Understanding Alchemical Medicines
When you make or take an alchemical tincture, essence, elixir or other preparation, how is it prepared and what is it made of? To better understand this, we need to examine the "three essentials" of alchemy. Also known as the Tria Prima, they are three components that all living things in the animal, mineral and vegetable realms comprise of. A simple way to think of this, is to imagine that we take our First Matter (a plant, animal, mineral or metal in it's raw state), and reduce it down to it's most essential parts: there will always be present a spirit (a liquor or strong liquid), a soul (an oil or oil-like component) and a body (mineral component). These are further outlined below.
Spirit is represented by the cipher for Mercury. It is also a picture of the staff of Hermes, the caduceus, itself a combination of two serpents – one white and one red. Mercury (Hermes) is a great symbol for spirit. As messenger of the Gods, he has the ability to travel between the realms of Gods and people. He can ascend to the highest heights, and descend to the lowest lows. This is very appropriate because in alchemy, the Spirit of each realm (animal, mineral and vegetable) is the most volatile substance which is taken from a particular thing. The spirit unites all things within that realm. In the herbal realm, for example, alcohol (specifically grape alcohol) is the carrier of universal energy and the animating life force. We actually get the term alcoholic “spirits” from alchemy, because spirits are created in fermentation, after a plant has ‘given up the ghost’. When we drink alcohol we become “spirited”. In alchemy we allow a substance to ferment before repeatedly distilling it so that it can be as pure and volatised as possible.
The next important portion is the Soul, also called sulfur. It is here represented by two glyphs joined together – one glyph for fire, represented by the upward facing triangle. The other is the cross, representing the four elements. The symbol for fire is above that of earth, so this means that soul is the firey essence which is tied to the four elements but is attempting to rise above earth to spirit. The soul of something in the vegetable, animal, mineral or metallic realm will depend on the matter being worked with. All things have unique profiles, and it is their uniqueness which determines their soul. Soul refers to personality or character, and in alchemy this portion is often also referred to as the oil. It can be a literal oil (like the essential oil in the herbal kingdom), however metals will, if put under alchemical processes, produce something which looks and feels like an oil. The soul is that part of something which has the intelligence to direct energy (spirit) to a specific part of us. For example, the herb chamomile has an innate personality or medicinal profile which can be directed within the being of an individual to relax them, calm digestion, assist with hay fever, inflammation etc. So in the herbal kingdom, as an example, we separate the essential oil and just like we did with the spirit portion, we may distil it until it is free of impurities.
The final part of the three essentials is the body, also called Salt. Salt in alchemy is a philosophical term for matter, or the body portion. If a person were to die, the salt portion is what is left behind after consciousness has left the body. The salt principle is that mineral portion of thing which gives it body, form and coagulates it in space and time. As my teacher, Robert Bartlett once said, “we are walking popsicles of salt!” The body is an often overlooked part of a natural medicine. In naturopathy, when a herbal tincture is made, the salt portion which is the herb body is discarded after the herbal extraction is finished. In alchemy we throw nothing away; we take the herb and purify it through alchemical processes. When it is pure we then recombine it with it’s other two essentials.
What sets alchemical medicines apart from others? One definition is that alchemical operations in the lab have taken place to separate and purify the three essential components. When all three parts of our starting material are purified, what do we do? We combine them together again in a sacred marriage. Thus, the matter at hand is born anew, “resurrected” if you will, into a state of being that is more refined, more powerful and more pure than the starting material. The matter undergoes a death (of the old), and a rebirth (into a new form). Medicines of this order have the capacity to initiate healing through all three levels within us – body, soul and spirit, depending on the characteristics of the soul correspondence of the medicine. In this sense, alchemy is a holistic approach to wellbeing. For example, things ruled by the archetype of the sun are said to have qualities of triumph, abundance, persistence and vitality. The sun is associated by the principle of correspondence in alchemy with the colour Gold, the day Sunday and with the heart among other things. So taking an alchemical medicine ruled by the sun (for example a herb like chamomile or the metal gold) will align a person’s life on all three levels with this archetype.
As the age-old alchemical saying goes, Solve et Coagula (dissolve and coagulate) - when we practice alchemy in the lab, we are attempting to separate, purify and reunite Body, Soul and Spirit - these three essentials. After the three essentials in our First Matter are separated, purified and recombined, we are left with a product that is elevated, reborn if you will, on a completely new octave of creation. Not only this, but the alchemist themselves, in making the preparation, will have undergone their own inner change. It is said in alchemy that we cannot transform anything unless we first transform ourselves. Thus, alchemical medicines exist as an initiatory preparation that transform and individual once consumed, but to produce them initiates a transformation in the operator too.
Finally, the three essentials are called so because they are said to be immortal parts of matter. If we think about the three essentials in the plant kingdom - the mineral salts of a plant, the essential oil and the spirits, all of these components if separated and stored correctly can survive thousands of years on their own. Indeed, these substances are frequently removed from the tombs of dead Pharoahs, undisturbed for such a long time, as perfectly intact as the day they were extracted.