The alchemical process was described originally as the process of the transmutation of metals, which branched out in various directions. The broadest description of this process is the best because no two alchemists would give you the same description of the process. However, in the common area there were four distinct stages that were characterized by the original colors mentioned in Heraclitus: melanosis(blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing), and iosis (reddening). The division of the process into four was referred to as the quartering of philosophy. Eventually in the 15th or 16th century the colors were decreased to three, and the xanthosis, otherwise called the citrinitas that gradually fell into disuse and seldom mentioned. The other two were viriditas and melanosis or nigredo.
These colors were gradually replaced by the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air with their qualities of hot, cold, dry, and moist which corresponded to the three colors black, white, and red.
The blackness symbolized the initial state of chaos or prima materia, prime matter. Out of this prime mater came everything. On this rest the theory of the conjunction, union, of things, such as the union of opposites, or male and female. Within this union of metals there was the assumption that the based metal dies and the more precious one was resurrected. Or it was thought to come back as a thing of many colors, sometimes described as a peacock’s tail. Eventually this hypothesis led to the adoption of the color of white which was considered to contain all colors. Here the first main goal of the process was reached, the metal had changed to its silver or moon state, which many alchemists considered the final goal; but it was not, because the metal still has to be elevated to its gold or sun state. The albedo is, allegorically speaking, the daybreak, but not until the rebedo is reached is there sunrise; this is the extra step required. Originally the transition from albedo to rebedo was accomplished by citrinitas that was later omitted. This was done in a very high intense fire. The red and white are the King and Queen who, at this stage, celebrate their “chemical wedding.”
There were no fixed definitions and order of stages in the alchemical process because each alchemist had his personal concept of his goal. Their strived for goal varied: sometimes the goal was the white or red tincture, the philosopher’s stone, which, as a hermaphrodite, contained both; philosophical gold, golden glass, or malleable glass. Others sought the lapis philosophorum, which is prima materia; while others sought means of making gold or the divine original man, compared to the Gnostic Anthropos.
No matter the goal, one basic idea lies behind the goal, which is prima materia, the substance from which it came. Many maintained prima materia contained either one or two, perhaps both, parts: water and fire. Although these parts or elements are opposites, even antagonistic, they play an important role. Many believe they are one and the same. Surely, they are within the stone. As seen in other articles the stone was believed by many necessary to bring about transformation; many others believed a little stone within the mixture enhanced the transmutation.
Like the philosopher’s stone possessing many names, the water, certainly within it, has a thousand names. Some swore that the whole (alchemical) work and its substance are the same, nothing but water; and the treatment of the work also occurs in water. This is because of the fact that everything is contained in this one substance of water and that is the sulphur philosophorum, which is the water and soul, oil, Mercurius and Sol, the first of nature, the eagle, the lachyrma, the first hyle of the wise, and the materia prima of the first body. This water is, as some call it, philosophical water and different from real water; but real water can be the same as philosophical water; although, philosophical water is different from vulgar vinegar which is not the same as philosophical vinegar. Philosophical water is simple and unmixed but contains two substances which are of our mineral and of simple water. These composite waters form the philosophical Mercuricus that is assumed to produce the prima materia itself. In this some alchemists gather together three elements instead of two; but two are sufficient, frequently allegorically referred to as male and female, or brother and sister. They may also be called simple water poison, quicksilver, cambar, gum, vinegar, urine, sea-water, dragon, and serpent.
From the above description it is evident that philosophical water was considered the stone or prima materia; and simultaneously also considered its solvent. This appears to be the case in the following recipe:
Grind the stone to a very find powder and put it into the sharpest celestial (coelestino) vinegar, and it will at once dissolve into philosophical water.
[Editor’s note: One thinks the philosopher’s stone is just that, an article which can be anything and do anything that is wished for. It can be the substance to be dissolved as well as the solvent. It resembles the Holy Grail in that it defies description.)
When considering fire, it can be said, it plays the same role as water. Fire resides in the Hermetic vessel, which may be the retorts or smelting furnaces that the transformation takes place in. For alchemists this vessel was important in its peculiar connections to both the prima materia and the lapis. It was considered marvelous and must be completely round to imitate the spiral cosmos, so that the influence of the stars might contribute toward a successful operation. This was the kind of matrix, or uterus from which the fillius philosophorum, the miraculous stone, was born. So the vessel was not only required to be round but egg-shaped as well. Suddenly the Hermetic vessel assumes a larger image than a retort or flask; it becomes a mystical concept, a true symbol like all ideas central to alchemy. Now the vas is the water, aqua permaneus, which is the Mercurius of philosophers. But not only is it water, it is also fire.
It was in the furnace, varying in sizes to render different degrees of heat, that the main alchemical processes occurred. The kerotakis, a triangular shaped palate on which were placed the metals to be vaporized-usually sulphur and mercury or some other substance, was placed at the lower end inside of the cylindrical and spherical container. The orifice at the top of the contained was sealed with a hemispherical cover. Upon heating the volatile metals, the vapors rose to the top as due to the action the liquids secreted to the bottom. A continuous reflux action was maintained; and depending on the substances used, lead and copper on the kerotakis and sulpher below, there theoretically was this changing of colors: blackness, first stage, toward a whitening color then to a yellowing.
There are contained in the history of alchemy many more symbols attached to the vessels, and most would be nonsensical to the modern chemist, but they all conveyed mystical symbolisms like the one mentioned above. Was this mysticism or magic the secret of the royal art which drew so many earnest alchemists to it? From other articles (see Alchemy) one realizes that it was not for monetary gain; even though there were some claims of successful transmutations they were held in suspect by many. The real question is what enticed intellectuals like Isaac Newton, Albetus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Paracelsus to study alchemy; they were scientists in their own right. As one sees, for example, Roger Bacon did much toward the development of the scientific method, which is now seen as directly opposed to a quasi-science such as alchemy. True, from alchemy came modern chemistry and medicine, Paracelsus proved that; but the attraction to alchemy seemed to run much deeper. Perhaps the clue lies in its motto: What nature is slow to perfect, the alchemist can help her to perfect. This appears to be the challenge, to perfect nature, which, many thought, led to the perfection of man too.
It is not surprising that alchemy, especially in the Middle Ages, had religious overtones because if one considers it transmutation is similar to substantiation. The alchemists were trying to transform one metal into another while the priests during the Mass were changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Since many alchemists were of the clergy, many were doing both. A.G.H.
See also alchemist meaning
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. 2nd. ed. (Transl. by R. F. C. Hull). “The Collected Works of Jung” Vol. 12. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 1970. pp. 228-241.
Holmyard, E.J. Alchemy. New York. Dower Publications. 1990. p. 49.