I’m reading a book with the rather lumpy title The Chemistry of Alchemy : from dragon’s blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forged. The authors (Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite) are chemistry professors, which accounts for the tone of amused skepticism toward their subject. They have given the history of alchemy its due attention, though, and explain the links between alchemical and chemical processes. The included “experiments” that readers may carry out at home mostly look worthwhile too (although I haven’t tried any of them myself — too lazy).
The thing that strikes me is the contrast between this approach and that of C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, both of whom wrote about the symbolic aspects of alchemy. Their writings were my introduction to the subject, so the mysticism and symbolism are what I find most fascinating, And the colours! Colour changes in the materials subjected to various processes would naturally signal transformation, which was the whole point of the exercise. The progression from black to white to yellow to red was fundamental. The successful conclusion to the long and torturous process was called by some the “red dawn,” represented by the phoenix. The magical substance which turned base metals to gold was often described as a red powder. Other colours are associated with intermediate phases — the green lion (vitriol) and the peacock’s tail, which is a flush of purples and blues that comes over certain metals when heated. The lion and peacock are only two of the alchemical animals; a full description may be found here.
With its colourful phases as a progression of transformations toward an ultimate perfection, it’s not surprising that alchemy serves as a perfect metaphor for almost anything. Gardening, for example, or writing, or spiritual self-improvement — anything that involves metaphorically breaking something down, burning it, washing and cleansing, joining and renewal, by prolonged effort bringing excellence from imperfect beginnings. When I started to write my first novel, the main character, Herbert West, was a dubious type in great need of improvement. I suppose it was inevitable that I should turn this into an alchemical process; alchemy thus became an explicit part of the book. It reappeared very explicitly in the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix.
Here is a quotation from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (poached from Wikipedia):
“When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictoral symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros, the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.” (Part 3, Chapter 3.1).
The whole thing bristles with vivid symbols and images and is surrounded with an aura of mystery and ancient secrets. No wonder artists and writers pounce on it with glee.
Here is an excerpt from Apology for Bad Dreams, a poem by Robinson Jeffers (whose work I discovered at the impressionable age of 18):
He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor
From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God,
He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,
Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,
He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it
Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.
I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me
In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,
Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,
And here am I moving the stars that are me.”