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.
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.
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 …
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
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
(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. 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
the land around
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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