What is an Alchemy? And by association, what is an Alchemist?

I had the opportunity last month to speak with a few people who had attended classes by another metaphysical/occult teacher in my area. I got a little excited when they started talking about Alchemy and being Alchemists (that’s what they said…”We are Alchemists, we study Alchemy and Magic”). As the conversation went on, it became readily apparent that they were talking about a very different type of Alchemy than that of the practical/laboratory alchemy with which I was familiar. As I began to ask questions, and showed them some pictures of some of my lab equipment, they became confused. “What is that used for,” I was asked. I began to ask some more probing questions. As it turns out, the class is labeled as a “Spiritual Alchemy” class.

So next, I assumed that this teacher was using Alchemical phases, processes and principles and relating them to other occult or everyday meanings and practices.  Nope, wrong again, no such teaching of any ancient Alchemical philosophies was to be found. My immediate thought was that using the term “Spiritual Alchemy” and calling themselves “Alchemists” was likely the teacher using a buzzword to get attention and to draw interest.  But, it sparked the question to me, what exactly IS Alchemy, and MAKES one an Alchemist?  I call myself an Alchemist, and I call what I practice Alchemy, am I correct in doing so? Are they correct in calling themselves Alchemists as well? Am I being over protective of the word ‘Alchemy’? I’ve read and been taught lots of definitions of this over the years, but I thought it sounded like a good topic to research and to share.

Let’s start with my good friend Webster:

al·che·my – alkəmē/noun – 1. a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life. 2. a power or process of transforming something common into something special. 3. an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.
And from Dictionary.com:
alchemy – [al-kuh-mee] – 1. a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life. 2. any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.
Well, definition number one in both of those instances looked good to me. However, two and three gave me a bit of pause. It looks like not only those who practice the ancient art and science of Alchemy can call themselves Alchemists! In fact, one of the example used in a sentence on Webster’s website was, “She practiced her alchemy in the kitchen, turning a pile of vegetables into a delicious salad.” YIKES! Even a cook can apparently call themselves an Alchemist, due to their skill at transforming food in the kitchen!  Ok, now my protective feelings about the term Alchemy are tingling, and I’m feeling like a dog barking when someone opens the gate to my yard…in other words, time to dig a little bit deeper.
Let’s check the etymology of the word. First, from Dictionary.com:
Late Middle English: via Old French and medieval Latin from Arabic alkīmiyā ‘, from al ‘the’ + kīmiyā ‘ (from Greek khēmia, khēmeia ‘art of transmuting metals’). First Known Use: 14th century.
Next, from etymonline.com:
Mid-14c., from Old French alchimie (14c.), alquemie (13c.), from Medieval Latin alkimia, from Arabic al-kimiya, from Greek khemeioa (found c.300 C.E. in a decree of Diocletian against “the old writings of the Egyptians”), all meaning “alchemy.” Perhaps from an old name for Egypt (Khemia, literally “land of black earth,” found in Plutarch), or from Greek khymatos “that which is poured out,” from khein “to pour,” related to khymos “juice, sap” [Klein, citing W. Muss-Arnolt, calls this folk etymology]. The word seems to have elements of both origins. Mahn … concludes, after an elaborate investigation, that Gr. khymeia was probably the original, being first applied to pharmaceutical chemistry, which was chiefly concerned with juices or infusions of plants; that the pursuits of the Alexandrian alchemists were a subsequent development of chemical study, and that the notoriety of these may have caused the name of the art to be popularly associated with the ancient name of Egypt. The al- is the Arabic definite article, “the.” The art and the name were adopted by the Arabs from Alexandrians and thence returned to Europe via Spain. Alchemy was the “chemistry” of the Middle Ages and early modern times; since c.1600 the word has been applied distinctively to the pursuit of the transmutation of baser metals into gold, which, along with the search for the universal solvent and the panacea, were the chief occupations of early chemistry.
So the root word was definitely directly related to the process via chemistry (and philosophy) of transmuting baser metals into gold, as well as the search for the Philosophers Stone. Also, of note, is that, “…the word has been applied distinctively to the pursuit of the transmutation of baser metals into gold…”  I would assume that modern parlance has taken the exotic nature of Alchemy, and transliterated additional meanings of any powerful or mysterious transformation, into the word. That would explain definitions two and three from the dictionaries mentioned above.
Jean DuBois, author of the Alchemy Course “The Philosophers of Nature”, says:
“It is perhaps easier to describe what Alchemy is not, rather than what it is. From a material point of view, Alchemy is neither chemistry nor hyperchemistry, but a biodynamic process more closely related to fermentation or putrefaction than to classical chemical reactions. Alchemy leads to a profound knowledge of the fundamental mechanisms of Nature, yet is contrary to profane science which only considers the material aspect of these mechanisms. Alchemy considers the spiritual aspect as well which is generally invisible to the sensory perception of the operator. This aspect of alchemical study brings the operator to spiritual progress, to a higher level of consciousness. The duality of this method of spiritual advancement has a great advantage over other methods. Spiritual advancement “makes one high” but, in order to accomplish the work, the Alchemist must remain grounded. He becomes aware of higher realities while he keeps in mind the significance of physical manifestations. He becomes aware of higher realities while he keeps in mind the significance of physical manifestations.”
Of course, that is another practicing Alchemist talking about what Alchemy is, and as with anything, just like the barking dog, we are likely to be somewhat defensive of our territory.  So, what have I learned?  Well, by definition, nearly any spiritual system could be termed as ‘Alchemy’ or ‘Alchemical’ in nature, as it likely contains an aspect of transformation and change for its adherents. Deep down, much like the etymology of the word, I still cling to the thought that the title of ‘Alchemist’ and those who practice ‘Alchemy’ should be kept for those who pursue the transmutation of metals (which goes hand in hand with the transformation of the self). So I guess I’m not quite as ‘up in arms’ and bent out of shape about it as I was when I began this blog entry. As per the definition, I guess I have to share that title with others who do spiritually transformative work, although I do so grudgingly. 🙂
Hey, you might even say that just through the process of researching and writing this particular blog entry, I went through an Alchemical process of transformation in my thoughts and views on who calls themselves ‘Alchemists’ and practices ‘Alchemy’!  See, the process is working already…
 Mutatio per Solve et Coagula!

Sean-Frater MTO

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5 comments on “What is an Alchemy? And by association, what is an Alchemist?”

  1. Dorothy Brandes Reply

    There is another form of alchemy your research left out, that of completing the transformation of the aspirant through use of plants, called spagyrics, and the making of tinctures and elixors for medicinal use:) I have been doing this form of alchemy for over eight years. The spiritual aspect of alchemy also relates to the transformation of the lower man into a superior human form, with spiritual capabilities such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and astral travel. In this case, transmuting the lead, or dross, the lower qualities of the human being into the gold, symbolizing the alchemical wedding that takes place at the time of the transformation. Just using alchemy for transmuting metals into higher purer forms of metals, was really not the true purpose of alchemy. Those who only concentrated on the material transformation of metals were referred to as puffers, not the true alchemist.

    • admin Reply

      Hi Dorothy, thanks for the comment! I actually didn’t leave out Spagery, but the phrase didn’t turn up in this research on the actual term and etymology of the word ‘Alchemy’. It is generally accepted that the ancient alchemists predate the actual term of ‘Spagery’ and ‘Spagyrics’, even if they did do work with plants. The term Spagery was probably coined by Paracelsus, and the actual alchemical work of the ancients pre-dates him by a fair amount. Indeed, my teacher started me out on the path of Spagery as well, and I still practice it, as we sell about 50 different tinctures and elixirs in our store, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe.

      As you say, just using ‘alchemy’ for transforming metals is actaully not even alchemy, but is chemistry. Alchemy is always the unification of the practical laboratory work (whether working with metals, minerals or plants), and the spriritual work, to transform the individual in conjunction with the materium. That’s actually the whole point of this post, that I was taken aback that people would call themselves ‘Alchemists’, who tried to separate the two processes. Technically, and by definition, I came to the conclusion that they can do so. Personally, I feel that the two processes, that of practical laboratory work (again, whether with plants, minerals or metals doesn’t matter so much) and that of the spiritual work of transmuting the individual.

      Thanks again!

      Sean

  2. Evan Camomile Reply

    Many physical alchemical techniques are still alive today, especially fermentation and distillation. The work you do with other processes is an essential part of keeping the rest of the art alive.

    Philosophical alchemy was historically practiced using physical alchemy as a metaphor of personal refinement, much in the same way the Masons use masonry as a metaphor to “build” better men. The popular alchemical AZoth cycle is a great example of this.

    Unfortunately many groups without ties to either physical alchemy nor historical spiritual alchemy have appropriated the term as a buzzword to be a substitute for any spiritual evolution or process. This not only does a disservice to alchemists but also confuses many seekers who might benefit from actual alchemical practice.

    It’s ok to feel uneasy and even angry with this misappropriation. As an absintheur I come across this all the time with people selling fake absinthe kits that really just make infused vodka. I could correct the offense, but no one likes being corrected and some people have attached so much ego to false ideas and buzzwords that they are easily offended. However, if no one corrects them, then you are just a part of allowing that misinformation to perpetuate.

    It’s a lesser of two evils situation isn’t it.

    • admin Reply

      Hi Evan, thanks for the comment. In my studies, and from my teachers, spiritual and practical alchemy are inseparable. Just as the winged dragon and land-based serpent form the Ouroboros, so too does the spiritual side of alchemy (the winged dragon) and practical side of alchemy (the land serpent) form one continuous cycle of evolution and development. As you say, separating one or the other into a class on ‘spiritual alchemy’ is like Driver’s Education classes. Without some actual driving, all the lectures in the world won’t prepare you to be out there on the road.

  3. Dorothy Brandes Reply

    Thank you, Sean, for clarifying this to me. That makes a lot more sense to me now. Although I’ve worked with herbs for quite a while, I do wonder sometimes if I should be working with the actual metals, because I seem to be blocked at a certain point, I can’t seem to get beyond. I am attached to my plants for healing. Perhaps you can help me find something in your Shoppe to help me. I did enjoy your article, thanks again.

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