Alchemy encompasses some of the oldest spiritual traditions in existence. The earliest alchemists were shaman-smiths who passed down the carefully guarded secrets of mining and metallurgy from master to apprentice.

The secrets of metallurgy have always been considered sacred knowledge, to be transmitted only through fearful rites of initiation. Consider how many myths describe a maimed or lame smith-god). The act of taking gems or metals from the Earth-Mother was viewed as fearful and perilous. It was often accompanied by sacrifices and long purifications aimed at placating the forces and spirits guarding the buried wealth. In fact, many mining and metallurgical operations were quite perilous due to the lack of knowledge concerning toxic substances. (Until relatively recently, alchemists and metallurgists frequently suffered from some variety of slow, or not so slow, poisoning.) The obvious effect of long-term exposure to various substances probably account for the attitude of both reverence and scorn with which early alchemist/smiths were viewed. It is possible that the smiths were “scapegoats” for cultures that believed that some payment was required or punishment visited upon those who took from the Earth.

Because of its shamanistic/religious roots, alchemy has always maintained a connection between the purification and transmutation of physical substances and the purification and transformation of the alchemist.

Spiritual alchemy may have reached its highest form in ancient China. Taoist alchemists practiced both external alchemy (extremely similar to that practiced in the West, probably because it used real chemical reactions) and internal alchemy. Internal alchemy was accomplished by the skillful manipulation of ch’i (“vital breath,” life energy) in cavities inside the torso. The cavities were considered inner equivalents of various alchemical apparati whose actions were to be mirrored within the alchemist. The successful accomplishment of the operations of internal alchemy (like the Western goal of producing the Philosopher’s Stone) reputedly conferred physical immortality (or at least longevity), wealth, and happiness.

The West encountered alchemical ideas chiefly through its contact with Islam. Indeed, many Western alchemical terms (and terms used in modern science) are derived from Arabic words. Though we are more concerned here with their quest for the secrets of (inner and outer) transformation, Arabian and Western alchemists laid the foundations of the science of chemistry.

It is still possible to pursue alchemy in something like its traditional form, but this may require a great deal of dedication, discipline, scientific training, and money. Two books recommended to the serious student are:
The Alchemist’s Handbook by Frater Albertus

Herbs in Magic and Alchemy by C. L. Zalewski

To get a rough idea of the spirit of alchemy (without setting up a laboratory), try attributing qualities and aspects of mind, body, and personality to different substances such as spices and foods. Experiment by meditating on the relationships of these aspects or qualities while physically mixing and preparing ingredients you have chosen. Perhaps you may be the one to succeed, at long last, in baking the Philosopher’s Scone.

Alchemical Symbols

Alchemy and Alchemical Practices

(Excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences
New York, 1939

The Alchemy Alphabet