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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

Alchemy for Dummies

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2008

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L History collection as well.]

A nybody expecting me to reveal the secrets of making gold may as well go home right now. It is a sad thing that this minute aspect of alchemy is regarded by most as the be all and end all, there is so much more to the subject. Some instruction on alchemical principles gradually unfolds through each of our first four grades. All you have to do is pay attention and read the relevant rituals. I shall be looking at other aspects this afternoon including, its history, some theories, its important influence on modern science, and whether or not there is any­thing to the whole concept. Did anything real ever come out of the work of the alchemists? How relevant is the whole thing to us in the 21st century? Let’s explore the subject together and you can form your own conclusions as we go.

Flamel's chart

The Beginnings

While there are also Asian streams of alchemy, our Western concepts seem to have started via the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers. Their concepts of the universe and the nature of matter were shown to be largely erroneous as humanity progressed in knowledge but the ideas of their era had an important influence on future generations.

Aristotle first wrote down the principles claiming that all things were formed from four basic elements but we must keep in mind that the names used involved categories covering many items of similar nature. This is covered in the society’s grades but put simply …

    Fire may be defined as pure energy, not just burning material. From a modern aspect we may include electricity and different forms of radiation. Think of a few others yourself. Here we have raw energy undirected and uncontrolled. In mystical terms it is also the positive masculine element.

    Water covers all fluids. It is often regarded as being the negative feminine element which has a modifying influence on fire. Out of their union comes …

    Air which covers all items of a vaporous nature and is regarded as a product of the combination of fire and water. Produced by the union of masculine and feminine, the yin and the yang. When all three are combined their product is channelled for practical use via …

    Earth which binds them as one and renders them useable on our plane of existence.

(Nitpickers may complain that I am ignoring those principles in relation to Tetra­gram­ma­ton, Kab­ba­lah, and what­ever. In this paper my concern is solely with alchemy and what arose from it. Any critic is welcome to deliver papers on other aspects.)

Varying balances of the four were regarded by the ancients as composing different known materials. Arabic al-khîmiya‘  (“the art of transformation”)From this the idea developed that by altering the ele­ment­al balance of any sub­stance, another could be pro­duced. Base lead, for ex­ample, would become gold if one only knew how to do the altera­tion and al­chemy evolved in response to those ideas. Exact­ly where and when is un­clear but the first major develop­ments seem to have taken place among the Arabs. Like “algebra” (al-ğabr), “al­chemy” (al-khīmiā‘) is a word of Arabic origin. Some claim it all started in Ancient Egypt but this is just as fanci­ful as the myri­ad other claims in­volv­ing the land around the Nile.

Over subsequent centuries Aristotle’s theories became regarded as equivalent to Holy Writ. Those who dared to question them in mediaeval and renaissance times ended up having personal experiences with fire without modifying water. By mediaeval times the system was well established and accepted and researchers began to produce new chemical compounds in the course of their research. The hazards associated with work on those compounds were only discovered through trial and error and many fell martyr on the path that led to modern chemistry and physics. The man from whom our own college derives its name is just one among many.

The concept of spiritual alchemy evolved within the Christian community where the transformation of one substance to another was exchanged for the symbolic trans­muta­tion of the human soul to higher levels. From the base to the sublime in other words. This became an important part of Western alchemical studies the “great work” having this at its core. True alchemists sought the Spiritual within their material studies. To such enquirers gold making was actually the search for means of transmuting a base human soul to a higher spiritual level using primitive chemical techniques as part of the meditation.

Alchemists rapidly proliferated all over Europe from Mediaeval times right into the 19th Century; even now some dedicated workers practise this ancient art. Unfor­tunate­ly, then as now, many charlatans also set themselves up using conjuring tricks to con the gullible out of their money. One such, a Dr Lamb, occult adviser to the Duke of Buck­ing­ham, was caught out in 17th century London and badly beaten by those he sought to dupe. He is commemorated to this day in the phrase “to lamb into” and also in the word “lambaste.”

Nowadays they mask the same old tricks in scientific waffle. In the 1970s there was a trickster with an atomic replicator which could produce identical duplicates of any items placed in its nuclear drawer. (A subtle variant of an old conjuring trick with a double drawer) Believe it or not folks fell for this crook. In the 1990s several quacks produced an amazing alchemical “white gold” guaranteed to cure cancer. A trial group of 70 sufferers this was tried on all died but was shrugged of as being “just their time.” Mylan Brych and his magic serum is another example as was his predecessor Neissens in France, ensconced in Montreal last I heard and still at it.

In the mid 1990s we also had a French exponent who demonstrated the successful making of gold in the open air. Due to “the danger of explosions from the process” the spectators were required to stand well back but he showed it to them afterwards. In 1960s Ghana two Rumanians conned the government into spending a fortune on cocoa silos. Experts decried the project as cocoa ferments when kept in bulk but the Drevici's convinced them they had a secret powder which stopped the breakdown. At Tema harbour two huge silos bear memorial to that scam. Who recalls the wonderful hydrogen car in Brisbane in the 1980s that Joh tried to promote. Con merchants are as common now as they were in the 1400s. Beware!

So was all this Aristotelean theory just the waffle of ignorant ancients? I’ll say more about that later. Did anybody produce transmuted gold? There’s some evidence that they did but remember that the alchemists were not just dedicated to making gold. The gfreat work was the production of The Philosopher’s Stone a mysterious substance able not only to transmute substances but also accredited with miraculous healing powers. Rosicrucians of the time were prohibited from engaging in gold making.

In what sort of laboratories did those early Seekers do their work? Many of you have seen my model of a 16th century laboratory. Nowadays in chemistry labs we have bunsen and other burners, electric furnaces, atomic radiation sources, and stacks of marvellous instruments to help with the work in progress. Up until 19th century when Bunsen perfected his burner things were very different.

The focal point of an old laboratory was the athenor. A furnace which could generate high heat. operated, like a blacksmith’s forge, by bellows. Heating processes involved were frequently intended to be gradual and many reactions took place in ceramic or crude glass flasks set in the sun. Sometimes on a plate coloured half black and half white, a so-called flashing tablet. There would have been some minor heat variations between the black and white sections.

Another old favourite was filling a vessel with animal dung, immersing the experimental container therein, and letting heat generated from composting do the work. Those labs must have been pretty ghastly places to visit and would also have been filled with toxic fumes.

Alcohol was produced by means of a pelican. At first glance this looked like a large narrow necked vase with akimbo handles. In fact those were hollow and the container’s upper part could be separated. Suitable fermented liquid was placed in the lower portion then the top was set back on and sealed with clay or pitch. The whole was either set by the athenor or stuck in dung and alcohol evaporated to the upper part via the handles, stimulated by the gentle heat.

Gentle heat was very important in their rituals and some techniques are still invaluable in the arts of cooking. Alchemists also used water baths and many’s a restaurant buffet or home kitchen still depends on modern versions of their Baines Marie. They also heated up items and set them in boxes of hay in which slow heat processed their contents.

This hay box cookery was quite common until fairly recently. Working housewives would place casseroles in them before going to work and come home at night to a ready cooked meal. In recent years this has evolved into electric Crock Pots and Slow Cookers. Even those who decry alchemy cannot escape its many legacies.

My Alchemical Laboratory in 1/12th Scale

What sort of people were involved in genuine attempts to achieve The Great Work? Some names may surprise you, Sir Isaac Newton being the most prominent. When he died his vast collection of alchemical literature was destroyed at his command. Robert Boyle, who confused us all with his high falutin words for describing a simple principle, Boyle’s Law, is another. It is on record that he travelled extensively in Europe where he visited the graves of prominent alchemists and magicians of the past … At midnight! Seems he was into necromancy, trying to raise their spirits to get information. Did they supply the ponderous definition of his Law to punish schoolkids?

Paracelsus doctor and mystic, Dr John Dee founder of Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s Secret Service, and even Elias Ashmole of masonic fame were involved. Newton Boyle and Ashmole were among the Founders of The Royal Society. I could go on dropping names for another hour but let’s move on …

What evidence is there of success? Examples of alleged alchemical gold may be found in the State Museum in Vienna and in The British Museum. The atomic structure of the latter has been analysed and varies very slightly from standard gold, it is also significant that this gold is of a very high purity regarded as unattainable with 16th/17th century techniques.

Members of The Order of the Golden Dawn, which branched from SRIA, claimed to have achieved transmutation and the method allegedly used can be found in Bob Black’s excellent SRIA publication The Secret Art of Alchemy The Golden Dawn workers stated that expenses involved in producing just a tiny amount were prohibitive. Dr Robert Felkin, a member of both SRIA and Golden Dawn, did some amazing work on the healing aspects of alchemy. He finally settled in New Zealand and it is interesting to note that the area where he practised medicine was not affected by the disastrous Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept theworld as WW1 ended. In fact the virus killed many more people than that awful war. The good doctor is also reputed to have been involved in the Golden Dawn’s successful gold experiment

To Harry Potter fans the name Nicholas Flamel will ring a bell. Flamel was a real person who. if the legends are true, could still be living happily with his wife somewhere even as I speak. He was born towards the end of the 16th century and lived in Paris where he practised alchemy. He was far from being a rich man but suddenly amassed large amounts of gold some of which he used to build and run a hospital for the poor of Paris. He also commissioned at least one major art work, a complex painting described in detail in a book translated into English as Nicholas Flamel, His Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, Which he caused to be Painted upon an Arch in St. Innocents Church Yard in Paris. (I have a copy of this Arch on display coloured by our Supreme Magus who hopes to have the book republished one day).

Flamel and his wife lived for many years and were renowned for their piety and charity, they were buried with full pomp and ceremony when they died … But did they? Long after the burial alleged sightings of the couple were reported, enough finally to have their graves opened to find no human remains within the coffins. Tales of very long lived people were not uncommon at that time and even now we have Elvis. In fact Thomas Vaughan our own Eugenius Philalethes wrote a book about them at the time of Charles II.

Other famous examples include the Marquis de St Germaine, a courtier at the time of Louis 14th who kept turning up over many years with no apparent signs of ageing. He appears in Pushkin’s creepy tale The Queen of Spades as the lover who gave a Russian duchess the secret of winning at cards. The mysterious Fulcanelli merits a mention as well. He allegedly created the Philosopher’s Stone in the 19th century and looked younger each time people saw him over the years. He allegedly visited several nuclear physicists in the 1930s warning them of the dangers of their work. Fulcanelli may be a fictitious creation of a French author who wrote most of this after WW2 attributing it to earlier writings of Fulcanelli. Some swear by him, others like myself remain sceptical.

But we’ll end this section with the tale of the most successful alchemist of all. Poor fellow!

Johann Frederick Boettger grew up in 17th century Prussia and became a Berlin apothecary’s apprentice. At the age of 19 Johann demonstrated gold making to his boss and family using time tried trickery and started organising to make a fortune. Unfortunately King Frederick (Father of Frederick the Great) got wind of the feat and sent his men after the youth. After several narrow shaves he managed to escape to the adjacent State of Saxony, out of the frying pan into the fire!

Frederick contacted Augustus, King of Saxony and Poland, and demanded that the fugitive be found and sent back. Although he was soon captured Johann never saw Prussia again as Augustus put him in a huge cell, supplied him with equipment and ingredients, and told him “gold or your head.”

Poor Boettger was really stuck. Naturally he got nowhere with his gold making but ended by producing something much more valuable that we see all around us to this day. White Gold … Porcelain! For centuries China was the sole producer and the methods were secret but after many traumatic months in his cell our hero produced the first examples of the product that would make Dresden famous. Dresden china! The prisoner’s reward was to remain in jail while a factory was built to start producing. His secret was too precious for him to be released. The King made several fortunes, Saxony prospered, and our hero remained in Durance Vile.

Meanwhile King Frederick found a replacement, a European con merchant named Caetano who had already fleeced several other nations. He guaranteed he would produce The Philosopher’s Stone within 60 days and received a fortune in gifts and payment. Then came the Bill! Finally exposed as a fake the king had him dressed in a golden robe and then publicly hanged from the city gallows. This was bedecked in golden spangles and tinsel for the occasion and as a final insult Frederick had a gold medal struck to commemorate the execution.

France, England, and other Germanic states eventually bribed the secrets of porcelain from Saxon workers and started their own industries but the Dresden product is famous even now. Our hero was finally released to a life of poverty and he died penniless in 1719 aged only 31. Most people have never heard of Boettger or his achievement that put plates on all our tables.

Let’s now move on to the modern world … How do those alchemical concepts of the Ancients measure up in the light of Modern Science? So many Ancient theories have been discredited yet the Aristotelean Elements hold up fairly well when viewed from the perspective of Nuclear Physics. Don’t panic! I know little of nothing of that subject either but let’s take a look at an atom. The smallest part of an element that can display the characteristics of that element. Our concept of elements has gone far beyond the Four of the Ancients. We now regard them as fundamental substances which combine to form all others. Rightly termed The Building Blocks of The Universe the known number is over a hundred.

An atom is composed of three different particles, the numbers of each determining its characteristics. At the core is a nucleus composed of positive Protons and negative neutrons bound together by their polarity. Around them whirls one or more Electrons at speeds so fast they form a shell. Let’s apply the old perspectives here. Our Positive Protons could be taken to represent the ancient Fire, the Negative Neutrons as the Water which modifies them. The electron screen. if we stretch our imagination, is AIR yet not a product of the other two as in the ancient concept. The incredible force binding the whole together can be regarded as earth and we are now all too aware of the terrifying energies released when this bond is broken.

If the proportion of neutrons to protons is altered it is theoretically possible to transmute any of our elements into others. Alter the number of electrons and the elemental characteristics remain largely the same but we have created an isotope.

The ancient dream has become a reality. Transmutations are now undertaken in nuclear reactors, cyclotrons, etc. Creating isotopes for use in medicine and industry, even changing one element into another, have become routine; but only by using equipment and facilities costing billions. Pity the Spiritual aspects have been lost in the process.

As an experienced scientist I believe that there can be a mental aspect to complex chemical work. Several workers can start in the same laboratory, under identical conditions, using chemicals from the same containers yet only some of them will achieve top results. Nervous tissue staining is an excellent example and very alchemical. We take incredibly thin slices of, say, a human brain and immerse them in solutions of gold or silver. These are then modified using other metallic solutions such as uranium and ideally an excellent picture of the distribution of nerves and connections is shown.

Even the most skilled workers however can end up with opaque black specimens and some use ritual in their work. I know of one nun in a hospital Path lab who would only do nervous tissue staining at a particular time and on a particular window sill. She got superb results there, garbage elsewhere.

I spent many years in the wonderful field of electron microscopy where we cut material even thinner than the last example. At best the inner secrets of a cell are exposed to the viewer but all too often the end result is poor. There does seem to be an element of WILL involved, like it or not, and I have always regarded work in those areas as being as much spiritual as it is physical.

And so ends our rapid tour of a highly complex discipline. To those tempted to have a go my serious advice is lay off unless you have good chemical lab training. You also need a modern laboratory with facilities such as fume-hoods to remove dangerous gasses generated by your work. A comprehensive knowledge of the hazards associated with chemical reagents is also essential. If you have such knowledge and experience proceed by all means but keep in mind that names of chemicals used by old workers are usually not the names of actual items Mercury and sulphur are examples of philosophical names that are applied to unrelated items. I still recall a young enquirer I just managed to stop before he made gold by heating sulphur with mercury.

Eugenius Philalethes died through inhaling mercury fumes, I pray members of his College do not follow his example … Take care, my fraters, and study further.



Books Worth Reading

Non Fiction. Best for starters is the SRIA List of Recommended Reading. One of my personal favourites remains The Secret Art of Alchemy* by RW Fra Robert M. Black. The story of poor Boettger can be found in The Arcan by Jane Gleeson that tells the tale of porcelain. A good, if slightly irreverent work The Rebirth of Magic* gives informa­tion on The Golden Dawn and of the travels of Dr Felkin among many other things.


There are many good novels covering the subject.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.R. Rowling is great fun and far from being ‘just a kids’ book. Flamel gets good coverage here. Be warned once you read this you’ll be hooked on the series.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward & Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s stuff is very horrific in content and the title story of this little book involves alchemy. Other stories in the volume mention a book called The Necronomicon. Many’s the naive reader who has gone in search of a copy, be advised it is totally fictitious. We regularly get requests for information on occult discussion lists.

The Resurrectionists by Brisbane’s own Kim Wilkins is highly recommended and very scary indeed. Much less ponderously written than Lovecraft’s works. Like Rowling Kim has researched her subjects.

Finally in Edward Rutherford’s vast novel London one portion involves a rich merchant who gets fleeced by an alchemical con merchant. The book is a great read throughout.

Essential Websites

As an Edinburgh man it goes hard for me to eulogise anything from Glasgow but Adam Maclean of that city has produced a website where you will find virtually anything you require. I have just checked and it is still online at …


Here you can find old documents, pictures, techniques, and even a manual of chemical safety written by yours truly. A site I cannot recommend highly enough. Adam also ran two online discussion Lists one for serious scholars and another or the more naive who keep turning up. Details of those should also be on the website. He is probably the world’s foremost authority on the subject.

[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

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