The connection between astrology and alchemy has its genesis in the fifth and forth century BC, in the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the metallurgical skills of the ancient Egyptians. The meaning and structure of alchemy were summarised in the “Emerald Tablet” and presented as a revelation to Hermes Trismegistus the supposed author of “the Corpus Hermeticum”.
In recent times our understanding of astrology and alchemy has become so distorted that they have lost all true meaning and purpose. Our empirical understanding of reality has made alchemy appear at best as philosophical musing, at worst as little more than superstition.
Astrology and alchemy are in essence looking at the same thing functioning on different levels or different realms. To put it simply astrology deals with the celestial realm and alchemy with the sub-terrestrial realm of the same thing; the movement and manifestation of spirit.
Spirit is the essence of all life and binds the whole of creation together. It permeates all matter and form giving it substance and vitality. Spirit or essential form is akin to the vertical threads of life, the horizontal threads being the substantial or material. Soul is both essential and material, it is both spirit and body, it embodies the rich tapestry woven when the essential spirit and material come together to create life. The purpose of soul is to reflect spirit. The purpose of alchemy and astrology is to purify and align the soul/body in order that spirit can be wholly reflected through its embodiment in matter.
What is Alchemy?
The word alchemy evokes many images including that of the crazed medieval chemist, stooped over arcane manuscripts, trying to unlock the secrets of nature in order to make gold out of base metals or create the so called “philosophers stone” propounded to bestow eternal life. Some have excused alchemy as a philosophical endeavour, defining the alchemist as a philosopher and those who engaged in the transmutation of metals or the search for eternal life as misguided fools. In the 20th century psychologist led by Carl Jung used the image and symbolism of alchemy and ascribed it to the psychotherapeutic process of personal evolution and analytic practice.
Modern psychological astrologers have embraced this Jungian understanding of alchemy and use the natal astrological chart as a symbolic guide to self-growth. While this works well in gaining an understanding of an individual’s process of individuation and knowing themselves it is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of alchemy. Alchemy is not about the individual or his process. Neither is alchemy naïve chemistry, as some would define it.
Alchemy is the endeavour of purifying soul in order to reflect spirit truthfully, in the sub-terrestrial world the result is gold.
The true aim of alchemy is to go beyond the “I” for it is the “I” as a thought concept or ego consciousness that is the barrier preventing consciousness from being flooded by the light of pure spirit. In the alchemical view of reality consciousness exist in one form or another in all things including the metals and the planets.
The Roots of Alchemy
The problem in trying to come to an understanding of alchemy is that it has always been an esoteric or occult science. Alchemy was known as the “royal art” it was not meant for everyone. A person had to gain the wisdom needed before being privy to the secrets of the alchemists. The true purpose and truth of alchemy is hidden in the symbolism of the alchemical language. This symbolism has a great similarity with astrological symbolism.
In the same way that the physical process of trying to make gold was fraught with danger from accidental poisoning or explosions, alchemical knowledge was considered dangerous to those who were not ready or properly prepared. Philosophically alchemy threatened the dominant monotheist religions and so needed to remain hidden. This may account for much of the old texts being written in secret language, illustrated symbols, paradoxes and riddles.
Much of the astrological, alchemical and philosophical wisdom of old comes to us from “The Corpus Hermeticum”, a work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus a mythical wise man also said to be the Egyptian God Thoth. The Corpus Hermiticum is said to record all human knowledge up to that point. It is in this work that we first encounter the precept of: “What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that below.” This sets out the basic principle on which alchemy is founded and this same dictum goes to the heart of astrology and magic the world over.
Alchemy aims to create purity in order for spirit to be reflected and manifested in this earthly realm. In the same way that light has no direction or substance until it encounters an object that can reflect back, giving light form, colour and direction, spirit needs to be reflected by soul, which exist in all matter. But when soul/matter is impure, like a dirty mirror that can only partially reflect light, it distorts the reflection of spirit. Spirit can only truly express itself through pure soul. The purer the receptacle or body of the soul the more able it is to reflect the light of spirit.
The alchemical process begins and ends with the Materia Prima. It is both the origin and the fruit of the work. The Materia Prima is found everywhere in creation, it is the primary substance of the world and the basic substance of the soul. It contains all things and is contained in all things. In order to purify the Materia Prima, it must be broken down and opposites must unite, creating liquid fire, the embodied spirit, the volatile stable or air like earth.
The moment soul (be it human, metal or other) achieves purity and becomes a clear receptive mirror of spirit, the revelation of the creative spirit takes place. Purity can not take place until the creative spirit reveals itself, which can not happen until purity is achieved. This paradox is the true meaning of the sacred marriage alluded to in alchemical writings. The King and Queen come together, pure being meets pure spirit. This is the marriage of Sun and Moon; spirit and soul, sulphur and quicksilver, the primary ingredients of alchemy.
Sulphur and Quicksilver
Two of the principle ingredients of alchemy are sulphur and quicksilver.
- Sulphur, is the original masculine power, it is hot and dry and is symbolised by the Sun. It is the dynamic aspect of the solar or masculine cause.
- Quicksilver is the original feminine power that is cold and moist and is symbolised by Moon. It is the productive power of “materia”, the dynamic aspect of the lunar or feminine cause.
Together quicksilver and sulphur embody the two phases of nature: dissolution and coagulation. On some level dissolution can relate to the active, vertical thread (or pole) of essence or spirit, of which alchemical sulphur corresponds. Coagulation relates to the horizontal passive thread (or pole) of substance to which quicksilver corresponds. These two may seem as opposite but they are in fact mutually complimentary.
Sulphur corresponds to the “Divine command” by which the world became out of chaos and quicksilver represents “Universal nature” the passive counterpart of the former that allows itself to be used and moulded. The first property (hot and cold) of both is the active masculine, the second property (dry and moist) is the passive feminine. Between them sulphur and quicksilver, by their qualities can expand (hot), contract (cold), coagulate (dry), and dissolve (moist) in a variety of combinations.
Corruption of matter happens when the properties of each mutually penetrate each other: so when the dry (coagulation) of sulphur joins with the cold (contraction) of quicksilver complete rigidity of soul and body occurs. In human life this is expressed as the torpor of old age, avarice and a total loss of the original receptivity and vitality, both spiritual and sensual. The other way with the moist (dissolution) of quicksilver penetrates the heat (expansion) of sulphur we get unbridled passion and a volatility of power. Often these unbalanced states are found together, one begetting the other.
Creative equilibrium can only happen when the expansive power of sulphur and contracting power of quicksilver hold the balance while at the same time the masculine coagulation and feminine dissolving capacity come into a fruitful union. This marries the two threads (poles) of being (essence and substance) and is symbolised by the intersecting triangles of the Seal of Solomon.
This state of absolute equilibrium between the passive and the active, the realisation of the centre of the earthly state is the ultimate goal of alchemy. Only in this state can matter, body or soul reflect back its true unadulterated spiritual essence. The evidence of reaching this state will manifest on all levels of existence including the mineral. So gold will be made, physical life will be prolonged and psyche will be freed of its desires. The dross will be removed through transmutation to allow the revelation of the light of spirit in matter.
Astrological symbols and alchemy
Throughout alchemical texts are found astrological references and symbols. It is evident by this that both are related and an understanding of one would help to understand the other. Both traditions come from the same source that at its heart understood the world to be interconnected and united, imbued with conscious intelligence that manifested in various forms.
Astrology interprets the meaning of the planets and zodiac, alchemy interprets the meaning of the elements and metals. The planets are embodied intelligence; the metals are intelligent bodies. While the metals were generated in the womb of the earth they are essentially under the influence of the seven planets.
The sacred metals of gold and silver are the earthly reflections of Sun and Moon and thus also reflect all other realities of spirit and soul that are related to this heavenly pair. Gold, the supposed aim of alchemist is regarded as the purest of metals; it is free of the impurities of other base metals and is the mineral reflection or subterranean manifestation of spirit. Silver the other sacred metal whose reflective quality acts as a mirror has the ability to reflect spirit. All other planets had a corresponding metal with which they shared their symbol.
Saturn = Lead
Jupiter = Tin
Mars = Iron
Sun = Gold
Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)
Venus = Copper
Moon = Silver
The hierarchy of the planets descends from Saturn, analogous to intelligence or intellect, through to the Moon which is analogous to the vital spirit that rules the involuntary and instinctive activities of the body. The hierarchy of corresponding metals are ascending from lead the densest and most chaotic of metals to Silver, the embodiment of pure unformed receptivity. In both Gold/Sun occupies the central position, which is the ultimate and true goal of the alchemist.
The seven signs of the planets/metals express the entire cosmic hierarchy which is the result of the polarisation of existence into an active or masculine pole symbolised by the Sun and a passive or feminine pole, symbolised by the Moon.
- The Sun is symbolised by the circle and reflects the active principle of being, the pure act of essence. This is the planetary symbol of the King. Gold the metal associated with the Sun represents pure spirit embodied in mineral form.
- The Moon is symbolised by the crescent or semi-circle and reflects the passive principle of becoming, constant change. This is the planetary symbol of the Queen. Silver is associated with the Moon and represents the metal whose purity is like the purified soul able to reflect spirit in all its glory.
- Physical matter or earth is symbolised by the cross of the elements (or of matter), the vertical pole of active essence (fire and air) and the horizontal arm of passive substance (water and earth). The wheel of heaven is made up of the cross of matter and the circle of the active principle. This is the symbol for earth or the angular cross of the horoscope. The physical realm of the sublunary world, where form is corrupted is the setting for the desired alchemical transmutation.
Spirit/Sun acts on soul/Moon and changes it, as seen in the changing of the Moon’s form and the constant unchanging form of the Sun. becoming is therefore passive, while the pure essence of being is active and remains unchanging.
The Work of Alchemy
Though Spiritual alchemy was not necessarily involved in metallurgic work, there is a supposition that originally the inward and the outward work went hand in hand.
The purpose of alchemy is not to transcend matter, but rather to manifest spirit in matter. The way to do this is to free the soul or body from its impressions and passions, returning it to its original state, which is pure receptivity. The Materia Prima, primary substance of the world and the basis of soul, contains all things and is found in all things.
There are 3 stages and a lesser and higher level to the work of the alchemist.
- First is the blackening. Black is associated with downward movement, into matter away from the luminous origin
- Second is the whitening or bleaching. White is associated with upward movement, aspiration towards the origin/light.
- Finally is the reddening. Red or Royal Purple is associated with a tendency towards expansion on the plane manifestation.
The lesser work, has the Moon/silver as its end point, precedes the greater work whose ultimate aim is Sun/gold. The two-fold (lesser & greater) and three-fold (black, white & red) stages do not conflict. They occur in a seven-fold division based on the reign of the planets and properties of metals.
Saturn, Jupiter and the Moon are related to the first three stages of the lesser work. This is the phase whose end point is the Moon and Silver. Saturn and Jupiter are symbolised by a glyph compromising the cross of matter and the crescent of the Moon. The first three stages are purely lunar signs.
The first three stages of the greater work is related to Venus, Mars and the Sun whose glyph compromises the cross of matter and the circle of spirit. The original glyph for Mars was a circle with a cross on top, rather then the arrow now used. The last 3 stages have purely solar signs.
Mercury, whose associated metal is quicksilver, the principle initiator of the alchemical process, is symbolised by the cross under the circle under the crescent. It is the only astrological glyph to contain all three symbols. Only Mercury is androgynous and contains both lunar and solar signs. Mercury, quicksilver comes before all the others. It is not a stage in the alchemical process, but rather the key to the whole work.
The order of the lesser and greater works is in opposite direction to the other. For every active aspect there is a corresponding passive aspect.
- Saturn represents the passive abasement or extinction of ego-bound consciousness.
- Mars represents the active descent into unconscious passion
- Jupiter represents the passive development of soul’s receptivity
- Venus is the active rising of the inward sun or spirit
- The Moon and Sun represents the two poles in their pure state.
- Mercury bears both essences within itself and is the key of the alchemical process.
The first stage of the lesser work, the blackening:
The first, black stage of the lesser work comes under Saturn, whose metal is the densest and most chaotic of all metals: lead. This is the mortification and putrefaction stage. Symbolised by the Raven or skull. At this stage consciousness must be withdrawn from the senses and turned inwards. Saturn’s glyph is the cross of matter over the lunar crescent of soul. The Soul is submerged in matter (the cross) and hidden from the light.
The second stage of the lesser work, the bleaching
The second, whitening stage of the lesser work is dominated by Jupiter associated with the metal tin. Now the crescent, the soul has risen out of matter and is on the horizontal arm of the cross. It has risen above and out of the earth. Jupiter or tin its corresponding metal, represents the first step in the loosening of the soul from the elemental pairs of opposites.
The third stage of the lesser work, the reddening
The reddening stage of the lesser work brings us to the Moon or silver. Here the crescent stands alone free from matter, independent of the cross of elements. Here the potentiality of the soul has been purified from the initial chaos of death (Saturn) and has now fully developed and united in a state of pure receptivity. The white mirror-like metal of silver manifesting this purity, a state also symbolised by the “blessed virgin mother”, the Moon.
In the lesser work the energy as represented by the crescent moves upwards in an ascending movement until the Moon stands alone. These first three stages correspond to the “spiritualisation of the body” the last three stages correspond to the “embodiment of spirit” and represent a downward movement and descent back into matter.
The first stage of the greater work, the blackening:
Venus dominates the first stage of the greater work. Here the form giving power of the active essence of spirit imprints anew to the cross of the elements. At this stage the volatile power of Quicksilver prevails over the solid bodies, later the fixative power of sulphur will prevail over volatile Quicksilver and crystallise a new soul-body form.
The colouring power of Sulphur does become visible in Copper (Venus’s metal) yet the new creation is not perfected, it is still unstable and coarse, because it is still attached to the opposing forces contained in the cross of the four elements.
The second stage of the greater work, the whitening:
Mars dominates the second stage of the greater work. Saturn and Mars are opposite each other, seen in their glyph where the cross sits atop dominating the crescent of the soul or the sphere of spirit. Both represent an extinction of sorts, while Saturn symbolises the chaotic condition of death, Mars is an active and directed descent of spirit into the lowest levels of human consciousness.
Here the body is completely penetrated by the incombustible Sulphur. In Iron the fixative and colouring power of Sulphur, though present, can not manifest its lustre. The spirit is wholly submerged in the body, this is the threshold of the final completion; the transformation of body into spirit-become-form.
The final stage of the greater work, the reddening:
The completion of the greater work is expressed by the Sun. The centre point that was missing at the start in the circle, representing what was only potentially present is now manifest. This stage is the reddening, which expands spirit into matter, reflecting the completion through the colour royal purple-red.
In the greater work the energy as represented by the circle moves downwards until the Sun stands alone. The Sun is analogous to the soul transmuted and illuminated by spirit, representing the perfect union of spirit, soul and body, it is the centre point of equilibrium sought by the alchemists.
The alchemical work that transmutes metals into gold, light incarnated, has its parallel in the inward alchemy of prayer. The soul initially becomes congealed on turning away from the outward world, and then dissolves as a result of inner warmth, and finally after having been a volatile changing stream of impressions, becomes a motionless crystal filled with light.
Ultimately the process of alchemy changes the life of the alchemist in the same way that astrology will forever change the way an astrologer will view life. There is far more to both then initially meets the eye. The more one puts into both the more depth and wisdom is unearthed.
This article also appears on the C.I.A. site and was published in the FAA journal in 2008
Burckhardt, Titus: “Alchemy, the Science of the Soul” published by Fons Vitae, 1997 (originally published 1960)
Burckhardt, Titus: “Mystical Astrology According to Ibn’Arabi” published by Fons Vitae, 2001 (originally publishd in 1950 in French, first English translation 1977)
Zoller, Robert: “The Arabic Parts in Astrology: a Lost Key to Prediction” published by Inner Tradition International, 1980
Editors of Time-Life Books: “Secrets of the Alchemists”, published 1990