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ALCHEMICAL REFLECTIONS

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Thursday, December 11, 2014
alchemyAlchemy is a very misunderstood and unappreciated art.  When the word “alchemy” is mentioned, ,most people simply shrug it off as some sort of superstitious medieval hocus pocus about turning base metals like lead in to gold.  But this notion is but a prejudicial caricature of an art and a science that was very influential in the development of not only chemistry, but of pharmacology and medicine as well.  In an English language bookstore in downtown Bucharest, Romania, I recently came across, and purchased, an introductory book on alchemy, entitled Real Alchemy, by Robert Allen Bartlett.  It had some pretty nice “blurbs” on the back cover that lavished the book with praise, so I decided to buy it.
I have not yet finished the book, but already it has opened up my eyes to a lot of the basic principles of alchemy that were obscure to me before.  As the blurbs on the back of the book promised, this book was clean, clear, simple and easy to read.  That was quite a relief, since I had tried to read books and articles on alchemy before, but found my eyes glazing over after just a few paragraphs.  Or, you would pore over what appeared to be a rambling mumbo-jumbo of seemingly meaningless or paradoxical gobbledy-gook, wondering what kind of code language and dog whistles were hidden in the narrative for the initiated.
This book starts from the most basic principles of Hermetic philosophy and classical Greek science and metaphysics, and builds on things in a methodical, step by step manner.  It explains how the Four Elements were derived from the primordial prima materia and its binary division into Celestial Salt, or the Fixed Principle, and Celestial Nitre, or the Volatile Principle.  The Fixed Principle of Celestial Salt then manifested as the two Cold, gross, heavy elements of Earth and Water, while the Volatile Principle of Celestial Nitre manifested as the two Hot, subtle, energetic elements of Air and Fire.
Then, the next step is what has always puzzled me: the alchemists’ assertion that every known physical substance is composed of the three basic components of Sulfur, Mercury and Salt.  But hold on – this is only figurative or symbolic terminology, and not literal.  In other words, when an alchemist talks about Sulfur, he is not literally referring to that yellow, foul smelling powder that stinks like a rotten egg; similarly, Mercury is not literally like Mercury from your thermometer.  And likewise, Salt is not literally Salt either.  So what do these three basic alchemical components of substances actually mean?
Sulfur, explains Bartlett, refers to the subtle aromatic, volatile or gaseous components of a substance.  It is that principle that is the combined essence of the two light, energetic elements of Fire and Air.
Mercury is not literally the toxic metal Quicksilver, but rather, the wet, flowing fluid components of a substance that mediate between the most dense and fixed principle of Salt on the one hand and the most subtle and volatile principle of Sulfur on the other.  It bridges heaven and earth, as it were, and is formed from the combined essence of the two wet or fluidic elements: Air and Water.
Salt is the most dense and fixed of the three basic principles, which is the body of dense physical matter that acts as a carrier, anchor or vehicle for the other two principles.  It is formed from the combined essence of the two heavy, dense material elements: Water and Earth.
So how do these three basic principles, or essentials, of Sulfur, Mercury and Salt apply to a medicinal herb?  When we make a Spagyric Tincture of an herb, says Bartlett, we first distill these three essentials out of the plant or herb and then recombine them.  Bartlett pronounces “Spagyric” as “Spa-jeer-ic”,  but I could swear that it was “Spa-jeye (as in ‘eye’)-ric, and will go on pronouncing it my way!
First the Sulfur, or the most volatile components of the plant are distilled out.  If we are making a Spagyric tincture of Rosemary, for example, this first step would consist of steam distilling the essential oil out of the plant.  The volatile Sulfur component of an herb is analogous to its Soul, or consciousness – that which is most subtle and incorporeal.
Secondly, the Mercury, or fluidic essence, of the plant is distilled out from the semi-aqueous mix or mush that remains after the essential oil has been distilled out.  The traditional method, explains Bartlett, is to first ferment the herbal mush, and then distill the alcoholic principle out of it.  The Mercury of a substance, or its subtle fluid essence, is analogous to the vital force circulating within a living body – its Qi, pneuma, or prana, and is called its Spirit.  
This, explains Bartlett, is why distilled alcoholic beverages are often referred to as “spirits”.  This term of “spirits” is one that has traditionally pervaded the fields of chemistry and pharmacology, and has been used to describe substances like Spirits of Turpentine, or Spirits of Chloroform.  Not only in this instance, but all throughout the book, Bartlet gives priceless little tidbits of practical wisdom such as this one to explain why certain things were the way they were in the fields of chemistry and pharmacology.
And thirdly, the Salt, or solid body of the herb, is extracted out of it via the alchemical process of calcination, which is burning it until all the organic matter has been vaporized, and nothing remains but a white ash, which is the mineral content.  This whole process of calcination, or reducing a substance to ash, is most famously used in preparing the alchemical mineral ashes, or bhasmas, of Ayurvedic medicine.  But such alchemical practices are not limited to Ayurvedic medicine; these alchemical mineral ashes or oxides are also used in the Unani, or Greco-Arabic system of traditional medicine, where they are known as Kushtajat,or literally, substances that have been killed – by burning.  Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, goes the old biblical saying.
The final step in the preparation of an alchemical Spagyric tincture is what is called cohobation – the recombining of these three distilled and purified principles back into one finished product.  Alchemists maintain that the Spagyric tincture of an herb is more powerful than the original herb itself, since it has been concentrated and purified, its active essences distilled out of it.
Alchemy has been an important part of traditional healing systems around the world because it has expanded the range of medicinal substances available to the physician.  The basic idea and promise of alchemical medicine is that an herb or medicinal substance that is, in its natural state, too toxic, unbalanced, or otherwise harsh or harmful can be transformed, through alchemical processes, into a nontoxic or less toxic and therapeutically useful substance in the treatment of illness and disease.  This is the fusion of Nature and Art.
In Chinese herbal medicine, for example, the rhizome of Aconite or Monkshood(Aconitum carmichaeli) can be alchemically transformed from a deadly toxin into a powerful circulatory and metabolic stimulant through a secret alchemical process that is known only to traditional Chinese pharmacists.  The resulting herb is very potent, and still quite toxic, although its initial toxicity has been reduced by 90%.  Still, Fu Zi, or Chinese Aconite, is too potent and dangerous to be used without expert supervision and a prescription form a Chinese herbalist.
Homeopaths have taken the European variety of Aconite (Aconitum napellus) and have rendered it relatively harmless and therapeutically useful through another process that is basically alchemical in nature: the homeopathic procedure of successive dilutions and succussions.  And so, homeopathic Aconite is a very useful remedy for colds and flu, for example.  Homeopathy, which uses many substances which are deadly poisons in large doses and renders them therapeutically useful and beneficial through their dilution and potentization process, is essentially alchemical in its nature and approach.
My third and final example is that of a wonderful Calcium supplement that I took while I was traveling in India, which was sold and marketed by the Himalaya company.  It is based on a traditional Ayurvedic bhasma, or alchemical ash preparation, of Calcium.  The remarkable thing about this Calcium supplement was that if you broke the pill up and started chewing it, it literally melted into your mouth and was quickly absorbed by the body.  So far, I haven’t been able to find any other Calcium supplement, no matter how natural or organic it claimed to be, that could do that.  This is the basic purpose behind many Ayurvedic bhasmapreparations: that a formerly inert, inorganic mineral has been rendered into a very easily absorbable and assimilable form, and made very “user friendly” to the body.
I was once privileged to be a student at a summer intensive on Ayurvedic alchemical medicines, or bhasmas, that was given by Dr. Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He called bhasmas “Alchemical Power Medicines”, which states another objective of alchemy in the art of pharmacy – to produce medicinal substances that are more powerful and efficacious than the ones found in nature.  We were introduced to alchemicalbhasmas made from a wide variety of substances, including shells, sulfur and various gemstones.  And these alchemical ash or oxide preparations are not the exclusive province of Ayurvedic medicine, but are used in Unani Medicine as well.
The whole field of alchemical medicines is a very fascinating one, and a very controversial one as well.  According to the traditional theory and practice of alchemy, even substances that were initially very toxic can be rendered harmless and therapeutically beneficial through alchemical processing – but this flies in the face of modern science and chemistry, which holds that certain metallic substnces, such as Mercury, are elements, which cannot be changed or transformed in any way.  And so, many alchemical medicines containing alchemical preparations of toxic substances like Lead and Mercury have been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration.  However, there are still many alchemical medicines left that do not contain these (initially, in their raw state, according to alchemy) toxic substances.  Nevertheless, the old saying goes, the more powerful and potent a substance is as a healing, therapeutic agent when used correctly, the more potentially harmful it can be when abused or used incorrectly.  At any rate, alchemical medicines should definitely be used under expert guidance and supervision from a licensed health professional.  As Robert Allen Bartlett warns his readers at the beginning of his excellent book:  Kids!  Don’t Try This at Home!

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