Throughout history we find groups of myths, rites and symbols peculiar to the craft of the miner, the smith and the metalworker. Looking at them we are able to gain an understanding of the behaviour of primitive societies in relation to matter and to follow the spiritual adventures in which people became involved when they found themselves aware of their power to change the mode of being of substances. We are therefore obliged to look at the relationship of men to mineral matter, to look at the behaviour of the smith and of the iron worker, both in contact with ores and metals, to understand better human thought. We will not look though at how smiths or other metallurgists worked mineral substances, but instead we will focus on the mental world of the metallurgical complexes those specialists went through.
The main sources of study are found in Africa, Indonesia and Siberia, even though we find examples throughout the whole world. The first concept to mention is that ancient cultures believed mineral substances to be sacred, coming from the mother-earth, the goddess of fertility. On those times the earth was thought to be a huge womb, the minerals buried on it to be small embryos in constant growth, going through a natural ripening process. Men at the time thought that could intervene in the work of the mother-earth, in the work of time, by accelerating this ripening process. The miner and metal worker had the conviction that could accelerate ores growth’s rhythm. Metallurgy was perceived as an obstetric operation involving mineral substances. Mineral substances as being alive and these mentioned specialists as pursuers of their transformation, its perfection and also its transmutation. Smelters, smiths and alchemists had a particular magic and religious experience in their relations with matter. They also held the secret of transmission of initiatory rites related to these transformation processes. Out of all these activities alchemy appeared.
It is important mentioning that alchemy, unlike chemistry, wasn’t empirical in its origins, but focussed on its mental world. It was a sacred science. Its operations were not symbolic, they were physical operations carried out in laboratories, yet their purpose was not that of the practical chemist. The alchemist was concerned with the passion, the death and the marriage of substances, in so far as they transmuted matter and human life. Alchemy worried about the sacredness of ores and its transformations. These transmutations aimed at their transformation, being its final goals the philosopher’s stone and the Elixir-Vitae.
We should first start by looking at its origins. To do this, we should first look at men’s understanding of the sky. Studying the relationship between meteorites and metallurgy, we find that the former has inspired awe in many cultures. Meteorites had a sacred quality enjoyed only by celestial things. Some communities believed aerolites to fall on earth charged with celestial sanctity. In a way meteorites represented heaven, a part of it. Certain cultures saw aerolites as godheads. A great example of this is the Kaaba in Mecca, venerated by hundreds of believers every day. Meteorites were also connected to fertility goddesses, such as Cybele, bringing to mind the theme of the fertility of stones.
In certain cultures, men believed the sky to be made of stone. The Aborigines for example, believed the sky to be made of rock crystal and the throne of the heavenly deity to be made of quartz. Crystals were thought to reflect everything on earth. The “Stones of light” told shamans what had taken place in the sick man’s soul and the destination which their soul took flight to. Shamans could see far into space and into time. They could perceive what was invisible to the layman, such as the spirits, the gods and the soul. When a shaman was initiated, was fed with crystals of quartz, obtaining the magical characteristics of those mineral rocks. Shaman’s capacity to see came in part from a mystic solidarity with heaven.
Meteorites were essentially part of the essence of heaven and seen as masculine beyond dispute. We find in some cultures thunderstorms pictured as thunderbolt teeth or god’s axes. Sites where meteorites crashed, were believed to have been struck by a thunderbolt, symbolising the weapon of the god of heaven. In fact, thunderbolts and double axes symbolised the union between heaven and earth, the sky being always connected to the masculine and the earth to the feminine. As an example we have Delphi, symbolising a female generative organ, liken the earth to women.
Some Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs, made their weapons (knives, axes, etc) from meteoritic iron. Nahualts, when asked how did they obtain their knives, always pointed at the sky, meaning that those tools came from the sky, provably brought by a thunderbolt striking the earth. Apparently, metallurgy in Central and South America is of Asian origin and they mainly used meteoric iron to fabricate their tools. This type of metal was also used in other cultures, such as in ancient Egypt or by the Hittites in ancient Asia Minor.
Iron age and the beginnings of metallurgy started between 1200 – 1000 BC in the mountains of Armenia and from there it spread across the Near east, the Mediterranean and Central Europe. The mastering of iron brought not just a practical usage of this metal, but the emergence of a symbolic and magic-religious complex in communities related to these ores, becoming a reality especially after its industrial triumph. With iron smelting we have, in addition to the inherent celestial sanctity of meteorites, a terrestrial holiness shared by mines and ores. With the iron industrial triumph and the sacredness of terrestrial ores and metals, a brand new whole series of rites and symbols appeared in communities working ores. Whole series of iron taboos and magical uses appeared due to this victory and to the fact that the Iron age superseded bronze and copper, which represented other ages and rituals. Under these new circumstances, smiths became not just metal workers. They had a mode of life essentially nomadic, in constant search for ores and therefore in constant movement. Smiths were specialists in contact with differing populations. They became agents spreading myths, rites and metallurgical mysteries amongst communities. They had therefore a ritual function in society. As an example, we find links between the magical mastery of fire, the smith and secret societies.
Whether iron felt from the heavenly vault or extracted from the bowels of the earth, it was considered to be charged with sacred power. Some communities venerated objects made of iron by other outsiders, as objects coming from elsewhere and hence as a sign or token of the beyond, a near image of the transcendental. Bedouins from the Sinai believed that the fabrication of meteoric iron weapons converted those that made them in invincible people. This celestial metal coming from above was transcendent and divine. In fact, iron had extraordinary magic-religious prestige amongst communities all over the world. In some communities iron knives kept away demons. In North Europe, articles made of iron protected crops not only against the vagaries of the weather, but also against spells and the evil eye. Iron though could also retain its ambivalent character, for it could embody also the spirit of the devil. Metals were victorious through agriculture but also through war. Smiths’ tools were believed to share a sacred quality and to be alive. Objects such as the hammer revealed to be animate miraculous objects. Iron gadgets were not only sacred but also magic. Stone objects were believed to inflict injury, to cause explosions, to produced sparks, as did the thunderbolt. So again, we find the comparison of metal tools with the thunderbolt. This ambivalent magic just mentioned, this evil and sacred condition, was believed to be transmitted and magnified in new instruments forged of metal.
We often find storm gods and gods of agricultural fecundity as Smith-gods. In various cultures we even spot Smith-gods within the divine pantheon. Some storm-gods strike the earth with thunderstorms, being their emblem the double axe and the hammer, and the storm being the signal for the heaven-earth hierogamy. These symbols point at the sacredness of the sky and at the union of the sky and the earth through symbols such as the double axe. This same symbology is reflected when smiths strike their anvils, when artisans imitate the primordial gesture of the Storm god, the thunder.
The Earth represents the mother of all ores. Being the Earth mother of all mineral substances, brings the subject of sexualization to the forefront. The sexualization of the mineral world and its tools starts with this new Iron age, ores being the embryos maturing in the Earth womb. It commences a relationship between metallurgy and obstetrics and gynaecology. Moreover, myths on the origins of metals are related to this notion of genesis by means of the sacrificed or self-sacrificed god, for the ripening and transmutation of these ores. The idea that to engender live it is necessary death. All the mythology woven around agrarian fertility, metallurgy and its work, is of relatively recent origin. We find in ancient mythology the idea of creation by hierogamy and blood sacrifice. The idea that life comes from death. We pass from the idea of creation to that of procreation. Creation is effected by immolation, by self-immolation. All these ancient myths and rites point out at the making of the blood sacrifice into a condition of creation, cosmology as well as anthropogeny, which reinforces not only the homologies between man and the cosmos (the universe derives from a primordial giant – a Macranthrope), but also it introduces the idea that life can only be engendered from another life that has been immolated. Examples are rites performed for new buildings, in which the life or soul of the victim is transferred into the building itself and therefore, a death is used as initiatory rite for the start of the construction of those buildings. Many examples of those myths are found in ancient cultures such as in Mesopotamia, or in Egypt, where creation is a sacrifice. In cultures such as the Mayan or the Aztec there are myths connecting alimentary plants, such as corn, coming from the self-sacrifice of a god or goddess. Same sort of concepts are found related to metals, which are supposed to have been issued from the flesh or blood of some immolated primordial, semi divine being. We are therefore witnessing the sexualization of the vegetable and mineral kingdom, and of the tools and objects made from those ores. Symbologies equate the earth to a huge womb, the mine being a uterus and ores their embryos. We find then an obstetric and gynaecology significance upon rituals associated with metallurgy.
But let’s look a bit closer to the concept of the world being sexualised. In many different cultures we find the sexualization of the vegetable world. Vegetable fertility implied man’s sexual participation in this process. This is why we find orgiastic practices associated with earthly fertility or with agriculture, which are abundantly attested in the history of religions. We are dealing with a general conception of cosmic reality seen as life and consequently endowed with sex, sexuality being a particular sign of all living reality. But not only nature is culturally endowed with sex. Ores are also culturally alive and therefore endowed with sex. The world of things and tools participate of this living organism, fertile and subject to this same sexualization. The Kitara for example, believed ores to be female when soft, red and found inside the mine, or male when hard, black and found on the surface. So we find in certain cultures the distinction between male and female ores, males being part of the sky and females coming from inside the earth. In some other cultures we find that metals are the result of a mixture of sulphur and mercury for example, being the former male and the latter female.
The sexualization and gynaecological symbolism of the Mother-Earth is also significant in this process of sexualization of the mineral world. The formation of the embryo and childbirth repeat the primeval fact of the birth of humanity, looked upon as an emergence from the deepest chthonian cavern matrix. The comparison of caverns or mines to the womb of the earth-mother, implies that sexual and sacred function of these places. Sacred rivers of Mesopotamia were supposed to have their source in the generative organ of the great goddess, the Earth-Mother. The ritualistic role played by caves and attested in prehistoric times, could likewise be interpreted as a mystic return to the Mother-Earth, which helped explaining sepultures in caves as well as initiation rites practised in these same places, believed to be sources of fertility and sacredness. Delphi for example comes from Delph, which means uterus.
If water streams, galleries of mines or caves were compared to the vagina of the earth mother, everything that lied in the belly of the earth was alive, albeit in the state of gestation. The belief in the natural metamorphosis of metals is of very ancient origin. Primitive myth and ideology related to this symbology and has its origins in the prehistory of alchemy. In places such as China, where alchemists contributed to nature’s work by precipitating the rhythm of time. They took up and perfected the work of nature, while at the same time working to perfect themselves. We find ores compared to embryos. Extracting them from the earth was an operation executed before its due time. This intervention had to be justified, needing the reason to supersede the work of nature. Metallurgists or specialists extracting from the earth those ores, accelerated the process of growth of those metals. As this was a divine activity, metallurgists required going through rites and religious processes before obtaining divine permission to extract those mineral substances.
In many different cultures we find myths concerning men born from stones. We also find myths of ores being in the bowels of the earth. Both types of myths have implicit the notion that stone is the source of life and fertility, that it lives and procreates human creatures and that it has been engendered by the earth.There are numerous myths, found in places such as America, Asia Minor or even in Christian thought, about man being created out of stone. We also find the concept of rocks engendering precious stones. As I have already mentioned, some cultures believed metals to grow in the bosom of the mine. Ores grew and ripen. Mines were trees and metals its leaves. The transformation from ores into gold happened to be the last and ending state for all mineral substances. The finality of nature was for all those ores to become gold, unless undirected. People believed gold to be the ore at its most maturing state. This process though took long time, requiring a lengthy process of ripening in the Mother-Earth womb. Some ores were also believed to grow under the influence of the stars and planets. The book of Bergbuchlein points at mineral embryology and at Babylonian astrological speculations, connecting the growth and transformation of ores with the support of planets and stars.
Being mines living orgasms, they required resting times, for their fertile capacity to remain alive. We encounter places where mines were allowed to rest after periods of active exploitation. Like if that womb needed periods of tranquility to regenerate itself. Those extracting ores from mines, accelerated the process of ripening and through alchemic processes of perfection, turned them into gold. Metallurgy, like agriculture, which also presupposes the fecundity of the Earth-Mother, ultimately gave man a feeling of confidence and pride. Man could collaborate in the work of nature. Men jogged and accelerated the rhythm of these slow chthonian maturations, intervening in nature and accelerating its processes of perfection. Those processes of acceleration required a number of rites and mysteries related to metallurgy. Men appointed to extract ores and mineral substances from mines or caves required to follow certain rites, certain steps to find those embryos. Even the process of discovering those mines involved operations requiring divine support. It wasn’t an easy task to discover mines. Caves were seen as hidden veins, requiring divine support to locate them. As an example we have Yu The Great, the piercer of mountains, who went through a number of rites to find places within mountain ranges, to exploit those mineral substances. The sinking of a mine or the construction of a furnace were ritual operations, often of astonishing primitivism. A number of religious ceremonies were performed for sinking mines. The mine was a sacred place, so to consider extracting substances from them was a task needing initiatory rites and ceremonies. Those performing these activities had the desire to appease the spirits guarding, inhabiting them. In fact, it was understood that ores were animals with the capacity of hiding from us. Ancient deities of the soul kept watch over mines and controlled these ores. So it was required their acceptance to be able to find mineral substances. People intending to extract from mines, interrupted the natural order of things ruled by some higher law and intervened in a secret and sacred process when entering those mines, so divine acceptance was essential.
Myths around mining and metallurgy are attested as multiple manifestations of the sacred presence which is affronted by those who penetrate into the geological strata of life. The artisan is basically taking the place of the Earth-Mother and its task is to accelerate and perfect the growth of ores. These artisans who embedded themselves in sacred activities, followed certain rules and detached themselves of certain activities such as sexual acts. That the sexual act could compromise the success of this work is generally and culturally believed, especially found throughout black Africa. As an example of this we find the relationship between fire and sex. The smelting of metals was seen as the fusion by a sexual act. Prior to perform this activity, the smelter couldn’t have sexual activities. All sexual energies of the workman were kept in reserve, to ensure the magical success of this process.
Other rites, beliefs and sacred processes related to metallurgy, to the tools they made and to the activities artisans performed, point at the transformation of those mineral substances into man made tools. The idea that ores were embryos completing their gestation in furnaces. The belief that smelting brought an act of creation, a union of male and female. We encounter the concept of the Yin and Yang compared to mineral substances. Ores and metals classified as males and females. In fact, at the time of smelting, youths and virgins played a part. The male and female fused as the Yin and Yang. The smelting of a sword was the union of fire and water, alloying being a marriage rite, and same symbolism was implicit in the smelting of metals. Even metallurgic tools were treated with nuptial symbolism. Instruments such as anvils or hammers.
Blood sacrifice related to this sexual and marital symbolism. The transformation of holy matter demanded for its accomplishment the sacrifice of a human being. The theme of sacrifice at the time of smelting, which is a mythic-ritual motif more or less related to the idea of mystic union between a human being (or a couple) and metals, belong with the great class of sacrifices of creation whose primal model in the cosmogonic myth is based on the need to sacrifice to perform the union of metals. It is the idea of changing a body for another body, making the second body alive by sacrificing the first one. The idea that to bring life it is necessary death.
Human sacrifices performed for the purpose of metallurgic operations, especially for the furnaces smelting processes, are found in myths around the world. The Asur myths for example, are emphatic in their hatred of iron and metallurgy. In the eyes of neighbouring populations, the Asur smiths found in burning coals of their furnaces a death well merited because they had affronted and irritated the supreme god. These myths mentioned on the need to offer sacrifices to the furnaces before starting any operations. The smelting of Iron was regarded as a sinister operation requiring the sacrificing of a human life. Those myths’ main theme is that metals derive from the body of a god or from an immolated super-natural being. The idea that the work of metallurgy demanded the imitation of the primordial sacrifice.
Moreover, myths about the origin of metals, according to which metals grow in the body of a god or semi-divine being, are found in many cultures. This idea derives from a cosmogonic myth: the world, man or plants, having their birth from the body of a primordial giant. The creation of the world in some cultures comes from the body of a primordial being, sometimes conceived and described in terms of the shaping of a foetus. The cosmos is taking shape from a primary matter, which is embryonic, because formless, and chaotic. This primary matter or germinal mass foetus is compared to a sacrificed body, from which this foetus regenerates. From chaos life flourishes and the end of that life ends up again in chaos.
It is with Babylonian and Mesopotamian symbolism and metallurgical rituals, that the origins of alchemy started. The first historical documents concerning the idea of the maturation and perfection of metals appeared in ancient Mesopotamia. In this area we found writings about metallurgical operations consisting of a series of liturgical acts. These rituals involved the selection of a propitious month or the consecrating of the furnace area, amongst other religious acts. The furnace was seen as a matrix, a substitute of the Earth-Mother, where ores completed their process of maturation. Sacrifices performed on these occasions, which were frequent, were performed as obstetric sacrifices. Ores at times compared to human foetuses. On these occasions, foetuses were used for the success of the fusion, either by transferring its entire live’s reserves to the metallurgical operation or by precipitating the birth of the metal in the furnace, bringing it to birth before its natural due time. In either case, metallurgists were aware of expediting the growth of metals. There was an active collaboration of man and nature, being man able by his acts to supersede the former. The work of a metallurgist is looked upon as an obstetric operation, performed before its due time, an abortion. Man could precipitate birth, intervene in the cosmic rhythm. By accelerating the course of nature, artisans intervened with time. The natural process of mineral substances’ ripening and growth was accelerated by the work of the metallurgist. This is the idea of the transmutation of man and the cosmos by means of the philosopher’s stone. The stone eliminated the interval of time separating the present condition of an imperfect metal from its final condition, to be gold. The stone superseded time. This is the sort of activities metallurgists and smiths did perform and the type of tasks inherited by Alchemists.
Another important concept to look at was the mastering of fire. Alchemists, smiths or potters were masters of it. Fire was essential to their work. It allowed the passage of matter from one state to another. Fire accelerated that process of transformation, on a speed that neither the sun, nor the deepest earth accomplished. Fire superseded time and the work of nature. Fire seen as the manifestation of a magic-religious power which could modify the world and therefore did not belong to this world. Under these circumstances, shouldn’t surprise us that those that could master it had magical power. Primitive cultures looked upon the specialist (the shaman, the medicine-man, the magician), as masters of fire, as having magical abilities to master this manifestation coming from the other world.
In some cultures, producing fire in one’s own body was sign that one had transcended the human condition. Certain communities believed old women to keep fire in their vagina, sign of matriarchal societies. In this sort of collectives, women symbolised natural sorceresses. Men could take control of that fire by magic-religious means, but it took the work of a shaman or specialist to accomplish this task. To take that control meant men taking control over the matriarchal system of functioning. Magic-religious power was conceived as something burning: heat, very hot, etc, shamans and sorceresses as masters of fire and having great resistance to cold. They were attaining a state superior to the human condition by mastering both states. Besides, to make fire was a sign of a sexual act. Fire can be made with two pieces of wood, from which female wood keeps the natural ignition power, hence why this sexual meaning in certain cultures.
The presence of iron in the body of the shaman played a role which was to a certain extent similar to that of the crystals or other magic stones amongst the medicine-men in Australia, Oceania and South America. Eating crystals gave the eater the capacity to see spirits and souls, to fly… For he assimilated the celestial sacredness of the crystals fallen from the heavenly vault, achieving this way the condition of spirits. From what we have seen, metallurgists, shamans or alchemists, by mastering fire, took on the condition of the spirits, of the divine, of magical-religious beings. Their magical work gave them the skills to create magic weapons for heroes. As an example, characters such as Genghis Khan, who might have started originally as a Smith. We are therefore seeing a special relationship between shamans, smiths and heroes.
Smiths, being casts apart, at times were well considered and treated with respect, connected to the land, at times demons, people to fear and not to be married with. The privileged status of the African smith and his religious function are chiefly explained in the cosmogonic myths and myths of origin. Their hammer and anvil came from heaven. In other cultures, the smith was a rain-maker, who could bring war to a successful end. In others, the heavenly smith was seen as son of the supreme god. The function of the smith-counsellor was to complete god work by helping its work understanding and mysteries. Due to this function, metallurgists took on the role of initiators. In certain communities we find a big role played by Smiths in puberty initiation rites and in secret societies, or in community religious rites and myths. In other communities Smiths are despised, such as non-agricultural or in those communities not so much attached to materials. In this sort of communities though, at times there is an ambivalent relationship between people and metals such as iron, therefore influencing their perception of the work of smiths.
As part of this metallurgists’ function of spreading rites of initiation, we find relationships of the former with warriors. In this line, there is a group of myths on the relationship of the smith with the god. Some of them are about the relationship of the celestial deity and the aquatic dragon. It is on those myths where the celestial deity ends being the winner, either by extracting the world out of the dragon inside body (Tiamat-Marduk theme for example) or by using other means to defeat him. In the majority of these myths’ versions, the smith-god provides the weapons that bring victory, being those divine weapons key to its successful end. In other myths, we even find the smith being the architect and artisan of the gods. Smiths also relate to occult sciences and smith gods appear to relate to rites of occult initiation such as the mentioned mastery of fire. In certain communities we even find the identification of smith-craft and song. The semitic term to forge for example, means also to sing. It shouldn’t surprise us though that rites of initiation and songs had some sort of relationship and that it therefore related to metallurgists. There was a connection in primitive cultures between the art of smith, of occult sciences and of the art of song, dance and poetry. There was a sacred mystery around the metallurgists comprising initiations, specific rituals and trade secrets. In all of these myths we see that the sacredness of metals is a constant element, bringing ambivalent, eccentric and mysterious character to all mining and metallurgical operations.
On smith’s mythologies are found earlier stone ages’ myths and themes, integrated in the mythology of the age of the metals. The symbolism of the thunderstorm, in which projectiles and stone missiles are compared to the thunderbolt, underwent a great development in the mythologies of metallurgy. Those metal forged weapons were compared to the thunder and to lightnings, as if metallurgists’ forging labour was a sacred work, creating divine weapons, used by divine celestial deities. This is reminding us about the mythologies of the homo faber, where divine is the magic aura of the magic tool and where the exceptional prestige of the artisan and of the workman, above all, of the smith, are highlighted and incorporated on the mythologies of creation. This is found in pre-agricultural and metallurgical societies’ mythologies, where god is the possessor of the thunderbolt and of all the other meteorological epiphanies. In the myths of historical peoples, the god of the hurricane receives these weapons, the lightning and the thunder, from a divine smith. It is highlighted the importance of the fabrication of the tool for the god or the hero, who will bring the creation of the cosmos to a successful beginning.
The guilds of smiths had a part to play in mysteries and initiations. On some of these initiatory rites we see their sympathy with fire, which unites such disparate vocations as that of the shaman, the smith, the warrior and the mystic. We find for example in Europe a recurrent folkloric theme about the rejuvenation through the furnace fire. Amongst the numerous examples, it surprises the theme of Jesus Christ rejuvenating the old by putting them in a heated oven or forging them on an anvil. On all those popular-tales, the mythic-ritual scenario was fire for all initiation tests and represented both purification and transmutation. The master of fire is seen as a divine Jesus Christ or as a demoniac smith. We encounter the theme of the celestial fire and of the hell fire. Nevertheless, we find the smith and the blacksmith connected to an initiatory significance. This initiatory function relates to the deep inside mental functions of human beings. These myths and rites of initiation have an essential function of shaping communal beliefs, psychological and collective behaviours. A folktale exerts its power in the deep recesses of the psyche, and nourishes and stimulates the imagination.
We have seen so far the initiation symbolisms of fire and forge, death and resurrection by fire, forging on the anvil, etc, which were born in shamanic rituals. We are now going to focus at the concept of alchemy in the orient, starting with Chinese alchemy. Taoism goes back to the days of the guilds of smiths, custodians of the most wondrous of the magic arts and the secrets of the primal forces. Taoists and Neo-Taoists took those same concepts belonging to occult sciences, magical arts, metallurgical rites, evolving them into their concepts of primal matter, divine primal being. Taoism comes from those early times of civilisation, when human beings lived as nomadic groups. Taoism comes from a proto-shamanism of hunting peoples. It is in those Taoists times that alchemy propagated.
An important concept to understand in Chinese alchemy is that immortality does not come from the casting of a magic utensil, requiring human sacrifice, but it is acquired by him who has succeeded in producing the divine cinnabar. In Chinese alchemical thought we find the self-deification by absorbing gold or cinnabar. Each single individual is capable of becoming divine by absorbing those two substances. In fact, cinnabar could even be produced internally by the transformation of sperm in the brain.
Another characteristic worth mentioning is that Chinese alchemists strove to recover an ancient wisdom adulterated or mutilated by the very transformation of Chinese society. This ancient wisdom was on us, inside ourselves. The evolution of society had unfortunately resulted on the losing of this primal wisdom. Taoists infatuated popular superstitions (dietetic, gymnastic, choreographic, respiratory, magic, shamanist, ecstatic and spiritualist). They saw beneath those superstitions authentic fragments of Ancient wisdom. In fact, Taoist alchemists continued and prolonged an ageless tradition of popular superstitions, occult sciences and similar traditions, despite inevitable innovations. In China alchemists were also initiators, masters of it. Initiatory communication of secrets for long continued being the norm in alchemical teaching, just as it had been done by previous traditional ancient practicians.
Chinese alchemy was built up on traditional cosmological principles, myths connected with the elixir of immortality and with the immortal saints, and techniques for prolongation of life, beatitude and spiritual spontaneity. The quest of the elixir was bound to the search for distant mysterious islands. The quest for gold as a spiritual quest. Gold was believed to be found in the centre of the earth. China did believe on the natural metamorphosis of metals, so they searched for it, but also spiritually, for human perfection. Alchemists in this area thought gold and jade to preserve bodies from corruption. The transmutation of metals into gold had a spiritual aspect, gold being the imperial metal, perfect, freed from impurities. The Alchemical operation sought to imitate the perfection of nature, its absolution and its liberty, and as in the European continent, alchemists could precipitate nature’s tempo.
Alchemists accepted the traditional identity of microcosm and macrocosm. The universal quintet (water, fire, wood, gold, earth) was regarded as intimately allied with organs of the human body. These were the five elements constituting the cosmos and all the vital energies securing his periodic renovation. The heart was related to fire and to the red colour. Wood was related to the liver. Metal was related to the lungs. Lead was related to the water, the kidneys with dark colour. Earth was related to the stomach. The microcosm of the human body was interpreted by the alchemist and related to the cosmos by comparison to metals, to planets, etc.
The cinnabar substance was seen as concealing the mysteries of regeneration from death. It could ensure perpetual renovation of the human body. It was seen as a longevity drug. In the Han Empire period, cinnabar was believed to be used to obtain gold. Some cultures believed it was made inside the body by the distillation of sperm. Cinnabar could be produced deep inside the body and in the brain, where all chemists prepared the embryo of immortality. We find the comparison of the cinnabar fields, the mountain of the western sea, the nuptial chamber or the nirvana, which are internal states of harmony acquired by those reaching eternity. To reach this state one needed entering by mystic meditation, falling into a chaotic state, resembling the primordial, paradisal, unconscious condition of the uncreated world. To enter the cinnabar fields required reaching a chaotic state and this state could be attained through meditation. We find a resemblance of this primary state of unconscious and the materia prima, the massa confusa of western alchemy. This materia prima assimilates to the inner experience of the alchemist. The reduction of matter to its original condition of absolute in-differentiation, corresponds, on the plane of inner experience, to the regression to the pre-natal, embryonic state. To obtain rejuvenation, it is required a regressus ad uterum.
Alchemists would have mixed various ingredients in his furnace, and the product of that mixing rejuvenated the maker. This is based on an ancient conception attested at primitive levels of culture, the recovery from disease by a symbolic return to the origins of the world, the re-enactment of the cosmogony. The Taoist perfected this ancient conception. Instead of recovering from illness, Taoist alchemy cured man of the illness resulted from the ravages of time, from old age and death. By esoteric (concrete substances) or by exoteric (the souls of those substances) methods, alchemists aimed at curing from that illness. On one of this esoteric methods, metals were compared to parts of the body, and by the right mixture of esoteric terms, the gestation could be achieved in the blink of an eye. Therefore, alchemists utilised esoteric methods to gestate metal.
Being within the process by which a child was engendered, the alchemist produced the philosopher’s stone. The elixir had also the characteristics of metals and of the embryo. It was believed to be a living substance going through the same process of an embryo. We find in both cases the notion that the respective processes of growth, both of the metal and embryo, could be accelerated miraculously by achieving the state of maturity and perfection at the mineral level of existence (by producing gold) and, more particularly, on the human level, by producing the elixir of immortality. Moreover, we find in Chinese thought the comparison of the micro and the macrocosm, the perfectibility and transmutation of metals compared to the perfection and transmutation of men. Esoteric metals in Chinese alchemy are compared to the unity of man and the universe. In all these methods we find again and again the same concept. By returning to the base, to the origin, we drive away old age, we return to the condition of the foetus. This return to the beginning was what the alchemist also sought by other means.
In Indian thought, alchemy was a spiritual technique. It had affinities with Hath-Yoga and Tantrism. It is in Indian alchemy where by means of the rhythmic control of the breathing and by the use of vegetable and mineral remedies, it succeeded in prolonging youth indefinitely and in transmuting ordinary metals into gold. The Hath-Yoga worked on the body and on the psycho-mental life. The alchemist worked same way but on substances. Both aimed at purifying these impure material, at perfecting it and transmuting it into gold.
In this part of the orient, gold was seen as immortality, as the perfect metal, and its symbolism rejoined the symbolism of the pure spirit, free and immortal, which the Yogi endeavoured by asceticism, to extract from the unclean and enslaved the psycho-mental life. The alchemist hoped to achieve same results as the Yogi, by projecting his asceticism on to matter. Instead of submitting his body and his psycho-mental life to the rigours of yoga, the alchemist subjected metals to the chemical operations, corresponding to purifications and ascetic tortures, in order to separate the spirit (Purusha) from all experience belonging to the sphere of the substance (Prakrit). Physical matter or the psychosomatic body of man within Indian alchemy is the product of a primordial substance.
Both processes, Tantra-Yoga and Alchemy, in the process of the transmutation of the body, comprised an experience of initiatory death and resurrection. Both strove to dominate matter, dreamt of conquering the world, changing its ontological regime. Both wanted to free themselves from the laws of time, to decondition their existence and to gain absolute freedom. The transmutation operated by the alchemist precipitated the tempo of the leisurely changes of nature (Prakrit), and in so doing helped freeing himself from his own destiny just as the Yogi, by forging a divine body, delivered nature from its own laws: indeed, it succeeded in modifying its ontological status, in transmuting the indefatigable becoming of nature into a paradoxical and unthinkable stasis.
The origins of indian alchemy were not just influenced by the Arab world. For instance mercury, a substance used by arabs and indians as basic elemental metal, wasn’t the main and / or first metal used by the latter, but one of them. The characteristics of mercury though made this metal one of the main substances used by alchemists for their transmuting purposes. To reduce the fluidity of mercury was equivalent to the paradoxical transmutation of the psych-mental flow in a static consciousness, without any modification and hence without becoming. In Alchemical terms, to fix or to kill mercury was tantamount to attaining the Cittaurttinirodha (suppression of conscious state), which was Yoga’s ultimate aim.
Indian alchemy also focussed on the transmutation of the body and on the conquest of the liberty. From times of the greatest antiquity, an important section of the indian spiritual elite applied itself to experimentation: the direct, experimental knowledge of all that constitutes the bases and processes of the human body and the psych-mental life. Alchemy took its place in the framework of this pan-indian experimental tradition. These experiments or alchemical operations were concrete experiments, carried out in laboratories on various mineral and vegetable substances. These substances were not inert, they represented stages in the exhaustible manifestations of primordial matter. Vegetables, stones, metals… bodies, their physiological and psycho-mental life were but different moments of a same cosmic process. It was therefore possible to pass from one stage to another, to transmute one form into another. To work actively on ores and metals in this manner was to touch Prakrit, to modify its forms, to intervene in its processes. Prakrit was seen as the primordial mode of the goddess, of the Shakti, and the aim of this experimentation was to reach that primordial substance. Indian alchemy therefore operated on mineral substances involving spiritual consequences. This is really similar to the concept of Tantrism, which estimated that with an appropriate psycho-somatic and spiritual training, man could have the revelation of the primordial mode of nature.
We are now leaving aside oriental alchemy to focus on the generic term of alchemy and the process of initiation, which is a process very much related to the former. Alchemistic symbolisms and operations demonstrate solidarity with primitive symbolisms and techniques linked with processes of matter. As we have already explained, sources of alchemy are conceptions dealing with the mother-earth, with ores and metals, and with the experience of the primitive man engaged in mining, fusion and smith-craft.
The origin of the conquest of matter is found in the palaeolithic age, when man succeeded making tools from silex, or used fire to change the state of matter. Afterwards, in the neolithic age, it appeared agriculture and pottery. With it a whole cosmological world involving not just the observation of nature and of the season cycles, but the fabrication of many other types of tools and a different connection between humans and matter. The cosmos was believed to be mysterious, as implied in the sacredness of its manifestation, and this sacredness was transmitted by initiation. Tilling, firing of clay, mining and metallurgy, put primitive man into a universe steeped in sacredness. A thinking dominated by cosmological symbolism created an experience of the world vastly different from that accessible to modern man. To symbolic thinking, the world is not only alive but also open. An object is never simply itself, it is also a sign, or a repository for something else. The cosmos was believed to be a hierophany and human existence sacred.
Work possessed a liturgical value, which still survives, albeit obscurely, among the rural populations of contemporary Europe. In this period of agriculture and pottery, it emerged the possibility given to primitive man to immerse in the sacred by his own work, as a homo faber and as a creator and manipulator of tools. These creating and manipulating experiences could be passed on. These primordial experiences could be shown to initiates. The initiators became key figures in communities, because of their knowledge and experience in activities involving sacred processes, which were essential to the maintenance and transformation of their cosmological world.
The orient had shown that men of primitive cultures could gain knowledge of and mastery over matter. Graeco-Egyptian alchemy originated with a period of technical prescriptions, followed by a philosophical period, with characters such as Bolos de Mendes in second century BC or Physika Kai Mystika. After this period, it continued with alchemistic writings such as Apocryphas, Zosimos and other commentators. Alexandrian alchemy was the result of the encountering of different currents. In one side some esoteric disciplines such as mysteries, neo-phythagorism, neo-orphism, astrology or gnosticism. There were also currents from cultured people (intelligentsia), and lastly, currents from popular traditions (trade secrets and ancient magic techniques). This type of alchemy had an interest in oriental wisdom, traditional science and the technology of substances, precious stones and plants.
The disciplines influencing the origin of alchemy in the Graeco-Egyptian world imply that alchemists did not employ a scientific procedure. By looking at greek texts of alchemy and sources in ancient Mesopotamia, where they had huge knowledge of metals, we can see that alchemists weren’t interested in natural phenomena other than those which might have helped them to attain their object. Alchemy did not born from the need to counterfeit gold, neither science, then what was the origin of alchemy? It was the encounter with the symbolisms, myths and techniques of the miners, smelters and smiths which provably gave rise to the first alchemical operations. Above all though, the origins of alchemy were the experimental discovery of the living substance, such as it was felt by the artisans, which must have played the decisive role. This complex and dramatic life of matter was what moved, first artisans such as metallurgists, and afterwards alchemists, into some Graeco-Egyptian-oriental mysteries.
These substances were believed to be alive and as such, they showed emotions, just as humans did. This initiation into the mysteries involved the participation in the passion, death and resurrection of a god. The transmutation of substances was necessary to become immortal. This transmutation of substances involved the death and resurrection of substances, of matter. This spectacle of sufferings, death and resurrection of matter very strongly born out of Graeco-Egyptian alchemistical literature. Passion projected to matter to transmute it. The alchemist treated matter as god in the mysteries. The innovation is that alchemists projected on to matter the initiatory function of suffering. The alchemist gave a new significance to the view that ores, metals, were alive, living organisms that could marry, gestate, etc.
Initiation tests which, on the spiritual plane, culminated in freedom, illumination and mortality, culminated on the material plane in transmutation, in the philosopher’s stone. This ending transmutation, the magnum opus culminating in the philosopher’s stone, was achieved by causing matter to pass through four phases (colours): the nigredo (blackness), albedo (the resurrection expressed by the assumption of certain states of consciousness inaccessible to the uninitiated), citrinitas and the rubedo-viriditas-cauda panonis (consummation of the alchemical operation culminating on the philosopher’s stone). These were all phases of alchemical operations.
There was no hope of resuscitating to a transcendental mode of being, no hope of attaining transmutation, without prior death. Substances transmuted thanks to suffering, death, resurrection… The life of matter was no longer designated in terms of vital hierophanies, as it was in the outlook of primitive man. It had acquired a spiritual dimension. By taking on the initiatory significance of the drama and suffering, matter took on the destiny of the spirit.
Alchemists believed death, related to the black colour, to be a massa confusa, chaos. Death was seen as a regression to the amorphous, the reintegration of chaos. This chaotic state in some cultures was very much related to water. All nature was in the beginning water, through water all was born and with water all things were destroyed. The alchemical regression to the fluid state of matter corresponded, in the cosmologies, to the primordial chaotic state, and in the initiation rituals, to the death of the initiate. This chaotic state related also in some cultures to mercury, to moistness, to the primordial element. In other cultures we find that the dissolution, the calcination, the reduction of the amorphous by fire, all resulted always in death.
Alchemists’ methods intended to achieve the reduction to the prima materia, the regression to the pre-natal state, a regressus ad uterum, being a return to this chaotic state. These methods sometimes used furnaces, which symbolised mines, rivers or the mother earth, a kind of matrix or uterus from which it was born the filius philosophorum, the miraculous stone. The regressus ad uterum was sometimes presented in the form of incest with the mother. The dissolution to the prima materia was also symbolised by a sexual union completed by disappearance into the uterus.
The dissolution and reintegration of chaos is an operation which, whatever the context, presents at least two interdependent significations: cosmological and initiatory. Every death is at once a reintegration of cosmic night and pre-cosmological chaos. Darkness is what becomes the dissolution of forms, a return to a seminal stage of existence. It shows the importance given by alchemists to the terrible and sinister experiences of blackness, of spiritual death, of descent to hell. Gods such as Chronos or Saturn symbolised in certain cultures the time of the great destroyer, death and birth. Saturn was also the symbol of time, shown holding a balance.
But why was necessary death, the descent to hell, blackness and so on? In order for the birth to emerge, for a cosmogony, for a myth of creation, for making something new or for remaking, for healing, etc, it was necessary to go back ad originem, repeat the cosmogony, a return to the chaotic initial stage of existence. The Alchemist pursued exactly that, the reduction of substances to their pre-cosmogonic state.
At the same time, by pursuing the perfection of metals, alchemists pursued the perfection of themselves. Western alchemists in their laboratories, like their Indian or Chinese colleagues, worked upon themselves, upon their psycho-physiological life as well as on their moral and spiritual experiences. Oswald Croll declared alchemists were holly men who by virtue of their deifick spirit have tasted the first fruits of the resurrection in this life and have had a foretaste of the celestial country.
Which was the actual alchemist experience to obtain the philosopher’s stone or the elixir-vitae? This is unfortunately unknown. It was provably the product of an interdependence relation between mineralogical symbolism, metallurgical rites, the magic of fire and the transmutation of metals into gold; the connection of Chinese alchemy and Neo-Taoism techniques; the connection of Indian alchemy and Tantrism. All of this might have been a kind of alchemist experience.
We find in various cultures numerous names for materia prima: sulphur, mercury, lead, water of youth, heaven, mother, moon, dragon, venus, chaos, philosopher’s stone, god… All of these concepts define the end point of the operation. A secret language which is at once the expression of experiences not otherwise communicable by the medium of daily speech and by the cryptic communication of the hidden meaning of symbols.The philosopher’s stone is beyond comprehension of the uninitiated, though children may play with it or servants throw it into the streets; although it is everywhere, it is also the most elusive of things. The Philosopher’s stone was believed to transform metals into gold, a pure matter bringing all imperfect bodies into itself. It consummated the work of nature.
The philosopher stone also brought the reconciliation of opposites, universally widespread, well attested in primitive stages of culture, and which served more or less to define both the fundamental reality (the Urgrund), and the paradoxical state of the totality, the perfection and consequently the sacredness of god. The concept and properties of the Philosopher stone are also influenced by the elixir-vitae, which came from the Arab world to the West. This was a substance with therapeutic properties, giving invincibility, the capacity to levitate, to fly (Siddhi of the Yogi). However, the origins of these beliefs are not oriental but prehistoric.
We are defining here a world seen as sacred, a cosmos which is sacred on its totality. The hierophanies, owing to the very fact that they manifest the sacred, change the ontological regime of things: base or insignificant, a stone, a tree, a stream, as soon as they incorporate the element of the sacred, become prized by those who take part in this religious experience.
Alchemy prolonged and consummated a very old dream of homo faber: the collaboration in the perfecting of matter while at the same time securing perfection for themselves. For ancient metallurgists, smiths, nature was a hierophany, it was alive and divine. Alchemy worked in perfecting that nature. But even though this work was tolerated, it was not encouraged by god. Therefore, the alchemist needed to go through certain processes to obtain that divine tolerance. Moreover, in changing nature, man puts himself in the place of time, accelerating nature. The work of the smith, the alchemist, was the transmutation involving the elimination of time.
The vas mirabile of the alchemist, his furnaces, his retorts, play the role of being the apparatus of a return to primordial chaos, of a rehearsal of the cosmogony. Through fire nature is changed, and it is significant that the mastery of fire asserts itself both in the cultural progress, which is an off shoot of metallurgy and in the psychophysiological techniques, which are the basis of the most ancient magics and known shamanic mystiques. From those times fire is seen as the transmuting agent. At many levels fire symbolises spiritual experiences, the incarnation of the sacred, the proximity of god. Fire has though an ambivalent significance. An extremely complex symbolism associates the terrifying fire-theophanies with the sweetest flames of mystic love and with the luminous manifestations of the divine as well as with innumerable combustions and passions of the soul.
The philosopher’s stone was believed to be in all substances and transmutation was required for bringing it up. This transmutation was on the divine and the alchemist worked on provoking that. The concept of alchemical transmutation was the fabulous consummation of a faith in the possibility of changing nature by human labours with liturgical / religious meaning.
The visionary’s myth of the perfection, or more accurately, of the redemption of nature, survives in camouflaged form, in the pathetic program of the industrial societies whose aim is the total transmutation of nature, its transformation into energy. We can observe that in many areas of modern society. Modern man accelerates time to extract from mines. Organic chemistry eliminates time, creating synthetic products. Alchemic inheritance is not in chemistry, but in superseding time and their desire to do so. Their inheritance is felt in naturalists, systems of political economy, in the secularised theologies of materialism, positivism and infinite progress; everywhere where there is faith in the limitless possibilities of homo faber; everywhere where the eschatological significance of labour, technology and the scientific exploitation of nature reveals itself. The alchemist has become master of time when, with his various apparatus, he symbolically reiterated the primordial chaos and the cosmogony, or when he underwent initiatory death and resurrection. Every initiation was a victory over death; the initiate proclaimed himself immortal; he had forged for himself a post-mortem existence which he claimed to be indestructible.
The inheritance of this discipline is that man can achieve things better and faster than nature if he, by means of his intelligence, succeeds in penetrating into her secrets and supplementing, by his own operations, the multiple temporal durations (the geological, botanical, animal rhythms) required by nature in order to bring her work to fruition. The conquest of time and space of modern man is a revolution of the magnitude of the raise of agriculture.
It is not only the agricultural and metallurgic techniques that made neolithic man the first chain inventor in history, but also the religious and mythological creations which became possible through the discovery of agriculture and metallurgy. The symbologies, mythologies and rituals accompanying these technological discoveries played a no less important role in shaping post-neolithic man, that did the empirical discoveries themselves. Therefore, alchemy cannot be reduced to a pro-chemistry discipline. It relates to mystical tradition: in China with Taoism, in India with Yoga and Tantrism, in Hellenistic Egypt with Gnosis, in islamic countries with Hermenic and Esoteric mystical schools, in the western middle ages and renaissance with Hermetism, Christian and Sectarian mysticism and Cabala. At the end of the day, alchemists’s experiments with mineral or vegetal substances pursued to change, not just substances, but the alchemists’ own modes of being.
Based on the book: The Forge and the Crucible by Mircea Eliade.
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