To begin to understand alchemy we can examine the word itself. Alchemy comes from two words put together: "al" and "chem".
Al: Arabic in origin, meaning "from".
Khem: Denoting the land of "Khemit" (Egypt) as it was called by ancient Egyptians.
So, the word alchemy literally means “from-Egypt”. Egypt is, in many ways, the beginning of Western civilisation and alchemy. Although some references we can find to alchemical symbols date back even earlier. The caduceus (two intertwined serpents on a staff) shown on the top right (Libation Vase of Gudea, 21st century B.C.E) originates in ancient Mesopotamia and is a symbol long associated with alchemy. We also know that astrology and the seven planet cycle that is key to alchemy had it's origins likely in the same time. In a more general sense, the origin stories such as those found in the Jewish Book of Enoch, the creation myths of Ancient Egypt and Sumeria all share some common themes: before a Great Flood there was contact with divine beings from “above” and the gifting of sacred knowledge to humanity from a God of magic. Whether knowledge came to these first peoples from a symbolic inner reality (archetypal symbols from the universe), visitors in a literal sense (aliens) or some other means, we cannot be sure.
What we can say historically is that when ancient Greeks visited Egypt they learnt from the temple Priests much sacred knowledge including geometry, astronomy and mathematics. Later, after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the last dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs were in fact Greek (Cleopatra being the most famous). It was during this fertile time of cross-cultural exchange in Alexandrian Egypt (331BCE - 391 CE) that Egyptians, Greeks, Jews and many other races of people came together to exchange ideas, practices and spirituality, and alchemy as a practice was born. At this time we see the emergence of Hermes Tristmegistus. He is a blend of two Gods which already existed at the time - Thoth, the Egyptian God of magic, writing and medicine and the Greek God Hermes, later to become the Roman God, Mercury. Hermes Tristmegistus was depicted to be a sage, or perhaps even a God-like figure. Two of the earliest known texts of alchemy were written around this time by Hermes Trismegistus (or attributed to him) - the Corpus Hermeticum and the cornerstone of alchemical practice, the Emerald Tablet.
After the fall of Paganism in the Roman Empire (C. 350 C.E.) and with the rise in Christianity, alchemy and it's teachings went to the middle east. It was here that alchemy flourished during a golden age in the Arabic world. Arabic alchemists contributed a great deal to the development of alchemy at this time, including Jabir (portrait on the right). Hermetic texts and practices reentered Europe during the Moorish invasions in Spain (8th century C.E) and it is around this time the Hermetic Kabbalah originates. Some important texts and practices were also written in Europe at this time, including the Ripley Scroll (above right) and the "Booke of Dunstan". The reintroduction of Hermetic teachings in Europe was a key initiating force of the Renaissance, which was a time that was all about rediscovering Greek and Roman approaches to life. It was during this time that alchemy had its second great flourishing in European civilisation. There are many famous alchemists from this period (although many of them are known today more as scientists) such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, John Dee and many others.
At the tail end of the Renaissance, alchemists were becoming interested in studying only physical phenomena and it's behaviour. This new study was called "chymistry", and we now know that this later developed into science. At this time, alchemy went underground again and its principles and practices (sometimes in ritual rather than practical laboratory form) went into underground Hermetic societies such as the Rosicuricians, Freemasons and the Alchemy Guild. At the end of the 19th century, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn initiated a new age of interest in the Hermetic teachings in their magical form. Prominent members included William Butler Yeats and infamous magician Aleister Crowley. The 20th century saw a resurgence again of interest in alchemical ideas from writers such as Carl Jung, and the cultural revolution at the end of the 1960s saw a whole new generation of seekers find the Hermetic current through these secret orders which were now becoming more popular. The key principles of the hippie movement - freedom of the will of the human spirit, sexuality and experimentation in consciousness were a direct result of the Hermetic work that these groups had initiated. Alchemy reemerged out of the old secret orders and began to be taught publicly, albeit to a select group of seekers.
What is the Relevance of Alchemy Today?
Today alchemy is coming out of the shadows. Modern chemistry is what evolved out of alchemy. It could be said that chemistry unofficially started when Robert Boyle published his book “The Sceptical Chymist” in 1661 C.E. This time marks, in many ways, the most crucial time in the development of Western civilisation and the Western psyche in relation to where society is at now.
Boyle was attempting to examine in his book the behaviour of matter in and of itself i.e. without a god or observer. He wanted to understand – how does matter interact with itself? This was a new idea because up until this point, spirituality and matter were two perspectives of One Thing in the art of alchemy. Boyle’s hypothesis reduced the universe simply to a machine, where reality is only matter that is not conscious. This is why science, up until the emergence of quantum physics in the 20th century, has this fundamental split from observer and observed. Until the discoveries of quantum mechanics, science sought to understand how matter behaves without the involvement of people. Which is of course, an obvious paradox, because all science that has ever been conducted has been done with the interaction of people with matter. The mechanistic-scientific worldview, although extremely useful for explaining the behaviour of matter until the subatomic level, is essentially what has enabled people to use and abuse the earth to the point where we are now facing a great deal of ecological, social and political crisis. It is also a worldview that has led to a capitalist-materialist paradigm, a view of self where people feel cut off from their world at large, from each other and from the inter-connective principle that binds everything together within and without.
Alchemy puts people in touch with this animating force and helps people to see the connection between their mind and the matter of the world around them. When this connection is completely understood, life becomes a magical creative act. The light of imagination influencing the light of the world makes the unmanifest appear and possibilities become real. The First Matter of transmutation is our own lives, turning philosophical lead into gold. This living Stone of power inside each and every one of us is waiting to be awakened. The pattern alchemy teaches has many wondrous applications for our lives, indeed, it can be used in whatever we desire to turn this touchstone towards.