Gold in alchemy was the goal of the process, the transmutation of base metals into silver or gold. Gold is the most precious of all metals.
In many cultures the Sun is associated with or represents gold. Alchemists took the motto: Aurum nostrum non est aurun vulgi, “Our gold is not the gold of the masses.” This suggests they sought not the precious metal but esoteric knowledge.
Even in orthodox Christianity gold symbolizes the perfection and the light of heaven. The medieval golden background panels and Eastern iconography suggest this. Within in the Catholic Church the chalice used in the celebration of the Mass which holds the blood of Christ must be of gold as is the chalice and paten used for giving communion.
Even in Judaism, scrolls of the Torah which are kept in each synagogue are protected in a luxurious covering of rich fabric often decorated with silver ornaments. Gold ornaments are never used because of their association with the Golden Calf. On such occasions gold was associated with idolatry.
At times gold was regarded as embodying powers of the earth, and, although having no intrinsical value, it was mainly associated with supernatural powers, and powers of the gods. The Aztecs thought gold was divine excrement.
They also associated it with the “new skin” of the earth at the start of the spring rains before it greens again. Gold was used to produce sacred articles and symbols such as crowns of royalty. In ancient China gold symbolized the yin while silver represented the yang. For the Chinese the color of gold was white, not yellow, which later became associated with the philosopher’s stone.
The physical goal of the alchemist was the transmutation of gold from base metals such as lead and copper. This was the panacea, the elixir of life; however, the spiritual goal was rebirth of (spiritual) light from the darkness of the Physis: healing self-knowledge and the deliverance of the pneumatic body from the corruption of the flesh. This latter is Gnostic, the soul is trapped within the body and is released through gnosis or secret, self, knowledge.
Since gold, either physical or spiritual, is the goal of alchemy it is synonymous with the philosopher’s stone. In alchemy, aligned as it is with nature, nothing is gained except through the lost or death of something else; death and resurrection are central themes of alchemical thought. In several alchemical treatises the son, depicted holding a sword, represents the spirit while the father, or king, represents the flesh or body.
The son is consumed, either swallowed or eaten, by the father. In other depictions the Sun is drown in Mercurius, or swallowed by the lion. Each of these depictions represents death of the spirit to complete its descent into matter. These allegories were vague to purposely hide this sinister side of nature which many alchemists failed to comprehend. A.G.H.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. (Transl. by James Hulbert). New York. Facts On File, 1992. p. 154-155.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. (Transl. by John Buchanan-Brown). New York, Penguin Books. 1996. pp. 439-442.
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. 331-332.