
2 That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3 And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4 The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5 The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6 Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7 Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8 It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9 By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10 & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11 Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12 So was the world created.
13 From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegistis, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
As Above, So Below for the Making of the One Thing. Emerald Tablet
Alchemy has its roots in the black soil of ancient Egypt.
If you don't make yourself equal to God, you can't perceive God, for like is known to like.
Leap free of everything that is physical, and grow as vast as that immeasurable vastness: step beyond all time and become eternal.
Osiris god of the dead and regeneration - the Djet pillar