In ancient Greek there was a pun on θεῖον (Theîon), meaning “from Gods, Sacred“ and θεῖος (Theîos), meaning Sulphur. In fact there is no difference between spiritual and operative Alchemy, they are exactly the same thing and their goals are exactly the same: “Spirit is the best solvent”. Nevertheless any natural mass isn’t reputed to contain any Spirit. While any mind (of any consistency) is commonly reputed to contain a certain amount of it. Under “Spirit” I mean a real physical entity dwelling both in the sky and in the depth of the earth and bodies. Our Alchemical works suggest to have Sulphur/Soul extracted by Mercurius/Spirit. So it is hardly a purely contemplative and imaginative Opera.
They who know what Spirit/Secret Fire is and what it is for, know what Alchemy is. Not what Alchemy is for, yet. Metals killed in a certain way can germinate again, as their forms endure over the time in the materials that had made their graves.
When the nature of the gods disappears, there appears the nature of things. Cicero.
It is now generally accepted that alkimia or al-kemi comes from the word kmt (“land of Egypt”). What is less known is the etymology from hmnw (Khemenu), a city known by Greek name Hermopolis. Al-khemenu or al-khemet, so to say. Khemenu means “The Eight”; it was the City of Ogdoad or eight primeval gods (four couples, one of which was “water”, another “air” or “hidden power”, the third “darkness”, and the fourth “eternity”.
Difficulty is to restore the relevance between that original Alchemy and what we know as Alchemy in European tradition.
In the book I once planned to write, but I have never written, the character of the apprentice, that’s to say the one who still sees with pure eyes, posed this dilemma to a drowsy meeting of wise:
They built the invisible on invisible foundations and probably felt safe in what they believed to be strong fortifications. Given that the human mind cannot tolerate a world of indistinct but only sudden jumps, their hunters went through them without even seeing them. Only when the remains of the predators lost in their quest began to settle over, became apparent to the many the mysterious existence of the first invisible alchemists. Nonetheless the Sun and the Moon had to enter and leave the known world countless times before their spider web began to tremble with the first stirrings of a warning.
The best hiding place for a tree is a forest. But what the first alchemists lacked was precisely a forest. This was the job of the predators, who loved poetry as well as obtaining certainty from metaphors. In a few centuries a whole forest of symbols germinated. It is easy to imagine that the general derision started with the luxuriant proliferation of the hiding place.
I’m coming to the conclusion. The predators’ forest was immediately given laws, dates, founders, names, symbols, doors and borders. They wanted one thing and one thing only: to become a form of power.
Despite of all this, the first alchemists continue to flaunt their tranquility. As always. But we shouldn’t be surprised with it.
Back then we were still feared, whereas today we are scoffed at. And it has been for a long time now, so it feels like we eventually have enough. I don’t ask you to look at yourself in a mirror to see if the time has arrived, I have not asked for the floor for this reason, but to convince you to start changing the name of the things. And with the name, I hope, their destiny.”
From above: scenes from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, attributed to Andrea Mantegna’s school; Greek vascular art portraying Dionysus offering a hare to Demetra and Persephone, Amassis painter c. 560–515 bc; South-Arabian pre Islamic iron age altar incense burning, now Louvre Museum.